Pre-Modern Wars on a Pre-Modern Continent

Jackson, P. (2007). Are Africa’s Wars Part of a Fourth Generation of Warfare?, Contemporary Security Policy, 28:2, 267 – 285. DOI: 10.1080/13523260701489826 Available online:

Steve Pampinella, a friend of this blog, sent me a link to a very solid article, which wonders of the African Wars should be considered as part of the fourth generation of modern war (4GW). First some excerpts from the conclusion, and then my thoughts:

All of these wars exhibit characteristics that would seem to fit 4GW theory, including chaotic modes of warfare, looting, atrocities against civilians, and cultural approaches to power. However, there is significant evidence that African wars follow pre-colonial patterns of warfare, not new patterns, and that conflict in Africa has taken on a number of additional, modern characteristics including the use of modern weaponry and media and communications

In terms of policy, what an application of 4GW to Africa shows is that any approach to conflict resolution must be far broader than a military approach, and must take into account cultural and socio-political approaches…

The 4GW theoretical model of the evolution of warfare may not be applicable to Africa in the same way that it may or may not be applicable to Europe, but it does highlight the idea that African wars are exhibiting similar processes to those currently seen in different asymmetric wars.

The short answer is No, the African wars are not 4GW. The African wars tend not to be state-centered, but that is because they are before-the-state, not after-the-state.

Africa’s wars are pre-modern wars, or “0GW.” Simply put, the continent of Africa is too backwards when it comes to organization to indigineously host the sort of wars that the rest of the world takes for granted. Part of the reason for Africa’s inability to organizer higher generational (and less bloddy) wars is clearly cultural: a destroyed cultural infrastructure in one generation hardly helps the next! Another is bioneurological: the low intelligence of African populations due to malnutrition, disease, etc. But whatever the cause, referring to the pre-modern African wars as “4GW” demonstrates a poor understanding of both Africa and 4GW.

5 thoughts on “Pre-Modern Wars on a Pre-Modern Continent”

  1. “The short answer is No, the African wars are not 4GW. The African wars tend not to be state-centered, but that is because they are before-the-state, not after-the-state.”

    My thoughts exactly, and this is an important qualification of Generations of War theory I had earlier overlooked. I tried explaining Generations to a professor of mine, and he promptly tore me apart. There are limits to the explanatory power of the theory, and the fact that it is state-centered is probably the most significant limitation.

    WRT to culture, the problem in Africa is that state-building strategies have instrumentally used culture and the perception of common ethnicity as a means to the end of political mobilization. Certainly this strategy of political homogenization has been used in the past, even by early modern Western states, but never with the intensity seen in Africa. And as you rightly point out, education is certainly not on the agenda of these elites, as they consistently avoid the provision of any form of public goods.

  2. For certain parts of Africa this may hold true, but many of Africa's wars, if not examples of 4GW, certainly had strong 4GW elements.

    Examples: the defeat of apartheid in South Africa through the mobilization of international networks. Driving out the Americans in Somalia, and the establishment of Islamic rule more recently. Several of the anti-colonial struggles, not just Algeria, and the ongoing independence movement in Western Sahara.

    There are also examples of 2GW and 3GW in Africa, eg Libya vs. Chad, Ethiopia vs. Eritrea. Can't think of any 1GW though.

  3. Phil,

    In areas run as European states — featuring intensive civilizing missions and elite political control — it was possible to organize complex political movements. This is the Algerian (formerly French) and South African (formerly Afrikan) experience.

    Certainly the trend in warfare, like in many other things, in Africa is that the farther you get from European control, the less civilized you become.

    Somalia begs the question of whether imported Arab culture is likewise able to create higher-order wars. I'm not sure how you could distinguish the early-1990s fighting in Somalia from gang warfare, however.

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