The terrible toll of post-colonial ‘rebel movements’ in Africa: towards an explanation of the violence against the peasantry
Many post-independence rebel movements in Africa have unleashed extremely brutal forms of violence, especially against the peasantry. Such violence, which has bewildered many observers, cannot be explained by reference to African ‘culture’, nor as an expression of rational self-interest. Instead, it must be seen in the light of the essentially urban issues that have fomented rebellion, which cannot however be successfully pursued in major towns, where incumbent regimes possess a monopoly of force. Retreating to the countryside, however, rebels can rarely swim among the peasantry like Mao's fishes in the sea. The African rural setting is generally deeply inimical to liberation war, because peasants enjoy direct control over their own land, and surplus expropriation takes place through the market, rather than through an exploitative landlord class. The African situation, too, has tended to favour ‘roving’ rather than ‘stationary’ rebellions, in Olson's terms; many rebels are merely passing through the countryside, on their way to seek power in towns. Having little in common with the peasantry, and nothing to offer it, they resort to violence as the only way to control it. However incoherent their objectives, and however brutal their methods, rebellions nonetheless reflect a serious urban malaise that needs to be addressed.
1 The author would like to thank Jini Adesina, Suni Amrith, Yusuf Bangura, Mahmood Mamdani, Sam Moyo, Ebrima Sall, Ashok Swain, Zeneworke Tadesse and three anonymous referees for valuable comments on an earlier draft. The usual caveat on the author's responsibility holds.