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Wars and Warlords

Book title: Oxford Bibliographies - African Studies

Published: 17 Jan 2018

The debate about war in African studies has gone through a number of important changes. Until the end of the Cold War, African wars were often fueled by super-power competition. After the end of the Cold War most were either solved peacefully or simply collapsed as external support dried up. Some, however, continued, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army war, and new ones emerged. One was the intertwining of civil wars in West Africa’s Mano River Basin. Another was created by the collapse of the Mobutist state in Zaire that drew in a number of neighboring countries. Lately the Sahel is also experiencing a similar trend. During the Cold War, conflict in Africa was often referred to as “war by proxy,” in reference to external factors as important causes of conflict. After the end of the Cold War, much more emphasis has been placed on internal factors, first ethnicity and later the so-called greed and grievance debate. The approach to the warlord concept in African studies is closely tied to these debates. In general terms, a warlord is an individual who has control over an area because this person commands armed forces that are loyal to the warlord. A precise definition of this phenomenon is therefore available. The challenge, however, is that this term almost automatically brings forth powerful images of rape, loot, and plunder committed by heavily armed, thuggish-looking men. Contrary to the relatively sober academic debate about wars and warlords elsewhere in the world, the debate about warlords in Africa has tended to be extremely politicized and used to name and shame specific persons. Until the early 1990s, the warlord concept was used sparsely in African studies, but then it became more prevalent, promoted by debates about the civil wars in the Mano River Basin, where influential scholars such as Paul Collier argued that African civil wars were driven by greed and not grievances. Soon, the warlord label was attached to almost all conflicts on the continent. However, this also led to the emergence of a counterdebate that questioned the validity of greedy warlords as explanatory factors and argued for a multidimensional approach that also took into consideration social, political, and historical factors. The outcome was a much more nuanced but also diverse debate, where many of the most prominent scholars question the usefulness of the warlord concept.