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The Terrible Toll of Post-Colonial Rebel Movements in Africa

29 Jul 2002

  • Author(s): Thandika Mkandawire
  • Source: The Journal of Modern African Studies, Volume 40, Number 2, 2002

Many post-independence rebel movements in Africa have unleashed extremely brutal forms of violence, especially against the peasantry. But such violence, which has bewildered many observers, cannot be explained by reference to African “culture”, nor as an expression of rational self-interest. Instead, it must be seen in the light of the essentially urban issues that have fomented rebellion, but which cannot be successfully pursued in major towns, where incumbent regimes possess a monopoly of force.

So rebel movements retreat to the countryside, but there, rebels can rarely swim among the peasantry like Mao’s fishes in the sea. The African rural setting is generally deeply inimical to liberation war, because peasants enjoy direct control over their own land, and surplus expropriation takes place through the market, rather than through an exploitative landlord class.

The African situation, too, has tended to favour “roving” rather than “stationary” rebellions (in Olson’s terms); many rebels are merely passing through the countryside, on their way to seek power in towns. Having little in common with the peasantry, and nothing to offer it, they resort to violence as the only way to control it.

In my recent article in The Journal of Modern African Studies (Volume 40, Number 2, 2002, pp. 181-215), I argue that to understand the actions of the rebel movements and their violence, we must understand not only the elites, and the intra-elite conflicts that produce leaders of these movements, but also the actions and responses of the wider population. More specifically, we need to know, on the one hand, the nature of the rebel movements—the thinking, composition, actions and capacities of the leaders of the insurgent movements—and, on the other hand, the social structures of the African countryside in which they often operate. I argue that the social terrain of rural Africa is highly unsuitable for classical guerrilla warfare and that, combined with the urban origins of rebel movements, this generates self-defeating behaviour of armed groups and terrible suffering of rural populations.

However incoherent their objectives, and however brutal their methods, rebellions reflect a serious urban malaise that needs to be addressed. In my article, I take some steps in this direction.

See Thandika Mkandawire, “The Terrible Toll of Post-Colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Volume 40, Number 2, 2002, pp. 181-215.