Is political violence in Africa increasing or decreasing?  Recent scholarly work suggests a decline in violence rates generally (Pinker, 2011; Straus, 2012); such conclusions are driven by the fact that violent interstate conflict and civil wars are now more rare. However, when considering multiple forms of political violence, the rate of conflict occurrence in Africa has risen over the past 18 years. ACLED recorded a total of 10,174 organized, armed conflict events in Africa for 2014,[1] an increase from last year’s 8,379 organized, armed conflict events.[2]

What explains increased event numbers? On-going improvements in the reporting and coverage of violent conflict, as well as improvements to data collection techniques within the ACLED project, contribute to an increase in the number of recorded conflict events. Yet the rising trend in multiple forms of political violence stands (please see the “Agents of Violence Trends” for a discussion of dominant forms of political violence across Africa).

Across Africa in 2014, approximately 46% of organized, armed conflict events involved battles between armed groups, approximately 12% involved remote violence, and approximately 42% involved violence against civilians. 2014 saw an increase in the number of instances of violence against civilians (over 4,000 events, an increase of 737 events from 2013). The number and proportion of civilian fatalities also increased last year; approximately 35% of all conflict deaths resulting from organized, armed conflict events (over 13,500 fatalities) resulted from violence against civilians in 2014, up from approximately 34% of all conflict deaths (over 9,400 fatalities) in 2013.[3] Civilians are most at risk in Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and DR-Congo; each country experienced over 350 instances of violence against civilians in 2014. In the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Nigeria, civilian targeting makes up more than half of the reported organized, armed conflict events in 2014 (66.9%, 60.7%, and 60.5% respectively); violence against civilians also comprises significant proportions of organized, armed violence in DR-Congo (49.9%) and Somalia (24%).

The use of remote violence tactics also increased last year, from approximately 10% of organized, armed conflict events (or 863 events) in 2013 to over 12% of events (or 1,247 events) in 2014.  These attacks have also become more deadly.  Though the proportion of conflict-related fatalities attributed to remote violence only increased slightly (from 6% of fatalities in 2013 to 6.8% of fatalities in 2014), substantively this was a large increase as remote violence-related fatalities nearly doubled last year to 2,621 fatalities from 1,677 fatalities in 2013.  Please see the “Remote Violence Trends” for more information regarding remote violence tactics and use across Africa.

Though 2014 saw a decrease in battles between armed groups across the continent as a proportion of organized, armed conflict – battles make up over 46% of such events in 2014, down from 48% of events in 2013 – the number of battles actually increased from 4,014 battles in 2013 to 4,688 battles in 2014.  Similarly, while the ratio of battle-related fatalities to total reported armed conflict deaths decreased as well (approximately 58% of fatalities in 2014, down from over 60% in 2013), the number of conflict deaths resulting from battles between armed groups increased to 22,477 in 2014 from 16,736 in 2013. Over one-third of battles (34.1%) occurred in Somalia, comprised mainly of contests involving Al Shabaab against military and AMISOM forces. Fatalities primarily occurred in South Sudan (20% of battle-related deaths) – comprised mainly of contests between government and SPLA/M-IO rebel forces – and Nigeria (19% of battle-related deaths) – comprised mainly of contests involving Boko Haram, as well as inter-communal conflict.

In addition to organized, armed conflict (i.e., battles between armed groups, remote violence, and violence against civilians), riots and protests contribute to political conflict in Africa.  A riot is defined as a violent disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled for a common purpose, and can be either spontaneous or organized.  Protests are nonviolent, spontaneous organizations of civilians for a political purpose.[4]  While the above review examines organized, armed conflict specifically, riots and protests comprise a large proportion of political activity in Africa (approximately 34% of political conflict in 2014). The majority of rioting and protesting in 2014 occurs in Egypt (17.7% of riots and protests in 2014), South Africa (16.7% of riots and protests in 2014), and Nigeria (10.6% of riots and protests in 2014). Each experienced over 560 riots and protests in 2014, a total significantly higher than the average number of riots and protests seen per country across the continent (114). In Egypt, riots and protests are driven largely by the continued fallout from the Arab Spring, including the Egyptian protest law. In South Africa, general elections competition increased rioting and protesting, as well as protesting around corruption and service delivery.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram as well as the oil industry are dominant reasons for rioting and protesting.  While rioting and protesting across the continent continues to occur at a high rate in 2014 relative to rates exhibited during the past 18 years, the overall number of these events decreased slightly from 2013 – from 5,359 riots and protests in 2013 to 5,339 events in 2014.

Historically, 1999 witnessed the highest proportion of battles between armed actors, as well as the highest proportion of battle-related fatalities as a proportion of reported conflict deaths, largely due to violence in Angola, DR-Congo, and Sierra Leone. The years 2002-2004 witnessed the highest proportion of violence against civilians, driven by several contexts including the Zimbabwean elections, Ugandan LRA activity, and the peace talks over the civil war in DR-Congo. 2011 witnessed the highest proportion of remote violence, as well as the highest proportion of remote violence-related fatalities as a proportion of reported conflict deaths, largely due to air strikes and bombings stemming from the Libyan civil war, as well as Al Shabaab activity in Somalia.  2013 witnessed the highest proportion of riots and protests, driven primarily by events in North Africa stemming from fallout from the Arab Spring.

A relative drop in violence is apparent from 2004-2006, when a number of high-intensity conflicts (e.g. civil wars in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire) ended. Other areas (e.g. the Darfur region and the Congolese Kivus) also experienced a relative fall in violence during these years. Additionally, the operational and logistical environment in Uganda changed over this period, and the activity of the Lord’s Resistance Army – which had been a prominent actor in the region, and proportionally on the continent as a whole – fell with their diffusion into neighboring states, where they continued their activity but at a much-reduced rate and with significantly reduced capacity.


[1] ACLED reported a total of 16,709 events last year. 1,196 are non-violent events; 5,339 are riots and protests.

[2] Organized armed conflict events include battles between armed groups, remote violence, as well as instances of violence against civilians.

[3] Fatality figures report total fatalities from both sides combined for each violent event, and are not attributed to losses from certain sides. However, in instances of violence against civilians, as civilians (by ACLED’s definition) do not exhibit aggression, fatalities associated with these events can be attributed to civilian fatalities. As fatality figures are often difficult to obtain, verify, and cross-check, and are subject to higher levels of reporting bias than overall conflict events, ACLED codes the lower end of reported ranges, and in instances when only a total number of fatalities is given for multiple events taking place across more than one day or in more than one place, the number of fatalities is divided amongst the events evenly.

[4] By definition, protesters do not engage in violence. Hence, if violence occurs during a protest as a result of protesters’ actions, it is a riot and not a protest. If violence is done to protesters in the event of a protest, the event is deemed an instance of violence against civilians as, by definition, the protesters were targeted while not engaging in any violence.