Why do individuals choose to participate in civil war? Why do some individuals fight against the government while others defend the status quo? This study from the American Journal of Political Science tests the three major theories relating to participation using testimony from ex-combatants who participated in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The results indicate the relevance of all three theories: grievance, selective incentives, and social sanctions, directing attention to the interaction between them. Factors such as poverty, a lack of access to education, and political alienation prove to be important in determining participation but the evidence suggests that they may indicate a general susceptibility to engage in violence or a greater vulnerability to political manipulation by elites rather than political grievances.
Between 1991 and 2002 Sierra Leone suffered a bloody civil war. It is estimated that 50,000 people were killed while fighting, approximately 5 times the number of battle deaths in recent civil wars. Additionally, about 80,000 of the total population of approximately 4 million were involved in the fighting. The two major military factions involved over the 12-year period were the government-aligned Civil Defence Forces (CDF) and the oppositional Revolutionary United Front (RUF). What prompted high levels of participation in this conflict?
The established literature on civil war participation suggests three explanatory theories. Grievance theory states that participation depends on economic deprivation, marginalisation from political decision-making, and alienation from the mainstream political process. Selective incentive theory proposes that participation hinges on the expectation of incentives from the fighting group in the form of private goods (money, food, etc.) or personal safety. Social sanction theory links participation to pressure from active community members and strong underlying social structures.
In 2003 researchers developed a survey to determine which one of these theories was most prevalent in the decision to participate in either the CDF or RUF. The findings from the 1,043 responses suggested the following:
- All three of the major theories hold some explanatory power, but not on all measures of participation. This is because participation does not follow a single logic.
- The widespread assumption that individuals have agency in making choices about participation is empirically suspect. This is due in part to the great numbers of those who were abducted or coerced into service. Indeed, 88% of ex-RUF respondents reported having been abducted while 50% of all respondents reported fearing for their personal safety in the event of non-participation.
- Political motivations for military participation are not as strong as previously assumed. Instead, motivations stemming from an individual’s socio-economic position, the weight of costs and benefits of joining, and social pressures linked to family and community are more influential factors.
These insights emphasise the need to construct a more comprehensive explanatory model for civil war participation. These findings can be built on by:
- Adjusting the focus of the participation debate from which theory is the most relevant to how the three theories function simultaneously.
- Devising a comprehensive theory that contextualises mobilisation. This should be supported by more research on how recruitment by different groups differs depending on environmental conditions.
- Considering the possibility that participation may be a function of both coercion and cooperation. Research should consider the relevance of collective action and supply and demand of fighters in a context where leaders use both wages and violence as incentives for participation.