Whilst the rate of violence against civilians increased for the second year in a row last year (from approximately 42% of all organized armed conflict in 2014 to 45% of events in 2016), the rate of reported civilian fatalities decreased to their lowest levels since 2002 (from approximately 37.5% of all reported conflict-related fatalities in 2015 to 27% of reported fatalities in 2016). Just over 8,050 civilian fatalities were reported in Africa in 2016, a 42.5 percentage decrease from 2015.

The two dominant risks to civilians are political militias and state forces (see Figure 1). From 2011-2016, political militias perpetrated, on average, 58.2% of all events involving violence against civilians. By contrast, in 2012, government forces were responsible for less than 9.5% of reported civilian fatalities. Since then, military and police forces have increased their annual proportional rate of violence against civilians to, on average, approximately 19% of reported civilian fatalities. In 2016, they account for approximately 25% of reported civilian fatalities.

Meanwhile, communal militias (e.g. local, community based armed units) significantly increased their rate of killing civilians, while rebel groups decreased civilian-targeting in line with their overall decreased presence and activity. Communal militias are responsible for 24.5% of all reported civilian fatalities in 2016 – up from 10.9% of all reported civilian fatalities in 2015 – and rebel groups are responsible for 20.7% of reported civilian fatalities – down from 52.3% of all reported civilian fatalities the previous year. The Fulani Ethnic Militia, active in Nigeria, was responsible for the highest number of civilian casualties in Africa in 2016, constituting 11% of all civilian deaths. The dramatic decrease in rebel violence is almost exclusively driven by a reduction in the frequency and intensity of attacks by Boko Haram against unarmed civilian villages as military forces pushed it out of territory in north-east Nigeria it once held (please see the “Violent Conflict Actors Trends” for a discussion of Boko Haram’s conflict activity).

Boko Haram is responsible for 10% of all reported civilian fatalities in Africa during 2016 (see Figure 2). This is a significantly large decrease from 2015 when the group was responsible for almost a half (43.8%) of all civilian deaths in Africa. Operating primarily in northeastern Nigeria – as well as northern Cameroon, Chad, and Niger – the group was responsible for over 6,100 reported civilian fatalities in 2015, over 7 times the violence against civilians reported in 2016 (when they were responsible for approximately 800 reported civilian fatalities).

Nigeria’s Fulani ethnic militia is responsible for the most reported civilian fatalities (11%) in Africa in 2016. Nigeria being the deadliest country in Africa for civilians as 25.7% of all reported civilian fatalities were reported in that country. The Fulani militias operate in the central Middle Belt region of Nigeria, and predominantly attack towns and villages, with intense violence in Adamawa, Benue, Enugu and Kaduna states in 2016. This conflict is often framed in religious terms, although local political competition contributes significantly to its occurance and intensity. The military forces of Ethiopia are responsible for over 5.8% of all reported civilian fatalities in Africa, and have been accused of using “lethal and excessive force” to repress peaceful protests across the Oromia region alongside a shutdown of internet services and  the introduction of a state of emergency in October 2016.

In addition to killing civilians, other forms of violence against civilians also exist – such as sexual- and gender-based violence. Sexual violence as a weapon of political conflict is a serious, present-day atrocity affecting millions of people (primarily women and girls)[1] with grave health implications, both physical and psychological. It is frequently a conscious strategy employed by armed groups to torture and humiliate opponents; terrify individuals and destroy societies, especially to incite flight from a territory; and to reaffirm aggression and brutality, specifically through an expression of domination.

Figure 3 maps instances of rape as a weapon of political violence across the African continent last year.[2] By far the biggest perpetrator of this type of violence are political militias, specifically those in Sudan (see Figure 4); these events in Sudan are largely carried out by pro-government militias and paramilitary groups (including Janjaweed and Rapid Support Forces [RSF]) as well as military forces and unidentified armed groups (UAGs)[3] in Darfur. Rape as a weapon of political violence is also common in South Sudan. The UN’s envoy for sexual violence in conflict (Zainab Bangura) recently said she has not witnessed a situation worse than South Sudan in her 30 years’ experience, citing impunity as a main reason for the extreme sexual violence in the region and drawing comparisons with Liberia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, DR- Congo, the Central African Republic, and Bosnia, where “women’s bodies were weapons in the frontlines of conflict.” This violence last year was overwhelmingly carried out by the South Sudanese military, as well as unidentified ethnic militias and SPLA/M-In Opposition. DR-Congo – long labelled the “rape capital of the world” due to the prevalence of this type of violence seen in the country – witnessed a reduction in sexual violence in 2016 as political militia abuse, particularly from the Front for Patriotic Resistance of Ituri (FRPI) abated by 59% from 2015.



[1] “Although the majority of victims of conflict-related sexual violence are women and girls, men and boys are also targeted in armed conflict, and are particularly vulnerable when in detention or when forcibly recruited by armed groups” (Bastick et al., 2007).

[2] Unlike other armed conflict datasets, ACLED does not narrow political violence to only events surpassing a certain fatality threshold.  By searching for conflict events within the ACLED dataset related to rape, one can gain an understanding of sexual violence and when and where it is used. “From a gender perspective, quantifying armed conflict on the basis of battle-related deaths is biased towards men’s experiences of armed conflict to the detriment of those of women and girls. Whilst more men tend to get killed on the battlefield, women and children are often disproportionately targeted withother forms of potentially lethal violence during conflict [e.g., sexual violence]…Defining armed conflict by reference to ‘battle-related deaths’ reinforces a gendered hierarchy, whereby the various causes of death and suffering affecting men during conflict are elevated in importance compared to those affecting women and girls” (Bastick et al., 2007).

[3] For more on how UAGs can carry out violence on behalf of others, please see the “Violent Conflict Actors Trends.”


Trend 3: Violence Against Civilians in 2016