The Point of Attack: Where and Why Does Oil Cause Armed Conflict in Africa?


Prominent models argue that belligerents fight to control valuable rents (so-called ``prizes’’), such as oil and other natural resources. Yet, using geo-spatial data on the extraction, storage, and transport of oil, we show that armed groups rarely attack those sites with the most oil above or below ground, oil terminals and wells; only pipelines increase the probability of armed conflict. To explain this finding, we integrate crisis-bargaining with incomplete information and Blotto games: in our model, armed groups attack to steal oil and signal their strength; anticipating the government’s defenses, these groups rarely target the most valuable and heavily fortified sites. Consistent with our new model, we also show that groups strategically randomize where they attack pipelines and that local and export prices for fuel have different effects on violence, because only export prices affect the government’s willingness to buy off would-be attackers. Our findings provide a rare real-world validation of Blotto games: groups fight to capture resources, but the points of attack are often less valuable, softer targets.

Working Paper
Darin Christensen
Darin Christensen
Associate Professor of Public Policy & Political Science

Political scientist interested in conflict and development.