Mapping the Geography of Political Violence in North and West Africa

By Olivier J. Walther, Assistant Professor in Geography, University of Florida and consultant for the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC/OECD); Steven M. Radil, Assistant Professor in Geography, University of Idaho and David Russell, consultant for SWAC/OECD

A worrying turn

The security situation in North and West Africa has taken a worrying turn. Within the span of a few years, Mali has faced a military coup, a secessionist rebellion, a Western military intervention, and several major terrorist attacks. In the Lake Chad region, Boko Haram is attempting to revive an Emirate, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring countries. In Libya, the bombing campaign by NATO in 2011 hardly put an end to the civil war that continues to oppose rebels and militias. If the trend observed so far continues, this year will be the deadliest recorded in the region since 1997, with more than 8 300 killed through June.

Despite the multiplication of security studies, the geography of conflict throughout the region is obscured by the large number of belligerents, their divergent political strategies, and a focus on individual countries as the primary context of the continuing violence. While violence remains on the increase, it remains unclear whether violent organisations are intensifying their efforts in particular localities, spreading insecurity to a growing number of regions, or relocating under the pressure of government forces.

A new spatial indicator

In order to provide some much-needed evidence for these crucial questions, the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club is developing a Spatial Conflict Dynamics indicator (SCDi). The new indicator builds on the idea that the geography of political violence possesses two fundamental dimensions: intensity and concentration. On the one hand, the military capabilities and political strategies of the actors in conflict can increase or decrease the intensity of conflicts within any region. On the other hand, the location of conflicts can focus on a limited space or, conversely, diffuse across a wider landscape.

The new indicator is applied by dividing North and West Africa into a uniform grid of 50 kilometre by 50 kilometre cells. The intensity of conflicts is measured as the density of violent events per square kilometre while the concentration of conflicts is measured using a nearest neighbour analysis, which determines if violent events are rather clustered or diffused within the region.

Four types of conflict geography

The combined study of the intensity and concentration of political violence is used to identify four different types of conflict geography in North and West Africa since 1997.

The first type applies to regions where there are an above average intensity and a clustered distribution of violent events, suggesting that violence is intensifying locally. This was the most common form of conflict in 2018 with 52% of the cells studied here. These regions often form the core of large epicentres of violence, as in central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, around Lake Chad, in the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta in Nigeria, and in Libya.

The second type is when a conflict is characterised by a higher than average intensity and a diffuse distribution of events, indicating that the violence is accelerating. This worst-case scenario is, fortunately, quite rare in the region: in only 3% of the cells are conflicts accelerating. The Inner Niger Delta in Mali, southern Nigeria, the Liptako-Gourma between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, and the border region between Nigeria and Cameroon are the most affected by these long-lasting conflicts.

The third type applies to regions where there are fewer violent activities and most of them take place near each other, possibly indicating a decreasing range of violent groups. This type concerns 31% of the cells of the region, many of them on the periphery of more intense conflict zones, such as on the outskirts of major cities in Libya.

A lower than average intensity and a diffuse distribution suggest that a conflict is lingering. This situation may be indicative of a region in which opponents are highly mobile or are unlikely to face protracted opposition in a given locality. This type is found in 13% of the cells, often at the periphery of the major theatres of operations or in some countries with fewer violent events, such as Ghana, Guinea or Algeria.

Conflicts are local but increasingly violent

The new indicator reveals that most conflicts are local. Contrary to popular belief that global extremist ideas fuelled by transnational groups spread like wildfire across the region, we find that less than 35% of the regions with violence exhibit signs of diffusion. In general, conflicts may not necessarily be spreading to incorporate new places but are motivated by the unresolved grievances of local communities. This means that violence is predominantly entrenched in certain spaces, with profoundly negative consequences for civilians who are increasingly the main targets of violent extremist organisations.

The indicator also shows that conflicts are becoming more violent. In 2018, the number of violent events and fatalities were higher than the 20-year average in more than half of the conflictual regions. In other words, where a conflict was present, it was likely to be worse than expected historically. This result points to the ongoing difficulties state and multinational forces have encountered in containing the fighting and the need for greater reinforcement of their capacities and increased co-ordination between actors. It also emphasises the importance of integrating the spatial dimension into analysis and strategy design.