Once a combatant, always a combatant? by Ilmari Käihkö

In the recent report of the United Nations (UN) Security Council Panel of Experts on Liberia the authors express a stern warning concerning the dangers posed by former combatants for the cross-border security in the Mano River belt. According to the Panel of Experts, these former combatants in Liberia “present in remote border regions… live in semi-organized autonomous groups outside of any State authority, often under the direct influence of former ‘generals’ who commanded rebel factions during the Liberian civil conflict”.[i]

I acquired the report less than a week after returning from Liberia, where I’ve spent more than ten months during the past two years investigating networks of former combatants as a part of my PhD research. The bulk of my fieldwork has been conducted in the Southeastern Grand Gedeh County, which is also the area the Panel of Experts focus on due to the recent cross-border attacks from Grand Gedeh to Ivory Coast. Because I am most familiar with this setting, and because the report obviously focuses on Grand Gedeh, I will also concentrate on the county.

Before I start it needs to be emphasized that Grand Gedeh is a somewhat extreme part of Liberia. It is marginalized in at least three different ways: politically, socially and economically. Politically the Grandgedehians feel that the government of the President Johnson-Sirleaf is against the county and its inhabitants. Socially the Grandgedehians feel ostracized and blamed for all the bad things happening in the country. Economically the southeast has few concessions or any other opportunities for formal employment. During the rainy season the roads can become impassable at times, leading to sudden hikes in gasoline and other commodity prices and stranding people from reaching or leaving the southeast. Finally, escaping “state authority” in Grand Gedeh is not very difficult, and in many areas the Liberian state is a relatively recent actor whose advance was slowed to a crawl by the civil wars. Even today, one does not need to go far away from the county capital of Zwedru to find areas where tradition trumps the government law.

Once a combatant, always a combatant? This is the question that I found myself asking when I read the Report. Having spent time with former combatants, even in “remote border regions” in Grand Gedeh and elsewhere, I did not immediately recognize the kinds of “semi-organized autonomous groups outside of any State authority” the Report describes. In many ways the whole of Grand Gedeh might be described as periphery and a “remote border region”. While I agree with the Panel of Experts that former combatants often “have few financial opportunities besides illegal mining, hunting and drug trafficking” (I would though replace drug trafficking with farming, which is certainly more common way of earning a living – even for former combatants), one could question whether the situation is much different for non-combatants living in the same area. What is often forgotten is that once the war ended the people who had been fighting the war faced most if not all the problems of other people, plus the possible physical, psychological and social wounds inflicted by the war. Especially the lack of education has proven to be a challenge for those who fought for a longer period of time. While some have returned to school after the war, many have not. Some of the former combatants thus embarked in the already difficult realities of the Liberian post-conflict with considerable disadvantages.

Then again, it is perhaps most obvious in Grand Gedeh that many former combatants are actually very much involved in State authority. Most of the leading politicians in the county, some of whom have been elected and some who were selected by the President, have links to the warring factions. While not all of them necessarily held arms, some certainly did. When one looks at the list of the candidates for the 2014 senatorial elections one can assume this trend to continue in the future as two people who led rebel movements during the civil war are expected to run for office next year. Then again, there is very little chance that any of these two have anything to do with the cross-border attacks.

Not surprisingly many of these “big people” holding positions have brought their former wartime comrades and friends to positions varying from the security forces to administration to businesses in the county. To give one example, the local head of the National Security Agency tasked to stop the cross-border attacks in 2012 was himself a former combatant. I would be surprised if he did not personally know many, if not most, of the people accused of involvement in these attacks. It should also be said that I am very suspicious about the claim that anyone who “commanded rebel factions during the Liberian civil conflict” has anything to do with cross-border attacks. Some frontline commanders probably have, but not anyone close to a faction leader. Which leads us to the idea of former combatants.

The making of former combatants
In the Report, the Panel of Experts notes that “of most concern is the capacity of… former ‘generals’ and their men to be rapidly mobilized and recruited for mercenary activities”. There are arguably two things that contribute to this concern and set former combatants apart from other people: familiarity with certain networks, as well as a certain unique skillset that can be used for violence.

When it comes to networks, one should remember that as Charles Piot (1999) has argued, people “do not ‘have’ relations; they ‘are’ relations“– and that the agency of these people “resides not within a singular identity… but in the relations people have with one another”.[ii] From this point of view the people who exclusively build their identities on wartime performance can be seen as failures. Because the rules of the game are different in war and peace, the people “stuck” in the past can sometimes be looked down upon by others as incapable of making their way in the post-conflict realities. For example, some well-known commanders who held important positions during the war did not succeed in turning these into anything in the post-conflict, and can only capitalize on their past status. As Mats Utas describes, it is common for some former commanders to remind that “once a general always a general”.[iii] But I’ve met enough former commanders whose only leverage is past glory (if they even were commanders – as several former commanders have noted that “anybody can call themselves anything after the war”). As another commander shouted in frustration last year,
“A general shouldn’t sweep his own floor”. But this can also become a problem, as it is difficult to respect anybody living in dirt. In other words, generals with nothing can equal to nothing.

Ten years into the post-conflict many of the more successful former combatants do not exclusively hang around with their former commanders and comrades. Family, neighbors, colleagues and congregations are examples of other networks that in many cases have outplayed the wartime networks. But then again, because relations are central to being, most do not shun ex-combatant networks either. Many still uphold some kind of relationship with their former big men, and can at times get together to lecture with the people with whom they share comradeship and similar experiences from the wartime – or to uphold the contact because nobody knows what the future will bring with it.

But that former combatants stay in touch should not be very surprising, as the revolution constitutes a formative experience for many who played a part in it. Similarly, it should not be surprising if the people who lack other networks find themselves in patron-client relationships with former commanders. It should though be pointed out that I’ve witnessed only one network that consisted exclusively of a commander and some of the fighters who fought under him. Perhaps the fate of this network is telling, as it fell apart within weeks.

The largest military network I’ve seen was led by a former Lofa Defense Force fighter, a man far away from home who nevertheless controlled former fighters from practically all the various factions, and even many more civilians in a gold mining field. Such mixed networks are rather the norm than the exception, and their existence suggests that to only look at fixed chains of command may blind us from the more complex realities. In fact, some former commanders prefer to employ non-combatants, as even they have the widely spread notion about former combatants being used to fast money. These commanders believe that former combatants lack patience and are not careful. It is not once or twice former commanders have claimed to employ so-and-so many of their former fighters, when in reality this has not been true. One former supporter of Charles Taylor claimed not long ago to having employed a thousand former combatants. I cannot say if this is the case or not, but one thing is certain: not only is he a big man because he controls people, but the power over former fighters makes him also a power broker as a potential peacemaker – or a war-maker. And at the same time such statements are exactly what many of us coming from the outside want to hear and believe.

The second difference between former combatants and civilians, the unique skillset, should not be overestimated. Anybody with experience from the military knows that once acquired, combat training needs to be maintained.[iv] Additionally, many fighters have become older, got families to take care of and are neither willing nor capable of embarking on ‘Las Palmas’ (as paid military missions abroad have been called at least since the times of Charles Taylor. I am still curious concerning the origins of the expression). A good example of this comes from 2011-12, when one former commander in Grand Gedeh mobilized fighters not only from his networks of former combatants, but also from his kin networks that consisted of relatives and neighbors (which in the county are often overlapping categories). In reality the unique skillset might perhaps constitute of little more than the rudimentary skills to use weapons and the knowledge of basic tactical manoeuvers (note though the problems with coordinating attacks in 2012 described in previous Panel of Experts reports).

At the same time previous experience makes many former combatants unwilling to take to arms, ever again. Most former combatants in Liberia have bad experiences from the politicians that have used and discarded them after they got what they wanted (this is why I am skeptical about the claim concerning the high-ups). Many have seen friends die. Some think about their children and families. Others cannot leave their livelihoods for short-term missions, which do not even pay as well as is often thought. Most were fed up with war already in 2003 and happy when it ended. And then again, the exact skillsets vary considerably: some former combatants had military training, perhaps even international one, from the time before the outbreak of the war in 1989, and put these skills to use until 2003. Others were mobilized only weeks before the war ended. Some stopped fighting already in 1990. What should be clear from this is that former combatants are not one homogenous group that collectively bears some sort of mark of the beast. While some former combatants certainly do constitute a security risk, the vast majority does not (at least because of their past as combatants). The minority can be argued to possess three things: the readiness to employ violence in the first place, the reputation that attracts possible mobilizers (and in the case of a commander makes other would-be fighters willing to follow him), and the access to weapons. The thing is, however, that not one of these three requires the potential security threat to actually be a former combatant.

Past former combatants?
I have argued here that former combatants are not a neat category of people. In fact I do find that as an analytical category it has at least to an extent lost its usefulness in Liberia. This is because of three reasons. Firstly, it is more than a decade since the end of the war and even many former combatants themselves believe that the fact that they are former combatants has lost relevance. Secondly, not only do many former combatants refuse to participate in any violent work, but we have even seen that many of the combatants in the recent armed conflicts (such as the fighting in Ivory Coast since the 2010 presidential elections) do not even belong to this category. Thirdly, the category potentially includes the more than 100,000 who went through the disarmament process after the war, which makes the designation of the whole group as security threats nothing less than sensational in a country that only has around four million inhabitants.

What could then be the alternative?

As I have hinted above, many of the former combatants belong to the group of the marginalized youth. While this category is of course much bigger than that of the former combatants, it does encompass many more former combatants than the much more restrictive (I would like to say close to non-existing) category of former combatants defined by the Panel of Experts. Perhaps most importantly, while some of the future combatants will also be former combatants, the vast majority of them will be youth characterized not by age but rather by its marginalization: the youth equal to the self-perceived have-nots. As long as this marginalization continues, these youth will be forced to continue to look for opportunities. This makes me very receptive to the recent suggestion made by NAI Researcher Emy Lindberg during a recent talk at the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia: the forms of mobilization for work in war and peace have not been very different in Liberia.[v] Liberian youth looking for a different hustle will continue to embark on ‘Las Palmas’ whenever an opportunity good enough arises. Perhaps then it would be more fruitful to look at the more general trends, beyond the more exciting – but less useful – category of former combatants?

Ilmari Käihkö is a PhD candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, with funding from the Nordic Africa Institute and the Swedish National Defence College. His research investigates (the Liberian) military organizations and their makings.



[i] Panel of Experts on Liberia. (2013). S/2013/683 Final report of the Panel of Experts on Liberia submitted pursuant to resolution 2079 (2012). http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2013/683 , p. 11.

[ii] Piot, Charles. (1999). Remotely global: village modernity in West Africa. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, p. 17.

[iii] Utas, Mats. (2013). Once a General, always a General?. http://matsutas.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/once-a-general-always-a-general/

[iv] Here I am reminded by the memorable phrase of Clausewitz: ”Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Clausewitz, Carl von. (2007). On War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 65.

[v] Lindberg, Emy. (2013). Youth and the Labor Market in Liberia – on history, state structures and spheres of informalities. Paper presented at the Swedish Embassy of Liberia in Monrovia on 27th November, 2013.

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One Response to Once a combatant, always a combatant? by Ilmari Käihkö

  1. Pingback: Analysis: Fighting in South Sudan may be difficult to end | AFKInsider

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