EXCERPT | West Africa : Sub-regional Conflict Systems & the Imperative for Regional Approaches

EXCERPT | West Africa : Sub-regional Conflict Systems & the Imperative for Regional Approaches

EXCERPT | West Africa : Sub-regional Conflict Systems & the Imperative for Regional Approaches

Image Attribute:  A man holds a copy of the Quran at a protest against Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou’s presence at a Paris rally after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Niamey, Niger, January 2015. (Photo: Tagaza Djibo/ Reuters).

The frequency of regional spillovers of internal conflicts in West Africa highlights the close level of inter-connectivity between countries. Localized conflicts can trigger region-wide conflict systems and destabilize neighboring countries.Conflicts that emerge from a single conflict system may have diverse causes and varying durations, with some more lethal than others. They are interlinked, however, and therefore necessitate region-wide approaches to conflict resolution and management.

The theory of conflict systems posits that conflicts can spill across borders and are in fact shaped and sustained by strong transnational connections between countries [1]. Conflict systems are characterized by an epicenter, or a source, as well as a dynamic that accounts for the evolution, spread, and regression of conflict [2]. 

Diverse transnational links facilitate the spread and spillover of conflicts. Borders are porous, and communities on either side maintain close ties based on ethnicity, language, culture, and trade. Shared grievances, such as environmental or socioeconomic factors, or marginalization based on a common identity, find ideological support across borders. Porous borders and common ties also facilitate the movement of people—militias, workers, and refugees—as well as arms, drugs, and contraband [3]. 

The movement of large numbers of refugees across borders can contribute to the spillover of conflict while facilitating arms smuggling and increasing the pool of rebels for recruitment [4].

The complexity and depth of ties between countries whose boundaries were drawn in an arbitrary fashion means that it is almost inevitable that conflict will spread. In some cases, countries share the internal dimensions of a conflict and are therefore exposed to the same stresses. 

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, deteriorating economic performance in the 1980s under the aegis of repressive and authoritarian governments resulted in lower household income and social spending and declining access to health care and education. In other cases, cross-border linkages and porous borders make neighbor states  vulnerable to the contagion effect of conflict events [5]. 

Although Guinea did not experience the same intensity of conflict as its neighbors in the Mano River Basin during the 1990s, it was affected by the large fl ow of refugees as well as unrest in the south [6]. The “bad neighborhood” effect, where violence in one country can affect the prospects of neighboring countries, suggests that countries can lose 0.7 percent of their annual GDP for every neighbor involved in a war [7].

West Africa has also been susceptible to cross-border influences from North Africa. Libya has played a role in the region’s political development for several decades. Armed with petro-dollars, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi meddled in the region’s political movements and rebel uprisings, funding  leaders and backing ventures such as Charles Taylor’s exploits in the Mano River Basin and Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, thousands of impoverished and unemployed migrant workers, as well as armed men who had fought for Gaddafi , returned south to their homes. They  contributed to an uprising against the government of Mali.

Another destabilizing factor from North Africa has been the spillover of international ideological groups into the Sahel from Libya and Algeria. These groups have graft ed extremist ideology onto local grievances in Mali, escalating and internationalizing the conflict there [7].

Within West Africa, there are a number of conflict systems (map 1). Th e most destabilizing has been the Mano River Basin conflict system, which includes Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. To date, the fallout from the other conflict systems has been of a lower magnitude, but they nonetheless have had profound impacts on their regional convergences. Although tensions in some systems have abated, there is potential for them to flare up again.

Map Attribute : Map 1 - Conflict Systems in West Africa

Map Attribute : Map 1 - Conflict Systems in West Africa 

The southern Sene-gambia conflict system covers Senegal, Th e Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. Th e uprising for self-determination in the Casamance region of Senegal is rooted in the grievances of the Diola people regarding perceptions of political under representation and economic disadvantage [8]. 

Links of kinsmanship between the secessionists and President Yahya Jammeh of Th e Gambia led to claims that he played an active role in aiding the rebels, as did various governments of Guinea-Bissau [9]. The Casamance uprising triggered the civil war in Guinea-Bissau from 1998 to 1999, after officers from the armed forces were found to have aided Casamance separatists.

Other conflict systems in West Africa include the tensions and outbreaks of violence between the governments of Mali and Niger and between the Tuareg rebels and other ethnic groups from the northern parts of both countries, which has had some resonance in Mauritania. The Tuaregs are found across multiple states, including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger. Their traditional lifestyles have come under pressure since independence, and drought, coupled  with economic, political, and social marginalization, have triggered recurring rebellions in both Niger and Mali [5].

The insurgency in Nigeria’s Delta Region is affecting the security of the Gulf of Guinea countries of Benin and Togo, particularly through maritime piracy. A wide range of militias emerged from the conflict in the Niger Delta. Th ey engaged in theft and sabotage, with the aim of undermining the oil  industry. Their activities paved the way for the spread of piracy beyond Nigerian territory [10].

Violence from the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria is also spilling over to other countries. Although the insurgency is “ultimately a Nigerian crisis,” its militants have crossed over into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, where borders drawn by colonial powers at the end of the 19th century had “little social relevance against the cultural unity of the old empire of Kanem-Bornu” [11]. 

The group has established camps on islands in Lake Chad, and in May 2014, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a police station and camp run by a Chinese engineering company in Cameroon. 

At the May 2014 Paris Summit, neighboring countries committed to deepening their cooperation on security, with Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria pledging to revive the Lake Chad Basin Multilateral Force.


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[2] Diallo, M. 2009. “Confl ict Systems in West Africa: Introducing Conflict Systems with a View towards a Regional Prevention Policy.” Workshop on Conflict Systems and Risk Assessment in West Africa, ECOWAS/SWAC Joint Work Programme, Bamako.

[3] Kacowicz, A. M. 1997. “‘Negative’ International Peace and Domestic Conflicts, West Africa, 1957–1996.” Journal of Modern African Studies 35 (3): 367–85.

[4] Blattman, C., and E. Miguel. 2009. “Civil War.” NBER Working Paper 14801, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA. http://www.nber.org/papers/w14801.pdf

[5] N’Diaye. B. 2011. “Conflicts and Crises: Internal and International Dimensions.” In ECOWAS and the Dynamics of Conflict and Peacebuilding, ed. T. Jaye and S. Amadi. Dakar: CDD West Africa, Consortium for Development Partnerships, and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA)

[6] Jörgel, M., and M. Utas. 2007. “Th e Mano River Basin Area: Formal and Informal Security Providers in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.” Report FOI-R--2418--SE, Swedish Defense Research Agency, Stockholm.  http://www.foi.se/ReportFiles / foir_2418.pdf.

[7] World Bank. 2011. World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[8] M’Cormack, F. 2011. Conflict Dynamics in West Africa. Helpdesk Research Report, October 17, Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

[9] Fall, A. 2010. “Understanding the Casamance Conflict: A Background.” KAIPTC Monograph 7, Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, Accra. 
http:// www.kaiptc.org/publications/monographs/monographs/monograph-7-aissatou.aspx

[10] UNODC (United Nations Offi ce on Drugs and Crime). 2013. Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa: A Threat Assessment. Vienna: UNODC.

[11] Pérouse de Montclos, M.-A. 2014. “Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis.” Chatham House, London.

Cite this Article:

Marc, Alexandre, Neelam Verjee, and Stephen Mogaka. 2015. The Challenge of Stability and Security in West Africa.Pg 18-21, Africa Development Forum series, Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-0464-9. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO

This work is a product of the staff of The World Bank with external contributions. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this work do not necessarily reflect the views of The World Bank, its Board of Executive Directors, or the governments they represent, or the Agence Française de Développement
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