Archive for September, 2012

Over the weekend I read a blog entry titled “The trouble with South Africa”. The author was mystified as to why the social networking world wasn’t more outraged at the shooting of 34 protesting miners in Marikana.

I left a comment (a badly written one at that) alluding to the fact that maybe the lack of shock and horror had to do with South Africans and the state of violence they live in on a day to day basis. Maybe they had become so desensitized to protesting, crime, and violence in general that very few people batted an eye lid when they read the news.

After reflecting on the events I am ashamed to say that I myself was not as outraged as I should have been. I have shown more online protesting with regards to rhino poaching and the secrecy of information bill than I did this.

It wasn’t until last night when I was reading “Death without Weeping” an anthropological account by Nancy Scheper-Hughes questioning the naturalness of mother love that I started to connect the dots as to what I was trying to say and what might actually be an explanation for the lack of empathy regarding current events.

…emotions do not stand precede or stand outside of culture; they are part of culture and of strategic importance to our understanding of the ways in which people shape and are shaped by their world. Emotions are not reified things in and of themselves, subject to an internal, hydraulic mechanism regulating their buildup, control and release…In other words emotions are discourse; they are constructed and produced in language and in human interaction. They cannot be understood outside the cultures that produce them. (Scheeper-Hughes, 1992:430)

In this Scheeper-Highes hopes to illustrate that the ‘lack’ of grief Brazilian mothers feel for their dead neonates is not a result of poor emotional capacity or some repressed depression. Rather these are emotions that have been tailored and crafted through a history of high infant death rates. The idea of repressed grief is an emotion that is largely pushed on these women from outside cultures that cannot understand the emotions they are displaying.

Maybe the same is true for South Africans and their reaction to both the protests and the death of the 34 miners. In a country that has for many years boasted some of the world’s most violent crime, is it a far stretch to assume that people are so far clamped up in fear that they no longer realize when things are out of line. They merely swat it off as poor governance. In a country where a hijacking or robbery gets nothing more than a ‘thank God your alive’ response with very little surprise or shock from family members and friends, would it be a far stretch to understand why the death of 34 people (strangers even) entice little emotion. So maybe, just maybe, the lack of outrage and emotional response to this event is symptomatic of a much bigger issue in South African society: an emotion that is crafted in a culture of fear, an emotion that lacks empathy, and an emotion which seems devoid of what the rest of the world (read: the developed West) might consider a ‘natural’ response to these events.

Claudia Forster-Towne is a South African student completing an MSc in the Social Studies of Gender at Lund University. Currently she is doing an internship within the Conflict Cluster at the Nordic Africa Institute.

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Sitting between houses in a yard close to one of the busiest roads in Monrovia we were seven: six former ”generals”  – a common term used to refer to any rebel commander – of the rebel group LURD and me. Not one of us seems to have much to do, and we spend the whole day under the same tree. One of the generals I know due to a lucky coincidence first leading me to a close relative of his, who in turn led me to him. Through this man I met a few of the other generals. Still a few of the generals present are new faces to me. This seems to matter little, as friendship extend easy to even my new acquaintances. Discussion flows, and my presence is accepted by all of them. By the end of the day I am amazed by the everyday life of my informants, and the ways it differs from the combatants I’ve lived together with in Grand Gedeh County.

One of the generals I’ve met before is very political, and begins the conversation by complaining about the current situation of former LURD combatants in Monrovia. Aside from one of the generals, all of them live in the same area. When I ask why, they tell me that they are used to each other’s company after spending close to two decades together, much of this time as brothers in arms. While some areas of Monrovia are dominated by one or two ethnic group this concentration of LURD fighters coming from different ethnic groups is obviously not a coincidence. The close proximity of these fighters is especially convenient today, as most of them are unemployed and can on the one hand find work through each other, and on the other in the absence of work kill time together. The best way to describe their existence is to say that they are floating: depending on the winds and currents these men can end up in very different harbors.

The currents come from the number of networks that the generals can individually and collectively access. Some of them have friends, relatives, neighbors or other contacts among former rebels, security officials, politicians and civil servants. Through these networks they can begin to locate new opportunities for income and sustainment. Connected to the currents are the winds coming from the changing social environment and specific context – winds which at the moment are strongly blowing towards Côte d’Ivoire.

While the situation in Côte d’Ivoire has so far been associated with the Krahn ethnic group and the rebel group MODEL, it can also soon involve a large number of former LURD fighters coming from very different backgrounds. At least many of them hope that this will be the case, as one of them forcefully express: “even my [eighty-year old] grandmother would go fighting”.

During our conversation one of the generals receives a phone call that makes him very quiet. We continue lecturing, but all of us are guessing what the phone call is about. Five minutes later the receiver of the phone call reveals the contents of the call: an acquaintance in the security services just told him that “one of your boys has been captured on the border”. We spend the next five minutes guessing who the captured man is. Finally the same man leaves again and returns almost immediately with knowledge of the identity of the arrested, suspected mercenary.

While the arrested man – not surprisingly – belongs to the Krahn ethnic group, he was a member of LURD and therefore a former colleague of everyone in my company. What strikes me is that it does not matter one bit that the possible opportunities materializing in Côte d’Ivoire will not be on this man’s side but on the opposing one – fighting against their own “boys”, that is.

The key for explaining this puzzle is dissatisfaction felt by these former commanders. In their opinion they were the freedom fighters that rid Liberia from Charles Taylor on behalf of Liberians and the international community. While some of the higher commanders and their supporters were included in the interim government that led Liberia for two years until the elections – “to draw them out from the bush” – the vast majority participated in the disarmament process that, for the most part, was only a weapons cash-in program. Dissatisfaction continued after the presidential elections when the private security company Pacific Architects and Engineers, Inc. (PAE) came to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to look for “people who know weapons” to travel to Iraq. Recruiting in Freeport in Monrovia, a large number of former fighters spent days queuing to the recruiting office, opening bank accounts for their future salaries, applying for passports and undergoing medical tests. A few days before the first applicants were supposed to be shipped out, the Liberian government put stop to PAE’s activities.

Many former combatants remember this government decision in a very bitter manner. One even claimed that the government can in fact blame itself for the participation of Liberians in the wars of Côte d’Ivoire. All see this as a missed opportunity to gain something from all their suffering during the war in the bush.

All boils down to rewards. But the reward need not be money. Like with the PAE recruitment (that in the end was realized in Sierra Leone and the consequences of which can possibly be seen in the upcoming elections), this reward can be an opportunity to do something that can bring money. In a similar way the Monrovian ex-combatants were expecting the government to hire them to form a border patrol in the southeast. As one of them put it, “only rebels can fight rebels”. This same philosophy may well be the one guiding the logic of the recent attempts by Ouattara supporters in consulting some big men in Liberia in order to hire former fighters to engage in counterinsurgency, on the cheap, in Western Côte d’Ivoire. If these attempts materialize, then one can expect a new wave of recruitment to the east from Monrovia.

And what then explains why my companions are willing to engage their own comrades? The obvious explanation is the ethnic one, pitting Krahn to Gbagbo’s side and others to whoever pays most. Empirically this explanation is sound, but not one hundred percent so as at least one of the men sitting with me belonged to the Krahn ethnic group. Another, better explanation is a professional one: If all the former combatants want is an opportunity to carve out their own reward, they seem to have some sense of professional sense to feel happy about any benefits what others in the same situation can get. This explanation is backed by the fact that it does not seem to matter whether these men fight on the side of the Liberian government, Gbagbo or Ouattara. Then again, it is not necessarily mandatory that the former comrades would end up shooting each other – considering the fluidness of factions in the previous wars, turning winds can also change the courses of these people floating – first to the other side, and then back to Liberia. This lack of strong commitment, at least from the LURD side to Ouattara’s cause, is additionally a factor that explains how comrades can end up on opposing sides.

What finally made an impression to me was the ordinariness of the talk about opportunities to go out and fight – to become mercenaries. This topic was discussed in exactly the same casual way as politics, weather and football. In fact, war is often compared to football, with fighters as the players. Dissatisfaction goes together with lack of opportunities, perhaps even with closeness with other combatants, in a way that I’ve never experienced outside the capital. In fact, what I experience now is that the interior and Monrovia are nothing less than worlds apart in many different ways – including when it comes to the realities of former combatants.

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As this researcher packed his things and returned to Monrovia the prospects in Ivory Coast require one more look. While I still regard Ble Goude’s victorious prophecy that I discussed in my previous post false in the sense that toppling Ouattara’s government will prove impossible, there is yet still a possibility that the same prophecy will be fulfilled: if victory is sought in an impossible situation the trick to succeed is to redefine victory. After all, is this not what everybody does? (For one fine contemporary example witness the downgrading of ambition of the US-led ISAF-coalition in Afghanistan)

What everyone in Grand Gedeh interested about the Ivorian situation say is that the Ivorian pro-Gbagbo rebels have learned from Ouattara and will, on the short and medium term attempt divide the country into two. After all Ouattara’s Forces Nouvelles controlled the northern part of Ivory Coast for about a decade until the elections at the end of 2011. In this respect it is very good to remember the official election results from the Independent Electoral Committee, which gave Ouattara 54.1 percent of the votes on the second round of voting. While clearly a majority, it is important to remember that the remaining votes, 45.9 percent to be exact, were given to Gbagbo. This means that almost half of the population supports the former president awaiting his trial in Hague, and that it is well possible to once again divide the country into two – a process that the political manipulation of ethnicity and citizenship make all too easy (and all too difficult to repair). If these attempts materialize, the future capital of the Gbagbo side will probably become the port of San Pedro, which also makes the territory economically sustainable. While I do not know what happened in Ouattara’s north, I presume they traded with the neighboring countries. In the same manner San Pedro would open the Western Ivory Coast to all the ports of the world.

What the strategy of the pro-Gbagbo camp will presumably become twofold: first, to weaken the Ouattara government with sporadic attacks against army barracks in order to get weapons and prisons in order to gain manpower and cause confusion. Several such attacks have already taken place in areas near Abidjan (here though one has to be reminded that it is unclear who exactly committed these attacks – pro-Gbagbo forces or disgruntled former Ouattara followers. Not all the incidents should be automatically attributed to pro-Gbagbo rebels without any evidence). The main thrust will though be done in the west, where the rebels must at some point try to change their tactics from hit-and-run to keeping ground. Even with the influx of “Northerners” into Western Ivory Coast following the elections, the majority of the population in this area still belongs to groups usually associated with supporting Gbagbo. The presence of the Liberian border gives a possibility of safe havens and support in local communities and refugee camps. Refugees are also a good target for mobilization due to their experiences, frustration and subsequent (if not already existing) political radicalization. The arrests of some (presumably former Gbagbo) people in the Ivory Coast military may also result in more military personnel joining the war against Ouattara. More alarming though is that these arrests have been accompanied by others targeting members of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which does not help the necessary political reconciliation.

Finally, there is Liberia itself. While the Liberian Minister of Defence already went on air and said that Liberians were not involved in the recent attack across the border near Toetown, this is not true: Liberians were involved, and no doubt will be involved even in the future. While the Minister bases his claim to the fact that the captured half a dozen “dissidents” that were crossing to Liberia were Ivorians (and no doubt to the other fact that Liberian involvement will be bad for Liberia internationally, not least in relation to Ouattara government that will require action), there were Liberians among those not captured. It is also very telling that after the arrival of the Ivorian reinforcements the rebels attempt to cross the border to Liberia, where some of them were arrested by the Liberian authorities. As with any good guerrillas, even these rebels understand how important safe havens are – and the best safe haven around is Liberia.

As with the overall number of the rebels fighting in Ivory Coast, the number of Liberians involved is not known. Most Liberian former fighters I know do not want to get involved with “the Third Ivorian War”, but despite their warnings and recommendations others do. The reason is very easy to retrace to poverty: as somebody stated in extreme frustration after spending several days going around and trying to find money for his children’s school fees, “anyone that comes and offers me money to go I’ll go”. Luckily this particular situation was resolved through peaceful means and the man remains in Liberia. Lack of education plays a major role here: almost all of the mercenaries of the Second Ivorian War I’ve met lack education and the ones that don’t lack work. This reflects the lack of both education and economic opportunities, but also the fact that war spoiled much for one generation of youth, stripping many of them from education opportunities. These factors are not only present in Grand Gedeh and the Southeast, as the newest fears include the spreading of the Liberian involvement on the Gbagbo side to the more populous Nimba county, which has traditionally been seen as supporting Ouattara. In any case, it is no wonder that some important people in Liberia see this generation as “lost”.

Others simply “love war – too much” and are ready to go where-ever possible. For instance, one former fighter living in Monrovia attempted to go to both Libya and Mali last year before ending up in Ivory Coast. This kind of activity is of course paid work, but to some also armed tourism as these regional recruiting networks offer the only possibility for many former fighters to travel and see the world (and earn quick money at the same time). The whereabouts of this man are currently unknown.

After capturing the Western Ivory Coast and dividing the country into two the pro-Gbagbo camp would presumably hope to get some kind of international recognition for their area, as happened with Ouattara: the “Zone of Confidence” upheld by the UN Operations in Côte d’Ivoire effectively separated the North from the South and deadlocked the situation militarily. If the ambitions of the pro-Gbagbo camp end in possessing half of the country this deadlock is fine. If not, controlling half of the country can be used as a stepping stone to fulfill the long-term goal of gaining control of the other half. Whether this is done militarily or politically does not really matter. Whether it will succeed is though another matter entirely, and is exactly why redefinition of victory may be immediately required.

While it is impossible to say what will happen in Ivory Coast one thing is almost certain: when I come here the next time I expect to find most of my Ivorian acquaintances in the same refugee camps and local communities where they remained when I left. They will certainly be either more radical or apathetic. With Liberians the situation will probably reflect the overall success of the struggle: not very keen to get themselves killed, many wait and see. If the fortunes turn a larger number of Liberians will no doubt get involved, possibly becoming a force multiplier on the rebel side. A smaller number will continue to be involved, even though a number have already jumped off the rocking boat. One former intelligence officer previously working for Charles Taylor recalled the beginning of the LURD insurgency in Lofa. While the insurgency became full-blown in 2000, it had already kindled for a few years, beginning after the elections that brought Taylor to power. This man’s estimation is very bleak: the insurgency in Ivory Coast will continue with sporadic hit-and-run attacks for a some time before exploding into a full civil war in 2013-2014. While this kind of vision has been seen as an “apocalyptic” one, it is also telling of the pessimistic way how many in Grand Gedeh see the overall future prospects. In any case, however the future will be, much more investigation and research remains to be done with this conflict, on both sides of the border.

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In most post-conflict countries much is at stake and tensions are high during elections. The Liberian 2011 elections were no exception. The difference between winning and losing can be huge, because in Liberia the winner takes it all. But here I’m not talking about the presidential candidates, the winner incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or her main antagonist Winston Tubman. The political elite will always find ways to survive no matter the electoral turnout.  Here I’m talking about the followers, Liberians (in this case, ex-combatants) far from the privileged elite who gave their loyalty to the competing candidates with hopes and dreams about a better future. Two years earlier, in July 2009, the formal closure of the Demobilisation, Disarmament, Rehabilitation and Reintegration process had been announced – which if successful – would have implied former combatants’ reintegration into civil society and the dismantling of rebel networks. But the election period was yet another evidence of remaining rebel structures still used for political purposes, despite all official initiatives of demobilisation and reintegration.  It revealed how very important it is for many ex-combatants to become what they regard as ‘politically active’, but more so, it highlighted the importance of supporting the ‘right’ candidate, to wit, the next president. While elections can be advantageous for ex-combatants, giving loyalty to the losing candidate can be devastating. The experiences of Alex and Michael illustrate this. Michael, a former LURD commander, managed to secure important political connections leading all the way up to president Johnson Sirleaf. Alex, a former vigilante leader, established a network of ex-combatants later mobilised by Tubman during his election campaign. For Alex and Michael and ex-combatants around them, with few opportunities in a post-war society, the elections were crucial. But while their political engagement was on the one side very beneficial it was for the losing side disastrous.

When I first came to know Alex, in 2009, he was leader of a vigilante group in Monrovia. The group saw themselves as local defenders; defenders of their community in an area were the Liberian police did not dare to enter at night. Alex himself had not been a rebel soldier but the main part of the approximately 50 men in his group had. They came from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, parts of Liberia and rebel factions. What they now shared was their community and their status as ex-combatants, but also poverty and unemployment. Alex made good use of their skills as security providers. Years in rebel movements had taught them how to organise themselves so they could secure and protect their neighbourhood. They knew how to fight, but more importantly as Alex and others in the community often pointed out, they were fearless and feared for their violent nature.

Before the elections life took a new turn for Alex and the vigilante group. They had as they said “gone into politics” as Liberian politicians had reached out to ex-combatants. Alex himself had been approached by Winston Tubman, presidential candidate for the CDC party. After being nominated Tubman set out to establish his own informal security group. Tubman wanted men around him as personal bodyguards, men who could protect him when campaigning, but maybe also to show force, power and status. To find men suitable for the job Tubman turned to Alex. The security force in many ways came to resemble a military unit. Alex and four former rebel generals were chosen as head commanders with main responsibility for areas such as Tubman’s overall day and night-time security, campaigning and motorcade security, private house and party headquarters security etc. Underneath each commander Alex assigned ex-combatants from his vigilante group as security providers. The members of Alex’ security group closest to Tubman could count on somewhat more regular payments from the CDC party but for them as the members of the wider security structures it was the hopes and promise of an eventual electoral victory for Winston Tubman that mattered. A victory, they thought, would mean permanent security jobs and a better life.

It proved rather difficult to get hold of any of my informants during the time before the elections, but to get hold of Michael was nearly impossible. We talked on the phone and arranged to meet up, but it often ended with Michael not making it, something had come up again, “election-business” he said. Michael was busier than any of my informants, but then again, Michael’s situation is very different from all the other ex-combatants I know. He has done what the others only dream of; he has managed to secure employment in the formal sector, a senior position within one of the country’s security institutions. If “reintegration is the process by which ex-combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income” Michael has certainly been socially and economically integrated into civil society. But Michael’s success lies not in his abandonment of his wartime rebel networks, but rather the reverse.

In March 2011, during the voter registration process, Michael who remained in close contact with his former rebels after the war, launched an ex-combatant organisation sponsored by a senior local politician in Sirleaf Johnson’s government. Michael wanted an organised network for ex-combatants’ rights. He wanted, he said, to keep them out of trouble, drugs and criminal activities, and he wanted to work for their employment opportunities by using his links to the political elite. But whatever motives Michael had for starting the organisation, it was evident that for the politicians, facing an up-coming election, supporting Michael’s organisation was a very strategic way of gaining votes. Michael soon had over 1,000 ex-combatants enlisted within his organisation and the network was approached by politicians at the very highest level. Michael and the leadership of the organisation (him and two other former rebel generals) even had a few meetings with the President herself. In exchange for financial support and promises of scholarships for some of the ex-combatants Michael and the former commanders promised to promote Johnson Sirleaf and the UP party during the elections. As Michael explained, he first encouraged the ex-combatants to register for the elections, then as he said “I told them why, when and how to vote”.

Winners and losers – ex-combatants post-election Meeting with Alex and Michael a few months after the elections I realised how high the stakes had been for them and their networks of ex-combatants. Alex was broken when I met him again. Tubman had left the country, leaving Alex and his men without work. But not only was Alex without a job, he seemed to be unable to get a new one due to his former commitment. The strength of Alex, that Tubman clearly had taken advantage of, that he had been well-known and popular with the ability to mobilise ex-combatants, was now turned against him. The opposition knew him very well, and no one wanted to employ him. With the victory of President Johnson Sirleaf positions within the formal security institutions were completely out of reach for Alex and my pro-CDC informants, but not for my informants on the winning side. Now Johnson Sirleaf had to pay them back, leaving nothing for the losing side. Alex was miserable, but not only due to his inability to find a job, he was also scared. A few weeks after the elections, Alex’ house was attacked. Masked men broke into the house in the middle of the night. They took everything of value and smashed the rest, leaving Alex’ small home completely devastated. Alex and others in the neighbourhood strongly believes that this was an act made against Alex as retaliation for not having been loyal to the ruling elite. The police, he said, had not investigated the incident and could even have been involved he thought. From this day Alex did not dare to spend another night in his old house. He feared another attack, he feared revenge and retaliation, he even feared for his life. Alex, in all those years I had known him, had been proud to be a well-known man in his neighbourhood. Now this was his biggest disadvantage. He and many ex-combatants around him had risked it all taking sides in the elections. They had seen no other opportunities. But they had lost. As Alex explained; “CDC can do nothing for the ones they mobilised. They are left with nothing. And now things are even worse than before as the winning side don’t want to have anything to do with them.”

For Michael the elections meant something entirely different. As I could see when we met again in April after the elections, Michael and his ex-combatants had clearly benefited from Johnson Sirleaf’s victory. Now Michael could feel more secure in his position at the security institution, a position he probably would have lost given a new political leadership. For his ex-combatants, Michael had used his personal contacts with senior politicians to get funding for a few scholarships for university studies. Others he had, through his contacts at various institutions and private organisations, recommended for different informal security positions. This was the government’s way to pay him back for the support he had mobilised. The official election results from the first round of voting in Bomi County, where Michael’s ex-combatant organisation was based and where he had the main part of his network, gave Johnson Sirleaf 65.3 percent of the votes, as compared to Tubman’s 28.7 percent. In the second round, as Tubman boycotted the elections, Johnson won a clear victory. Michael often laughed and told me that he won Bomi for Ellen. He said this half as a joke, but also half seriously. It is of course impossible to say precisely how much influence Michael and his ex-combatants had on the elections but what is evident, judging from how much the politicians invested in their contacts with him and his former fighters, the impact was far from insignificant. Michael, despite the war being over for many years now, has remained important for many ex-combatants and through him, if they are lucky, they might find employment. For the Liberian elite on the other hand, Michael is just as valuable. His network of ex-combatants is large and loyal and through him they can access these remaining rebel structures whether for personal gains, mobilising votes, unofficially employ security providers or for other financial or political purposes. For the ex-combatants, in order to find employment, it thereby becomes strategically important to preserve, rather than abandon, wartime rebel structures. Meanwhile, for the Liberian political elite, the reintegration of ex-combatants and the dissolution of post-war rebel structures, contrary to the official approach and statements, would be counter-productive as the networks of ex-combatants are useful for their own political and financial interests. As seen during the 2011 Liberian elections a mutual dependence still exists between the elite and the ex-combatants. But there is no doubt that the Liberian elite are playing a dangerous game with their strategic use of post-war rebel structures. We should not forget that these networks, with only eight years since the war ended, are trained and capable of violence and warfare. Used in the wrong way by the political elite or other influential actors they are potentially dangerous to future stability and peace in Liberia.

Mariam Persson is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. She has over the last three years conducted fieldwork in Liberia with a focus on former combatants

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