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Beyond greed or grievance: understanding conflict in resource-rich states

Diamonds and Rubber in Sierra Leone, oil in Angola and Sudan, tantalum and gold in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, copper in Zambia – the list of the natural resource wealth the Africa possesses is a long one. However, these riches have not always been a blessing for the continent. The development of African states is often said to be hindered by a 'resource curse’ and, not surprisingly, most contemporary instances of armed contest over state power, authority, and legitimacy contain their fair share of a 'natural-resources’ story.

Civil Wars …and natural resources?

Intra-state conflicts usually turn out to be a 'mess’ of intertwined, related and opposing interests, strategies and actors. This has rarely been more obvious than in the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). What (officially) began in March 2013 as a coup to replace former President François Bozizé and install Michel Djotodia in office has since transformed from an armed contest over state control to a full blown civil war displacing up to a million people and killing an untold number of civilians. That is not to say that greed motivated behaviour does not also play its part in this conflict – there have been reports about Séléka fighters trying to bring mining regions under their control.

Yet the mechanism that allowed this conflict to escalate seems to be a 'classical’ security dilemma, which resulted in a spiral of violence and counter violence. Instrumentalised by powerbrokers, this grievance materialised along the line of religious division and identity in CAR, but corresponds with the most basic human need: security. The escalation witnessed in recent months is a result of the widespread violence the (officially disbanded) Séléka fighters inflicted on the mostly Christian population. The subsequent formation of the Anti-Balaka militias in reaction to the displacement, extortion and killing of the affected population was the spark that escalated the conflict to new heights.

With surprising speed, this conflict transformed its participants, thrust new ones on stage and discarded old ones, showing us again that one should be careful when choosing any single dominating paradigm in order to explain intra-state conflicts. However, the role resources sometimes (seem) to play, has led scholars, analysts, and commentators to jump on a bandwagon of economic explanations. The work of Oxford scholar Paul Collier became groundbreaking for this school of thought. Based on large-scale quantitative research, he argues that 'greed’ bears more explanatory power than 'grievance’ to understand the onset and duration of civil war.

Greed or grievance? Or both?

A closer look at underlying narratives and methodologies reveals serious flaws. To give but one example, the choice of proxy variables in order to frame the 'greed’ paradigm is highly questionable: In a seminal analysis, Christopher Cramer of SOAS, for instance, revealed how the GINI coefficient (indicating inequality) will generally correlate with government defence spending and also the relative likelihood of armed conflict. Collier’s model is also far from an example of causally stable argumentation if you look at concrete case studies.

Notwithstanding the methodological weaknesses, the model made its way into mainstream policy-making. Nowadays, the assumption that ruthless rebel groups or predatory governments prey on natural wealth in order to feed their war effort – or the oppression of their population – informs actual proceedings in domestic as well as international politics.

But reality proves to be more complex than such a deterministic explanation. While greed may be an explanation in some cases, it is another challenge to identify the set of mixed or even contradictory motivations behind conflict actors’ behaviour in relation to resources. A 'blood diamond’ (a secondary alluvial diamond) is often framed as the 'rebel’s best friend’, since it is easy to exploit by untrained and poorly equipped (forced) labour. This has become common knowledge not only in parts of the scientific community but within international policy discourse. The Kimberley Process (KP) operates using the definition that “conflict diamonds means rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments […].” Similar claims form the basis of more recent due diligence efforts in the field of tantalum, tin, and tungsten (the 3Ts).

For the complete article, please see African Arguments.