Warfare has played a role in almost every society in human history. As societies grow larger and more complex, the nature of conflict and the motivation behind it tend to change. In Africa, where warfare once consisted of quick raids made by small bands of people, these changes are evident. Modern African nations have permanent professional armies backed by powerful weapons, and conflicts between different ethnic or political groups and between countries have developed into long-term fighting on many parts of the continent.

Africa: Warfare


Some scholars who study warfare place conflicts in one of two main categories: proto-war and war. The distinction lies in the type of society involved, the reasons for conflict, and the weapons used.


Proto-war often involves small societies without a hierarchical structure, such as small groups that function with little or no central authority. In HUNTING AND GATHERING bands, for example, no single person commands the group at all times. Instead, informal or temporary leaders assume authority in certain situations. Other groups have leaders such as chiefs or elders, whose role may be more permanent, but the power relationships between leaders in the group are less defined than those among officials in modern states.

In Africa, nonhierarchical groups usually wage war by creating kin militia. The members of the militia are related by descent or marriage and may all be about the same age. Usually consisting of no more than 30 soldiers, kin militias are organized on a temporary basis from people who have other roles in society. They use simple weapons, from farming tools to small firearms, and lack the command structures and supply lines of modern armies.

Small and temporary, with few arms or supplies, kin militias generally suffer few casualties in their conflicts. Campaigns last a few days or weeks at most, and the losers often leave the area. The victors rarely have the ability to pursue their enemies or impose their will on the defeated group. Militia members then return to their normal lives.

Proto-wars often stem from personal grievances and disputes over property. Conflict may arise, for example, if one group takes livestock or kidnaps women from another. Because both animals and women have important roles in the economy, their loss poses a threat to the community. Each group must define how severe such losses are and how much violence it should use to deal with the situation.


As states grow more complex, leadership becomes centralized and the powers of rulers are more clearly defined. Before the modern era African states such as chiefdoms featured strong rulers supported by lower officials with limited authority. Although more structured than that of a band or tribe, the leadership of these pre-modern states lacked the complex organization typical of the government of a modern state.

The size and power of modern governments allow them to control the resources produced by their people. These resources can be used to support a professional army, created for the sole purpose of making war. Such armies have many members, specialized roles for different soldiers, and weapons designed specifically for war.

Full-scale military campaigns between armies can last for years and result in thousands or even millions of casualties. The winning state gains power over the one that loses, and the outcome of war can lead to long-term changes in power relations between the warring societies. Such conflicts are classified as war.

In African states before colonial times, personal disputes often caused conflicts. But the states also went to war to gain control of sources of income such as property, money, food, or labor, and the losers were forced to give these up to the victors.

In modern African states, wars are often fought to determine who will be part of the ruling class. Most ordinary Africans live in poverty, but state officials enjoy comfortable lives. As a result, members of the ruling class struggle to stay within it, while challengers strive to enter it. In some cases, officials who have fallen out of power have organized movements and armies in the name of national liberation. These movements sometimes disguise the personal ambitions of their leaders. To attract supporters they frequently make use of existing ethnic rivalries or invent new ones.


Since African nations gained their independence, they have fought most of their wars over three main issues: the struggle for internal control, disputes over borders, and rivalries for dominance of a region.

Internal Power Struggles

Once they overthrew European colonial rulers, most African nations went through periods of conflict as different groups sought to control power and define the nature of the state.

In many cases African groups that had been allies during the struggle for independence turned against each other. They had set their ethnic and political differences aside during the fight for freedom, but these tensions resurfaced after the foreign rulers left.

NIGERIA and ANGOLA provide examples of conflicts caused by ethnic and political differences. In the Biafran War in Nigeria (1967–1970), the IGBO people tried to secede from the nation because the government and economy were dominated by the HAUSA, YORUBA, and FULANI ethnic groups. This war represented a common situation in postcolonial Africa, as the Nigerian federal government was uncertain what role the nation’s different regions should play on the national level.

Political differences played the major role in the civil war in Angola that began in 1975. When Portuguese rule collapsed, two rival rebel groups fought for control over the state: the MPLA, backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, and UNITA, supported by South Africa and the United States.

Border Disputes

At independence African nations generally agreed to accept the boundaries drawn during the colonial era, but some lines had never been well defined. MOROCCO and ALGERIA fought a war over their border in 1963. They did not draw up a preliminary agreement until 1972 and did not sign the agreement until 1989.

ETHIOPIA has had several disputes concerning boundary lines with neighbors. It fought with SOMALIA over borders in 1964 and again in both 1977 and 1988, winning the third conflict. But the tables turned for Ethiopia in 1993, when ERITREA won its fight to secede from the nation and form an independent state.

Regional Rivalries

A number of wars have erupted in Africa because of rivalries between nations in a region. In the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, LIBYA engaged in a series of conflicts with NIGER, TUNISIA, CHAD, and SUDAN as part of an effort to dominate Arab states in the Sahara region. More recently, several African nations have sent troops and arms to fight on both sides of the civil war in CONGO (KINSHASA).

Nations in Southern Africa have also competed for regional power. The civil war in Angola served as a major site of this competition during the 1970s and 1980s. The white government of SOUTH AFRICA intervened on the side of Angola’s UNITA forces, while the black leaders of ZAMBIAZIMBABWE, BOTSWANA, TANZANIA, and MOZAMBIQUE supported the nation’s MPLA. This conflict, like others during the Cold War, also attracted outside powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union, which hoped to gain global advantages from local fighting.

Controlling Conflicts

Few of the wars fought in the years since African nations gained independence have had a permanent impact. In most cases the conflicts have ended in stalemates and ceasefires. These agreements have often depended on the diplomatic efforts of others. The charter of the ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY (OAU) called for a commission to settle disputes between African nations, but the commission never formed. Instead, many conflicts have been settled through the personal efforts of African leaders. Foreign powers such as the United States and former colonial nations such as France have also helped resolve disputes. Global organizations, including the UNITED NATIONS and the International Court of Justice, have played a peacekeeping role as well. However, many of these efforts have been poorly handled or taken on mainly to serve the interests of the mediators.

In the 1990s African states have borne more of the burden of peacekeeping, with both negotiations and armed forces. Neighboring countries have sometimes acted collectively to deal with conflicts that affect their region. This trend seems likely to continue in the coming years. (See also Boundaries in Africa, Colonialism in Africa, Global Politics and Africa, Government and Political Systems, Independence Movements, Refugees.)