Archive for November, 2012

SLPP rally with candidate Maada Bio. Courtesy by Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

SLPP rally with candidate Maada Bio. Courtesy of Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

Late in the afternoon of Friday 24 November, as the sun was setting over the busy streets of downtown Freetown, the National Election Commission (NEC) of Sierra Leone called a press conference to announce the results of the Presidential Elections, ending a week of uncertainty and speculations. As anticipated by many, the sitting President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC) secured a second term in power with almost 59 percent of the votes cast, thereby avoiding a run-off against the main opposition leader, the former military junta leader Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), who received 37, 4 percent. None of the other candidates were able to secure more than 1,5 precent, confirming the growing polarisation of the political landscape in post-war Sierra Leone. The turnout was high, with a national average of 87 percent.

The declaration of the results set off an intense frenzy of activities on the streets of Freetown, with large numbers of people dressed in red (the colour of the APC) dancing, cheering and singing amidst the ear-deafening sounds of car horns, whistle pipes and the banging of pots and pans. “Ampa Ampoh” (“it is over” in Temne), was chanted by happy supporters as the party continued on many street corners throughout the night, not least around the APC party office.

Not everyone welcomed the results. In the opposition camp, tensions were mounting already prior to the announcement of the election outcome. Immediately after the voting day, the SLPP released a press statement in which it expressed its concern over “electoral irregularities” and “malpractices”, including alleged ballot-stuffing and physical assaults on polling agents by state security services. The statement also accusing NEC of political bias in favour of the incumbent party, and concluded that the SLPP was “only willing to accept results from an election that is considered credible… and that “[t]hese unfortunate incidences not only have the potential to undermine the credibility of the election results but have the tendency to derail our effort to consolidate our hard-earned peace”. The People’s Movement of Democratic Change (PMDC) voiced similar allegations.

In an effort to respond to these accusations and quell any continued speculations, the Chairperson of NEC, Christiana Thorpe, called a press conference on Wednesday 21 November, where she addressed these allegations, while simultaneously encouraging the political parties in question to come forth and present any evidence of illegal activities to the police. NEC acknowledged that some cases of irregularities had been reported on voting day, and confirmed that about 10 percent of the polling station results had been quarantined and the votes from those stations recounted. However, with the exception of a few and isolated cases, no evidence of over-voting or ballot stuffing had been discovered. The large number of international and domestic election observer teams echoed this message, and all have declared the elections free of systematic malpractice and generally commenced the performance of NEC for its political independence and impartiality in their preliminary assessments.

However, at the same time, there is little doubt the elections were conducted on what has been termed an “uneven playing field” where the incumbent was able to take significant advantage of its position in power, not least in terms of access to resources for campaigning. Richard Howitt, head of the European Union Election Observation Mission, claimed to local newspapers that APC had enjoyed 61 percent of airtime on the state broadcaster the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, compared to 18 percent for the SLPP.

It is against this backdrop of perceived injustice and feeling of growing marginalisation that frustration is boiling beneath the surface within the opposition camp. In a country where the winner literarily takes it all, the stakes of elections are high, and the costs of defeat detrimental. No matter whether you are the flag bearer of the party or an ex-soldier or ex-militia working behind the scenes as part of the party’s unofficial security task force, a loss at the polls means another five years out in the cold, another five years of struggle for survival and access to resources.

President Obama or President Koroma hair cut. Courtesy of Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

President Obama or President Koroma hair cut. Courtesy of Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

Although the electoral process so far has been largely peaceful, the last couple of weeks have also seen a number of minor events that have sparked incidents of electoral violence. So far, such incidents have been effectively contained by the state’s security forces, and have not escalated into any serious clashes. However, the heavy and visible presence of both the police and the military patrolling the streets during the election period have not always rendered a sense of security among the population. For some, it has instead been a cause of provocation and a sign that the APC is conflating the party with the state in an attempt to consolidate its power gains.

On the Monday following the elections, a dispute ensued between a group of SLPP supporters and some police and military personnel patrolling the town of Kailahun in Eastern Sierra Leone. It remains unclear how the dispute erupted, but while attempting to arrest the supporters for disorderly behaviour, one of the men attempted to disarm the military personnel and assaulted three police officers. The supporters were taken to the local police station for questioning. During the night hours, a large numbers of civilians approached the station while singing society songs and carrying sticks demanding their release. A curfew was imposed and the arrested men were brought to Kenema under armed escort.

On the Sunday after the announcement of the results, some 20 ballot boxes were found in a polling centre in Bo town, a traditional stronghold of the SLPP. As the rumour spread that the boxes contained votes that had been deliberately withheld by NEC, groups of SLPP youths took to the streets to protest. Riots broke out and the police had to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd. During the day, the tensions spread to the nearby town of Kenema where the police subsequently imposed a dusk to dawn curfew. According to NEC officials, the ballot boxes had already been counted for and were only stored awaiting further transportation.

Such incidents are likely to pose a latent threat as long as the SLPP leadership refuses to concede its electoral defeat. In a statement on Saturday 24 November, Maada Bio declared that his party was not ready to ”accept results of any rigged election” and that ” the process was fraudulent and the results do not reflect the will of the people of Sierra Leone”. Although simultaneously calling on his supporters to remain calm and law-abiding while awaiting the official party line of the SLPP (any court case against the election results must be turned in within 10 days of the announcement of the results), his message could easily be interpreted as a go-ahead of continued protests and violent resistance.

In his inaugural speech, President Koroma extended an invitation to the opposition in general and the SLPP in particular, suggesting that ”[t]he time for politics is over, the moment for continuing the transformation has come. This is the time for all of us to embrace each other. In the name of Mama Sierra Leone, let all APC supporters embrace every SLPP supporter and supporters of other political parties. I am inviting the leadership of the SLPP and other political parties to join the leadership of the APC in moving this country forward.”

It is however unlikely that we have seen the end of politics in Sierra Leone. In a country where everything is politics, and politics is everything, the politricks of the key political players is likely to continue for some time to come.

Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs is a senior researcher in peace and conflict studies heading the NAI research project Between Big Man Politics and Democratisation: Local Perceptions and Individual Agency in Processes of Electoral Violence. She was in Sierra Leone during the elections.

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Massive protests have taken place in several Egyptian cities against the president’s moves last Thursday to grant himself extensive new powers. Read more on BBC.

NAI researcher Maria Malmström talks to anthropologist Samuel Schielke about the protests in Egypt.

− The latest events have positive potential to strengthen the presence and power of a strong opposition. But they also have destructive potential in an increasingly polarised political situation. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood I met last month often expressed the feeling that they are under attack from all sides

Tahrir against Morsi’s decree. Courtesy of Hanna Sistek

by forces that hate Islam. They are bound to see themselves as victims of today’s events, and this carries the risk of radicalising them, making them only more determined to push matters their way, whatever the cost, says Samuel Schielke.

- The collective anger that the vast majority of people in Egypt have been feeling since last Thursday can be a unifying force that all parts of the political opposition can rally around. Furthermore, one thing seems clear, Egyptians of today – both pro- and anti-Morsi – will not accept a new dictator, says NAI researcher Maria Malmström.

Maria Malmström’s research focuses on how current political events in North Africa can be understood by paying attention to people’s feelings.

− It is crucial to understand how the Egyptian uprisings affect people’s actions, thoughts and feelings. Important questions of today are: How do people sense and express the situation post-Arab uprisings? What is the role of public and performed affects in creating new citizens? says Maria Malmström. Read more about her research.

She has also spoken on the current political dynamics of Egypt with Amor Eletrebi, Egyptian poet and writer, who also writes for Al Jazeera. As he points out, it was not political activists who started the protests against Morsi’s decree, but street children and other poor youths who were there to honour the memory of the victims of the events of 19 November 2011 on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. It was only three days later that the organised political activists joined the protests.

- Morsi’s decree on the 3rd day of clashes has suddenly awakened all the old guards revolutionaries; they marched to Tahrir and Mohamed Mahmoud street the day after, on a big Friday protest, the forever split political/revolutionary leaders held hands together for the cameras. And everyone took pictures, had the Tahrir tea, and talked of how much they miss the square and how much they feel it’s almost like back in the revolution days. And by the end of the night, most of them returned home, some camped on the square, but both forgot how much these youngsters, by standing their ground for 3 nights, have given the Friday protest its special nature, says Amor Eletrebi.

-This is something that has not been acknowledges at the local or global level, says Maria Malmström.

- The media only recognise the dominant political voices. As both Amor and the anthropologist Mayssoun argue, dominant Egyptian political activists subsume the voices of those without political power. Instead, the current dynamics play out in the hands of those without political legitimacy. We need to make room for less dominant voices – those of the street children as well as other poor young Egyptians – as important social and political actors, says Maria Malmström.

Courtesy of Hanna Sistek

Egypt, Revolutionaries Becoming Old Guards by Amor Eletrebi

On the first anniversary/commemoration of the 19th Nov. Mohamed Mahmoud battle, a rock was thrown from one side at the other, and that was enough to start another round of clashes between protesters and the riot police in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. The place and all the meanings and memories it holds made it easier for gas masks to find [their] place again among street sellers. The gas masks looked the same as the ones we had a year ago (for 10 pounds/2$ and it expires shortly at the moment it starts suffocating you more than the tear gas itself), yet the faces of protesters and front line troopers were much younger than last year and the youngsters were just the vast majority of protesters.

Many “old guard” revolutionaries didn’t take the youngsters leading this time so well; they started to comment with similar things to what was said about their own battle a year ago; “I see no purpose,” “ save the Egyptian blood and stop fighting the cops”…etc. One old-guard revolutionary even wondered the same thing that Kamal el Ganzoury, the prime minister during December 2011 clashes with the military, had wondered justifying the brutal crackdown on these December protests; “how come a 12 years old kid is a full-on revolutionary, fighting the cops? They’re all street lousy kids,” forgetting that our revolution’s core was sweeping the staled elder generation out of the way, and looking away from the fact that a time might come and we could become old guards ourselves.

Reasons to be on the street were countless though, out of the outcomes of the past few months, yet old guard revolutionaries couldn’t accept that a few hundreds of kids between 7-17 years old won’t give in to the weakness of spirit [...] and just snap on their own a revolt on the streets, the only way they got to learn it—throwing rocks at the dogs of the ministry of interior and the regime.

The stand towards these youngsters fighting in M. Mahmoud str. remained ambiguous for the first 3 days; you won’t see many tweets from the square, as not many twitter revolutionaries have joined, and the field hospitals were in bad shape, empty of basic supplies needed, because there weren’t much coming of the usual donations and supplies brought by the protesters who can afford it. It almost looked as if the city was turning its back at these youngsters while they kept for these 3 days on refusing to let it do so.

Morsi’s decree on the 3rd day of clashes has suddenly awakened all the old guards revolutionaries; they marched to Tahrir and M. M. Str. the day after, on a big Friday protest, the forever split political/revolutionary leaders held hands together for the cameras. And everyone took pictures, had the Tahrir tea, and talked of how much they miss the square and how much they feel it’s almost like back in the revolution days. And by the end of the night, most of them returned home, some camped on the square, but both forgot how much these youngsters, by standing their ground for 3 nights, have given the Friday protest its special nature.

For the ongoing days and the few days to come, there’re big moves taking place behind closed doors, away from the streets. Yet, the streets’ crowd of protesters is no different. And the street shall keep filtering the troopers on its front, till it gets the ones who’d pull the revolution back together.

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There is undoubtedly a need for a political solution to the ongoing Congo crisis, which recently reached new depths with the fall of Goma. Yet viable solutions to intricate, multi-layered conflict dynamics are difficult to reach when one party, in this case the Congolese Government, is brought to its knees following humiliating military defeats. The probability of a sustainable compromise that will reduce violence in the Kivus is difficult to envisage in the face of an insurgency led by skilled military entrepreneurs, with crucial military and diplomatic backing from neighbouring countries.  Certainly, the M23 has advanced some legitimate claims that are shared by both the Tutsi minority they claim to represent and wider layers of the population tired of the Kabila’s Government’s inept governance. However, it is unlikely that its leaders, given their current military advantage, will accept any deal which does not reward their ambitions. In sum, the rebel take-over of Goma has decreased the possibility to break with a vicious cycle  in which insurgent violence is time and again politically rewarded.

The responsibility of the ‘international community’ in relation to the current events is multifaceted. It is not the least reflected in the inconsistent policies  towards Rwanda which have allowed the M23 to build up its military capacities unhindered. But in the context of the current bashing of the Congolese army (FARDC), it is important to point out that the ‘international community’ also bears a responsibility for the failures of this military. The battle for North Kivu’s capital Goma on 20 September 2012 was not only an historic event in itself; it was also a test case for the effectiveness of donor policies vis-à-vis the DRC’s security sector, and stabilisation more widely. While the M23’s taking of the town was certainly a defeat for the FARDC, it has also shown the bankruptcy of donors’ military reform policies and the military cooperation between the FARDC and the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, the MONUSCO.

An ostrich policy towards flawed military integration

According to some, the 2009 rapid integration of the CNDP rebel group in the FARDC (which we have described in an earlier post in more detail) was doomed to fail. Given that the Rwanda-backed CNDP was integrated from a position of strength, and could impose the terms of the agreement, so this argument goes, it was predestined to become ‘an army within an army’ and to continue the power struggle within, instead of against the FARDC. This was all the more so as Rwanda would not tolerate any weakening of the power networks through which it exercised influence over the Kivus. However, this deterministic argument overlooks two important features of the 2009 integration process: First, as documented in a recent report by Jason Stearns, the Government in Kinshasa hoped to profit from the internal divisions in the CNDP resulting from Nkunda’s removal. The outcome of this initially volatile power competition was by no means a foregone conclusion. Second, there was scope for the DRC Government to handle the integration process in a different manner, both politically and organisationally. That the ex-CNDP eventually managed not only to maintain, but to importantly expand their power position in the Kivus, was in part the result of the opportunistic collaboration of key political and military actors, as well as the lack of organisational capacity to follow through on the integration process.  International pressure, monitoring and assistance could have certainly helped in changing some of the dynamics of the unfolding military integration process.

Whereas the overnight integration of thousands of rebel soldiers without any advance planning or re-training is a feat unheard of, and the process was shrouded in a veil of opacity, it seems international actors felt they had little choice but to muster enthusiasm. Not only were they afraid to spoil the fragile rapprochement between Kinshasa and Kigali, they also feared that disproval would lead Kinshasa to marginalize them, thus making them lose all forms of leverage and even information over the process. Therefore, the MONUSCO decided to support the operations that the newly integrated military carried out against the FDLR and other rebel groups, while EUSEC (EU mission for military reform) struggled for the biometrical identification of the new troops. In the meanwhile, bilateral donors continued with security sector and stabilisation policy as usual. The lack of re-training, the unbalanced composition of newly integrated units, with some consisting for over 75% out of ex-CNDP, and the lack of redeployment of integrated units out of the Kivus, or even attempts to better spread them within the Kivus, should have raised eyebrows. Donors could have addressed these issues for instance through efforts to impose quota of newly integrated troops for the units they were training, or to make continued support depend on the redeployment of troops out of the Kivus. However, they chose to massively stick their head in the sand, in spite of alarming signs that army integration had adverse effects on stability.

While it would be foolish to think a deeply political process like military integration can be stirred by merely changing the technical modalities we believe that concerted and well-timed pressure, as well as technical assistance, could have made a difference. To deny this is to succumb to fatalistic readings of the Congolese state and army, and to deny the contingency of events.  Different inputs could have created a momentum ultimately leading to other-albeit perhaps not radically different-outcomes, even in the face of Rwandan-backed elites keen on safeguarding their various interests.

A peacekeeping mission riddled with an identity and legitimacy crisis

The MONUSCO has been a laboratory for UN peacekeeping missions. Without the intention to minimize its contributions, we argue that this experiment has first and foremost provided us with various ‘don’ts’. Above all, it has shown the challenges to reconcile within one mission a diversity of delicate tasks that require each a very different positioning within the military landscape. The demobilization and disarmament of rebel combatants, civilian protection, and support for a rapacious government army are roles that are difficult to combine. Moreover, the Goma debacle shows that invoking the civilian protection mandate appears to have become particularly popular in situations that are high-risk for UN troops themselves.

The reasons for the MONUSCO’s failure to prevent the fall of Goma are surely complex. Hopefully, the UN will launch a critical examination of the events, which will shed more light on whether the decisions made were optimal even from a civilian protection perspective. The high civilian costs following the UN’s initial decision not to stop Nkunda’s advance on Bukavu in 2004, and the anticipated evacuation of most of the staff of aid organizations in case the city would fall, indicate there were good reasons to believe the humanitarian consequences of a rebel take-over would be dire. Furthermore, the MONUSCO military’s expression of frustration and bewilderment, for example by referring to rebels ‘coming from other sides’ than expected as well as by ascribing combat difficulties to the M23 not being ‘a conventional force,‘ seem to reflect the inadequate intelligence, situational awareness and tactical decision-making that are common to UN military operations.  Furthermore, some former UN top commanders have evaluated the Goma operations as an unmitigated failure of the UN.  For example, Brigadier General (ret.) Jan Isberg – former deputy force commander of the MONUC – described the operations as  a ‘fatal mistake’ a ‘sign of weakness, sending a message to rebel groups that you can run over the UN as you want ‘ and finally as ‘a betrayal of the Congolese population which will have serious repercussions for the UN.’

Whether this is just one reading of the events, it is clear that the confusing array of tasks assigned to the MONUSCO has been a recipe for creating disillusionment among the Congolese – both civilians and military. It is logical that the visible presence of a modern, professional fighting force generates high expectations concerning intervention, especially so in a resources-scarce environment where advanced military equipment is otherwise lacking. While it might be true that these expectations can be managed through a mission’s PR and outreach machine, the latter’s impact is bound to be modest. The signs given off by helicopters and tanks, in combination with advertised promises of protection, make a much stronger impression than the complicated messages of leaflets and radio emissions trying to explain the intricacies of mandates and rules of engagement. As a consequence, populations, certainly those in desperate conditions, will simply fail to understand what the MONUSCO is there for .

The decade-long erosion of the MONUSCO’s legitimacy, now hitting rock bottom, was by no means inevitable. Decisions at Security Council, headquarter and field level leading to a more consistent interpretation of the mandate, better operating directives and a more credible performance could have gone a long way to meet and adjust popular expectations. This also applies to the MONUSCO’s collaboration with the FARDC. If anything, the battle for Goma showed once again the deficient interaction between these two forces, supposedly operating in a joint manner. This notorious flawed cooperation is not only a result of the limited exchange of information at headquarters level. Another important factor is the long-standing mutual distrust and resentment. Understandably, the mostly aerial support of a well-equipped force pursuing a zero-casualty policy is not always enthusiastically welcomed by under-fed and under-equipped infantry knowing they are next in line to die. Many FARDC soldiers we spoke to simply see the MONUSCO as unreliable and cowards, who withdraw the minute it gets hot in order to hide behind their civilian protection mandate. This deep distrust, as well as the lack of coordination, strongly undermine any potential synergy that could result from joint operations.. In the FARDC’s current circumstances of high pressure , the blue helmets’ performance has reinforced frustration among troops already pushed to the limits due to deficient logistical support, and the climate of suspicion resulting from the awareness that traitors in their ranks constantly leak intelligence.

The consequences of a bilateral ‘islands’ approach to military reform

Yet, it was not only a lack of coordination with the MONUSCO that created confusion during the battle for Goma. A further problem was the knotty cooperation between different FARDC units partly caused by the ‘island’ approach to military reform pursued by donors. Distrust and a different operating style between Belgian-trained commandos on the one hand and the regiments on the other created an atmosphere of competition rather than collaboration. Similar problems were earlier reported in Dungu between US trained troops and their colleagues from ‘ordinary’ brigades. This raises questions about the effectiveness of the bilateral military assistance hitherto provided. Time and again, the training of rapid reaction units proves to have rather short-term and easily reversible effects, while also undermining coherence within the FARDC as a whole. Certainly, it could be argued that ‘one has to start somewhere’ and that the trained units are ‘examples’ or part of an ‘oil spot approach’ gradually diffusing ‘excellence’ in the military as a whole. Yet, it seems that without complementary structural reforms, notably improving service conditions, logistics, communications, infrastructure and overall human resources management, these ‘islands of excellence’ will be swallowed by an ocean of disorder. This has been clearly illustrated by the recent events, with well-trained troops at the frontlines without food, shelter and ammunition.

Finding a way out of the quagmire

In conclusion, the military weakness of the FARDC and the fall of Goma are the shared responsibility of a wide range of actors, including international donors.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this responsibility tends to be obscured, by conveniently unilaterally blaming the Congolese Government and its army. This gives the impression that the problems of the FARDC are somehow related to the innate features of its ‘ill-disciplined’ and predatory  personnel, rather than the outcome of a complex set of processes. However, the fall of Goma was more than a failure of Kabila and his under-resourced military: it was also the culmination of misguided international military and defence reform policies.

The same actors responsible for this debacle must now help finding a solution to the crisis, balancing the contradictory imperatives of immediately stopping the bloodshed while trying to foster longer-term stability. Much will depend on the outcomes of the diplomatic horse-trading currently taking place behind closed doors, but the prospects of finding an acceptable negotiated solution look quite bleak at the moment. M23’s refusal to withdraw from Goma before engaging in negotiations indicates that we might see a resumption of fighting in days ahead. While the outcome of military activity will partly depend on whether Rwanda will stop its support to the M23, it will also be influenced by decisions concerning the role of MONUSCO. If the peacekeeping mission does not step up and make more efforts to implement its chapter VII mandate, it is probably better that this mandate is revised, giving the mission a more modest, coherent and realistic set of tasks.  Whether this will be logistical support to the battered Congolese army, ensuring humanitarian access, or aerial surveillance with drones, thus being able to detect cross-border military movements, clear choices need to be made. Continuing the status-quo will only further disappoint a population and an army feeling already heavily let down by a peacekeeping mission they have probably never understood.

Maria Eriksson Baaz is Associate Professor at the Nordic Africa Institute and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy.

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Now, a few days after the election on November 17, everyone is waiting for the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to announce the final results. Rumors of when NEC is going to announce the results spread like wildfire across Freetown, where people are eagerly anticipating the results. Whether via radio, tv or text messages each press conference by NEC is believed to be the big one, where the results will be called by NEC’s chairperson Christiana Thorpe. But so far everyone is still waiting.

SLPP supporters giving the red card to APC – “you are out!”

The incumbent government, APC (red), has over the last years achieved visible changes in Sierra Leone, which is why many voters are reluctant to vote for a different player that may or may not continue on the same path. With slogans like: “De Pa de work” (The President works) and “I will do more” APC is banking on their incumbency advantage. APC has delivered in the past, and to many Sierra Leoneans seem more likely to continue to do so in the future. The result of this, however , is that while Sierra Leone may be anchoring their democracy with continued elections (this is the third one after the end of the civil war), they are also moving toward a more limited political party system. The smaller political opposition parties are marginalized further and the political system becomes more and more dominated by only two parties, the APC and SLPP.

However, the choice over party is not necessarily an informed one, as noted by one young woman: “Everybody says APC, APC. So I can’t criticize them, so I have to vote for them.”

While waiting for the NEC announcement, which will determine whether the country moves to a second round of presidential elections, or if one party has enough votes to capture the biggest prize – the presidency – SLPP supporters and party officials are crying fraud. Many of them are expecting, or rather hoping for a runoff, although at the moment such an outcome seems unlikely. Such statements from the opposition are understandable in a situation where they stand to lose a lot. At the same time, it raises concerns for outbreaks of violence in the aftermath of an announcement from NEC. Many voters, however, are hoping that Sierra Leone has moved beyond the kind of electoral violence that characterized the last election in 2007, and are frustrated that efforts to dampen such political fever may prove fruitless in the end.

APC election poster

Others seem to care less about the final result, and would rather have it all be done and over with, so that someone, either APC or SLPP can get on with moving the country forward, continuing to build roads and extending the electricity grid, or improving health care. As noted by one young man: “Let’s get it over with, and continue with more important things. So much that needs to be done in this country.” But the waiting game continues.

At the same time, life continues all over Freetown. Street vendors continue with business as usual, children play on the streets, cars competing to maneuver potholes and make their way the fastest to their destination. Footballs are kicked around wherever there is some unused space, and others are simply waiting for work, for something to do.

Johanna Söderström is a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. She is part of the project Between Big Man Politics and Democratisation: Local Perceptions and Individual Agency in Processes of Electoral Violence. She is currently in Freetown covering the elections.

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“We want a transparent election with no violence” was a statement shared by people in the streets of Freetown when they went to vote for the presidential and parliamentary elections yesterday (November 17). With no cars allowed in the street and with the threat of being arrested if gathering in groups or if engaging in any form of political campaigning, Freetown street life was marked by an unusual quietness. Before daybreak people were queuing waiting for the polling stations to open and voter turnout was reported high all over the country. With the exception of a few incidents, the election has been reported generally peaceful so far.

Marking the third general elections since the civil war, the elections are an important test to democratization and consolidation of peace. Moreover, the elections are an important test to the role military and militia formations will play in politics. During the 2007 elections former soldiers and militia members were mobilized into unofficial task force constellations by presidential candidates who lacked trust in the police to secure them. This mobilization not only activated old grudges between rival groupings, but also came to shape patterns political organization and security provision more broadly. Even though task force members were on trial for offenses relation to electoral – and post-electoral – violence, they were rewarded with official positions as tax collectors, mines monitors, and even as presidential guards with office at State House. Since then, they have been important players in political life. The 2012 elections is no exception in this regard. One out of several indicators of how militarised networks will continue to influence Sierra Leone politics is that Julius Maada Bio of the SLPP – a retired soldier who was head of state in 1996 during the military junta government – stand as presidential candidate. Like the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma of the APC, Maada Bio has an army of loyal ex-militias and ex-soldiers behind him – an army that can be directed for violent as well as peaceful purposes, as soldiers of as well as against democracy.

Today, these mobilized ex-soldiers and ex-militias are waiting at their respective party offices to know whether the election will position them as winners of losers. They have been waiting for this moment for long, and refer to the election as the “die minute”, knowing that the outcome will come to shape their future lives. If their favored candidate wins, the junior task force members may be rewarded with regular employment, and the senior ones may move a step closer to bigmanity. If their candidate loses, they are likely to get excluded from access to resources and from sources of protection. Whereas the process of campaigning has been dominated by intense action and busyness, as they have been constantly on the move to rally behind politicians and to organize security around the party offices, they are aware their lives may soon (again)be marked by stuckedness. Soon after electoral results are declared, life at the party office will no longer be a space of swarming activity and celebration, and they will no longer be encouraged with money, food, and similar “moral boosters” to keep up their political engagement. If they win, they might leave the part office, but if they lose they will (re)turn to waiting for a better future to come.

At this moment of suspense, both Maada Bio and Ernest Koroma are confident they are going to win the elections in the first round (which demands that they get 55 % of the votes). And so are the former militias and soldiers rallying behind them. Though Maada Bio – who despite his stained reputation refers to himself as ‘a contributor to democracy’ – has publicly declared that he will only accept the results if the elections are “clean” and “accepted by all”, task force members of both APC and SLPP seem to agree that “politics is not a war”. Yet, having given up everything to rally behind politicians – their time, their security, their lives outside the confines of the party office – they argue that they are entitled to harvest the benefit of their sacrifices. Also for this reason, they state that they will not accept defeat. In the next couple of days – if a run-off for a second round is not announced, we will know whether Ernest Koroma will continue to rule, of if Maada Bio will return to power. And we will know how mobilized ex-militias and ex-soldiers will handle victory – and defeat.

Maya Christensen is a PhD candidate at Copenhagen University. She has conducted fieldwork with ex-combatants in Freetown and Kailahun. She is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable of researchers dealing with contemporary structures of the rebel armies and militias in post-war Sierra Leone. Currently she is in Sierra Leone doing work within our project on election violence in West Africa.

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The Death of a Big Man

It was reported that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 20th at the age of 57, a relatively young age for an African dictator. Zenawi had been the de facto leader of Ethiopia since the coup he led dislodging Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Zenawi is known for his repressive and intolerant leadership style that jailed dissident journalists, killed hundreds of opposition members and protesters, and forced numerous Ethiopians into exile. While his human rights record leaves much to be desired, Zenawi’s economic successes and policies are hard to ignore with realistic claims of 11% annual growth since 2004, a revived agricultural sector, and a (mostly) honest and well intended use of donor funds.

Some commentators have expressed concerns that the fragility of Ethiopia, which Zenawi managed to hold together, could leave a power vacuum—especially considering the irredentist ambitions of Somalia and persistent grievances emanating from Eretria. However, Jason Mosley, an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House, correctly stated that while Zenawi’s party is by no means “monolithic” and that plans were evidently in motion for a leadership transition in the near future, but it is likely that Zenawi was planning to solidify himself as the head of his the state anyway. Mosley comments further that few historical precedents exist in Ethiopia to help guide this transition process along, complicating the situation further.

Despite these concerns, I think that the death of Zenawi provides a better window into questions of political succession and legitimacy in ‘Big Men’ states, than any would be violence per se. In other words, I think that a serious observer of the current political climate in Ethiopia should pay careful attention to individuals posturing their authority in this unsettling climate, and be less enamored by whoever ascends to fill the Prime Minister post due to some guideline in the constitution that no one has ever paid attention to in the first place.


Informal Networks

Zenawi, like many ‘Big Men,’ rose to power through informal networks from outside the formal state structure. And Zenawi maintained his control by pumping money, opportunity, jobs, and any other kind of reward into these informal structures by pillaging the formal state, or through strict application of military against opposition. For its part, the informal networks supported Zenawi so long as the wealth and opportunity flowed. However, importantly, with the death of Zenawi the informal network, of which he was previously the head, is now shifting and someone must come to the fore to fill this void.

Nevertheless, informal networks are typically very complex—making the next ‘Big Man’ hard to predict. Mats Utas, a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, described informal networks in his book, African Conflicts and Informal Power as, “an intricate latticework of collaborative ventures…and consist of relations that are enduring but by no means permanent.” In the case of Ethiopia this translates into a sophisticated constellation of formal and informal interests from the military, private sector, civic groups, rebels, consumers, farmers, and financial institutions. These entities come together in precise and indirect ways which may not be totally apparent to even the ordinary Ethiopian citizens, let alone casual foreign observers.


‘Second Fiddles’ and Patrimonial Networks

Zenawi was an institution in and of himself, but he did not stand on his own. Just like most ‘Big Men’ regimes there are “second fiddles,” or individuals who are acting primarily behind the scenes and, because they have aggregated enough authority and followship, have become major forces in the political and economic landscape. These individuals could range from, depending on the country, career military officers, tribal leaders, insurgents or rebels, Parlimentarians, or a relative of another power broker. Importantly, “second fiddles” do not necessarily need to come from, in this case, Zenawi’s inner circle because of the diverse nature of informal social relations and political pragmatism in ‘Big Men’ regimes. Therefore, the individual who actually “replaces” Zenawi may, or may not, ascend to the role of Prime Minister, rather, it is more critical that they fill the all-important void in the informal patrimonial network that Zenawi left behind. Similarly, rumor and some analysts claim that, even as Vice President, Paul Kagame has been running Rwanda thanks to his military and intelligence contacts. This may suggest that president Bizimungu was, in fact, a “second fiddle.” At any rate, my point is that the Big Man does not need to be president so long as they can provide enough wealth to control the informal network in any given country or space.

In my opinion, Western observers in general have yet to fully realize the omnipresence of informal power and its role in the function of contemporary political and social life in Africa. The mischaracterization of Africa by many observers had led to a lack of appreciation of behind-the-scenes power brokers which makes analysis of “formal” political regimes and leadership incomplete. This incomplete analysis is one reason that many academics and policymakers were caught by surprise when the popular and fairly democratic president Amadou Toure was deposed by a coup from an obscure Captain from the Malian military. While I hasten to add there are many other dynamics and factors at play in the Malian case; nevertheless, few observers predicted that the intense frustration emanating from certain key officials in the military would lead to such extremes. This frustration, coupled with the Tuareg rebellion seemed to provide an opening for the informal networks in Mali to be reconstituted.


The Relationship Between Big Men and Second Fiddles

 Ethiopia and Mali are rarer cases in this phenomenon because of the boldness of individuals who usurped power garnered so much international focus. Greater in number are, as Anders Themner described in African Conflicts and Informal Power “actors such as paramount chiefs, warlords, politicians and businessmen [that] have much sway over societal affairs. The authority of these elites, or Big Men, stems from their ability to create networks of dependents that can be mobilized to acquire power, resources, and concessions.” However, I would like to assert a perspective that somewhat parts ways with Utas’s interpretation of Big Men as “nodes in the informal network.”

I would argue, at least at the theoretical level, that the modern state system in Africa prevents numerous Big Men from existing side-by-side in the same country; rather, I believe that most of these nodes are actually those individuals playing “second fiddle” to the Big Man. This distinction should not be taken as to claim that the Big Man stands alone. But due to the complexity and inter-reliance of the informal networks, Big Men will most certainly need to strike deals, or even on some occasions bow down to interests of these “second fiddles” to maintain their power. Moreover, the resource limitations of the state means that a certain level of distribution to these informal networks must take place through these nodes, or “second fiddles” to keep the state and network bound and ‘functioning.’

In short, a cunning Big Man will take the lion’s share of state resources for himself but also ensure that enough wealth is flowing to the informal networks and “second fiddles” to secure his position as the Big Man. However, I think that there are alternatives. In instances where the Big Man either cannot bring a powerful “second fiddle” into his patrimonial network, or refuses to try, he may utilize force and violence to ‘legitimize’ his role as the Big Man. The relationship between Big Men and “second fiddles” does not have to be marked by frustration and tension however, nor would it be fair to claim that “second fiddles” are powerlessly subjugated below the Big Man—rather “second fiddles” are simultaneously establishing the Big Man, and aggressive in their desire to generate more wealth and authority. I offer this slight variation of Utas’s arguments to contribute to the conversation, and hopefully to the re-conceptualization of power relations in contemporary Africa. Naturally, however, empirical data and clearer case studies are needed to support many of the claims and theories that I have presented.


Moving Forward without a Big Man

Despite the fact that Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is in control of the country, I believe it will soon be clear which of the “second fiddles” in the now shifting Ethiopian power structures are vying to replace ascend to be the Big Man. Unfortunately, political transition in Africa has developed the reputation of being more of a tournament-style moment, with various personalities all gunning to occupy that number one slot. I am sure that Ethiopia is no exception to this, particularly since there is little doubt that there are individuals who have sat as “second fiddles,” and waited eagerly for a bigger piece of the action during Zenawi’s long reign. I believe that commentators of African affairs would do well to observe how Ethiopia recovers from this political theater, and not only note who replaces Zenawi but how they ascend to that role.

Declan Galvin is an MA candidate at New York University concentrating on African Politics and Security. He is an avid observer and commentator on global issues, and was recently honored as an NYU Africa House Fellow. He has lived, worked, and conducted research throughout the African continent since 2008, presenting and publishing his findings in a number of social and academic venues. In addition to his scholarly work, he has consulted and worked with non-profit organizations throughout the world. He may be reached at dbg279@nyu.edu for questions or comments.

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