Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 9, Issue 1  /  

The Missing Strategic Theory Link in African Conflicts

The Missing Strategic Theory Link in African Conflicts The Missing Strategic Theory Link in African Conflicts
Photo 25575539 | Rwandan © Alan Gignoux |
To cite this article: Beloff, Jonathan R., “The Missing Strategic Theory Link in African Conflicts,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1, summer 2023, pages 36-41.

Describing his experiences during the war, the General discussed how during his military training, even in the Virunga volcanic mountains in the early 1990s, he learned about the history and lessons of Clausewitz. This response sparked a rather interesting question of how Strategic Theory, and more specifically, the works of Clausewitz, is generally missing within most understandings of African military conflicts. While Isabelle Duyvesteyn[iii] discusses Clausewitz in the context of African conflicts in 2005 by examining the conflicts in Liberia and Somalia, it has not been explored. Despite this General previously studying Clausewitz and others in the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF), Western researchers and scholars researching the continent sometimes ignore this framework. Rather, they utilise a multitude of different theoretical frameworks found within international law[iv], just war theory[v], political science[vi], structural theory[vii], international relations[viii], ethnicity[ix], and genocide studies[x], to only name a few, when examining what are the reasons for African wars and conflicts. Strategic Theory is absent, which is a disservice to a sophisticated understanding of these conflicts, such as the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994).[xi]

This article briefly examines why Strategic Theory is absent within the theoretical tools to understand African conflicts, specifically focusing on Rwanda’s Civil War. It asks why strategic theory is largely missing when examining most of Africa’s wars and conflicts. By answering this question, it argues that rejecting Strategic Theory as a critical theoretical framework to understand war in Africa significantly limits our understanding of these conflicts. When mentioning Strategic Theory, some African researchers dismiss it as a problematic framework that does not suit popular academic trends as it rests on the works of Prussian General Clausewitz. This article challenges these notions and introduces the foundational elements of Strategic Theory that can and should be used to understand African wars such as the Rwandan Civil War. The seeming dismissal of Strategic Theory hinders our understanding of African wars as these conflicts hold very few differences from any other Western conflicts.

Examples of Past Understandings of African Conflicts

Thirty-five conflicts are raging across much of Africa with minimal news media reporting. These conflicts are publicly discussed when it impacts the West or, as those like Meera Sabaratnam[xii] might argue when the ‘Global South’ impacts the ‘Global North’ in discussing Western perceptions and interactions with African nations. A prime example is how Somalia’s internal anarchy and seemingly constant war after the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 and the accompanying 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. However, the conflict received international attention after Somali pirates harmed international trade routes.[xiii] Research on the Somali Civil Wars often relies on the kinship of Somali clans[xiv] and peacekeeping’s politics and operational capabilities[xv]. Another example is the lack of US media attention during much of the Libyan Civil War, except during the 2012 Benghazi attack, which sparked discussions of acceptable targeted killings of terrorists connected to the attack.[xvi]

But the wars within Africa, whether between neighbours such as during the bloody Second Congo War or internal conflicts such as the 2023 Sudanese Conflict[xvii], are generally not subject to Strategic Theory as a means of analysis. As uncovered while researching the Rwandan Civil War, Strategy Theory provides the necessary theoretical framework to understand the military strategy and tactics found in African conflicts. However, it receives some criticism that the theoretical framework relies on what one researcher called an ‘old white man’s theory’. These critiques how Strategic Theory is an outdated and problematic theoretical lens for understanding the war and hinders understanding not just Rwanda’s Civil War but African conflicts more broadly. Instead, research on the Rwandan Civil War illustrates how Strategic Theory provides a better understanding of how the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis unfolded. This is due to understanding the strategies and tactics of the opposing military actors of the genocide-aligned Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) against the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). The genocide only ended because of the RPA’s tactics and not from mediated conflict resolution or other peacekeeping mechanisms. Nevertheless, the war and Strategic Theory are side-lined in understanding Rwanda’s history.

But Why is it Problematic?

’The absence of Strategic Theory could be the result of it being considered or even accused as part of an outdated system created and followed by ‘old white men’ in the recent decolonising academia movements[xviii]. Within many universities across the West, there exists a campaign to ‘deconstruct’ existing academic norms and practices to ‘decolonise’ them effectively to remove institutional racism.[xix] Utilising studies has not escaped this recent fashionable movement, with the Copenhagen School’s Securitisation experiencing these challenges. Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit[xx] claimed that Securitisation was inherently racist rather than Eurocentric. The accusations that its founders, specifically Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan, held theoretical, conceptual and methodological deficits that inherently came from their unconscious racism. Wæver and Buzan dismissed these claims and argued that Howell and Richter-Montpetit used selective case readings of their 2003 book Regions and Powers.[xxi] ’These troupes of irrationality based on ethnicity or culture are generally absent in Clausewitz or Strategic Theory’s neutral positionality in understanding the values and factors that lead political, military, civilian and other actors in engaging and perceiving means of violence during warfare.[xxii] The neutrality of Strategic Theory’s research and analysis, away from moral judgements, provides a more balanced approach to studying African conflicts. It differs from what Africans see as neo-colonial critiques and hypocritical double standards within other fields, such as democracy and human rights.[xxiii] Johan Pottier[xxiv] does discuss the racial elements of the international news media coverage of Rwanda’s genocide and the conflict of the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ guys. However, he fails to apply the same neutrality when analysing the RPA as he and later Filip Reyntjens[xxv] fail to use Strategic Theory’s neutrality to accuse it and its political wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), of being irrational or ‘bad’ guys for their use of military tactics against genocide military and civilian forces. Proper utilisation of Strategic Theory illustrates how the RPA carried out a strategy using various, including military, tactics to achieve their goal most efficiently.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debate, the accusations of racism still impact its study. With Enlightenment authors such as Immanuel Kant[xxvi] falling within the ‘decolonisation’ movement, will Clausewitz be its next victim? Clausewitz was little different from most of his European contemporaries in having views that would be frowned upon today. Within his existing works, the most problematic of his terms might be the word ‘savage’, which is deployed in juxtaposition to ‘civilised’ peoples. “Savage peoples are ruled by passion, civilised peoples by the mind” is one of Clausewitz’s notable quotations.[xxvii] However, modern interpretations of the words ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ should not be applied to historical figures such as Clausewitz, whose work holds no racial meanings. This is unlike John Keegan, who falls victim to using existing Western narratives embedded in colonial perceptions of African barbarity during conflicts.[xxviii] Despite the earlier comment criticising Strategic Theory as problematic for studying African conflicts, it provides one of the few theoretical tools to study African militaries and tactics without relying on problematic and quasi-racist notions.

Looking through 21st-century language norms, Clausewitz’s comment can be interpreted as deeply prejudiced. Such language is now associated with reinforcing racial stereotypes that sought to differentiate Western notions of civilisation from African barbarism that was common in the age of European imperialism. While Clausewitz might have held racial similarities to almost everyone in the 18th and early 19th centuries, one cannot conclude with any certainty that his description of savage and civilised people was made referencing racial notions. It cannot be stressed enough how Clausewitz used the terms ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ people to describe European militaries, specifically the French, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Is the lack of Strategic Theory in understanding African conflicts something that arises from a perception of institutional racism within Western academia? Does this explain why African researchers rarely use this theoretical framework when studying current wars and conflicts? It does not seem to be a very persuasive answer when there is little evidence to suggest Clausewitz, or any other modern-day strategic theorist has evinced racialised views. Why, then, is the more objective framework of Strategic Theory noticeably absent in the study of African conflicts?

Perhaps the answer can come from the broader lack of understanding of African public policy, strategy and tactics. Rwanda’s genocide is perhaps one of the most researched topics in central Africa. However, the military conflict, the Rwandan Civil War, is relatively unexplored and only a footnote in other events such as the genocide or the Congo Wars. However, it is critical to understand the war’s public policy, strategy and tactics as that, rather than mediated conflict resolution or other peacekeeping mechanisms, ended the massacres. The RPA’s victory on 18 July 1994 over the FAR by capturing the north-western city, and last stronghold of the previous genocidal regime, of Gisenyi officially ended the genocide.[xxix] The RPA held a radically different strategy from 6 April to 18 July than during any point when the war started on 1 October 1990. Previously, the RPA sought to seize power to implement the public policy program of the Eight-Point Programme, which called for social, economic and political changes in Rwanda.[xxx] Once the genocide began, the policy and thus strategy shifted to combating genocide forces. Following Clausewitz’s writings of war consisting of armies submitting their opponent to their will[xxxi], the RPA conducted various tactics to force its opponent, composing the genocide government along with the FAR and genocide combatants, the Interahamwe, to cease the massacres by defeating them in Rwanda and pushing them into neighbouring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Beyond the research on the Rwandan Civil War, previous study on Rwandan foreign affairs, especially during the Congo Wars, illustrates a general absence in the existing literature on why African nations operated specific tactics. The tactics are often studied within these studies rather than examining the nations’ or military actors’ strategic intent. The edited book, The African Stakes of the Congo War, provides rich details into the geopolitical tactics conducted by various actors without a theoretical review of the strategies for why different nations and rebel groups are enacting those tactics.[xxxii] The reasons why Rwanda fought in the Second Congo War were significantly different from its allies of Uganda and Burundi based on other government policies and strategies to combat what they perceived as genocidal actors.[xxxiii] However, missing within the text are the military tactics and strategies of the different actors, such as Rwanda, Uganda, DRC, Zimbabwe and Angola, during the war.

The understanding of strategic intent, political rationale, military alliances, the appreciation of adversarial viewpoints, and so, is at most only hinted at with some materials such as Roessler and Verhoeven[xxxiv] providing glimpses into the strategy and politics behind these tactics. Applying a Strategic Theory frame of reference to appreciate the underlying political and military dynamics of this conflict and others in Africa. It would considerably enhance our understanding of these conflicts by examining the motivations, tactics and strategies of the numerous political and military actors. It also departs from the current analysis that merely views such conflicts as the tragedy of irrational/uncivilised impulses and towards greater ways for constructive international responses.

Theory and Practice

Utilising even the basic foundations of Strategic Theory, such as M.L.R. Smith’s On Efficacy: A Beginner’s Guide to Strategic Theory[xxxv], provides theoretical insights that can help African conflict researchers better understand why conflicts rage for so long. Most African warfare can be understood within the classical works of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and more modern theorists such as Colin Gray, M.L.R. Smith, Thomas Schelling, James J. Wirtz and so on. The central tenant of Strategic Theory examines how states and non-state actors craft their policy and military activities to attain goals and desires. This is often achieved by forming an overall strategy containing various, but usually military, tactics.

This generalised relationship, along with other important concepts such as Schelling’s bargaining and strategic behaviour,[xxxvi] Clausewitz’s trinity of civilians, military commanders and forces, and the government[xxxvii], James Wirtz’s work on intelligence in strategy[xxxviii], and Smith’s description of terrorism tactics within the US-led War on Terrorism[xxxix] provide many insights into warfare and the reasons why actors choose to resort to force to achieve political ends. Despite providing valuable theoretical insights into the rationale underlying the pursuit of goals through armed force, these authors from within the Strategic Theory tradition are rarely deployed to examine African conflict. For instance, exploring the RPA’s rationale and decision-making during the Rwandan Civil War provides insights into understanding military operations such as the 3rd Battalion. This battalion spent much of the war’s final months conducting humanitarian-driven tactics to rescue and secure targeted Rwandans, as these operations fit within the overarching RPA strategy to defeat the genocide-led government. However, genocide researchers often minimalise or ignore the RPA’s strategy and tactics as it does not fit within the research structures found in Genocide Studies.

All too often, as with the Second Congo War, conflicts on the African continent are studied without the theoretical framework and insights provided by Strategic Theory. Beyond examining the rationale for conflict actors, Strategic Theory also contains insights into the decision-making for nations to participate in peacekeeping, a military tactic which Clausewitz might have found, at least on the surface, alien and contradictory to the purpose of war. An example is Rwanda’s contribution to African peacekeeping missions. Danielle Beswick[xl] asserts that the Rwandan contribution to peacekeeping is part of its foreign policy to deflect international criticism by threatening to withdraw its soldiers and police from active missions. While seeming contradictory to the promotion of state security, research on Rwandan peacekeeping illustrates how it fits within a strategy for state and ontological security.[xli] Nevertheless, Rwandan peacekeeping fits as a tactic within Rwanda’s security strategy.

Returning to the Rwandan General, he requested during my next fieldwork visit to Rwanda that I bring him a copy of On War to have in his home’s library. His request still provoked some curiosity about why this high-level Rwandan General wished to have Clausewitz’s book. When asked if he would read it, he responded, “Yes, as his [Clausewitz] lessons are still true today.” This response led to another interesting discussion of one of the primary failings of peacekeeping within Sub-Saharan Africa and how the West often fails to produce constructive policies to end conflicts. He insisted that the lessons of Clausewitz and other Strategic Theorists can help alleviate conflicts as warfare holds little difference whether it be fought in the relatively open plains in eastern Ukraine or the hills of Rwanda during the Civil War. Fundamentally, Strategic Theory provides the necessary theoretical and analytical tools to better understand the military aspects of why African conflicts rage on despite Western efforts such as conflict resolution mechanisms, transitional justice and peacekeeping operations.

Clausewitz’s overall explanation of military strategy and the insights of later Strategic Theorists can promote a more sophisticated comprehension of the Rwandan Civil War and other conflagrations on the African continent. A greater conceptualisation of the causes, rooted in politics and strategy, can assist in providing answers as to why and with what intent political actors on the continent seek to utilise the military instrument to achieve political ends. In this manner, too interested parties from beyond Africa can also gain a more rounded appreciation of the character of such conflicts and the conditions of instability within countries like the DRC, which intentionally or otherwise perpetuates a colonial perception of conflict actors as uncivilised and irrational in the manner that Strategic Theory does not.


The inclusion of Strategic Theory in the study of African conflicts is well warranted despite its current absence. Unlike the accusations against the founders of Securitisation, the failings of Strategic Theory in African conflict studies are not easily rooted in systemic or institutional racism. Instead, it is absent by those who study African conflicts. This relatively short article aims not to provide definite answers to why Strategic Theory should be better incorporated into our study of African conflicts. Instead, it is intended to initiate a debate as to why Strategic Theory is not often utilised in understanding African wars. Additionally, and perhaps more constructive than just criticising the theory, how can it be incorporated into our understanding of past and current African conflicts? The possible outcome is a greater understanding of the underlying reasons for conflicts and how the international community can stop instabilities, such as in eastern DRC and Sudan, from continuing.


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[xi] Withheld to preserve the anonymity of the author.
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[xiii] Withheld to preserve the anonymity of the author.
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[xxx] Reed, Wm Cyrus. "The Rwandan patriotic front: Politics and development in Rwanda." African Issues 23, no. 2 (1995): 48-53.
[xxxi] Clausewitz, On War, 13.
[xxxii] Clark, John F, ed. African stakes of the Congo War. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
[xxxiii] Withheld to preserve the anonymity of the author.
[xxxiv] Roessler, Philip, and Harry Verhoeven. Why comrades go to war: liberation politics and the outbreak of Africa's deadliest conflict. (London: Hurst & Company, 2016).
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[xxxvi] Schelling, Thomas C. The Strategy of Conflict. (New York: Oxford University, 1963).
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[xxxviii] Wirtz, James J. The Tet offensive: intelligence failure in war. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
[xxxix] Smith, M.LR. "Guerrillas in the mist: reassessing strategy and low intensity warfare." Review of International Studies 29, no. 1 (2003): 19-37.
[xl] Beswick, Danielle. "The role of the military in Rwanda: Current dynamics and future prospects," in Rwanda Fast Forward: Social, Economic, Military and Reconciliation Prospects, ed. Maddalena Campioni and Patrick Noack, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012): 249-264.
[xli] Withheld to preserve the anonymity of the author.