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  • Writer's pictureDiana Chigas, CJL

The role of illicit wealth and power in driving conflict: Six Takeaways

By Diana Chigas, Co-Director, CJL and Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL

Google “what is the relationship between corruption and conflict” and you’ll get a staggering 74 million results. These will include, among others, case studies, macro-level theoretical analyses, correlation analyses between conflict and corruption, literature reviews, qualitative (key informant interview-based) studies, and policy analyses.

Over the past two years, we read through this literature to figure out what useful conclusions we could draw for policy makers and practitioners trying to address conflict effectively. A problem we discovered, however, was that most of the commentary focused on categorizing the ways corruption worsens conflict, rather than analyzing the why and how corrupt practices cause or worsen conflict. The literature, moreover, was replete with broad conclusions like “corruption fuels conflict by undermining the rule of law, worsening poverty, facilitating the illicit use of resources and providing financing for armed conflict.”

While these conclusions are accurate, they are so macro they fail to offer useful insight to what policy makers and practitioners should do about it. And, additionally, the concepts blur in a sea of jargon that leaves readers with little scaffolding for real analysis, program planning, or reflection on their own experience. In other words, lots of platitudes, but little practical insight.

What then do we recommend? Basically, we believe that we need to unpack corruption’s function vis-à-vis conflict dynamics. By doing so, we hope to help elucidate the corruption-conflict connection to better enable practitioners to strategize what to do about it.

To get to ‘why’ first get a more specific 'what'

To better unpack the ‘why,’ we need to be more specific on the ‘what.’ Corruption encompasses a wide range of practices by an equally wide range of actors, and this, some exceptions aside, isn’t generally reflected in the analysis of the relationship between corruption and conflict. As always, our focus is on contexts where corruption is endemic (i.e., it’s the way the system works at all levels), and these places are commonly also fragile and conflict-affected.

Because we want practitioners to have a clear and practical grasp on the role corruption plays in catalyzing conflict, we believe that getting away from using the word “corruption” and instead identifying the specific practices and their function in conflict will provide practitioners with the mental architecture to do just that.

6 key ways illicit wealth and power fuel conflict

Let us offer a proposition about why corrupt practices worsen conflict. In fragile and conflict affected states, political and military power often depends on two things: 1) the ability to access and distribute resources in a way that generates illicit wealth and power, and 2) the ability to rig the system to maintain that exclusive access.

Illicit wealth and power are acquired through bribery, extortion, kickbacks, illicit exploitation of natural resources, embezzlement and other processes that drain government coffers of funds meant to fulfill the state’s obligations to its citizens. This is not an individual, but rather a “team effort,” i.e., it requires networks of people knit together by common interests, identities, loyalties or mutual obligations. Patronage, cronyism, and nepotism, which position members of one’s network in key roles, in exchange for loyalty and/or resources, are thus not only important to aspects of the illicit exercise of power, but also central to acquiring and preserving illicit wealth.

So how do illicit wealth and power drive or prolong conflict?

1. Illicit wealth finances and motivates violence

Illicit wealth can be used to finance war and to support the parties’ conflict agendas. It enables insurgents to buy weapons, vehicles, food and supplies to continue the fighting. It also subverts the state’s gaining a monopoly on use of force and can prolong political instability and violence by funding politicians’ use of private security forces.

Illicit wealth also creates stakes in continuing violence and the war economies that support or result from it. The Nigerian military as part of the ECOMOG peacekeeping force, for example, was accused of egging on the war in Sierra Leone as the military leadership was making so much money through the diamond trade that peace was not in its interest.

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And while Illicit wealth can be used to stabilize or prevent violent conflict by “buying” potential spoilers, it creates financial stakes that make it difficult to address underlying causes of conflict. This locks countries into a “negative peace” which is simply the absence of violence. One need look no further than Bosnia, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where nationalist tensions remain high, and the rate of recruitment to jihadi organizations is among the highest in the world. Nationalist parties’ stakes in the illicit wealth (acquired through exploitation of the privatization process after the war, capture of state assets, ties with criminal groups, and clientelism) have helped to entrench their capture of the state and created a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Elsewhere, as Cheng, Goodhand and Meehan and Le Billon have warned, even when illicit wealth has facilitated the end of armed conflict, it is rarely enough to sustain peace. Rather, it can drive the continuation of or even increase other forms of violence, including criminal violence, sexual and gender-based violence, and one-sided violence by government actors to protect their interests and enhance elites’ power. In Guatemala, for example, alliances between police, military, and criminal groups emerged after the long-running civil war that continued to subject the population to high levels of violence both from the government and the further empowered criminal (especially drug-trafficking) groups. The stability, as Cheng et al. mention, “may be as much about ‘disguising’ violence and reconfiguring who has the ‘right’ to enact violence, upon whom, for what reasons, and with what level of impunity.”

2. Illicit wealth and power fuel grievances that drive conflict

Illicit wealth, power and the associated networks required to obtain it exacerbate grievances between groups or against government. One group’s ability to divert public resources (such as jobs, contracts, economic opportunities) to itself illicitly can enhance its own power at the expense of other groups, entrenching inequality and exclusion (political, social, and economic) which fuel grievances against the government and the dominant group.

When the disparities align with ethnic, religious, ideological, or other significant cleavages, this can be explosive. Insurgents and political entrepreneurs have capitalized upon corruption-fueled grievances of excluded or marginalized groups to recruit people to their cause. This has been dramatically demonstrated in Afghanistan, as well as in the Sahel, where extortion of money (through bribes, illicit taxes and ‘fees’’ for land use, etc.) by local and national officials and courts has perpetuated land conflicts and undermined pastoralists’ livelihoods, making an increasingly marginalized and abused rural Fulani population more receptive to jihadist messages.

"Because we want practitioners to have a clear and practical grasp on the role corruption plays in catalyzing conflict, we believe that getting away from using the word “corruption” and instead identifying the specific practices and their function in conflict will provide practitioners with the mental architecture to do just that."

It isn’t necessarily the corrupt practices that causes the grievances, but the sense of injustice and resentment that the other side is obtaining unfair advantage. We have seen minority groups in Central African Republic and elsewhere complain that they are targeted for bribes more frequently and for higher amounts than the majority group. Somewhat counterintuitively, unfair advantage includes one party getting more “spoils” than another through corrupt practices. In Kenya in 2007, for example, an estimated 1,100 were killed and 350,000 displaced when ethnic groups believing it was “their time to eat” protested what they thought was a manipulated election. This sense of discrimination and victimization (and not necessarily the corrupt acts themselves) breeds resentment that can exacerbate inter-group tensions.

3. Illicit wealth and power undermine state legitimacy and capacity

The lack of basic service provision in many places results from the pursuit of illicit wealth and power. This commonly results from the diversion of state resources intended for public services coupled with incompetence induced by nepotism and cronyism in government employment and procurement. A state with no social safety net creates a level of scarcity and uncertainty that binds ‘in-groups’ together – making group, not state, advancement of paramount importance.

The inability to deliver base services also diminishes trust in state institutions and erodes citizens’ sense of the legitimacy of their government. This is exacerbated when government officials extract illicit resources in their interactions with citizens while also fueling a sense of grievance against the state. While not necessarily leading directly to conflict or instability, this can play into the hands of non-state armed groups which provide surrogate structures and services. And combined with real or perceived government undue advancement or profiteering by one group at the expense of another, it can fuel inter-group hostility and lead to violence.

4. Illicit wealth weakens the state’s ability to provide security

The siphoning off of money and assets as illicit wealth compromises states’ ability to protect their citizens from threats like violent extremism, organized crime and international threats. The toll of corruption on the Afghan military—from ghost soldiers, commanders stealing soldiers’ salaries, cronyism and fraud in procurement contracts and government militia leaders accepting payments from the Taliban—is well-known. TI Defense has documented similar dynamics in the Nigerian military’s efforts against Boko Haram, in the Iraqi army’s 2014 routing by ISIS in Mosul, and in the Malian army’s inability to restore security and the resulting delegitimization of the government—with similar corrupt practices leaving soldiers ill-equipped and unmotivated to fight despite large military budgets.

And the war in Ukraine has highlighted the security threat posed by ‘strategic corruption’—one country’s weaponization of corruption against other states—involving, for example, illicit (even if not illegal) financing of political parties, money laundering, and building of networks for illicit influence. These tactics are used to compromise the political stability and defense capabilities of target countries, creating dependencies between key actors in the west and the fortunes of Russian oligarchs to influence policy and undermine people’s trust in their governments.

"Corruption encompasses a wide range of practices by an equally wide range of actors, and this, some exceptions aside, isn’t generally reflected in the analysis of the relationship between corruption and conflict."

5. Illicit wealth and power entrench impunity

Illicit wealth and power buy impunity, which protects these actors’ access to more illicit wealth and power. With the right bribe or phone call from the right leader, a judge may acquit an individual accused of human rights violations, or the prosecutor might “lose” evidence required for the case. Likewise, for a price, police might turn a blind eye to criminal acts or allow the accused to avoid justice by escaping out of the country.

Impunity is not only a significant grievance of people in conflict-affected contexts, but also undermines trust in the state to mediate disputes, increasing incentives to resort to violence. It also provides fertile ground for criminal organizations and continues to threaten security and safety even in “peacetime” contexts with weak rule of law.

6. Illicit wealth and power undermine inter-group social trust and relationships

By fueling grievances and undermining the legitimacy of the state, the pursuit of illicit wealth and power destroys social cohesion—both trust in the state and in institutional processes (including the peace process) and trust and cooperation between groups. Illicit wealth and power are often pursued and distributed within networks that align with conflict divisions (e.g., within ethnic groups, clans, ideological allies, religious groups, region, etc.). This strengthens the importance of in-group bonds and trust for survival and advancement and hinders the kind of inter-group relationship, cooperation and trust-building that is necessary build peace.


To summarize, the acquisition and use of illicit wealth and power drive grievances between groups, provide the resources of war to fight, and exacerbate existing divisions, while simultaneously strengthening terrorist organizations’ recruitment abilities and criminal networks’ entrenchment and operating profits. This is all kept in place by the use of the same wealth and power to guarantee impunity; it is the perfect vicious cycle. That is not all—the conflict that is nourished by corruption, in turn adapts and feeds further corrupt practices. And that is the subject of our next blog.


Diana is a Co-Director at The Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program. She is the Senior International Officer and Associate Provost at Tufts University and a Professor of the Practice of International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations on systemic conflict analysis, and strategic planning, reflection and evaluation to improve the impact of peace programming.

Diana has over 25 years of experience as a facilitator and consultant in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as an advisor and evaluator of social change programming in conflict-affected countries, including in the Balkans, East Africa, South Africa, El Salvador, and Cyprus, as well as with organizations such as the OSCE and the United Nations. Diana has received her JD from Harvard Law School and MALD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.


Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is a scholar-practitioner with a lifelong interest in governance processes that have run amuck. She has significant experience working on peacebuilding, governance, accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. For fifteen years, Cheyanne taught program design, monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts at the Fletcher School. Prior to that she was the Director of Evaluation for Search for Common Ground and Director of Policy at INCORE. She has had the privilege of working in an advisory capacity with a range of organizations such as ABA/ROLI, CDA, ICRC, IDRC, UN Peacebuilding Fund and the US State Department. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Besa Global, CJL’s host institution. She can be commonly found in the Canadian Rockies with her fierce daughters and gem of a husband.


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