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Archive for April, 2012

Yesterday the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Charles Taylor guilty of aiding the RUF during the Sierra Leonean Civil War. The court case that has taken five years is the last of a court that has previously sentenced 9 Sierra Leonean rebel and military leaders with long prison sentences. Taylor has 14 days to appeal and his sentence should be given on May 30.

Not too long ago I was in a Monrovian bar owned by a friend of mine. I complained about a drink where they used American ginger beer instead of making their own “local” version. Local ginger beer is a sweet, nice and affable drink compared to its unpleasant American brother. Nothing comes out of complaining so instead I arranged with the barman that he should buy some ginger and lime and we would meet before opening the following day. So we did and together we made ginger beer and with the skills of the barman created a very tasty drink. We named it CT after Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor was often nicknamed ginger because of his light skin. I hope that costumers ordering a CT do understand that it is an irony – the name was not given to celebrate Charles Taylor, but as a comment on the enigmatic presence of Charles Taylor in Liberia close to ten years after he left the country in 2003.

During the heydays of Taylor, but I would say less today, Liberians used the word “wicked” in almost every sentence. Everything was “wicked”. You could be wicked in the ordinary negative sense, but to show appreciation for a new pop song people would typically say “e wicke”. I would describe Taylor with this ambivalence. Nobody would deny that Taylor was a WICKED man; responsible for nightmarish atrocities, systematic killing, extreme destruction of infrastructure and looting of property. Outlandish was the fear that many people felt for him and his security forces at the time when I lived in the country 1997-98. Still many thought he was a rightful leader. He was strong and controlled people, he took good care of his “pepper bush” – his people; he was wicked with ambivalence. People were getting more than a bit tired of him when the war started anew, but when he was forced into exile in 2003 by a combination of LURD/MODEL military pressure and pressures from the international community, and subsequently brought to court in Sierra Leone in 2006, many Liberians started to view him as a hero, someone who stood up against what they perceive as an international conspiracy.

We need to have this ambivalence in mind now when Taylor is going down. Yesterday I got this report from Ilmari Käihkö a doctoral student of mine that is currently in Monrovia for fieldwork:

The night before the Taylor verdict came out was calm in Monrovia. Some members of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party held a meeting, but my informants could not positively confirm whether this was connected to the verdict or not. Long after nightfall a loudspeaker car was touring the suburbs, broadcasting a message that Taylor is innocent and a victim of an international conspiracy. I woke up twice to this message, but have heard it a hundred times since I came to Liberia almost two months ago.

There is something paradoxical about how the people I’ve met here and the people abroad think about the former president Taylor and the incumbent president Sirleaf. Whereas Sirleaf enjoys broad international support, her support among the Liberian grassroots is meager. The situation for Taylor is exactly the opposite. If he could have participated in the November presidential elections he would have won by a landslide. The fact that even most of the rebels from LURD and MODEL factions – who fought against Taylor in the second Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003 – state that they have nothing against the man and that they would like him to be freed. Before coming to Liberia I had no idea that this was the case.

Of course not everyone likes Taylor, and even many that like him privately said before the verdict came out that they hope that he would not be freed. After the verdict came out a rainbow was sighted above Monrovia. While far from an uncommon sight above the capital city after it has rained, some thought that this was a sign from god: some suggested that perhaps the higher power was happy of the verdict? But others pointed out that a rainbow also appeared at the time when President Tolbert was executed in 1980. (Monrovia, April 26, 2012).

Even the rainbow is ambivalent. I also think that people within the old pepper bush of Taylor have this ambivalent feeling; on the one hand they know that they have lost their Big Man, but on the other hand their waiting is over. Now they need no longer to fear their leader’s return, now they can go ahead with their business. And indeed some of the strongmen under Taylor are sitting on a lot of his money. With Taylor in safekeeping they are now free to spend their wealth in ways which they themselves like. In the same way some strongmen have not really showed political color out of fear, but this may very well happen now. Most Liberians whether in support of Taylor or not will now be relieved. That Taylor will not return to Liberian soil is certainly a step towards improved stability. If he would have been released on the other hand the ground would again have started to shake.

So we talk about Liberia, but the court ruling was for war crimes in Sierra Leone. What does the verdict mean for this country? I lived in Freetown between 2004 and 2006. People constantly talked about the Special Court for Sierra Leone as a waste of money. They were not very impressed with this version of justice. And of course it was hard to establish its significance in the country after the disappearance of AFRC leader JP Koroma, and the deaths of RUF leader Foday Sankoh and CDF leader Hinga Norman. The nine others arrested and subsequently sentenced to long prison terms were of less importance. For the SC-SL the high profile case of Charles Taylor was a way of establishing their significance. When Taylor was caught in Nigeria and brought to court he was briefly taken to Sierra Leone and the SC-SL complex in Freetown before transferred to the Hague. It was seen as a security risk to keep him in Freetown (and evil voices says that the Western lawyers at the court did not look forward spending another few years in Freetown). Taylor’s brief stay in Freetown rendered some interest by Sierra Leoneans who wanted to catch a glimpse of that strong leader, but it is rather clear that most Sierra Leoneans have had problems to see the link between Taylor and the Sierra Leone war as significant enough. Indeed most would state the obvious that ties were close between Taylor and the RUF, but that he would be amongst those most responsible for the war in the country has been hard to grasp or believe for a majority of the population. It is questionable if the verdict against Taylor will change this.

So although many Sierra Leoneans will think that the region is slightly safer without Taylor they will, if they do, celebrate yesterday’s verdict because the SC-SL have helped them to rewrite their own history and because it is much easier to cast the blame on somebody outside their own society (I think the scattered reports of positive responses accounts for that). In the mean time the court case against Taylor have since 2006 up until today cost somewhere between 30 and 40 million US dollars annually. I can’t count how many Sierra Leoneans who were enraged over the high costs of the SC-SL. The court was in the minds of the people a symbol of how Western aid money was misappropriated. Why was it not combined with an effort to strengthen the Sierra Leonean legal system, why was it put up as a parallel structure to the Sierra Leone courts? Well when the court now closes some of these questions will rest, and with Taylor locked up Sierra Leoneans and Liberians can sleep a little better at night.

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The absurd photos of the Swedish Minister of Culture feeding a cake/victim with its own genitals after first having had it ritually circumcised. The “white” and middle aged audience is all smiles.

It has been all over Swedish and international media during last week and although often discussed in quite confusing and contradictory terms I still think there are some good pieces debating the event. They do a much better work than I would do and I therefore give you my favorite links rather than discussing it myself. Two things are certain: first the images cabled out has spurred a much needed debate on race and racism in Sweden, and secondly despite its original intention the golliwog cake has so far not provoked much discussion on FGM in Africa as it originally intended to do.

The first text I recommend is written by Johan Palme and published by the always interesting Africa is a country site.

http://africasacountry.com/2012/04/18/swedish-cake/

The second is written by the brilliant Kenyan artist/activist Shaijla Patel and published by important Pambazuka News.

http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/81491

For those who read Swedish I also recommend a text by the author Stefan Jonsson in Dagens Nyheter (In Swedish)

http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/debatt-essa/tartan-satte-vardagsrasismen-i-dagern

Finally the artist Makode Linde explains his piece of art in a debate article in Aftonbladet (In Swedish)

http://www.aftonbladet.se/debatt/article14700358.ab

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One of the fascinating things with a society like the Liberian is that with quite little effort you can meet with people all the way up in the hierarchies. This goes for former rebel groups as well. Some of the top brass officers did not shy away from meeting us in Monrovia. In Grand Gedeh it proved a bit more difficult.  Allegations of training camps, where old and new soldiers were supposedly gathering to prepare for incursions in either Liberia or neighboring Ivory Cost had recently led to the arrests of some former MODEL people. Even if nobody seemed to really know which country was meant to be targeted, everybody knew and talked about it when we reached to Zwedru, the county capital of Grand Gedeh. Obviously it made former generals slightly apprehensive talking to us. Some even said that when they heard that we were looking for them they initially ran away because of fear. In their eyes a European researcher is likely to be connected to the Liberian government, at least from their perspective both appear equally remote and intruding. However after entering into conversation and when we were given time to explain ourselves most let go of their doubts. One thing however that they really wanted us to highlight was that there are no training camps in Grand Gedeh and, for rather obvious reasons, there is no need to train for already trained and seasoned rebel soldiers. Having heard ample training camp rumors before, for instance in Sierra Leone, and knowing how soldiers are mobilized into rebel armies, I agree with them, camps is if anything an obstacle for efficient mobilization of troops in a semi-policed setting like Grand Gedeh, unless the government itself has their stake in it. The presence of camps in Grand Gedeh today is highly unlikely. Yet one should be reminded of the volatile situation on the Ivorian side of the border and from the Liberian side small armed groups have crossed the border into Ivory Coast and attacked villages. Such cross-border attacks are however extremely rare and also most surely appear in isolation.

We spent a quite short time in Grand Gedeh and what we experienced there is in no way confirmed research findings, although they fit quite well with research that we have done elsewhere in Liberia and also with our past research experience. The fine thing is that Ilmari, our new PhD student, will stay in the county up until October and will gather much more precise and deeper data for our study. However I will go through a few preliminary findings here below. A first issue concerns the very definition of a general. General as used in Grand Gedeh is an emic category comprising of rebel commanders from middle to high rank (and our research project is predominantly concerned with mid-level commanders – MiLCs). A second issue is who is portrayed as a general and who is not in the post-war. It is clear from our enquiries that some generals are no longer labeled “general” because they work for NGOs and other formal business enterprises and arduously try to dissociate themselves from their war identities. So today many of the generals still labeled generals are the people “just sitting down”, as they would typically say – those not formally working, yet very much having informal forms of subsistence. We did not start to investigate the roles of the generals no longer called generals, but it is important not to forget the number of integrated and formally successful ones, if we are to understand the post-war roles of former generals.

Some of the generals we met in Zwedru were chiefly involved in subsistence farming on their own farms around the city. They were quite negative about their future prospects and often in quite bad shape. Others were still clinging onto their military networks and the money and status which could be squeezed out from activities their former soldiers could do as well as trying to hustle the top brass of MODEL and a variety of politicians. Yet there were examples of generals who had constructed houses and were still in good business, but they were quite often not residing in Zwedru. One of the previous leading generals of MODEL told us, with a smile, that he in fact went to the capital to hide because he could not deal with the expectations of his former soldiers in Zwedru.

In rural Grand Gedeh it is quite clear that most generals are back on their farms. We visited one former general on the farm itself, where he and his sons where “brushing”. He told us that he had very limited contact with his former soldiers who had returned home to their villages around Grand Gedeh and well beyond. As there is no mobile network in his area they could not call each other. When he travelled to Zwedru or elsewhere he might meet them, or if they passed his village they would stop by for a visit. Although farming can be labor intensive at times it would be too expensive to have former soldiers hanging around to do this kind of work and he and other generals farming their land would have more obstacles than benefits maintaining such networks. In fact farming labor is not in short supply and it is easier and more cost efficient to get help from school children and others residing in the village. Due to small sizes of towns with face to face knowledge of each other, trust works rather well and there is thus limited needs for old command structures and military knowledge to stay in control as in other trades.

This is entirely different in gold camps where command structures are much of an advantage. Scattered around Grand Gedeh there are now, partly due to the internationally high gold prices, numerous gold camps. Gold comes in dust form and can be found virtually everywhere. In one gold camp a resident told us that even when sweeping the ground outside the house they would find gold dust. Gravel is dug in the forest and transported to nearby rivers to be washed. During our brief visit to a river we saw a young boy first washing and subsequently drying out gold to what was estimated to be close to a gram. At a buying center they showed us several grams of gold, but it is very hard to estimate the amount of gold mined in the area. In the camps there are, like in all mining areas, a high percentage of young men, but few females and families. Here people live in temporary social constellations with a great flow and change of people. It is crucial that pit-owners have control over people in other ways and command structures are particularly well-suited for this it appears. Some generals head mining operations themselves. One former general pointed out that approximately 75% of the boys working for him were his former men. So opposite to small-scale farming, in gold areas former command structures, often, but not always, under command of a former general are in demand and the virtual informality of the camp makes such structures thrive. The labor intensity and the control over large work forces also makes these structures work fine here as well as they do in many plantations across the country (as for instance pointed out by Mariam Persson, a doctoral student at King’s College in London, in a very interesting chapter in the book that I presented on the blog the other day). Furthermore the anonymity of being among strangers as well as the high number of ex-combatants around them makes things easier. In the camp there was a mix of MODEL, LURD and NPFL/ex-GOL fighters that, according to the people we talked to, lived side by side without any problems.

Although we are still in an early phase of the study and have in no way systematically gone through all data we have gathered we have some indications that command structures are seen as assets in mining and plantation areas and to some extent to certain types of business, i.e. security work and political campaigning in Monrovia. Yet in others areas there is little practical use, such as in small scale farming. Following from this a crucial question is whether generals who are still in charge over command structures are a threat to national and local security. There are a few indications that generals and others are using military structures as protection rackets, but other than that there is little demonstrating that such military structures are in itself a threat. As of current the only volatile situation where command structures have been used to organize violence was around the elections and at that time it was only

  because politicians actively organized ex-combatants with the aid of former generals.

From stair case in Water street, Monrovia 2012

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 A book that I edited was released by Zed books about a month ago – have been too busy posting anything about it, but here is a link. There are great chapters by equally great researchers. Hope it will interest some of you!  

http://zedbooks.co.uk/paperback/african-conflicts-and-informal-power

My introduction is also available in full length at:

 http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:nai:diva-1520

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As I have written previously, informed by my previous trip at the time of the elections in October/November last year, the situation after the CDC boycott of the second round of elections, where UP subsequently won a comfortable victory, has in Monrovia been quite tense. Returning in late March it is good to see that people now, a few months down the road, are getting on with their ordinary lives again (but democratic elections has such an impasse on Liberia arresting most activities within the state for a timeframe of close to six months and thus have considerable impact on the national economy). Although I personally felt that CDC made some very irresponsible and strategically bad moves, especially the boycott of the runoff, they still remain much popular, maybe even more today, amongst ordinary people. The main reason for CDC coming out strong is that they are viewed as the party opposed to the resource-grabbing and wealth-keeping UP government.

In Monrovia we meet with some of the key Generals (many of NPFL origin) who were present at the CDC headquarters during the demonstration that turned into a riot on November 7 (the day before the runoff). Their version is that they had little option other than confrontation. Even if other witnesses present at the compound states that some were preparing Molotov cocktails, the generals state that unarmed they met an intruding police force and that they merely shielded their leaders. One of the lead generals of November 7, protected with magic, is said to have blocked bullets from the police (this kind of magic protection was common during the civil war). Unarmed they could not do much harm to the police, yet in their version they would have intensified resistance were it not for the CDC political leadership ordering them to back down. According to them, most generals together with other supports slipped out the back and ran down to the beach. They thus state that they were not part of the looting that took place on the road. On the beach several more CDC supporters were allegedly shot by the police. The bodies have never been found – but many observers believe that more than one person was killed and suggest that bodies of others were immediately buried on the beach.

A qualified guess would be that the boycott, the riot and subsequent threats of further violence which for some time appeared as a peril to national security would alienate supporters from the party, but it appears rather that the lead CDC narrative to the common man was that of a political party under attack – forced to defend itself (i.e. the narrative of the generals is the same as the one of the CDC supporters). These incidents and the problems within the party appear on the contrary not to have destroyed people’s trust in the party as CDC still remains the electable underdog. Although the riots are only partially blamed on the police and other instances of state failure there is also a greater critique of the state and the incumbent political party that feeds into CDC support.

CDC complained about fraud in the first round of the election, but presented scant proof of it. Still many people are hesitant to trust the UP politicians in power and widely believe there were real inconsistencies in the election. This is voiced out in street corners but also in popular songs such as “Monkey come down” were the singer states that the election was not an election but a selection. It is hard to know how much substance such ideas rests upon, but we at least have some indications of injustice in the process. An election monitor in Grand Gedeh observed ballot box stuffing during the runoff. During the first round CDC had a clear majority of the votes in a particular town, but due to the CDC boycott few voters appeared at the polling centre for the runoff on month later. However in the late afternoon on the day of the election the word came from the superintendent’s office that they needed to put in more votes. UP got a lot of votes at this particular location. Although this could be a mere anecdote it is interesting to compare it with the data from National Election Commission (www.necliberia.org). In Ziah town, the town the election monitor talked about, approximately 80% voted for CDC in the first round. Out of 955 votes UP got only 68 votes. However in the runoff UP received 590 votes out of a total 644. It is quite unlikely that such a number of voters would turn around and vote for UP. It is also interesting to note that the number of votes remained so high in this area, as in many places in the county only one out of ten who voted in the first round turned up at the runoff. In Ziah town it was 2 out of three. Also knowing the sentiments of people in the area makes such a dramatic change to the UP very hard to believe. I will also take a second example of ward pp01 in Zai where 166 people voted in the first round and only 19 of them laid their vote on UP. In the runoff 159 people voted, which is almost as many as in the first round, and 153 of them on UP (the rest were found invalid). So in this ward almost all voters should not only have disobeyed the boycott from the party the preferred in the first round, but they also voted in the complete opposite direction in the runoff. In the other four election wards the number of voters dropped to a tenth compared to the first round. I think these figures speak for themselves.

The problem is not just mathematical, UP would most probably have won anyway, but it is about trust and perception of the state. If people who reside in the margins of the state and also in the margins of the national economy consider elections as nothing more than a selection theater orchestrated by an urban elite (and remember that Liberia has a long tradition of such “selective elections” then not just the national project, but also post-conflict reconciliation stands on shaky feet. I don’t think that Grand Gedehians at this point think about revenge and grabbing power through another civil war, but the grudge that flawed elections feed certainly add to negative feelings about the state and also about the global democratic project. It is stored in the local memory bank for events to come. There is also another worrying issue and that is based on the fact that the incumbent UP government was already aware that they would win the presidential election. So why would they bother tampering with the local results? One answer could be that this was a display of power, where UP politicians showed the population that they are in the position of manipulating elections result whenever they feel like it. For obvious reasons this answer is rather disturbing.

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“Look there is a general”, shouts our assistant, and we all get out of the car to extend greetings with a rather surprised former general with mild looking eyes. We are in Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh County in Eastern Liberia, for a few days doing research former commanders and their roles in the post-war and former generals of MODEL are not too hard to find in Zwedru. However they are afraid to talk as it has been rumored for some time that there are training camps in the county and the police have arrested some former combatants allegedly have something to do with that. “But why should we train?” some former generals ask, “we are already properly trained”. Last year’s election in Liberia created some tensions in the country, between the ruling UP party and the oppositional party CDC. Grand Gedeh is a CDC stronghold. Grand Gedehians also point out that they were loyal and militarily active in pushing Charles Taylor and his regime out of the country but have not received any thanks and benefits from the current government. Their county remains very much marginal in Liberian politics as well as economy. To make the situation more delicate many inhabitants spent long stints of the war years on the other side of the border in Côte d’Ivoire (C.I.) or have relatives there. The change of government in C.I., a government that many Grand Gedehians supported, meant that both Liberians and Ivoirians residing on the Ivorian side had to run away from property and livelihood to take refuge on Liberian territory. Today they say that Burkinabes, but in reality it is people from the north of C.I, have taken over the prosperous plantation economy in C.I., whilst about 69.000 refugees of Ivorian origin and a large but unknown number of Liberians were forced into Liberia. This is naturally creating tension. These are some of the topics that I intend to publish on my blog over the next few days. Findings are temporary and originate from my last research trip in Liberia.

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