“Rogue, Rogue, Rogue…” – Marketscapes, Criminality and Society in Liberia’s Postwar Borderlands, by Richard Akum

“Rogue, rogue, rogue!!” In many communities in Liberia where the state faces security service provision challenges, this chorus whips up the pent-up wrath of violent mobs. The “rogue, rogue, rogue” chorus metes out swift and immediate ‘justice’. It results from the social interpretive dehumanization of the “rogue”, exacerbated by challenges posed by inadequate social and rational-legal control when borderland marketscapes overlap with residential communities. The postwar state and its international NGO partners have liaised with local community leaders to encourage communities to seek recourse through formal rational-legal justice processes. However, rational-legal justice processes are seen as costly, time-consuming and largely ineffective, hence the arbitrary lynching of some alleged “rogues” persists. The “rogue” who gets lynched is often more a victim of their method than their action. Two narratives of the “rogue’s” outcome emerge in the interpretation of postwar socio-political processes in Liberia’s borderlands – that of the community leader and that of the community member. Meanwhile, a geo-spatial interpretation of physical borderland spaces in two cities – Foya and Gompa – further elucidates the difference between the method and the action, which contribute to divergent outcomes for “rogue” transgressions. Focusing on marketscapes as dedicated zones of human and material exchange, connections arise between the “rogue” and markets. These connections are crafted to circumvent social controls, collude with the state and escape the arbitrary mob-lynching outcome reserved for the individualized “rogue.” Hence all “rogues” are not created equal to face certain death because of their actions. The difference in outcomes is in their operational and embeddedness rather than their actions per se.

After going through two civil wars (1989-1996 and 1999-2003) Liberia’s postwar reconstruction project is challenged by a precarious youth bulge, a bourgeoning informal economy, rising vertical and horizontal inequalities and a generalized sense of social injustice. As hard as it is to encounter a single Liberian who was not directly affected by the civil wars, it is even harder to meet a Liberian who does not feel victimized by the postwar state. Of course, the postwar state, just like the Liberian civil war, has created winners and losers. However, it is in the informality of peri-urban borderland spaces, where the state resources are thinnest, that ‘faceless’ mobs often appropriate justice and victimize the singular ‘rogue’. Meanwhile, the socialized roguishness embedded in marketscapes as well as community spaces bordering markets is organized, protected and controlled through modes of alternative governance which are tolerable to both the state and the local community. This is the prism through which specific illicit and roguish actions are interpreted as either worthy of death or simply part of the struggle for “bran ma” (the daily bread). Hence the emergence of paradoxical symbiosis between the socialized “rogue”, the market, the community and the state within borderlands, where mob justice for the individualized rogue is generally accepted.

Community Watch Forums as Anti-Rogue Community Surveillance

“Back in the day, when rogues were chased, they ran away from the police, today when they are chased, they run to the police station,” explains ET, a youth leader and Community Watch Forum (CWF) member in Foya. CWFs were organized by local Liberian National Police (LNP) units at the informal community/quarter level in the wake of the Ebola pandemic. The idea was to get local communities involved with their public safety and security. When they were organized, CWFs were armed with flashlights and batteries. These batteries have since died with no resupply coming in. These vigilante-style (mainly youth) groups monitor, inform and transmit transgressors to the local police. CWFs consider themselves an essential element in the securitization of the communities within which they live. However, this volunteer force runs on informal organizational and operational rules (which differ from one community to another within the same city) on the spatial margins of the state. They have generally adopted and sought to enforce the state-endorsed ‘bring the rogue to formal justice’ mantra. However, many of their members remain disappointed that the formal police system fails to keep up with their ‘informal policing’ efforts. CS, a female CWF member in Foya noted that “we caught a rogue and handed him over to the LNP. He disappeared and after two weeks we saw him again and when they come back they are more dangerous.” There is an obvious missing link between the LNP and the CWF on the administration of justice. Since the burden of proof lies with the accuser who in turn finds the formal justice system burdensome, the formal justice system itself is hamstrung. This cycle of burdens feeds the “rogue, rogue, rogue” frenzy.

When You Hear “Rogue, Rogue, Rogue”

During the week of July 20, 2015, a Sierra Leonean national living in Gompa fell to the ire of a frenetic “rogue, rogue, rogue” chanting crowd. Mohamed T., a young Sierra Leonean businessman based at Yekepa’s Mittal Steel concession area went to Gompa to understand the circumstances surrounding his countryman’s death. He claimed that the victim was also a businessman and the circumstances surrounding his lynching remain murky. This incident raised tensions between the Sierra Leonean community in Gompa and their Liberian hosts and attracted the attention of the Sierra Leonean embassy in Monrovia. JS Tensonnon II, Gbalagbein Community Chairperson in Gompa City complained that, “a few weeks ago, on a daily basis we awoke to a body on the streets every morning. This killing of people say ‘rogue’ is really a problem”, a view shared by all community leaders interviewed in Foya and Gompa. While some communities proximate to markets complained of a spike in criminality (limited to thefts and physical attacks) the trained opinion of community leaders evidenced unanimity in opposition against mob justice for ‘rogues’. However, it is this training that has eluded large swaths of untrained borderland communities, since the leaders’ views on the subject are not shared by many of their youth community members.

Broadly, community members explained that three factors dissuaded them from pursuing formal justice options – time, cost and ineffectiveness. So as Hilton S., a Gompa youth noted, “it is a lot better to just end it, especially when the rogue is caught stealing a person’s hard-earned property.” Though rogue lynching is less of a problem in Foya than it seems to be in Gompa, New Foya Quarter (Foya) and Congo Community (Gompa) stood out as two communities with an acute criminality and insecurity challenge. Both communities spatially overlap with the daily markets. The daily market is a beehive of ‘dry goods’-based and agriculturally-based commercial activity in borderland communities contending with a youth bulge, limited post-high school education options and unemployment. Less perceptible is the informal exchange in services such as security, savings and loans schemes and dispute resolution subjected to alternative modes of social control. This informal exchange actually provides a capital base upon which material trade bourgeons. Meanwhile, informal security service provision by squatters (usually described as ‘ex-fighters’) personally and materially protects both transient and permanent traders.

The Marketscape and Criminality

The marketplace is the main employer in borderlands (even in borderland concession areas), where state-provided employment is rather rare, mainly due to meager investment in the public service sector. While investments in the police and immigration services are meant to reassert postwar state authority, the unregulated borderland market challenges postwar state authority. This unregulated physical space captures the resilient hybridity of survival economies through the mélange of permanence with transience, legality amid illegality, the licit and the criminal. Communities that blend into market spaces face sanitary, security and criminal challenges that come with the presence of the everyday market within community limits. However, the presence of the market also enhances the community’s social and symbolic posture within the borderlands. These communities have a privileged position when negotiating with the state as they simultaneously benefit from and are hamstrung by eminent domain laws.

In Foya, the daily market is located exclusively within the New Foya Quarter, while the Saturday market, also known as “Foya’s Birthday” is situated in Ndama Road Quarter. Meanwhile, in Gompa, the market spans three communities – Bassa, Old Car Garage and Congo communities – whose engagement with the market is differentially based on the community constitution and emergent modes of intra-community social control. Firstly, the state exercises its influence through eminent domain laws to ensure the spatial expansion and impose some form of taxation on the market. However, this process is often subjected to the market’s spatial positioning within local communities and its embedded social controls, which antedate the state and its administrative ramparts.

Secondly, given that these commercial spaces predate civil wars, the permanent communities surrounding markets have had to contend with intense postwar land tenure conflicts (resulting from coercive wartime land grabs). Thirdly, the postwar marketscape physically and functionally becomes a hybrid habitat and commercial space, as it serves the omnibus functions for interdependent groups of individuals. Marketscapes serve as homes for some market people, who find it cost efficient to inhabit the space where they sell their goods during the day. This is preferable to incurring the additional cost of traveling with their goods to the market every day. The stalls provide impermanent habitat for young people who hustle the same spaces during the day for their “bran ma”– as car loaders, occasional hawkers of dubiously acquired new and used goods, load carriers or informal security providers. This physical and functional hybridity (which is not devoid of organized competitive and cooperative networks) depends on, and contributes to diluting the form and content of social controls that emerge in postwar communities which host borderland markets.

The residential areas around the market suffer from pressures directly related to their position relative to that of the market. The inhabitants complain about limited land that can be dedicated to social service schemes such as health care clinics, schools and public toilets. Meanwhile the pressures posed by transient members of marketscapes, with limited social control, overlap into the proximate more permanent communities creating tensions pertaining to criminality. However, other elements of public safety such as unsafe commercial bike riders are also concerns. Given the overlap between marketscape transience and the permanence of its proximate communities, human flows between both areas dilute social control and exacerbate threats to human security. Unsurprisingly, these spaces which provide opportunity for roguishness as (in)formal zones of exchange, engage a lot more with the issue of the “rogue”, than communities more distant to the market. Communities proximate to marketscapes also tend to develop a predatory relationship with the rest of the city, as often one catches wind of the assertion articulated by JM of Ganta that “if you lose your cell phone and you contact the right people in Congo Community, there is a good chance that you might just get it back.”

JM’s assertion reflects the emergence of ‘ghettos’ that elude social control altogether where marketscapes and residential communities overlap. In these ghettos, the “rogue” is in vogue, an organized contraband economy in legally and illegally acquired items thrives and the LNP fears to tread. These ‘ghettos’ thrive upon a subculture of postwar securitization provided by ex-fighters and ex-single barrel soldiers. They claim not to bother anyone, hence they expect not to be bothered in return. However, their cumulative wealth of belligerent civil war stories embedded in a single community, feeds the local legend to which has been grafted a mosaic of postwar youth hustlers, female night crawlers and impressionistic trainee-hustlers. The more reputable hardware stores, lounges, motels and inns banking on a return on investment by situating themselves within these marketscapes employ trained security personnel (mainly ex-fighters as well) through private security firms. There is an anecdote, told by residents of Gompa in which the LNP had to call on the “the ‘rogues’ from Congo Quarter to come and deal with a recalcitrant local well-owner who was resisting arrest. The well-owner who had resisted the LNP gave himself up to them when he saw the ‘rogues’ approaching with clubs and rocks.” Therefore, ‘rogues’ can be useful to the LNP’s purpose of arresting a recalcitrant well owner. They can also be useful in the provision of informal services to segments of the population who seek a bargain price for commodities they can hardly afford on the open market. However, the individualized ‘rogue’ is also marked for death according to the subjective qualification of the initiator of the “rogue, rogue, rogue” chorus.

Conclusion

The lynching which follows “rogue, rogue, rogue’ chants epitomizes the near absence of social control, social injustice and human insecurity within borderland marketscapes. Markets, often assumed to be subject to the Smithian ‘invisible hand’ seldom escape different forms of state control. However, in borderland spaces where marketscapes escape the control and authority of both the postwar Liberian state and informal community leaders, they develop innate, and often arbitrary, mechanisms to regulate spatial, material and symbolic security and social justice. The incorporation and embeddedness of ex-fighters and ex-single barrel soldiers into informal productivity within these marketscapes respond to long-term security challenges which have eluded the postwar state and its international partners due to short-term, linear, incomplete and ill-adapted disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration programs. Proximity fosters symbiosis between transient and permanent occupants of marketscapes, as communities attempt to extend social control over these dedicated spaces of exchange by developing tacit acquiescence of some ‘rogue’ patterns and not others. Meanwhile some segments of the broader borderland community interpret the ‘rogue, rogue, rogue’ chant as an empowerment to act as executioners. The socio-political context partially explains the mob reaction, but the mob never dares to understand its own social context in relation to the “rogue”. In borderland marketscapes where most modes of exchange straddle the licit and the illicit mob justice for the “rogue” remains arbitrarily applied and accepted.

Richard Akum is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Twitter: @fontehakum

This entry was posted in Crime, Post Conflict, Urban issues, Youth and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Rogue, Rogue, Rogue…” – Marketscapes, Criminality and Society in Liberia’s Postwar Borderlands, by Richard Akum

  1. Pingback: News Roundup: 9 November – 15 November 2015 | Security Sector Reform Resource Centre

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