A discussion of how analysis at different geographical levels can complement each other in understanding the dynamics of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa.


The discipline of Conflict and Peace studies has been pushing towards an increasingly holistic approach. This holism manifests itself not just in bringing together a multitude of disciplines to work in conflict but also in an attempt to map it as a complex multi-scale phenomenon affecting actors from micro to macro levels. The exploration of how the different geographical levels can complement each other in understanding the dynamics of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa will be divided into four sections. Firstly, a section that looks at the conceptualisation of the different levels and their possible strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, a look at how even very specific studies of the micro-foundations of conflict rely on other levels to put forward their claims. Thirdly, the regional level of analysis will be presented as increasingly important in analysing conflict, particularly in Africa, thanks to its position as a platform intermediate level between the global and local and to its inherent flexibility. Lastly, after looking at some fundamental effects that the conditions of globalisation have brought, complex-system analysis will be presented as a good example of how different geographical levels can complement each other in providing a more nuanced and holistic picture of conflict in Africa.

Assembling different levels of analysis

Looking at conflict in different geographical levels is, first of all, an exercise of conceptualizing and pinpointing in space key events, making reality a little more understandable. It is important to note that the geographical dimensions a multi-level analysis looks at (such as national, regional and global) do not have stationary “borders”. These are not materially bordered spaces but essentially socially constructed places with different narratives, values and hierarchies assigned to them (Jessop 2005:226). When authors deal with regional and national understandings in their work it is in their interest to make clear how they understand their scale. Is the national level the same thing as the level of the bordered state or does it match the homeland of a stateless nation? Does the regional approach involve the formal relations of a group of territorially well defined states or does it look at the messy transnational processes occurring at fluid sections of a given region?

If one accepts Massey’s (1993:146) observation that it is not just space that is socially constructed but also the case that “the social is spatially constructed”, how conflict theory goes on about its geographical dimensions becomes particularly important. Because space is relational (Marston 2000: 221), placing over-emphasis on one of the geographical dimensions of the relation and neglecting the others can, not just provide an incomplete picture of the causal mechanisms of behaviour, but lead to erroneous assumptions over the very social reality it analyses. Over-focusing on the geographical space of a city like Monrovia or Bissau, concluding that Liberia’s and Guinea-Bissau’s violence is endemic and their lifestyle “wild west-alike”, can neglect rural regions of the geographical unit of the countries that in fact hold an entirely different set of dynamics. Similarly, over-stressing the “’nation-state’ as the primary transhistorical and geographical form” (Marston 2000: 225) can impede a correct understanding of how conflicts actually play out on the ground and the practical resilience of the geographical unit itself.

Problems are not over after delimiting the proposed geographical unit of analysis of a conflict. Being able to use different spatial scales that specifically suit the case that is being studied is also critical. If, for example, you aimed at looking at the conflict in Sri Lanka and to understand the mechanisms used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an analysis focusing on the region that is most immediate to Sri Lanka would be incomplete and inappropriate. It would ignore the crucial role of the Tamil Diaspora in financing and supporting the LTTE that exists beyond this regional level of analysis into the global and transnational (Fuglerud 1999).

Making sense of the micro-politics of conflict

The importance of using different geographical levels in the analysis of conflict is noticeable even when analysing individual behaviour and in the analysis of what are seen as the micro foundations of conflict. The work of Jeremy Weinstein (2005:600) looking at the “game in which rebel leaders must simultaneously overcome collective action problems and address informational asymmetries” is illustrative. It makes evident how the ability and methods of recruitment by the different factions is important in influencing the individual decisions to adhere. In fact, the reward system for recruits, frequently based on promises of future benefits is underpinned by a greater strategy operating at a level that goes beyond the personal and local one. Although rewarding recruits with material payoffs working in short-term dynamics is important, it is also often the case that rebel groups complement this with political promises of being part of a future in which they are on the winning side. These future promises can, for example, encompass a national or regional scale strategy, be it taking over a capital or other regional and local structures. These can subsequently be redistributed to those who proved themselves individually trustworthy in the collective action processes of the rebel group.

The picture coming out of recent analysis of the individual incentives for recruitment used by rebel groups such as the National Resistance Army in Uganda is that, besides ideological and ethnic identifications being important, geographical proximity to lootable goods can also be significant in determining the recruitment methods of rebel groups (Gates 2002:113;Weinstein 2005:608). This goes to show how, what is the personal individual decision of deciding to get involved in a rebel group, can be influenced by the geography of a place that is better analysed not at the micro-level but at a regional and national dimension.

Individual sub-Saharan African leaders, patrons and bosses are also pivotal in the need for a link between the different levels of analysis when researching conflict. Understanding their background and personalities helps understand their policy decisions and how they navigate through international, national, regional and local terrains. What Taylor (2005:162) describes as “solidarity amongst corrupt big men” becomes particularly relevant if one wishes to fully understand for example the participation of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Dos Santo’s Angola in the conflict in Kabila’s DRC. For instance in the case of Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s autocracy makes individualized personality politics important to understand the broader national policies of the country. More broadly, the typical African state, because it is highly centralised, is prone for personality politics, patrimonialism and ‘soap operas’ to occur. This means that looking specifically at these individuals is also important to understand the processes occurring at broader geographical levels.

The case of ‘peacebuilding from below’ is also illustrative of how national and regional level purposes are dependant on processes occurring at the local and micro levels. There have been calls for peacebuilding to move from top-down prescriptive approaches to elicitive ones whereby the training of individuals and groups focuses on long-term empowerment of the local population instead of “quick-fixes”. The effectiveness of these “quick-fixes” has been questioned for being dominated by solutions created and implemented by actors that are external to the conflict and for being very limited in their time span (Ramsbotham et al 2005: 220). These worries demonstrate how the wider efforts of building peace in a country or a region are connected to the “nitty gritty” intricacies of local peacebuilding with its different models and approaches.

Regional level – A key mezzo level

The regional level of analysis represents, perhaps, one of the most flexible and useful geographical frameworks for analysing conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The three regions of West Africa, Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa for example constitute authentic systems of their own, encompassing very specific regional dynamics. None of the state-units composing these regions can be individually understood without looking at their roles in relation to one another. The conflicts spreading across these regions follow the same lines. Although, apparently, states formally respect each others’ sovereignty, at least informally conflicts are regional affairs at their fullest, often making a ‘shambles’ out of formal state borders.

As mentioned, the very definition of what constitutes the region is debatable. In addition, what has been termed “new regionalism approach” has brought about a powerful set of conceptual tools by delimiting the differences between regionalism and regionalisation. While regionalism refers to “often formal projects with particular plans and strategies and that often lead to institutional arrangements”, regionalisation looks at the “processes that result in forms of cooperation, integration, connectivity and convergence within a particular cross-national territorial area” (Taylor 2005:148). This allows for analysis that differentiate the formal and the informal aspects of regionalisation and the different characteristics of these two interconnected phenomena that exist at intertwined but not coincident geographical extensions. These two understandings will necessarily relate in different ways with other levels of analysis. While regionalism will be focusing mainly on how the national interests of states are materialized into formal institutions, regionalisation holds in its definition some proneness for analysing how informal networks of trade and social loyalty affect the processes of conflict. Taylor’s (2005) discussion of what he perceives as a “malignant regionalisation” in
Central Africa focuses on this latter aspect. The important thing to keep in mind though is that the two concepts interact in different ways with the other geographical levels of analysis, both with strengths and weaknesses.

Regional powerhouses in Africa like South Africa and Nigeria also have a crucial role in shaping the current and future trends in the continent. This includes continental and regional attempts at preventing conflict embodied in organisations such as ECOMOG (ECOWAS ceasefire monitoring group) and the African Union. Their role in their specific regions as motors of development and as potential benign peace brokers is very relevant. In order to understand, for example, conflicts in West African Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau it is important to understand their position within Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in general and their foreign relations with Nigeria in particular. All three cases witnessed an intervention by ECOMOG. Although none of them were hugely successful, due to the specific options of the regional power, they all held different mandates, had troops of different composition, operated in their own distinct way and achieved different end-products. This example shows the importance of analysis of regional geographical dimension of conflicts in Africa at two levels: 1) the increasing relevance of regional organizations such as the African Union, SADC (South African Development Community) and ECOWAS in influencing the destiny of regions in terms of their economic development and security; 2) the influence of Regional powerhouses both inside and outside these organisations holding an extra diplomatic edge in shaping and promoting security trends within their proximate geographical regions of influence (Alden&Soko 2005).

Striving towards complex-systems understandings

The global level, with its notorious forces of globalisation, by setting up the architecture of the international economic system and mode of production is also highly influential in the environment in which actors participating in conflict operate. This global level plays a role in setting up opportunities both for the perpetuation of conflict and for its solution. Its asymmetries cause a varied impact “upon different spatial entities” (Taylor 2005:161). Exemplifying this, changes brought about by global external relations such as the World Bank’s and IMF’s structural adjustment plans, revenues from the export of valuable primary commodities (oil and diamonds), as well as international aid and bilateral loans are worth noting. These assist the state in becoming less dependent on popular support. This autonomy, in turn, stimulates the informal networks of patrimonialism and can accentuate a divide between the people (increasingly tending to rely on local-level organization) and those in the state machine that project themselves in the place between the capital and the international arena while leaving hinterland regions and localities behind. Guinea-Bissau constitutes an example of this phenomenon. It goes to show how analyses of local political structures and behaviour, as well as those of the state, are incomplete without bringing in the external influence of international actors interacting from platforms at the global level.

The importance of a dialogue and integration of different geographical levels of analysis comes from the growing literature on complex-systems, in particular of its role in peacebuilding approaches to war-torn societies. The notion that it is necessary for actors taking part in peacebuilding to tackle conflicts as complex systems has been recently advanced by authors such as Cedric de Coning (2004) and in reports such as NEPAD’s African Post-Conflict Reconstruction Policy Framework (2005:17). This approach is characterised by looking at the elements involved in the processes of peacebuilding as “interdependent in that no single agency can achieve the goal of the peacebuilding operation” (de Coning 2004:43). It attributes particular importance to the need for coordination between agencies involved in peacebuilding that are operating in an environment of a “multidimensional nature” (2004:45). The UN together with Non Governmental Organisations and local and regional organisations are seen as participants in efforts of peacebuilding without a satisfactorily integrated framework. It is the multi-scale origin of conflict, of actors perpetuating it and of those involved in peacebuilding that makes complex peacebuilding complex. (2004: 45) Acknowledging this reality and the need for a complex-systems approach to peacebuilding in Africa reveals both challenges and opportunities in adopting a cross-level understanding of both causes and possible solutions for conflict. The complex systems of conflicts demand the ability to manage complex approaches to peacebuilding.


At the end of the day, striking an adequate balance between the influence of different scales towards understanding conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and acknowledging the existence of different geographical approaches to the problem is critical. Nowadays, understanding conflicts at a specific geographical tends to be relational.

Micro, mezzo and macro analysis of conflict in Africa tend to be careful in situating themselves in the wider map of the system of conflict while advancing into a little more depth their object of analysis. Simultaneously, some of the latest writings in peacebuilding are daring enough to attempt at more holistic systematic approaches that try and relate all levels of analysis and make sense of the bigger picture. Looking at the role of the different geographical levels in analysing conflict it becomes apparent that they all hold their own perspectives of how conflict occurs and actively construct assumptions over its processes. Global level biased towards global actors, regional perspective biased towards regional actors, local perspective biased towards local actors and so on and so forth. This underlying social construction that geographical multi-level analysis cannot escape from means that researchers of conflict studies have two main responsibilities: 1) be aware of the predispositions of each level and position themselves as clearly as possible 2) achieve an increasingly informed balance between them and strive towards a holistic approach. Looking at past and present conflicts in, for example, the Great Lakes region, in Liberia and Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, this responsibility becomes even greater. These understandings of the interactions between the geographical levels, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, can determine the difference between more and less successful steps towards peace and security.

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