Archive for July, 2012

“We will be victorious” is a famous statement made by the former Ivorian Youth Minister Charles Ble Goude before the elections in Ivory Coast in 2011. This statement soon became iconic when the group Les Galliets adopted it as an intro to its militaristic and anti-imperialistic pro-Gbagbo electoral song called C’est Mais.

As we now know with hindsight, Gbagbo was not victorious in the elections, and equally failed to cling to power in their aftermath. While Gbagbo is awaiting the beginning of his trial at Hague, Ble Goude himself is sought after following cross-border raids to Ivory Coast. Nevertheless, the song remains as popular as ever among the supporters of the former president, many of whom currently reside in the refugee camps and their environs in the Grand Gedeh county of the neighboring Liberia.

While Ble Goude’s words could initially be interpreted as either prophetical self-assurance or alternatively as a blunt way to promise vote rigging in case of defeat, today they offer hope to the Ivorian exiles that want to return home. As has been described elsewhere, many see repatriation as an impossible alternative in the current situation due to insecurity and lack of reconciliation. To these Ivorians Ble Goude’s words still speak of the imminent outcome of the current struggle against Ouattara. Others even mix this militancy with fervent Christianity that equally promises victory and deliverance to the righteous.  In some cases it is not very far-fetched to compare the love of Gbagbo to a personality cult, and this personality cult to religion.

But in reality it is very difficult to see how the supporters of Gbagbo could return to power in Ivory Coast through armed struggle. As I have described before, the active pro-Gbagbo supporters can be divided to two camps: the moderates and the militants. The moderates still harbor hope that Gbagbo will be freed in Hague and returned to the presidential throne in Ivory Coast. When confronted with the question what will happen if Gbagbo is sentenced (as he probably is), they usually become silent but then answer: “If Gbagbo is sentenced there will be serious war.” In other words, a guilty verdict will make any political solution more difficult in the short term, as the moderates will join the militant camp. On the long-term it is though likely that a political solution is very difficult if not impossible as long as the Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters have inherently incompatible goals as both aim to monopolize power in the country. After all, is this not what Ble Goude promised, victory?

But victory for the pro-Gbagbo supporters seems like a very distant prospect. In fact there are only two ways that can enable challenging the Ouattara government. The first one is gaining access to enough external resources to finance an expensive large-scale war. In the region successful rebellions, such as LURD and MODEL in Liberia, have only been able to fight successfully with state backing. While some Ivorians are optimistic about this possibility, their view that it is ultimately the United Nations that will provide these resources to them after seeing the “true face” of the Ouattara government seems very remote and only wishful thinking. This view is based on the same conspiratorial thinking that sees the killing of the United Nations peacekeeping during the so-called “Tai mission” as being committed by Ouattara forces trying to muster international support against its enemies. It is though important to note that many moderates did not agree with cross-border attacks, at least at this stage of the struggle, which makes it understandable that they want to shift the blame of these obviously damaging acts to the enemy camp.

Ilmari Käihkö is a PhD candidate who currently resides in Grand Gedeh County, Liberia.

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Christine Ryan; Children of War: Child Soldiers as Victims and Participants in the Sudan Civil War. I.B. Tauris 2012, ISBN 978-1-78076-017-9

There is quite a lot written about child soldiers in rebel wars in particular on the African continent. As Ryan clearly points out, and writes against, the bulk takes a victim perspective of child soldiers. A few studies, including my own on Liberia, have started on neutral grounds and have been able to show that a simple victim perspective has more to do with faulty research methods than realities on the ground. A nice thing with Ryan’s study is that the rebel army which she has studied, SPLA, won the war and eventually transformed into government of South Sudan. Child soldiers within this rebel army have thus lesser motives of downplaying their agency, as is often the case of other rebel armies in African warzones. This has rendered a whole range of alternative answers to reasons for joining the rebel army at a young age, beyond forceful conscription, and also motives for purporting soldier life.

By using child soldiers own voices she is opening up alternative (i.e. real) realities to the premeditated, taken-for-granted, ideas that she has found amongst local and international NGOs interviewed. The juxtaposition of child soldier’s testimonies and NGO knowledge is very efficient and pinpoints a huge problem within the current knowledge regime of humanitarian practice during and in the aftermath of wars. Ryan forcefully argues that in order to have more successful interventions NGOs and other aid agencies need a better understanding of children in warzones including knowledge that is unique for each conflict zone. Albeit “child participation” is often claimed as a central tenet to NGOs working with children in conflict Ryan makes it pretty clear that in reality it is chiefly empty words. For people in the humanitarian aid business this book is thus both an important critique to take onboard and a fleshing out of the realities which they ought to relate to.

For an academic audience I am a bit more hesitant to recommend it. Ryan does have a theoretic introduction where she discusses some of the literature available in the field. She is presenting other researcher’s viewpoints, but unfortunately leaves the reader without a clear idea of what she is making of the literature. She could have been much braver as she possesses a unique material.

Clearly Ryan does present the voices of the former child soldiers of the SPLA. This is done in lengthy quotes making the book either very tedious, or very quick, to read as one can easily skim and skip many of the too long, often poorly edited passages of interviews. Some accounts are completely incomprehensible and it is a mystery why the copy editor let them pass. A key problem is that the stacking of child soldier testimonies does not make the book more comprehensive – in this case I would suggest that less would have been more. Quotes do very much point in the same direction, but despite this they stand too much for themselves. These testimonies are not contextualized enough and although I do not contest the conclusions of the book I cannot see that if a horde of former child soldiers states that they became adults sometime around 11-15 it is the proof. A discourse analysis, which may question the “testimonies”, relating to a fleshed out sociocultural reading of both the process of becoming an adult and fighting a war would have been extremely valuable.

Relying heavily on a formal questionnaire with questions related to the reasons for joining the SPLA a whole spectrum of issues concerning life within the rebel army is absent: how were the relations between commanders and rank and file? What did the process going from non-trained recruit to soldier look like? How long did it take? How was everyday survival shaped? How was issues of violence, abuse and death seen and dealt with? How about love and sexual relations? These and many more issues are the nuts and bolts of war as mechanism and the key to whether a war machine is successful or not. Certainly it is also at heart for a recruitment mechanism of children becoming soldiers and in the long run remaining such.

Despite this critique I would like to end on a positive note. All too often African wars are brushed away as being non-political as they do not fit neatly in western political maps. Unlike such simplistic viewpoint Ryan’s reading of child soldiers in South Sudan does not just look at rebel military action from an outright political perspective but even takes the analysis a step further by raising an awareness of Sudanese child soldiers being guided, not just mislead or manipulated, by political motives and subsequently taking contextually rational decisions. This perspective is fresh and commendable.


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The Big Man book

The Big Man book

Richard Mallett has reviewed our book African Conflicts and Informal Power (Zed books 2012).


“As a final observation, African Conflicts and Informal Power is perhaps above all else a testament to the strength and value of well executed…, in-depth qualitative research in expanding and refining our understanding of the drivers, nature and consequences of war. Whether the approach be ethnography or political sociology, this volume demonstrates why robust qualitative inquiry is so indispensable when it comes to deciphering conflict and discovering what is really there.”

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An interview with me about the situation in Mali (Swedish Television)

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In western media there has over the last days been an uproar against Ansar Dine who are seen destroying world heritage sites in Timbuktu. Destroying buildings give more attention than killing people in Northern Mali and it is far from the first time that radical Muslims use this trick to speak to the world. Yet still it is an unfortunate outcome of an uneven world when buildings are worth much more than human beings. In late June about 20 scholars from West Africa, Europe and North America gathered at the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Accra to discuss the increasing political unrest in the Sahel. The conference was a joint venture between The KAIPTC and the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI).

Having conducted research on Liberia and Sierra Leone I am well aware that Kaddafi’s political appendages reached all the way down to the small coastal states of the Upper Guinea Coast and naturally politics in Sahel was much closer connected to the intricacies of Kaddafi politics. The tragic unfolding of events in Mali is the first major incident in the post-Kaddafi political landscape of Sahel. Certainly current developments is not solely the outcome of post-Kaddafi politics, but new recruits and military personnel from within a North Malian diaspora in Libya, typically from within the army in combination with a new power vacuum in the Sahel due to the fall of Kaddafi have radically shifted the political game. Our Accra workshop unraveled a tremendous amount of complexities ranging far beyond, and partly in contradictory directions than what we read not just in Western media, but also in Malian media (as was the focus of one presentation). Instead of going into detail (a forthcoming special issue in a journal and two policy briefs will do that) I give some of my personal reflections on the papers presented at the conference.

The unfolding of events in Mali certainly had the center stage of the conference as the country has recently gone from world margins to center. We had a combination of researchers who have worked in Mali for a very long time and some who had been present during the recent war. Although it was clear that they had a similar historic reading of events, still there were considerable differences in their understanding of the events that are currently happening. This is not that strange as we talk about history in the making and new events literary unfolded in Mali as we talked. For instance Ansar Dine gave MNLA a real blow by overtaking Kidal during the first day of the conference. Analysis would thus have to change as the conference proceeded. I would have loved to give you a solid report about the political capacities of Ansar Dine, MNLA, AQIM and other parties in the conflict but it is quite clear from the conference that views differ and it is hard really to know. What should be pointed out is that Ansar Dine and MNLA may have differing political agendas but people within the movement have close ties and are at time from the same families. It was speculated about the recent success of Ansar Dine that MNLA have lost local sympathies due to lack of control of their forces who have been involved in looting and the use of force against civilians. In part soldiers within MNLA have jumped over to their “relatives” in Ansar Dine. If MNLA is becoming a security threat the more strictly law-abiding (read Salafist) Ansar Dine could be seen as a protector in the eyes of many civilians, who may still not see the more hardline version of Islam as their preference.

It is quite clear that both political capacity of Ansar Dine and MNLA is shifting rapidly and it would be very interesting to see who the strong men behind the scene are. It would also be interesting to see if these strong men see state cooptation as part of their game plan as has been the case in earlier Tuareg uprisings. One thing is certain though: the longer time it takes before real negotiations take place the harder it will be to withdraw from the political agenda of an independent Azawad. In this instance it is very unfortunate that the part to negotiate with is a very weak and disorganized interim government, backed by an equally fragmented army faction. All this suggests that it will be a prolonged process that opens for the deployment of a peace enforcing force from ECOWAS. The Mali specialists all warned for the serious effects this may have. Another topic that was discussed was the importance of the drugs trade going through Mali. Certainly there is substantial money here. Some linked this trade to people within the government and particularly the military, but it was not very clear who within Azawad control the trade (some said this was “Arab” business). However the most interesting issue is to unravel drug links between Bamako and people with links to the rebel movements.

On July 5 the UN Security Council delayed the endorsement of ECOWAS sending 3000 troops to Mali despite hard lobbying from ECOWAS. At the conference we had a knowledgeable and brilliant delegate from ECOWAS. In his presentation and in comments throughout the conference he made clear how ECOWAS very much think in procedures and how the formal framework of nations is seen as a baseline for action. He pointed out that ECOWAS may send a force even if the Malian government is not requesting for it if there is a security risk for neighboring countries. And naturally this is the case. Despite this ECOWAS has waited for a UN go-ahead and this is linked to the allocation of resources for the mission. It is interesting to note how certain ECOWAS is about what is going on in the Sahel, whilst researchers are not. According to the ECOWAS delegate their very detailed information to a great extent comes from the rapporteurs that form part of the ECOWAS Early Warning System (EWS).  A morbid form of proof that these rapporteurs are placed in important and sensitive locations is the fact that two of them have been killed in recent times.

ECOWAS, in tandem with some West African states, is one of the strong voices arguing for the Al-Qaeda threat in the Sahel currently tying together AQIM, Ansar Dine and Boko Haram – outlining a radical zone in the region shaped like a banana from Mauritania to northern Nigeria. Accounts from the EWS rapporteurs are crucial data to them. I would see it as a crucial issue to find out how these rapporteurs are working in the field; what methods do they use, what are their professional backgrounds and how can they stay non-biased towards their material? How do they deal with governments who gain political and economic power by exaggerating terrorist threats? One presenter talked about terrorism as a “blank check” for many governments in the region; the more they report on militant Islamists the more money they get from US and the Europeans. But a Mauritania expert talked about AQIM as a ghost. Everybody in the country feared AQIM, but they were not certain of what it was. He described the scene of a security officer from the government that pointed out in the desert in front of him saying “AQIM is supposed to be out there somewhere, but we have never seen them”. This is not to say that there is no AQIM, but how many are they, how well organized, what kind of links do they have? This is still uncertain and maybe the rumors of them are a more serious threat for stability in the region than the very existence of them? And here ECOWAS and West African states must tread carefully and not use terrorism as a “blank check”.

Related to the question of the importance of radical Islam was a new (at least it was the first time I noted it) tendency by several West African scholars (Nigerians and Ghanaians) to interpret the problems in Sahel as a north/south clash where a Muslim north is threatening a Christian south. Not only was this portrayed as historical north/south clash of religious character, but several times it was mentioned as clashes of civilizations referring to Samuel Huntington’s work – however without taking into account the severe critique it has rendered in the literature. In the light of intensified activities of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, it is a too simplistic yet dangerously elastic framework to use, especially tempting for Christian politicians. Linked up with discourses and resources around the US war on terror, European fear of the “Sahel wind” and ideas of the radical banana (discussed above) it is a rather explosive and dangerous cocktail.

The remedy according to most participants of the conference is to prevent ECOWAS and others from pushing people in sensitive situations in the Sahel into further radicalization (without neglecting the fears of others such as Christian Nigerians in the north of the country or Muslim of different denominations in Mali). The best way of still involving in conflict resolution must start by understanding the larger conflict as series of local conflicts where each one must be understood and dealt with both in its local sociological and historical context. It is crucial to scrutinize larger conflicts in this light and deal with local strong men and conditions also to solve conflicts on the national arena, such as the one we currently see in northern Mali, but also the instability in Mauritania.

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