While the rate of violence against civilians decreased last year (from approximately 42% of all organized armed conflict in 2014 to 40% of events in 2015), the rate of reported civilian fatalities increased (from approximately 35% of all reported conflict-related fatalities to 36% of reported fatalities). Over 12,460 civilian fatalities were reported in Africa in 2015.

The growing role of political militias in targeting civilians drives this ominous trend (see Figure 1).  In 2009, political militias were responsible for less than 9% of reported civilian fatalities.  Since then these groups have increased their annual proportional rate of violence against civilians to, on average, approximately 37% of reported civilian fatalities.  In 2014, they account for approximately 23% of reported civilian fatalities.

Trend3, Fig1

Meanwhile, government forces and communal militias (e.g. local, community based armed units) continue to see decreases in their rate of killing of civilians.  Government forces are responsible for 7.5% of all reported civilian fatalities in 2015 – down from 12.8% of all reported civilian fatalities – and communal militias are responsible for 11.6% of reported civilian fatalities – down from 18.8% of all reported civilian fatalities. Rebel groups saw a stark increase in their rate of reported civilian fatalities last year – from responsibility for 15.6% of all reported civilian fatalities in 2014 to approximately 56.4% of all reported civilian fatalities last year – though this is driven almost entirely by the re-categorization of Boko Haram from a political militia to a rebel group given their shift in goals (please see the “Violent Conflict Actors Trends” for a discussion of Boko Haram’s conflict activity).

Boko Haram is responsible for almost half (48.3%) of all reported civilian fatalities in Africa last year (see Figure 2). This is an increase from 2014 when the group was responsible for approximately one-quarter (25.3%) 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 6,000 reported civilian fatalities in 2015, almost double the record-breaking violence against civilians reported in 2014 (when they were responsible for over 3,400 reported civilian fatalities). Especially deadly were the attacks against civilians in Baga, Nigeria in January of last year.

Trend3, Fig2

Of named conflict actors, Boko Haram is followed in severity by the Fulani ethnic militia, also active in Nigeria; this group is responsible for over 4% of all reported civilian fatalities in Africa in 2015 – contributing to Nigeria being the deadliest country in Africa for civilians (please see the “Violence by Country Trends” for a discussion of political violence in Nigeria).[1] The military forces of South Sudan are responsible for over 3% of all reported civilian fatalities in Africa, and have been accused of war crimes, including especially violent strategies, such as raping and burning girls alive as the civil war in South Sudan continues.

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)[2] 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.[3] 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 (including the Rapid Support Forces [RSF]) as well as unidentified armed groups (UAGs)[4] in Darfur. Rape as a weapon of political violence is also common in DR-Congo – long labeled the “rape capital of the world” due to the prevalence of this type of violence seen in the country. The primary perpetrator of this violence in DR-Congo is the Front for Patriotic Resistance of Ituri (FRPI). South Sudan, as mentioned above, also saw increased violence of this type last year. 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 carried out primarily by the South Sudanese military, as well as pro-government militias (e.g. Bul Nuer ethnic militia) and UAGs.

Trend3, Fig3

Trend3, Fig4


[1] ACLED also codes unidentified armed groups (UAGs) as conflict actors. If accounting for these groups, UAGs in Nigeria are the second most deadly conflict actor in Africa, responsible for 4.9% of all reported civilian fatalities in Africa last year – further contributing to making Nigeria and even deadlier place for civilians. The conflict activity of UAGs is explored in further detail in the “Violent Conflict Actors Trends” while the conflict patterns seen in Nigeria are explored in further detail in the “Violence by Country Trends”.

[2] “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).

[3] 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 with other 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).

[4] 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 2015