Conflict Trends in Africa, 1989–2017


Bakken, Ingrid Vik & Siri Aas Rustad (2018) Conflict Trends in Africa, 1989–2017, Conflict Trends, 6. Oslo: PRIO.

Executive summary

The number of state-based conflicts have increased in Africa over the past 5 years. In 2017 Africa experienced 18 state-based conflicts. While this is a decrease from the all-time high of 21 in 2016, it is substantially higher than ten years ago, with 12 conflicts in 2007. The main driver of the increased number of conflicts is the involvement of IS in already existing conflict, such as in the Northeastern Nigeria. Further, we also see that while the number of conflicts increases substantially, the number of countries with conflict only increases slightly. In 2007, Africa saw 12 conflicts in 10 countries compared to 18 conflicts in 13 countries in 2017. This suggests that while the number of actors involved in conflicts within each country has increased, possibly increasing the complexity of conflict, the geographic span has not increased to the same extent.

Historically in Africa, we see that the number of people killed in conflict has increased when the number of conflicts increased. We do not observe this trend over the past few years. While there has been a slight increase in battle-related deaths, 2017 saw less than 7,500 battle-related deaths. This is a decrease compared to the past three years. If we look at the relative size of the number of battle deaths, i.e. the number of people killed per million inhabitants, 2017 was the 9th least violent year since 1950. In 2017, the majority of battle deaths occurred in three countries, Nigeria, Somalia and DR Congo, none of which exceeded more than 2,000 people killed in state-based conflicts. Thus, while we see a considerable increase in conflicts, the number of people being killed is relatively low, suggesting that the increase in conflict has not led to a substantive increase in intensity of conflict.

However, state-based violence is not the only type conflict that is prevalent in Africa. Over the past six years we have seen a significant increase in non-state conflicts in Africa, i.e. conflict fought between two non-state actors. In 2017, Africa saw 50 non-state conflicts in 2017 compared to 24 in 2011, making Africa by far the continent with the highest number of non-state conflicts. There is also a doubling of non-state conflict battle deaths in this period, reaching 4,300 in 2017. However, it seems that this increase is limited to a few countries. In 2017, only 11 African countries have registered non-state conflicts, which is only an increase of 3 countries from 2011. Further, most of these countries also had state-based conflicts in 2017. This lends support to the hypothesis that conflict breeds conflict.

The exception is the Central African Republic, which did not have a state-based conflict in 2017. The country did, however, experience eight non-state conflicts and it reached a total of 1,070 battle-related deaths, which is 25% of all non-state conflict battle deaths in Africa in 2017. The challenge here is that state-based conflict tends to get much more attention than non-state conflicts; the conflicts in the Central African Republic thus become forgotten conflicts.

Over the past 30 years there seems to have been a positive democratic development in Africa. From the 1960s through the 1990s, Africa has experienced several coups d’état. However, in the past 15 years we see a clear decrease in the number of coups. This suggests that Africa as a continent is moving towards more democratic power transitions.

This is further supported by the development of elections in Africa. From 1991, we see a clear increase in the number of elections that are deemed fair, and from around mid-2000 it seems that the number of fair elections exceeds the number of unfair elections. This increase is very much aligned with the massive increase in multi-party elections in the early 1990s. This could suggest that the change towards multiparty systems has increased the opportunities for opposition parties to take part in elections.