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Violent Development: Toward an economic history of African warfare and military organisation


  • Richard J. Reid


The aim of this paper is deceptively simple: What has war achieved in Africa in the last two hundred years? What have the wagers of war aimed to achieve, even if they did not succeed? Why and in what ways has violence failed? This paper represents a preliminary attempt to explore what can broadly be termed the 'economic aspects' of both warfare and military organisation in Africa's modern history — to identify the economic drivers of conflict, as well as the material constraints upon it; to explore the ways in which warfare can be said to have facilitated 'development', broadly defined, as well as bringing about economic catastrophe, or at least severely inhibiting economic growth; and to highlight the degree to which participation in violence, notably as armed combatant, represented material aspiration and offered opportunities for both economic gain and social mobility. At root, it is argued here that the developmental aspects of warfare — viewed over the long term, and understood within local parameters — need to be appreciated alongside its unquestionably highly destructive elements. The paper uses as its timeframe the period since c.1800, a date which — give or take a decade or two on either side, variable from place to place — denotes the beginning of Africa's 'modern era'. In many ways the centrepiece of the thesis presented here is that across much of the continent the 'long' nineteenth century — stretching between the 1780s and the 1920s — witnessed a revolution in military affairs, ongoing aspects of which have had a profound influence on postcolonial Africa. The paper aims to examine the economic dimensions of that revolution and its aftermath, and to place Africa's recent economic and military history in a longer-term context.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard J. Reid, 2012. "Violent Development: Toward an economic history of African warfare and military organisation," Working Papers 310, Economic Research Southern Africa.
  • Handle: RePEc:rza:wpaper:310
    Note: Papers presented at the Civil War Session of the WEHC 2012

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Nunn, Nathan, 2007. "Historical legacies: A model linking Africa's past to its current underdevelopment," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 83(1), pages 157-175, May.
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