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.

“Development” reflections from a long awaited return to Sierra Leone

Among my friends in Sierra Leone I have a reputation for “not knowing how to walk properly” (“waka fine”) especially at night. One time in April 2009, during field research for my PhD thesis and after a late evening visit to a friend, I even stumbled into a nasty ditch that I “should have grown used to” (so I was told) a long time ago, since I regularly frequented the same street during daylight. I ripped my jeans, received a cut on my ankle and had to suffer the amused assistance of bystanders who pulled me out of the ditch. According to next day’s gossip I managed not to cry but was so ashamed of my clumsiness that I begged my friendly helpers to please keep quiet about the incident. However, my Western inability to gracefully cope with Bo Town’s road conditions and nearly constant blackout was just too delightful.

In September 2013 I returned to Sierra Leone on a consultancy contract with a British NGO, but I have also tried to spend as much time as possible with old friends from my PhD research in the southern city of Bo, who have now scattered all over the country. For me it has been a long awaited return to Sierra Leone after four years of longing absence and too much dissertation writing. I soon realized that neither my clumsiness nor my reputation have improved over the years: As I was walking the relentlessly dark streets of Waterloo (a Western Area town near the capital city Freetown) with a close friend one night, he reminisced the good times we had had in Bo and how he had watched out for me when walking with me at night. As I was about to step into a water-filled pothole, he laughingly grabbed my elbow and warned me to, “please not break Ernest’s looking glass”. How absolutely brilliant! Ernest, of course, refers to President Ernest Bai Koroma, whose Agenda for Change towards “development” and towards a proper “developmentality” (so called Attitudinal and Behavioural Change) has recently been renamed the Agenda for Prosperity for Sierra Leone. But ‒ despite some undeniable improvements in some parts of the country ‒ potholes continue to make up a large portion of the total amount of street-space; and, according to my friend, they thereby reflect the country’s persistent state of “non-development”.[1]

Over the last couple weeks I have often “tested” the pothole/looking glass analogy in discussions about the current state of the country. It has usually met approval and was almost never fully rejected, though some discussion partners thought it somewhat unjust “because Ernest has been trying”. Still, the only person to wholeheartedly praise the “development record” was a well-connected and well-to-do Freetown acquaintance of mine. She relayed that − thanks to the government’s efforts − she now really enjoyed riding her jeep on the few newly refurbished streets of Western Freetown. By contrast, jobless, unpaid, and/or underemployed men break out in sarcastic laughter whenever I ask about “development”; and female petty traders smile apologetically while informing me that they do not feel knowledgeable enough to discuss the topic ‒ because they really haven’t seen much “development” with their own eyes so far.

Many interviews and conversations, both with old friends and with new informants, sound to me like replays of interviews and conversations from my 2009 research. At first glance the talk in the ghettos (street hang-out spots), palm-wine bars, and markets has not changed much: “We are suffering!”; “the big ones (chiefs, politicians, and other more or less powerful people who control and distribute resources) only care for their own families, while there are no good schools and no proper health care facilities for us and our children!”; “Sierra Leone has all sorts of minerals, but we see no benefits”; and most of all, “there are no jobs!”. A casual observer of the country’s recent “development record” may easily be surprised by these complaints. After all, Sierra Leone is supposed to have free primary education, free basic health care for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under the age of five, and the country has been attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which – according to mainstream economic theory – should come with job creation, technology transfer, and various other growth-and-development-inducing trickle-down effects.[2] But, as it is put in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca Krio, “i no betteh”: these “improvements” are not ‒ yet? ‒ the real thing, no “proper development” at all. For example, primary education is not actually free in the sense that everybody can afford it. Parents still have to pay for uniforms, for school materials, and often for teachers who receive no regular or sufficient salary. While it is acknowledged and somewhat accepted that many teachers are struggling to make ends meet, there is much resentment for teachers who frequently press their students for money ‒ and/or for sex. A young female university graduate and mother of a young daughter explained to me that she had suffered unwanted sexual advances all throughout her education from secondary school to her MA course only to find that she still wasn’t done with it: “Anytime I go to a job interview the bosses ask me for sex if I want the job!” However, she has decided not to give in to their demands. She explained that she wanted nothing to do with Sierra Leonean men anymore, who, in her estimation, have internalized the logics of exploitation and are generally unable to see women as equal human beings to the degree that “there is no love, just sex and money”. It is a story that I have heard over and over again; often from women who have seen no other way but to try to secure monetary assistance for their education through various boyfriends (who, in turn, often feel fooled by women who “are only after money”). When I asked the university graduate about her views on “free primary education” she only smiled, shook her head, and relayed the story of a teacher who required each one of his pupils to provide him with one chicken before he allowed them to take final exams: “He should have the biggest poultry in Sierra Leone by now!” Also, even mentioning the term “free health care” can provoke angry reactions. True, everybody can go to a government hospital and expect to see a nurse or even a doctor, “but unless you pull money they just send you home to die” (female petty trader in Kenema). It would be easy to attribute such angry reactions to “exaggerated expectations”. After all, for now, “free health care” is only meant to be provided to specific segments of the population ‒ pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under the age of five ‒ and with regard to some of their specific vulnerabilities; and yes, the available data indicates that progress has been made in the battle against Sierra Leone’s devastatingly high maternal and infant mortality rates.[3] But falling sick in Sierra Leone remains a highly fearful, often unaffordable, and consequently deadly business and many people are increasingly unwilling to accept this as the “normal” state of affairs. And really, why should they? It hasn’t helped that the introduction of “free health care” in 2010 was followed by a series of medication-“disappearances”, which has been attributed to corrupt medical personnel and has been taken on by the Anti-Corruption Commission.[4] But there are persistent rumors about doctors who replace proper medications with ineffective pills ‒ and then go off and sell the good drugs to top up their salaries.

During a discussion with traders, laid off mining workers, and a pastor in Koidu (Kono District) they related such harmful practices to “the vicious cycle of poverty”. It goes as follows: Because everyone is afraid of poverty and most people have many responsibilities (i.e., dependents) they just grab as much as they can as soon as an opportunity arises no matter the costs to their fellow Sierra Leoneans. According to my discussion partners even “the big ones” follow this logic; and they do not even try all that hard to hide it. As an example they pointed out that one paramount chief in Koidu had openly declared ‒ in a radio interview no less ‒ that he regularly received “an envelope” (bribe) from Koidu Holdings/OCTÉA Limited, the foreign-owned company that dominates the industrial diamond mining sector.[5] According to their account the paramount chief went on to explain that he saw no reason to be ashamed of taking part in this business practice; after all, he was a man with many responsibilities ‒ and he knew for a fact that even the vice president (a Kono “son of the soil”) received his envelopes on a regular basis. No wonder then that local and national authorities have failed to protect the interests of Kono miners, who have repeatedly sought to draw attention to their various grievances including dangerous working conditions, insufficient salaries, withheld bonus payments, and mistreatments by the expat-management:

The people [Koidu Holdings management] openly tell us that our government is in their pockets…the police takes its share, the military takes its share, the local government officials take their own…so who can talk for us? This is our situation. It is so appalling. Because those people who should talk for us have already taken the side of the company. (Interview with laid off workers/former strike leaders in Koidu)

Following initially peaceful protests a strike organized by Koidu Holdings workers in December 2012 escalated into what became termed a “riot” and was smashed by a police intervention that left many wounded and two people dead by gunshot wounds. There are conflicting accounts about the course of the escalation. Whereas the police version describes thoroughly professional conduct on the side of the intervening forces,[6] the former strike leaders assert that the “riot” only started with the involvement of police forces that took advantage of the general confusion and went on a looting spree, in which they were then joined by other opportunists. While the strike was unanimously condemned by government officials, neither the workers’ grievances nor the inflicted wounds and fatalities were found to be worthy of an official statement. Rather, the reaction suggested that any protest against foreign investors’ business practices must be regarded as unlawful and even as deeply immoral since FDI is needed for the country’s “development”. The strikers were depicted as riotous criminals.[7] In perfect compliance with this official framing the strike leaders and their known associates were sacked by Koidu Holdings/OCTÉA Limited. Some went into hiding; others were imprisoned for months and only released through the involvement of Amnesty International. Those who agreed to talk to me in October 2013 still felt that they were being closely watched. One even stated that he knew that he could be killed by the police at any time: “If they want to do it they will just say that I attacked them first, they will find a reason.” The former strike leaders emphasized that they felt deeply discouraged. They had tried to do the “right thing” namely draw attention to their grievances in the hope that ‒ after all ‒ they would be heard. Wasn’t that what one was supposed to do in a 21st century democracy?

A saying that I sometimes encountered during my 2009 research seems to have acquired new meaning. While talking to marginalized (in all conceivable respects, socially, economically, politically) youths in Bo Town they sometimes suggested that it would be a good idea to sell the country. After all, “you people” (us Westerners) certainly liked beaches, beautiful landscapes, gold, diamonds etc.; and all those things were to be had in Sierra Leone: “Let us just come together and sell the country and everyone takes his own share and goes away with it.” It has become clear that the country is, in fact, being sold. But the profits remain intangible for most Sierra Leoneans, who are being told that they need to self-optimize in order to attract foreign investors and meet their high standards. Implied is the deceitful promise that ‒ if one only tries hard enough ‒ one will eventually be able to reap the benefits. In a recent workshop held by the Attitudinal and Behavioral Change Secretariat (a government agency) its executive director,

called for a standard transformation in the attitude of the youth by transforming themselves and cultivating a culture of hard work, commitment and devotion to self-improvement and motivation: ‘If you do not work towards prosperity you will not achieve it […], we should have positive attitude and strive for excellence to acquire the required skills that will make you useful and employable,’ he said.[8]

Given the condition of the educational system, the lack of job opportunities, and the frustrating hardships of everyday life and survival in Sierra Leone one is left to wonder whether even the executive director himself finds his own message useful and appropriate. That he does is not out of the question. It would be too easy to dismiss such statements as pure propaganda. After all, self-optimation and self-marketization are neoliberal “secrets to success” that have proven highly influential and even mind-forming across the globe. In addition a paramount chief in Bo District ‒ who was politely annoyed with my critical stance ‒ patiently argued that there just may not be an alternative route to “development” (however, non-existing alternatives are also a classic neoliberal theme). Were Sierra Leoneans supposed to work with their hands and cutlasses for the rest of eternity? And how would they be getting the technology and knowhow they needed and wanted if not through FDI? Development aid had certainly not provided them, and the paramount chief suspected that this was at least partially due to ideological reasons. In his experience, he explained, many white people actually thought rural life in Sierra Leone to be beautiful, natural, “fitting” for the local population, and all together worth preserving, because they were unable to see that it really was an everyday struggle for mere survival. He felt that FDI would allow Sierra Leoneans to circumvent such uninformed sentiments. But he also agreed that FDI has its own problems. Whether or not Sierra Leoneans are ready to become “useful and employable” to foreign investors, their prospects still remain uncertain, to say the least. Several recently published reports document both the rise of FDI-inflows into the country and the extent of exploitation and de facto disappropriation that has accompanied these inflows.[9]

It is hard to say, but my impression is that one major difference between my interviews and conversations today and in 2009 relates to “new violence” in Sierra Leone: During my 2009 research I experienced that most people expected so called “political violence” (sponsored by political parties ahead of elections)[10] but felt that a “new rebel war” was unthinkable and out of the question. This certainty has received some cracks. There is a general feeling that things simply cannot continue as they are, because people are losing patience. For example, during my 2009 research, I regularly asked about “problems that may have a potential to spoil the peace in Sierra Leone” ‒ and I soon learned that interview partners expected me to first of all acknowledge that there would never be a “new rebel war” in Sierra Leone, before they were ready to elaborate on the dangers of corruption (or “tribalism”, favoritism based on personal networks), the persistent lack of job opportunities, and political violence. During the last weeks this same “peace declaration” on my part has often been met with worried uncertainty.

However, one could also argue that losing patience is by no means necessarily a bad thing and that violence is but one conceivable outcome. In spring of last year (2012), but based on my 2009 data, I wrote a conference paper in which I described a “culture of non-resistance” resulting from my informants’ firm belief that it was necessary to “patiently bear everything” for the sake of peace ‒ be it poverty, corruption, exploitation, intimidation, what have you.[11] Today, I would not write that same paper again. Losing patience may offer a chance, an opportunity structure, for non-violent but critical movements to develop and promote correctives to official “development” discourses and policies. Whether authorities would find a way to tolerate and even constructively engage with such movements is a different question. For now, recent reactions to protests and the recent imprisonment of two critical journalists[12] rather suggest a negative answer.

Anne Menzel is an independent consultant with International Alert. She just recently defended her PhD thesis on unpeaceful relations in post-war Sierra Leone at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the Free University Berlin. Anne is currently planning a new research project on contested development in Sierra Leone, which will explore the “development situation” via a focus on new and old forms of governance, domination, complicity, and resistance.


[1]Mats Utas pointed out to me that Freetownians have been calling water-filled potholes “government glass”. It seems likely that “Ernest’s looking glass” is a renewed version of this older expression.

[2]The Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA) has produced a promotion video, which, among other things, advertises Sierra Leone’s “under-fished territorial waters” and fertile lands to prospective investors; “food crops like palm oil and sugar offer additional opportunities as biofuels”. See http://www.investsierraleone.biz/audio_visuals.php (13.11.2013). For now the link is still active, but the webpage also displays that it is currently being redesigned with the support of the European Union.

[4]See IRIN News, 18 July 2012:  SIERRA LEONE: Drug diversions hamper free healthcare, http://www.irinnews.org/report/95896/sierra-leone-drug-diversions-hamper-free-healthcare (29.11.2013).

[5]The company’s current slogan is “Our diamonds doing good”, see http://www.koiduholdings.com/ (13.11.2013).

[6]See Awareness Times, 19 December 2012: “In Sierra Leone, Police Speak on Kono Shootings & Deaths”, see  http://news.sl/drwebsite/exec/view.cgi?archive=8&num=21768&printer=1 (29.11.2013).

[7]For a brief description of government officials’ reactions to the strike see the joint press release by Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), Medico International, Campaign for Just Mining (CJM), and the Association of Journalists on Mining and Extractives (AJME), 5 February 2013: “What Hope for Prosperity?”, http://www.medico.de/en/press/releases/kimberlite-diamond-mining-and-gross-human-rights-abuses-in-kono/1242/ (13.11.2013).

[8] See Concord Times, 16 August 2013: “Sierra Leone: ABC Secretariat Holds Youth Confab On Positive Change” by Memunatu Bangura, http://allafrica.com/stories/201308190272.html (13.11.2013).

[9]The Oakland Institute 2011: Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa. Country Report: Sierra Leone. http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/OI_SierraLeone_Land_Investment_report_0.pdf (13.11.2013); Welthungerhilfe 2012: Increasing Pressure for Land: Implications for Rural Livelihoods and Development Actors. A Case Study in Sierra Leone.  http://www.nachdenkseiten.de/upload/pdf/Study_Land_Investment_Sierra_Leone.pdf (13.11.2013); Network Movement for Justice and Development 2013: Land Rights Project: The Social, Economic, Political, Environmental and Cultural Impact of Large-scale land investment deals on local communities in Sierra Leone.  http://www.nmjd.org/home/images/report/Full-Report.pdf (13.11.2013).

[10]See, for example, Christensen/Utas 2008:  Mercenaries of Democracy: The “Politricks” of Remobilized

Combatants in the 2007 General Elections, Sierra Leone. African Affairs 107(429):515–539.

[11] Menzel, Anne 2012: Widerstand auf leeren Magen? Widerstandsunfähigkeit, Peacebuilding und lokale ‚ownership‘ in Nachkriegs-Sierra Leone (Resistance on an empty belly? Non-resistance, peacebuilding and local ‘ownership’ in post-war Sierra Leone): Paper presented at the annual colloquium of the German Association for Peace and Conflict Studies , 22-24 March  in Villigst, http://www.afk-web.de/fileadmin/afk-web.de/data/zentral/dokumente/AFK-Kolloqium_2012/Paperroom_2012/Menzel_Paper.pdf  (13.11.2013).

[12]See for example Reporters without Borders, 25 October 2013: “Editorial criticizing president prompts multiple proceedings”, http://en.rsf.org/sierra-leone-editorial-criticizing-president-24-10-2013,45375.html (13.11.2013).

Economy of the street

c9c233_296a56047d6d4e95a6a03217ab047e1e.png_srz_295_225_75_22_0.50_1.20_0[1]We just launched a new website with images and texts from Freetown, Sierra Leone. The site is a platform for both a photo exhibition: Pentagon (photos and texts from my fieldwork) and a film: Jew-Man Business (directed by Maya Christensen, filmed by Christian Vium and produced by me). The new website has been created by Hanna Berhanusdotter who has been an academic intern at NAI. Please have a look: http://www.economyofthestreet.com/

Every day we struggle for survival, we labour to find food, we aim for a safe home, and we build protective social structures involving friends, family and communities. This website is a platform to highlight the realities of survival for a group of young adults in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Take a moment and imagine your life as one of them: you are poor and you are living on the streets and off the streets. How will you survive? What are your concerns about life and your views? In short, what does your life look like?

Through film and photos, Mats Utas aims at portraying the reality of life among the urban poor based at two different locations in Freetown. The photo exhibition entitled Pentagon: Street life and Survival in Freetown, Sierra Leone includes both text and images that seek to display moments in everyday life and struggles. The documentary, Jew Man Business, portrays another area through the eyes of three young men. In both settings, the earlier civil war is a clear backdrop, as many of those photographed participated in it as militia and rebel soldiers.

This is not a single story, as it has no beginning and no end. These are rather individual moments connected by streetscapes.

Both the documentary and the photo exhibition are the property of the Nordic Africa Institute and are produced and published by Mats Utas.

During the past decade, African youth have become a hot topic in academic, public, and policy debates. The plethora of discussions, papers, policy notes, media reports, and conference panels is diverse, and yet often united by an intriguing concern with African youth’s paradoxical nature. Titles of prominent Africanist works read “Makers and Breakers” (Honwana and de Boeck 2005), “Vanguards or Vandals” (Abbink and van Kessel 2005), “Promise or Peril” (Muhula 2007), and “Hooligans and Heroes” (Perullo 2005). Development agencies, too, have repeatedly contrasted youth opportunities with youth risks, emphasizing that “young people can be a source of growth and development for their countries, but [also] a source of inequality, poverty, exclusion, […] crime and violence” (Cunningham et al. 2008:9).

In a way, such framing in dichotomies is all but surprising. Anywhere in the world, societies project onto the young generation their hopes and nightmares to make sense of an uncertain future. This is particularly the case in societies where fundamental social transformations are taking place, including what one might term the transnational society-in-the-making. On the one hand, then, the global policy debate on youth bulges and political instability indicates the deep-seated anxiety about an increasing proximity to Africa’s urban young men, those who are demographically on the rise, yet uncontained by porous borders, uncontrolled by states, and unemployed by the market (despite impressive growth rates in many African countries). On the other hand, development institutions have increasingly branded young Africans as the fresh, agile, and resilient social category that is about to transform Africa into another development success story. In short, debates on Africa’s youth, especially when framed in dichotomies, are often debates about something else.

As unsurprising as that may be, it is no less problematic. Dichotomies limit our understanding of the social world; they reduce multifarious phenomena into two-sided problems, dramatizing them by accentuating their extremes and by omitting the vast continuum in between. If social scientists have a responsibility in this regard, it would be to problematize this and to provide alternative concepts that reduce the complexity of a given phenomenon in more nuanced ways.

I would like to argue that, while Africanist scholarship has been successful in pointing out the complexity and diversity of African youth, it remains weak in reducing complexity and disaggregating diversity. Most of the above-cited works on African youth bear dichotomous titles precisely because they seek to emphasize youth’s ambivalence, their fluid and ambiguous identities, or, in the words of Honwana and de Boeck (2005a:2), that African youth are “both makers and breakers of society, while they are simultaneously being made and broken by that society.” This paradigm has been crucial in shaping the field of African youth studies. It has been able to integrate a large variety of youth-related topics, and, rather than shying away from their contradictory elements, has taken these contradictions seriously, positioning itself as a caveat against dominant simplifications of the matter.

And yet, there is a need to move beyond this paradigm. First of all, because it has become unsurprising, if not a ready-made conclusion for youth-related inquiries. Secondly, because it is in fact self-evident. Youth’s diversity (anywhere in the world) allows for no other characterization than ‘ambivalent’—and Honwana and de Boeck’s above-cited “fundamental paradox”, while beautifully put, applies to numerous internally heterogeneous social categories (think of politicians, Christians, or soccer fans, for that matter). Third and finally, there is a need to move beyond the paradigm of paradoxical youth because qualitative African youth research is likely to remain largely inconsequential beyond the academic realm if it embraces complexity without intending to clarify its obviously complex research object.

Many Africanist academics may not find any problem with that. Indeed, the majority might be content with complying exclusively with the standards of their scientific field. Others, however, who may judge their fieldwork and expertise potentially useful for public policy concerns, find themselves confronted with a field where qualitative case studies are held in rather low esteem, where clear and tangible information is demanded, and where economists and demographers seem to respond to this demand in often frustratingly superior ways. Consider Urdal’s (2007:96) argument that “For each percentage-point increase of youth in the adult population, the risk of conflict increases by more than 4 percent”: as much as such statements may cause serious allergic reactions among qualitative social scientists—it is usually what youth policy makers refer to as their scientific underpinning. Now, it should be considered equally worrisome that qualitative social scientists often see such arguments as a wrong conclusion in a wrong debate, to then retreat back into their own academic communities. If they were to address such statements as a starting point for debate, the quest would be to define what is missing or problematic in such arguments, and why that is important to consider.

Let us shortly take Urdal’s (2007) paper as an example in this regard and, in a nutshell, outline the usefulness of a qualitative researcher’s response. One main concern would be that numbers tell us very little about the phenomenon itself (how come that youth and conflict are correlated?). Another concern would be that Urdal (2007:90) oddly approaches his scientific problem by citing journalists like Robert Kaplan and Fareed Zakaria. Yet, instead of directly criticizing Urdal and other scientists on such dubious conceptual framing, most African youth researchers have, over and over again, attacked Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy—a blatantly easy target. Third, and most obviously, the de-contextualized nature of hypotheses like Urdal’s necessitates specification, contextualization, refinement through substantial knowledge of different cases, differentiation with regard to urban and rural contexts (which Urdal and Hoelscher [2009] have provided two years later), etc. This leads fourth and finally to the methodological caveat that aggregate national data glosses over the variations within countries, within cities, across different youth categories, etc.

All of this is common sense among qualitative social scientists, and yet, Sommers (2006, 2011) is one of the few to openly and explicitly question youth bulge theory’s predominance in the mainstream debate on African youth. That is surprising because, ideally, any youth-related debate and intervention would necessitate substantial knowledge about the young people it addresses: how specific categories of young people perceive their surroundings, how they are organized, how they make a living, how they interact, what language they use and what is dear and important to them. Truth be told, many policy makers and project managers do not know these things, but that does not negate the argument that substantial knowledge would increase the relevance of their efforts and produce more tangible results.

Why then have Africanist studies remained in the shadows of mainstream policy debates on African youth? One aspect may be that Africanist social scientists are not interested in this debate and in packaging their insights in an accessible format. Social science often comes with a habitus that disregards simplification. Accessibility and practical relevance seldom feature on the list of criteria for good scholarship. Most Africanists moreover remain quite skeptical vis-à-vis non-academic formats of knowledge production: the development industry is suspected of framing African youth only for its own institutional benefit, and the media is criticized for its sensationalist approach. Such skepticism, while by no means unwarranted, often precludes attempts of making good scholarship accessible to non-academic audiences.

What may be more troubling than academic disinterest in non-academic debates is the neglect of methodological reflection: even some of the most prominent scholars in our field omit the connections between their data, methods, and theory, and there is usually little mention of the ways in which the youth sample under study allows for the conclusions to be drawn from it. Oftentimes, case studies on a specific category of youth are directly linked to the general African youth literature, addressing an oversized analytical category with highly specific empirical material. The inclusive notion of an ambivalent African youth that is difficult to pin down analytically, invites any empirical finding to restate this point.

In this context, I would like to make two very short suggestions: following a more comparative methodology and a more self-confident positioning in the mainstream debate. As to comparison, an explicit comparative approach would take diversity and ambivalence not as a conclusion but as a starting point. If, for example, otherwise similar categories of young people differ with regard to their political agency, why do they differ? What are the similarities and differences between urban youth collectives and rural ones, or between female and male students at the same university? Such questions inquire into the diversity and ambivalence of youth by disaggregating this oversized category and attempting to make sense of its variety. Rather than trying to find iron laws governing the worlds of young people, such inquiries would seek to find and explain patterns and processes and to differentiate what we assume to be general tendencies as opposed to case-specific phenomena.

With regard to the self-positioning in the mainstream debate, qualitative African youth research should and can be more confident about its qualities, and less defensive vis-à-vis quantitative research. Of course, we cannot conclude a percentage increase of conflict risk for a given country from our 50 interviews and ‘deep hanging out’ with youth. And most of us do not want that, either. What we can do, however, is addressing the questions that many quantitative researchers are unable to answer: for example, if an econometric study establishes that youth unemployment correlates with political conflicts, we can inquire whether the definitions of youth, unemployment, and political conflict match the notions and realities that matter within the specific context it describes; we can study why, of the thousands of young people without a job, only very few protest and riot, and what distinguishes those from the peaceful rest—maybe questioning the significance of the single independent variable ‘youth unemployment.’ Eventually, this should not just the trigger excitement of having problematized the quantitative approach but invite collaboration with statisticians to operationalize better survey questions for statistics that provide us with a more nuanced and yet representative picture of what we are studying. After all, we need those statistics, too.

To some, such a call for a more policy-relevant Africanist youth research may seem akin to surrendering to the developmentalist discourse on African youth. I would argue quite the opposite. If we find it politically and analytically problematic that Africa’s young population often seems reduced to either a security threat or its economic potential, then there is a need for discussion, not withdrawal. Authors like Paul Richards, Alcinda Honwana, or Marc Sommers have shown that there is room for critical voices and anthropological perspectives in this notorious discourse, which, after all, may not be as homogenous as it seems. What it certainly requires us to do is to increase the clarity of our methods and language, and, not least, to step beyond the embrace of complexity and ambiguity as our analytical conclusions.

Joschka Philipps is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies Basel, Switzerland. His award-winning study on youth gangs and urban protests in Conakry, Guinea has recently been published in English and French by L’Harmattan, Paris. In his doctoral research, Joschka compares youth collectives involved in urban protests in Conakry, Guinea and Kampala, Uganda. Follow Joschka Philipps on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoschkaPhilipps.



Abbink, J., and Ineke van Kessel, eds. 2005. Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa. Leiden: Brill.

Cunningham, Wendy, Lorena Cohan, Sophie Naudeau, and Linda McGinnis. 2008. Supporting Youth At Risk: A Policy Toolkit for Middle Income Countries. Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. Retrieved May 3, 2013 (http://theyouthalliance.org/node/205).

Honwana, Alcinda, and Filip de Boeck. 2005a. “Children & Youth in Africa : Agency, Identity & Place.” Pp. 1–18 in Makers & breakers: children and youth in postcolonial Africa, edited by Alcinda Honwana and Filip de Boeck. Oxford: James Currey.

Honwana, Alcinda, and Filip de Boeck, eds. 2005b. Makers & Breakers: Children & Youth in Postcolonial Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

Muhula, Raymond. 2007. “Youth and Politics in Kenya: Promise or Peril?” Africa Insight 37(3):362–75.

Perullo, Alex. 2005. “Hooligans and Heroes: Youth Identity and Hip-Hop in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.” Africa Today 51(4):75–101.

Sommers, Marc. 2006. “Fearing Africa’s Young Men: The Case of Rwanda.” World Bank Social Development Papers (32).

Sommers, Marc. 2011. “Governance, Security and Culture: Assessing Africa’s Youth Bulge.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence 5(2):292–303.

Urdal, Henrik. 2007. “The Demographics of Political Violence: Youth Bulges, Insecurity and Conflict.” Pp. 90–100 in Too poor for peace?: Global poverty, conflict, and security in the 21st century, edited by Lael Brainard and Derek Chollet. Washington, DC : Brookings Institution Press.

Urdal, Henrik, and Kristian Hoelscher. 2009. “Urban Youth Bulges and Social Disorder: An Empirical Study of Asian and Sub-Saharan African Cities.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper (5110). Retrieved May 3, 2013 (http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1503804).

Mainstream European media portrays Angola as a country characterized by extraordinary economic growth, widespread corruption, a questionable democracy, a state totally dominated by the ruling MPLA party and glaring inequalities between the poor and the rich. This is a valid picture, but there are other stories to be told. If I compare the capital city of Luanda of today with the Luanda I used to know when I worked here more than twenty years ago, the first thing that comes to my mind is the absence of watchful soldiers and heavy military vehicles. Since 2002 peace has been stable. This means that mothers do not have to worry about their 16 years old sons being sent to the frontier. It also means that millions of persons no longer flee across the country to Luanda. Instead citizens of Luanda take the opportunity to visit relatives in other provinces, and goods and commodities circulate more easily. World Bank statistics indicate that in 1992, one of the worst years of the war, life expectancy at birth in Angola was as low as 41 years. Since then this figure has increased by 25% to 51 years in 2012. There are still enormous problems in the health and education sectors, but the peace in itself has brought a better life to many people after more than three decades years of war. An important reason behind the stability of the peace is the government’s direct access to natural resources, primarily in the form of oil and diamonds, which has made it possible for them to buy the loyalty of former rebel soldiers and their officers. Low ranking former UNITA rebels have been given income opportunities, sometimes as guards in private security companies, and in comparison with their past as UNITA soldiers, most of them live better today. Former UNITA generals have been afforded with a slice of the country’s wealth, for instance in the form of concessions to diamond mines, and they have been incorporated into the national army. Another important reason behind the stability is that the MPLA government has been wise enough to avoid publicly humiliating the defeated UNITA militaries. Instead, the MPLA rhetoric has focused on the party’s capacity to bring peace to the people.

In Luanda of today, peace is generally taken for granted, which in itself is a major step forward. What people talk about, rather, are the exorbitant costs of living. The low productivity in all national sectors, except the oil industry, in combination with the presence of foreign oil companies, which are prepared to pay almost anything for everything, has pushed prices to extraordinary levels. According to people I met there are oil companies paying USD 2.500 per day for an apartment. For ordinary people, it is nearly impossible to afford a place to live. Today, money rules in a totalitarian way, which certainly implies that living in poverty is more stigmatized than ever. A capitalismo selvagem (savage capitalism) dominates Luanda and has led to increasing social tensions in family networks and between generations.

Another tangible trend is the presence of Portuguese immigrants, probably numbering more than 200.000 persons. Since the times of Portuguese colonial rule there have always been Portuguese in Angola, even though hundreds of thousands left when Angola gained independence in 1975. The last years, however, the Angolans have witnessed a veritable flow of Portuguese migrants, pushed by the economic crisis in Portugal, and pulled by the growth in Angola, which in some Portuguese media has been portrayed as a veritable El Dorado, where it is easy to become rich and life is full of new and exotic pleasures. In migration research, this is an imaginary that is well-known from African utopic visions of European countries of immigration.

The Portuguese migrants are a very heterogeneous group, but in terms of their family relations to Angola they can roughly be divided into three categories.* First there are the Portuguese-Portuguese, who have no former ties to Angola. Many of them are male and have come to work for Portuguese construction companies that started to establish themselves in Angola some years after the peace agreement in 2002. Others are young Portuguese with a university education, who cannot find a job at home. In Luanda they work for instance in telecom and banking. Some of them have left in search of adventure and new experiences, while others feel they had no other choice but to leave Portugal.

Secondly, there are the Portuguese-Angolans. Some of them were born in Angola, while others have parents who lived there before 1975. This means that they generally have some kind of connections to Angolans, and in some cases to the political and economic elite in Luanda. All since colonial times, the ties between rich and influential Portuguese and Angolan families are manifold and strong. Some of the Portuguese-Angolans have managed to acquire Angolan citizenship through their family links, which is a very important asset in a country where the acquisition of a labour visa is a complicated and slow process that sometimes includes payments of bribes.

Thirdly, there are the Angolan – Portuguese, that is Angolan migrants, and their children, who have spent many years in Portugal, but now are returning in search of better opportunities and a re-connection with their (ancestral) homeland. Some of the Angolan-Portuguese are highly educated, while others have little formal training from Portugal. For some members of this category, the reintegration in Angola is slower and more painful than they expected. Those who have stayed behind in Angola sometimes meet the returnees with suspicion, and accuse them of having deserted Angola during the years of hardship and now returning only in order to benefit from the recent economic boom.

How do then Angolans view these new Portuguese labour migrants? According to the people I met the reaction is quite mixed. Elderly people with little schooling may sometimes express an inherited reverence for the former colonial masters, whereas younger people tend to be more critical. A common perception is that many Portuguese have questionable professional qualifications, take the best jobs and receive salaries that are many times higher than the Angolans. One Portuguese informant said that the (Angolan) company where he is employed pays 8-10 times more for him than for an Angolan employee. The reason for this is not only that he receives a much higher salary, but also the fact that his terms of employment includes free housing, a car and social security fees. This is usually the case for expat workers, and as Luanda is the most expensive capital in the world, houses, cars and health insurances are incredibly costly. Some highly skilled Angolans also lament the fact that there is unemployment in their own circles, whereas both Angolan and international companies recruit Portuguese professionals without paying attention to the existence of skilled Angolan professionals. The Angolan government’s management of the national labour power is more or less non-existent, and there is no strategy for recruitment of international professionals (or unskilled workers for that matter). Another common complaint concerns Portuguese racist attitudes. This may refer both to covert everyday practices, such as refusals to give way to a car driven by a black person, and to open disregard.

During the last weeks the high level relationship between Angola and Portugal has deteriorated. In his speech to the nation on October 15th the Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos said, “It is only with Portugal that things are not good” and threatened to cancel the planned negotiations on a special Portuguese-Angolan partnership. This caused immediate concern among Portuguese politicians as well as in the Portuguese community in Angola. The reasons for Eduardo dos Santos’ disapproval of Portugal seems to be the ongoing Portuguese investigation against highly placed Angolan politicians, among them the Vice Minister Manuel Vicente, who are suspected of money laundering and fiscal fraud in relation to some of their investments in Portugal. The Portuguese government may not be able to stop the juridical process, but they are certainly doing what they can in order to downplay the importance of it. The Portuguese President Cavaco Silva called a press conference immediately after José Eduardo dos Santos’ speech and said that it all was a “misunderstanding” and that the Angolan leaders “merit all our respect”. In the world of today, Angola has the upper hand and Portugal has to comply. This is the world downside up.

*I want to express my sincere thanks to Filomena Andrade for suggesting this categorization.

Lisa Åkesson is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute and has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Gothenburg. She has carried out research on cultural meanings of migration, on transnational families and everyday practices, on human trafficking, on Swedish multiculturalisn, on transnational mothering, migrant remittances and on return migration in policy and practice. Lisa Åkesson has carried out fieldwork in Cape Verde, Sweden and the United States. – See more at: http://www.nai.uu.se/research/researchers/lisa-akesson/#sthash.vcXl8kep.dpuf

As the sun goes down in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sound of tropical birds and insects is slowly overtaken by the groaning hums of an army of small Chinese-made generators. They each light up a few light bulbs and a transistor, creating the much-valued ambiance for which Congo is well-known—an ambiance that is consistently lubricated with fair amounts of Congo’s finest beer, the eternal leader Primus. Sweet-voiced Lingala phrases and guitar riffs from the blown speakers pay playful homage to the bliss that the beer has brought the country; as the melodies bounce off the faintly illuminated hand-painted Primus ads all over the country, they form a pleasant multisensory immersion into Congo’s soul. Just like you can get a Coca-Cola everywhere in the world, so you can get a Primus everywhere in Congo. In addition to its contracts with celebrity singers, the brewery has exclusive deals with 68.857 bars in Congo, which carry Primus-branded tables, chairs, and ashtrays. Hand-painted signs for Primus seem to paper every surface in the DRC, making Bralima’s slogan Toujours Leader! (‘Always the Leader!’) into the most-read phrase in the country.

While nothing can ruin tonight except for the failure of the generator, tomorrow is another day of troubles for entrepreneurs in the Congo, which ranks 181st of 185 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business project. There is hardly any infrastructure to speak of, corruption is rife, and much of the east of the country is plagued by tides of unrest sparked by a disturbing choreography of rebels and predatory security forces.

According to an increasingly dominant development paradigm of the United Nations, it is bad for Congo that Congo is bad for business. Over the past few years, many departments of the international behemoth have argued that corporations have a fundamental role to play to build peace and development in volatile environments. As such, the UN and other IOs/INGOs are increasingly partnering up with multinational corporations to uphold and spread the values for which it stands.

Brewing benefits?

Bralima, the brewer of not only Primus but a host of other beers and soft drinks (including Coca Cola), can serve as an example of the way businesses can contribute to peace and development in the Congo. That Heineken aims to actively do so is reflected in the Heineken group’s adage ‘brewing a better future’. The brewery Bralima—part of the Dutch Heineken Group—was founded in 1923 and is one of the few companies that has maintained a presence throughout the turbulent history of the country, brewing Primus for Belgian colonials, Mobutu’s Zairian elite, and the many factions part of what came to be known as ‘Africa’s First World War’. According to a 2012 corporate brochure, in 2011, Bralima made USD 384 million through its nearly seventy thousand retail locations throughout the country. Through its Foundation, Bralima has been responsible for hundreds of thousands USD worth of vast development projects with such titles as ‘Operation Peace in the DRC’ and ‘Investing in the Well-Being of the Congolese People’. And as the largest company in the country, it supplies secure employment to thousands of people.

War or no war, Bralima—with a towering market share of roughly 70%—has been able to continue contributing to peace and development in the Congo. Today, it celebrates its 90th birthday in the country and its 2012 corporate social responsibility report (published April 2013) fills the reader with hope, giving the impression that doing business in Congo is truly win-win. As Sylvain Malanda, Bralima’s Congolese communications manager, puts it: “The government is helping us a lot. Congo is open for business!”

We set out to find out how Heineken has been able to maintain such a remarkable enterprise running despite the vast challenges of operating in the DRC. How has the corporation been able to increase profits given the rest of Congo has progressively disintegrated to the extent that some Congo experts argue the country doesn’t even exist? How is it possible that during one of the world’s fiercest conflicts, the Heineken subsidiary ‘did not stop producing during the conflict and has experienced an upswing in sales’, as the New York Times reported? How is it possible to operate in the Congo without becoming entangled with the plethora of conflict actors that prey on anyone with money in the country?

We found that it’s not all a matter of painting the façade of crumbling walls with the happy colors of the Primus logo. While today’s emphasis on economic opening and corporate social responsibility means that many international organizations actively encourage corporations into conflict markets, when the Bralima’s battered beer trucks hit dusty Congo roads in search of both profit and peace, Heineken’s Congolese subsidiary deals with three different kinds of conflict actors: rebels, and security forces—both public and private.


In large parts of the eastern Congo, it is rebels—usually unemployed youth with makeshift weapons or renegade Congolese soldiers—who control market access. Anyone driving through eastern Congo quickly becomes familiar with the choreography of checkpoints. They’re often just a wooden log or frayed rope thrown across a muddy red jeep trail, perhaps with a shack nearby sheltering a couple of guys holding Kalashnikovs. The checkpoints are the primary revenue source for local armed groups, more than enough to fund insurgencies in a country where many earn less than a dollar a day and used AK-47s cost under $75.

With no alternate routes available, even a single checkpoint can bring in at least $700,000 per year, according to a 2008 U.N. Group of Experts report. Checkpoints formed a pivotal source of revenue for rebels during the two wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2003) that devastated the Congo. During the Second Congo War (1998-2003), RCD-Goma occupied the Eastern Congo, and had territorial control over both Kinsangani and Bukavu, where two of Bralima’s breweries are located. While they occupied the eastern Congo, RCD-Goma’s forces engaged in brutal human rights abuses.

Despite the widely condemned rebel occupation that became part of the International Criminal Court prosecution of Laurent Nkunda as a war criminal, beer kept flowing from Bralima’s breweries. As the New York Times reported, ‘[i]n 2004, the plant in Bukavu, with a capacity of 300,000 hectoliters, had a sales volume of 220,000 hectoliters, despite its location in a rebel-controlled area’. While the war ravaged much of Congo’s infrastructure, the continuation of Bralima’s operations was taken as a given, noting the cynical dictum in Congo that ‘you can bomb a hospital, but not Bralima’. In practice, however, such popular beliefs are not enough to stave off rebels. The report of the Lutundula Commission for the Congolese National Assembly, that was commissioned to investigate fraudulent contracts signed during the Congo Wars, describes in detail the ‘protocol agreements’ that were allegedly drawn up between Bralima and RCD-Goma rebels during the period 1998-2003.

While the Congo Wars formally ended, the checkpoint economy is still very much alive, with the new rebel group M23 a major player in the blockade racket. M23 was formed by members of CNDP, a previous rebel group, that were unsatisfied with a 2009 peace deal that integrated Eastern rebels into the Congolese army. The group fights for greater autonomy in parts of North Kivu province. The United Nations sanctioned M23 late last year, accusing it of deadly rampages in an attempt to intimidate its way to power. Longtime Rwandan-Congolese rebel general Bosco Ntaganda, currently at the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, rape, and use of child soldiers, is one of M23’s founders.

As we reported in an article in Foreign Policy, we spoke in July with a taciturn Rwandan calling himself Mr. Damien, “tax collector” for M23. Damien said that he oversees operations at the Bunagana, Kibati, and Kiwanja checkpoints. As matter-of-factly as if discussing tolls on a national highway, Damien explained that he charges $38 for a van to pass, $300 for a medium-sized goods truck, and $700 for a fuel tanker, handing out official-looking receipts for payment. These three checkpoints bring in enough money to purchase much of M23’s weapons, pay salaries and bribes, and even occasionally dole out social aid to eastern Congo’s poor.

Mr Damien insisted that anyone pays—including Bralima’s logistics subcontractors that have to pass through rebel occupied territory to deliver Primus beer to some of the thousands of retail locations. Drivers leaving for rebel areas are given extra cash to cover these payments, a security officer at one of Bralima’s main distribution depots in eastern Congo told us. By the time the bottles reach their remote village destinations, prices can be four times the $1 they cost in Kinshasa.

We took Damien’s numbers and multiplied them by the thousands of trips per year that Bralima runs through rebel-held regions. According to our calculations, Bralima distributors could be paying upward of $1 million a year to rebel groups.

When we presented Heineken with our figures this August, John-Paul Schuirink, financial communications manager, said that due to the complexity of the situation in the DRC and the use of local distributors, the amount and the payments were difficult for Heineken to verify. Schuirink said that in response to our inquiry, the company was in investigating and had “immediately suspended all payment of third party distributor invoices in the area.” However, Primus tax receipts that we have obtained from M23 dated September 2013 suggest that the payments have already resumed.

Public and private security forces

Heineken’s subsidiary secures its DRC operations is by contracting a mix of public and private security forces, with the whole of Bralima’s infrastructure—its six breweries and its many distribution depots—secured by a mix of private security companies and officers of the Congolese National Police.

While it has become standard practice for multinationals to contract private security companies irrespective of where in the world they operate, it is often difficult to ascertain what kind of security one is actually buying. One private security company that works for Bralima is called Top S.I.G, a subsidiary of Saracen International according to a corporate presentation by one of Saracen’s founders. Paradoxically, while Top S.I.G allegedly makes it possible for business to operate in the Congo and as such supports the UN’s goal of attaining peace and development through business, the UN has condemned Saracen for transgressing a UN embargo on military training and supplies to Somalia. The Heineken Group is, through its subsidiary’s engagement with Top S.I.G, entangled with conflict actors, illustrating the risks involved in using transnational private security companies.

Besides private security companies, Bralima also contracts Congolese state security forces for all its DRC operations. As PSC are not allowed to carry firearms, different forms of institutionalized cooperation exist with the Congolese police (PNC). The PNC is either directly hired by someone seeking security, or is part of a service package provided by a private security company. In the first case, police agents are hired as static guards providing physical security; in the latter, police agents are part of mobile intervention teams of the private security company that are deployed on alarms.

These arrangements are driven by a situation that was created during the Congolese conflict. During the second Congo War, individuals in the police force created by President Kabila, created a ‘Brigade de Garde’, a special section of the police that would protect businesses in the still conflict-laden Eastern DRC. This proved such a success, that in 2002 this service was converted into an institutionalized for-fee guarding service. Currently, thousands of PNC agents are used as guards for private clients and immense amounts of money circulate inside this for-fee police force. Bralima uses the PNC for all its operations and the Naval Forces (part of the Congolese Armed Forces) for its Bukavu and Goma sites. The Congolese Naval Forces—as other FARDC units—have a long track record of human rights abuses (see this and this item, in French).

In a state where official security forces are prone to human rights abuses, handing over trespassers or thieves to those security forces can implicate companies themselves in abuses. This is illustrated by a recent event involving Bralima in Bukavu. On November 16 2005, a private security guard working for Bralima arrested a civilian suspected of theft, kept him in a trunk before handing him over to the ANR—the Congolese intelligence service. The UN reports that 40 soldiers then took the suspect to the home of the military commander in charge, where the suspect was tortured to make him confess his crime, before being transferred to Goma’s prison.

Brewing a better future?

According to the new consensus among western donors, corporations are supposed to contribute to peace and development in volatile environments, amongst others by generating taxes, creating employment, and producing surplus wealth that translates into demand for services. Businesses are happy to echo this idea, not least because it legitimizes their expansion into new untapped consumer and producer markets. The Dutch Heineken has even made this idea into its adage, ‘brewing a better future’. However, in order to tap the Congo market and flood it with Primus and other beverages, Heineken’s subsidiary flirts with the boundaries of the permissible.

This raises the question how far corporations should go to contribute to development? International NGOs and governments have spent the better part of six decades attempting to import poverty reduction and economic development to the most vulnerable parts of the Global South, and to say that the record is mixed is putting it kindly. Adding a trickle-down profit motive atop this schematic in an effort to right the ship can smell like passing the buck, but fits with the liberal peacebuilding rationale of economic exchange and liberalization that has been codified amongst the international community’s most important players. But these policies are untested and unproven within fragile countries, which is why both academics and activists are increasingly concerned that they are exacerbating many of the greatest pressures that today’s global poor face. While doubling down on the strategy might please the business community in the short term, securing the dash for unexplored market share may just mean that anything—even beer—will end up entrenching the world’s most violent and despotic warlords in the name of economic opening.

Peer Schouten is a PhD candidate at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, and editor-in-chief of Theory Talks. His research focuses on the relation between transformations in global governance and postcolonial state formation, with a particular emphasis on the intersections of mineral resource extraction and corporate security governance in ‘volatile environments’. Peer also frequently consults non-governmental organizations and international organizations on related topics.

Jason Miklian is a researcher at PRIO,exploring the arenas where conflict and commerce meet.  Miklian’s research studies how demands for natural resources (such as iron, diamonds, and rare earth elements) and market access by consumer goods firms can influence how business, governance and violent conflict intersect in fragile countries and how these production chains are traced around the world.

Note: this blog post is inspired on, and takes portions from, the report ‘Brewing Security? Heineken’s engagement with commercial conflict-dependent actors in the Eastern DRC’ (pdf here) and the article ‘Fluid Markets’ that appeared in Foreign Policy (html here)

On Saturday the 26th October, the Swedish National Radio broadcasts its traditional 20 minutes of economy news – ‘Ekonomiekot’. The reporter and editor Pär Ivarsson interviews national economist Peter Stein, and Stefan Kullander, Sales manager for Africa at the company ABB in Sweden. The topic of today’s program is the economic growth of Africa.

There are many things that strike me, listening to this program. Below, I have listed my four main points of critique that I hope could contribute to that ‘Ekonomiekot’ partly revises its take on economic growth, development and ‘Africa’.

First of all, the recent and frequent reports on outstanding economic growth in Africa have quickly turned this into mainstream ‘knowledge’. But, earlier this year, the Norwegian scholar Morten Jerven published his book ‘Poor Numbers – How we are misled about African development statistics and what to do about it’. Looking carefully at what is behind these numbers he concludes that “the quantitative basis for knowledge about African economic development is very fragile”. In Ekonomiekot, for example, Ghana is pinpointed as one of the more successful countries regarding economic growth. According to Jerven, Ghana’s increase in GDP depend to a large extent to use of better data and better methods for accounting.  Tanzania is also mentioned, which is the country where I myself conduct field work. Certainly, there has been progress in some regions of Tanzania. However, the contrasts between a rich elite and a poor peasantry is striking, especially if you spend time in rural areas. According to some experts – inequality is only increasing.

Secondly, the program approach is strictly technical – economical, and crucial aspects of development such as social well-being and environmental sustainability are being left out almost completely. Some reservations are mentioned in the beginning of the program by the reporter: There are many issues left to be solved, incomes are distributed unequally, and we cannot generalize for the whole of Africa. Yet, this is what is being done throughout the program. As exemplified above, the fact that distribution is unequal is not possible to put into a parenthesis. This is a key issue that needs to be in the center of the discussion if all of ‘Africa’ is to enjoy ‘growth’. Moreover, connections between social, environmental and economic development are being downplayed by this narrow focus. If you consider these linkages, the focus of ABB on the expanding mining industry, gas and oil exploitation becomes somewhat more controversial, also knowing about social conflict and poor working environments in the mining sector. If you add the fact that mining, oil and gas industries in Africa is dominated by foreign companies, reality becomes even more complex. A majority of the profit is subsequently not staying in the African countries. And to the extent it does, the unequal distribution plays its role. In addition, environmental costs from fossil fuel emissions and mining sites are not included in the ‘growth’ discussions. When asked to give examples of the progress that you can see when travelling in Africa, Kullander’s reply contains mostly technical progress: Airport terminals, infrastructure and mobile phones, even though he also mentions health systems and urban planning. While agreeing strongly that mobile telephones play a crucial role for many African citizens, reducing development to technical solutions solely has been questioned by many scholars, for decades. For example, in his book “Seeing like a State” (1998), James Scott compiles experience from several large development schemes that failed during the 20th century. One of the common factors behind this trend is “the self-confidence about science and technology [in the West], without acknowledging the role of local knowledge and know-how” and without proper analysis what fits in the local context.

Thirdly, the view of Africa as a continent of opportunity is another theme of the program. Opportunities mentioned in the program are; economic growth, technical development, mineral resources and – a lot of unused land. This is another cornerstone in the global narrative on Africa, also practiced by several African governments; the availability of vast tracts of marginal land, for foreign or domestic investment in large scale agricultural production. Alden Wily, one of the most prominent scholars on land in African countries, states that a key issue in today’s discussion on land is that “governments consider unfarmed lands to be ‘unowned, vacant, idle and available”. While I am not denying that land of that kind does exist to some extent, it is completely misleading to make that statement as a general ‘state of African land’. If you ask around in the countryside in Tanzania, there is no such thing as unused land. Land that appears ‘unused’ is often far away from water sources, not fertile, used for grazing, collection of fuel wood, vegetables, construction material for houses etc. This has been well described by many scholars from many different countries. Allocation of that land to investors does have an impact on rural people. In Tanzania, many villages also set aside land for future generations; an extraordinary arrangement from a sustainability perspective also accounting for future population expansion, often referred to as a threat to African future food security and well-being. And, if there is ‘available’ land, shouldn’t it not then as a first priority be used by the country’s own farmers? Alden Wily states that the rush for land takes place in a time ”when the opportunity exists to establish a more inclusive route to agrarian transformation by acknowledging the immense land and resource capital customarily possessed by the sub-continent’s rural poor”. This would also contribute to solving another issue referred to by Peter Stein, namely the high unemployment rates, whether we define it as formal or informal. Small scale farming in African countries has been persistent, despite efforts to replace it with ‘more efficient’, large scale agriculture. Based on a wide set of empirical data, Scott argues that a key reason why small scale family firms, farms and businesses have survived in times of large changes, it that the small scale in itself has the merits of being able to adjust. Technical and large scale solutions are not always the best option.

Lastly, the questions in the program are mainly framed ‘what’s in it for us’. What are the possibilities for ABB to invest or expand? Can H&M produce cheap clothes in Ethiopia? The claim that ”Africa was even ahead of Sweden” (regarding the spread of mobile phones) is met with a surprised question: “In what way?”. These and other statements like ”Africa has taken a leap into the modern world” is similar to the colonial and persisting view of Africa as lacking behind and old fashioned. It also fits well into what Scott describes as one of the reasons for failure of development interventions, namely the notion of states and other actors of “those who are going to be ‘developed’”.

To summarize; I ask ‘Ekonomiekot’ for a more critical approach when discussing development and economic growth that also includes the interplay between economic growth and environmental and social well-being. I hope for discussions that more take into account the perspectives of urban and rural Africa, not only of Swedish private sector interests, as well as a stronger understanding of the difference in social and natural contexts between our continents.

Linda Engström, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, PhD student at Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences. Background in natural science research and as adviser to Sida on environmental integration in project, program and policy development in Swedish Development Cooperation.


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