Generals for good? Do-good generals and the structural endurance of wartime networks

In the aftermath of civil wars there is a general belief that old command structures of former rebel movements and militias is a serious threat to newfound stability. Indeed there is enough evidence around pointing out how easily remobilized such networks are. There is however a tendency of viewing this mobilization as the very logic of the networks themselves – as if their very raison d’être is to create eternal conflict. The problem with this hackneyed focus on armed groups is that we are letting the leading political characters that acted behind the façade of the armed groups off the hook. In any DDR process a lot of effort is placed on dismantling chains of command, command and control etc., of armed groups. Despite this, ten years after the end of the second Liberian war contacts between commanders and their former soldiers still prevail, yet most commonly for non-military reasons. Indeed some networks of ex-combatants have disappeared but many others remain. It appears that what the DDR process chiefly managed to do was to drive the networks underground and out of sight of the international community.

Liberian elites are well-aware of the continued existence and function of these networks and although the governing elite partly fears that former generals and their chain of commands may be used by competing elites, to challenge them, in fact most times they tend themselves to see the advantages of these networks and use them for own purposes. The most obvious example is during elections where parties compete over ex-combatant networks and where most former generals remobilize their former soldiers (see my blog posts: Off stage politics, Election riots and Post-election, Anders Themnér Report from Monrovia: ”You go where the sunshine is” and Mariam Persson: The logic of staying mobilised – Liberian ex-combatants and the 2011 elections). Equally so politicians/businessmen see advantages of using ex-combatant networks for mobilizing labor, both as security and manual labor (for a good example see Mariam Persson’s chapter in the book African conflicts and informal power edited by me, but also Danny Hoffman’s excellent book The war machines).

Anders Themnér and I are now on the last year of researching the roles of former mid-level commanders (ex-MiLCs), commonly referred to as generals in Liberia, and their roles in post-war Liberia (The Informal Realities of Peacebuilding – Military Networks and Former Mid-Level Commanders in Post-War Liberia). One of our starting points, deriving from previous research, is that the networks of former combatants that we study are in themselves neither good nor bad, in fact they are only mobilized (or remobilized) when political actors take action – rebel generals do not themselves start wars. One of our key findings is that former generals continue to control the labor of ex-combatants, not only the soldiers they previously commanded over, but also other predominantly young men who see personal advantages of “being behind” him/her. They have in fact many times located a socio-economic, and at times political, niche of brokering deals between political and economic elite and their former foot-soldiers. We have seen how this works very well in informal situations where ex-MiLCs hold no formal position in the society. However we have also seen how a good number of ex-MiLCs are today firmly integrated in the formal texture of Liberian post-war society (as indeed many of them were before the war started – very much challenging the idea that all rebel soldiers came from marginal backgrounds).

Motorbike taxis in downtown Ganta

Motorbike taxis in downtown Ganta

Recently I spent some time in Ganta, Nimba County. I lived in Ganta for six months back in 1998 and it is interesting to note how much change the city has gone through. Ganta is located close to the Guinea border and the main reason for development and relative wealth is clearly border trade. Whilst previous competitors of being Liberia’s second city, Gbarnga and Buchanan have not recovered, Ganta has become a boom city. Ganta is in the old NPFL/Charles Taylor forces heartland and when it fell to LURD rebels (supported by Guinea), in 2003, soldiers and others were quick to organize resistance against the rebels and indeed managed to retake the city. In many Nimbadians’ eyes these soldiers were seen as protectors and liberators thus making it easier for ex-combatants to reintegrate in society when they laid down arms. Ganta is therefore not the typical Liberian setting when it comes to reintegration patterns – but thereby not saying that it is a special case.

The standard narrative amongst former generals is that the people under them still have a lot of expectations. Generals talk about how they are approached by their former soldiers in the streets and asked for money. At times approached with the words “my father”, the generals clearly still feel obliged to help them, but they themselves rarely have more resources than tokens to give them. When walking down the street with two former generals we once in a while meet up with their former soldiers who will typically salute them and then cautiously hang around with the hope that some money will “drop”. But these haphazard connections appear not to be the most common form of post-war relationship. Instead chains of labor and mutual dependency are. A good general is a general who successfully brokers labor opportunities, or who remains ones “boss man” but within civil work – thus handing out a little money now and then is not enough. Preferably good generals have their own business (could also be a rural farm) or a management position which enables them to employ former combatants.

Generals I met during fieldwork in Nimba included several heads of security firms and also security details on plantations and other organizations. They are junior managers on plantations and in mines, immigration officers, owner of private schools and video clubs, university students, a city solicitor at a magistrate court and even a city mayor. Following some of them around, going to their villages and meeting with villagers, visiting people running informal banking institutions, where they are members, and visiting others who knew them as commanders from the war it is quite safe to say that this particular group is rather well-seen and respected in the county. Although seldom amongst the wealthiest many own land, have houses and made farms and smaller plantations. Yet still there are other former generals who are much less involved in formal business and who are still seen as something of a security threat. There are still those who are not satisfied with the outcome of the war and look for new opportunities. Such opportunities will hardly turn up in Liberia at time being, but there have been recent rumors of remobilization in Nimba for activities across the border in Côte d’Ivoire. As most of our work (and others work as well) is concerned with former chain of commands of informal character I try here to focus on the generals who are well integrated in the socio-economic fabric.

Here is a brief list of the trades that we found integrated generals in:

  1. 1.       Security work

The city mayor of Ganta is a former general. Obviously he would not sit and confess how he still has soldiers around him, or how he employs them. However when talking to him he says that he used to run a security firm. Security firms are full of former soldiers. Another general that we interviewed is a former army captain that joined the resistance when Ganta fell. During the war he had established close links to a local business man who has now turned into a politician. Through their old friendship the politician established a security firm that he asked the general to head. Many of the men that work for this man are his former fighters and he states that it is much easier to work with former fighters (especially those who fought under him) than others. In fact another former general that is heading a security detail within a larger company looks at me in disbelief when asking him of the advantages of employing former combatants: they take command, they respect you and you get things done – others are much harder to deal with. In a similar way within the security business there is a preference to employ a former general as the head as he has the respect (or at times people fear him) and he embodies the CoC (Command and Control) from the war years.

  1. 2.       Plantation work

At one of the larger plantations we found that the security structure was not headed by a former general, but there were indeed two within the structure. Furthermore as this plantation started operating again after the end of the war the owner asked a general (actually a person who worked as my research assistant during my Ganta study) to help employ people for both security and laborers. This general was chief of staff during the latter part of the war in the Ganta region and knew who would work well at the plantation but could also keep a nominal control over them even if he was not residing on the plantation. By giving him this opportunity they furthermore secured his loyalty in case there would be renewed conflict or other forms of trouble. At this plantation they have a manager who is a former general. Also here it is an advantage to have someone with CoC knowledge to manage tappers who are otherwise known to be unruly. During the first years after the conflict ex-combatants at the plantation often caused problems but staff at the local court responsible for this area point out that it is now rare that ex-combatants involve themselves in problems. Now it is typically young men – men younger than the ex-combatants.

  1. 3.       Education

During my field research in Ganta in 1998 it was interesting to listen to the various strategies that ex-combatants had for obtaining education. In fact many held the prospect of going to school as a prime factor for joining a rebel faction or militia. Partly commanders promised education, but also many poor youngsters realized that they would never get very far in their education under normal conditions and if the war could offer anything with regards to social mobility it was in the field of education. Saved money did in some cases render education for combatants (as I have shown elsewhere). With this as a historical reference point, by now 15 years ago(!), I find it interesting that so many generals are back in school. In Monrovia we found many former generals on scholarships – typically doing criminal justice. Also amongst the Ganta crowd of generals several were now fighting for university degrees. Clearly they view themselves (and correctly so) as more educated than their soldiers (education often gave a boost upwards in the command structure). This is also the case in the post-war. Not only do former generals invest in their own education, they also invest in education of others. An interesting example is the general who set up a school in Ganta during the Taylor years where he, as he himself readily pointed out, especially catered for ex-combatants. He partly upheld his command structure in peaceful times by giving scholarships to his former soldiers. Today however there are few former combatants left in the school. At the same time he spends most of his time in Monrovia completing his master degree.

  1. 4.       Farming

Except for in urban centers, and then especially Ganta, wage labor is found on large-scale plantations and in the iron mines (an important asset in Nimba). Yet still farming and small-scale plantation is the dominant form of subsistence in the county. Even though former generals prefer to stay in urban settlements they often have close ties to their rural villages (in some cases this is where they are born and in other cases they themselves have never resided there). Quite often they own land or are part of landowning families and as labor structures looks like it is common that they use their former combatants as labor during particularly labor intense periods. When we visit a former general, who is now a city solicitor, in his village, he shows us the large rubber farm he planted in 2005. For him it is pretty clear that he will use his old soldiers when possible, yet he can only do so with the few ones residing in the village. Bringing people in from the outside would add too many additional expenses including transportation, food and lodging costs for the workers.

In this short text I have not included the larger power structure of the county – we will extend on this later. However it is clear from our study how intricately linked former generals are to political figures in the county – this is also a general finding of our larger project. It becomes the more obvious when one takes into consideration the fact that Ganta has a former general as city mayor. Former warlord Prince Johnson, leader of the rebel group INPFL during the first Liberian war, is a senator and the leader of the third largest Liberian political party. Another former general of NPFL Adolphus Dolo, “General Peanut butter”, a Johnson Sirleaf loyalist, served as the junior senator up until the last election. Furthermore several of the wealthiest businessmen in Nimba made much of their wealth during the war, partly under the protection of the generals I have discussed. Nimbadians have partly elected former rebels due to concerns for their own security, or their relative sense of insecurity on the national level, but it is also clear that many generals form an intricate part of the socio-political networks at the county level.

Against the grain of common scholarship there is good reason to see a good number of generals as a stabilizing factor in post-war Nimba, and in Liberia in general. In the positions that I have described above they still have the capacity to command former combatants, but instead of destabilizing Nimba they have in fact aided their former soldiers to reintegrate into formal livelihoods and civilian lives. Conversely it could be argued that if chains of commands would have been successfully broken it would only have further impoverished ex-combatants forcing them to remain on the margins of post-war Liberia in situations where they could more easily be enticed into possible re-deployment into militia groups. The control and trust of these networks is furthermore a factor that makes work more efficient in certain sectors of a recovering Liberian economy. As a general alluded “we are generals for good” pointing to the double meaning of being do-good generals but also the permanence of their current managerial roles in chains of command.

This entry was posted in Conflict, Conflict economies, Excombatants, Governance, Post Conflict and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Generals for good? Do-good generals and the structural endurance of wartime networks

  1. Jinnah Nyallay says:

    I find this write-up very informative. Indeed a lot of questions still remain about the role of ex-combatants after peace is brokered especially in African civil wars. In Sierra Leone during the 2007 General elections for example, serious threats were posed to the general elections process due to instances where the then two leading presidential candidates resulted to hiring ex combatants as private security guards.

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