Sub-Saharan Africa combines all the major risk factors commonly associated with the onset of civil war. Accordingly, it is the world's most conflict-intensive region, with 24 out of 48 countries having experienced civil war over the past 50 years. Yet at the same time, half of its crisis-ridden states have managed to maintain political stability despite the odds. Trying to resolve this puzzle, I begin by reviewing the five most influential theoretical approaches in the civil war literature and find that they ultimately all fall short of explaining the observed differences in political stability. In the light of these shortcomings, the paper then outlines an alternative approach to the study of civil war focusing on differences in the inclusiveness of elite politics. My main argument is that the postcolonial trajectories of civil war versus political stability in different states across Sub-Saharan Africa are largely determined by the varying ability of ruling political parties to overcome the specific historical legacy of high social fragmentation, by forging and maintaining 'inclusive elite bargains'. While 'inclusive elite bargains' permit the maintenance of political stability, 'exclusionary elite bargains' give rise to trajectories of civil war. The paper concludes with brief methodological remarks on how to explore the plausibility of my argument and argues in favour of a case-study approach of 'structured, focused comparison'.
Discussion Paper 15, London, UK; Crisis States Research Centre, 33 pp.