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.