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Linking Colonialism and Civil Conflict in Africa: A Synthesis of the Literature

Greg Arrowsmith


Civil war has been a considerably more prevalent form of political violence over the last 60 years than inter-state conflict. Ethnic conflict, a subcategory of civil war which is fought for ethnonationalist reasons, has been a major issue, with 146 different instances of ethnic groups engaging in such conflict. A large proportion of these conflicts have been and are fought in Africa (Cederman et al., 2007). This essay intends to show that the root cause of these conflicts can be traced to colonialism. Horowitz’s theory of ethnic group competition explains how colonial policies pits ethnic groups against each other and foments imbalanced power relations (Horowitz, 2000, pp.65-110). Cederman et al. (2010) and Wucherpfennig et al. (2011, 2016) expand on this and show that inequalities between ethnic groups have an explanatory effect on the occurrence of civil conflict. Other scholars, such as Banton (2000) and Gurr (1968), emphasise the role of the mobilisation capabilities of ethnic groups in explaining their involvement in conflict. They indicate that legacies of colonial power structures leave some ethnic power structures intact and this results in an increased likelihood of conflict involvement for some ethnic groups, when they have a propensity to rally around traditional authority figures. 

This paper aims to tie these theories together to explain how colonialism can lead to conflict—both in fomenting inequalities between groups, and by affecting the mobilisation capability of ethnic groups, which in turn impacts on the likelihood of group engagement in conflict. This has social significance, in that it will present a more coherent linkage of the highly complex causes of ethnic civil conflict, and in that it provides an accessible and contemporary framework for developing insights into the topical field of colonial legacies.  The core contribution of this paper is to synthesise the considerable literature on colonialism and ethnic conflict, in which many of the prominent texts and theories complement without directly referring to each other.

Literature review and theory 

This section will take the following structure: first, it will outline the theories linking colonialism to ethnic grievances, before reviewing the key scholarship of grievance explanations for civil conflict, with a brief discussion of the alternative theories. Then, it will present an alternative strand of literature linking colonialism to conflict, which examines the structural effects of colonialism on political structures, before summarising the academia linking these structural effects to mobilisation capabilities. The third part will then present the literature on linking theories of grievances and theories of mobilisation capacity. The next section gives a brief review of the scholarship on elite activation, which is seen as the main instigator of ethnic conflict. The final part will present the literature in a novel hypothesised causal chain, explaining the inferences made which links the scholarship and outlining its academic and practical significance.

Colonialism and ethnic grievances

            Theories of ethnic group competition 

Following the example of Tang (2015), this paper will not wade into the debate about ethnic identity formation (see Fearon and Laitin, 2003 for a comprehensive review  of the primordialism, versus instrumentalism, versus constructivism debate). The proposed theory will be grounded in an instrumentalist and constructivist standpoint, as both are compatible, and hold that ethnicity is a social construct, developed over time, which can be instrumentalized at different times by different actors or symbols. As a starting point, Horowitz’s theory of ethnic group competition will be used, whilst acknowledging Banton’s work on racial theories (2000), which resonates with the constructivist view of such identities exhibited throughout this paper. This entails viewing ethnicity as a social construct or categorization, based on a pre-existing difference such as language. 

Horowitz presents his theory of positional group psychology as a means of explaining ethnic competition. For this, he draws on Tajfel’s (1982) group-level psychological experiments, which prove the importance of group membership when apportioning rewards, and the salience of relative wellbeing between groups. Horowitz posits that colonialism leads to conflict through its ruling methods, which sharpen ‘advanced’ and ‘backwards’ divides arising from an unequal distribution of opportunities between ethnic groups. He outlines a number of psychological factors which explain how this dynamic can play out in such a way that violence is the outcome. In particular, he notes the effects of low self-esteem, prejudice, and a fear of extinction amongst the ‘backwards’ groups as causative of disproportionate responses and an escalation towards conflict. Horowitz links colonial rule to cases of ethnic divisions, and using experimental evidence creates a coherent grounding for his theories.

            Theories of grievances 

In most studies, grievances have been assumed to be a cause of civil conflict. This is understandable given that personal accounts and qualitative research consistently cites grievances between groups as a cause of ethnic conflict. However, around the turn of the century, economistic models dominated the scholarship, with scholars dismissing grievances in favour of opportunistic explanations, in which factors which lower the cost of war for rebels are the only statistically significant  determinants of conflict. Seminal works such as Collier and Hoeffler (2004) and Fearon and Laitin (2003) use regression models to test a wide range of potential factors, and find that factors related to ‘grievances’ between groups had no meaningful correlation while ‘greed’, or opportunity, factors did. However, much criticism has been levelled at Collier and Hoeffler for having flawed datasets, an arbitrarily high threshold for conflict, and a general theoretical framework which produces static results with little context (Cederman and Vogt, 2017, pp.1295-7). 

Due to improvements in data quality and methodologies, the empirical scholarship linking grievances to conflict has advanced since its brief fall from favour. Cederman et al. (2011) present a new empirical methodology, grounded in theories of group psychology, which empirically shows that horizontal inequalities between ethnic groups are  causative of ethnonationalist civil conflict. Basing their work on the positional group psychology presented by Horowitz, they outline how grievances lead to collective action, downplaying the importance that collective action theorists place on free-riding issues. They acknowledge that organisational and cognitive group factors are central to mobilisation, and posit that inequalities are mobilisation resources due to their role in recruitment. Equally significant is the contribution of Wucherpfennig et al. (2011), which finds links between conflict and grievances, and between conflict and spatial elements (groups’ conflict likelihood is shown to increase with distance from the administrative capital). Brown and  Langer (2010) also emphasise the importance of horizontal inequalities, both in leading to conflict, and in crystallising ethnic identities. Their research explains how the inequality caused by colonial administration then exacerbates differences in identities of ethnic groups, which perpetuates cycles of inequality.

Colonialism and mobilisation capacity

            Theories of colonial ruling style 

Differences in ruling styles between colonial powers had a marked and lasting impact on post-colonial African states and their likelihood of experiencing ethnic conflict. Müller-Crepon (2020) gives a very good overview of differences in style, comparing—as this paper will—the French and British colonial methods. A common factor is the use of local intermediaries, with Herbst (1990, p954) claiming that colonial empires relied on existing institutions to keep occupation costs low. While this is true to an extent, there was certainly variation in the extent of the colonial presence and attitude. In 1938, there were 250 French administrators for every 1 million colonial subjects, whilst the British presence was only 29 per million subjects. This, along with historical factors, led to markedly different policies, with resulting differences in the mobilisation capabilities of ethnic groups following independence.  


The French coloniser’s goal was to remove the power of pre-colonial elites and replace them with a bureaucratic class. They promoted local intermediaries based on their loyalty to the French, educated them, and then shuffled them around frequently enough to prevent them from learning regional language or customs (Roberts, 1996, pp. 86-8). This was motivated by the republican ideology of the French, which opposed traditional, lineage-based rule, as well as by a transformative agenda which sought to assimilate millions of subjects as cultural Frenchmen. However, this led to ‘devolved despotism’ according to Mamdani (1996, pp.55-74), as these indigenous administrators extorted from, and wielded significant and largely unchecked power over, the local populations they ruled.  

In contrast, the British, partially constrained by a lack of administrative resources, sought to use local rulers’ legitimacy to consolidate power. The British left local leaders much of their executive, legislative and judiciary powers in exchange for loyalty. They were given the choice of co-optation or death. If they chose co-optation they would have a British regional officer overseeing them, but only in a consultative and technical role. This British pattern of delegating governance functions did, however, depend on the pre-colonial level of centralization. The British imposed direct rule and installed ‘warrant’ chiefs where there was a high fragmentation of power and no obvious ruler to co-opt. The difference in these styles is shown by Müller-Crepon’s analysis of 123 African polities, which finds that the lines of succession of traditional rulers was four times more likely to be terminated in French colonies than in British ones.  

            Linking colonial ruling style to mobilisation capability  

Blanton, Mason and Athow (2001) draw an empirical link between the colonist’s ruling style and the likelihood of conflict, again comparing former colonies of France and Britain in Africa. Inferring the logic of Horowitz’s positional group psychology theory, they claim that following independence the French former colonies had a system of ranked ethnic stratification, whereas the British ones had unranked ethnic stratification. As French rule attacked traditional structures, it left ethnic minorities without the mobilisation structures or traditional leaders to challenge the post-colonial state. Meanwhile some ethnic groups had benefited more from assimilation, usually due to geographic proximity to the capital. The new bureaucratic elite was disproportionately drawn from this group, who usually gained power and evoked primordialists ethnic rhetoric to legitimise their rule following independence (Amin, 1972). While this did sharpen ethnic identities and differences, the disadvantaged groups couldn’t rally around traditional power structures, and accompanying ethnic leaders and group cohesion, and so ethnic conflict was less likely to occur.  

In contrast, British rule left said structures intact, facilitating the mobilisation of aggrieved groups. Ethnic groups were pitted against each other by both colonial ‘divide-and-rule’ policy and the psychological processes outlined by Horowitz. After independence, there materialised a pattern of ethnic competition for control of the state. Ray (2016, p. 808) claims that a security dilemma frequently emerged wherein an ‘advanced’ group in control of the post-colonial government needed to subordinate a rival group before they could gain control, which led to patterns of mobilisation and counter-mobilisation. The ‘ruling style’ thesis outlined by Blanton et al. (2001) is also supported by Wucherpfennig et al. (2016, p.890), who shows that in the power configurations following independence, there is an increased inclusion of periphery ethnic groups in former British colonies, as the autonomous chiefs can leverage their power to join coalitions. This empirically demonstrates that ethnic power structures, and the resulting capacity for mobilisation, remain in place in former British colonies. 

Bringing together theories of grievances and theories of mobilisation

The argument of Blanton et al. (2001) is purely structuralist, claiming that no amount of grievances can make up for the lack of political structures which enable mobilisation. This is in line with Collier and Hoeffler, but is highly questionable when one considers cases of ethnic violence in former French colonies, where the pre-colonial political structures aren’t present. Instead, most modern scholarship agrees that a combination of both mobilisation capabilities and grievances lead to civil conflict (Cederman and Vogt, 2017). These two factors were first theoretically linked by Gurr (1968), who linked group inequalities and mobilisation capabilities as leading to conflict in a framework of necessary conditions and mediating variables. Similar to Horowitz, he describes group-level frustration as spawning from relative deprivation, which he presents as a necessary condition for conflict. He calls other factors which amplify or reduce the likelihood and scale of conflict mediating variables. One mediating variable which is negatively associated with conflict is the access to institutional non-violent mechanisms of expressing frustration, which can be inferred to mean political inclusion in the sense that Cederman perceives it. Another mediating variable is the structure and cohesiveness of the group, with hierarchical groups more likely to engage in conflict. Though never explicitly mentioning ethnic groups, Gurr’s theory can be reasonably extrapolated to link horizontal inequalities to mobilisation capability as a product of colonial ruling structure.  

This proposed connection between grievances and mobilisation capabilities is supported by Dyrstad and Hillesund (2000), who claim that ethnic conflict can occur when a high degree of grievances is combined with a low degree of mobilisation capacity, or vice versa. This is supported by their research, which empirically shows a joint effect of motivation (grievances) and opportunity structure on the precipitation of civil conflict. They note that conflict behaviour is actually more impacted by perceived grievances than by actual grievances, which perception can be manipulated by elites. In keeping with Brown and Langer (2010), they claim that inequalities help to cause strong identity groups, which in turn facilitate leadership and activation of pre-existing social networks and organisations such as tribal structures. This links grievances to the construction of ethnic identities, which are activated through traditional tribal structures, potentially at the hands of an ‘ethnic entrepreneur’. 

Elite activation and civil conflict

The missing link between the aforementioned factors and conflict onset is elite activation. There is considerable scholarship surrounding this process. One theorised mechanism is ‘ethnic outbidding’ as proposed by Kaufman (1996). Kaufmann describes this as a viable political economy strategy in which ‘belligerent’ elites compete to promote increasingly extreme ethno-nationalist views. Vogt et al. (2021, p. 1298) complement Kaufman’s theory by proposing that the scope of demands increase with the number of organisations effectively partaking in ethnic outbidding. This would suggest that more defined and cohesive ethnic groups (such as the ones left behind by British colonial rule) would have more organisations making greater demands, leading to an increase in the likelihood of elites activating conflict.  

Proposed theory 

Figure 1.1 below shows a model tying the above strands of literature into an integrated causal chain which links colonialism to civil conflict in two ways. Firstly, by fomenting the inequalities between groups, colonialism causes grievances and crystallises ethnic identities. Secondly, colonialism affects the mobilisation capability of ethnic groups by affecting the traditional power structures, either leaving them intact or breaking them down. It is proposed that the necessary conditions of grievances then combine with the mediating variable of mobilisation capability to create an environment in which ethnic elites can mobilise groups towards conflict through ethnic outbidding.


This is a considerably more dynamic causal chain than found elsewhere in the existing literature, and ties theories of ethnicity and colonial influence to broader theories of civil conflict onset. Unlike most of the canon, this approach is a coherent and inclusive theory, rather than an exclusive theory which focuses solely on empirical relationships rather than the mechanisms  themselves. It does not pit factors against each other, instead combining them in a sympathetic relationship where lower levels of grievance factors may be compensated for by a greater opportunity for conflict through higher mobilisation capacity and vice versa.


The synthesis of methods and theory is the core scholarly contribution of this paper. It is also the first paper to link the ruling style of colonial powers to the grievances caused by their occupation. 

The posited causal chain creates a dynamic analytical framework which accounts for the interaction of two ways through which colonialism can lead to conflict, whilst also providing a more complete explanation for how these mechanisms are created, activated, and effective. The focus on Africa is motivated by the significance of the unique experience of African colonies. The selection of British and French colonial rule offers larger sample sizes and greater generalisability than would the rules of other colonial powers such as Belgium or Portugal. There would also be scope for meaningful comparison between case studies from French and British colonies given the similar time frames of their colonial occupation periods. 

This theory offers value by presenting a framework for conceptualising post-colonial ethnic relations which is useful for both academics and policymakers as they seek to generate hypotheses and policies in awareness of the complex dynamics at play. It also adds structure to the growing literature surrounding colonial legacies, providing a framework for further research into the mechanisms at play.


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