Chabal and Daloz (1999:83) write that 'there are essentially two types of conflicts in contemporary Africa: the political and the criminal'. This consists in a discussion of this distinction, drawing upon a variety of readings.


The literature of Conflict and Peace Studies in which the discussion of this distinction is inserted has expanded from the 1990s onwards as the end of the Cold War witnessed a wave of peacebuilding interventions that focused attention on causes and processes of conflict. As the study of conflict moved beyond its focus on Cold War game theory and state-centric strategy, Galtung’s (1964) discipline of Peace studies cemented its position in the social sciences as the hub moving the debate of the study of conflict and peace towards its next level. The discipline moved beyond the strategic aspect of war, challenging state-centrism and also looking at the inherent contradictions and rationalities of conflict at the sub-national, transnational and global levels. From studying how to do well in a conflict as a state, the discipline moved to understanding conflict as a less state-dependant subject. Chabal & Daloz’ distinction between political and criminal conflict can be seen as part of one of the debates set at the latest stage of the discipline – the question over greed and grievance as causal factors of conflict. The discussion over the distinction is divided in two: firstly an assessment of the logical steps taken by the author leading up to the distinction and secondly, drawing on a variety of readings such as Macwilwaine’s (2006) and Boas’ (2005), look at policy implications and possible alternatives to this two-way label.

Political and criminal conflict – assessing the logical coherence of the distinction

“There are in African societies well-understood, if not always well-defined, rules of conduct which mark clear boundaries between the informal sector and the criminal world. The informal may be illicit but it is legitimate because it rests on a principle of common clientelistic accountability. The criminal is illegitimate because it is unaccountable and based only on duress”

(Chabal&Daloz 1998:81)

Chabal and Daloz’ study provides a strong analytical discussion of how to understand crime, legitimacy and legality in Africa. Firstly, looking at the concept of crime itself can be problematic, does it represent committing an illegal act or is it actually perpetrating something illegitimate? The authors put forward an analytically useful argument that criminality in Africa is identified by its illegitimacy and unaccountability and not by its informality. This analysis provides a better understanding of the processes of power-sharing and the so-called “moral economy” of Africa, alluding to the “networks which seek to organize and make productive the high level of violence found in African societies” (Chabal&Daloz 1998:78). Nevertheless, at some point, this analysis transforms into a dichotomy dividing conflicts into political or criminal that is unsatisfactory.

Their argument is that the growing unaccountability of political life during the 1990s in Africa inevitably leads to counter-measures of “tribalism and witchcraft” and that the “use of identity or the irrational as a weapon for survival, or counter-attack, makes eminent sense”. The problem here is that this is not always necessarily the case with most conflicts. The authors assert that we are before a criminal faction or conflict when those committing the violence are seen as illegitimate (Chabal&Daloz 1998:81). This link to the next component of their argument is not fully convincing since it can be problematic to establish a threshold of how much illegitimacy is actually needed in order for a faction or conflict to be considered criminal. Giving the example that in Zaire there were “enough” civilians looking at violence while in Angola there were not is not satisfactory or systematic. To claim that what you need is for “those who are engulfed in the conflict” (Chabal&Daloz 1998:83) to see it as illegitimate is not enough because this imprecision can lead both to conceptual confusion and ethical problems. Conceptual confusion because it does not make it explicit who exactly are those engulfed by the conflict - is it just civilians or are transnational corporations, states, international organizations and traders part of it as well? Ethical problems on the grounds that the causes for distrust and illegitimacy are not always clear and uniform. In effect, a majority of the population may affirm that a faction with sound moral claims to advance the rights of a minority is in fact illegitimate and criminal. The criterion determining legitimacy and illegitimacy is fragile.

If Chabal and Daloz do recognize the role of patrons as operating simultaneously in the world of politics, economy and crime (Chabal&Daloz 1998:80) why then should they establish a dichotomy between criminal and political conflicts where the former is causal of the latter? The relation is essentially dialectical between the two perspectives, not uni-causal. That being said, the main question related to the logical coherence of the argument linking patronage networks to the criminal/political conflict distinction is: why is it the case that “politics becomes criminalized” (Chabal&Daloz 1998:84) and not that it is actually crime that becomes politicized? Again, the relation is not uni-causal meaning that hardly a conflict is criminal in such absolute terms that it is accurate to label it a “criminal conflict”. It is therefore quite striking how, after noting the complex relations between the criminal and political spheres, the authors conclude with a distinction between political and criminal conflicts. The indivisibility between the practical aspects of crime, violence and political conflict can instead be seen as a more consistent outcome of their initial discussion over legitimacy and informality in Africa.

In this sense, an important question to consider is if criminality is understood as politics or not. If it is, accepting conflict as either political or criminal represents not just a misunderstanding but also a logical fallacy. Chabal and Daloz initially set up their argument by suggesting that increases in thieving, harassment, thuggering, extortion, armed robbery, murder and war are “endemic” to an accomplice African state that is increasingly “urbanized” and “frightening”. Again, understanding conflict in Africa as increasingly violent, diverse and urbanized is different from understanding it as apolitical or endemic. Accepting an urbanization and informalisation of conflict does not entail accepting conflict as simply criminalised. Stating that political and criminal conflicts in Africa “are in effect nothing but the continuation by other means of the violence of everyday life” assumes that the violence of everyday life precedes conflict. This judgment does not accurately capture what is in fact a dialectical relationship between everyday brutality and organized violence, contradicting their previously mentioned assumption that there is an overlap between the political and the criminal world (Chabal&Daloz 1998:83).

Criminal conflict as a label - implications and alternatives

“The true case of much civil war is not the loud discourse of grievance but the silent force of greed”

(Collier 2000: 99)

Assigning typologies, labels and tags to conflicts is, for policy-makers, as problematic as it is fundamental. Understanding different conflicts as political or as criminal for example withholds concrete policy implications given that one deals with actors with a political claim differently from those seen as criminal. Criminal actors are thugs, assumed not to hold a viable political agenda that can be subject to negotiation whilst recognized political groups, even if rebel ones, have that potential. This is the essence of the greed and grievance debate – do groups represent greedy thugs or rebels with a cause? Considering this, Chabal and Daloz’ distinction of political/criminal conflict sees them subject to what has been seen as the “new barbarism” thesis (Tuastad 2003) whereby an embedded African violent culture is seen as the explanation for violence in general and civil wars in particular. This simplification has its corollary in the influential Robert Kaplan (1994) who exposes, in a flux of sensorial rhetoric, an African wild west of anarchy as the independent variable causing violence. This outlook visibly omits “political and economic interests and contexts when describing that violence” (Tuastag 2003:592). Labels such as “criminal conflict” contribute to this kind of omission. So, if it is undisputable that structures recognised by Chabal as patrimonial are in place and the opportunities for violence dealers in Africa have increased. The overlaps between overt and covert violence and between private and public violence should not imply a label of these conflicts as criminal. This is distant from reality and it also is not desirable for effective policy-making and addressing the social dynamics violence.

If you take greed and grievance as two opposite sides of a continuum that aims at illustrating causes of war, grievance would point out to the historical narrative of resentment in the conflict. At the same time greed would stress the underlying material conditions determining the likelihood of conflict and throwing some places as customarily violent-prone and others less so. This different take on the drivers of conflict was prompted by a seminal piece by Collier (later updated with Hoeffler) that turned a traditionally grievance-based understanding of conflict around and challenged it (Collier 2000) (Collier&Hoeffler 2004). Collier resorted to data sets such as the one composed by PRIO and Uppsala University (Gleditsch et al 2002) on past conflicts to claim that despite the “loud discourse of grievance” the underlying forces driving contemporary conflict were less heard of but more measurable. Conflict-proneness could be gauged by looking at four specific aspects: primary commodities; proportion of young men in society; endowment of education; and economic decline. (Collier 2000:95). On similar lines, Mueller (2003:508) despises religion and culture as excuses for violence which he labels as a product of the “remnants of war”. Factions and actors in these settings greedily profit from the culture of the thug.

On the opposite side of the continuum, authors such as Boas look at the resilience of patrimonial structures in a more transhistorical and chronic manner. Focusing on ancient tensions replicated in the present. Conflicts are to be resolved only if old grieves are addressed, only if stories, claims and relations are understood and dealt with well enough. His critique of the Collier and Mueller greed literature as solely looking at the new materiality of war and war spoilers is partially applicable to Chabal and Daloz’ distinction between political and criminal conflict (Boas 2005:78). Given this, the political/criminal distinction also lacked the understanding of an important tension present in sub-Saharan Africa that is put forward by Stephen Jackson - that is the blurriness between an economy of criminality and an economy of coping. The example of the Kivus in the Democratic Republic of Congo shows how, from the moment that a conflict is labelled as criminal, the actions of all actors taking part in the informal economy funding the armed factions are understood as criminal. This disregards how the livelihoods of many average Congolese are greatly dependant on the commerce of, for example, coltan. Acknowledging that factions recur to methods traditionally used by criminal organizations does not immediately render the conflict criminal instead of political. The case is that often, innovative criminal features constitute an adaptation to conditions on the ground. The overarching label of the conflict as criminal is therefore unsatisfactory at the individual level since, to use the words of Jackson, the line between individuals dwelling in criminality and those coping with their surrounding system of power is not drawn (Jackson 2005:531).

This aspect is further reinforced by Herbst when he points out to the frequent mistakes by the intelligence of African militaries in distinguishing insurgents from criminals. This has practical strategic implications to how conflicts and tensions later evolve in the continent as these mistakes are paid dearly. Examples of this are sudden rises in popularity and strength of once obscure rebel groups stimulated by a disproportionate violent reaction by the state authority. An example has been the story of the conflict between the Liberian government and Charles Taylor’s initial incursion from Cote d’Ivoire into Liberia in 1989. The latter was able to gain mounting support the more asymmetrical the government’s response was (Herbst 2004:361). That being said, it is of utmost importance not to confuse the recent role of informal networks and transnationalism in civil wars (Kaldor 2001:3) as an automatic transformation of some political conflicts into criminal ones. Claiming that a conflict is criminal simply because one finds the same aspects of international crime in them is not enough to establish such a distinction. If on the one hand grievances are not always new, on the other hand new phenomena including the Diaspora, humanitarian aid, small arms trade and money laundering are just some of recent developments that have transformed the way wars are waged and sustained. Money laundering and arms smuggling are not simply criminal activities but they are also extremely political. The case of small arms trade is illustrative as can be observed in the article by Khakee et al (2006) looking at the implications of the macro-political economy of conflict. The article makes evident the role of the United Nations small arms survey and the changes in the tricky relations between: companies producing arms; the organizations (be it states or other) that export and import them; and those who actually use them. So, if the end-product appears to be an abundance of small arms “facilitating banditry and robbery, for example, in Mozambique” (Kingma 2002:191), fact remains that the background leading up to and sustaining the conflict remains political and not just criminal.

Finally, a possible alternative to the political/criminal conflict dichotomy can be to look at violence in a multiple faceted framework. An example of violence as comprising economic, political, institutional and, most importantly, social dimensions can seen in Moser and Macwilwaine’s work (2006:96). Actions taking place in conflicts and places that are incomprehensible and barbaric on the surface should be looked at not just as criminal violence but in fact as social violence. Labelling needless daily violence as criminal in the social jungle of violence is easy. Better understanding it by navigating (Vigh&White 2003) through the jungle of multiple social processes is the challenge that all the research concerning violence and conflict should be increasingly taking upon.


There has been in conflict studies a trend for violent conflict to be dissected and understood in its causes as well as in the mechanisms triggering, supporting and prolonging it. Chabal and Daloz’ distinction comes across in this context. It is as an attempt at seeding out classic types of conflict where groups hold an essentially legitimate political claim from a type of a virulent violent conflict that is void of organized politics but rich in organized crime – a kind of conflict that comes across as thuggish, virulent and manipulative. The better understandings brought about by disciplines such as political psychology, anthropology and human geography should contribute to a better analysis of the arguments put forward by the old “core” disciplines of international relations, politics and economics. This helps breaking down labels such as political/economic conflict, challenging them and striving for making them more nuanced.

Drawing on some of this multi-disciplinary literature it is possible to reject this distinction between criminal and political as the criminal aspect is often a complementary extension of the political. It is firstly too problematic to deduct that there is “enough” unaccountability and illegitimacy in a conflict for it to be termed criminal. Secondly, if responding to violence with violence and to patronage and corruption with patronage and corruption does have a rational of its own there are also alternatives to these reactions. It can also “makes imminent sense” (Chabal&Daloz 1998:81) for individuals and groups in the toughest of situations to try and build up structures of civil society, to reinforce legal systems and progressively move from a system characterized by relative gains to one of collective absolute gains. This claim is vigorously defended by the current literature on peacebuilding strategy from below (Ramsbotham et al 2005). The vicious cycle is not unbreakable and violence is not endemic but embedded and circumstantial, comprising both political and criminal dimensions that are not mutually exclusive.


Kaldor, M. 2001. New Wars and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era Oxford: Polity

Vigh, H. and Whyte, S.R. 2003. Navigating Terrains of War. Youth and Soldiering in Guinea-Bissau. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Copenhagen: Institute of Anthropolgy

No comments: