Saturday, 24 October 2009

Greed vs Grievance in Africa (By Nkanyiso Sibanda)


Africa has been plagued by conflicts ever since people carved tools out of stone. Some of the conflicts have persisted until the current 21st century times. These conflicts have inexorably claimed incalculable human lives, caused (and continue to cause) enormous human torments, damaged societies, weakened the already weak economies and are harming the environment. They have produced colossal human tragedies and humanitarian crises that are of concern to the international community and contributed to global and regional insecurity. 21st century modernity promised peace and saw most of the world inclining towards a peaceful order, but Africa instead witnessed a resurgence of old wars, continuation of war or emergence of new wars even. Armed insurgencies have become an increasingly significant element of African politics … (Boas and Dunn, 2007:2). Most of these wars have been intra-state civil wars rather than inter-state. Two phenomena have been recently utilized to explain and analyze conflict among rational choice analysts: greed and grievance (Murshed and Tadjoeddin, 2007:1).

According to Collier and Hoeffler (2000), much of the academic debate on the economic causes of contemporary armed conflict has become polarized around the ‘greed versus grievance’ dichotomy. It juxtaposes ‘loot-seeking’ with ‘justice-seeking’ or more generally, the significance of the economic versus socio-political drivers of civil wars. For an African, is exciting to discuss the merits of the argument that we, Africans, start wars either because we are or some of us are greedy or aggrieved.

I will briefly discuss the ‘greed versus grievance’ model of analyzing and understanding conflict with particular reference to Africa. Two contemporary conflicts[1] on the African continent will be analyzed. Political motivations involved in these conflicts will also be discussed with particular attention being paid to the ‘greed versus grievance’ model as a useful (or not) analytical tool for understanding these conflicts. The conclusion will stress that while the ‘greed versus grievance’ approach to the study and understanding of contemporary African conflicts has received a lot of attention, it does not offer a complete insight in understanding contemporary conflicts in Africa. There is growing recognition of the analytical limits that the theory imposes on what are in reality, highly complex systems of social interaction (Ballentine and Nitzschke, 2003:2) It is useful but incomplete. The weaknesses of the model will be highlighted and emphasis will be made that while the model may not adequately offer a complete understanding of African conflicts, it does shed some light on some of these conflicts and therefore the model can not totally be dispensed with. Instead, it should be utilized with attention being given to other surrounding complex and historical factors that characterize conflicts.

‘Greed versus Grievance’
The ‘greed versus grievance’ theory is trendy in political science discourses as an analytical tool for understanding conflict. The theory postulates that countries with an abundant natural resource base are more prone to violent conflict than those without. It also forwards that insurgent groups are more likely motivated by control over resources than by actual political differences with government authorities, ethnic divisions or other factors typically viewed as root causes of civil war (Ganesan and Vines, 2004:1). Paul Collier (2004), a strong proponent of this theory says, “ethnic tensions and ancient political feuds are not starting civil wars around the world – economic forces such as entrenched poverty and the trade in natural resources are the true culprits.” Civil wars or conflicts in Angola, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia and Sierra Leone are habitually cited as examples of this dynamic.

According to Murshed and Tadjoeddin (2007), greed refers to and reflects elite competition over valuable natural resources. It is an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth. Collier (2004) asserts that where there is greed, there is elite competition over valuable natural resource rents, concealed with the fig leaf of collective grievance. Greed is proxied by the availability or abundance of capturable natural resource rents (ibid). The greedy behavior of rebels due to the availability of capturable natural resources like diamonds causes conflict. The capturing and looting of the resources however has to be augmented by the opportunity to do so.

Changes in the global economy, particularly the increased interconnectedness of certain markets has certainly provided new opportunities (to get rich) for leaders of guerrilla movements (Boas and Dunn, 2007:10). In many cases, primary resources such as diamonds, gold, ivory, coltan and other precious minerals (and relatively easily transportable) are the desired goal (ibid).These goods are frequently smuggled out of the conflict zone and entered into the regional and global markets via neighboring territories (ibid). In some African conflicts, it has been argued that for some actors, the goal of the armed conflict is not necessarily the defeat of the enemy in battle, but the continuation of fighting and the institutionalization of violence for profit (Keely, quoted in Boas and Dunn, 2007:10).Youth are manipulated to fight on behalf of the interests of competing and corrupt elites.

Grievance argues that relative deprivation and the hurt it produces fuels conflict (Murshed and Tadjoeddin, 2007). It gives ground for remonstrance or resistance. In the context of civil war or rebellion, grievance is sometimes described as justice seeking motivation (ibid). Identity and group formation are central to grievances. An individual’s utility may be related to his identity, specifically the relative position of the group he identifies with in the social perking order (Akerlof and Kranton, 2000). Grievance is divided into three categories namely; relative deprivation, polarization and horizontal inequality. These will in turn be discussed briefly...

Relative deprivation
Tedd Gurr (1970) defines relative deprivation as the discrepancy between what people think they deserve, and what they actually believe they can get. It is, in short, the disparity between aspirations and achievements. Thus, where one goes to school to get an education in the belief that they will get a good job, they will become frustrated if they do not get the good job. This at times leads to occasional mass political violence in some societies. Gurr’s (1970:24) hypothesis is; ‘the potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity.’ This lays down the notion of relative deprivation as the micro-foundation for conflict. Relative deprivation is considered to be a major cause of civil war…(Murshed and Tadjoeddin, 2007:16).

According to Esteban and Ray (1994), polarization is a concept that is related to relative deprivation. In terms of this concept, when two groups exhibit great inter-group heterogeneity combined with intra-group homogeneity, polarization occurs. Ethnic polarization is a significant explanatory variable for civil war onset (Montalvo and Querol, 2005).

Horizontal Inequality
Horizontal inequality between groups, classified by ethnicity, religion, linguistic differences, tribal affiliations among others, is a significant cause of contemporary conflict. Horizontal inequality overlaps with relative deprivation as well as with polarization. It is different from vertical inequality which is inequality within an otherwise homogenous population (Stewart, 2000:251).

Murshed and Tadjoeddin (2007) forward that on horizontal inequality, one can distinguish between;
Discrimination in Public Spending and Taxation
Unfair allocation of public spending and unfair tax burdens may lead conflict.
High Asset Inequality
Societies with high natural resource inequality like in Zimbabwe (where land was unevenly owned) are very prone to conflict.
Economic Mismanagement and Recession
Countries that have experienced conflict have also been characterized and suffered prolonged economic mismanagement and growth collapse. Where there is economic mismanagement and retarded growth, the likelihood of conflict is high.
Grievances Related to Resource Rents
Some grievances result from natural resource rents where local populations feel that they are not getting a fair share of the rents. For example in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

‘Greed versus grievance’ on contemporary conflicts in Africa
Having briefly explained the ‘greed versus grievance’ theory, focus will now shift to whether the theory can be a useful analytical tool for contemporary conflicts in Africa. Here, because an examination of all the contemporary conflicts in Africa is beyond the scope of this essay, attention will be given to the conflicts in the Niger Delta and Sierra Leone.

Internal armed conflicts in resource rich African countries has resulted in some political science pundits such as Paul Collier (2000) and others (like Berdal, 2003), suggesting that the theory of ‘greed versus grievance’ can be used as an analytical tool in understanding conflicts in Africa. An influential World Bank thesis states that the availability of portable, high value resources is an important reason why rebel groups form and civil wars break out, and that to end the abuses, one needs to target rebel group financing (Ganesan and Vines, 2004). To assess whether the ‘greed versus grievance’ theory is a useful analytical tool in understanding contemporary conflicts in Africa, it is imperative to briefly highlight some of these conflicts and appraise whether the theory is a useful analytical tool in understanding these conflicts or not.

The Niger Delta Conflict…
The Niger Delta covers an area of about 70,000 square kilometers and accounts for 7.5% of total land mass in Nigeria. It covers a coastline of 560km, about two-third of the entire coastline of Nigeria (Nkoro, 2005). It has nine out of the 36 states that make up the Federal Republic of Nigeria[2]. The predominant occupations of the people in the Niger Delta are farming and fishing (Obi, 2001). Since the advent of oil exploration over four decades ago, the region has become the bread-winner of the nation, which is the main source of foreign exchange earnings for the nation as a whole (Nkoro, 2005). The region’s oil resources accounts for 90% of the nation’s export earnings (ibid). However, the Niger delta is the least developed place in the country in physical and socio-economic terms.Historically, the conflict in the Niger Delta region can be traced down to the federal system of government that is being practiced since independence, which from the very beginning was at variance with the expectations of many minorities in the nation (Nkoro, 2005). Nkoro (2005) argues that the federal constitution that was drafted suffered from two fundamental and destabilizing setbacks. The first was the classification of the country into unequal regions. The second is the political and demographic domination of the people in the Niger Delta by those from the northern, western and eastern regions, being the majority ethnic groups. While scholars such as Obi[3] may not agree that the ‘greed vs grievance’ theory may be applied to explain the conflict in the Niger Delta, a pragmatic approach shows that the theory can in fact, help explain the conflict in the region.The Niger Delta is the richest and yet the poorest and most underdeveloped region in Nigeria. This paradox is the product of the deep-seated neglect and marginalization of the area by the government and oil companies in supporting critical human development, infrastructure, and provision of basic social amenities. It is a paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. 70% of the people in the Niger Delta region live below poverty line … (Nkoro, 2005). There is a high rate of unemployment among the youth with over 2million youth being unemployed, while 40% of the people are illiterate (Ibid). Furthermore, according to 2007 World Bank report[4], GNP per capita in the Niger Delta region is below the national average of US$280. Similarly, health indicators are low and they lag far behind the country average (ibid). Pollution and continuous flaring of gas from oil prospecting and production have created health hazards and render fishing and other farming activities almost impossible[5]. Serious damage has been done to the aquatic and marine life of the communities. There is high mortality from water-borne diseases, malnutrition and poor sanitation. The quantity and quality of housing infrastructure are less than expected in most of the region. Only about 20% to 24% of the rural communities and less than 60% of urban communities in the region have access to safe drinking water (Nkoro, 2005). Transportation is often difficult and expensive (Ibid).This has resulted in the local people forming militias that often stage violent protests against the government and the oil companies in the region. The local people feel aggrieved by the government. This, because while their region is the richest in the country, it is however the poorest and most underdeveloped. Their land was taken away and there was little or no compensation. The area is polluted and their way of livelihood[6] has been disturbed. On the other hand, government officials do not do much with their plight because the officials benefit from oil deals with the oil companies[7]. This is a case of ‘greed versus grievance.’ The protests in the Niger Delta are a result of the environmental destruction caused by oil production and the ensuing disintegration of traditional lifestyles and social structures (grievance). Now that the environment has been destroyed and traditional lifestyles can no longer be maintained, many of those involved in the violence are motivated more by the desire for a ‘share of the pie’ and are seeking to enrich themselves in the modern market economy (greed) (Boge and Spelten, 2005:3). There is also greed on the part of government officials that continue to offer fuel extraction rights to oil companies because they benefit somehow from this and grievance on the part of the local people because, despite owning the land, they are marginalized and they do not benefit from the proceeds of their wealth. Infact, their land and water which was their source of livelihood has been taken away and there was little or no compensation at all. However, ‘greed and grievance’ alone, while helpful in giving and insight into the conflict, ignores other historical factors that have shaped the conflict. The theory limits one to the actors in the conflict and ignores the geography of the actors. It is useful, but incomplete and certainly can not be ignored or dispensed with in analyzing the conflict.

Sierra Leone
The Sierra Leone Civil War began in 1991, initiated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under Foday Sankoh. The RUF launched its first campaign into eastern Kailahun (Sierra Leone) from Liberia on March 23, 1991. Diamond industry was a primary cause of the war (Hirsch, 2000:33). Although endowed with abundant natural resources, Sierra Leone was ranked as the poorest country in the world by 1998[8]. With the breakdown of all state structures, wide corridors of Sierra Leonean society were opened up to the trafficking of arms and ammunition. Recreational drugs also eroded national and regional security as well as facilitated crime within the country, precipitating illegal trade with both Liberia and Guinea. While RUF rebels controlled the diamond trade, the people remained among the poorest. The 1999 Lomé Agreement failed to bring peace as it effectively institutionalized rebel control of the diamond trade by putting rebel chief Foday Sankoh in charge of mineral resources. Civil war resumed as UN forces sought to wrest control of the diamond fields, but found themselves instead being held hostage by the rebels. With a rebel take-over of the capital imminent, British forces unilaterally intervened in May 2000 to evacuate British subjects and safeguard the Freetown airport for UN use. Within days, the British took effective control of the government and organized an offensive against the rebels. The rebel leader was captured, the peace process resumed.

While the ‘greed versus grievance’ dichotomy does not offer a completely useful analytical tool in the Sierra Leone conflict, it is not completely useless either. Decades of government neglect of the interior followed by the spilling over of the Liberian conflict into its borders eventually led to the Sierra Leone Civil War. The people in the interior were aggrieved by the government’s neglect and took advantage of the Liberian war to take to arms against the government. However, the grievances later became greed as the rebels became more interested in controlling the minerals rather than ensuring peaceful and democratic governance of the country. Clearly, just like in the Niger Delta scenario, the locals were aggrieved and wanted justice and equity. Greed on the part of the rebels came to play and they preferred rather to loot the diamonds and enrich themselves.

Yet again, the greed versus grievance is porous as a useful analytical tool for the conflict. While it explains that the people in the interior were aggrieved by the way Sierra Leone was being governed, that while it was rich, they were neglected and the because of this hurt, they decided to take to arms and while it also explains the rebels greedy motives, the theory ignores the complex and dynamic historical processes that characterize Sierra Leone. Thus, while the theory is useful, it does not offer a complete analytical understanding of the conflict.

The same can be said too with reference to the 2000 violent land invasions in Zimbabwe. The majority of the blacks were historically marginalized and removed from the fertile healthy soils by the colonizers. They were not allowed access to the fertile healthy soils while the colonizers enjoyed the agricultural proceeds of these soils. They were aggrieved in this respect. However, when the government realized that it was fast falling out of favor with the population, it allowed an invasion of all white owned commercial farms under the guise of ‘redressing past injustices through land redistribution.’ A closer analysis shows conversely that the government used the land as a political weapon to remain in power. Government officials allocated themselves the best commercial farms in Zimbabwe and became even richer than before; greed. Ordinary Zimbabweans took part in the farm invasions as they believed or were made to believe that farm invasions were a means of redressing past injustices; grievance. While the ‘greed versus grievance’ theory can certainly offer an insight into understanding some contemporary African conflicts, it however ignores some important aspects of conflicts hence while it is useful, it is incomplete.

Although examination of the nexus between resources, revenues and civil war is critically important, the picture presented in the just discussed ‘greed versus grievance’ theory is distorted by an overemphasis on the impact of resources on rebel group behavior and insufficient attention to how governments mismanagement of resources and revenues fuels conflict and human rights abuses (Ganesan and Vines, 2004). The theory is a useful entry point into debates about the causes of conflict (Murshed and Tadjoeddin, 2007:24). In areas where there are large quantities of capturable natural resources, greed may be a key factor for the onset and duration of conflict. However, without group formation for which historical grievances are important, violent collective action can not take place. In short, grievances can be present without greed but it is difficult to sustain greedy motives without some grievances.

The ‘greed versus grievance’ theory is useful for analyzing contemporary African conflicts but clearly, it is insufficient. This is evidenced by the fact that while some societies such as Zimbabwe, have conditions pre-disposing them to conflict,[9] they do not descend into conflict (ibid). Other factors must be taken into consideration such as the opportunity for conflict as well as a decline of the social contract (Murshed, 2002) or poor state institutions.

While the theory is compelling, it does have weaknesses[10] and one of these is that ‘greed is often not the determinative motive for rebel group behavior’ (Ganesan and Vines, 2004:2). For example, in the resource rich Angola, the war began about 20 years before UNITA rebels began financing themselves with illicit diamond sales and ended while diamonds were still available. Had greed been the motive, the war could have continued for much longer. A missing element in the theory is the role that governments of resource rich countries play. Often, government control of resources and their revenues goes hand in hand with endemic corruption, a culture of impunity, weak rule of law and inequitable distribution of public resources (Ganesan and Vines, 2004:2).

Boas (2007) argues that the myopic nature of the ‘greed versus grievance’ theory does help explain why and how some conflicts are sustained. It however rarely tells much about why conflicts start in the first place. It would be a mistake to assume that contemporary conflicts in Africa started as competition over valuable natural resources. Focusing excessively on material factors of conflicts may lead to one sided explanations and understandings of conflict.


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[1] Discussing all the contemporary conflicts in Africa is beyond the scope of this paper (3 000 words). If such an attempt were made, the paper would be very light and shallow in detail.
[2] These are Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa cross-River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers states.
[3] In a class presentation at Bjorknes Privatskole, 11.11.08.
[5] It should be remembered that fishing and farming were the primary sources of livelihood for the local people.
[6] Agriculture and fishing.
[7] A practical case of aforementioned is that of the Ogoni community in Niger Delta of Rivers state whose case is being spearheaded by the movement for the survival of Ogoni people (MOSOP) and the late human right activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. They pointed, like other communities in the Niger Delta region that their land has been devastated and degraded, their atmosphere has been polluted, water contaminated, trees being poisoned and that their flora and fauna have virtually disappeared, these as a result of the activities of oil companies in the area. To intensify this ugly issue, there are no infrastructural amenities in the locality such as electricity, portable water and access roads. Thus, on August 26, 1990 the Ogoni people issued a bill of right which was sent to the federal government of Nigeria, demanding political freedom that will guarantee political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, right to the control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as a right in all Nigerian national institutions and the right to protect Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradations.However, their demand was turned down, thus, MOSOP was mandated by Ogoni people on August 26, 1991 to make representation to united nations commission on human and people rights and European community, alleging that the Nigerian government has denied them their demand. MOSOP was also mandated to alert the organizations that federal republic of Nigeria has refused to pay them oil royalties and mining rents amounting to an estimated $20billion for petroleum mined from Ogoni land over three decades ago. On January 4, 1993, they followed this up. This eventually led to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the 10th of November, 1995 (Nkoro, 2005).
[9] Such as horizontal inequality, polarisation and natural resource endowment
[10] As has been discussed in the essay.

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