African Conflicts and Informal Power

Big Men and Networks

Edited by Mats Utas


Through a variety of in-depth case studies - from DRC to Somali to Liberia amongst others - this book shows how important informal political and economic networks are in many of the continent's conflict areas.
In the aftermath of an armed conflict in Africa, the international community both produces and demands from local partners a variety of blueprints for reconstructing state and society. The aim is to re-formalize the state after what is viewed as a period of fragmentation. In reality, African economies and polities are very much informal in character, with informal actors, including so-called Big Men, often using their positions in the formal structure as a means to reach their own goals.

Through a variety of in-depth case studies, including the DRC, Sierra Leone and Liberia, this comprehensive volume shows how important informal political and economic networks are in many of the continent’s conflict areas. Moreover, it demonstrates that without a proper understanding of the impact of these networks, attempts to formalize African states, particularly those emerging from wars, will be in vain.

Author Bio

Mats Utas is a senior lecturer at Uppsala University, and formerly a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Bigmanity and network governance in African conflicts - By Mats Utas
  • Part 1: Country case studies
    • 1. Informal political structures, resources and the Ugandan army; military entrepreneurialism in the Ugandan-Congolese borderland - Koen Vlassenroot and Sandrine Perot
    • 2. Big Man Business in the Borderland of Sierra Leone - Maya Mynster Christensen
    • 3. The politics of impersonation: Corps habillés, Nouchis, and subaltern Bigmanity in Côte d'Ivoire - Karel Arnaut
    • 4. Demobilized or remobilized? Liberia's remaining rebel structures in post-war security settings - Mariam Persson
    • 5. 'Castles in the sand': Informal networks and power brokers in the Northern Mali periphery - Morten Böås
  • Part 2: Thematic case studies
    • 6. Critical states and cocaine connections - By Henrik Vigh
    • 7. African Big Men and international criminal justice: the case of Sierra Leone - By Gerhard Anders
    • 8. Big Man bargaining in African conflicts - By Ilmari Käihkö
    • 9. Intermediaries of peace or agents of war: the role of ex-midlevel commanders in Big Man networks - By Anders Themnér
    • 10. The Big Men commanding conflict resources in Africa: the DRC case - By Ruben de Koning


'This important collection of great articles on "Bigmanity" will certainly become a central reference for different disciplines. Informal networks with 'big men' as their nodes, are certainly not the only game in town' in African polities and societies, but they clearly merit stronger attention. This book offers a multitude of entry points to this important topic.'
Andreas Mehler, Director of the Institute of African Affairs at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies

'This is an important book for anyone who cares about the mechanics of African conflicts and the possibilities for post-conflict stability. Through rich case studies and comparisons these chapters help us understand some of the most troubling issues on the continent today. Tracing the informal networks that allow Big Men to achieve, exercise and sometimes lose power demonstrates just how shallow our thinking about Africa is when we refuse to move beyond the language of failed states and criminal enterprises. This volume is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that helps us think more critically and creatively about who benefits from African crises - and why outside interventions so often fail.'
Danny Hoffman, University of Washington, author of The War Machines

'This fascinating and important set of studies emphasises the critical role of Big Men, and the networks that they operate, in the struggles for control of Africa's resources that increasingly define the contours of conflict on the continent - and provides essential insights for anyone who seeks to establish fairer and more peaceful structures for resource management.'
Christopher Clapham, Cambridge University

'This is an excellent collection of essays on a vitally important yet oft-neglected aspect of armed conflict in Africa: the role of informal networks and power structures as keys to a deeper understanding both of the dynamics of violence and the prospects for peace. Carefully researched case studies provide the reader with a unique, and uniquely valuable, insight into the nature of contemporary armed conflict on the continent.'
Professor Mats Berdal, King's College London


Publication Date: 8 March 2012
264 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781848138827
Hardback: 9781848138834
eBook ePub: 9781848138858
eBook PDF: 9781848138841
eBook Kindle: 9781780324159

Appears in

Why is peer review so important?

Learn more about the various types of peer review, why it’s so important, what the social and political considerations of peer review are and how we use it at Zed Books.