Is political violence in Africa increasing or decreasing?  Recent scholarly work suggests a decline in violence rates generally; such conclusions are driven by the fact that violent interstate conflict and civil wars are now more rare. However, due to changes in source availability that better record the activities of violent agents locally, recent years see an increase in reported conflict events. There is no way to verify whether conflict has increased or decreased over periods of decades or longer. What is clear is that the types of violence occurring in Africa during the recent past have changed.

What explains increased event numbers, which give the impression of increases in conflict? 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 2015, approximately 46% of organized armed conflict events[1] involved battles between armed groups, approximately 14% involved remote violence, and approximately 40% involved violence against civilians (see Figure 1). These proportional rates have remained relatively consistent over time, especially in recent years.

Trend1, Fig1

While the estimated number of reported fatalities stemming from organized armed conflict events decreased last year from 2014, the proportion of reported civilian fatalities increased last year. Approximately 36% of all reported conflict deaths resulting from organized armed conflict events (over 12,460 fatalities) resulted from violence against civilians in 2015 (see Figure 2).[2]

Trend1, Fig2

Civilians are most at risk in Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia; these countries experienced 587, 524, and 494 instances of violence against civilians in 2015, respectively (see Figure 3). In terms of civilian deaths, however, Nigeria is the most dangerous by far, responsible for over 6,800 civilian deaths in 2015 (please see the “Violence Against Civilians Trends” and the “Violence by Country Trends” for a discussion of civilian targeting and political violence in Nigeria, respectively).

Trend1, Fig3

Remote violence tactics have begun to make up a larger proportion of conflict activity in Africa in 2015; over 14% of organized armed conflict last year were remote violence events, up from approximately 12% of events in 2014 (see Figure 1). These attacks have also become more deadly: the proportion of reported conflict-related fatalities attributed to remote violence increased slightly from 6.8% of reported fatalities in 2014 to 7.7% of reported fatalities in 2015 (see Figure 2).

The relative proportion of organized armed conflict events made up of battles between armed groups remained relatively constant from 2014 to 2015 (from 45.6% of events to 45.9% of events) (see Figure 1). The majority of battles continue to occur in Somalia (over 32% of all battles in 2015); these battles consist mainly of contests between Al Shaabab against military and AMISOM forces. Reported battle-related fatalities primarily occurred in Nigeria (over 17% of battle-related deaths) – comprised largely of contests between government and Boko Haram[3] rebel forces – and Somalia (14.5% of battle-related deaths) – comprised mainly of contests involving Al Shaabab against military and AMISOM forces.

In addition to organized armed conflict (i.e. battles between armed groups, remote violence, and violence against civilians), riots and protests contribute largely to political conflict in Africa (see Figure 4).  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 40% of political conflict in 2015).

Trend1, Fig4

The majority of rioting and protesting in 2015 occurs in South Africa (21.9% of riots and protests in 2015) and Nigeria (12.9% of riots and protests in 2015). In South Africa, riots and protests are driven largely by three major events: social transformation at multiple universities in March, xenophobia in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in April, and most recently over university fees. In Nigeria, the lead up to the general election – which later became a historic handover of power from President Jonathan to Buhari – led to a significant increase in the rate of rioting and protesting.

Historically, 1999 witnessed the highest proportion of battles between armed actors, as well as the highest proportion of reported 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 reported 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.  2015 witnessed the highest proportion of riots and protests, driven primarily by events in South Africa, as outlined above.

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

[2] 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.

[3] Given the shift in the goals of Boko Haram, ACLED codes Boko Haram as a rebel organization (interaction code 2) beginning August 25, 2014, a shift from coding as a political militia (interaction code 3) previously. Additionally, given the group’s allying with the Islamic State, as well as their beginning to claim territory, naming of the group has been differentiated before and after this shift: the group is referred to as “Boko Haram – Jama’atu Ahli is-Sunnah lid-Dawatai wal-Jihad” prior to April 27, 2015, and as “Boko Haram – Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah” after that date. (Please see the “Violent Conflict Actors Trends” for a discussion of Boko Haram’s conflict activity.)

[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.