March 28, 2022

What We Are Learning This Week with Instructor Chris W. J.Roberts!

Conflict in Africa
Map of Africa

March 28, 2022 in POLI 471 Africa: Contemporary Political Problems

Instructor Chris Roberts is exploring the causes and dynamics of violent conflict on the continent of Africa, and how assumptions about internal "civil wars" miss important transnational dimensions of those conflicts


Can you tell us a little more about this topic?

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has appropriately captured the world's attention over the last month, violent conflict in Africa has trended upwards since the early 2010s after a decade of relative war and violent conflict declines between 2002–11. Why the upsurge? There is no single cause: we need to investigate local, regional, and international factors. There are two misconceptions that obscure a better understanding of violent conflict in Africa: first, that "tribalism" or ethnicity is the root cause of all conflict on the continent, and second, that African conflicts are mostly localized "civil wars" or "resource wars." But while there have been few inter-state wars since the independence era, most armed conflicts have transnational or internationalized dimensions, something often missed in earlier studies.

Chris Roberts with Dr. Micheal Fonkem Achankeng

Chris Roberts with Dr. Micheal Fonkem Achankeng I from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who is also a traditional leader from a community in the war-torn ex-British Southern Cameroons (Anglophone) region of Cameroon.

What else do you cover in your course?

In Poli 471 we drill more deeply into some key themes of regional contemporary relevance. This term, given the increasing incidence of successful or attempted military coups and what are called "constitutional coups"—long incumbent presidents who find ways to stay in power through constitutional manipulation or political elites who replace an incumbent without following the existing constitutional framework—I wanted to investigate how these recent trends away from constitutionalism might be linked to the increasing trend of violent conflict. And, of course, there are countries that are exceptions to these trends, so which factors or variables are most important to understanding those variations?

What do you love about teaching this course?

My whole career both inside and outside academia has revolved around challenging the limited knowledge most North Americans possess about Africa, the second largest continent. What little is known is often distorted by stereotypes, myths, or worse. I originally took this course with Dr. Don Ray (now Emeritus) in 1991 (!), and since 1994 I’ve travelled to fourteen countries across the continent for consulting or research projects. Today, we have many more students at UCalgary who have personal ties to Africa, and they bring their own experiences and knowledge to the class which enhances the overall learning experience for both me and other students. And I enjoy that I get to introduce a new generation to the musical genius and political activism of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer.

Finally, what other courses would you recommend for students interested this topic?

POLI 371 Government and Politics of Africa is a prerequisite, African Studies offers a range of courses, and History offers both general and military history courses about Africa. I also recommend POLI 359 Comparative Politics, POLI 481 Politics of Human Rights, POLI 579 Political Economy of Development, and for those interested in security and conflict issues, POLI 439 Strategic Studies and POLI 543 Law and Armed Conflict.


Our Thanks to instructor Chris Roberts for sharing your course with us!

Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter @cwjroberts