Recent years have seen an upsurge in the numbers of studies investigating the potential link between climate variability and conflict—and particularly so quantitative studies of this relationship—without reaching any consensus on causal pathways or main findings. This study sets out to explore what the main causes of conflict between resource-user groups in arid and semi-arid areas in Sub-Saharan Africa are, with a particular focus on renewable-resource scarcity. We conduct a comparative analysis of eleven high-quality case studies of the escalation into violence of disputes between pastoralists and farmers or pastoralists in the Western Sahel and East Africa. This enables us to identify the mechanisms underpinning the actors’ motivations. Our analysis shows that the nature of these conflicts is complex. They cannot be reduced to a stimulus (resource scarcity)–response (violence) relationship. We find that drought is a contributing factor in four of the conflicts, and that a poor rainy season plays a role in a fifth one. However, resource scarcity is never the most important cause and it does not explain well the differences in conflict intensity. The most important contributor to explaining different levels of intensity is when local autochthonous and exclusionary claims are coupled with national-level political processes.