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Civil Wars and Ethnic Identities Case Study


The causes of a civil war can vary. As Collier and Hoeffler (2007, p. 8) point out, the major reasons include the level, growth, and structure of income. Growth collapses often cause civil wars, while the growth of the income reduces the possibility of war. Ndulu et al. (2015) notice, growth collapse in Africa in 1990s produced conditions for rebellion, namely extreme poverty and government dysfunction.

The patrol of Revolutionary United Front during the Civil War in Sierra Leone.
The patrol of Revolutionary United Front during the Civil War in Sierra Leone (Source: Reuters).

Specific resources and channels can also influence the probability of rebellion. Rebel groups in Sierra Leone were diamond-financed, and other groups used oil as a source as well. The next channel is the rebellions’ desire to capture the rents (Collier & Hoeffler 2007, p. 10). The third channel is the government’s remoteness from the population. In countries with rich resources, governments do not have to be close to their populations because they do not need to tax them (Collier & Hoeffler 2007, p. 10). The recourses’ influence on the civil wars and governments is supported by Ross (2004, p. 347). He claims that “natural resource revenues can, ironically, weaken governments – making them less likely to resolve social conflicts” (Ross 2004, p. 347).

Furthermore, if a government has its revenues from natural resources, it is more likely to be more corrupt. Poverty rates also raise because the government provides little help in healthcare and education of citizens (Ross 2004, p. 341). The abundance of resources can also lead to secessionist movements, just as it was in Aceh in 1976. The establishment of a natural gas plant resulted in social issues such as disproportion in jobs, problems with health among locals, and immigration (Ross 2004, p. 347).

The Free Aceh Movement members at 25th anniversary of the movement's founding.
The Free Aceh Movement members at 25th anniversary of the movement’s founding (Source: Richard Humphries photography).

Other main causes of civil wars are ethnic differences and religious beliefs. Religious polarization and animist diversity are the key concepts to explain probable incidents of civil wars (Reynal-Querol 2002, p. 52). Moreover, it should be noted that religious differences are often more influential than linguistic ones. Religious polarization has more potential to cause a civil war (Reynal-Querol 2002, p. 52). At last, a democratic government can reduce the chance of a civil war.

Ethnic identities of individuals can also influence the spread of violence and the possibility of a civil war. Since multiple actors construct ethnic identities, the changing values and beliefs influence ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, they are not always driven by religious differences (Fearon & Latin, 2000, p. 860). Ethnicity and political grievances are complex combinations. They often drive a country towards civil war (Wucherpfennig et al. 2012, p. 81).

It should also be noted that the influence of civil war on the self-perception of ethnic groups is rather evident. For example, “ethno-nationalism increases with the experience of armed ethnic conflict” (Dyrstad 2012, p. 818).

Operation Joint Endeavor during the Bosnian War.
Operation Joint Endeavor during the Bosnian War (Source: U.S. Army).

Therefore, even if ethnic identities are shaped before the conflict, they tend to change during and after it. Civil wars are usually fought between governments or organized groups rather than between individuals (Buhaug, Cederman & Gleditsch 2014, p. 422; ). As can be seen, civil wars are shaped by multiple factors and have a significant influence on ethnic identity.

Reference List

Buhaug, H, Cederman, L, & Gleditsch K 2014, ‘Square pegs in round holes: inequalities, grievances, and civil war’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 418-431.

Collier, P, Hoeffler, A & Rohner, D 2009, ‘Beyond greed and grievance: feasibility and civil war’, Oxford Economic Papers, vol. 61, no.1, pp.1-27.

Dyrstad, K 2012, ‘After ethnic civil war: ethno-nationalism in the Western Balkans’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 49, no. 6, pp. 817-831.

Fearon, J & Laitin, D 2000, ‘Violence and the social construction of ethnic identity’, International Organization, vol. 54, no.4, pp. 845-877.

Ndulu, B, O’Connell, S, Azamm J, Bates, R, Fosu, A & Nijinkeu, D 2015, The political economy of economic growth in Africa, 1960-2000, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Reynal-Querol, M 2002, ‘Ethnicity, political systems, and civil wars’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 46, no.1, pp. 29-54.

Ross, M 2004, ‘What do we know about natural resources and civil war?’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 41, no.3, pp. 337-356.

Wucherpfennig, J, Metternich, N, Cederman, L & Gleditsch, K 2012, ‘Ethnicity, the state, and the duration of civil war’, World Politics, vol. 64, no.1, pp. 79-115.

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