African Warlord’s Presence Through Realism Lense


Illustration of African Warlords. Photo: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters


Warlords are autonomous commanders of armed groups which operate in certain territory within states (Freeman, 2015; Vinci, 2009) and are usually known as the local strongmen (Freeman, 2015). By autonomous means that the warlords are independent of government and are not subject to the authority. However, this paper will not limit the definition of warlord itself as an individual autonomous actor – the warlord. Instead, the term, referring to Freeman (2015) and Jackson (2005), also refers to an organization as well – the warlord organization, armed group, militia. In this paper, the terms will be used interchangeably. For Africa that has been experiencing protracted wars, ‘warlordism’, unfortunately, seems common as warlords are playing an important role in perpetuating the conflicts. Warlords tend to possess control over the economic resources as well as the people. Moreover, as a highly independent armed group, the warlord also holds the military capability to accomplish its agenda.

This essay seeks to discuss warlords, particularly in Africa, through realism lenses. The first part will be using structural realism to understand African warlords’ phenomena. This emphasizes more on the systemic level of the matter. And the following part will be discussed using classical realism as an analytical tool.


Realism is one of the oldest perspectives in traditional IR that aimed at narrowly explaining the relations of states. According to realism, states are expected to operate under the self-help mechanism in order to survive within the anarchical international structure. In its development, there are two types of realism theories: classical realism and structural realism. However, both theories hold the similar basic assumptions, namely: (1) States remain as the prominent actors in international relations; (2) The main objective of states is to secure its national interest; (3) The international structure is anarchy (Rosyidin, 2020).

Classical Realism

Classical realism bases its foundation of thought on history. They perceive that there have been repeated events which produced a particular pattern. For decades, states have always been in a constant struggle of power in international politics. The Politics Among Nations, written by Hans Morgenthau in 1948, produced the standard of classical realists’ works. There are six principles of international politics that Morgenthau emphasized on. First, politics is governed by objective laws based on human nature. The realist human nature is pessimistically understood as selfish, power-driven, and rational. These traits will later be reflected by how states conduct its international relations. Second, the national interests are defined in terms of power. Classical realism focuses on the possession of material power, particularly military power (Dunne et al., 2013; Viotti & Kauppi, 2012). Third, the absence of a fixed definition of interest. This demonstrates that national interest is dynamic. States may alter their national interests over time, depending on the political and cultural context in which the interest is formulated. Fourth, the inapplicability of moral principles due to its abstract nature.  Therefore, political ethics is distinct from the universal moral principles. Fifth, it should be noted that there is a difference between the moral aspiration of a nation and universal moral laws. It means that particular nations cannot impose their national aspirations on other nations. Sixth, the political sphere is maintained as an autonomous sphere.

Structural Realism/Neo-realism

The behavioralism revolution in the 1960s caused the emergence of structural realism in order to make IR to be more ‘scientific’. It was intended to correct classical realism for its abstract conception of human nature. Neo-realist thinkers, such as Kenneth Waltz, rather argue that it is the anarchical international structure that causes states to be in a constant conflictual relation with one another. The structure of the international system, therefore, is the main determinant of the actors’ behavior which operate within. 

John Mearsheimer states that there are five core assumptions which explain the perpetual state of conflict and desire for power. First, states interact in the anarchic environment which identified as disorder and chaotic. Second, every state owns the military capacity and has the will to act aggressively against each other. Third, states are faced with uncertainty. States cannot ensure the intention and desire of other states. Fourth, states strive to survive as the main motive. Fifth, states are rational actors. These five states consequently produce conditions where: (1) States always expect threat from other states; (2) States heavily depends on their self-help mechanism; (3) States consistently try to enhance their relative power.


Classical Realism: Resource-driven, extraction-focused, self-enrichment

 Collier and Hoeffler (1999) (as cited in Jackson, 2005) state that greed is the more significant driving force in Africa’s wars since there are economic factors involved within the conflict. On top of that, in their writing, it is stated that it is individual greed that has lasted wars in Africa. In addition, greed is the main reason why combatants remain fighting (Jackson, 2005; Martin, 2015). This narrative is in accordance with the basic assumptions of classical realism within IR. Classical realism believes that human nature which characterized as selfish, power-driven, and flawed have been the causes of struggle for power (Rosyidin, 2020).

Classical realism also emphasizes on the states’ constant pursuit of interest which ultimate objective is power possession (Rosyidin, 2020). Though this theory within IR is usually used on understanding states’ behaviour, ‘the pursuit of power is not limited to states, but applies to all independent political groups’ (Vinci, 2009), including African Warlords which operate at the domestic level. These warlords will also think and act as states’ political leaders – by attaining power, other forms of interests will be obtained. They attempt to gain power through acquiring material resources, such as troops, weapons, land, money, recognition, and others (Martin, 2015).

Furthermore, while this approach sees conflict in rational terms, warlords are also aiming at generating wealth. However, it must be noted that obtaining wealth does not necessarily translate into the objectives of the group (Rich, 1999; Jackson, 2005; Martin, 2015). Nevertheless, economic incentives motivate African warlords as well as the fighters to continue its operation. The situation is worsened by the government’s failure to provide welfare. Hence, conflicts in many states in Africa resume as fighters and warlords have no reasons to stop. As a continent with massive resources of diamond and gold, some African warlords, for instance the Central African Republic warlords, also put their interests on the self-enrichment through extraction activities.

The absence of national government in many African states will consequently cause the warlords’ actions to be justifiable. The states’ failure to ensure and to protect its people’s survival is the main factor of the acceptance of warlords. Warlords, therefore, become the reliable source for African people to feel secured – even if warlords’ operations tend to attack civilians. For example, in CAR, the warlord is already replacing the role of the government. They hold power over the people, ensure the security, and do the taxation as well. To some extent, they also conduct external relations with other actors. Some man in the CAR territory even stated that he felt fine with the presence of warlords as the government has failed to properly govern its own people.

In brief, using the classical realism approach, it is discussed the assertion of greed of African warlords’ operation. They are basically greed-motivated. The situation then worsened by the absence of a national government to provide a proper justice system, taxation mechanism, or simply welfare assurance for the people. In this case, it is argued that those African warlords’ ambitions are beyond survival. Instead, they aim to gain as much power as possible.

Structural Realism: The aftermath of the ‘failed’ state

African states are more likely to be politically and economically unstable. Hence, when warlords in Africa are being discussed, it is easier to begin with the failure of central control i.e. the government of states. A number of African states have been facing rampant corruption, identity-based violence, and political exclusion. The presence of warlords in Africa indicates that the states fail to maintain welfare, to represent people, and to defend its territory (Freeman, 2015; Jackson, 2005; Rich, 1999; Vinci, 2009). The emergence of warlords in Africa does not need war, but it only requires a political vacuum. Warlords, therefore, can only exist in the context of anarchy. Nonetheless, it is not necessarily state-level anarchy. In this case, anarchy represents the areas where the state is not present (to provide public needs) (Jackson, 2005). As neorealists argue, in an anarchical system, peace is fragile (Waltz, 1988), especially when actors own a military capability. Hence, this paper argues that this ‘anarchical’ condition has paved the way for African warlords to destabilize the status quo and to challenge the sovereign government, which often inevitably triggers violence among civilians. Moreover, the warlord’s political power is basically tied to his military capacity, thus African warlords utilize the violence in order to maintain their position (Jackson, 2005).

In addition, with this type of anarchical structure, a warlord which operates is also threatened by the other warlords or militia coalitions (Martin, 2015). Living in constant fear and uncertainty, African warlords tend to continuously improve their military capability through recruiting civilians, including under-aged kids. Moreover, as they are not clearly certain of their opponents’ intentions, African warlords keep attacking each other. Conflict between Seleka and Anti-Balaka in Central African Republic (CAR) is one evidence that uncertainty may lead to conflicts.

The warlords gain their power through pursuit of wealth, territorial, authority as means to guarantee its survival. And also groups of militia merge with other coalition for survival and protection reasons (Martin, 2015). While warlords may have some explicit goals, such as outstating the recent government, they recognize that in order to achieve these goals, they must first survive. For instance, in Liberia, warlords were willing to negotiate, which showed they were actually interested in a peace settlement. However, they were not ready to relinquish their power or give up their survival (Alao et al, 1999 as cited in Vinci, 2009).

To sum up, according to neo-realist assumption, conflictual relations between African warlords are mainly driven by the nature of anarchical structure in a number of African states. As what Waltz (1988) refers to as ‘the absence of a central monopoly of legitimate force’, the situation produced is very fragile for conflict to occur. Furthermore, it is also argued that it is the survival (i.e. to remain autonomous) that becomes the explanatory motivation behind these warlords’ actions in African states. 


The warlords in Africa are actually behaving within the logic of the state, functioning as rational actors. Two of my analyses both use the realism paradigm to understand their motivation, their behavior, and how they contribute to the perpetuated African conflicts. The main differences are: (1) by following the neorealism theory, my first analysis sees African warlords as units which operate within an anarchical structure (in domestic level). In contrast, in the second analysis, the classical realism approach that is being used sees African warlords are greed-motivated actors – which worsened by the failure of government; (2) according to neo-realist logic, my first analysis argues that the ultimate goal of those African warlords is solely survival and their power are means to survive. On the other hand, the second analysis is referring to classical realism, the objective of warlords (as especially in individual context) is beyond survival. They are also aiming at political visibility or self-enrichment. However, both analyses are inevitably limited as this paper tries to apply IR theory—which mostly used to understand the states’ behavior—into African warlords, either as individual actors or as groups.


Central African Republic: The way of the warlord (2018). [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from

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Waltz, K. N. (1988). The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 18(4), 615-628. Retrieved from 

Hardhana D. Danastri merupakan mahasiswi Hubungan Internasional di Universitas Pertamina. Dapat ditemui di Instagram melalui nama pengguna @hrdndinar

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