Warfare and the Military in Modern Africa

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of History

Module overview

This course will explore the role of warfare and the military in twentieth-century Africa, from the era of the colonial partition to contemporary times. It aims to place the organisation of armed conflict and the evolution of military culture at the centre of the analysis, and posits the need for a long-term understanding of both: the course will culminate with a discussion of the extent to which modern violence in Africa must be understood as part of a set of dynamics running through the twentieth century, contrary to much popular interpretation. Students will therefore be encouraged to place modern political crises in historical context, to consider the key drivers of Africa’s developmental trajectory, and to think of warfare in constructive as well as destructive terms. The course will combine broad themes as well as specific case studies from across the continent. It will explore the manner in which warfare has shaped Africa in socio-economic, political and cultural terms, and specifically the role which warfare has played in the emergence of a range of state and non-state systems, and in the development of military cultures, across the continent. Key topics for study will include changing social formations; the growth of identities based on violence and militarism; the relationship between military and political administration; the economics of African war; and the range of technologies developed and employed across the continent. In this course, there will be a focus on: The violence of the partition and the role of African troops in the colonial order; Post-independence armies and the coup d’etat; Anti-colonial insurgency and guerrilla wars of the late twentieth century; Recent developments in ‘warlordism’, interstate and proxy conflict.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • An understanding of the role of African warfare in African social, political and economic development over the long term, and appreciate the diversity as well as the commonality between conflicts across time and space;
  • An understanding of the continuity between the pre-colonial and the modern eras, as well as the ruptures which take place;
  • An appreciation of the mechanisms by which African communities both instigated and resolved conflict;
  • Knowledge of the relationship between violence, culture and identity in African history;
  • An awareness of the constructive as well as destructive elements in organised violence and militarism;
  • An appreciation of the diverse economic and technological contexts within which warfare occurred, and the material consequences flowing from conflict;
  • An ability to critically evaluate both primary and scholarly sources relating to the study of African warfare, and use these skills in writing coursework essays, preparing seminar presentations, and answering questions in the unseen examination.

Scope and syllabus

1. Introduction: imagery and historiography
2. Co-option and conflict (1): the era of partition
3. Co-option and conflict (2): rebellion and resistant militarism
4. The colonial military order
5. The roots and organisation of anti-colonial insurgency
6. National armies and the coup d'etat
7. Wars of 'liberation'
8. Guerrillas in government
9. Old and new military forms(1): warlords, militias and 'ragged wars'
10. Old and new military forms (2): interstate and proxy conflict

Method of assessment

Essay of 3,000 words worth 80% of the final mark, Reaction paper/book review of 1,000 words worth 20% of the final mark

Suggested reading

  • Boas, M. & K.C.Dunn (eds.) African Guerrillas: raging against the machine (Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007) [E]
  • Clapham, C. (ed.) African Guerrillas (Oxford: James Currey, 1998) [E]
  • Decalo, S. Coups and Army Rule in Africa: motivations and constraints (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1990) [E]
  • Reid, R.J. Warfare in African History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) [E]
  • Reno, W. Warfare in Independent Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) [E]
  • Richards, P. (ed.) No Peace, No War: an anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts (Oxford: James Currey, 2005) [E]
  • Vandevort, B.   Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) [E]
  • Williams, P.D.   War and Conflict in Africa (Cambridge: Polity, 2011) [E]


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules