Can warlords bring in democracy?

Former warlords in African countries are important for the emergence of democracy, says Anders Themnér, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.

Hello Anders Themnér, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research and the Nordic Africa Institute. You are the editor of the book "Warlord democrats in Africa". The title of the book feels rather paradoxical: can former warlords really play a part in democratisation processes?

“Given the right conditions, they can often support the emergence of democracy and in many cases peace might not be possible at all if the warlords were not allowed to stand in elections. Instead of engaging in armed warfare, they become democrats engaged in political competition.”

But isn’t there something odd about warlords suddenly turning into champions of democracy?

“Well of course their participation in building democracies is controversial. But it’s also important to see it in context: in many African countries it’s often difficult just to play a single role – this isn’t tenable in poorer areas where the state has little power. In these areas, the individual leaders and their networks of followers are much more important. As a result, the warlords play several different roles – they may be business leaders, heads of sports clubs or politicians. These countries often experience rapid transitions between, say, war and peace or between a planned economy and a liberal economy, and the warlords adapt their approach to the context to keep control of their network. They have often transformed from one role to another before the civil war and continue their transformations after the civil war. We tend more to think ‘once a warlord, always a warlord’, but that’s not the way it works in many poorer areas.”

Do they completely turn their back on war?

“No, but generally they have no desire to start another war. On the other hand, they use war rhetoric in the political game to play on the fear of conflicts. As former warlords they’ve shown they can guarantee the security of their followers and they like to remind everyone that though there is peace today, who knows what might happen tomorrow?”

What are the positive aspects of warlords switching to politics?

“They’re highly ambitious leaders with large networks who can serve as drivers of change. They can have an incredibly important role for forward thinking and in persuading their followers to exchange war for democratic processes. But of course there are negative aspects as well with organised violence, war rhetoric that plays on people’s fears and they often mix up the exercise of state power with crime. Often they start out supporting the emergence of democracy but revert to more aggressive behaviour after a few years. So they can be relatively good at initiating democracy, but not at managing it; often a new generation is needed for that.”

What lessons can be learned from the cases you have studied?

“It’s important not to regard the warlords as power-crazy, they’re quite calculating individuals. When peace processes are created one has to be aware that the main thing that makes the warlords turn menacing is when their networks are threatened, since the networks guarantee their position and status.”



In the book “Warlord democrats in Africa,” 11 researchers examine the influence of former warlords on the emergence of democracy in African countries.

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Filmed interview with Anders Themnér on the book “Warlord democrats in Africa”

Research at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University

17 August 2017