Are civil wars better understood as conflicts over resources or struggles over social status?
It is hard to determine whether civil wars are better understood as conflicts over resources or struggles over social status; every civil war is inherently different from the next making it difficult to draw this sort of conclusion. Civil wars have such varied origins and outcomes that it is not possible to pinpoint whether one factor or another has more weight when looking at civil wars as a whole; although it is certainly possible to look at individual wars and determine the main reason for the war. As a result of the varied nature of civil wars it is valid to say that they can be understood both as conflicts over resources and struggles over social status. Indeed, it is rare that there is merely one factor which contributes to the start of a civil war; however it appears that more often the outbreak can be attributed to a conflict over resources as opposed to struggles to do with social status. This is particularly true in countries situated in Africa where many civil wars have been fought because of natural resources, which are for the most part fairly abundant in these countries. On the other hand, civil wars in Europe, such as the Spanish and Russian civil wars, are often more focused on social status than resources; although naturally there are many other factors at play both in Europe and Africa. Location can affect the nature of civil war, this essay compare civil wars from Africa and Europe and demonstrate how depending upon location civil wars can either be better understood as conflicts over resources or struggles over social status. This essay will argue that civil wars are in fact better understood as conflicts over resources; however it will also acknowledge the importance of struggles over social status as well as other factors not mentioned in the question.
Civil War is one of the most deadly human phenomena, and since the end of World War II more than 20 million people have died because of civil wars worldwide. The nature and origins of civil wars are thus a highly debated topic among historians, who have come to varying conclusions about why civil wars begin. These reasons range from poverty, inequality, poor economic growth, the fractionalisation of society, struggles over social status and the role of resources; which is one of the main factors this essay is focusing on. Resources have multiple impacts on civil wars and therefore civil wars can be better understood as conflicts over resources than as struggles over social status.
Many studies argue that there is a link between the dependence on natural resources and the outbreak of civil war, such as Collier and Hoeffler (2002). They found that natural resources and civil war are highly correlated and believe that states which rely heavily on the export of primary commodities face a higher risk of civil war than resource poor states. This suggests that a state’s dependence on natural resources has a significant influence on the likelihood that a civil war will begin over the next five years. Since 1998 the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been partially driven by the trade in conflict minerals. Although there have been a number of complex reasons driving the civil war, including conflicts over basic resources such as water as well as various political agendas, it is resources which have caused the most issues. Dependence on primary commodities played a central role in causing the conflicts in the Congo, in particular their high levels of dependence on mineral exports. However, although natural resource dependence was a significant determinant of civil wars in the Congo it was not dependence as such that motivated the conflicts, but rather the geographic concentration of resources and their unequal distribution among ethnic groups that proved to be the crux of the issue. This disproportionate concentration of resources and wealth also provided incentives for secessionist movements, as the struggles for regional control of resources led to the outbreak of civil war.
The abundance of resources presents an incentive to fight in order to gain control over the valuable resources themselves, often leading to wars of secession such as the second Sudanese civil war where the north and south were pitted against one another in order to gain control of natural resources harboured in certain areas of the country. The second Sudanese conflict was also triggered by resources. However, although this is another African civil war dealing with similar issues and origins, resources played a different role in this war and it was not a large dependence on primary resources which was the issue. Instead this civil war was caused by the government taking control of resources and diverting them to a region of the country which they did not originate from; leading to tension and eventually a war of secession when the south tried to break away as a separate state. In 1983 the Sudanese President decided to place oil in the country’s south under the jurisdiction of the north; subsequently leading to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to complain that the north was stealing the resources of the south and demand that it stop. However instead of responding to the SPLA’s demands the government waged a campaign of astonishing brutality which to date has killed an estimated 2million people. Oil exports make up about 70% of Sudan’s export earnings and contribute to the development of the country, which shows again that this civil war was largely brought about by the country’s dependence on natural resources. Yet, it is not only a large dependence on natural resources or the possibility of a war of secession which are consequences of resources in civil wars.
Resources can help finance rebellion and civil wars because regardless of the beliefs, ideologies and grievances involved all armed conflicts must be funded; since the soldiers need to be paid. Resources equal power and so unrest often breaks out over possession of areas rich with natural resources, such as minerals. There are other studies which approach the issue of resources from a different angle, for example Fearon argues that the presence of certain types of resources, mainly gemstones and narcotics, tend to make wars last longer. While Laitin has drawn the conclusion that oil exporting states are more likely to suffer from civil war. Once again this can be seen in the Sudanese civil war, where oil was not only one of the main causes of the war but also prolonged the conflict since it was such a valuable resource to be fighting for. These findings are backed by Ross, who also agrees oil exports are linked to the onset of conflict while ‘lootable’ commodities like gemstones and drugs are correlated with the duration of conflict. Struggles over resources can lead to fighting over the labour force necessary to harvest the materials, as well as control over the markets and trade routes required to them valuable. In addition since resources often equal power, as stated above, foreign states can often invade or support one side in a civil war in their own pursuit of access to the resources. Nevertheless, it was not just oil which led to civil war in Sudan. “The south has always been viewed and treated by the sectarian politicians as an afterthought, an appendage, and a marginalised section of society”; southern people believed they were mistreated and in addition to the conflict over oil wanted to rise up and cement their place as equals within Sudan. Thus, although resources are often to primary reason for civil war in Africa, it is necessary to remember that there is never a singular cause; the reasons behind civil wars are more often than not extremely complex.
A third civil war in Africa, in which once again the conflict revolves around resources, is the civil war in Sierra Leone. However, yet again resources take on a slightly different role in the outbreak of this civil war compared to the conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic republic of Congo. The civil war in Sierra Leone is an example of how minerals can weaken a government’s territorial control, thus leading to civil war. Resource wealth tends to promote civil wars by giving people who live in resource rich areas an economic incentive to form a separate state; something which under these circumstances could only be achieved through civil war. In Sierra Leone the government had long had difficulty exercising its authority over the diamond fields, a problem exacerbated by the private armies, armed gangs and paramilitary forces that operated in the area. In 1991 when a group of insurgents called the Revolutionary United Front crossed the border from Liberia the government was too weak to repel them and the country was drawn into civil war. All three civil wars, in Sierra Leone, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are conflicts over resources; however even when this is the case the exact issues are still different from one civil war to another and resources can play many different roles in the origins and nature of war. In addition inequality can drive civil war when the poor rebel to induce the redistribution of resources, while the rich regions may mount secessionist rebellions to pre-empt this distribution; which shows that although resources are more often the cause of civil war in Africa they can be influence by social struggles.
When comparing civil wars in terms of resources and social status there appears to be a divide, between civil wars in Africa and those in Europe. From the case studies mentioned already in this essay it is clear that struggles over resources often constitute the primary causes of civil conflict within the African continent. However, countries in Africa often possess an abundance of natural resources and so it is hardly surprising that the key issues in civil wars in these countries revolve around resources. If historians look at civil wars in other parts of the world, such as Europe, they find very different reasons for the origins of civil war and it is often the case that these conflicts are better understood as a struggle over social status rather than a conflict over resources. Ross believes there is little agreement among scholars on why natural resources have such a profound effect when it comes to civil wars, and although journalists claim that resources ‘fuel’ a given conflict they too are vague about how this occurs. Indeed he states that it is possible the resource-civil war correlation could be spurious and civil wars may in fact be caused by another variable entirely. It therefore makes sense to examine other factors involved in the origins and course of civil wars. Historically within Europe most civil wars have been wars of succession, struggles to achieve secession, which have also been called national liberation wars, and finally ideological or revolutionary civil war in which people seek to drastically alter the established system or introduce completely new ideas and policies. Civil wars can be understood as a struggle over social status because these wars can be fought by individual groups looking to increase their standing or power in society. This can be seen in the Russian civil war.
The origins of the Russian Civil war lie in the seizure of Bolshevik power in October 1917, although most scholars see it as beginning with the dissolution of the constituent assembly in January 1918. The civil war was a multi-party war in the former Russian empire fought between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army, consisting of the loosely allied anti-Bolshevik forces. Resistance to the Red Army began immediately after the Bolshevik uprising with numerous anti-Bolshevik forces aligning themselves against the communist government included landowners, republicans, conservatives, middle-class citizens, reactionaries, pro-monarchists, liberals, army generals as well as socialists who did not identify with Bolshevism. It also involved a wide variety of ethnic and national groups who were fighting for self-determination as well as those who were eager to prevent the Bolsheviks from consolidating their hold on power in the former Russian Empire. Due to the fact that so many different ethnic, social and national groups were involved it is clear that there was a distinct struggle over social status; this was especially clear in the attempts to eradicate the old Tsarist regime entirely and increase the standing and position of the workers, peasants and soldiers in a ‘new Russia’. However, Lenin was a “heartless and ambitious individual…brutal in his attempt to subject his own people to radical social transformation” which contributed to the civil war since he was only prepared to use force in this struggle for social status.
It was the huge inequality within society that led to people choosing sides in the civil war. The Bolsheviks promised better conditions for the lower sphere of society such as the peasants and workers who believed these promises because they were desperate to change their position within Russian society and gain rights for themselves. However, on the opposite side were the middle and upper classes, as well as any remnants of the old Tsarist Regime, who were eager to maintain their place in Russian society as the rules and leaders of the country. Although there is some basis for introducing resources when discussing the Russian Civil War since one could argue that it was control of resources such as the main cities, armament factors and seizure of old weapons that allowed the Bolsheviks to win the war. However, this is where this European civil war differs to those in Africa. Despite the fact that resources played a part in the outcome of the war they did not influence the outbreak or origins of it; that was due to a clash over social status that ensued after the fall of Tsarism. Couttenier and Soubeyran explored the notion that inequalities increase the likelihood of a civil war in a given country, they believed that the fractionalisation of society was a major contributor to civil conflict; when inequality was so rife people fought to break out of the section of society in which they had been pigeon holed, thus they were struggling over social status.
This can be seen yet again in the Spanish civil war. Spain was a deeply divided country that was politically torn between the right-wing nationalists and the left-wing republicans. The nationalist part was made up of monarchists, landowners, employers, the Roman Catholic Church and the army while the republicans consisted of workers, trade unions, socialist and peasants; there was a clear social divide thus the civil war would have involved some form of struggle over social status. After being badly affected by the great depression following the Wall Street crash the military dictatorship, which had ruled since 1923, collapsed in 1929; this was followed by the abdication of the King in 1931 after the Republicans came to power. However, republican government rule was short lived and after the introduction of right-wing people into the government, the reduction of farm workers’ wages and the purge of the military to remove republican members the country became so divided and unstable that in 1936 the army rebelled. They removed the republicans from power and civil war ensued. This is an example of an ideological or revolutionary civil war where people seem to alter the established system or introduce new ideas, which Payne believes is a key type of civil war in Europe. One reason for the difference between European and African civil, aside from the difference in resources, is the fact that many countries in Africa were once part of an Empire; whether it was British, Spanish, French or any other. This mean that the countries were often governed by foreign nationals, or heavily advised on how to run the country and when decolonisation occurred this changed. The withdrawal from colonies resulted in “the acquisition of political or economic independence by such colonies.” Having had little experience of ruling a country the governments established in the wake of decolonisation faced numerous problems, not least the fact that they were weak and very susceptible to attacks from opposition groups; whereas in Europe this was not as much of an issue.
From the evidence given throughout this essay and the use of various case studies it is clear that any given conflict is brought about by a complex set of events; including poverty, ethnic or religious grievances and unstable governments as well as resources and social status. Therefore natural resources are never the only source of a conflict. Yet since the mid-1990s there has been a growing body of research on the causes of civil wars, and one of the findings is that natural resources play a key role in triggering and prolonging civil war conflicts. So even after these other factors have been taken into account studies consistently find that natural resources heighten the danger that a civil war will break out, and that once it does the conflict will be more difficult to resolve. In addition, “the higher the dependence on natural resources, the higher the number of years of conflict. It seems that countries which have abundant natural resources are more likely to be subject to civil war”. Since many African states are highly dependent on resource exports they are unusually prone to resource-related conflict, while the abundance of resources in these countries helps to explain why a growing share of the world’s civil wars have taken place in Africa. The lack of resources in European countries and the often more advanced forms of government means that European civil wars often take the form of struggles over social status. However even in these cases resources do become involved such as in the Russia civil war. As Jeremy Black state, “War…is not possible without resources, both their presence and their use”.
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 M. L. Ross, ‘How Do Natural Resources Influence Civil War? Evidence from Thirteen Cases’, International Organisation 58 (2004) 35.
 Ibid. 38.
 J. Fairhead, ‘The Conflict over Natural and Environmental Resources’ in E.W. Nafziger, F. Stewart and R. Vayrynen (eds.) War, Hunger, and Displacement: Volume I, (Oxford, 2002), p.148.
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 S.G. Payne, Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949, (New York, 2011), p. 2.
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 M. Couttenier and R. Soubeyran. ‘An Overview of the Roots of Civil Wars: Natural Factors and Economic Conditions’, G-MonD Policy Papers 2 (2002) 15.
 J. Black, Why Wars Happen, (London, 1998) p. 14.