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 and Daloz’ study provides a strong analytical discussion of how to understand crime, legitimacy and legality in
Their argument is that the growing unaccountability of political life during the 1990s in
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
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
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
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
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
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
Vigh, H. and Whyte, S.R. 2003. Navigating Terrains of War. Youth and Soldiering in