Off to Liberia

What is the role of former military commanders in Liberian politics? With this question in my mind I am today leaving for Liberia on a ten-day field study. The second round of the presidential election is of course a great opportunity to study the role of ex-military networks in the democratic process.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf seems to be heading for a certain victory in the election’s second round after former warlord Prince Johnson openly stated his support for the sitting president. Under any circumstances most of his supporters would place their vote on Johnson Sirleaf. Prince Johnson enjoys strong support in the Nimba county whose population during the civil war was engaged in a conflict with a population group from southern Liberia. Johnson Sirleaf’s opponent Winston Tubman, with support mainly in the south, is viewed as a dangerous force by many people in the north.

At the moment the smaller parties are engaged in negotiations with the two main parties. What can they get in exchange for rallying their supporters behind one of the candidates? Positions in the government and administration are up for grabs, in some cases money transactions are also part of the deal.

In another arena a different game is taking place. Ex- military commander, often mid-level, from the country’s former rebel armies have been “bought” as “mobilisers” of votes and as a type of informal security force in case violence breaks out. The ex-commanders have been loyal to different parties and now function as part of the apparatus to ensure that votes can be transferred from one party to one of the main parties for the second round. However, the main parties also often have loyal mobilisers with a background in rebel armies, now further strengthening their ties with them through negotiations.

It is interesting to see how mobilisers with a military background become particularly important during democratic elections (see article by Maya Christensen and myself “Mercenaries of Democracy” in African Affairs, about a similar phenomenon in Sierra Leone ). It is also important to notice how mid-level commanders (called MiLCs in our research project) consolidate their position in general in post-conflict societies like Liberia. While the common soldier is remarginalised after the war, some of the former officers can make use of their background in rebel armies. By using their old networks of military soldiers they become influential players who offer their expertise in the use or threat of violence. These actors are playing important part in the ongoing democratic process in Liberia.

My research during this trip will focus on the political role of the mid-level military commanders. The project as a whole will also focus on the economic and social aspects of the MiLCs. More on this later!

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