Archive for May, 2012

Reinventing Kony

When the Kony 2012 thing got worldwide attention I was too busy with other issues to start to write something. Yet I had many discussions with friends and acquaintances who had never shown any interest for Africa before. Who was this wicked man Kony and what did he really want? That was the most common questions. It sadly enough echoed ideas of Africa as the heart of darkness. But what puzzled me most was rather why now? At a point where Kony and his LRA were fewer and less of a threat than ever, why would the video clip from Invisible Children render this kind of attention? For the past few years I have taught African studies and African Anthropology at Uppsala University. One of my students’ favorite guest lecturers has been my former colleague Sverker Finnström. His book Living with bad surroundings (Duke 2008) is one of the best accounts on Northern Uganda and the LRA. For the past few years Sverker has in our class used video clips produced by Invisible Children to show how wrong ill-contextualized visual stuff can lead us. And it really can! I have elsewhere introduced the term Jackass journalism (in Swedish only) for journalists spending more time contextualizing, with any means of exaggeration available, themselves in super-dangerous places than making sense of something, and to my mind Invisible Children plays in the same league – can we call them a Jackass NGO?

Instead of furthering my own analysis on the topic I will give you some links to where Sverker has been writing:

’Kony 2012’ är en språngbräda för USA:s militär

 and translated into English:

“Kony 2012″ Is a Springboard for the US Military

another text:

“KONY 2012” and the Magic of International Relations

Sverker is also a contributor to the site Making sense of Kony

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by Gerhard Anders, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

Representatives of international organizations, humanitarian NGOs and Western governments have hailed the guilty verdict against Charles Taylor as an important milestone in the global fight against impunity. With this judgement the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established in 2002 at the request of the government of Sierra Leone, concludes the international effort to hold accountable those ‘bearing greatest responsibility’ for war crimes committed between November 1996 and 2002 in Sierra Leone. In the streets of Freetown, most people greeted the news of the judgement with an indifferent shrug whilst critical voices where heard in parts of neighbouring Liberia. In contrast to the self-congratulatory praise by humanitarian activists and Western governments, people in Sierra Leone and Liberia hold much more differentiated views on the trial against Charles Taylor. To a large degree these are shaped by the current political and economic situation in both countries.

Mixed feelings in Sierra Leone

The guests who followed the live stream from The Hague in the court’s compound in Freetown’s New England neighbourhood expressed their satisfaction but even their reaction was restrained. Many did not fully realize what the judgement actually meant as the sentencing will take place end of May. Among the guests invited by the Special Court’s outreach section were about 50 Paramount Chiefs from all parts of Sierra Leone, civil society activists and representatives of victims’ associations. But there were also ordinary Freetownians such as the bank employee who came ‘to bear witness to the conclusion’ or the teacher who stated that the judges had convinced him in spite of his doubts about the fairness of the trial. Unlike the other three trials heard before the Special Court, the trial against Taylor had been moved to The Hague – Court officials and the UN Security Council were concerned that a trial in Freetown could destabilize the fragile peace in the region.

In the streets of Freetown people’s indifference was even more palpable, many had not heard about the judgement and did not show much interest. The principal concern of most Sierra Leoneans is survival. The country has been hit hard by the global economic recession and in Freetown frequent power cuts and long queues at filling stations are the order of the day. Prices for basic foodstuffs and fuel have soared. The grinding poverty of most is at odds with the considerable foreign investments in the mining sector and employment opportunities provided by mining companies but these have remained limited to a few parts of the country. The regional distribution of wealth and government spending will be one of the main issues in the run-up to the elections in November. Although Ernest Bai Koroma has little to fear from the opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio, a former member of the military National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), the upcoming elections are hotly debated and characterized by the ever present Temne-Mende rivalry and regional factionalism. These current concerns eclipse the trials heard before the Special Court. Already during the run-up to the previous elections in 2007 most people had lost interest in the trials that had been dragging on since 2004.

Public opinion in Sierra Leone is highly critical of the Special Court’s form of retributive justice. From their perspective the court is a waste of money. They argue that the US $ 200 million spent on the court could have been used to build roads, hospitals or schools. In a country where most people suffer from abject poverty it is difficult to understand why so much money was spent on the prosecution of ten individuals rather than compensating the victims. Another common criticism is the length of the trials at four to five years in average. Sierra Leoneans are by no means the only ones who criticize the extraordinary length of international war crimes trials. In a report published in 2006, the former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia highlights the same problem and many critics argue that the long duration of the trials undermines the credibility of international criminal justice.

However, this critique of the Special Court and the indifferent reactions should not imply that people in Sierra Leone do not welcome the guilty verdict against Taylor. Many are convinced that Charles Taylor, then the leader of a motley rebel group in neighbouring Liberia, ‘brought the war’ to Sierra Leone in 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched their first attacks on eastern Sierra Leone from Liberia. This view was partly confirmed by the judges who concluded that Taylor had provided arms and ammunition as well as moral, political, logistical and financial support to the RUF although they rejected the prosecution’s theory that he exercised command and control over Foday Sankoh and the leaders of the RUF. According to the judges, he increased this support during the late 1990s, when he and the RUF’s military leader Sam Maskita Bockarie planned the attack on the diamond-rich eastern part of Sierra Leone and Freetown.

This finding is almost certain to be challenged by the defence in an appeal to the court’s Appeals Chamber as they denied all direct involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. During the trial, Taylor’s defence lawyers argued that he only got involved in negotiations with the RUF after he was elected president of Liberia in 1997. In this capacity Taylor only got involved in the Sierra Leonean crisis to broker a peace agreement under the aegis of regional body ECOWAS. The judges rejected this view in unequivocal words. They concluded that Taylor’s public involvement in the peace process only served to disguise his real intentions.

Ambivalent reactions in Liberia

The guardedly positive reactions to the judgement in Sierra Leone are in contrast to the responses in Liberia, where Taylor’s popularity remains unbroken. His populist flamboyant style and generosity but also his provocations of the USA won him the admiration of many Liberians who have an ambivalent relationship with Liberia’s mighty patron. On the one hand, Liberians look up to the USA and, on the other hand, they suffer from a national minority complex because of the US indifference towards its ‘slave-child’, as Taylor put it during his testimony in July 2009.

In Monrovia, Gbarnga and Nimba County, where Taylor enjoys most popularity, there were some calls for prayers for his release from prison before the judgement and heated debates on the reasons for his conviction and speculations on the length of the sentence. A representative of the National Patriotic Party (NPP), Taylor’s former party, expressed his disappointment. He and other supporters had expected Taylor to be acquitted. From their perspective, Taylor is the victim of a US-led conspiracy and the trial against him a political manoeuvre to remove him from Liberia’s political scene. The NPP-representative cited the statement made by Courtenay Griffiths, Taylor’s British barrister, in a press conference after the judgement who criticized international criminal justice for employing double standards, concentrating exclusively on Africans whilst the US enjoyed impunity for war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His view is shared by many people in Gbarnga, Taylor’s headquarter during the first civil war, who also have good memories of low prices and a thriving local economy. To them it does not matter that this was partly based on illegal deals with shady businessmen who extracted timber and other natural resources, sometimes supplying arms in return. Above all, however, Taylor, ever ostentatious and eloquent, gave them grand promises of liberation and wealth that never materialized. It is striking though that his empty promises did not diminish his popularity. At a palm wine station close to the NPP headquarter in Gbarnga youths express their anger that their president is in detention for crimes not even committed in Liberia but in neighbouring Sierra Leone. In Liberia, they point out, all factions committed crimes. To them, it is unfair to single out one individual for prosecution while the other warlords and political leaders not only go scot-free but dominate Liberia’s politics and enrich themselves. These angry young men say that now, after Taylor’s conviction, the members of the elite who were deeply involved in the war should be held accountable. However, this is unlikely, as they readily admit, since no one in the government or the legislature is keen to open this Pandora’s box.

The politicians’ reluctance to discuss criminal prosecutions of perpetrators of crimes committed during the civil wars is shared by many Liberians who prefer to forget the past and concentrate on rebuilding their livelihoods. Generally, there is a widespread fear that criminal trials would result in divisions and the ‘pay back attitude’, which fuelled the war during the 1990s. This is in contrast with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that include criminal trials against a number of former warlords and a list of prominent Liberians who should be banned from political office for 30 years because of their involvement in the war. The fact that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who once provided financial support to Taylor, is on this list further stifles the government’s enthusiasm for implementing the recommendations of the TRC. The TRC had lost much of its credibility when it became embroiled in bitter in-fights between several commissioners and the chairman Jerome Verdier, who is said to have had his own political agenda. Former warlords like the current Senior Senator for Nimba County, Prince Johnson, who had gained notoriety for the murder of Samuel Doe in 1990, launched a vigorous campaign against the recommendations of the TRC in 2009 uttering thinly veiled threats of violence.

Taylor’s permanent removal from Liberia has not changed the current limbo of the debate about Liberia’s violent past. Liberians who criticize his trial have a keen sense of the counterproductive effect his conviction for crimes committed in Sierra Leone is bound to have on attempts to come to terms with crimes committed in Liberia. It is highly unlikely that the international community has much appetite for another expensive and lengthy exercise in transitional justice.

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Youths hanging out in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo: Mats Utas



Two tales from Freetown, Sierra Leone, drawn from my two years of fieldwork there illustrates how marginalized men are often regarded as youths if they aren’t married or have no proper jobs, no matter what their actual age.

Justice, I call him so because he is obsessed with justice, or maybe rather the lack of it in current day Sierra Leone. Justice quite often comes down to the street corner with minor bruises and scratch marks in his face or on his arms. People tend to laugh at him because it is his girlfriend doing this damage to him. She is a few years younger than Justice, who is in his mid-twenties. Justice is a typical Freetown street-dweller, although not one of the poorest as he, at least, has a roof over his head. His girlfriend is a prostitute that we hardly see, but we talk about her quite often. Justice does not want her to ply the streets at night, but when he tries to force her to stay home at night she fights him. It is not easy to keep a girlfriend if you are poor he says. Among the young men in the street corner we talk a lot about this. Many say they cannot afford to keep a girlfriend at all and furthermore knows that if someone with more economic leverage comes a long one’s girlfriend is frequently lost without battle. They also talk about the humiliating and unsettling fact that if they have a girlfriend she is most often a prostitute. It is painful to share your girlfriend with other men they all agree upon. To make things worse such girlfriends also have more money than them a fact that helps to turn traditional gender roles upside down, making the young men in the street corner into dependents. With reference to this, those in the street corner who fought in the Sierra Leonean civil war often dream about the days of the war when they “controlled” their girlfriends and frequently could afford to entertain several at the same time. Today however they have been remarginalized into what they see as a chronic state of youthhood.

Sixties, his name stems from the fact that he likes to wear clothes from that era, is around 30. He never fought the war but has been living in the streets since he was 13. His grandmother used to work for the British queen in England, now she is an alcoholic. Sixties arduously tries to keep her out of the streets. Sixties works as a taxi driver. It does not render much money unless one has his own car, but it gives him some social standing. He is well aware of the fact that to establish oneself as a man – at thirty getting out of the youth moratorium – he needs to get married and have children. As the only one in the streetscape he manages to find himself a bride to marry: Sarah. Fact given Sarah’s family doubts that she will ever find a “proper” man and Sixties is something of an emergency solution to finally get her out of the house. The wedding is a confusing event where “street” meets “house”; where a rayray boy (street boy) marries a house pekin (someone still in the house – not gone astray) as is be put in local parlor. Time of peace and happiness follows as they move into a small shed, nicely built by Sixties himself, in a nearby slum. But Sarah can’t get pregnant, or maybe Sixties dramatic consumption of weed makes him infertile. Sarah pretends however to be pregnant and instead of delivering a child decides to kidnap one (this story is too detailed for this space, but it is worth a tale of itself). When the story breaks it becomes first page news in the Freetonian papers. It leaves Sixties totally humiliated going mentally off for some time. However Sixties is strong and manages to get his act together and currently he has found himself a new woman that he intends to marry.

These are just two short stories from a street corner in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone, with the ironic name Pentagon. I spent two years here, doing fieldwork, or deep hanging out, as Clifford Geertz would like to have it. It was a few years after the end of the civil war that had ravaged the country for about ten years. Currently in Freetown there are hundreds of street corners like Pentagon with thousands of predominantly young men trying to make do in the city. I chose a gender perspective on the two stories I just presented, but I could have given you access to the street corner through stories covering a plethora of other topics. Like for instance how ex-combatants and non-combatants mix-in to the extent that it is hard to know who fought the war and who did not – in many ways pointing out that it is not necessary to place these populations into distinct categories. I could also show you how fighters from all fighting factions during the war blend and work together in an area like Pentagon. Although one will eventually hear that this or that person fought for the RUF in a slightly derogatory way, it is more a form of mocking and today it hardly matters who fought against whom – currently, just as it was prior to the war, it is the fight against poverty and for survival that matters.

Pentagon is about survival work, but also about survival crime. And it is obvious that the two are not easily separated in practice. A central tenet for Pentagon is social security. Pentagon is a social safety net, a gathering of poor people helping each other because they know that their state has neither capacity or will to do so. People gather in associations like Pentagon car washers, in Osusu saving associations (the generic local form of micro finance) or popular masquerade societies. Memberships in such social clubs are more than anything forms of social security arrangements filling the void of the Sierra Leonean state. If you get ill the social club will assist you, and if you get arrested by the police – an all to frequent occurrence in Freetown – they will do the same thing. I could discuss the police at length. People in the street do not see them as a force for good but rather as a force of looters that they need protection from.

Street life is a fragile form of survival, death is ever present. But there is also a social form of death – the feeling of having no social worth, being devoid of social value (as discussed by Ghassan Hage and others). This is constantly pointed out in the street corners of Freetown and it is a feeling acute enough to make people join a revolution, to pick up arms and become a rebel soldier, or to become a religious radical. But there is some hope. One of the advantages of doing research on a specific community for an extended period of time – in my case for two years and then doing subsequent follow up trips – is that you can observe changes; changes that the Pentagon guys themselves hardly observe. People in the street corner do move up the social ladder, they leave the street corner and get out of abject poverty. But the process is slow – too slow.

I will not do scientific justice to any of these subjects in this short note but just point out that I have published and continue to publish on these matters focusing on both Sierra Leone and Liberia. Instead I will locate what I see as future research priorities and subsequently what I see as policy implications that ought to drive practical work and aid projects forward.

My findings place youth in the urban landscape of post-war societies, but I hasten to say that many of these findings fit no-war/pre-war societies just as well. A question that researchers have spent a lot of time with over the past ten years or so is the definition of youth. Does it make sense to give it an age bracket only? Are we really talking about a gendered definition including men only? Many answers have already been given in a rich academic literature, but so far few conclusions have sieved into policy and capacity building projects aimed for youth. Definitions of youth, partly as a political category and partly as an aid category, are constructed upon structural needs and thus differ from setting to setting. In West Africa people fitting the emic category of youth are predominantly male and a big portion is above 25 years of age. Approximately 80% of those labeled youth in Freetown are male. Recall for instance Sixties being categorized as youth, whilst his wife Sarah who was a few years younger was not. Although still labeled house pekin (house child) Sarah was not seen as youth. It does not mean that young women are not affected by poverty, but in an urban setting such as Freetown most young women remain more socially contained than their male peers. It is quite clear that a definition of youth in Freetown is not gendered as such, don’t forget Justice’s girlfriend who is clearly defined as youth, and it is not bracketed off by an age definition, but it is a social category of people living in volatile and dire life conditions, people who are no longer children, but who are yet to become social adults. It is the number of social youth, not the number of an age categorized “youth bulge” that poses a danger for stability in many African countries.

Danny Hoffman has suggested that we should see the city as a form of barracks. Young people venture from rural areas – near and far – into the city to look for jobs. Many stay for years in the city doing survival work, waiting for a job that may well take them back to the country side. Although the city certainly has quite a lure to young people many are still very realistic about their limited life prospects and they do not just go to the city to find the good life as popular images suggests. Most have clear goals in mind. Indeed young urban migrants may get enrolled in rebel armies or become mercenaries in foreign countries, but they are more frequently employed into plantations or mining endeavors in the countryside. They have one thing in common: they are most frequently hired in the city. In order to do this topic right I propose that we need a better understanding of labor flows and employment structures from a contemporary perspective; however a lot can be gained by studying a rich historical material that is available. More research in this field could lay a solid ground for international projects aiming for increasing the possibilities for youth (with the above discussed definition).

Pentagon is a typical corner where labor is for hire, it is virtually the raison d’être for its existence. It is easy to see that the more destitute they become the lower wages they accept and thus also the higher risks they are prepared to take. War is for example in this perspective to be viewed as a calculated risk, a chance, in a socio-economic game. Waiting for chances, Pentagon dwellers in the mean time do survival work: washing cars, pushing drugs, buying and selling goods – what is in Freetown without any prejudice called jew-man business. I recently together with some colleagues produced a film on the matter (insert link), and although we are quite a bunch of researchers looking into street life from a social perspective I argue that we need to know more from an economic vantage point.

Then we have the Big Men and their networks which is a favority topic of mine. I just edited a book on this topic, and although many of the chapters are more from a macro perspective there are some really fine chapters on Liberia and Sierra Leone by Maya Christensen, Mariam Persson and Anders Themnér showing how Big Men, both military and civilian, connects with foot-soldiers of the rebel armies, in both war and post war societies. Still we don’t know enough though. It is clear that street youth are far from loose molecules. In their current post-war lives they are well-connected with Big Men on a variety of social and political levels. In fact many times these connections are crucial for their survival. Wars should also be viewed in the light of Big Man networks of combined political and economic character. And here without going into much detail it is crucial to highlight that marginalized groups of youth do not start wars by themselves. People with political agendas do. If networks linking youth with Big Men is necessary for survival of the youth they will not go away. Furthermore there will always be a few Big Men who are willing to start wars to obtain power. If we can’t do away with these two factors, then the crucial point is to create salaried opportunities for marginalized young men so they can afford to take fewer risks in the socio-economic game – starting a “revolution” should to the Big Man with war in mind be a too costly affair.

A related point refers to the much discussed topic of radicalization. Marginal settings such as Pentagon are clearly breeding grounds for radical movements – it is enough to have a look at the numbers of portraits of Usama Bin Laden available in the streets (insert photo). Clearly pictures allude to emotions of powerlessness and resistance and quite often do not have any real political leverage as is the case in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is so far not close to any proper form of religious radicalization, but sociologically the country is not very different from Northern Nigeria with Boko Haram, the Sahel area with AQIM or Somalia with Al Shabab. Youth may join different kind of wars but psycho-sociologically it is very much for the same reasons. I believe that we can understand radicalization in for instance Somalia and Pakistan through comparisons with Sierra Leone. Freedom fighters of RUF have many lessons to teach us – but we should not take it too far and loose what is obviously specific for a particular area with its particular histories.

Finally I would like to suggest four interrelated priorities that should concern policy makers and people working with youth projects in Africa:

  1. Focus on marginal young men. Do this in a gender sensitive way. Gender is after all not just women, but includes women within the same socio-economic group as men. Urban youth is especially important. Youth in much of Africa is an extended period of time that cannot be bracketed out with a number. Youth is social age and I argue become a relevant aid category only in relation to socio-economic marginalization.
  2. Related to this: Don’t include all youth just because they have the “right” age. In Freetown for instance, the only time well-to-do youth meet marginal youth is when they venture down to the street corners to buy drugs. And it is clear: the two groups don’t like each other. Elite youth will never be role models for poor youth – just think about our own society. Today many youth projects have been hijacked by the agendas of elite youth. It is by all means important to prevent this. Rather there is a reel need to localize and get help from older people originating from the same slum dwellings but who have navigated successfully through life. Here we may find real role models.
  3. Youth programs need to be context specific. They cannot and should not be planned in Washington, Brussels or Stockholm. An example I have given many times is that of an INGO who prior to arrival in Liberia had decided to educate mechanics in rural Liberia. It was at the time between the two wars and infrastructure was extremely weak and investments very low. Ex-combatants that the INGO promised to aid to reintegrate into post-war society were turned into mechanics in large numbers in an area of the country where there were hardly any cars and only a handful of generators. Was that a helping hand?
  4. Finally, instead of creating new structures the international community should work with the existing ones. I believe that there is a good scope for a formalization of informal structures of labor. If project designers and managers could for instance in a more comprehensive way understand and aid existing apprentice systems, and there are many, I believe youth employment could be significantly strengthened. So far there are limited amounts of systematic research in this area, but we are many researchers who could with relatively little effort strengthen this.

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