Over the past 17 years, there have been distinct changes in the main perpetrators of political violence on the African continent. While governments remain the most actively violent group, the second-most violent group has changed from rebels to political militias.

While all categories of violent group increased activity in 2013, the activity of rebel groups on the continent showed the smallest rate of increase (at 11%), underscoring the on-going eclipse of civil wars on the continent by elite-sponsored militia activity. This latter type of militant group does not seek to overthrow national regimes, but uses violence as a means to shape the existing political system.

Examples of militia groups include political party-aligned militant units active in the Kenyan and Zimbabwean elections in recent years: Kenyan electoral violence in 2007 and 2008 is responsible for the sharp spike in militia activity evident in these years. Other examples include the various Mayi Mayi militia groups active in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Militia activity is particularly high in countries transitioning to democracy, and weak democracies. This general trend should raise concerns about how institutional change creates new opportunities for the systematic use of violence and intimidation as a part of the political landscape.

Communal violence between local identity groups is consistent over time, as is its increase in recent years. Power vacuums, livelihood competition and persistent localized contests explain most communal conflict rates across African states.