Overview of Continental Trends and Conflict Trends Summaries

17 Feb 2017

This rundown of the political violence that occurred in Africa during 2016 yields three broad lessons: 1) The crisis points on the continent – Libya, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria – continued to produce significant violence; 2) under-reported crises in Burundi, Mozambique, Ethiopia, etc., led to a substantial amount of bloodshed; and 3) one-size-fits-all data analyses of these trends produce poor results. Read on for all the details.

This article was originally published in Conflict Trends Report Number 55 by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) in February 2017.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Conflict Increase, Decrease and No Change across Africa from 2015 - 2016.

Overview of Continental Trends

African states experienced high rates of both political violence and protest in 2016 (see Figure 2). The aggregated totals are remarkably similar to those of 2015, which indicates three important lessons going forward:

The crisis points on the continent - Libya, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria - continue to produce significant violence, with substantial harm to civilians and the political process of peace. But under-reported crises constitute a large proportion of violence across African states, including the ‘not quite civil war’ in Burundi, and the ongoing wars occurring in Sudan, Ethiopia’s protesting and conflict, and the increasing violence activity throughout Mozambique. Finally, the continent contains a multitude of different means to oppose, challenge and enforce governments and government policy, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach to analysis will produce poor results.

But the overall patterns are clear: battles and large scale wars are on the decline, as they have been for quite some time. In their place are multiple, co-existing agents who engage in a variety of strategies to make their place within the political landscape: local militias, pro-government militias, political militias working at the behest of politicians and political parties, civil society organizations forming protest movements, external groups seeking local partners (e.g. ISIS), and more occasionally, rebel groups seeking to overtake the government. These groups may use similar forms of violence — including attacking civilians, bombing, clashing with security forces, rioting — but they are distinct in their goals. Their separate and combined effect on life across Africa is distinguished by the levels and periods of violence they produce.

The conflicts affecting African states are not unique, and their experiences are instructive to the rest of the world: in a time when pitched battles decrease, a rise in overall insecurity is gripping developing and developed states. Across Africa, governments and citizens have lived in states of disorder that reflect the political dynamics of the moment. State governments are forcefully demonstrating their hold of the means of violence within and across borders, and actions that involve state forces continue to rise —24% of all actions in 2016 involved state forces, a proportion close to other recent high points of 2011-2012. When combined with the acts of militia groups who are often producing violence at the behest of powerful local, regional or party political leaders, the conclusion is that politics is causing political violence, and the strongest are using violence to enforce their will on others.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Political Violence and Protest in Africa, 2016.

The events across the combined large-scale crises in Africa include Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria comprise 33% of all violent conflict that occurred across Africa in 2016; this total represents a decrease from 35% in 2015, and 40% in 2014. But 55% of all fatalities attributed to political violence occur in these states, down from 58% in 2015. There are significant differences between the overall conflict profile of the continent, and the combined conflict patterns across these crises: there are far more clashes with security forces and other armed agents at 45% of the total activity (compared to a 30% continental average), and attacks on civilians are similar, but fatality risks are 5% higher than in non-crisis areas. These totals suggest that the likelihood of experiencing a pitched battle are significantly higher in crisis areas, but violence against civilians is more widespread across the continent.

Of those crises, Somalia remains the most active, followed by Nigeria, South Sudan and Libya, respectively. Somalia has almost three times the violence of the other states, who each have approximately 740 armed, organized events in 2016. In effect, Somalia’s violence is equal to the combined violence of Libya, South Sudan and Nigeria. Yet the fatality ratios suggest a different story: while Somalia has the highest total number of reported fatalities, Nigeria has the highest ratio at over 6 fatalities per event, compared to 2.5 per event in Somalia, 4.5 for South Sudan and close to 4 per event in Libya. Other striking differences underscore how these crises are distinct: fatalities in Nigeria are overwhelmingly against civilians compared to battles between armed agents, and fatalities when the state retakes territory are also markedly higher than in other crisis contexts. Libyan conflict appears to avoid direct targeting of civilians.

The heterogeneity of agents is an important indicator of how manageable a crisis is, as a low number of actors means that parties can coordinate to end violence and cooperate in a transformed political system. Unfortunately, the four crisis states suggest a very diverse environment: Libya’s distinct armed, organized agent total in 2016 is 66, more than double the number in 2012-2013. Despite Nigeria’s decreasing violence, the number of violent agents has increased from 53 to 93; yet both Somalia’s agents (156) and South Sudan’s (69) have decreased in small numbers from last year. The increase in Nigeria is entirely attributed to communal, local groups; typically increases in such groups suggest that sectarian violence is increasing as ‘identity politics’ resumes a primary divider of communities; and also confirms that law enforcement and trust in security forces is low at the local level. Groups that take violence into their own hands to address local political issues bypass the state and state laws to do so, often without recourse from the government. In particular, the Nigerian state has been active in other realms, which may suggest another reason why local groups are using an ‘unsupervised’ moment to engage in violence, or taking advantage of other internal crises to resume and reframe long running local conflicts. These small groups — across Nigeria and Somalia primarily — frequently appear but do not persistently engage in conflict; instead small flare ups are common. However, campaigns like the Fulani in the Middle Belt of Nigeria surpass a local skirmish and indicate far wider problems for governance and rule of law in the region.

There are few indications that the violence in these four countries will decline in 2017 — barring Libya’s minor decrease, all have sustained similar levels or grown, in Somalia’s case. But they represent very different conflict forms, and the intensity and form of their violence cannot be overstated. Somalia is now well into a competition between the government and a revived Al Shabaab; unwelcome new members — including ISIS — make headline news, but the majority of violence continues to be due to Al Shabaab’s attempts to dismantle any sign of functioning central or regional governance. Over a hundred small clan groups create local violence that has long substituted for a security system. Libya is torn between three governments with unequal legitimacy and capacity; Nigeria has successfully stopped Boko Haram’s domestic advances, but the group remains, along with a host of additional security vacuums that emerged during the Jonathan Presidency. Finally, the South Sudan war persists and diffuses (in all likelihood, southward in 2017), with no end to the destruction in sight, and no capable political leader on the horizon.

Underreported Conflict and Riots/Protests

Political violence is not limited to countries experiencing civil wars or large-scale insurgencies. Despite lesser media coverage, a number of countries across the continent witnessed lower yet sustained rates of armed conflict, as state and non-state actors continue to use violence to influence political dynamics or consolidate their position vis à vis other competitors. The political nature of these low-level conflicts is such that, unless a political solution to the crises is found, violence is likely to persist or to escalate in the near future. This situation is common in several African states, but particularly intense in Burundi and Mozambique.

In Burundi, battles between armed groups declined markedly in 2016 compared to the previous year (ACLED, May 2016). This pattern suggests that rebel groups have largely renounced armed confrontations with state forces as the government managed to retain control of its territory. However, data show a sustained increase in civilian targeting, reflecting the changing nature of the Burundi crisis and its persistent lethality. Rather than seeking direct confrontation, government forces and armed militias widely resorted to violence against unarmed civilians and targeted political assassinations to either consolidate the grip on power or manifest their strength. While the government has been successful in fending off the insurgency started in 2015, this has not stopped the violence, which will likely continue to affect the country in the coming months.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Number of Events Involving Rioters and Protesters by Event Type in Africa, 2016.

A low-level armed conflict also continued to endanger the fragile peace between ruling FRELIMO and the former rebels of RENAMO in Mozambique (ACLED, 7 October 2016; ACLED, 8 April 2016). Intermittent truces between the two parties have failed to stop the violence, which has increased from 19 conflict events in 2015 to 92 in 2016. The largest increase involved violence against civilians, which constitute the vast majority of events and are the largest contributor to conflict-related fatalities. The two parties, who accuse each other of violating short-lived ceasefires, are battling over the control of profitable trade routes and local governance in the northern RENAMO strongholds. Despite their mutual commitment to resuming the peace process, these trends suggest that both FRELIMO and RENAMO target non-combatants in the attempt of enhancing their bargaining position.

Opposition to governments across Africa has also taken different forms, as several African states continued to witness high rates of protest activity (see Figure 3). The number of events involving protesters and rioters increased by 4.8% from 2015, with major increases recorded in Ethiopia, Chad and Tunisia. South Africa and Ethiopia make up approximately one third of total protest events, with this share increasing to 50% when including Tunisia and Nigeria.

The poor performance of governments was the most common driver of protest, with citizens all across the continent demonstrating against ailing service delivery, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and increasing physical insecurity. In many countries, protests were linked to the election cycle, to contest or influence the outcome of the vote – as in Gabon or Uganda – or to demand new elections – as in the case of the postponed elections in Democratic Republic of Congo. A third common motive of protest was the absence of political liberties and government repression, which sparked most protest events in Ethiopia and Chad.

These trends reveal that popular protests present a serious challenge for the stability of African governments. Protests are not only widespread within and across states, but in some cases – the most notable being the Arab uprisings in 2011 – they have proved successful in bringing about far-reaching political changes. As such, both democratic and (semi-) authoritarian governments have developed a variety of strategies to cope with dissent, ranging from tolerance and accommodation – as during the recent wave of protest in Morocco – to outright repression – as in Ethiopia and Sudan.

An overview of regions shows the multifaceted geography of riots and protests across the continent. In North Africa, all states witnessed high rates of protest activity in 2016, confirming the longer trend started in 2011. In Algeria and Tunisia, the number of protest events was higher than in 2011, raising concerns that local grievances may give rise again to wider collective actions. Despite a relative decrease from the previous year, protest movements in Egypt, Morocco and Libya have also called attention to the multiple weaknesses of these states.

South Africa experienced the highest level of protests and rioting in 2016. Violent riots marred the run-up to the municipal elections in August and the student-led #FeesMustFall campaign, revealing widespread dissatisfaction with the policies of the African National Congress (ACLED, 9 December 2016). Police often resorted to violent means in the attempt of curbing protests, but this repression ended up feeding more disorder. With new general elections scheduled in 2019 and growing in-fighting within the ruling party, violence is likely to feature prominently over the coming months in South Africa.

Despite the frequent use of violence by both protesters and police, protest activity has largely remained peaceful in South Africa. By contrast, the greatest share of violently repressed protests was found in Ethiopia, where security forces reportedly killed 486 protesters and hundreds of other civilians as a wave of popular mobilisation spread across the country (Insight on Conflict, 2 November 2016). While it is unclear if the state repression has been successful in stifling dissent or inhibiting media reporting, the new year may tell if the government will face an insurgency or alternative forms of mobilisation arising from the ashes of the Oromo protest movement.

Conflict Agents

In the past two decades, the primary perpetrators of organized, armed political violence on the African continent changed from rebel groups to political militias (see Raleigh, 2014) and government forces. Figure 4 maps the most active agent in each African country in 2016. In the majority of countries, either state forces or political militias are the most active agent in conflict.

In 2016, political militias were responsible for 30% of all organized armed conflict in Africa. These groups use violence as a means to shape and influence the existing political system, but do not seek to overthrow national regimes. They instead operate as ‘armed gangs’ for different political elites – including politicians, governments, opposition groups, etc. Of named political militias, the Imbonerakure of Burundi (the militant youth wing of the CNDD-FDD) was by far the most active, whose involvement nearly doubled from 138 conflict events in 2015 to 202 conflict events in 2016 in conjunction with the Burundi Crisis.1

Figure 4
Figure 4: Most Active Conflict Agent by Country in Africa, 2016.

Government forces are responsible for 34% of all conflict in Africa during 2016. This is an increase in their rate of involvement for the second year in a row as they seek to forcefully demonstrate their hold of the means of violence within and across borders. Government forces are the only group to have increased their rate of involvement in conflict from 2015 to 2016 (from 31.7% to 33.7%). The most active state forces in 2016 are the militaries of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan – with especially stark increases in the rate of activity of the militaries of Sudan from 332 to 460 events between 2015 and 2016; and Ethiopia, whose involvement nearly tripled from 155 conflict events in 2015 to 448 in 2016. Conflict spiked in Sudan in the first half of the year, primarily driven by battles opposing government and rebel forces, which reached their highest levels since 1997. These clashes have occurred against a backdrop of limited advances on the political stage, with ceasefires proving difficult to hold as a result. The increase in state conflict involvement in Ethiopia in 2016 is driven almost entirely by the uprisings in the Oromia region, where in its strenuous efforts to contain a wave of protest unseen for decades, the government has launched a violent crackdown that is estimated to have killed more than one thousand people over one year.

For more on agents of conflict in Africa in 2016, see ACLED’s recent trend assessment.

Political militias, government forces, and communal militias are the primary perpetrators responsible for reported civilian fatalities across the African continent; all three of these groups increased their rate of civilian fatalities from 2015 to 2016. Figure 5 maps the most lethal agents of civilian targeting in each African country in 2016.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Primary Perpetrator of Civilian Fatalities by Country in Africa, 2016.

Increases in reported civilian fatalities at the hands of communal militias is largely driven by the lethality of the Fulani ethnic militia in Nigeria, which is responsible for a reported 884 civilian fatalities in 2016 (up from 546 in 2015), as well as the Murle ethnic militia in Sudan, whose targeting multiplied over six times (responsible for 246 reported civilian fatalities in 2016). The increase in the rate of involvement in violence against civilians by state forces is largely driven by the military forces of Ethiopia, in conjunction with the uprisings in the Oromia region, and Sudan with the increase in violence combatting opposition. Unidentified armed groups (UAGs) continue to be lead perpetrators of civilian targeting, often used because of their anonymous status; UAGs in Burundi, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Sudan continue to be highly active and lethal. (For more on the strategic use of UAGs in conflict zones, see the ACLED blog post on the topic.)

Rebel group presence continues to be lethal for civilians, these groups are responsible for a reported 1,684 civilian fatalities in 2016, but this represents a dramatic decrease from a reported 7,285 civilian fatalities by rebels in 2015. This decrease is largely a result of the decrease in reported civilian deaths at the hands of Boko Haram (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyah) – which is in large part due to a loss of territorial control following large-scale military operations in Yobi, Borno and Adamawa State. Regardless of this decrease, however, Boko Haram remains one of the top three largest threats to civilians in Africa – responsible for 790 reported civilian fatalities in 2016.

For more on violent conflict actors in Africa in 2016, see ACLED’s recent trend assessment.


1 ACLED classifies unidentified armed groups (UAGs) with the same interaction code as political militias as these groups have many similarities to political militias, especially in that they can often act as ‘mercenaries’ and do the violent bidding of elites. These political elites (governors, political party leaders, etc.) are similar to governments in that they do not want to take open responsibility for their violent actions by name. Unidentified armed groups (UAGs) constitute a large share of violent actors in the ACLED dataset; nearly 20% of organized armed conflict carried out by violent actors last year in Africa involve UAGs.

Conflict Trends Summaries



Kenya saw a decrease in political violence and reported fatalities in 2016. The vast majority of fatalities in 2016 still came from Al Shabaab activity. The country also saw a spike in demonstra-tions in June over whether the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) should be reformed before the general elections of August 2017 (Africa Confidential, 10 June 2016). The opposition holds the IEBC as responsible for its electoral defeat in 2013, and in June opposition supporters demonstrated in the opposition strongholds of Nairobi and Nyanza. The state response was notably violent resulting in multiple deaths. A similar polemic did not arise for the rest of the year; subsequent riot and protest events involved localised grievances over development, police conduct and payment. Nevertheless, with Kenya’s elections on the horizon, and with concerns over voter registration and institutional impartiality, there is ample risk for political tensions to turn into political violence.



Mali saw a fluctuating amount of low-level violence in 2016. While groups like AQIM, Ansar Dine and other Islamist militias continue to target state forces, peacekeepers and civilians with remote explosives, ambushes, and kidnappings, secular groups such as the National Alliance for the Protection of the Fulani Identity and the Restoration of Justice (ANSIPRJ) and the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad (CMA) also staged several notable attacks in 2016. Periodic clashes between the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense group (GATIA), a pro-government militia, and the CMA, a coalition of secular rebel groups, also signal continued difficulties in the peace process between the central government in Bamako and the Tuaregs in the North.



Mozambique suffered a dramatic increase in political violence in 2016 with an almost doubling of reported fatalities and almost triple 2015’s rate of conflict events. The majority of fatalities and activity came from clashes between the Mozambican government and fighters of the opposition Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO). These clashes have been ongoing since late 2013 and have intensified since the disputed elections in 2014. In early 2016, RENAMO demanded the right to set up an autonomous government in the provinces where it won a majority in the 2014 elections by the end of March (Cummings, 22 June 2016). RENAMO’s demands were not met by the government and the following April was the most lethal month of 2016 in terms of fatalities. Most of these fatalities come from clashes between RENAMO and government forces in Manica and Sofala provinces. In April, an alleged mass grave was uncovered. The government quickly denied the presence of the mass grave although some bodies have allegedly be confirmed (Daily Maverick, 4 May 2016; France24, 5 May 2016). In spite of a violent year, RENAMO and the government agreed to a short-term ceasefire at the end of 2016. This was later extended to a two-month ceasefire which will come to an end in March.

Republic of Congo

Republic of Congo

The biggest event of 2016 for the Republic of Congo was the presidential election on 20 March, which saw incumbent Sassou Nguesso retain the presidency despite international criticism. On 4 April, suspected members of the Ninja militia, which was officially disbanded by their leader Frederic Bintsamou (also known as Pastor Ntumi) in 2008, were reported to have set alight several police stations and other administrative buildings in the capital during clashes with security forces, allegedly over the outcome of the election. Following these incidents, a heavily-armed government offensive targeted the Pool region, the support base for the Ninja militia during their conflicts with the government in the 1990s and early 2000s. This offensive seems to have backfired however, as attacks by alleged Ninja militiamen on government forces and civilians began across the Pool region for the first time since 2009, before dying back down after the last reported incident on 26 November 2016.



Somalia in 2016 witnessed an increase in both conflict events and reported fatalities over the previous year. Increased deaths are largely due to lethal clashes between insurgent group Al Shabaab and state forces, or external militaries active in Somalia. The number of fatalities resulting from clashes between Al Shabaab and external forces – including forces from the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) and the militaries of Kenya and the United States – in-creased by 48% in 2016. High profile and high impact attacks by Al Shabaab include the attack on Ethiopian/AMISOM forces at a base at Halgan in June and a battle with Kenyan forces in October which resulted in 140 casualties. Clashes between state and rebel forces resulted in a fatality spike of 41% in 2016. Al Shabaab’s continued attacks on government troops and external stabilisation forces reflects the group’s vow to disrupt the parliamentary election process (United Nations, 27 January 2017). This raises the question of whether violence will continue to in-crease in early 2017, when the presidential elections are scheduled to take place.



Concerns over an increasingly precarious economy and widespread dissatisfaction towards the political class are driving a renewed wave of protests across Tunisia. In 2016, the levels of protest activity registered by ACLED in Tunisia reached a record high in the last twenty years and were among the highest in Africa. Protests were more frequent and showed a higher risk of turning violent in the capital’s region and in the southern governorates of Sidi Bouzid, Sfax, Kasserine and Medenine. The motivations are reported as unresolved socio-economic problems, coupled with increasing insecurity due to the entrenched presence of armed Islamists and the return of foreign fighters from abroad. These trends are unlikely to change substantially in 2017, unless the new unity government headed by the young secular Youssef Chahed is able to tackle the country’s multiple challenges and restore citizen confidence.

NB: Darker shading in the country maps indicates a higher number of relative conflict and protest events in the admin-istrative region during 2016, except Republic of Congo which maps conflict and protest events from 1997-2016.

About the Authors

Andrea Carboni is a Research Analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project.

Dr Roudabeh Kishi is a Senior Researcher at ACLED and a Conflit Data Consultant at the World Bank. She is also an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

Prof. Clionadh Raleigh is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sussex and the Director of the ACLED project.

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