SWEET BATTLEFIELDS By Mats Utas Youth and the Liberian Civil War

SWEET BATTLEFIELDS By Mats Utas Youth and the Liberian Civil War
Youth and the Liberian Civil War
By Mats Utas
Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Cultural Anthropology presented at Uppsala University, 2003.
Utas, M. 2003. Sweet Battlefields: Youth and the Liberian Civil War. Uppsala
University Dissertations in Cultural Anthropology, 1. 288 pp. Uppsala.
ISBN 91-506-1677-3.
This dissertation presents an ethnography of youth in Liberia and of how their lives
became affected by a civil war which raged in the country between 1990 and 1997.
The focus is on the experiences, motivations, and reflections of young combatants
who fought for a variety of rebel factions. For these young people, the daily prospect
of poverty, joblessness and marginalisation effectively blocked the paths to a normal
adulthood; drawing them instead into a subculture of liminality, characterised by
abjection, resentment and rootlessness. As opportunity came, their voluntary enlistment into one of the several rebel armies of the civil war therefore became an attractive option for many. Based upon one year of fieldwork during 1998, conducted
among groups of ex-combatant youths in both the capital Monrovia and in a provincial town in the rural hinterland, I describe and analyse the young people’s own
accounts of their involvement in the civil war; their complicity in atrocities, their
coping strategies in the context of armed conflict, their position as ex-combatants in a
post-war environment, and their outlook on their past, present and future.
Keywords: Liberia, anthropology, civil war, youth, children, child soldiers, street
children, conflict, violence, women in war, West Africa.
Mats Utas, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala
University, Trädgårdsg. 18, SE-75309 Uppsala, Sweden.
© Mats Utas 2003
ISSN 1651-7601
ISBN 91-506-1677-3
Typesetting: Gonzalo Morrison, blimp design.
Printed in Sweden by: Lindblom & Co, Stockholm 2003
Distributor: Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University
Chapter one
Chapter two
Entering the field
Chapter three
War as initiation into adulthood
Chapter four
The logic of violent measures
Chapter five
Young women in the war
Chapter six
Reintegration or remarginalisation?
The tactic Taylor
The hardship of writing this thesis has been outbalanced by the intense
friendships I have established in the process. Despite the sinister
research topic, my fieldwork in Liberia was mostly an experience of
joy. This was due in no small part to the many kindly and hospitable
people I encountered there. I particularly want to thank all those
young Liberians who opened their lives to me in order to let me study
them—an often awkward situation. In Monrovia, thanks to all of you
in the Palace. Thanks for putting so much trust in me (okay you
eventually let me down). I will not mention you by name because of
your sensitive life predicaments, but you were my first guides in street
life and combatant reality. You opened the door. In Monrovia, I would
also like to thank Anthony Kollie, Ansu Cole, Beyan Sharp, Michael
Gilman, Sam Lomax, Sony, Gbegbe, Shady, Puffy, Tommy Garnett,
Dennis Toe, Hans Lindqvist, BB Colley (and later) William Saa,
Sekou Konneh (not the LURD rebel leader), Danny Deanneh, Father
Joe Brown, Emanuel Sandberg, Joseph Cooper for your friendship
and assistance.
In Ganta I owe most thanks to Paul and his friends who really
made me a part of their peer network. Our profound discussions have
been absolutely central to this dissertation. Paul and Paul, Tao, Alex,
Executive (Thomas), Mentor, Christopher, Isaac, Joe—thank you! I
came to Ganta with Umu, my wife, her cousin Finda and Finda’s son
MAB. Umu aided me by interviewing young women and girls who
had been combatants, or girlfriends of combatants. Her work was
instrumental, as I lacked the cultural capital to enter into such indepth discussions with young women. Whilst we were busy in the
field, Finda steered us through domestic workloads typical to semirural life. We enjoyed the hospitality of Pa Alfred who provided us
with two rooms in his house situated right on the main road. In
addition to Pa Alfred I would like to thank Karamoko Sheriff, Oldma,
Gho Hawa, Oldman, Alfred, Djebe, Hawa, Mammy, Georgie, Lewis,
Vera, Seyma and others for sharing their backyard, well, latrine,
bucket shower, cooking facilities as well as the great time together. I
am also grateful to Harry Gaye, David Parker, Harry Carson and his
lovely family, Mr. Venn and family, Oldman (John) Batu and the
Reverend Nya Zuagele. A special thought also goes to Macabe.
At the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, the
University of Uppsala, Sweden, I am particularly indebted to
Bernhard Helander. He was the one who first coaxed me into
becoming a doctoral student and later became my supervisor. Sadly, he
passed away before the completion of this dissertation. Bernhard,
wherever you are, I hope you will appreciate this work as carried out
in your spirit. I also would like to thank my new supervisor Jan
Ovesen for his swift aid and commitment at the final stage. Many
others at the department have meant a lot for the gradual maturing of
my anthropological thinking. The participants of the Living Beyond
Conflict Seminar (LBC) have also all in some way or another
contributed to this work. In particular I would like to thank Sten
Hagberg, Awa Ba and Sverker Finnström for reading and
commenting on this manuscript.
The chapters have been presented at various stages and in different
settings: I would like to thank all of those who have commented on
them. In particular I would like to thank Jo Boyden and Paul Richards
for their comments on Chapter 2. The chapter is based on an article
published in Children and youth on the frontline: ethnography, armed
conflict and displacement, edited by Jo Boyden and Jo de Berry:
(Berghahn Books). I wish to thank Phillippe Bourgois, Mary Moran
and Ebrima Sall for their comments on what finally became Chapter
4. Ann Whitehead, Filip De Boeck, Alcinda Honwana and the entire
CODESRIA 2001 gender institute, for comments on Chapter 5. The
chapter is based on a forthcoming article in Makers and Breakers;
Made and Broken: Children and Youth as Emerging Categories in
Postcolonial Africa, edited by Alcinda Honwana and Filip De Boeck
(James Currey & the University of Chicago Press). Finally I wish to
thank Paul Richards for his comments on Chapter 6. This chapter is
based on an article in the forthcoming book No Peace, No War:
Ethnographic Essays on Contemporary Armed Conflicts, edited by
Paul Richards and Bernhard Helander (James Currey and Ohio
University Press).
In the early stages of formulating the project, Filip De Boeck
functioned as an external supervisor and a great source of inspiration.
My friend and colleague Johan Lindquist has not only inspired me to
venture into broader layers of anthropology, but has also scrutinised
most chapters of this thesis at different stages. Bo Utas, my father, has
read and commented on the entire manuscript—I am fortunate
having a father like you. At a final stage I have also had the
opportunity to have Michael Jackson read and comment on the final
manuscript. Thank you for your sharp eyes and grand organisational
mind. In addition to these people there are many with which I have
discussed my material and who thus have inspired and encouraged me
in a variety of ways, at times changing my paths of thinking. Some of
these include James Ferguson, Carolyn Nordstrom, Peter Loizos, Isak
Niehaus, Beryl Bellman, William Reno, Mike McGovern and Peter
Crawford. I also wish to express my gratitude to Ian Dent for
correcting my language in the final manuscript and Gonzalo Morrison
for his layout work. Although the above mentioned persons all have
aided me tremendously, I am myself responsibly for all errors that
might occur in this dissertation.
Fieldwork was generously sponsored by Helge Ax:son Johnsons
Stiftelse, Humanistisk-Samhällsvetenskapliga Forskningsrådet (HSFR),
Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Stiftelsen Lars Hiertas Minne, Vegafonden
I dedicate this work to Edwin, Umu and a tiny one, soon to be born.
Mats Utas
Uppsala, April 2003
My opening contact with the much-mystified Liberian ‘child soldier’
was in 1996 and happened to be at the very spot where the Liberian
Civil War had started in late 1989. On Christmas Eve 1989 a small
group of insurgents trained in Libya and Burkina Faso had crossed
over the Cavally River entering Liberia from the Ivory Coast. This
first battle in fact took place in Butoe, just a few kilometres from the
same border crossing to which I had now walked. Surrounded by a
lush green landscape, I sat down under the shadow of a large cotton
tree on the Ivorian side of the Cavally River. On the opposite side, in
battle-weary Liberia, a Lada Niva car which had clearly seen better
days, was parked and a small group of young, armed militia had
gathered nearby around a cooking fire. As I looked across the river I
could observe how their curiosity was mounting. What was the white
man doing on the other side? And indeed it did not take long until a
few of the boys jumped into a canoe and crossed the river.
As they walked up the bank I was immediately struck by the way
they walked; the over-explicit body language and the clothing they
wore clearly being inspired less by local convention than by US inner
city hip-hop/rap culture. Watching them, I became for a moment
transported back to scenes from the youth club in Sweden where I had
previously undertaken research for my MA. During my later
fieldwork in Liberia, I was able time after time, to observe similarities
between the seeming lot of the predominantly immigrant youth of
suburban Uppsala in Sweden and the young fighters in the Liberian
rainforest. I came to the conclusion that child/youth soldiering had in
fact many similarities to elements of youth life as found in urban
spaces throughout Europe and North America; not just as a matter of
style and other superficial signs, but revealed through the hard issues
of poverty, marginality and youth crisis.
These all hinder in their own way an ordered path into adulthood,
something which is ever present in the lived experience of most
Liberian youth. Racism (and racialised ethnic categorisations, in the
Liberian case), unemployment (or blocked paths to adult futures, in
Liberia), economic exploitation and infrastructural decay are as valid
causes of alienation for Liberian youth as for the inner-city youth of
the Western world. Phillippe Bourgois, commenting on this issue
writes: “This nourishes among the excluded an angry sense of
inferiority that results in acts of humiliation and demobilizing selfblame” (Bourgois 2001:29). Thus the life stories of young combatants
in Liberia often have more in common with those revealed in
ethnographies such as Phillippe Bourgois’ In search of respect (1995), on
Nuyorican drug dealers, or classic ghetto accounts like Oscar Lewis’
La Vida (1965), and William Foote Whyte’s Street corner society ([1943]
1993) as well as Ulf Hannerz’ Soulside (1969), than with traditional
anthropological accounts of Liberia and its surroundings, past and
A few weeks after my experience of those rebel soldiers by the river
on the Liberian border, I was given the opportunity to travel into
Liberia itself. Undertaking research among Liberian refugees in the
Ivory Coast had not required me to visit war-torn Liberia, but as the
opportunity arose, I felt that I could not let it go. On the journey down
from the Ivorian border and all the way to the coast I passed many
destroyed houses, burned-out cars and innumerable checkpoints
guarded by young boys. From my perspective as a passenger, Liberia
simply seemed to have been emptied of its older people. The youth had
taken over. Eventually entering the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on
April 5 1996, our party found that the security situation had become
precarious and in the event, during the next day, things began to really
turn ugly. The April 6 battle of 1996 turned Monrovia once again into
a burning nightmare. Midst all the chaos I became acutely aware of the
massive presence of children and youth with guns. On occasions, when
I actually dared walk out on the balcony to spy on the combatants
down below in the street, I counted only young men, at a rough
estimate mainly in the age-range of 14-21. Later, when I finally
managed to leave Liberia, I was already convinced that a study of
children and youth in the civil war was more important than my
existing work among refugees.
Child soldiers have in fact been a focus of attention in the reporting
from civil wars in several African conflicts in recent years. In the
western media for example, we appear time and again to be
confronted with images of minors with arms. In this respect I believe
the basic media frame presents all subjects of investigation from two
opposing gazes: that of humans as either perpetrators, or victims. This
fabricated dichotomy becomes particularly obvious when it comes to
reporting on child soldiers. Child soldiers are very often presented
either as ruthless murderers, or as powerless victims (Peters & Richards
1998a)—paradoxically at times, being simultaneously depicted as both.
Alternatively, the perspective of humanitarian aid agencies (Save the
Children/UNICEF, in particular) will often describe child soldiers,
and deal with them, solely as victims. In this alternative construction,
to be a child implies being deprived of human agency. In fact, these
interconnected perspectives have emerged in recent years as a norm in
representations of child soldiers; and as a result, these forms of
explanation tend to work as a kind of emotional bedrock, appealing to
aid, on the one hand (following implicit ideas of development and
evolution, quite often with a paternalistic affectation), whilst on the other,
also working as a means to differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’ (Africans). In
addition, these ideas appear nourished by certain widespread essentialist
ideas about culture, promoted by a largely populist media, but also by
certain academics claiming Africans to be fundamentally different: read
inferior, from ‘us’ and putting ‘our’ culture and society at perpetual risk
of being culturally contaminated by ‘them’ (see in particular Kaplan
1994; 1997; and drawing from the same ideas but with different focus,
Huntington 1993; 1997). The wont of enlisting underage soldiers tends
therefore to locate these societies in an inferior predicament to the
cultural hierarchy stipulated by western countries.
By attempting to steer clear of this stereotyping of victims and
perpetrators, I do not suggest that children are not victims of war,
quite the contrary. I believe in fact that more people are victims in war
than under other circumstances. Civilians who lived through the
Liberian Civil War certainly saw child soldiers both as victims and as
perpetrators. So did the child soldiers themselves. Often, because of
economic and political reasons they would portray themselves as
victims, but to many of these young people, the civil war was a time
when they actually enjoyed more agency than ever before. With this in
mind, in the following chapters I have chosen primarily to use the
word ‘youth’ to describe these young combatants. In doing so I am
arguing that the word ‘child’ in itself connotes passivity, automatically
transforming them into victims. To many of these young people, the
decision to join the rebel armies reflected a marked individual effort,
designated as a passage to adulthood.
During the seven years (1990-1997) of civil war in Liberia, a high
proportion of the fighting forces consisted of youth combatants. Even
where forced recruitment took place, most of the young people still
joined voluntarily, making Liberia rather different in its recruitment
of children into rebel armies, than others such as the Revolutionary
United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone and the Lords Resistance
Movement/Army (LRM/A) of Northern Uganda (see e.g. Boothby &
Knudsen 2000). I will argue that if it had not been for the willingness
of youth to take up arms voluntarily in this way, the Liberian Civil
War would never have escalated to the extent it did. In the light of this,
the chapters making up this dissertation all set out, in one way or
another, to answer the question as to why so many young Liberians,
given the relatively little direct coercion, joined rebel groups to fight in
such a civil war. What therefore are the experiences, motivations and
perspectives driving these young Liberians into conflict? My aim is to
try and catch the perspective of young combatants themselves—i.e.
identifying the agency of the perpetrators. Rebel warfare is inherently
an individualised form of agency rather than a socially embedded
activity. My working hypothesis is that the marginalisation of young
people is the central factor, and that the experience of abjection (of
being thrown aside) is a main driving force in the process of
enrollment into these rebel movements. The method of data collection
could be labelled “deep hanging out” with Liberian youth
T H E L I B E R I A N C I V I L WA R 1
The Liberian Civil War commenced on Christmas Eve 1989, when a
group of roughly 150 ill-equipped rebel soldiers, supported by Libya
and Burkina Faso (Ellis 1999), crossed into Nimba County, Liberia
from the adjacent Ivory Coast. This group, which became known as
the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), initially enjoyed
massive popular support, with many young men and women joining
the NPFL, armed only with single barrelled guns and at times sticks.
The government forces: the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), were
soon driven out of Nimba County. Later, following an internal
struggle, the NPFL split into two factions: the NPFL, as led by
Charles Taylor, and the Independent National Patriotic Front of
Liberia (INPFL) under Prince Y. Johnson. Taking different routes,
and at times fighting each other, both defeated the AFL and reached
the Atlantic coast and Monrovia in July 1990. By that time a West
African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, had been created under the
leadership of Nigeria and been sent to take control of the situation in
Monrovia. Prince Y. Johnson seemingly struck a deal with the
peacekeepers and lured President Doe into a trap, capturing him,
torturing him in front of a video camera and then eventually killing
him. The struggle that at the outset had been viewed as a popular
rebellion by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups in Nimba County,
eventually turned the whole of Liberia into a war zone, where young
rebel fighters not only fought each other, but terrorised, looted and
This is a brief overview of the Liberian Civil War. There are however numerous other sources discussing
the war in detail. See for instance: Atkinson (1997); Ellis (1995; 1998; 1999); Huband (1998); Reno
(1995; 1998); Riley (1996); Sesay (1996); Van den Boom (1995).
committed gruesome atrocities against the entire civilian population.
Soon after the killing of President Doe, the INPFL was dissolved,
only to leave several other rebel factions to appear. The United
Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) was one, formed in
Freetown, Sierra Leone, with assistance from the Sierra Leonean
government. Soon ULIMO itself split into two: ULIMO-J and
ULIMO-K. The Liberian army, AFL, continued fighting and was
later aided by another faction, the Liberian Peace Council (LPC)
originating in the Southeast of the country. Other factions, often
enjoying localised regional support, came and went; such as the Lofa
Defence Force (LDF) and the Congo Defence Force (CDF). The main
incentive however to continue the war was financial. Soldiers fought
to obtain instant booty, whilst warlords aimed at gaining control over
productive geographic areas, especially those having gold and
diamonds, as well as also timber and rubber, coffee and cocoa
plantations. Rebel movements kept some amount of popular support
alive by feigning the protection of the interests of particular regions
and ethnic groupings. These were further politicised by the war itself
(Atkinson 1999). In reality, the brutality of combatants towards the
very people they claimed to serve, kept civilians submissive. Shady
international businessmen,2 conglomerates of West African states and
at times foreign departments of powerful Western states all supported
the warlords (Keen 1998; Reno 1996).
After seven years, the war finally came to a halt, culminating in
One of the best known is the Dutchman Gus Kouwenhoven, a large-scale drug trafficker who has made
Liberia a base for his illegal operations in drugs, arms, diamonds and timber (see Global Witness 2001).
democratic elections in 1997. Ironically, in what Jimmy Carter, expresident of the USA, called the “most just election in African history”,
Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party (NPP)—formed out of
the NPFL—won a landslide victory and thus succeeded in achieving
what they had not been able to accomplish through warfare (on Taylor’s
political carrier see Harris 1999). The war had by then caused between
60,000 and 200,000 deaths.3 Without relying on uncertain statistics, it is
true to say that during the course of the war most Liberians were
displaced at some time. Areas across the borders in Sierra Leone, Guinea,
and the Ivory Coast were at times flooded with refugees (Utas 1997).
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) moved up and down between
temporary safe havens in search of the protection of some form of
authority. The coastal cities of Monrovia and Buchanan, zones guarded
by the peacekeepers, received most IDPs and up to this day, Monrovia,
for instance has twice the number of inhabitants it had before the onset
of the war.
During 1998 and 1999, the security situation in Liberia remained
uncertain. Parts of Liberia experienced moments of unrest verging on
the brink of war with heavy shooting and civilians fleeing helterskelter. Even so, most observers regarded the war as a closed case. Yet
in late 1999 upper Lofa County experienced the first of a series of
armed incursions. By mid 2000, groups of subversive soldiers were
entering from neighbouring Guinea on a regular basis. Liberians saw
the birth and growth of a new rebel movement, ironically named
Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). LURD
Popular estimations point towards 200,000 deaths, but in a recount, Ellis (1999) argues convincingly
for a much lower figure (60,000).
rebels have since that time operated in Lofa County, on occasions
advancing towards Monrovia. During the first half of 2002, LURD
made a series of successful raids in Bong, Bomi and Montserrado
Counties, temporarily taking control of the major towns, Gbarnga,
Tubmanburg and Klay Junction, before troops loyal to the
government were able to recapture them. In mid-May, an attack on
President Taylor’s native town of Arthington, less than 20 kilometres
from Monrovia, caused headlong panic in Monrovia. The tide
changed, and during the autumn of 2002 LURD was forcibly driven
back. However, in February 2003 LURD groups again captured
Tubmanburg and Bopolu.4 With a core of soldiers recruited from
among Guinean exiles, LURD has also been able to enlist young
people from within Liberia. Similarly, the Armed Forces of Liberia
(AFL) along with various governmental security forces and progovernmental paramilitaries, have also succeeded in drawing fresh
support and recruitment among young Liberians, mainly from
Monrovia and surrounding counties. It is highly conceivable that
many of the young men and women present in this text have taken
part in these new developments of the civil war.
Most observers believe that pro-government groups stage certain attacks so as to go about the business
of looting, logging and diamond digging with impunity. It is also likely that the government makes use
of these attacks so as to enable new political space in Monrovia. Thus it is therefore difficult to verify
what is rebel activity and what is actually government sponsored.
Children and Youth in the Civil War
The number of combatants during 1990 to 1997 is estimated to lie
between 40,000 and 70,000, peaking in 1991 (Brett & McCallin 1996;
Fleischman & Whitman 1994, internal statistics from SCF-UK and
UNOMIL). The estimated ratio of child soldiers within these statistics
varies considerably, from 10 to 40 percent, depending partly on
whether a child soldier is defined as being under fifteen, or under
eighteen (Fleischman and Whitman 1994). During the demobilisation
exercise, from November 1996 to February 1997, UNDHA (United
Nations Humanitarian Assistance Co-ordination Office) counted a 24
percent figure for child soldiers. The LPC had the highest number at
37 percent. The modal age of demobilisation was twenty (UNDHAHACO 1997). If for instance a soldier had fought the entire war and
was twenty years of age at demobilisation, he or she had then joined at
fourteen, thus clearly falling within the category of child soldier. The
value of these statistics is not entirely clear.5 According to my own
observations during the April 6 fighting, a majority of those who
fought in Monrovia were boys and girls under eighteen. I estimate an
average age of conscription to be around fourteen to sixteen, but some
rebel soldiers were as young as nine years of age (Brett and McCallin,
1996, have recorded fighters as young as six).6 Commanders often state
that soldiers of this age are more reliable, loyal and fearless than older
soldiers (Cohn & Goodwin-Gill 1994). In the type of war fought in
A former UNDHA employee states that the demobilisation exercise was merely a numbers game (e-mail
Children at such a young age did not generally form part of a regular troop, but would more often than
not function as assistants to older soldiers, providing them with a first step in a military career.
Liberia, and many other African countries, very young soldiers can be
used, because the weaponry is mainly light and simple enough for a
young person to handle.
Even though forced conscription took place in Liberia, most young
combatants still joined out of free will. At the outset of the war, as
noted above, the people in Nimba County viewed it as a rebellion
designed to free them from a repressive government seen as antiNimbadian. Parents sent their children off to fight in what seen as a
righteous war. However, young people also saw it as a youth
revolution, a possibility to get rid of an elitist urban leadership made
up of autocrats who showed little concern for both the young people of
Liberia (Clapham 1976; 1988; Liebenow 1987), and the local
gerontocratic leadership (Bellman 1984; Murphy 1980). In this way,
war was fought by marginalised youth who saw the hostilities as
possibly the only opportunity for them to experience mobility from the
margins, into the centre of politics and economy.
The war shifted shape and, as rebel groups increased their terror
against civilians and as looting excursions increasingly became the
raison d‘être for war, the grounds for joining as combatants also
changed. Many young excombatants admit that it was the possibility of
personal advantage that caused them to join the war. These advantages
also worked both ways: certainly in direct gains, but also in escaping
the disadvantages of being a civilian. Advantages included loot from
raids, bribes paid during security assignments and payoffs received
from protecting locals. A direct advantage would also be the
acquisition of power in local communities. The leap from being a
powerless young boy, under the authority of parents and elders, to
being a commander with a gun is both tremendous and momentous.
Being a soldier would also imply having girlfriends, often many at a
time, and taking a girlfriend for the night as often as one would like.
On the other hand, escaping the disadvantages of being a civilian
would primarily involve preventing other rebel soldiers from
harassing oneself and one’s family. During the war it was crucial for
every family to have someone—a son, an uncle, or another close
relative—in the rebel army in control of the area; otherwise, family
members would constantly be harassed and farms and property looted.
Finally, young Liberians would at times join the rebel forces in order
to avenge family members killed by other rebel factions. During the
early stages of our relationship, my informants would state that a
desire for vengeance had been a main motive for their joining the war.
But, as our relationship evolved, vengeance motives often disappeared
behind other objectives. Most Liberians lost close relatives in the war,
but very few of them took up arms for that reason.
In early 1998 excombatants moved around uneasily. Peace was still
fragile and many had no clear vision of how their lives would be in
postwar Liberia. Some returned to their hometowns and villages.
However, large numbers of demobilised fighters also remained behind
in cities and rural towns. The relative anonymity and distance from
kin gave many a breathing space and time to think about their futures.
In consequence, within towns all over Liberia, groups of excombatant
youths could be found squatting (at times paying rent) in deserted
buildings. For greater security, the living in collective houses along
with other excombatants, girlfriends and children, seemed to be the
norm for the immediate postwar period.
In ethnographic practice, as in theoretical debate, the idea of a dominant “people and culture” in any location carries ever less conviction.
Ethnographically, much of the best work today no longer fits within
the notion of “a culture,” while the most challenging contemporary
fieldwork cannot be contained within the stereotypical “among soand-so” mold. (Gupta & Ferguson 1997:2)
Situating the work in the field of anthropology
It is worth stating that this text, I believe differs from traditional
ethnographies in three important, and interconnected respects. Firstly,
it views society as trans-ethnic or cross-boundary, rather than adopting
the model of bounded ‘ethnic’ entities (cultures). My ethnography
deals with the notion of an open-ended entity—youth—which could
be seen as crosscutting the entire Liberian society. I have not in practice
found it possible, or meaningful to isolate ethnic entities or ‘cultures’,
even though the Liberian Civil War to some extent became ethnified
on the level of national politics (see Atkinson 1996; 1997). It would be
more accurate to say that many excombatants experienced the
contrary, i.e. ‘ethnic’ break up. As it was, warring factions recruited
youth with various ethnic backgrounds and it was quite common to
see movement between the competing factions. In addition, the
accepted lingua franca in most of the rebel movements was Liberian
English. Local vernaculars were used, but only to a limited extent and
by combatants who largely originated from remote rural areas.
Despite the presence of ‘ethnic mixing’ inside actual rebel forces,
enemies were still often being defined in ethnic terms. For example,
the NPFL targeted peoples of Krahn and Mandingo origin in
particular—and there was a clear rule of thumb that rebel groups were
fighting for the cause of a particular ethnic group.
Secondly, anthropologists have traditionally portrayed societies
from an adult, male angle. From a gender perspective, this trend has
drawn its opponents for quite some time (see Moore 1994b). However
it is only quite recently that the factor of age has been recognised as
equally problematic. Some important studies on childhood have been
published (Mead 1929; Mead & Wolfenstein 1955; La Fontaine 1986;
Ottenberg 1989; Reynolds 1989; 1991; 1996), but they have remained
surprisingly few. Studies of youth as a distinct category and not only as
a passing stage in a person’s individual development, have remained
largely absent. Even if traditional ethnography has had partial focus on
youth, it has nevertheless tended to be presented from an adult
perspective, emphasising youth as socialised into an adult corporeality,
or as part of elaborate political systems based on age-based fraternities
or peer groups (Eisenstadt 1956; Evans-Pritchard 1940; Legesse 1973).
By comparison, the focus on youth in this dissertation coincides with
the rather recent emergence of an anthropological category covering
youth in African Studies (Abdullah 1998; Argenti 1998; Burke 2000;
Comaroff & Comaroff 2000; Cruise O’Brien 1996; De Boeck &
Honwana 2000; forth.; de Waal & Argenti 2002; Durham 2000; Elkenz 1996; Gable 2000; Honwana 2000; Jensen 2001; Kynoch 1999;
Marks 2001; Rasmussen 2000; Reynolds 1995; Richards 1995; 1996;
Ssewakiriyanga 1999; Weiss 2002; West 2000). This rapid growth of
youth oriented literature, pinpoints in many respects the urgent need
for social scientists to understand the roles of young people in
contemporary African society. Cruise O’Brien (1996) talks of African
youth as a lost generation. The travel writer Robert Kaplan (1994;
1997) portrays youth in West Africa as loose molecules unattached to
larger society, solely creating havoc.7 Recently Jean and John Comaroff
(1999) have noted that in South Africa “the dominant line of
cleavage....has become generational”. In addition, Paul Richards (1995)
suggests that a focus on youth can be seen as being more important
than the issue of ethnicity as we try to understand the present conflicts
in West Africa.
Thirdly, this text deals with the fluidity of society. Anthropology
has often been criticised for treating societies as stable and unchanging.
It is important therefore to point out that war zones are inevitably
fields for rapid change. This was certainly the case in Liberia.
In short, this study is about youth, both as a loose and open-ended
category, and in an unbounded cultural landscape at a time of rapid
social and cultural change.
The fieldwork
Fieldwork for this dissertation was carried out in two different
settings. The first phase was undertaken in a thoroughly urban
environment, within the Liberian capital Monrovia. It was conducted
during six months from December 1997 to May 1998. The second
phase was carried out in rural Liberia, in the town Ganta, Nimba
County, which lies towards the Guinean border. In this location,
fieldwork was carried out for another six months, this time from June
through to November 1998. In that same year, most excombatants had
returned to livelihoods at the margins of society. To locate this set of
Acknowledging the critique of Richards (1996; 1999) on the idea of ‘loose molecules’.
people I ventured out into the streets. I observed, tarried on street
corners and spent much time in cheap joints. By doing so I became
accustomed to dealing with poverty and the many painful experiences
on a daily basis. I became acquainted with beggars, street children and
the homeless. In my search for a feasible fieldwork location, I was
eventually led to explore what was known as the Palace, a deserted
factory in down-town Monrovia where more than a dozen
excombatants had taken refuge and where they struggled for daily
survival. The Palace was literally just down the road from my own
apartment and I had often passed it during my strolls down to the
town’s waterfront. I had seen people there before, although it was still
hard to grasp that people were actually living there. Spending time in
the Palace I came into contact, in a very natural way, with both the
depths of human misery, as well as a special kind of belonging and
sense of love. Even if these young people were stuck at the bottom of
society and could not see any possibilities for the future, these Palace
youths still managed to convey genuine human warmth, despite the
experience of being let down on occasions.
Later as I was venturing up-country to Nimba County, I met with
another set of young excombatants. After some days in Ganta, it was
there that I ran into Paul. I knew Paul from the time I had spent in
Danane, in the Ivory Coast. He had been fighting for the NPFL,
although at the time I had got to know him, he was in school. In
Danane I had interviewed him about his war experiences. I remember
him stating that he would never take up arms again. However when
we now met in Ganta I was to learn otherwise. In fact he told me that
he had been on his way down to Monrovia at the same time as I had
been travelling there, back in 1996. He had seen me passing on the
road and had tried to stop our vehicle in order to get a lift from us, but
I had failed to see him. Amongst the excombatant community in
Danane, word had gone out at that time that there was to be a final
battle in Monrovia. The rumour subsequently turned out to be correct,
and so Paul had again taken up his soldier’s fatigues. He eventually
settled in Ganta where he and his friends lived together in a small
house along with their girlfriends and children. In distinct contrast to
the inhabitants of the Palace, this group had arduously worked on
reintegrating into society and on creating a brighter future for
themselves, thus appearing in a rather different post-war configuration
than those in the Palace. Interestingly, and in opposition to the
prevailing public opinion of the day, I found that in relating to both
groups, time and time again, I was struck by the vital intelligence
revealed in their discussions.8 Their dialogues relating both to social
and cultural matters from the Liberian soil as well as to global visions
of politics and economy, were at times quite profound, even though
some of them had only negligible formal schooling.
Fieldwork in the Palace took the form of both participation in
daily activities and in conversation. The sensitive circumstances under
which these people lived, really did not allow for taped interviews on
many of the topics I was concerned with. Among Paul and his friends
however, it was easier to make taped interviews, both of life stories and
of group discussions. In addition to this, I carried out a string of semistructured interviews with 97 young men and women in Sinoe County
whilst working for a period in cooperation with the Belgian Red
In a similar vein, Shay has noted that US Vietnam veterans were no ‘uneducated Joe Six-pack’ types as
prevalent stereotypes would have it (1994:xxi).
Cross. These interviews definitely added yet another valuable
perspective on youth participation in the Liberian Civil War. Later,
after analysing this Sinoe material, it became very clear however that
structured or semi-structured (often called a qualitative approach)
interviews were actually rather ill-suited for this type of group and this
kind of work. In this kind of situation it seems often much too easy to
hide behind schematic identities of victimhood. On this point, Michael
Jackson (2002) and Don Handelman (1997; forth.), amongst others,
have paid attention to the issue of the construction of stories during
times of social distress. In line with their work, I therefore argue that
among Liberians in the post-war setting, official stories of what
happened to individuals have become standardised. Private stories,
however, often actually appear as something persons do not readily
share with others, and, as a consequence it usually takes excessive time
and effort for a researcher to get there. My observations in the
Monrovia and Ganta studies thus give a much more complex picture
of the war years, blurring considerably the often taken for granted
border between victim and perpetrator. In addition, the pattern of
actively presenting oneself as a victim is important for our reading of
the many interviews conducted with child and youth combatants and
indeed is a central problem embedded in much of the research done in
this field. I label this apparent contradiction of agency—the agency of
presenting oneself as a victim—for victimcy.
During my fieldwork I moved to choosing a loose focus on young
excombatants whose age range fell between the ages of 16 and 30. My
experience of working with younger excombatants was that they were,
in general, not able to relate their wartime experiences in
comprehensible forms. I also found that many young ex soldiers under
the age of 15 had a strong tendency to fabricate stories in any way that
they felt would be advantageous to them in any given situation. In one
such setting, a young excombatant would state say that he had never
fought, or at least had been forced against his will to participate in the
war, whilst in other situations he would take the full responsibility for
carrying out the most horrific of atrocities. Their stories thus hovered
precariously between agency and victimhood, creating highly
contextualised versions of their war lives. The reason for this was
probably both a reaction to issues of morality, the striving for post-war
acceptance in local communities, and a response to economic
incentives. In certain contexts it was clearly profitable to say that one
had fought, even if one had not. This is regularly the case for instance
with regard to international NGO’s catering specifically for
excombatants, or international media who would usually provide
some form of compensation for an interview. In this way, it is indeed
fascinating to see how children living on the streets, would calculatedly
display themselves as either victims or perpetrators in order to
generate income from the local expatriate community.
Among my many contacts made during my stay in Monrovia, I
became friends with a boy who had been made homeless because of the
war. As time went by, he and his friends increasingly related to me as
someone not part of the Monrovian expatriate subculture and thus
started to reveal secrets as to how they were able to elude and work
around the other expatriates. I eventually became acquainted with
some of their elaborate procedures, including the shrewd system of
name rotation, making it quite difficult for expatriate staff to compare
the children they were aiding if they tried to discuss the matter with
each other. During a successful period of indulging in this practice,
each young person could indeed have several sponsors paying for
example for the same education; (we tend to be particularly
sympathetic to children who want to go to school). Clandestine
arrangements with clerks in the local school further enabled these
youths to get a fair share of the school fees in cash (the expatriate
sponsor would naturally go to the school and register the boy or girl).
In addition, a system for resale of school uniforms, schoolbooks and
other items also existed.9 This particular boy was in reality a young
man who had turned 18, but his ‘baby face’ made it possible for him to
pretend that he was still around the age of 15. He was in fact, acutely
aware of how the minds of expatriate NGO staff worked, in that they
wanted specifically to aid ‘children’, and that being 18 was definitely a
border that one needed to stay below.
Even if not known to most of the expatriate aid workers, some of the long time staff at Save the Children
in Liberia had some ideas of this system.
‘Teddy-bear man. Go back now. You go back now teddy-bear man,’
he ordered him, and the teenager dragged his Kalashnikov and his
teddy bear back along the wet road towards the smoke and the
swamps. The Nigerians shook their heads with pity as they watched
them go ñ the boys of Liberia, playing with their lives among the
swamps of the suburbs where the dead nuns still lay.10 (Huband
Children and women only as victims in civil wars?
To a great degree it was young Liberians who fought the civil war. As
I stated above there are no reliable statistics available, but an
approximation would indicate that around 20,000 underage
combatants fought in total. Adding to the lack of clarity is the fact that
according to UNDHA-HACO demobilisation statistics, less than two
percent of demobilised combatants in 1996-97 were actually females.11
Out of these, only about 15 percent were shown as being under the age
of 18. Again it is difficult to assess the reliability of these figures.
However, interviews that I personally carried out with female
excombatants seemed to indicate that female participation in the civil
war was more irregular than with their male counterparts. This factor
alone revealed women to be less prone to participate in the official
Alluding to five American nuns of the Order of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ who were killed in the
outskirts (Gardnersville) of Monrovia by NPFL soldiers in October 1992.
Others have suggested 4% (David 1997).
demobilisation practice. In reality more women fought in the war than
the UNDHA-HACO demobilisation figures indicate. It is also
possible to conclude that female combatants were generally older than
their male counterparts. As I will discuss at length in chapter 5,
women participated in the war effort in other ways than just as
combatants; as girlfriends of fighters, as traders of war booty, etc.
In studies of war, women are often placed in the same category as
children, namely that of victims. This categorisation is derived from
the dichotomy of victims and perpetrators which is in part linked to
the dichotomy of fighters and civilians (Macek 2001). In classic works
on war (the Clausewitzean tradition), the dividing line between fighter
and civilian was hardly disputed. Even some more recent analyses tend
to maintain a rather clear-cut line between the fighter and the civilian.
For example, Carolyn Nordstrom’s A Different Kind of War Story
(1997b) is preoccupied with the civilian population in a way that
upholds the notion of opposition between civilian and soldier/rebel, i.e.
victim and perpetrator. Nordstrom’s War-scapes are inhabited mainly
by military, rebels (or bandits), a few brokers (named jackals) and
expatriate businessmen. In contrast to these evildoers is the clearly
defined civilian, essentially free of evil, and devoid of agency. David
Keen (1996; 1999), amongst others, has opposed the usefulness of this
simplified opposition of victim/perpetrator. In ethnographic accounts
from other parts of the world, Begoña Aretxaga (1997), and Ivana
Macek (2000) have emphasised more complex images of agency in
war/conflict zones. Children and women in this portrayal are often
conceived to exist on the fringes of a war zone; inhabiting camps for
internally displaced; or as refugees in neighbouring countries (Ruiz
1992). In practice, women and children are only slightly over-
represented in refugee populations. It sounds impressive when relief
agencies declare that 80 per cent of the refugees in any given camp are
women or children, even though it is a demographic fact that over 72
per cent of the African population at least are either female, or are
under 15 years of age (Karamé & Bertinussen 2001:18; Turshen
Children or youth?
An emphasis on passivity eclipses many aspects of children’s lives,
including some of complex relationships of power which can exist at
any one time. The passive model of the child, promotes the notion that
he or she remains standing idly by whilst awaiting to be filled with
adult knowledge. (Caputo 1995:29)
Often, child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere have been depicted in
both academic and popular writing as mere victims (Brett & McCallin
1996; Cohn & Goodwin-Gill 1994; Dodge & Raundalen 1987; 1991;
Eade 1995; Fleischman & Whitman 1994; Furley 1995; Sly 1995; Sutton
& Leicht 1999; Whitman & Fleischman 1994). Recently however
alternative modes of analysing the agency of children have emerged
(Cairns 1996; Honwana 2000; Peters & Richards 1998b; Richards 1995;
1996; West 2000). This dissertation aims to make a contribution to this
latter kind of studies. Without asserting that childhood is only a
western construction, as Aries (1962) once proposed,12 it is important
nevertheless to bear in mind that the construction of categories like
I acknowledge the critique by Reynolds (1996:xxxiv) and Ottenberg (1989:20).
‘childhood’, ‘youthhood’ and adolescence are differently defined and
demarcated in various geographical and cultural areas; and, may also
differ over time.
In the Northern part of Liberia, the activities of secret societies
such as Poro and Sande, have come to demarcate the parameters of
childhood. Bush schools operated by these societies denoted the
passage rites between childhood and adulthood (Bellman 1984; Harley
1941b; Hoejbjerg 1990; Little 1965; 1966; Murphy 1980; Zetterström
1980; d’Azevedo 1980; Gay 1973). I am suggesting that children who
are initiated early in their lives become adults quickly, while others
considered immature by their parents, or who have descended from
poor families, may have to wait until they are quite old in
comparison.13 In contemporary Liberia, secret societies like the Poro
are now perceived as having become less influential or at least now
function quite differently from earlier days. However, I am arguing,
that many of Poro’s and Sande’s capacities still prevail (see chapter 3
and 4).14
There exists a marked difference between studies focusing on
children or on youth. With the focus on children, most studies present
their subjects as being devoid of agency, whilst presenting the opposite
As the initiation takes place in cycles of 7 years or so (differing in degree depending on place) a child
regarded only almost mature at the commencement of one initiation, will have to wait a long time for
his/her next opportunity.
Today the length of initiation has been cut down in size and an instant form of initiation now exists.
A one-week initiation for those living in urban areas during school leave is now quite normal. At the same
time, many Liberians in fact do not even initiate their children any more. To balance this, an upsurge also
seems to have taken place, both during and after the civil war.
to be true of youth—who appear amply furnished with agency. In
psychological terms it is known that children, or even infants (Gotlieb
2000), can actually demonstrate agency outside of the domestic
sphere,15 a fact which is often ignored. The dividing line between
childhood and adulthood can often be said to vary, depending on a
particular regional focus (socio-cultural factors). It can also express
dependence on the focus of the particular study. Strikingly, a study
which includes persons aged between 18-19 categorised as children,
deals with a set of people without agency. On the other hand, if authors
label a 15-16 year old in the category of ‘youth’ it indicates then that
this is a person with agency. Hall and Montgomery (2000) argue that
in the Western world, we have developed a tendency to label young
people as youth at an early age, stemming from our home
environment, i.e. implying their individual agency. Quite the contrary
if it is a place distant, in say Asia or Africa. Here we specifically prefer
to employ the victim-prone label of the child. On Western streets,
juvenile delinquency, youth homelessness, youth prostitution and drug
abuse by the young, are often portrayed as being perpetrated by those
old enough to be blamed for their actions (the youth label often
involves forms of negative agency). We also label young people falling
within the same age range but this time from Africa, as child
labourers, child soldiers, street children and child prostitutes. This
characterisation is by no means based on any inherent logic, but simply
gives the impression that a 16-year-old person in Britain, Sweden or
Giddens (1994:205) argues that ‘our’ culture regards socialisation as a passive form of ‘cultural pro-
gramming’ making room for descriptions of children as being passive.
the US is somehow more ‘mature’ than say a 16-year-old person
coming from Liberia.16 We should note that these assumptions owe
their basis to highly politicised notions of who is to blame: the society
or the individual, i.e. the analytical dichotomy of structure, or agency.
In local Liberian discourse addressing child or youth soldiers,
commentators would generally pinpoint the individual agency of the
person, calling them rebels, bandits etc. irrespective of age (Peters &
Richards 1998a). The massive support given to aid projects dealing
with the reintegration of excombatants is regularly scorned by
ordinary Liberians. The cry is often, why should western aid agencies
support the very people who demolished their country and not the
‘real’ victims of the war?
In order to specifically denote the agency of young people who
fought in the Liberian Civil War, I have chosen to employ the label of
youth rather than that of child or children. I have also chosen to use the
expression agency, as an analytical tool itself with the aim of
understanding the individual, as well as the collective motivations of
young people joining the civil war.17 In discussing the agency of youth
combatants in this context, it is also fruitful to further distinguish
between two perceived separate types of agency, that of tactic and
strategic (Honwana 2000; forth.). In de Certeau’s (1984) terminology,
This tendency is in sharp contrast with popular notions that children in other parts of the world
grow/matures into adulthood at an earlier age than in Europe and North America.
Agency is not studied from a theoretical perspective in this dissertation. The emergence of the concept
of personal agency in anthropological literature has been both a rejection of rigid structural-functionalism (combated for a long time in work of personhood, personal identity, the branch of psychological
anthropology, etc.) as well as being a response to an upsurge of a liberal political agenda (Dahl 1999).
Among others, Talal Asad (2000) has been critical to an over-emphasis on the subject.
tactics are short-term and therefore agents using tactics do not inhabit
a position so as to clearly foresee the outcome of their actions. Strategies
on the other hand tend to be long-term, and agents enjoying strategic
positions have the structural standing, and judgement, of predicting the
outcome of their conduct. We should note nevertheless, that the
distinction made between tactics and strategies in this context is
analytically artificial. However in so far as it is useful, I will suggest that
the agency of youth in the Liberian Civil War is by and large tactical.
Towards a definition of youth
Young men who took up arms could be seen as demonstrators. (Young
ex-combatant in Ganta, Nimba County)
The prolongation of youth-hood is a metaphor for Africa’s poverty.
(Ibrahim Abdullah in Momoh 1999:17)
Emerging aspirations to become an agent within the public arena, i.e.
the obtaining of a distinct voice in the decision-making processes of the
larger society, marks the entry into youthhood.18 With all its
ambiguities, youthhood is an open-ended project “everywhere and at
all times quite contrasting for different gender, class, or occupational
groups” (Durham 2000:116). In the Liberian setting, the term ‘youth’
is most often used to mark certain attributes, such as liminality and
Louise J. Kaplan (1984) views adolescence as being a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood
where male and female children take different routes; boys are socialised into the public sphere whilst
girls into an adult domestic sphere. Even though agreeing that young boys and girls enter adulthood (in
addition to being raised) in different ways, and that the domestic sphere in the Liberian case is ‘more’
female than male, in most aspects, young women also actively participate in the public sphere.
marginality. In the pre-colonial setting, youthhood was seen in Liberia
as a demarcated period of time when a person was isolated from larger
society, away from family and hometown, in Poro or Sande bush
schools in the forest. The person left as a child for bush school and later
returned to the town as an adult. It is important to note however, that
youth is not primarily about chronological age but denotes the
dependency to elders. William Murphy states that
.… most old men, along with women and young men, remain junior
dependants of the high-ranked lineages. Despite their age they are still
essentially ‘youth’ in their dependence on these elders, and they exercise even less authority than important younger members of the highranked lineages. (Murphy 1980:202)
Even more so now in the wake of urbanisation and the partial withering
away of secret societies and ‘traditional’ offices in contemporary Liberia,
youthhood has become a prolonged period where participation in public
matters will take place without having sufficiently obtained the status of
full membership into adult society. As such, this period of being ‘youth’
has become highly negotiable: a ‘crash course’ in Poro or Sande
‘business’ for example might be sufficient to enter adulthood. The
change between childhood and adulthood could in theory be instant.
But the liminal period of youth seems to vary depending on each
personal situation. Appropriating the right support, both economic and
socio-cultural, and from parents and society, would generally implicate
a short period of youthhood. However for a large proportion of the
Liberian population, youthhood actually becomes an extended struggle,
played out over many years and met with growing frustration.
The term youth has become politicised in large parts of Africa into
two rather different forms. Firstly, highly organised political
movements often become dubbed ‘youth associations’. On this point,
and in her research on youth associations in Ghana, Carola Lentz notes
that “the term ‘youth’ would generally imply no age limit on members,
but rather a socio-political category which places the associations in the
communal framework of the ‘chiefs’, ‘elders’ and ‘people’” (Lentz
1995:395; see also Laurent 1998). According to this definition, youth
can therefore be people of all ages, but who nevertheless consider
themselves politically active not directly in a national power position,
but certainly aspiring to get there. Secondly, and this is the way I use
the term youth in this dissertation, the term is presented as being a
label for the young deprived; those who are marginalised, or
considered in some way to be second class citizens. The youth under
this label is also seen as possibly outgrowing their chronological age,
whilst retaining its attendant chronological behaviour—becoming
‘youthmen’ (Momoh 1999:17). Further, in discussing the Sierra Leone
Civil War, Ibrahim Abdullah and other Sierra Leonean scholars have
devoted much effort in trying to increase their understanding of
‘lumpen youth culture’ in Freetown as the root of RUF (Revolutionary
United Front of Sierra Leone) creation. Lumpens, being “largely
unemployed and unemployable youths, mostly male, who live by their
wits or who have one foot in what is generally referred to as the
informal or underground economy” (Abdullah 1998:207).
Lumpens or subaltern youth (often interchangeable labels) respond
in much the same way to the impact of marginalisation and socioeconomic pressures as everywhere in the world, whether it be in urban
Africa or in small-town Europe. Youth in this sense can be seen as a
social effect of power (Durham 2000). On the surface, one will find the
most striking similarities with young people in similar situations
worldwide. Expressions, styles, modes of these marginalised youth,
including dress code, music and film taste, show considerable
resemblance, because of the outcomes of globalised forms of
communication and trade. Also, when the subject of youth is
discussed, we will often find that rural youth is omitted. The label
youth is mostly used it would seem in connection with urban style and
its modernities. I argue that this is a misconception. The notion of a
cosmopolitan mode (Ferguson 1999)19 and homeboy cosmopolitanism
in particular (Diawara 1998),20 are not only an urban mode, but in
reality carry influences deep into the bush or rainforest. The Liberian
Civil War was influenced by homeboy cosmopolitanism as a
movement of empowerment. During the course of war many more
young people found access and salvation in cosmopolitan ideals, not
only those of urban consumption patterns of commodities and drugs,
but also ideas of civic rights and individual value.
Ferguson describes cosmopolitanism as implying neither travel, nor cultural competence “it is less about
being at home in the world than it is about seeking worldliness at home” (Ferguson, 1999:212). Certainly
“cosmopolitanism has special affinity with both privilege and youth but it is reduced to neither” (ibid:213).
Diawara devotes a chapter in his In search of Africa to the ‘homeboy cosmopolitan’. Based in American
inner-city hip-hop culture, the ‘homeboy’ is “perpetually on the move, looking to make progress and
achieve individual redemption” (Diawara 1998:255). In his pursuit, he transgresses borders and categories, shapes individual identities to escape from social bondage. This is highlighted in the ‘homeboy’s’
anti-social behaviour (ibid. 245). This black American culture of the margin, communicates well with the
lives of young Liberians even in the rural areas.
In the history of cultural/social anthropology, studies of war and
violence have been surprisingly few. Small-scale societies studied by
anthropologists were generally seen as standing closer to our biological
origin than Western complex societies. This line of anthropological
thought, historically made comparisons between warring, non
Western peoples and primates, for instance seeing violence as a
biological spin-off from young ‘men in groups’ (Tiger 1969). In the
tradition of Tylor (1871) and others, evolutionary anthropology found
a certain interest in studying ‘primitive’ warfare as means of studying
our own past (Simons 1999). The interest in studying man within a
unilinear evolutionary perspective is still kept alive today in
archaeology, but does not attract much interest at all in cultural/social
anthropology. Up until quite recently, it was instead certain
functionalist studies of small-scale societies which dominated the
anthropological scene. ‘Indigenous warfare’, ‘wars in the tribal zone’
(Ferguson & Whitehead 1992), or feuds, were seen as consequences of
local ecology, where material elements provided both constraints and
limitations (Rappaport 1968). Certain peoples, like the Yanomami,
were portrayed as perpetual warmongers, fighting over the means of
reproduction (read women), or hunting grounds and status (Chagnon
1983). Such viewpoints have clearly remained in our popular ways of
depicting present warfare in Africa. However, this functionalist
framework also led researchers to overemphasise the rationality of
war, describing warfare as carefully calibrated and set according to
common rules (Pospisil 1993).
In recent years the anthropological study of war and violence has
undergone a complete metamorphosis and is now aiming at
understanding complex, or large scale, conflicts fought with modern
weaponry in both north and south (Aretxaga 1997; Ben-Ari 1998;
Besteman 2001; Daniel 1996; Feldman 1991; Green 1999; Jabri 1996;
Löfving 2002; Macek 2000; Nordstrom & Martin 1992; Nordstrom &
Robben 1995; Nordstrom 1997b; Richards 1996; Scarry 1987; Sluka
2000; Taylor 1999). Warfare is no longer perceived as a response to
certain constraints in the local ecology, and neither fought between
small-scale groups of culturally estranged peoples. Instead these
anthropologists analyse warfare as a process that cannot be understood
unless we take the larger world into consideration. Nevertheless,
anthropologists maintain the importance of a distinct cultural
understanding. Much in opposition to political science and peace and
conflict studies, anthropologists state that material and political
analyses of a conflict area are not enough. It is not only a question of
greed and/or grievance as Paul Richards has pointed out (Richards
forth.); the whole dimension of local cultures needs to be accounted for.
My intention is not to say that anthropologists do not have
anything to learn from political scientists, quite the contrary.
Nordstrom’s idea of warscape (Nordstrom 1997b) puts pressure on
anthropologists to take peoples and powers outside of the immediate
warzone into consideration, an issue taken for granted by other social
scientists. Nordstrom’s work on the shadow economies of civil wars, or
the shadows (Nordstrom 2001), are equally challenging to
anthropologists who by scholarly tradition are bound to a specific
research site. Likewise, and much in line with other social scientists,
we are now questioning old categorisation, such as the inimical
opposition between fighter and civilian, or victim and perpetrator, in
ways rarely done a few years ago. We are also growing more
comfortable with the idea that wars have neither clear beginnings, nor
ends (Richards & Helander forth.) and that violence is perpetually
reproduced over time in loose transitions of pre-war/war/post-war
scenarios (Löfving et al. 2002). These recent anthropological gazes have
formed a backdrop for my understanding of the Liberian Civil War.
…. studies of violence tend to focus on the victim’s perspective, often
missing out on the perpetrator’s view altogether. (Schröder & Schmidt
Generally anthropological studies focus on war and violence from a
victim perspective. Most discuss categories such as trapped civilians,
refugees, women or children generally void of violent agency (Green
1999; Nordstrom 1997b; Daniel 1996; and on everyday and structural
violence Scheper-Hughes 1992; Kleinman et al. 1997; Das 1990). This
dissertation takes a different stance, contributing to the relative small
amount of anthropological work concentrating on war and violence
from the perspective of the perpetrator (Lieblich 1989; Ben-Ari 1998;
Lomsky-Feder & Ben-Ari 1999; Simons 1997; Lan 1984). By focussing
on the perpetrators of violence I do not however intend to gloss over
atrocities and create yet another group of victims, nor do I intend to
legitimise the actions of this category. My aim instead is to contribute
to the building up of a picture of actors with quite rational modes of
violent behaviour, located and formed in fields of everyday life.
The culture of terror which became the trademark of the various
rebel factions involved in the Liberian Civil War, anticipated violent
methods linked to local and at times ethnically specific, mythologised
histories aiming at communication with enemy forces, civilians as well
as own combatants. In times of both war and peace, violence often
takes symbolic form, connecting locally mythologised histories, to the
human body that might at times function as a writing surface for
communication (Taylor 1999:105). In the words of Allen Feldman:
“The body becomes a spatial unit of power, and the distribution of
these units in space constructs sites of domination” (Feldman 1991:8).
Writing on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Christopher Taylor (1999)
describes how the Interhamwe militia made routine, certain violent
techniques such as the cutting of Achilles’ tendons, emasculating Tutsi
males, slashing of Tutsi women’s breast, impaling males from anus to
mouth and women from vagina to mouth. Likewise in Sierra Leone,
the practice of RUF rebels (and to some extent the militias aiding the
Sierra Leone Army) in cutting off limbs, has vividly caught the world’s
attention. Cutting off arms at different lengths such as ‘long sleeve’,
‘short sleeve’ and ‘body fit’ might have little to do with mythologised
histories and local symbolism; however, one should remember that
cosmology is a constantly changing project, thus violent mechanisms
within such a project “has its fashions and its styles and these are partly
transnational in origin” (Taylor 1999:142). New forms of violence in any
given situation will be incorporated so as to communicate with enemies
as well as civilians. Myth appears as lived reality. As Kapferer notes on
this point, “myth.... can become imbued with commanding power,
binding human actors to the logical movement of its scheme” (1988:467) and more vividly so during times of war and violent upheaval.
Human bodies in fact function efficiently as message boards for
mythical communication. Others have categorised violence into
different types (see Bourgois 2001). Here I do not attempt to follow
such delineation, but use the term everyday violence in a wider sense,
partly including the all-encompassing categories of structural violence
as developed by Galtung (1969) and the Bourdieuan notion of symbolic
violence (Bourdieu 2000; 2001). By using the term everyday violence I
am seeking to pinpoint a ‘from below’, or ordinary citizen, perspective,
thus by and large covering then the segment ‘youth’. Violence is
ultimately a measure of control. Liberian youth of the civil war
appropriated violent measures for themselves. By taking up arms they
were transformed, from victims of gerontocratic violence, to social
masters. Those who had been in control of their lives lost the upper
hand as control passed to others through violent means. In the process,
young combatants tried to take control over every possible measure of
violence, and by controlling social space they also aimed at
monopolising the use of these types of violence. With this aim they
moved far beyond the levels of what society claimed to be legitimate
violence. The abuse of violent means lead to widespread atrocities.
The range of subjects and issues contained in this dissertation can be
seen as being situated in a social landscape where the trajectories of
tradition and modernity are continually being negotiated and
contested. For example, a battery made to function in an electronic
appliance is clearly ‘modern’ in the sense that it has been developed in
a technologically oriented Western world. But nevertheless its
components are also part of the traditional world, because traditional
medical practitioners use the battery’s chemicals, along with leaves and
herbs, to disinfect wounds. Many recent accounts have shown that in
practice, the intersection between modernity and tradition is much
more blurred. For instance, researchers have spent time studying
witchcraft as a modern phenomenon with its roots in colonialism,
post-colonialism (Bernault & Tonda 2000; Comaroff & Comaroff 1993;
Geschiere 1997; White 2000), and the Atlantic slave trade (Shaw 1997;
Modernity has essentially the capacity of a meta-narrative in the
African arena, as James Ferguson vividly demonstrates in Expectations
of modernity (1999; see also Englund & Leach 2000). The concept of
modernity, or as the Liberians like to express it, of ‘being developed’,
‘exposed’, or kwii (the word used in many Liberian vernaculars), is
constructed upon a particular teleological perception of social
development. To manifest a break with such ideas, many
anthropologists and other social scientists now prefer to talk about
modernities. In similar vein, there has simultaneously been a turn in
anthropological studies to the use of the equally problematic concept of
globalisation. Based on similar conceptions of Western biased
technology, globalisation has become a catchall phrase. An advantage
of focusing on globalisation I might suggest, rather than on modernity,
is that not everybody has to develop into sameness. Even if the basic
argument is that we are getting increasingly (inter)connected—the
world is getting smaller argument—the term is more flexible and
dynamic than ‘modernity’. For instance, the idea of globalisation
permits explanations of economic downfalls, dependencies etc. in
specific geographical areas, without erasing itself. Even if globalisation
is popularly upholding the idea of socio-cultural homogenisation, it
might also sanction ideas of cultures as heterogenising—a case visible
in contemporary Africa. Ferguson, for instance, turns globalisation
upside down and introduces the Zambian Copperbelt as a case of
global dis-connection. The psycho-social side of experiencing
disconnection from the rest of the world, fits into what Ferguson,
borrowing from Kristeva, has called ‘abjection’. Abjection connotes
being thrown down—to be humiliated and degraded. Studying global
disconnect and the consequent abjection in the Zambian Copperbelt,
Ferguson observes:
a sense that the promises of modernization had been betrayed, and that
they were being thrown out of the circle of full humanity, thrown
back into the ranks of the ‘second class,’ cast outward and downward
into the world of rags and huts where the color bar always told
‘Africans’ they belonged (1999 p. 236).
Among Liberian combatants it is possible to observe the same
sentiment, however the notion of abjection would cover not only
disconnection from a wider world order, but also from the order of
things within the national arena of Liberia as well as in local
communities.21 Some of the events of the Liberian Civil War pinpoint
a disconnection of modernity. This became real in a very visible way
for example when a set of electric powerhouses, complete with its
wires to connecting towns and the local telephone lines, were
dismantled and carried abroad to Guinea or the Ivory Coast by rebel
To talk about a general African disconnect is however invalid. Certain areas are instead increasingly ‘con-
necting’, or what might be labelled globalising (Utas 2002).
soldiers or to Nigeria by elements of the peacekeeping forces. Roads
connecting cities and towns also were destroyed, or simply regained by
nature.22 However it was not the civil war that actually dismantled
Liberian ‘modernity’, quite the contrary, it was the dismantling of
modernity images that made the war possible. It was rather that failed
expectations of modernity lead many people to doubt their future, thus
providing a bedrock for a level of dissatisfaction, which ruthless
political oppositions successfully harnessed in the creation of insurgent
rebel armies.
To many young Liberians, war itself became part and parcel of an
African identity. Hearing of a war going on in Bosnia for example, led
some Liberians to believe that Bosnia was actually situated on the
African continent. War had clearly become a marker of the failure of
modernity, and in their minds it was only Africa that could possibly
fail so bitterly. Such a failure is often in public discourse blamed also
on the immorality and selfishness of the Liberians themselves, and
indeed often the entire African population. It was repeatedly
explained to me that Africans have not only black skin but also black
hearts in opposition to ‘white man’. One of my informants said
jokingly, that when Jesus first arrived to our planet he initially tried to
land in Africa, but he bounced! Africa was simply too immoral for a
pious being like Jesus to remain. Such ideas echo the messages brought
Ferme (2001) has pointed out that in southern Sierra Leone this disconnect was sometimes deliberate-
ly actioned by local communities who stopped clearing roads and paths so as to avoid external actors pillaging (both governmental and rebels). This has also been the case in many Liberian settings. For instance
in Nimba County, EU staff complained over the lack of cooperation, among villagers, in the reconstruction of bridges. In some cases they were even met by masked devils of the secret societies who forced
local staff to stop their work.
to Liberia by early missionaries, slave traders, as well as the range of
colonisers in general. As we shall see in chapter 3, even though Liberia
was never formally colonised in the conventional sense, the AmericoLiberian leadership of the country still managed to shape Liberia in
the same fashion as other colonising powers. In popular thought, the
idea of development follows a linear path. So, it also stands that the
experience of being disconnected from modernity implies exclusion
from membership of the larger world (Ferguson 2002). Such
imaginations have provided fuel to many Afro-pessimistic ideas in
post-colonial Africa (Diawara 1998). The rise in Afro-pessimistic ideas
following the failed promises of the meta-narrative of modernity, have
led to the search for alternative paths towards individual status as
modern, rather than the abandonment of the meta-narrative itself.
The elite of Liberian society still upholds the image of being modern,
and global, i.e. still having the latest technological gadgets, shiny cars
and clothes, travel possibilities etc. What is different however is that
this has become limited to an increasingly shrinking elite. Being aware
that their fragile positions are becoming ever more contested, these
elites are prepared to use whatever means available to retain their
position. To young people with a desire for modern pretensions, two
paths appear: either to move to a space where such facilities are readily
available for all, i.e. Europe or the US (according to popular
knowledge), or to use brute force to enter the contested space within
the national arena. As is clear from the Liberian case, both paths have
been used. I am therefore arguing that the war could partly be seen as
individualised competition over a limited modern space in Liberia.
In Liberia, to be ‘civilised’, or modern, is of great significance for
the status of the individual. It is a lucid marker of power for young
people especially. To most Liberians, modernity is what comes from
overseas and predominantly takes the form of commodities
(technology, clothes etc), communications, the western form of
education, and world religions such as Christianity and to some extent
Islam. Modernity comes in the guise of consumption. We might talk
about modernity as consumerism, or the seduction of consumption
(Baudrillard 1990; Bauman 1998). Tradition on the other hand is what
is locally produced, whether it comes in the form of commodities, or of
ideas. Traditions also occupy a space largely dominated by elders, thus
youth, contesting the powers of elders, are prone to seek status in the
modernities. Traditions, even if often contrasted to modernities in
popular discourses, are in practice however neither constant nor
singular and are not to be easily separated from the modern. There are
both modern and traditional trajectories leading to power and respect
within Liberian society. Although traditional paths had largely been
inaccessible to young people, the routes of modernity nevertheless
remained within their reach up until the economic crisis of the late
1970s. The increased instability of the 1980s was in part a result of a
blockage of paths within the ‘modern sphere’.
This dissertation is comprised of six essays, each highlighting different
perspectives of youthhood in relation to the Liberian Civil War.
Originally the essays had been written as autonomous papers, some
published or accepted for publication in edited volumes. Here they are
presented in their reworked form so as to fit the general framework of
this dissertation.
Chapter 2 is a discussion on fieldwork methods. Undertaking
fieldwork among excombatants is a particularly difficult task and it
raises a number of concerns about the methods used. It can be difficult
enough just to get access to a group of informants with a combatant
background, but access in itself does not necessarily imply the full level
of trust, needed for effective research in this environment. On the
contrary, everyday fieldwork becomes in itself a battle for trust. In the
particular situation presented in this chapter—the Monrovia part of
my fieldwork—many topics remained taboo because of the extreme
fragility of my informants life situation. As fieldwork progressed I
actually had to crosscheck information over and over again, as my
informants kept giving me different stories. Despite these problems I
argue that qualitative methods, such as participant observation, are the
only conceivable ways of collecting data in this setting, since trust, born
out of relationship, is so pivotal. In anthropological studies there is an
idea of getting acceptance in the field as a rite of passage.
Anthropologists tend to see effective inclusion as a permanent stage,
but in this chapter I show how the fluidity of the people’s lives within
my field site made my presence ever-questioned and indeed my
exclusion was inevitable—it was just a matter of how long I could hold
In Chapter 3 I trace the connections between the recent conflict
and more general historical information on warfare and militarism in
Liberia. However, ethnographic data containing information on war
offices, warrior categories and other war structures is curiously sparse
in the anthropological library on Liberia. A fact that has made
commentators to backtrack to early colonial or pre-colonial studies
(prior to the pacification of the hinterland peoples of Liberia) to find
written sources covering the relevant issues. The net result has been
the reauthoring of an array of exotic materials on ‘tribes engaged in
endemic warfare’. By careful reading of ethnographic sources I now
intend to somewhat adjust this picture. I also point out that the
colonial Liberian State so thoroughly and violently militarised the
country’s hinterlands, that this violent pacification remained in place
right up to the onset of the civil war. In this regard I show how power
regimes of both pre-colonial and of colonial Liberia fit into local
cosmology and thus create legitimisation of both modern and
traditional trajectories of power. Thus in this vein, the Liberian Civil
War rests upon both traditional and modern ground. In this context
too I locate the roots of youth participation in pre-colonial, colonial
and post-colonial (post-1980) wars alike.
Chapter 4 has its focus on violence. Commentators often dismiss the
violence of African wars as illogical and anarchic; the aim of this chapter
is to place the violence of the Liberian Civil War into its right context.
The youth of Liberia played leading roles in carrying out atrocities.
Violence is by no means something primordial to Liberian society, it is a
process, within which youth participated. My starting point is thus to
analyse the often quite violent period of childhood, where parents, other
adults and the educational system can be identified as using violent
measures in the socialisation of children. Significantly, combatants often
copy patterns of socialising violence in their punishment and torture of
prisoners and civilians. I further argue that violence is legitimate for
local leadership in Liberia and that the cultural concept of the hero is
thereby morally neutral. It carves out space for legitimate violence. With
this backdrop, young Liberians often chose violent paths, aiming at
reaching powerful social positions through highly individualised means.
The participation of young women in the war is scrutinised in
Chapter 5. It would be too easy to see women in the context of war
simply as passive victims, with men as their oppressors. This chapter is
based on a series of interviews made with young women who at
various stages of their life during the war have been both prisoners and
victims of rape as well as other forms of oppression. These interviews
also show that in the same process, they have also been girlfriends to
fighters and traders of war booty, as well as being rebel soldiers in their
own right. I hereby unravel some of the complex patterns of
dependency, and also of individual choice.
The aftermath of the war is discussed in Chapter 6. In this chapter
I situate the lives of my informants within the post-war predicament
and discuss their potential for reintegration into mainstream society. I
compare these three settings: the urban, the semi-urban and the rural,
where I find quite distinct features in the reintegration process. It is in
the urban setting where most of the international aid projects catering
for excombatants can be found. However, and in a somewhat
contradictory way, reintegration here is not really working very well.
It is actually in the rural areas that people readily accepted their sons
and daughters coming home from war. Despite the fact that many
combatants carried out atrocities prior to their departure, most rural
dwellers still state that they are prepared to forgive excombatants. In
fact, many had already returned as early as the first half of 1998. I
argue in this context that the semi-urban setting is the most enticing.
Although there are also many aid projects catering for excombatants
in these areas, still it is largely the excombatants themselves who
appear to be arduously working to get reintegrated.
The architecture of this work is rooted in the temporal. Every human
must be considered from the standpoint of time. (Frantz Fanon: Black
Skin, White Masks)
In most studies of under-age combatants, research methodology has
been a rather neglected topic. Research carried out in this thematic
field has generally been undertaken using a quantitative approach and
tends only to be based on short-term fieldwork. Direct encounters
with under-age combatants are often limited to one, or at most a few
appointments, and interviews are generally carried out using a tape
recorder. Moreover, research is often done from within aid
organisations. These approaches tend to yield responses within victim
modes, and tend to conceal every modulation of lived experience (Brett
& McCallin 1996; Cohn & Goodwin-Gill 1994; Fleischman & Whitman
1994). Victimcy (a word formed out of a combination of victim and
agency) is the seemingly contradictory agency of presenting oneself as
a powerless victim. It is not only (ex)combatants who present
themselves in such a victim mode, but also refugees and other
internally displaced people. In addition, ‘victim’ responses often go on
to form the raw material for standardised as well as collectivised
discourses of, for example, victims of war or repressive regimes
(Handelman forth.; Jackson 2002; Tiljander Dahlström 2001). Victimcy
is a tactical manipulation aiming, in part, at maintaining a moral façade
in line with cultural ideals. However, victimcy can also be seen as a
political response to security realities on the ground, as well as an
economic tactic, adhered to mainly in relation to foreign aid projects. As
a framed response in the presence of humanitarian aid and international
non-governmental organisations (INGOs), victimcy is an obstacle to
research and it is essential to find alternative modes of data collection.
Pre-civil war studies of Liberia include works by scholars such as
Bellman (1975; 1984), Bledsoe (1980c), Clapham (1976), d’Azevedo
(1962; 1969-1970; 1972; 1989; 1994b), Liebenow (1969; 1980; 1987),
Moran (1990) and Tonkin (1992). Regrettably, with the exception of
Mary Moran, these scholars have not actively engaged with the civil
war. Instead, it appears that along with emergency aid provision has
come a set of emergency researchers. Such social researchers are
typically staff or consultants of INGOs or government agencies and
they copy the rapid response methods in their own work of medical
teams like Médecins sans Frontières, or Merlin.1 In 1992 Hiram Ruiz,
employed by the US Committee for Refugees, produced a research
report on the refugee situation in Liberia (Ruiz 1992). In eleven years
(1988-1998) Ruiz covered at least eight other conflict zones, on three
continents, and released a series of research reports very similar to the
one on Liberia. What profundities could we then expect to find in such
work? Anthropological field methods may need to be modified to
Political scientists who use personal contacts within political networks as a base for their analysis are
less troubled by wars, but are equally newcomers to the region (Ellis 1995; 1998; 1999; Reno 1995; 1996;
1997; 1998; 2000).
study war-torn societies, but they cannot be neglected altogether.
Long-term approaches are certainly difficult to carry out in times of
war, but as such, they are of no less importance. In order to more
deeply understand individual motives and collective dispositions
underlying child and youth participation in civil wars, scholars need
longer-term personal contacts with their research subjects, particularly
as these kinds of issues are unusually delicate. They are indeed delicate
for many reasons, some of which I point out in this text. Long-term
fieldwork and participant observation “can be seen therefore as being
much better suited than exclusively quantitative methodologies for
documenting the lives of people who live on the margins of a society
that is hostile to them. Only by establishing long-term relationships
based on trust can one begin to ask provocative personal questions, and
expect thoughtful answers” (Bourgois 1995:12f). Victimcy also
becomes transparent in the light of long-term ethnographic fieldwork.
However, even long-term fieldwork conceals problems and
shortcomings, some of which I will discuss using my own experiences
from fieldwork with excombatant youth residing in urban Liberia.
Entering the field for the first time, getting in or gaining
acceptance is generally a delicate business. Anthropologists tend to
dwell on this topic with an air of mystique and in their ethnographic
work, treat it often as a rite of passage (Geertz 1973a; Hannerz 1969;
Jensen 2001; Whyte [1943] 1993). My own inclusion into the field was
not particularly dramatic, but nonetheless of great importance to my
research. I will discuss this in some detail below. However, I would
like first to take the discussion on the idea of acceptance, or inclusion,
a step further. Researchers tend often to see inclusion as a permanent
state one can reach. Although whilst in a turbulent field such as my
own, the promise of inclusion is, in practice, continually under threat
by the possibility of exclusion. In this setting, it becomes clear that
people are constantly on the move, power is being utilised in so many
diverse and often brutal ways; criminal livelihoods and dangerous
military pasts (and presents) loom large to contest the legitimacy of the
researcher on a day to day basis. In retrospect, given the nature of the
situation in Liberia, my own eventual exclusion was probably
inevitable and indeed fieldwork proved in fact principally to be an
exercise in how long I could hold on.
On the ground, humanitarian aid agencies tend to make a fetish of
childhood as a closed, age-bounded category made up of agency-free
individuals (on turning eighteen, the individual is dumped in another
less well-funded bin). By contrast, in this text I treat childhood as an
open-ended period of time. Likewise, the liminal phase between
childhood and adulthood is also a non-linear, open-ended project of
adult formation; i.e. youth-hood or adolescence (Kaplan 1984). Age is
social in the sense that members of an age group can “outgrow their
chronological age but not its chronological behaviour” (Momoh
1999:17). One can in fact stay within the youth category for a
prolonged time period. As the youth category is also a social effect of
power (Durham 2000), it follows that individuals who have been
unable to establish themselves as adults, with the socio-cultural
implications which this entails, remain in the category to ages far
beyond our general Euro/American understanding of youth. Below I
include the story of Washington. He is thirty-six years old, but still I
argue, very much part of the youth category. Likewise, on the other
end of the youth spectrum, I would be justified in arguing that many
of the eleven or twelve year old rebel fighters I encountered live lives
which disqualify them from traditional notions of childhood, as we
want to understand it, but rather qualify them in the liminal category
of youth. It is clear that we need therefore to discuss both child and
youth soldiers in Liberia as an integrated part of a wider, ‘crisis of
youth’ (Richards 1995). By talking about youth in this wider sense we
thus do away with the victim-prone label ‘child soldiers’.
In what appeared to be a common aftermath of the Liberian Civil
War, many young excombatants ended up homeless on the streets of
the country’s cities and larger towns. In the capital, Monrovia, young
excombatants could be found squatting in vacant and damaged
housing complexes, office buildings, shops, hospitals and hotels. This
chapter focuses on a small group of youths who lived in a deserted
petro-chemical factory (nicknamed ‘the Palace’), situated right on the
beach in central Monrovia. All of them had actively participated in the
civil war as combatants, and at the time I got to know them were living
rough (forming part of the social segment labelled ‘lumpens’ by
Abdullah and others—Abdullah 1997a; 1998; Abdullah et al. 1997;
Rashid 1997). In early 1998, normality was slowly returning to Liberia.
Excombatants from most factions, with the exception of some soldiers
from President Charles Taylor’s own rebel army, had been discharged
and were desperately looking for new civil employment. The peace
proceedings from late 1996 up to the elections of July 1997 had reduced
their status from masters to subjects, returning them back to the lowly
social positions they experienced at the onset of the war.
Participation in the civil war was to many of these young men and
women an active move towards power and influence. Peace was thus
often seen as an immediate loss. In fact one could argue that for many
excombatants, the peace that followed the civil war was experienced as
more hostile and warlike than the war itself, often due to the
tremendous increase in hardship; i.e. ‘war is peace’, to paraphrase the
slogan of Orwell’s 1984. On occasions, Palace youth admitted to me
that they wished that the war would start all over again, as one of them
put it, “when the shelves of Stop and Shop (a supermarket situated
nearby) are again filled to the brink”. Food, commodities and respect
would return to them, as they again picked up their guns and became
masters of at least a fragment of Liberian society.
For a researcher, the accepted procedure for establishing contact with
excombatants is usually via one of the demobilisation and
reintegration programmes offered by a plethora of national and
international aid organisations found on the ground in Liberia.
Initially, when I arrived in Liberia, I too explored this path. On visiting
a few of the (I)NGO projects they did indeed bring me close to possible
informants, yet they also placed me in what I soon believed to be a
problematic category. Inevitably my association with aid agencies
predetermined my relations with those I wanted to understand. Every
single person I talked to for example saw me as a donor, and responded
to my questions with answers which were tailored to suit that
imagined identity. It felt as though I had been placed in a
straightjacket from which I could not escape. Respondents appeared to
make the most of presenting themselves as victims: victims of war,
devoid of any other agency than asking the donor community for aid.
Far from being satisfied with these victimcy-modelled responses, I left
and went looking for something else.
During my search for a more satisfactory way of engaging with
excombatants, I came across a local social fieldworker employed by
one of the INGOs, who was also active in the field outside of the
specific projects. He took me to some of the spots in town where he
knew excombatants were squatting. Our second visit was, significantly
to ‘the Palace’. Here, in contrast to the first site we visited, I was well
received, undeniably because they simply mistook me for a donor, even
though I did what I could to deny it. Despite my own initial feelings,
it also occurred to me that my supposed donor status could really be an
advantage and indeed had let me in, in the first place. I realised too
that in truth I wanted to do non-victimcy biased research and accepted
that I needed to do away with this donor status, but only at a pace slow
enough to be able to establish an alternative personal trust. As I was
living nearby, I scheduled a further visit the next day, this time without
the social worker. I was now on my own and I had found a place which
I felt I could visit on a daily basis, where I could spend all the time I
wanted with my research subjects. Better still, at least half of the group
remained idle and readily available for chats during the daytime.
Entering the Palace I had entered the clandestine world of excombatants;
a realm of fighters unified, but one too of broad chasms born out of the
separate experiences and liaisons faced by each in the Liberian Civil
War. It seemed to be that these intertwined clandestine networks shared
the same marginal space, yet beneath the surface they competed fiercely
over limited resources in the extreme margin of postwar economics.
The Palace was a place feared in the neighbourhood. People dared
not enter the premises and rumours were rife that the inhabitants were
cannibals. Even a European aid worker living in a neighbouring
building told me that she had seen people in the Palace bringing in a
big basket of human flesh—presumably for consumption.2 Outsiders
entering the Palace included army soldiers absconding from the
nearby barracks to buy marijuana, or just to smoke a joint, or to
arrange some deal with the Palace dwellers. Some civilians also bought
marijuana from dealers in the Palace, but normally people would not
enter the premises. In fact, at the beginning of my research, traders
who wanted to sell their goods, halted at an invisible line outside and
waited for the inhabitants to come out. The gate to the building had
also disappeared a long time ago and although the entire building was
physically open and accessible, it remained socially closed.
Under these circumstances I found that it was quite a delicate matter
to get under the skin of the Palace youth, a skin considerably toughened
by all perceived betrayals from early on in life, through the war years,
right through to their current outcast status. At a time when everybody
else seemed to be ignoring their very existence, I believe that it was
curiosity about why I was interested in their lives that initially made them
accept me. During the war years they had all experienced international
journalists in some form and had been let down by their promises.3 In
Stories of cannibalistic rituals among combatants during the civil war were widely told and most
Liberians never doubted their validity. Clearly such rituals took place, but it appears to me that the regularity is exaggerated by Liberians, by international media, and in some academic writing (as for instance
in Ellis 1999; 2000; 2001).
One American journalist had recently visited the Palace and promised them all that he would send them
beds to sleep in. He also talked about establishing long-term contacts, which might one day lead to a
visit to the US.
contrast, I came with no promises. Visiting them day after day slowly
convinced them of my positive interest in their lives. The fact that they
had been shunned by the larger society I felt made my endeavour even
more important to pursue. In that vein, I felt too that my presence had
also become a status symbol for Palace youth, equivalent to what Rodgers
experienced undertaking fieldwork in a Nicaraguan gang (2000; forth.).
I had imagined that my ethnographic knowledge of Liberian society and
good orientation in contemporary Liberian war history, with specific
reference to issues of youth, would give us a common ground for
discussions. Yet what turned out to be my prime asset was that I had been
in Monrovia during the April 6 battle in 1996. Back then I was caught for
a few days in a downtown apartment before I managed to get across
town to the US Embassy. Here I was eventually airlifted out of the
country. Indeed I had not fought, but I had experienced nevertheless
wild bullets whistling around my ears and detonating grenades all
around me. I too had experienced the grip of panic, profound fear and
indeed experienced Palace equals acting out the very war. I had
experienced a little piece of ‘their war’ and it was enough, my rite of
passage, which made my transition from being a stranger to being a peer
possible. I was constantly reminded of this fact when they introduced me
to friends in their social networks, often with an opening line such as: this
is our friend; he was here during ‘April 6’. I shared the experience of
their war and as a consequence they let me gain access to their lives.
I further gained their trust by keeping my house open to them. My
closest friends from the Palace would drop in for a chat, some food or
a game of cards. Together we started to plan other activities. First we
proposed a small project to an INGO. We got some money for a
basketball court and cleared the yard inside the Palace. This had a
tremendous effect on the neighbourhood. Within days, youths started to
come from all around to play basketball on ‘our’ court. Flowers grew out
of the concrete. Sammy, one of the leaders in the Palace, even got himself
a girlfriend from the neighbourhood. We later developed an idea for
another small-scale project to put up a small carpentry workshop; this
time, however, it grew out of our hands and eventually collapsed.
Even with the tremendous effort I put into gaining their trust and
cooperation, it was nevertheless a delicate matter to succeed in and I
certainly failed in some areas. My main focus had been on their
performance during the war years and this turned out to be the most
sensitive area. On these issues, I could get one answer before lunch and
another after. Sometimes they would tell me that they had been
fighters, only to withdraw their statements during our next discussion.
However, after some time, I had a pretty clear picture of who had done
what during the war years. But who had they fought for? This
appeared to be a pretty straightforward question and I was initially
satisfied with the answer that most had fought for the NPFL.
However, some neighbours told me otherwise. They said that most
Palace youth had been part of the ULIMO-J in the 1996 fighting. Many
had indeed fought for NPFL or INPFL at some point—change of
faction had been very common in the civil war and many excombatants
had experienced life in more than one faction—although they would
not reveal that they had had any relationship with ULIMO-J.4
During 1998, ex-ULIMO-J fighters were still a source of unrest in
One thing that signalled their ULIMO-J status was that they had red nail polish on one fingernail. When
I asked about it, they agreed that it had been a marker for ULIMO-J affiliation during the war but that
in the postwar setting it was mere street fashion.
Monrovia. Tension remained high around the house of their leader
and several skirmishes had taken place between ULIMO fighters and
government security forces. On September 18 1998, these tensions
brought Liberia back to the brink of civil war. Large parts of
downtown Monrovia were again turned into a battlefield when
fighting broke out between security forces and irregulars, loyal to the
ULIMO-J leader. When government forces took back control, changes
also occurred at the Palace. One of the younger boys actually turned
out to be in the bodyguard for the ULIMO-J leader. He subsequently
fled with this leader to the US embassy and was later airlifted, together
with the ULIMO-J elite to Nigeria. Thus it became obvious why he
had refused to participate in our ‘lecturing’ and why he always seemed
to keep a low profile in my presence. Further, Scarface, one of the
seniors in the Palace, a corporal in the army and a ULIMO-J soldier
during the war, was picked up by security forces and taken to the
military barracks where he was first interrogated and eventually
executed.5 By then it was pretty clear to me that most of the Palace
youth had fought for ULIMO-J during the April 6 war and the tragic
death of Scarface made it extremely clear why war issues were not
discussed with an outsider, and possible infiltrator like myself.
After his death I made some investigation in the matter among my acquaintances within the security
forces. According to those familiar with the case it was quite clear that he had not played any active part
in the September 18 unrest.
Like the ruins of a fortress overlooking the ocean, the Palace consisted
of the concrete remnants of a factory situated right on the beach at the
far end of one of the main streets in downtown Monrovia. Immediate
neighbours were two rather superior apartment buildings, inhabited
by expatriate NGO staff and naturalised Lebanese businessmen. A
deserted lot with an old garage was situated in between these
complexes, occupied by another band of homeless youths. Behind the
Palace was a dusty football field, often full of activity in the late
afternoons when the sun was going down. And then there is the beach
nicknamed the ‘Puh-puh-cana’, candidly because people living nearby
would use it as their toilet—ocean waves flushing away the human
excrement. On the beach at the far end of the street was a rubbish
dump where Palace youth would frequently go and scavenge.
Inside the Palace fence one would enter the building via an old loading
bridge. A pile of concrete blocks, probably a remnant from the war,
barred the main door. When it was used as headquarters for militia,
only one entrance was preferred for security reasons. Old concrete
blocks and other debris littered the rooms on the ground floor except
one which was inhabited by three of the most junior residents. A big
open space between the L-shaped building and the outer walls was
initially also covered with debris but in a joint effort we managed to
clear the area in order to turn it into a basketball field. Upstairs, there
were six rooms inhabited by the rest of the Palace youth. The most
senior boys would occupy the smaller rooms up here with no, or very
small window apertures. They preferred these for security reasons.
Old cloth or plastic covered the doorways. The ‘beds’ were mainly
made up of a few pieces of cloth spread out on the concrete floor. The
rooms were mainly furnished with items from the rubbish dump—
primitively repaired chairs and tables, a refrigerator door functioning
as a shelf etc. Surprisingly, much was done to make the place tidy:
some tables had tablecloths and in one of the rooms a plastic flower
was stuck in an old beer bottle. Palace youth dreamed of a decent life
and indeed fed their dreams with magazine pictures of consumer
goods plastered on their walls. Palace youth did not have many
possessions; they also needed to keep things in close proximity or they
would be stolen and sold by the other residents. Theft was punished,
but it was often hard to determine the culprit, and residents were often
so hungry that an extra meal would be worth the punishment.
Palace youth were a constantly changing population. Some stayed in
the building only for a few weeks, while others for longer. At the
beginning of my fieldwork in the Palace there were twenty-one
residents, only five of them female, and with an overall age range from
fifteen to thirty-six. On average, most of the Palace inhabitants
claimed that they had left school in the fifth or sixth grade. Some had
received no formal education at all while one claimed to have finished
tenth grade. Although the onset of war may have cut their studies
short, leaving school in the fifth or sixth grade was actually rather
common in urban Liberia before the war.6 About half the Palace youth
were born or had grown up in Monrovia, the rest in mining and
plantation communities up-country (a typical recruiting area for rebel
armies—see Muana 1997; Richards 1996). In the pre-war setting, their
parents had worked mainly in the wage labour sector. Most Palace
youth actually had stable family backgrounds and most probably
would not have been living rough, if the war had not disrupted their
lives. In the postwar era they seem to have maintained little contact
with parents and siblings even if they were known to be alive. Those
who had relatives in Monrovia rarely, if ever, would make visits and
little effort was spent reinstating contact. None of the Palace residents
during my time there received any economic assistance from relatives,
even though thirteen of them had relatives abroad (mainly in the US,
but also elsewhere in Africa).7
Half of the males had received experience, or training as skilled
workers (mainly carpentry), but nurtured little hope of gaining
employment as skilled labour (see below). Most of them, along with
two or three of the females, fought during the war. One girl proudly
told me how she used to slit the throats of the enemy with her hunting
knife! I have never been able to verify in which factions each
individual fought, and during which part of the war, although I have
good evidence of their participation in ULIMO-J during the 1996
battles. Details of their various ranks and of the units in which they
served, were also classified, even if it did become a topic of debate in
In Liberia as a whole, primary school enrolment is 51 percent for boys and 28 percent for girls. Secondary
school enrolment is 31 percent for boys and 13 percent for girls (UNFPA 1999, based on pre-war surveys).
Economic assistance from abroad is one of the main sources of income in postwar Liberia.
informal discussions.8 Palace youth saw action over large areas of
Liberia. Those who fought with the NPFL, AFL and ULIMO-J had
travelled all over Liberia as well as into Sierra Leone. They had
generally been armed with AK47s (Kalashnikovs), although a wide
range of guns were used—light machine guns, belt guns and RPGs.
Twelve out of the twenty-one in my survey had bullet or grenade
wounds from combat.
On Returning Home
All the individuals in the Palace had personal reasons for not returning
to their families or places of origin. Circumstances within their
original local opportunity structure, such as inheritance factors, access
to land and resources, marital status etc, all played a crucial role in
whether an individual chose to return home. Relationships with
parents, as well as personal associations with others in the local setting,
often determined whether ex-fighters eventually went home or stayed
in the cities. In some cases Palace youth did not know even where to
start looking for their parents, or they had found out that they had
been killed during the war years. Yet others were very aware of the
fact that they had grown too old to depend on their parental
generation and/or that their parents or other close relatives themselves
had no, or only a limited means of subsistence. “In postwar Liberia you
have to fight for yourself”, Palace youth would often say. Many had
also committed crimes and atrocities in their own communities and
Ranks were often given to soldiers as proof of bravery rather than commanding position, hence many of
the fighters obtained unusually high ranks. For instance, one of the youngest of the Palace inhabitants
(fifteen years old in 1998 but only seven at the onset of the war) had a captain’s rank.
thus feared the way in which they might be received. Another
important reason for staying away was often a prevalent sense that to
go back, one needed some proof that the years away had not been
wasted. To prove success on return was of immediate importance, and
could be done by returning in nice clothes, with money in your pocket,
a car or even a completed education.
Earning One’s Livelihood in the Street: the Nuku Hunt
Nuku is street slang for money and the daily hunt for nuku preoccupies
Palace youth. Life in the Palace is a fight for survival. Luxuries are
only available in imaginary form through returns to the ‘glorious’ days
of the Civil War. In de Certeau’s (1984) terms, Palace youth rely on
short-term ‘tactics’ rather than long-term ‘strategies’. If anyone is
successful in obtaining some nuku, then they will often buy food and
cook for everyone. A big pleasure for all, it simultaneously functions as
the glue keeping Palace the youth together. Except for food, the needs
of Palace inhabitants are few. Soap for laundry and personal hygiene is
one of the few necessities and generally laundry soap is used for both
purposes. A one-portion bag of laundry soap costs 10 Liberian dollars
(L$10). In addition, cigarettes (at L$5 for four), marijuana (an
affordable L$5—harder drugs are more costly), and occasionally some
home-brewed spirits (cane juice) for the night, cover the rest of their
basic needs. Youth in the street can easily live on L$15–20
(US$0.35–0.50) a day.9 Even so, many of the young dwellers in the
Since the Firestone deal in the 1920s, US dollars have been the main currency in the country. During
the early 1980s a national currency was introduced but only in coins, while US bills were widely used.
Today Liberia has its own currency system but US currency is still used in parallel.
Palace find it troublesome enough to get that amount of money. People
often call attention to the lack of even the smallest funds as
characteristic of the postwar era, and talk with nostalgia of the ‘sweet’
life of ‘normal day’ (prewar). To these excombatants, however, ‘sweet’
life was rather located in the war years.
Generally the nuku hunt is a combination of both day and nightime
shifts. Among the legal (daytime) activities, one of the most lucrative is
hauling sand from the beach, used for construction everywhere in
town. The rubbish dump, on the beach, is another primary source of
income, yielding among other things copper, found inside old engines
and cables, and rubber from tyres, or slippers (made from tyres). The
proximity to the INGO living quarters also means that furniture and
other items with only slightly damage, occasionally appear on the
rubbish dump. These are repaired and resold, at for instance the Goby-shop market (for a definition of go-by-shop see below) in Johnson
Street. Less valuable than copper but still useful, is scrap metal mainly
from freezers and refrigerators, which is used to make coal pots
(cooking stoves fuelled with charcoal used by a majority of the urban
population). Making coal pots is one of the main income-generating
occupations for Palace youth. Scrap metal is at times also bought in
bulk. Palace youths are occasionally employed as day labourers; on
construction sites, offloading trucks, or night as watchmen. As they
have a reputation for being unreliable, they will only be employed for
short periods and kept under constant supervision.
Being a young excombatant has few advantages in postwar Liberia.
However, one is that there are a lot of NGO and INGOs catering for
excombatants. During the Civil War, projects to aid reintegration and
reconciliation mushroomed in cities all over Liberia. Most of these
projects can be found in Monrovia. Palace youth are well aquainted
with these and most have been through at least one such programme
during, or after the Civil War. The projects catering to ex-combatants
usually offer skilled training programmes in carpentry, construction,
mechanical craft etc. Some offer courses in drama and music or a
continuation of ordinary school activities. Palace youth know all too
well that no matter what skills they obtain, they have few or no
chances of getting employed after their training. INGO programmes
are still very popular however, giving homeless youth an opportunity
to get off the streets, have a stable supply of food and maybe some
pocket money for up to two years.
Illegal Livelihoods
Many of the Palace youth are involved in selling cigarettes. This on the
surface is a legal activity, although they also sell drugs, principally
marijuana. The Palace is called a Bob Marley house, Bob Marley being
a nickname for marijuana, where outsiders go both to buy their
supplies and to ‘chill out’ with a joint. Other drugs distributed are Mr.
White or Brown-Brown, low quality crack cocaine; sleeping pills,
Valium, nicknamed Bubbles, or Blue boat. Pharmaceutical drugs, in
high doses, are also taken in combination with alcohol to make the
user utterly fearless in undertaking criminal activities such as nighttime robberies. Drug abuse had often been built up during the war
years when drugs were readily available to most combatants.
The Palace functions as illegal petrol market where night
watchmen and others sell petrol stolen from the generators in nearby
expatriate housing and offices. Homeless youth also form the lower
echelon of patron–client networks, carrying out illegal activities on
behalf of patrons (see Momoh 1999 on Nigeria). Many of these
activities are performed in collaboration with army personnel, with
whom Palace dwellers have retained links from their backgrounds in
Other homeless groups in Monrovia have similar arrangements
with, among others, the National Police Special Operations Division
(SOD), the Special Security Service (SSS), the President’s own Special
Security Unit (SSU) and Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU). These groups
generally consist of ex-NPFL fighters, who have kept close ties with
their ex-commanders who in the postwar setting have been employed
in the reconstructed police and security forces. Go-by-shop robberies
are the most notorious type of criminal activity. Even if not directly
sanctioned by the government, fully uniformed and armed police or
security units will enter any store and empty it of commodities—
keeping their war mind set intact, they will literally ‘go by and shop’,
picking up anything they want but neglecting to pay. At times go-byshopping will occur in broad daylight. Homeless youths play important
roles in these robberies, often doing the most dangerous parts of the
work, although due to their largely inferior position, they will only get
a small part of the earnings. Being in opposition to the government,
Palace youth will seldom take part in go-by-shops, but will participate
in all other forms of burglaries.
Girls in the Palace
Girls in the Palace make their own contributions. Regularly or
irregularly they will work as prostitutes (Utas 1999). If they are
successful, they are often able to make much more money than their
male counterparts. How much they are able to earn, depends on the
clientele; generally Palace girls are active in West Point, the poorest
area downtown, and are paid accordingly. Rates are from
approximately US$1 upwards.10 When Rose for example returns to the
Palace after a night having earned US$10, everyone is overjoyed as she
arranges a great meal for all the Palace dwellers. It is, however, rare
that anyone brings home that amount of money. The Palace girls also
take the same kind of drugs as the boys, but this time to be brave and
daring in their work.
In this section I relate specific episodes which occurred during my time
at the Palace. They show why Palace youths were so careful about how
they presented themselves, to whom they exposed their life realities,
and how they dealt with issues relating to their time as combatants. The
constant threat of violent reprisals was one reason why Palace youth
would not talk openly. Violence was a risk both inside and outside of
the Palace walls. As the story of Washington will show, evidence of past
injury can also jeopardise the future. Evident in Sammy’s story, the last
in this section, truth comes in many layers. In the precarious position of
many of the Palace youth, being able to present themselves and their
lives in different ways to different people was a necessary tactic.
Expatriate workers at Save the Children Foundation in Monrovia say that as little as L$5 (less than 10
US cents) is paid.
There is a clear moral code maintaining order within the Palace.
Stealing outside the Palace is acceptable as long as no evidence is left
leading to the Palace or to Palace residents. However, it is taboo to steal
from within the walls of the Palace. (There is also an informal code for
sharing, mainly of food.) The police and other security forces often
raid the Palace. They will generally loot everything they stumble upon
and pocket the little money they find. Thus it is easy to understand
why Palace youth react forcefully to anyone leaving tracks leading to
the building. If a suspect is caught, the seniors in the Palace decide on
a punishment, which may then be carried out by anyone.
Commonplace offenders are often beaten. During my time in the
Palace they avoided punishing people in my presence. On one
occasion, however, I found an outsider tied up and stripped to his
underwear. Being part of their large social network, the outsider had
arrived the evening before asking to be lodged for the night. The
police came looking for him in the early hours of the next morning and
raided the Palace, but he managed to escape. Now furious, the Palace
dwellers tracked him down, brought him back to the Palace and tied
him up. When I arrived, he was lying on the concrete floor begging for
forgiveness while they continued beating him mercilessly with a cane.
After being punished according to ‘the Palace law’ he was then handed
over to the Military Police (the Palace has connections with the
military and not the ordinary police).
Things go missing in the Palace. The two leaders, Sammy and
Noah, investigate every incident. Rumours are rampant and if a
particular stolen item cannot be found and nobody has seen anything
suspicious, the youngest boys and Hawa, an outcast girl, will generally
be blamed. But at times the suspect will react violently. When Noah
accused Small Kamara of theft, Small Kamara became really upset and
started a fight, despite being half Noah’s size. Noah forcibly shoved
Small Kamara into a corner, temporarily ending the fight. Within
minutes, however, Small Kamara had returned with a knife,
consumed with an unprecedented rage. His friends explained his
hyper-aggressive behaviour. Aparently he had gone up to his room to
inhale crack cocaine in order to stimulate the illusion of being an
immortal fighter, just as he had repeatedly done during the war prior
to each battle. Everybody quickly jumped on Small Kamara,
preventing him from doing any harm, and he eventually got his
Risking Jail
Disclosing matters of everyday life in a clandestine world is hazardous
for many reasons. For instance, information falling into the wrong
hands could even entail prison. Palace youth actually talk about prison
as a ‘cool’ thing, but this masks an often real sense of fear. Ending up
in prison whilst lacking the right connections can be potentially fatal.
Nevertheless, they all spend time in jail on occasions. Getting caught
for a minor offence might even lead to prison without any hope of a
trial whatsoever. To get out of jail, cash is needed to bribe officers, and
Palace youth seldom have the amount of money demanded of them.
Noah for example was once jailed at the Central Police Headquarters.
Succeeding in getting out after just forty-eight hours, he stated that
“inside there is a completely different kind of government”. Some
inmates have been in jail for more than three months and inevitably
crude hierarchies have emerged. Prisoners regularly beat each other
up and new arrivals are methodically robbed of all valuables and at
times stripped to the bone. As Noah had been caught just outside the
Palace, he had entered jail bare-chested wearing only a pair of old
trousers but with the small bag, where he always carries his cigarettes
and drugs for sale. Inevitably this was soon confiscated by his
cellmates. Those in jail generally do not get any food unless relatives
or friends bring it to them. In any case, there is every chance that the
senior inmates will eat it. The drinking water is brown. According to
Noah, a few of those interned are so weak that they must be propped
up when they walk. He does not believe that they will stay alive for
long. Sammy visited Noah and described how he had to pay a bribe at
every desk he passed until he reaches Noah’s cell. After negotiations
Sammy managed to get Noah out of the jail after two days, by
promising a police officer ‘beer money’ and managing to borrow the
L$75 needed (approximately US$2).11
Washington’s Story
Although Washington was born in Margibi County (in central
Liberia) and grew up in Monrovia, the war still put him in a precarious
situation, as his parents were from the Krahn ethnic group—Krahn
being portrayed as the main enemies of the NPFL and INPFL. When
these two factions advanced into Monrovia, he saw no other hope than
to join forces with them. Keeping a low profile, he succeeded in
getting employed in the kitchen for a group of senior NPFL
commanders and ended up in the port of Buchanan. However, after
‘Beer money’ signals the size of the bribe, not its employment. If someone wants a smaller bribe they
will usually ask for ‘cold water’.
some time, the commanders were informed that Washington was a
Krahn and he was taken to the beach one night to be shot. He was shot
in the left hip and left to bleed to death. After three days he got to a
doctor with a badly infected wound. He recovered fully and today
walks with only a slight limp, but still enough for him to be suspected
of participation in the war and to remain without stable employment.
At thirty-six, Washington is the oldest inhabitant of the Palace.
From a chronological perspective he is an adult, but from a social
perspective he is well within the youth category. Having no official
house, no official wife and no substantial income, prevents him from
entering adulthood. Washington’s life is an ongoing struggle to
become an ‘adult’, to get out of the youth category. Trying also to leave
the criminal sector behind, he has to start from the very bottom of
society. He is employed by the MCC (Monrovia City Council) as a
caretaker of two rubbish containers on a side street a few blocks away
from the Palace. Civil servants in Liberia are paid extremely low
wages and on an irregular basis, if at all. But to Washington this is a
window of opportunity for entry into the accepted world. Washington
has a fiancée, whom he plans to marry and they are expecting a baby.
Because of the security situation in the Palace, Washington keeps her
away from there as much as possible. In line with his aim of leaving the
youth category, he takes every opportunity to get a better job,
something which will enable him to rent a small place for his ‘family’.
Although he is a trained carpenter, every potential employer he
contacts asks him to strip to check if he has any war related scars—a
common practice. Having been wounded in the war, he will generally
be dismissed instantly despite his skills. Washington, as the story of the
powerless often goes, failed in the end to get a better job, and even lost
the one at MCC (after stealing two wheelbarrow tyres); finally his
fiancée walked out on him, leaving him with only a shattered dream.
Sammy’s Story
Sammy could speak quite openly about his current life, mainly because
of his position as a senior in the Palace, but also because of the fact of
our close relationship. Matters concerning the war however, were
more delicate and he remained reluctant to go into any detail
throughout our time together. Sammy was born in Monrovia to a
Sierra Leonean father and a Liberian mother. He was one of nine
siblings living with his divorced mother. I pick up on the story from a
day in 1985 when Sammy was fifteen years old. He says he was going
to school in central Monrovia. One day after school he was walking
through Waterside market with a friend, when they stumbled upon a
US$50 bill lying on the ground. This was a large sum and they
instantly decided to keep it. However, they felt anxious going home to
their parents, because they knew that sooner or later they would find
the money and suspect them of having stolen it. That afternoon, says
Sammy, they tried to spend as much money as possible, but this only
increased the difficulty of hiding their catch. Then in bravado, his
friend proposed that they should leave the country. Since Sammy had
been going to school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, this was where they
went. Needless to say they soon ran out of money. For several years
Sammy then worked as a Poda-Poda (minibus) apprentice in
Freetown. Through his father’s efforts he was ultimately reunited
with his family after three years. The war had not yet begun and
during his absence his mother had progressed from being a small-scale
baker to an important businesswoman running the most popular
nightclub in Gardnersville (a suburb of Monrovia). From living a
marginal and difficult life in Freetown, he returned to an environment
of wealth in Monrovia. When the war started, his mother’s property
and club were subsequently looted. For revenge, and in order to regain
what the family had lost, he joined the INPFL.
I am doubtful about parts of Sammy’s account. His mother had
been poor before the war and according to Sammy, his father did not
aid his former wife at all in any substantial way (Sammy’s father was
upper middle-class—as I could observe during a visit to his house).
Probably Sammy did not go to school at all, and most likely he stayed
with other boys in the market area looking for opportunities. The
US$50—a huge sum for a poor fifteen year old, was more than an
opportunity! In his story, he emphasises that the money was found, but
it is more likely that they snatched the money. It is also possible that
someone observed them or at least could associate them with the stolen
money, hence they felt obliged to leave town for some time. Freetown,
in Sierra Leone became a natural choice for someone with Sammy’s
background. According to Sammy, he had returned to his mother’s
home in Monrovia after three years. In that time she had gone from
baking bread at home each morning (and sending her children out to
sell it during the day), into being quite a successful businesswoman.
Such a transformation would have been rather unlikely during
ordinary circumstances. However, if it had occurred during the first
phase of the war, and if she had become close to a high-ranking
commander in the Liberian army or any of the rebel forces, it could
have proved to be a rather commonplace story of upward social
mobility in the time of war, something which happened to many
women. I actually believe that Sammy returned to his nouveau riche
mother during the war and that he had returned as a ULIMO soldier,
the very enemies of the INPFL with which he claimed to have served.
Sammy was nineteen when the war started and most probably he
joined the rebel force ULIMO whilst in Freetown at the time it was
formed in 1991. Over this period, many Liberian boys and girls in
Sierra Leone were recruited by ULIMO and trained in camps there.12
According to his story he had fought for the INPFL during 1990 to
1991, but this seems doubtful. At the time of my fieldwork in 1998,
Sammy was twenty-seven. Well behaved and articulate, he makes his
living as a con-artist or a picaro (Austen 1986) in the post war setting.
Sammy had developed these skills during the course of the war. For
example he describes how during 1992, he made use of a bogus ID
card, identifying him as a captain in the police force, to arrest people
who had just arrived in Monrovia and squeeze money out of them. In
the Palace, Sammy kept a leading position next to Noah. He was active
in keeping law and order, something of a contradiction to his other
activities. My friendship with him ended abruptly as he exposed his
picaro character. The first time he got his hands on some of the money
from our development project for the Palace (see above), he ran away
with it. He then hid himself from the other Palace inhabitants for
quite some time, aware of the revenge that they would take on him if
he were ever caught. It took several months for the others in the Palace
to give me reports of his whereabouts, at which time he has apparently
already abused the trust of another group in one of the Monrovian
suburbs, and was again a fugitive.
As a consequence of NPFL flushing out people associated with the Samuel Doe government during the
early phase of the war, many people with origins in southern Liberia were forced into exile. Earlier, similar cleansing exercises had been carried out by the Doe administration.
Entering the field, and the Palace, I stumbled onto many methodological
problems ranging from ethical issues, issues of acceptance, personal
security dilemmas, to how to classify stories in relation to their relative
empirical truth. I had imagined my fieldwork would be quite different
from most fieldwork carried out in West Africa, thus during a stopover
in Abidjan I committed myself to read Philippe Bourgois’ Harlem study
on young Puerto Rican drug dealers (1995). From the point of view of
methodology, the field I was entering showed greater similarities with
Bourgois’ work, or Rodgers’ (2000) and Jensen’s (2001) dissertations on
gangs in urban Nicaragua and South Africa respectively, than, to take a
Liberian example, Zetterström’s ethnographic account of the Yamein
Mano in Nimba County (1976). The fieldwork ahead of me presented
me with a whole range of methodological dilemmas.
Personal Security
Initially I experienced my own personal security as a problem. Many
people told me time and again that Palace youth were dangerous. I did
however take some precautions: for instance I did not stay in the
Palace overnight. Although, after some time in the Palace I felt that I
could trust most of the Palace youth and in some cases they even
protected me: instead of viewing Palace youth as potential risks I came
to view them as assets. Accompanied by my friends in the Palace for
example I could venture into places where ordinary Monrovians dared
not go. For instance we went to different bars in West Point, the
poorest downtown area, at night. I genuinely enjoyed myself there and
never even thought of the possibility of danger because of my
company. At one time, the entire expatriate community was advised to
move near the US embassy for security. There were problems around
the ULIMO-J leader’s house, with nightly armed skirmishes in the
vicinity (one night there was even shooting just behind my apartment).
I asked the Palace youth for advice and was assured that there was no
real danger to me and that they would inform me if there was. I took
their advice and as time went by I started to trust them more than the
US intelligence that the INGO community relied upon.
Informants’ Security
Even if Palace youths avoided the reciting of bold accounts from the
war years or from their contemporary lives, I still had to be very careful
with my own material. At the beginning of my research, government
security staff took a keen interest in me. I was actually arrested at one
point and intimidated. It was mainly a way to try to squeeze some
money out of me, but I had to take precautions nevertheless. In my
notebooks I always used aliases for all informants and every week I
went to an NGO office to enter my notes on to a computer. I then burnt
the notes and kept the computer disk in their safe. To avoid the risk of
security personnel confiscating my material when I left, I sent it home
in portions by e-mail. This text also used aliases for my informants.
An ethical matter which I have not resolved is the matter of a few
eyewitness accounts which I have taped. In one, a young boy gives
details of the murder of five American nuns in which he had
participated.13 It is not clear to me whether he told me about the event
This incident has been widely reported. Some witness accounts have been made publicly available, see
for instance Liberian Studies Journal (2001).
because he wanted people to know about it, or rather because it acted
as part of a personal confession. I also have accounts of women who
have been raped by people currently in high positions within the
government and civil service. To protect my informants I have not
been able to use these accounts.
Getting in
As explained above, gaining acceptance in the field was a delicate task.
In this case my rite of passage was that I had experienced the Liberian
Civil War for myself. Even so, some topics I tried to approach with
informants, proved exceptionally difficult to discuss. They would
usually, and intentionally, blur everything related to their participation
in the civil war. Illegal activities carried out as part of daily life at that
time remained difficult to pinpoint. Initially I learned about these
issues from other Palace youths who just liked to gossip about their
compatriots, whilst maintaining a personal moral façade. In time
however, this attitude was relaxed a little and they started telling me
more. How openly they were in relating issues depended on several
Age and Social Network
One factor was age. During my stay in the Palace I found that it was
much harder to get detailed information out of the younger ones.
Their tactic would generally be to change their accounts time after
time, leaving me with little substance in the end. I soon learned that
part of their passage to maturity was being able to judge what was
personally dangerous to talk about and what was not. The younger
informants were the more likely in their accounts to present
themselves as being victims and passive non-agents. This became
especially evident when I in a latter part of my fieldwork took on the
task of making semi-structured taped interviews with a group of
excombatants aged between ten and fifteen within a reintegration
project in Ganta. In all cases they displayed no sign of agency.
The older Palace youth often abandoned the extreme victim mode
as we deepened our relationship. Indeed their position in the social
network in and around the Palace also played its part. The leaders
established a much more confident tone in our discussions, while the
subordinate youths watched their tongues so as not to give details on
issues that might displease their seniors. A young Palace dweller could
be severely beaten for any minor matter, as was the case of Small
Kamara described above. Just how open one could afford to be also
depended on contacts outside of the Palace; i.e. having good contacts
with patrons, having the support of big men, and having contacts
within larger society, all had its implications for what one dared to say,
and to whom. For instance on the issue of illegal activities, youths with
good contacts within the police, dared to be fairly open about their
illegal activities because they knew they could count on aid if they
were caught. Getting caught by the police and ending up in jail could
indeed be very dangerous, without the support of such contacts. In the
incident related above, Noah was actually very lucky to get out of jail
so quickly.
Which rebel army they had fought for was also of great
importance. Being an NPFL fighter during the April 6 war certainly
made life easier in the post conflict setting. In postwar Liberia it
became only NPFL soldiers that dared to talk openly about all issues
of the war. Only a change in government would have allowed Palace
youths to be frank with me, thus after four months in the Palace I
knew that I had to change to another setting in order to get to the heart
of war issues. By moving up to Nimba County, NPFL heartland, I
later managed to locate a set of young people who dared to talk about
their everyday life in wartime Liberia.
Multi-layered Stories
Doing research among groups of people living in a disturbed
environment, such as was found in the Palace, is inevitably a
navigation through multi-layered stories. The production of different
stories for different audiences is a method of survival in the face of
great danger. During the time I spent in the Palace, the youth there
categorised me in different ways and at different times; thus the stories
they related to me looked different from occasion to occasion. After
some months, when trust had deepened between us, some of the youth
in the Palace recounted stories closer to their own honest versions of
their experiences. Time was the most important ingredient in this
arrangement. The story told by Sammy for example, highlights this
process. The full version was given to me quite early in our friendship.
In due time he gave me other pieces of information. With these bits
and pieces I patched together an alternative story—it is not the ‘true
story’ but it is a story that lies closer to reality than the one that he
presented to me earlier.14
During my time in Liberia I undertook some work for an INGO.
A cultural ideal of secrecy (Bellman 1984) also makes it hard to get a straightforward account. As
Mariane Ferme has noted among people inhabiting the forest regions of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia
“truth is what lies under multiple layers of often conflicting meanings” (2001:7).
As part of the task, we spent five days in Southern Liberia undertaking
close to 100 taped, semi-structured interviews with young people,
many excombatants. This compared with four months in the Palace
where I had not gathered a single taped interview. In retrospect I can
see that the taped interview material I collected in Southern Liberia
was almost entirely a wasted effort, mainly because every interviewee
complied with one of the pre-set frames of victimhood. To tape any
interviews in the Palace would have been out of the question as their
life realms were just too insecure. Such seems to be the case in most
Liberian postwar settings and indeed among excombatants
worldwide, who will not directly discuss issues involving their war
crimes with just any outsider. My work in the Palace came therefore,
to a large extent, to revolve around topics of everyday life played out in
front of me by the Palace youth. In due time, trust did increase and I
believe that we jointly managed to produce a unique picture of
everyday life for excombatant urban youth in postwar Liberia.
The Temporal: ‘It all Chakla’
The Palace as research space highlights the temporality of research.
The social framework of the Palace showed both extreme elasticity
and the ability for rapid transformations. Persons who at the
beginning of the fieldwork only had an outsider status as occasional
visitors, eventually turned into core Palace dwellers. Likewise, within
a few months some of my central informants had left the building, and
were replaced with new ones. This fluidity made it difficult to
establish long term stable relationships. Not only in the leaving of my
main informant Sammy as mentioned above, who had taken some
material and money from our micro project and had left, never to
return again, but within a month or so, two of the other leaders of the
group had also moved out and into another building. I concluded that
even if I had kept contact with them, it could never have been with the
same frequency as before.
As smoothly as the gate had opened on my arrival, it was again
closing in front of me. After four months in the Palace I was absent for
a month. When I returned, I found a new leader in control. Still
having some of my closer contacts among the Palace youth, I thought
that I might have stood a fair chance to re-establish my presence in the
building. However, the new leader did not like my presence there at
all and managed to turn some of the Palace youth against me. At this
difficult moment I had brought my sister (a freelance filmmaker) with
the intention of recording life as it was in the Palace and maybe
making a television documentary about it. The new leader however,
seized the initiative and convinced most of his fellows that I was
intending to make a lot of money out of the movie about their lives,
and that I would not pass on any of the profit to them. Within that
same day, therefore they turned from friends into strangers. In the
morning we were shooting footage and then when we returned after
lunch they confiscated the camcorder and took me as a kind of hostage
until my sister could pay for our release. As I was about to move
upcountry to continue with my research, it was from a research point
of view not to a disaster to me. I had also managed to get an INGO
interested in developing the micro economic project that we had
established in the Palace, so I knew there was some actual hope for the
Palace youth for whom I had found such great sympathy. Yet, there I
was, sitting on the ground of the basketball court that we had once
cleared together. It was a rather pathetic sight. My sister (in shock)
eventually came with the money. All in all they had only demanded
L$800 (about US$20). I made a last effort to distribute the money
equally to all, but the new leader had a different idea. He selected a
‘trusted’ member of the group to keep the nuku for the time being.
Conniving with the leader, the boy then snatched the nuku and dashed
out of the Palace followed by a wild bunch of his deceived friends.
Later on I did come back for visits as a friend, but by this time the
Palace as research space had become unconditionally closed. I had
been excluded, and again turned into an outsider. Palace youth would
say ‘it chakla’—it fell apart.
Charles Taylors’ fighters transformed the ‘liberation war’ into a ‘carnival of blood’…… Constantly drunk or high on marijuana, wearing
wigs, wedding dresses or welder’s goggles, they acted out the profound
identity crisis into which their shattered world has plunged them. This
‘deviant’ behaviour, displayed in varying degrees by all the factions,
has roots that must be far more complex than that ‘tribal war’ that has
often been called responsible. (Jean & Médecins Sans Frontières
The roots of the Liberian Civil War are more complex than the
somewhat facile notions of ‘tribal conflict’ which media commentators
often invoke to describe African civil wars. My aim in this chapter is
to specifically contextualise the Liberian Civil War so as to unravel
some of its complexities and root causes. I do this by taking a broad
historical perspective on Liberian warfare, both at the level of its
various intertwined ethno-histories, and with a focus on ‘modern’ state
orchestrated military power. I argue that Liberian society has for a
long time actually been thoroughly militarised. By using the folk
models of kwii meni (modern trajectory) and Zo meni (traditional
trajectory) (Bellman 1975), respectively, I point out how new
influences fit into local cosmology. Permitting and inclusive
cosmologies effectively blur the fields of both modernity and tradition.
As the kwii meni has become the main path for most young Liberians,
the gradual disconnection from the experience of modernity leads
many young people to a sense of abjection (cf. Ferguson 1999; 2002).
From a youth perspective, the Liberian Civil War was a response to
the common experience of abjection. By cutting and mixing (Hebdige
1987), melding elements, from both the modern and traditional
trajectories—of state military and local warriorhood—young people
created and conformed to, various alternative power structures. They
became the ‘bricoleurs’ (Lévi-Strauss 1972:16ff) of a social process that
considerably blurred ‘the national order of things’ (Malkki 1992; 1995),
as well as transforming socio-political hierarchies.
Whatever the vocation of the primitive African, his avocation was formerly war. (Schwab 1947:228)
There is a general agreement amongst most historical commentators
(Schwab is but one) that warfare was endemic in the pre-colonial
history of the peoples of present-day Liberia. This inference is drawn
from superficial first hand material, but suggests that small-scale
warfare was probably a common occurrence. It is also an established
belief that the historical colonial presence of the Liberian State pacified
the Liberian hinterland, mainly through coercion and in part through
imposing a system of indirect rule—thereby actively suppressing
‘tribal’ warfare (Akpan 1973; 1988; Ford 1989; Harley 1941a;
Liebenow 1969; Massing 1988). This period of pacification resulted in
a situation where the structures of warfare became eclipsed. Thus,
Liberian ethnographies show very little written content on matters of
protection and expansion through violent measures. Writing on the
Krahn people of eastern Liberia, Schröder and Seibel note that,
concerning military organisation, “when no military action was in
progress, these offices, along with their quite considerable authority,
were virtually deactivated” (1974:60). In the absence of hostilities,
warfare until recently has been a topic only scantily described in
ethnographies on Liberia (Bellman 1975; 1980; Bledsoe 1980c; Leopold
1991; Moran 1990; Tonkin 1992).
Most references to warfare in Liberia are instead found in the
literature of missionaries or civil servants, or by the pen of those who
could loosely be referred to as colonial ethnographers (e.g. Schwab,
Harley, et al). Most of these were written during early colonial days
and as sources they are generally also heavily essentialist, largely being
produced in an evolutionary paradigm. It is not until the onset of the
current civil war that observers and researchers appear to have
recommitted themselves to the study of cultural factors in warfare.
Relying mainly on data from these ‘colonial’ sources often entails the
risk of then over-essentialising the ‘traditional’ or the ‘tribal’ in the
current war, as is evident in the works of Stephen Ellis (1995; 1999;
2001; see critique by Richards 2001). My intention is to somewhat
modify these representations.
In recapitulating a Liberian history of warfare we should beware
however of over-generalising traits, taken from area-specific data.
Mary Moran (2002a; 2002b) has recently pointed out that by a scholarly
overemphasis on Mande-speaking cultures in Liberia, disproportionate
attention has been given to the strictly hierarchical elements found in
Liberian political society, and as a result, largely neglecting the more
egalitarian traits of the Kruan-speaking peoples of the south-east. Her
point is relevant also to ideas of ‘traditional’ warfare. If we look at
general ethnographic accounts of war structures we actually find more
traits of egalitarianism among the Kruan peoples and a more
pronounced hierarchy among the Mande peoples. However even
within Kruan ethnic groups, like the Krahn, relations of hierarchy and
egalitarianism also differ substantially from region to region (Schröder
& Seibel 1974). As my intention is to present additional general points
concerning forms of early colonial, or ‘traditional’ warfare, it would be
important to bear the flaws of over generalisation in mind.
Notwithstanding, in order to understand the Liberian Civil War more
fully, we need nevertheless to find points of reference that can be
generalised over this territory. In fact, some of the peculiarities of
contemporary warfare in Liberia rest on ‘traditional’ forms of warfare.
In the small-scale polities dominant in pre-colonial and early
colonial Liberia, most fighting forces comprised of a small core of
professional warriors,1 often including individuals originating from
outside of the group (Westermann 1921). Undoubtedly, the loyalty of
these warriors lay towards the war chief and not the local community
per se. In addition to professional warriors, during times of war and
unrest, ordinary citizens were also mobilised in considerable numbers.
According to Fulton (1968) there was no standing army, nor police
I use the term ‘warrior’ for the historical or ‘traditional’ soldier. For contemporary soldiers I use the term
‘fighter’ or ‘combatant’. Influenced by western film the term ‘commando’ is often used emically as a
crossover category of ‘warrior’ and rebel soldier. See Moran (1995) for an extended discussion concerning
these categories.
force deployed among the Kpelle he studied. Instead, what he labels, a
nephew group was the leading organiser of warriors, headed by the
war chief. Positions in these war structures were open to all ablebodied men, and as such, it was an important path to local power for
politically ambitious young men, born outside of the dominant
lineages. Fulton (1968; 1972) points out that among the Kpelle, the
position of war chief itself was open to all young men that could prove
bravery and ability in the battlefield (see also Korvah 1971 on Loma
and Mandingo).
During times of conflict, the war chief was the society’s most
powerful person. He also maintained control over captured “village
mini-states and turned them into private domains” (Fulton 1968:15),
using his “war powers to set himself up as a virtual warlord” (Fulton
1972:1222). Spoils of war, such as looted goods, cattle and slaves,
formed an important incentive of the war endeavour. All spoils were
invariably brought to the war chief(s) and redistributed to the wider
society according to customary rules (Fulton 1968; Schröder & Seibel
1974). Warriors who had fought bravely proportionately obtained
larger shares, and it should be emphasised that great warriors often
obtained substantial wealth from their war activities (Fulton 1968;
Schröder & Seibel 1974; Westermann 1921). ‘Big men’, or senior
warriors, at times kept their own group of combatants (Schröder &
Seibel 1974), resembling private armies. It is suggested by Massing
(1988), that among the Gio peoples, warriors with modern firearms
even extended status and power beyond their immediate vicinity,
allowing for speculation that contacts formed with trade and the
colonial government, might have albeit temporarily, increased the
individual powers of these big men warriors.
If the standing professional army comprised only a limited number
of men, the group of irregulars by contrast, included “alle
kampffähigen Männer und Junglinge” (Westermann 1921:108).
Among the Krahn, these irregulars “were organized into paramilitary
age-groups, which in wartime served as the organizational structure of
fighting, but in peacetime provided the basic structure for workgroups
of various sorts” (Schröder & Seibel 1974:68). Even if warriors were
often labelled as ‘young’, as found in Schwab’s account of the Mano
peoples warrior class (1947:237), there is still little evidence as to the
actual ages of warriors. Among the Krahn peoples, the same author
also notes that warriors become separated into two groups: both young
unmarried men and ‘the real seasoned fighters’ (ibid. 165). In their
effort to describe age-groups among the Krahn peoples, Schröder and
Seibel (1974) point out that after circumcision and initiation, young
men entered an age-group of peers whose ages lay between 12-14 and
30-35 years. The older and more established of these took part in
military campaigns, whilst the younger ones protected home villages.
The older, more full-fledged warriors (and hunters) then formed part
of the next age group. Among the Mano peoples, the Ge yumbo cult
functioned mainly for the military training of young men (Harley
1950). Likewise Tonkin (1992) states that Jlao (Kru) people’s public
initiation into the army was the time when males became adult
citizens. Finally, Harley (1941a) and Schwab (1947) describe the use of
young boys, from the Mano peoples, as mascots walking in front of a
warring party, protected by charms and medicines. It seems very likely
that fighters that are today labelled and denounced as child soldiers
under The international convention on the rights of the child were used in
the wars fought at that time.
Magic and war medicines were widely used both collectively and
individually: boy mascots were but one example. Harley (1941a)
accounts for ten different types of war magic in use by the Mano
peoples at that time. Power and invulnerability, as well as the lack of
the same, were all ascribed to magical causes. During the war against
the LFF (Liberian Frontier Force—see below) in Nimba in 1911, the
death of the legendary warrior Wonkpa was attributed to the
destruction of his magic invulnerability, summoned by the wife of a
local trader (Massing 1988). Powerful warriors had to possess strong
medicines that both protected them and caused harm to their enemies.
Once a fighter had become “famous for his medicines, his mere
appearance often sufficed to disperse an enemy, and his threat to apply
medicine often was enough to prevent actual conflict” (Schröder &
Seibel 1974:68). Practising medicine men (called Zo, Nzo or Zoe in
many of the Mande languages) filled important roles in the war
endeavour, both by producing war medicines, blessing the warriors
upon departure, and performing sacrifices (Fulton 1968). Certain
rituals carried out by these medicine men were often violent in
appearance (i.e. human sacrifice and cannibalistic acts)2 and were
effective to instil fear into the enemy. In addition, masks usually worn
during rituals and partly carried on to the battlefield along with
various bells and drums, both imitated fearless and victorious deceased
warriors and dangerous animals, and were used to weaken the morale
of the enemy (Harley 1950).
In the minds of early researchers such as Harley (1941a; b; 1950) and Schwab (1947), human sacrifice
and cannibalism were very real. In the light of the exotisation of peoples during those days and with the
knowledge of how important violence is in rituals of war, one ought to handle these sources with care.
To a great extent, such rituals conform to images of ‘eating’ on a symbolic level.
Secret societies have long been a favoured topic among
anthropologists studying the region, resulting in a plethora of
ethnographic studies on secret societies in Liberia and the Sierra
Leonean/Guinean borderlands (Bellman 1975; 1980; 1984; Bledsoe
1980b; d’Azevedo 1980; 1994a; Fulton 1972; Gibbs 1962; Harley 1941a;
1941b; Harrington 1975; Hoejbjerg 1990; Holsoe 1980; Little 1960;
1965; 1966; Jedrej 1976; 1980; Murphy 1980; Ottenberg 1994; Richards
1973; 1975; Siegmann 1980; Vandenhoute 1989; Zetterström 1980). Of
these studies, a significant focus has been given to the central secret
organisations: Poro (male) and Sande/Bundu (female). Many other
secret societies, more or less subordinated or connected to the Poro and
Sande do exist, but by no means receive the same attention. If one
returns to the earlier idea that warfare was endemic in the region prior
to Liberian colonial presence, surprisingly little is written about these
secret societies in relation to their functions during times of war.
However, we should remember that war systems were known to be
dormant during times of peace, and Liberian pacification was precisely
indicative of such a state of affairs. Thus, the current generation of
anthropologists can only observe fragments of these dormant war
organisations which rose again to view by the second half of 1980s.
Some observers have pointed towards the importance of secret
societies in the current civil war (Ellis 1995; 1999; 2000; 2001), although
it would be insufficient to point towards the concept of Poro as being
Among the societies involved in Poro, i.e. the Kpelle, Mano,
Loma, Guissi, Gio, Gola, Bella, Mende, and Bassa peoples (Bellman
1975), it is worth noting that all warriors belonged to the Poro,
simply because their initiation was a requirement to become an adult
man.3 This was so, even if the level of actual involvement in Poro
issues differed widely, depending on status and power in any given
local society:
No boy or young man is considered a member of the tribe until he has
been initiated by suitable rites into the company of his elders. The
adolescent must undergo certain ordeals to prove that he is ready and
worthy to take on the responsibilities of citizenship—until then he
does not count. (Harley 1941b:3)
As a powerful organiser of most activities on all levels of society in
Liberia, the importance of Poro should not be underestimated,
however we need to acknowledge that in issues of warfare, Poro seem
to have enjoyed quite limited direct influence. There would often
appear to be a built in conflict within a given society between the Poro
leadership and the senior warrior nomenclature; Fulton calls this “an
interesting balance of the polity’s power” (1972:1222). Even if the war
chiefs and secret societies that are preoccupied in war issues in part fall
under the authority of Poro, the warriors still form a pool of hard-torule individuals, often in opposition to Poro leadership. Fulton’s
account of self-serving war chiefs, points towards that. Bellman also
suggests that, among the Kpelle peoples he studied, secret associations,
other than Poro, are involved in war activities, i.e. the Mina (horn), and
Moling (spirit) societies. These organisations require membership in
Poro and provide services to both Poro and Sande, although they are
Hoejbjerg points out that several authors have warned against regional generalisations, especially in
regard to the Poro associations (Hoejbjerg 1999 note 1).
formally outside the Poro itself (Bellman 1984, and personal
communication 14/3-01). In contrast to Bellman’s account, to Harley
(1941a; 1941b; 1950) Poro society appears to be encompassing all other
secret societies. Harley also points out that the peace initiatives of the
Poro as masked men of the Poro (ge’s), could be sent out to the
battlefront to also stop ongoing warfare. In Harley’s words:
The fixed functions of the ge’s extended with some local variation,
across the borders of the clan or tribe, and even across language barriers. They even exerted control over warfare. This was carried to such
an extent that arbitration through the ge’s was more final than the
result of war. (Harley 1950:42)
Fulton proposes further that “Poro may have been an alternate means
of arbitrating disputes” among the Kpelle (Fulton 1968:14) and indeed
d’Azevedo (1969-1970) points out that the Gola Poro, during the
expansion of Gola peoples, turned into both a ‘pan-tribal’ and ‘intertribal’ institution of diplomacy and solidarity. Certainly Poro officials
did enter the battlefields, but in the history of Gola warfare:
Pan-tribal training in obedience to Poro codes was more frequently
utilized to resolve hostilities before or even after they had
occurred…… Secret agreements among Poro officials of warring
chiefdoms could result in the sudden cessation of hostilities in the
midst of battle. (d’Azevedo 1969-1970:11)
In reality, Poro ought to be seen primarily as a mechanism for the
resolution of conflict, rather than an instigator and organiser of further
hostility. Poro leadership actually seeks to control subjects in society
attempting to use violent measures on neighbouring communities.
The power of Poro, as a gerontocratic organisation of established
families and lineages, is continuously being contested by those who
would seek power. War chiefs, warriors and some of the secret
societies with their relative youthfulness (or marginality) could all be
put into this category. Power obtained through bravery on the
battlefield would normally appear to be the only passable route to
fulfilment of such an individual endeavour. A way to sum up would be
to create an imagined scheme of binary opposition: placing Poro,
gerontocracy, peace and social stability on one side, opposed by war
societies, youth/marginality, and conflict-proneness on the other. In
doing so, a delicate balance is maintained between Poro and the war
chief/war societies.4 In addition, one could speculate that
governmental as well as missionary efforts to subdue the Poro over the
years have created space for increased powers of military institutions at
the local level. The relative weakening of Poro has clearly restrained
gerontocratic control of local government. This tilting of the balance
of power may well have paved the way for the armed youth rebellion
of the 1990s.
In understanding the history of Liberian warfare it would be
important to consider the project of nation building in Liberia. The
culture of military force of colonial Liberia forms a source, of equal
importance, as the ‘ethno-history’ discussed above. In our aim to
Hoejbjerg (1999:539) points out that among the Loma in the Guinean forest zone, the political chief
and the ‘senior war father’ is the same person. In this case the idea of balance between gerontocratic
leadership and war leadership appears not to function.
understand current Liberian warfare, we need to take a closer look at
this. It was repatriated US slaves, arriving from 1822 onwards, who
actually founded Liberia.5 Settling in clusters mainly along the
Atlantic coastline, the so-called Americo-Liberians 6 established
themselves as local elites, forming small colonies resembling citystates. In 1838 they established the Commonwealth of Liberia and in
1847 the settlers declared Liberia an independent republic.7 As Akpan
has noted, “settlers on whom the government of Liberia thus
devolved… were essentially American rather than African in outlook
and orientation” (1973:219), thus Liberia as a state project ought to be
viewed as being colonial in its own right (Akpan 1988; see also
d’Azevedo 1971; 1989). “Like its colonial equivalents, the Liberian
state imposed itself on the hinterland by force, and to some extent
maintains itself the same way” (Clapham 1978:122).
Stephen Hlophe (1973) has pointed out that these AmericoLiberian immigrants did not constitute one unified group of settlers,
and that their interests were often in conflict. Constructing ‘natives’ as
a common enemy was one way of consolidating group identity. In a
study on Liberian nation-building and state use of symbols in
historical documents, Blamo (1971-72) finds that officials among the
Liberian elite, i.e. the Americo-Liberians, repeatedly used words as
By 1900, about 15000 settlers with African background had arrived from the USA, as well as about 300
from the Caribbean (Akpan 1973).
In popular discourse, Americo-Liberians are often called ‘Congos’. This label originates from another set-
tler group comprising recaptured Africans seized from slavers in the Atlantic Ocean by US navy between
1845-1862. Many came from the region of the Congo River, thus the label ‘Congo’. This group soon became
assimilated along with the Americo-Liberians.
On the Liberian state building and its maintenance see, Akpan (1973); Blamo (1971-72); Clapham (1976;
1978; 1988); Liebenow (1969; 1980; 1987).
‘aggression’, ‘aggressors’, ‘insubordination’, ‘interdictions’, ‘punitive
missions’, ‘internecine warfare’, ‘military intervention’, ‘native raids’,
‘pacification’, ‘rebels’, ‘rebellion’ and ‘war’ to mobilise public support
for governmental operations, with the objective of gaining control
over the Liberian hinterland.
The formation of the Liberian nation in 1847 had a limited effect
on the hinterland. The control and political influence practised by the
Liberian State was in reality quite insignificant. However the
uncomfortable prospect of losing part of its, predominantly imagined
‘domains’, when European states commenced the Scramble for land
(1880-90) through the formal regulation of territorial interest at the
Berlin Conference (1884-85), required the Liberian government to
establish firm military outposts at strategic positions throughout the
interior (Akpan 1973; Ford 1989).8 With the aim of controlling and
pacifying the Liberian hinterland, the Liberian Frontier Force
(hereafter LFF) was instituted in 1908. From the outset, it comprised
mainly of Mende and Loma soldiers, originating from both Sierra
Leone and its immediate borderlands. It also came to include other
subdued Liberian peoples (Ford 1989; Wilson 1980).9 In this
‘pacification’ exercise of the early 19th century, the LFF was often
engaged in several battles with indigenous groups simultaneously over
vast territories. Victory over a particular group of people however,
Liberia claimed territory far up into what is today the heartland of Guinea, following Benjamin
Anderson’s Journey to Musardu in the late 1860’s (Anderson [1870] 1971) and in current Mali, Medina
and Djenne (see Akpan 1973).
In 1912 the US Minister to Liberia also sent Afro-American army officers (Buffalo Soldiers) to assist the
LFF. With a primary aim at training the army it was also believed that they would “serve as an “inspiration” to the people” (Rainey 1996:212).
rarely led to total conquest, and although conflicts were often of low
intensity, they could nevertheless flare up and spread countrywide as
rebellions (Ford 1989).10 Thus the overall setting was a typical frontier
zone, that could be perceived as a perpetual war zone—a colonial
‘space of death’ (De Boeck 1998; 2000; Taussig 1992).
Available historical sources give an unequivocal picture of the LFF
as an army of badly trained, lowly disciplined as well as poorly
equipped soldiers. The government of the day seldom paid salaries,
forcing soldiers to ‘live of the land’ (Ford 1989:47), implying: “soldiers
indulged in wanton pillage, rape, and harassment of the Africans in
their districts, and commandeered food, labourers, and carriers
without payment” (Akpan 1973:230). In the annual report by the
British Consul General in 1912, the LFF goes with the epithet ‘that
rabble of bloodthirsty cut-throats called the LFF’ (cited in Massing
1988:70). Even the Liberian President, Arthur Barclay (1904-1912)
revealed his concerns by stating that the militia was “tending to
become a greater danger to the citizen, and his property, which it
ought to protect, than to the public enemy” (cited in Liebenow
1969:53-54). In the wake of LFF ‘pacification’, a system of indirect rule
followed, along with the birth of a rural tax system (the hut tax)
(Akpan 1973; Liebenow 1969). Using violent means, civil servants—
commissioners, superintendents, custom officials—of the Liberian
state, worked in close cooperation with the LFF, but frequently with
conflicting incentives (Massing 1988). They blatantly extorted their
On indigenous rebellions see e.g. Akpan (1988) on Vai, Gola and Gbandi; d’Azevedo (1969-1970) on Gola
and Mandingo; Wilson (1980) on Kru, Bassa, Dey, Grebo, Mende and Kissi; Massing (1988) on Gio; Ford
(1989) on Gio and Mano.
counties, levying illegal fees and fines, and at times sharing this with
government functionaries in Monrovia (Akpan 1988).
For more than a century, the tiny minority of Americo-Liberians
controlled state affairs and commerce through an intimate network of
privilege and dominance.11 Even if the government in Monrovia
gradually increased its presence in the interior, much remained the
same. The indirectness of rule, although not as official policy, remained
a system of divesting the countryside of goods and labour up until the
present day. The LFF eventually became reshaped into the Armed
Forces of Liberia (hereafter AFL), and continued to harass local
communities in brutal fashion; manhandling and raping was routine.12
The AFL was, to use the words of political journalist Bill Berkeley:
…... a malignant organism in the body politic, inherently opportunistic, unlikely to be a source of progressive change. In retrospect it’s clear
that the institution of the army was a microcosm for what ailed
Liberia. A gang culture flourished. Violence was rampant. Ties of
blood and ethnicity were paramount. The construction of ethnic
patronage systems by rival soldiers would become one of the most
important causes of Liberia’s subsequent collapse. (Berkeley 2001:31)
The structurally sanctioned violence of the AFL became evident in the
events that followed the 1980 coup, when Master Sergant Samuel Doe
rose to presidential power. The coup which put an end to the
Liebenow’s trilogy (1969; 1980; 1987) gives a fabulously detailed account on Americo-Liberian rule.
Keith Hart made a short trip to Grand Gedeh County to visit a doctoral student, David Brown, in the first
part of the 1970’s. During his stay there several rape cases involving the AFL were reported (personal communication with Keith Hart, 18/3-00).
longstanding dominance of the Americo-Liberian elite, released a
hatred for the Americo-Liberians that had long boiled inside the
indigenous peoples (Böås 1997). However, the public execution of the
members of the Tubman government, which became known as ‘the
Liberian Beach Party’, was not only ‘people’s justice’ but also had its
roots in military culture.13 The AFL, under Doe’s rule, resumed their
violent patrols and after a failed coup attempt, following rigged
elections in 1985, AFL soldiers paraded the corpse of the plot leader,
Thomas Quiwonkpa (one of the senior members of the 1980 coup that
had fallen out with Doe) in downtown Monrovia. Apparently soldiers
in the parade publicly hacked off body parts, to be kept as souvenirs or
even to be consumed to obtain some of the great powers possessed by
‘the warrior’ Quiwonkpa (Ellis 1999).14
In the aftermath of the 1985 coup attempt, AFL troops set out to
pacify the Gio strong men of Monrovia, and primarily in Nimba
county where Quiwonkpa and many of the other coup plotters had
originated from. The wanton violence wrought on innocent civilians
in Nimba County (1985-89) remains to this day a vivid historical
predicament to most people from the area.15 It also paved the way for
the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) insurrection of
For a detailed account of the coup and what followed see Schröder and Korte (1986), see also Bienen
(1985) for a discussion on the Doe coup in relation to similar coups in West Africa, and Liebenow (1984)
for study of politics under the Doe administration. After Taylor’s victory in the 1997 elections it took hardly a month before people in Monrovia started complaining about the Kongos (Americo-Liberians) having
returned to levels of influence equal to the pre-Doe era.
Quiwonkpa is a nome de guerre taken from the legendary Gio warrior Wonkpa, briefly mentioned above.
It is estimated that as many as 3000 civilians were killed in Nimba County by government forces (Cain
Christmas Eve 1989. The Krahn/Gio ethnic axis of the coup in 1980
had within a few years turned into an ethnic cleavage that spilled over
from Doe/Quiwonkpa personal competition over power in the
military barracks, into the country itself (Ellis 1999).
Modern is what some of us think we are, others of us wish desperately to be, yet others despair of being, regret, or oppose, or fear, or, now,
desire somehow to transcend. It is our universal adjective…..But
though it is, originally, a Western word and a Western notion…., the
idea of modernity has become the common property of all the world,
even more prized and puzzled over in Asia, Africa, and Latin
America, where it is considered to be just now, perhaps, at last arriving, or, for various sorts of dark reasons, still not doing so, than in
Europe and North America, where it is regarded as being, for better
or worse, largely in place. Whatever it is, it is pervasive, as either a
presence or a lack, an achievement or a failure, a liberation or burden.
Whatever it is. (Geertz 1995:136)
John Gay has written a compelling novel entitled, Red dust on the green
leaves (1973) about Kpelle life in the 1930-40s when the penetration of
roads, growing roadside towns, a diversity of traders, missionaries and
a civil service started to make an impact on village life in interior
Liberia. In this rare account, often surpassing anthropological
literature in detail, we follow two twins, Sumo and Koli, on their paths
to adulthood. Sumo’s and Koli’s life-paths branch off after bush school
(initiation into Poro). At the time, two available paths to adulthood
and power had emerged; that of modernity and tradition. The book
makes an effort to view both paths as being educational: Koli’s life goes
along the modern trajectory and he is subsequently carried down the
bush paths, following the dirt roads to ‘civilisation’ and the missionary
school, managed by ‘white man’. Sumo on the other hand, stays in the
village and is eagerly learning traditional wisdom by listening to the
old men with medicinal knowledge etc. Sumo learns to master Kpelle
proverbs,16 and by way of a wise marriage and the establishment of his
own farm, he matures into a position where he can enter both the
senior levels of Poro society, and become a future candidate for village
Being an allegory on rural Liberia, the book builds up a close
tension between Sumo and Koli, in a way representatives of the
traditional and the modern, old and new, close and far away, the
known and the unknown, respectively; constructing a juxtaposition
which appears to be just as valid in contemporary Liberia as it was
when the story took place. Even after 60 years the tension between the
two different orders of reality, in Kpelle terminology the kwii meni and
the Zo meni (Bellman 1975:26), remains much the same. From a rural
perspective, ‘modern brokers’ with knowledge in kwii matters have
“eclipsed in political value knowledge of the mystical affairs in the
traditional forest” (Murphy 1981:674) creating an alternative forest of
modern knowledge. The implication of this is that the seemingly very
Kpelle peoples are renown for their “extraordinary use of proverbs and of formulaic ways of dealing with
human difficulties. These were their means of putting things into the perspective of the traditional”
(Bruner 1973:xiv).
different paths taken by Sumo and Koli, i.e. the trajectories of
tradition and modernity, ultimately lead to local power, sanctioned
within the same cosmology. Even if kwii and Zo order of things are
often juxtaposed in popular thought, they can be utilised by the very
same person simultaneously (see Tonkin 1981).
Kwii is a concept which has been the focus of much attention in
anthropological writing on Liberia from Fraenkel (1964; 1966) and
onwards (Brown 1982; David 1992; Fuest 1996; Moran 1988; 1990;
1992; 2000; Tonkin 1981).17 The word itself has a complex and
interesting background. Etymologically Tonkin (1981) believes that
the word has a Kruan origin, although currently it is used in many of
Liberia’s vernaculars. A kui (Tonkin 1981), or kwi (Schröder & Seibel
1974), secret society is found among several of Kruan speaking peoples.
Tonkin (1992) labels oracular spirits kui and notes that it has often
something to do with the dead. Kwi spirits who “are said to reside in
the attics of houses” (Schröder & Seibel 1974:82) appear to be ancestral
spirits.18 Among my young informants in both Monrovia and in Ganta,
Nimba County, ancestors often appeared in their dreams as being
white. Typically a white person/ancestor would emerge in a particular
Even if in general agreement concerning the origin of the word, the spelling of the word differs widely
from scholar to scholar. I do not suggest that kwii is more appropriate than any other spelling of the
word, but I have chosen to follow Bellman (1975).
Remember the leader of the 1985 coup Thomas Quiwonkpa (briefly discussed above). Quiwonkpa was
his nome de guerre originating from the legendary Gio warrior Wonkpa. The prefix Qui, in this case,
appears to connote the mythical link to the great Gio ancestor Wonkpa. An alternative reading of the
name could be the ‘civilised’ warrior, pinpointing his position in both kwii and Zo meni.
geographical location showing them resources of gold and diamonds,
i.e. directing them to their future success.19 White persons have a
position of immanent power in local discourse; not just from a
practical point of view but also in the mythical world of spirits. Passing
in Ganta town on dark paths at night, I could easily pass as an avatar
of the Tall white devil,20 as I am both tall and white skinned. Flashing
a torchlight in my face often impelled children to run helter-skelter
and adults to move uncomfortably away from my presence.
Rosalind Shaw (1997; 2002) argues convincingly that the Atlantic
slave trade has played a major role in shaping Temne cosmology in
neighbouring Sierra Leone. This is particularly the case when it comes
to witchcraft. Europeans and witches alike are claimed to indulge in
anti-social activities, but “European witches are represented as making
their products public and harnessed their powers of witchcraft to
achieve material success and technological dominance in the world”
(Shaw 1997:860).21 Typical European anti-social attributes include
“living secluded lives, exchanging abrupt greetings, not stopping to
talk, not visiting others, eating large quantities of meat, and eating
alone without inviting others” (Turay 1971:338, cited in Shaw
Note the similarities with the hallucinations of a Putumayo Indian after taking yagé: “Then, finally,
emerges a batallion of the army. How wonderful! How it enchants me to see that! I’m not sure how the
rich dress, no? But the soldiers of the batallion are much superior in their dress to anybody! They wear
pants, and boots to the knee of pure gold, all in gold, everything” (Taussig 1986:323). On the other hand
in the Yagé visions of the ‘white colonist’ the Indian shaman appears along with the devil.
Masks and masked performers are generally called devils in Liberia. This term originates from Christian
missionaries who in their efforts to christianise people equalled masks with idols of pagan religion.
Shaw forms part of an influential anthropological school that analyses witchcraft as modern—partly as
a response to colonial and postcolonial rule (Comaroff & Comaroff 1993; De Boeck 1996; Geschiere 1997;
White 2000).
1997:860f). Such qualities of withdrawal, selfishness, and greed are also
characteristics of witches, who may describe their invisible place as in
the following fantasy:
(…) a prosperous city where skyscrapers adjoin houses of gold and
diamonds; where Mercedes-Benzes are driven down fine roads; where
street vendors roast “beefsticks” (kebabs) of human meat; where boutiques sell stylish “witch gowns” that transform their wearers into animal predators in the human world (…); where electronics stores sell
tape recorders and televisions (and more recently, VCRs and computers); and where witch airports dispatch witchplanes—planes so fast, I
was once told, that “they can fly to London and back within an
hour”—to destinations around the globe.22 (Shaw 1997:857)
The ‘place of Witches’ conforms to images of the modern cities of the
western world, vividly bundling together the ‘white man’ with the
world of witches.23 Trajectories of both modernity and tradition form
part of the same cosmology where images of ‘modern’ cities become
blended with images of cannibals (cannibals also being the European
slave traders who were perceived to indulge in ‘eating’ large quantities
of the local populace) as well as the shape shifters of the oral accounts
(see chapter 4). The association between white men and ancestors, both
Outside Ganta (my place of fieldwork) a place was pointed out to me where a witch plane had acciden-
tally crashed on the return from a witch tour. According to the local myth the witches died in the accident.
I suspect that the imagined connection between white people and powerful witchcraft has been one of
the reasons that relatively few expatriate workers have been targeted in the civil war, the exception being
the killing of five American nuns in 1992 (Liberian Studies Journal 2001) and the more recent killing of
three Lebanese businessmen in 2002 (International Crisis Group 2002).
being kwii, points to the great adaptability of culture, where to young
people, the kwii meni and the Zo meni become two trajectories leading
towards the same goal: e.g. respected adulthood. The kwii meni is a
route used to contest gerontocratic power by the dominated (just as
warriorhood discussed above). The Zo meni is that of gerontocratic
stability. In historical terms, as the presence of the Liberian State grew
in the interior, the kwii meni became increasingly incorporated into
national power structures, thus also turning kwii meni into an elitedominated domain.
In contemporary Liberia the term kwii is used infrequently. Even
in local vernaculars, it has been replaced with—not surprisingly, I
hasten to say—other kwii words, such as ‘civilised’ or ‘exposed’. Even
so, the use of these words echoes the realities of kwii, maintaining the
same position in local cosmologies. Kwii-ness is as much about political
and economic opportunities on the national arena as it is about social
markers maintained and structured by local communities. These
markers include the central complexes of religion and education. For
instance, among Liberian refugees in the Ivory Coast, despite their
current refugee status, Pentecostal forms of Christianity were held as
proof of superiority over the Ivorian populace (Utas 1997).24 From the
early days of colonial encounters, young men, and some women, were
sent away to Christian missions, or boarding schools, to ‘learn book’ (as
was the case with Koli).25 The mounting status of kwii education
contributed to what Fuest calls the Liberian ‘Bildungsmythos’ (Fuest
1999). Many of the combatants in the Liberian Civil War state that
Christianity, Pentecostalism in particular, has merited much attention among scholars studying Liberia
(Ellis 1999; Gifford 1993; Noonoo 1991).
For a historic account see Himmelheber (1957).
warlords gave promises of rewarding their troops with further
education and scholarships abroad. Some claim that these promises
were instrumental for their enlistment in the rebel armies.
The symbolism of attending the correct church, or having obtained
an education from the right school, is still often held as being more
important than the particular religious beliefs or educational
competency of those very institutions. Certainly kwii-ness is a status
that is by and large constructed by the procurement of kwii symbols.
Early symbols of kwii-ness included books (especially the bible),
spectacles, western clothes and shoes. In rural villages a central
statement of kwii status was to lay a tin roof on one’s house. Ever
increasing urbanisation lead to the introduction of modern
commodities to larger segments of the Liberian populace. However, in
the economic decline, of the late 1970s and the 1980s, increasing
polarisation occurred in Liberian society. The elite began to
consolidate its economic position, a once growing urban middle-class
withered away, and the poor became comparably poorer. In this
process kwii-ness became increasingly commodified—commodities
becoming increasingly fetishised (Taussig 1980). The consumption of
western consumer goods became core symbols of the kwii complex:
women’s hair styles modelled on US trends, Nike sports shoes, t-shirts
sporting rap stars, all became symbols for young Liberians, claiming
that despite the general economic decline, they were nevertheless part
of the ‘modern’ world. Electronic devices, such as walkmans, portable
CD players, cellular phones, and VHF communication radios, flashed
by NGO employees (a very kwii occupation), also became powerful
symbols of kwii-ness, of still being among those who had not been
abandoned by and evicted from modernity.
I saw Superfly, Shaft, and other Blaxploitation films in Monrovia
(Liberia) in the early Seventies. I remember being particularly struck
by the opening sequence in Superfly—it seemed an extraordinary cinematic event. I had been living in Monrovia for almost a year, and
was fascinated by the lifestyle in that West African city, which identified more with America than with Africa. People spoke English with
a black American accent like the one I heard in the movies, on television (in shows like Good Times and Sanford and son), and in rhythmand-blues and gospel songs. The cities in Liberia have names like
Virginia, Maryland, Greenville, and Harper. I lived on an avenue
called Randall Street. All the people in Monrovia liked to trace their
family origin to the United States. Most of my friends had already
been to America at least once, or were getting ready to join a cousin,
a sister, or a friend there. Some referred to America as “home.” It was
in Liberia that I first learned to speak English, and developed a yearning to go to America myself one day. (Diawara 1998:247f)
Diawara’s account originates from a time when the modernity
paradigm of Africa still remained intact, and opened seemingly
unending possibilities for young people. Diawara grew up in Guinea
and Mali and spent many summers (and later a full year) of his youth
in Monrovia learning to speak English. To him and most Liberians,
their country had reached far beyond other African states in their
efforts to modernise (this image was however primarily an urban
feature). Liberians often claim that during those times, they had their
backs turned to Africa while facing North America. With the Liberian
State largely founded by returning slaves, and with kinship ties
continuing across the ocean in North America and the Caribbean, the
Liberian elite cultivated an image of being somehow more ‘modern’
than the rest of Africa. Comparing Diawara’s image of Monrovia
during the seventies with the later post-war Monrovia from a high
modernist point of view, is in many ways stunning—and at the same
time sad. Monrovia’s appearance and appeal has brutally changed. Its
once proud modernist buildings rendered in mirror glass now lie in
ruins, the city’s water network is in jumbles—for several years it was
rumoured that it was under repair—and the sewers are constantly
overflowing. Electricity has been down for many years. Smoke and
noise from private generators has become part of city life.26 The chaos
of wires from jerry-rigged generators is still intertwined with
telephone wires around the city—a throw back from an earlier age.
Streets are potholed, and garbage is disposed of everywhere.
In Monrovia, the food parlour King Burger (a glocalisation of
Burger King) was an obvious marker of modernity. In pre-war
Monrovia there were two such establishments: one on Broad Street
and one in the Freeport area. Today King Burger on Broad Street is a
seedy place. Being a constituent of the modernity project, food still
comes in the shape of hamburgers, chicken sandwiches etc., but its
Western menu is becoming rather diluted. Indian ownership has
added to the globalisation of the menu. In the bathroom, the toilet
cistern has been dried out for years and is today a hideout for
cockroaches; a space contested only by customers’ ejected cigarette
The collapse of state run electricity is not a necessary outcome of war. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the
electricity system is actually more reliable today than what is was prior to the war.
buts. According to the meta-narrative of modernity, urban space
should be taken over by establishments like King Burger. Today,
however they are standing idle, frozen as peeling monuments to a
failed modernity. Ironically, the other King Burger is host to a money
transfer firm. Globalisation is making itself heard there in the form of
rapid money transfers provided by Western Union, yet again stressing
African postcolonial dependence on the Western world. Huge sums of
money are every year transferred into the country from the Liberian
diaspora all over Europe and North America. Money from family
members working in the Western world sustains a substantial number
of Liberians.
In the light of the Liberian modernity disconnect, there are,
according to popular imagination and imagery, two paths available for
young people hankering for modern vanities. Either to move to a space
where such facilities are open for all, i.e. their idea of western societies,
or to use force to enter contested space within the national arena. As is
clear from the Liberian case, both paths have been appropriated. In
this chapter I argue that the war could be seen as a charter for
inclusion—for gaining membership in the larger world society
(Ferguson 2002). The allocation of space/place to people in popular
imagination is significant in this connection. Anthony, a young
Monrovian man, narrated a dream to me.
Anthony glanced at the moon. To his surprise he saw a small house,
and next to the house sat a man. The man appears to be Jesus. Jesus
leaves the moon to descend to earth joined by soldiers dressed in white.
His destination is Monrovia. He takes ground down by the river, in
the Waterside Market, where a crowd has turned up to greet him.
Jesus walks from the Waterside, via UN-drive, past Happy Homes,
and finally climbs the hill to reach the US Embassy on Mamba Point.
He enters the embassy compound and sits down with the US
Ambassador. The crowd remains impatiently posted outside the fenced
off area, peaking through the fence. All of a sudden the US
Ambassador gets up and calls upon Anthony to join them. Anthony
sits down together with Jesus and the American Ambassador. In confidence Jesus discloses that he has not forgotten the Liberian people.
When the time is due, he, Jesus himself, will come and rescue them all.
(Fieldnotes/ Monrovia)
The ‘dream’ is organised spatially. Firstly, Jesus enters the main
market area, the most public space in town which ordinary people
frequent. The market is situated at sea level. Jesus does not stop to talk
to the crowd. Instead he starts to climb up the hill to the US Embassy,
via United Nations drive. He passes the furniture store Happy
Homes—where rich Liberians, and the international staff of the
humanitarian aid organisations, buy their incredibly expensive
furniture. On top of the hill, and topmost in Anthony’s dream
hierarchy, is the US embassy. This piece of territory is formally not
part of Liberia, as Liberians often point out. Behind the fence of the
US embassy and amidst rigid security, to keep Liberians out, Jesus sits
down and talks with the US ambassador. Anthony places the
American ambassador on an equal level with Jesus, whilst the Liberian
is placed people down below at the foot of the hill, in the dirty market.
The Liberian people are deliberately excluded from Western space.
Anthony is, however, chosen as a messenger, a go-between, and
included in the important conversation—a role that he is trying to
cultivate in real life as well. I would suggest however that it is not the
go-between status that is most important, but rather the focus on the
border transgression. Indeed his transgression is only possible because
of his go-between status. As such, he is able to embrace issues which
other Liberians are only subjected to, in the same way that Liberian
immigrants are believed to do as they enter Europe or North
America.27 Not even a chat with Jesus is impossible. His dream is
concluded with a Christian message from Christ himself, that even if
most Liberians remain outside the confines of the heavenly West on
judgement day, they will not be forgotten.
To Anthony, and many other young Liberians, entering an
imagined Western space was conceived in order to put an end to all
social suffering and to lead to almost instant achievements of personal
freedom and indisputable status of almost divine character. During my
fieldwork, I had endless discussions with excombatants and other
youths who argued in this vein. The sense of being abject in the larger
world, an exclusion from developing into modernity—the whole kwii
project was central to them. At the same time, many Liberian youths
experienced the Zo trajectory as blocked, or viscous. The gerontocratic
leadership managed a Zo meni that had increasingly given in to state
based modernity projects which had been banned by the Liberian
government, thus could no longer embrace all Liberian youth. Youths
from most urban and semi-urban environments no longer had the
According to most Liberians, people (in the abstract form) in the Western world possess close to super-
human powers (see above). It is widely believed that ‘West’ could both have prevented and stopped the
Liberian Civil War at any time during the course of events. Liberians could watch huge US aircraft carriers at anchor in the roadstead just outside Monrovia carrying massive amounts of high-tech equipment,
but doing virtually nothing to aid their country from disintegration.
opportunity to become adult in the Zo sphere. Their turning to a kwii
order of things thus became a problem during the economic decline.
The Liberian Civil War was the outcome.
In Liberian military history, two different patterns can be found: (1) At
the local level, fighters, both traditionally, and in the civil war, were
drawn from groups of youth loosely connected to the gerontocratic
leadership, although partly contesting its power. (2) On the national
level, the Liberian army—the LFF and later the AFL—were in
constant opposition to local warrior societies, whilst at the same time
also partly recruiting from the same category. However, it would be a
simplification to say that on one side the national army was part of
some modern pattern, whilst on the other, warrior societies were part
of a traditional pattern; because at the local level, we have also located
two different trajectories: (1) the kwii meni (modern) and (2) the Zo
meni (traditional). The two boys Koli and Sumo in John Gay’s book,
illustrate the wide differences of these trajectories. Sumo remained in
the countryside and through skilful mastery of local culture, he turned
into an important man. Koli by contrast, is equally successful, but
through opposite means. In his life endeavour he turns to the
unknown, as he leaves his native soil and moves off to take the kwii
meni. Koli establishes his base of power in the opposing meni. It is
worth pointing out however, that neither of these trajectories should
be considered as being superior to the other, both fitting into the same
cosmological system. Except in extreme cases, individuals will actually
make use of elements from both trajectories. From a practical
perspective they are quite inseparable, thus a person will often utilise
Zo and kwii meni simultaneously.
David Parkin talks about the differences between what he calls
‘routes’ and ‘roots’.28 ‘Roots’, essentially is the same as Zo meni in Kpelle.
It is connected to place and rootedness, guarded by a gerontocratic elite
in conversations with ancestors via land. ‘Routes’, or the kwii meni, on
the other hand is predominantly action-oriented velocity in the hands
of young people. Velocity is dangerous both for the individual and
society. To society it is dangerous, because it threatens the order of
things, that is, an order maintained by the gerotocratic leaders through
the control of roots. To the individual, the uncertainty and immanent
danger of routes is balanced by its potential power. This type of power
is manifest by the Sunjata type of heroes in West African epics (see
chapter 4). In the endeavours of young people to challenge the power of
gerontocratic leadership they make use of their velocity through being
able to draw energy from other cultures and/or cosmologies. As argued
above, within local cosmology there is room for the interjection of
foreign power as well as cultural traits, thus allowing for social change.
The velocity of the young is thus often the emissary for such change.
Cutting and mixing the cultural, the political and the economic is part
of the ‘bricoleur’s’ route. This is obvious in the construction of the
Liberian warrior, to use the words of Mary Moran:
The power of the warrior is manifest in the ability to meld Western
and indigenous, masculine and feminine, constructing the authentic
David Parkin, Social and bodily trails among the Giriama of Kenya, lecture at NAI research forum,
Uppsala 19/4-01. See also (Clifford 1997; Gilroy 1993).
not in opposition to the imported, but as an intrinsic part of it. (Moran
I argued above that local war chiefs and the various war societies were
partly in opposition to local gerontocratic leadership. As can be seen
from this argument, the opposition conforms to the routes/roots
distinction. War societies contained young elements within society that
used velocity to obtain social status. It is clear that through military
bravery and success, young men transformed themselves into strong
men in society. By doing so they could also, in the long term, claim
roots-based power as well. The kwii meni followed a similar trait, as
power and knowledge were obtained geographically away from the
local power base. As a result, they were seen as contesting.
Nevertheless, to be able to truly enter warrior societies, young men had
to be initiated into the lowest levels of Poro society. In this fashion,
Poro adopted the function as gatekeeper. Not just anyone could
become a warrior, a contract with the Poro leadership had to be
established first. However, the gradual weakening of Poro society
because of missionary pressures and a governmental ban, tilted this
delicate balance.
In large parts of Liberia, initiation has remained the conceptual
approach to adulthood. Poro society would be the archetype, and
young boys going through Poro initiation, as a passage to adulthood,
would often take part in warrior activities. I have argued also that in
non-Poro societies, the warrior societies were even closer to the idea of
entering adulthood. Thus with the blocked opportunities which
followed the economic collapse of Liberia in the late 1970s and early
1980s, paths to adulthood had to be fashioned anew. One such path
was to join the national army, which expanded greatly during the
1980s. Eventually, as the war approached, Liberian children and
youths saw opportunities to become initiated into adulthood through
voluntary enlistment into the rebel armies of the 1990s. This was based
upon their velocity and their ability to ‘cut and mix’ cultural images. It
was not only on the symbolic level that they gained the status of
adulthood, but changes were also apparent on a practical level—as
fighters, through the barrel of their guns, or “using their gun as a
credit card” (Sesay 1996), gained unprecedented amounts of power. In
this way too, they managed to get hold of kwii items that they had
never seen before. To some, the gun itself symbolised their
reconnection to the modern world, something with which they
previously had felt disconnected:
Stood-down boy soldiers in Liberia have spoken longingly of their
guns not as weapons of destruction but as being the first piece of modern kit they have ever known how to handle. (Hodges 1992, in
Richards 1996:29)
By manipulating and turning Liberian society upside down (a youth
revolution, as many young soldiers label it), and by the establishment
of power and status on a local level, many youths attained a wealth of
adult dignity in the form of land, houses and wives. Despite the many
injustices experienced before the civil war, youths largely used their
newfound power to mimic earlier established relationships.29 By
Taussig (1993) points out that mimesis can be a form of resistance that has a power potential exceed-
ing the mimicked (for further discussion see: Ferguson 2002; Stoller 2002:76).
becoming new strongmen, they were able to create households
containing many wives, or girlfriends (see chapter 5), in the same
fashion as the earlier gerontocratic leadership had done. In line with
the rule of traditional warlords, strongmen from these groups often
established their own mini-empires. Also, the taking of spoils of war
became a central identifier of the armies who appeared in a tradition
of ruthlessness going back to the establishment of the LFF. Rebel
soldiers were invariably unpaid and lived from looted goods. Fighters
rose in rank through being daredevil—parodying the war chiefs of
Liberian history. This process of mimicking not only the gerontocratic
leadership, but the Liberian Army and traditional war societies as
well, did not lead to the creation of well functioning armies, quite the
opposite, the cutting and mixing performed by young Liberians in
combination with newly established power, proved quite combustible.
The victory of the routes, created an air of euphoria among earlier
marginalised youth.
Then they bought beer and started washing their car with the beer.
They said they were so rich so they would only use beer for washing
the car. (Interview/Ganta)
The arousal was temporary however. The newfound power of routes
eventually has to be turned into roots. Washing cars in beer,
performing wanton killings and rape within local communities does
not lead to long-term power in any setting—unless of course
sponsored by a pernicious state.
“It’s a big jungle there,” explained a spokesman for the Red Cross.
(Raghavan & Barry 1996:16)
Many commentators have highlighted the brutality of the Liberian
Civil War. The word ‘Jungle’ as a metaphor for social anarchy, as in
the quote above, is also prevalent in descriptions of unstable territories
worldwide. But in specific human rights related literature, for
instance, accounts like the following are more typical:
I was forcibly taken into the bush with my three children and husband
by the LPC fighters under the accusation of (trying to kill) ‘General
War Boss’ and ‘General Kill the Bitch.’ We have always been accused
and tortured by these rebels because many of us are Bassa by tribe. My
Husband was tied to a thorny tree; black driver ants were put all over
his body while I was raped as a pregnant woman in front of my three
children by four LPC fighters. Later, an order was given that my husband should be beheaded in front of my children and me. My husband
cried for mercy, but the LPC did not listen and cut his esophagus and
my husband finally died. (Cain 1999:277)
There are numerous reports of fighters moving among the displaced of
various areas looking for pregnant women. When they find one they
gamble on the sex of the unborn baby. They then cut the mother’s
womb open and pull the baby to see who won the bet. The mother
and the baby are then thrown to the side of the road, as the fighters go
looking for their next victim (UNOMIL’s Chief of Security in Cain
Cannibalism is another phenomenon attached to the bandits. The displaced … attested to seeing a bandit cut off a woman’s breast, roasting and eating it, while leaving her to die of bloodloss….
Cannibalism adds a whole new dimension to human rights abuses.
The right to life is based on a persecutor’s appetite, and there is a fear
of persecution based on one’s fitness for consumption. (Cain 1999:282)
The media is also full of accounts of human rights violations by young
combatants, who are presumed to instil fear into the entire population
as some media scrapbooks suggest:
Refugees arrived in Sierra Leone telling of checkpoints fenced around
with posts topped with severed heads. The voodoo rumors began:
Taylor’s men were invulnerable to bullets, they shot each just to scratch
each other’s backs; before each battle Taylor’s men slaughtered a young
woman and drank her blood and ate her heart; Taylor’s men could turn
into snakes and elephants, could stretch or shrink their arms and legs at
will, could make themselves invisible. The rapine and slaughter of this
conflict were no more awful than those of other civil wars, but certain
sickly inference seemed to draw itself out of them: Insofar as they were
attached by threads of superstition to the exercise of certain dark powers, these atrocities became inscrutable (Johnson 1990).
Doe muß seinen eigenen Ohren aufessen, die ihm vor laufender
Kamera abgeschnitten worden sind. Am Ende des Films liegt der
Präsident sterbent in einer Blutlache und fleht seinen Folterer an, ihn
zu töten, was dieser höhnisch zurürckweist mit dem Satz: „Don’t
bring that thing to me!”. Das Video ist ein Bestseller in Liberia. (Buch
I saw the war. I saw a soldier point a bayonet at a pregnant woman
and cut out her baby. I tell you, it’s a tribal war. There are no ideas,
no politics, just tribe. Doe is a Krahn, so the Gios and Manos support
Taylor…… Prince Johnson’s men had juju sutures on their backs.
Taylor’s soldiers had scorpions on their arms. These marks gave them
spirit power, so the bullets could not hurt them. The people really
believe these things. (conversation in Kaplan 1997:23)
Also, the sheer violence of the civil war is still remembered vividly by
the excombatants themselves. It feeds endless discussions on the
subject and at times, the memories of their war crimes and the
brutality of their acts instil joy, in certain settings, pride and/or respect.
One of my friends, they called him Disregard, because he killed plenty.
He caught a girl at the Ganta parking (where taxis leave for Ganta)
when we captured Gbarnga. He caught this girl and asked he to lie
down on the table. As she was lying there he took a mortar pestle and
cut it into half and nailed her with it. (male excombatant in Ganta)
Violent acts were also at times avoided during the war. It was not in
every circumstance that the most violent measure was taken. My
informants talked on occasions about cases where soldiers were given
the order to execute a prisoner, but had disobeyed. A few cases were
discussed in my presence. One involved two NPFL soldiers who were
ordered to shoot a prisoner. They took him to a river, but fired into the
air instead, simply pushing him into the river. The second story is
similar in construction: a little boy, believed to be a LPC spy, was
caught and two soldiers were commanded to execute him. They
brought him into a field of cassava and he was cut with a machete.
However, they intentionally spared his life, and when the boy was later
caught anew, the same soldiers were severely punished for disobeying
orders and the story received great attention. Other matters are simply
remembered with pain and disgust:
I don’t want to eat any kind of animal head now because of what we
saw during the war. The amount of persons that were killed in my
presence and the amount of people that we burst their heads with axe.
Sometimes the (air)plane killed somebody and when you reached
there the kind of flesh scent, when you smell it, you won’t like to eat
meat again. (male excombatant in Ganta)
In human rights related literature, and even more so in the wider
media (Utas 2000), efforts are rarely made to locate the origins of
violence in conflicts such as the Liberian Civil War. Violence in this
context is seldom seen as being part of a set of processes; it tends
instead to be viewed as being a primordial, if not biological constant of
certain (non-Western) societies. This chapter intends to unravel the
origins of violence in its processual form. It is specifically an account of
young males, a group who were by far the most numerous perpetrators
of violence in Liberia’s civil conflict. While chapter 3 took a sociocentric approach, this chapter reflects a rather individualistic
perspective. At this point I would like to clarify that I am not
suggesting that violence is a kind of ‘essence’ in some distinguishable
‘Liberian ethos’. On the contrary, I emphasise that we should not
ignore the fact that some violent formations can be extraneous to
‘traditional’ society and of fairly recent origin. After a brief general
discussion on violence in conflict zones, my starting point in this
chapter is the early socialisation of children, often administered
through violent measures and executed by parents and other senior
social actors in what is often described as a gerontocratic society. I
continue by discussing the ideal of leadership, i.e. how ‘big men’ or
patrons are conceived. I do so by taking local cosmologies, mythologies
and external influences into account. I show that violence is used as a
technique to obtain power and then to maintain power. In the final
part of the chapter I discuss how violent means are utilised and
manipulated by young combatants as techniques of attaining power. I
do not intend to legitimise the extreme abuse suffered by Liberians
during the civil war, but by unravelling underlying structures I try to
render it conceivable.
“Violence is a self-legitimating sphere of social discourse,” writes Allen
Feldman (1991:5). In his ethnography on Northern Ireland, he vividly
discusses aspects of mimicry in local conflict, and how retrograde
violence can easily escalate into increasingly severe forms. The
intensity and brutality of violence cannot in this respect be compared
with everyday aggression in times when larger conflicts are absent. But
on the other hand, we cannot entirely dismiss the violence of everyday
life if we want to understand war-related violence. In this chapter I
pay attention to both physical and ritual forms of violence, each
evidently being a means of power and control. During the civil war in
Liberia, those who had themselves been controlled by violent means,
subsequently hijacked, and thus mimicked, the violent measures to
which they had earlier been subjected. Forms of everyday violence
were transformed into tools and techniques for an inverted
domination. By asserting this I do not imply that Liberia was a
specifically violent country prior to the conflict, or that the civil war
was the outcome of a inherently violent society; what I am saying is
that the experience of being controlled by violent means, led
combatants to use these very means themselves in order to gain
control. At times, violence was used to take revenge on those who had
earlier exercised control, but mainly, escalated forms of violence were
exhibited in order to control their new and improved social positions.
During the Liberian Civil War, young people (at times very young)
carried out most of the war-related violence. I believe that in this
context, violent models of socialisation are especially important, as the
actors of the civil war were so young. Models of violence also arguably
form the bedrock of the various techniques of aggression which were
revealed during the war years. Much of war related violence, certainly
in the Liberian conflict, clearly had a mimicking character, and that in
turn became blown up in proportion to the original. As Ignatieff
points out, “once the killing has started, dehumanization is easily
accomplished: the fact that the other side has killed your own, defines
them as nonhuman and then legitimizes nonhuman behavior on your
part” (1999:56). Techniques of everyday violence can thus be altered
into new levels of previously unexcelled violence in a damnation game
(Böås 2001:699).
Focusing on young Liberians relationship to pre-war, or everyday
violence, it is possible to adopt two different perspectives: (1) violence,
as attributed to the socialisation of children. In particular I want to
pinpoint domestic violence, educational violence, and finally what is
especially important in the Liberian case, initiational violence. (2) a
focus on the agentive dimension of violence, i.e. a focus on the agents
of violence such as big men (or patrons), or, the desire to become such,
or alternatively to resist. As I intend to show, ideas of the morally
neutral hero (Cosentino 1989), are of particular use here.
Following an increased interest in describing and understanding
children and youth in Africa, we now focus on these groups as both
makers and breakers in society, i.e. youth are actors who both produce,
and reproduce, the societal web including acting as rebel fighters and
being holders of moral position. They are simultaneously therefore
breakers of norms, conventions, oppression, lives, relationships etc.
Continuing from a more structural perspective, children and youth are
also made, and broken, i.e. made or construed in this case by family,
kin, community and peers, whilst being broken by wars, poverty,
institutional devastation, unemployment etc. (De Boeck & Honwana
forth.; Reynolds 1999). Childhood is not only a product of a
harmonious home and village life, supported by family, kin and the
local community, it is also the locus for initial breaking, and even
though the aspects of being broken may have the above characteristics,
we need not to take the dichotomy too far. Here I shall discuss some of
the violent methods employed in breaking Liberian children from
early on in life, and what implications they might have for the
formation or development of society.
Secret societies and initiational violence
Esoteric or secret societies have played, and to a certain extent still play,
important political roles in Liberian society, both on local, and on a
national level (Bellman 1984; d’Azevedo 1980; Ellis 2001; Gibbs 1962;
Harley 1941b; Hlophe 1973; Jedrej 1976; Murphy 1980). Social
organisation in some regions of Liberia is highly stratified and largely
gerontocratic. Secret societies play an important role here in
maintaining such order. For example, “in Kpelle society, secrecy
separates elders from youth. It supports the elders’ political and
economic control of the youth.” (Murphy 1980:193). Knowledge is
property, owned individually by ritual leaders of various kinds and
used for control (ibid.). The secrecy concept creates boundaries
between those who have knowledge, and those who do not. Through
secret society training, youth learn to honour these boundaries.
Intimately linked to the initiation practices of secret societies are
notions of violence: “a major support of elders’ authority is the threat
of physical punishment or death from mysterious powers of the secret
societies” (Murphy 1980:199). To face initiation, is an ultimately
frightening experience for every young person, and many face it
remaining unsure as to whether they will even exit ‘bush school’ alive.
Secret society ideals also permeate everyday life and the notion of
everyday violence has much to do with notions of this omnipresence of
secret societies. The socialisation of children, knowledge and
education are all firmly linked to such secret society ideals (Bledsoe
1990a; Bledsoe & Robey 1993; Gage & Bledsoe 1994; Murphy 1981;
Sanctioned use of violence
From early in life, Liberian children learn to labour. James Gibbs
offers the following summary of children’s tasks among the Kpelle:
A girl is given her first tasks around the home at six, when she can heat
water and sweep the floor. By eight, she can hull and winnow rice,
haul water from the creek, care for younger siblings, and help her
mother on the farm. Two years later she knows how to cook most dishes. A boy’s responsibilities begin a bit later, with stress on agricultural
activities. By mid-adolescence he could farm on his own if he wished
to. Two values that are expected to be internalized by both boys and
girls are working diligently and showing respect for older persons.
(Gibbs 1965:209)
Caroline Bledsoe (1990a) has written an insightful article on the
subject of institutionalised fosterage in neighbouring Sierra Leone,
with a focus on the cultural maxim: No success without struggle. Her
argument takes its departure in notions of the general treatment of
children in southern Sierra Leone and I argue its validity for the
Liberian context as well. She points out that to advance, “children
must work and study hard, endure beatings and suffer sickness to
mould their characters and earn knowledge” (ibid. 71/emphasis
added). Beatings ought also to be understood from the agent’s
perspective. “The ‘right to beat’ reflects a claim, usually before an
audience, to a kind of ‘ownership’ (or simply power) over who or what
is to be beaten, whether it is, for example, a wife, a young boy, a slave
or a domestic animal; it makes it clear that for them their autonomy is
limited” (Last 2000:385). The formation of character in a child’s
individual development in accordance with overreaching social and
moral codes, is supplemented in this context by culturally sanctioned
Flogging (beating by cane or rubber) is the most prevalent form of
physical violence in Liberia. It is repeatedly used as a form of domestic
and public punishment. As a technique for correction, it functions on
all social levels and reinforces individual relationships in the kind of
hierarchical, non-egalitarian fashion so visible in contemporary
Liberian society. In this environment, the adult has the right to beat a
child, a husband can beat his wife, and an employer may physically
punish an employee. In my own work with excombatant street youth
in Monrovia, it became strikingly obvious how the act of flogging was
used to maintain moral order within their domain, quite in opposition
to the criminal lives they upheld outside of the walls of ‘home’ (see
chapter 2). Physical violence on the domestic scene is not something
that is usually hidden away. Quite the contrary, there is at times a
marked effort to punish openly in public. Flogging children in this
way is commonplace. I once witnessed a man making the considerable
effort of dragging his wife all the way to the market place, just to flog
her in public. Reason: she had committed adultery. More high profile,
was the case involving President Charles Taylor. In November 2001 he
caned his 13-year-old daughter in her classroom, with an audience of
local journalists. He administered 10 lashes, commenting “I have the
responsibility not only for my children, but for all the children in the
country to ensure that the responsibility of nationhood will be passed
on to reliable custodians”.1 Public executions of political leaders also
contribute to the general ideal of public punishment. Another
punishment often mentioned by Liberians is ‘to pepper a child’, i.e. to
apply chilli pepper on naked skin, or still worse, in bodily orifices.
Victims of this punishment have testified that in combination with
being forced to lie in the harsh sun, it is quite a terrible experience.2
Food withdrawal is a prevalent form of non-violent correction in
Liberia. Eating is a central metaphor for power (functions as metaphor
for, as diverse activities as, capturing a town, having sex with a woman,
getting a promotion, or embezzling money). Murray Last points out
that punishing children by withdrawing food is efficient as it makes
the disciplined experience what it is to lack power (2000:374).
Punishing a child by refusing him or her access to food is indeed
commonplace in Liberia. We should observe that this type of
disciplining is dependent on season. Parents in Ganta, Nimba County,
pointed out that this measure was not very efficient at times when
children could find alternative food, such as during mango season,
when surplus fruit is readily available—Bledsoe has made the same
observation (1990a:79). Another form of non-violent punishment is the
practice of shaming. Following this praxis a thief, for example, will be
punished by carrying the items he or she has stolen on his head in
public whilst everyone around him/her will yell, to get the attention of
See BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1647852.stm or
To say “I go pepper you” might however only imply that you intend to beat me.
the whole village or neighbourhood. I have only observed this form of
punishment once. Generally, public punishment in Liberia is very
In colloquial Liberian English, raising a child is called: To mend a
child. There is actually some uncertainty around the word mend. It
appears that Bledsoe simply translates the Krio (Sierra Leone’s lingua
franca) version mend as “mind” (1990a:83). However in one of the
entries of the Oxford English Dictionary, we read the following: Mend
can be…
to free (a person, his character or habits) from sin or fault; to improve
morally; to reform; occas. to cure of (a fault). Now arch. or dial. exc.
in phr. to mend one’s manners, ways.
To mend one’s manners or ways seem to coincide with the Liberian use
of the word. ‘Minding one’s own child’ is too passive, as the implication
of mending a child is acutely active and child raising in the Liberian, as
well as Sierra Leonean, context is indeed actively carried out. We learn
After the initial two or three years of closeness with the mother...
Mende children are constantly chastised and corrected, frequently
bullied and deprived of food. Children are non-persons without rights
(Boone 1986 in Bledsoe 1990a:73).
Indeed I have encountered cases of contrasting behaviour where
mothers over-protect their children (often the youngest one). The
‘spoiling’ of a particular child is popularly discussed in opposition to
the correct ‘mending’ of one’s offspring. Telling someone that they
‘don’t have training’, is a common way of cursing.3
Educational violence
In Liberia as well as in most other parts of West Africa, children and
youth regularly have to leave their hometowns and villages in order to
enhance their education. In rural communities, access to education is
usually limited to government run elementary schools and it is
generally accepted that the quality of these is quite low (concerning the
Liberian education system, see Fuest 1996). Moving to larger towns
and cities, or to boarding schools, Christian missionary schools, or to
Koran schools and other Muslim institutions, form part of the
hardship ideal that we have discussed above. In part we might argue,
like Murray Last, that the use of violence to socialise children has seen
an increase through these very institutions. According to Last,
physically disciplining children is, in Nigeria, associated with
‘modernity’ and conversely to refuse to beat a child is seen as
something backward or ‘wild’ (2000:359).
Both Mary Moran, who has undertaken fieldwork in Maryland, in the very south east of Liberia and Robert
Leopold who has reserached in Upper Lofa (see Leopold 1991) have, in personal communication, pointed
out to me that during their respective fieldwork periods, they encountered very little violence directed
towards children. During Leopold’s two year long fieldwork (1985-1987) he could in retrospect not remember encountering a single case. This might indicate that Liberian pre-war society was less violent than
what my informants tended to remember. However this is contradicted in the findings of others (in particular Bledsoe and Murphy). If we follow Murray Last’s argument (presented in some detail below) that
physical punishment is connected with the modern state through the educational system in particular,
then it is easier to understand that the physical punishment of children is absent or rare in remote areas
as studied by Moran and Leopold.
Beating is associated with a specific notion of ‘modernity’, whether
the modernity is defined culturally as conversion to Islam from paganism or as entry into a colonial school. (Last 2000:386)
Last goes on to suggest that in pre-colonial Africa, adults did not
commonly beat their own children (ibid. 361), instead it was the advent
of Muslim and/or Christian education that made physical punishment
of children socially preferable. It is a well established fact that beating
is instrumental in learning the Koran in West Africa (Kane 1972;
Sanneh 1997; 1996), and in Sierra Leone many people compare the
treatment of students by Koran teachers to slavery (Bledsoe & Robey
1993:124). Physical discipline in Liberian schools appears to be the
preferred mode of correction, as the case of President Taylor flogging
his daughter highlighted. Indeed, parents and other family members
aiding their children with homework see it as an ideal tool of learning.
Just as Last has noted for Nigeria “there is the notion that learning, or
at least concentration, is effectively maintained through pain or the
threat of pain” (Last 2000:377).
In the Nigerian case, parents send away their children to Muslim
teachers or Islamic schools, that are often renowned for treating pupils
harshly (Last 2000:363). The parents themselves went through the
system and survived it, so the style of disciplining is seen as being the
appropriate one (ibid. 375). In fact parents often prefer to send their
children as far away as possible, so that they dare not run away and go
back home. However, Last notes (ibid. 379-80) that many still run
away from their school and find refuge in the larger towns, sustaining
themselves with petty trade or crime.
In Last’s case study on ‘contrasting cultures of punishment’, he
compares two settings: one firmly Muslim and the other fairly
‘traditional’. He argues that “it is only in the relative isolation of the
deeply rural countryside that a general policy of rejecting violence is
both socially feasible and economically rational as one cultural option
among many for bringing up children in Hausaland” (Last 2000:372).
Although I have not undertaken such systematic research in Liberia
on this particular issue, I find substantial support in the idea that
violent forms of punishment are connected to the ‘modern’
educational systems in Liberia, as well as that of the development of
the Liberian state and its system of territorial governance (frontier
force, army, indirect rule, commissioners etc.—see previous chapter).
However, it is important to retain that ‘traditional’ institutions, in the
guise of secret societies, often use violence and fear of violence as
techniques of keeping local communities under control. The blending
of this type of violence with modern—religious or secular—forms of
educational violence is the backdrop for a new culture of punishment
that has developed in West Africa.
Partly due to educational needs, many boys and girls live with foster
parents for extended periods of time. Fosterage, or wardship, and
cross-over arrangements covering apprenticeship are institutional in
both Liberia (Moran 1990:101; 1992; Murphy 1981:676) and elsewhere
in West Africa (Einarsdóttir 2000; Bledsoe 1990a; Hunt 1993; Sall
2002). I do not have statistics on how many children actually go
through the institution of fosterage in Liberia, but it is reasonable to
believe that these figures would be quite similar to those presented by
Bledsoe (1990a) on southern Sierra Leone. In Bledsoe’s survey, as much
as a third of the children aged below 16 lived away from their mothers.
In some Mende dominated areas more than half of the children aged
between 15-19 lived in foster homes (ibid. 72f). Bledsoe notes that it is
often the most favoured child who is sent away. This arrangement
bears economic, as well as socio-political advantages. On the financial
side, a family has fewer children to feed, and generally the host of the
child will pay school fees and other expenditures (ibid: 73).
Fosterage is also “inextricably linked to networks of political
patronage”, as “many parents foster out their children more to cement
patronage relationships with other adults than to derive direct utility
from the children themselves” (Bledsoe 1990a:75). Foster children
generally originate from rural areas, entering towns and cities under a
foster arrangement. There is also a pronounced idea that incomers will
gain in sophistication, turn kwii or civilised, both through education
and by living in an urban environment (Fuest 1996; Moran 1992). This
produces a gradient fosterage in which status rises with increasing social
and geographical distance (Bledsoe 1990a:74). A university degree from
abroad, for instance, implies value-added status. I believe that it would
be fruitful to connect these acceptances to a family of myths, which have
their origins in the epic of Sunjata (as I do below), just as distance is an
important aspect of powerful magic within local mythology.
The institution of fosterage clearly fits well into the system Bledsoe
has labelled ‘wealth in people’ among the Kpelle peoples in Liberia;
where wealth is more dependent on bonds of duty and obligation with
people, than ownership of land and material possessions (Bledsoe
1980c; for similar reasoning see Kopytoff & Miers 1977; Leopold 1991).
As a young Sierra Leonean man recounted, fosterage is a matter of
‘being for’ someone, and it “implies that you have made yourself
subject to the person. You work for him, fight for him, etc. And he is
in turn responsible for you in all ways (such as court fine, clothes, food,
school fees, or bridewealth)” (Bledsoe 1990a:75). Harsh treatment is
often seen as a key part of the arrangement of wealth, with foster
children generally receiving more severe beatings, less medical care
and food of poorer quality than would biological children in the
household. As already suggested, following the cultural paradigm ‘no
success without struggle’, parents often send their children away to
boarding schools, Muslim schools and to other foster homes, so as to
ensure that their children get hardened enough.4 As Murray Last recalls:
I have heard a mother argue that it is necessary for others to discipline
her sons strictly in order that her own unconditional support should
not spoil them. (Last 2000:378)
In the long run it is “only these ‘trained’ children can be trusted to
share power …. in choosing his main counsellor, therefore, a chief may
brush aside his own spoiled, bickering sons in favour of a foster child
he ‘trained’: one whose loyalty and obedience he can trust in the face
of adversity” (Bledsoe 1990a:80).
Immediately, it appears that there is a clear hegemony of human
development in play, where gerontocratic structures appear to control
upbringing. It is often believed that by subjecting oneself to patrons,
We need to account for regional differences. In her study on fosterage in Southern Liberia, Mary Moran
emphasises material (food, education) and status (networking, civilised training) as root objectives in the
arrangement of fosterage. However, the socio-cultural significance of ‘child-hardship’, of learning to
endure, is not present here. Quite the contrary, servants/foster children “are protected from outright
exploitation by the moral construction of civilisation” (Moran 1992:110).
one can obtain knowledge and control that might in the future enable
one’s own transformation from subject to patron. As a folk model
success without struggle cannot exist. Being subjected to particularly
harsh conditions, children in fosterage become particularly
sympathetic to the idea of youth rebellion against the established
society. It is apparent in my research that children in foster homes
more readily than others, would join rebel armies in the Liberian Civil
War. Direct acts of vengeance on patrons and foster parents alike
appear to have been quite common. However, the figure of the
warlord and commander soon came to replace foster parents, and the
relationship in most instances mimicked that of fosterage. As the idea
of youth revolution and of foster children running away to join rebel
armies indicates, the gerontocratic ‘wealth in people’ system, leaves
room for alternative trajectories of individual development, also
making cosmological change possible. In fact, I shall argue, the image
of the sociopathic, or anti-social, hero, offers scope for an alternative
leadership, one that involves hunters, warriors, and the like.
The alternative—the rascal mode
Even if the model of children struggling and suffering under a
gerontocratic regime is the dominant model in Liberian society, there
is still room for ambivalence as individual endeavours of
aggressiveness are promoted among both boys and girls.5 As Ottenberg
has pointed out, Nigerian society has a “contradictory need to develop
In Monrovia I watched high school basketball. To my surprise the referee had to stop the game sever-
al times due to rock throwing by young female supporters. No male supporters took part however in the
carefully staged provocations that initiated and followed the violent sequences.
vigorous, independent males for warfare and leadership; presumably
“mother’s tails” don’t fight or lead well” (1989:57). Parallel to the
submissive ideal of children raised gerontocratically, is the fluid group
of “rascal boys and palaver men…. models of a strong and active ego”
(ibid. 50). Grona boys,6 rarray boys and savis men (Abdullah 1997a)
comply with the images of the naughty-boy present in West African
oral tradition and contemporary popular culture (Cosentino 1989). As
an archetype they fit into certain hunting and warrior segments of
traditional society where hegemony is less outspoken and formalised
than it is in secret society leadership. Indeed, as I have pointed out
elsewhere (see chapter 3), this segment of society appears to function as
a counter hegemonic source.
The range of urban, semi-urban, plantation and mining
environments, appear as ideal places for the development of a subculture based upon a rascal boy model. The ease with which cultural
meaning blends in such contact zones (connecting traits of the African
with the Western and the Kpelle with the Sarpo etc.), tied up with the
wealth of the few and poverty of the majority, functions as breeding
ground for new ideals of rascals. The Gio myth of the amoral Boya
Manjbe is cross-fertilised with modern images of traditional Japanese
ninjas. The utilisation of violence from both images, aids young people
in their understanding of their own predicament at the bottom of the
social hierarchy. The violence directed towards them, is thus placed in
a functioning framework whilst at the same time, counter-violence is
The term grona, in Liberian English, implies someone whose behaviour has outgrown the physical age
thus engaging in activities that are not suited for them. Grona is more often used to label girls with many
boyfriends, or prostitutes (Utas 1999).
presented as being the key to a change of such predicaments. If the
ideal trajectory is to persist within a violent system, to accept beatings,
floggings and other techniques of ritualised violence, the pseudo-social
trajectory to grow up and to reach adult acceptance, would be to go
grona. The Liberian war was a period of massive grona-fication; i.e.
youth branching off from a mainstream social trajectory, instead
following the one which was pseudo-social.
In this second part of the chapter, I discuss the cultural legitimation of
violent action from an agentive perspective. I believe in this connection
that it would be fruitful to look at the culturally specific concept of the
hero. In the region we find a concept of the hero as being morally
neutral (Cosentino 1989:31), as we shall see in two examples.
(1) Watching and analysing a Hollywood action movie with some
Liberian friends initially made me quite confused, since they did not
maintain the binary opposition between the hero and the bad guy in
the fashion that I had learned to take for granted. Good and bad
remained present in their analysis of the film, but what was striking
about their categorisation, was that they talked about the ‘good hero’
and the ‘bad hero’.
(2) A young woman narrated a story about a Liberian ‘war hero’
residing in a small town in southern Sierra Leone. The man was a
fighter in the ULIMO force, which for some time had fought
alongside the Sierra Leone army against the RUF rebels. The rebel
soldier was reached by rumours that one of his girlfriends—a
successful fighter has got many girlfriends (see chapter 5)—was having
an affair with another man. As a response to this, he brought the girl
into a public place, laid her on a market table and forced her legs open.
He proceeded by forcing a mortar pestle, from the (chilli) pepper
mortar deep inside her vagina (there is a pronounced symbolism of the
mortar being the female sexual organ, and the mortar pestle as the
male—remember the use of chilli pepper for punishment as well). The
story is not unique, similar things happened to many unfortunate men
and women during the civil war. Rather it is something else that
catches one’s attention: throughout the story, the female narrator
attaches the label ‘hero’ to the perpetrator. It is obvious that she does
not imply that the perpetrator is acting in a correct, moral way; rather,
as in the case of the movie viewers’ responses, the case proposes that the
title, ‘hero’ is morally neutral in local terminology.
The Sunjata model
To get a better understanding of the cultural specificity of the hero and
heroism, we need to penetrate local mythology. Few Liberians have
actually heard of Sunjata,7 but most are familiar with epics having
similar contests; relating to marginal young men and their sociocultural negotiations of power. The epic of Sunjata is both socially
relevant and forms an active piece of oral literature in the Guinea and
Mali sub-region (Johnson 1999:9). In addition to live oral
performances, in popular culture Sunjata is distributed on
audiocassettes (see Conrad 1999), films (Kouyaté 1995), printed in
Some Liberians will be familiar with the name Sunjata Keita from its popularity in music of Guinean ori-
gin. However, as the lyrics are sung in Susu, Mandingo (Malinke) or any other unfamiliar vernacular, the
epic of Sunjata itself is seldom referred to.
books (Innes et al. 1999; Niane 1965; Sisòkò & Johnson 1992; Suso &
Kanute 1999), and in scholarly writing (Austen 1999; Diawara 1998;
Jansen 2001).
Sunjata Keita was born the son of a king. However, being the
offspring of the king’s third wife and being born crippled (at the age of
seven he could still not walk), he spent his childhood on the margins of
society. Finally learning to walk, he started to develop supernatural
strengths, thus contesting the power of his paternal brother, the future
king. When his father died, the ensuing power struggle forced him to
go into exile. During these years, he gained further strength, acquired
magical skills and became a much renowned and feared
warrior/hunter. Sunjata is destined to return, and upon his return, he
emerges victorious out of all battles and subsequently rises to power to
establish the Mali Empire.
In Sunjata fashion, young West Africans seek to migrate to towns,
diamond mines, plantations, or to far-away countries in Europe, or the
Americas. The incentive is to gain economic and partly magical
strength (in a mythologised manner), ultimately returning home to
establish themselves in the centre of society. Clearly modern migration
myths contain allusions to Sunjata type scenarios, and they may
influence the decision of young men and women to leave home. It is of
course a highly idealised picture and as we know, many fail—often
ending up in circumstances more precarious than those they left.
Another theme present in the Sunjata epic which is of particular
importance in understanding the violent steps taken by youth in the
Liberian Civil War, is the conscious breaking with social norms and
regulations. To reach individual status and power, Sunjata uses
antisocial means. Sunjata “becomes associated with those skilled,
secretive, and dangerous practitioners of the occult, the hunters’
societies, the epitome of antisocial behavior” (Johnson 1999:19).
Other rebel heroes
Some twenty years ago, Bird and Kendall analysed Sunjata as a ‘rebel
hero’ and noted that “the image of the rebel hero who breaks with, but
ultimately returns to his people is not without relevance to the modern
Mande child” (1980:22). In Liberia and Sierra Leone other myths of
adventurer-rebel-heroes of the Sunjata epic genre are kept alive to this
day. The Sunjata figure appears in various transformed versions. In
Gio mythology we find a trickster character called Boya Manjbe, who
has a clear affinity with Sunjata. This figure is an enfant terrible, a
trickster and shape shifter that frequently behaves immorally to a
powerful leadership, not as a Robin Hood or a social bandit, but rather
for his own sheer pleasure. Similar characters can be found among all
Mande peoples in Liberia. They are, however, better described in the
literature on Sierra Leone. Cosentino has found their presence
throughout that country and in his words “each group had snatched
from the manifest Mande myth its own figure of a rebellious youth
overturning some sacrosanct ancestral construct in pursuit of some
personal sweet latent in the inherited mosaic of images” (Cosentino
1989:33). Among the Mende peoples in Sierra Leone, this figure has
several names; one is Musa Wo—little Moses (ibid.), and among the
Kuranko he is called Gbentoworo (Jackson 1982).8
The shape shifting rebel hero is by no means a unique character for this particular region of Africa. Quite
the contrary, similar thoroughly mythologised characters are found in a wide variety of settings (see e.g.
the contributions in Crummey 1986; as well as De Boeck 2000).
Whilst the myth of Gbentoworo conforms well to the Sunjata epic,9
Boya Manjbe and Musa Wo remain amoral to the very end. As
Cosentino notes “the hallmark of all Musa Wo’s actions is volition
unrestrained by social consideration” (1989:30). While Sunjata-like
epic heroes “are transformed from abused and wilful miscreants into
beneficent rulers, Musa Wo begins as an enfant terrible and descends to
the level of a relentless, obscene, and amoral monster” (ibid. 22).
Having an impressive criminal record Musa Wo, the deposed royal
aspirant, descends into an “entropy of pornographic violence” (ibid.
28). In Hobsbawm’s typology of social bandits the most extreme
category is located in the archetypal ‘avenger’: “in romances of the
oppressed…..to assert power, any power, is itself a triumph”, thus
“killing and torture is the most primitive and personal assertion of
ultimate power, and the weaker the rebel feels himself to be at the
bottom, the greater, we may suppose, the temptation to assert it”
(Hobsbawm [1969] 2000:71). This is the essence of Musa Wo. I argue
that it is a logic trajectory that has been appropriated by many of the
young rebel soldiers in the Liberian Civil War—in this case violence is
an expression of power of the powerless. However, one ought not to
forget that a moral ideal is maintained simultaneously, as “the moral
world to which they belong contains the values of the ‘noble robber’ as
well as those of the monster” (ibid. 64).
The trickster character that the Liberian grona boy embodies, not
only draws upon longstanding ideals of shape-shifting, but thoroughly
links these more ‘traditional’ images with quite recent encounters of
Still the Kuranko version differs from the grand Mande version. Bird (1999) says that Sunjata is pro-
moted to epic among the Mande and demoted to a folk story among the Kuranko.
western rap10 and reggae icons as well as movie characters. Paul
Richards argues that the Vietnam war veteran outsider character of
John Rambo is a classic trickster figure close in spirit to Musa Wo
(1996:59; see also 1994), but Bruce Lee and the often hidden faces of
ninja fighters on the screen evoke much the same connotations.11 Such
ubiquitous youth icons “make their appearance in juxtaposition with
images of age and authority, suggesting the persistence of the primal
struggle between the overbearing father and the rebellious son that is
at the heart of the travails of Musa Wo, Mande myth, and Totem and
Taboo” (Cosentino 1989:34).
Musa Wo is an archetypal expression of that unresolved conflict: the
wild longing for free expression in a tightly constructed society.
Neither his performers nor his audience knows where he is going. His
myth has no ending, and cannot be ended. But his persistence on the
road may express what Samuel Beckett has called mankind’s pernicious
optimism (the dark hope for a happy, if unknowable, end to the adventure. (Cosentino 1989:36)
In Sierra Leone a rebel unit was named after the late American rap musician Tupac Shakur and it is
reported that in early October 1998 more than hundred rebels attacked the northern town of Kukuna
sporting t-shirts bearing Tupac’s picture (Lansana Fofana—BBC correspondent), Electronic Mail and
Guardian, Johannesburg, October 7, 1998—http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/mg/news/98oct1/7ocsierra_rap.html).
As is also common in other conflicts special forces of the various Liberian rebel armies were called nin-
jas. In the reconstructed (post 1997 election) Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) a unit of especially hardened
soldiers is also called ninjas.
Proto-Sunjata leadership
Liberian leadership is strongly hierarchic and based upon
gerontocratic ideals (this is less the case of the Southern part which is
more egalitarian or even featuring a ‘democratic tradition’, or an
‘indigenous democracy’ as Mary Moran (2002a; 2002b) has pointed
out). Local hierarchies interconnect with each other as well as with
state hierarchies. Some are apparent, others well hidden, some remain
over time, others are temporal. The power of patron figures is by no
mean permanent, but is constantly being contested and the patron
must use skill, wit and magic to remain in position. The patron figure
(big person) can be “a chief, landlord, teacher, parent, senior wife or
older sibling” (Bledsoe 1990a:75). “Capacity to perform mediative and
protective functions” (ibid.) are of great importance for patrons. As in
the case of fosterage, people are ‘for somebody’ and they rarely seek the
“dangerous autonomy but…. attachment to a kingroup, to a patron, to
power—an attachment that occurred within a well-defined
hierarchical framework” (Kopytoff & Miers 1977:17). Thus there is a
clear tendency to seek ever-more powerful mediators.12
Rising to leadership implies using all means of power, including
violence and magic. Fending off contestants to remain in a leading
position requires even more skills, and close ties with magic
practitioners are central. Leadership inside the ‘traditional’ secret
societies relies heavily on the practices and functions of these societies.
However, alternative leaders have an urgent need to establish
Without being apologetic for the current state of affairs in West African politics it should be noted, as
Mamdani has pointed out (1996), that patrimonialism of the African states is not authentically ‘African’,
“but merely the unreformed means by which urban elites maintain their colonially wrought power over
the rural masses” (Fanthorpe 2001:368).
themselves by alternative means. They often involve themselves with
a set of magic practitioners seen as immoral, as well as relying upon
more violent practices. Indeed, leaders of the Liberian State—
presidents and ministers—were often members, and at times symbolic
leaders for ‘traditional’ secret societies, although they could only partly
rely on those societies as a power base. Instead, they have commonly
sought power in loose alliances with another set of diviners and ritual
specialists, locally referred to as ‘magicians’, ‘sorcerers’, ‘fortunetellers’, ‘witch-doctors’, ‘herbalists’ or ‘medicine men’ (Shaw 1996).
This has been a well-established practice for a long time. Human
leopard societies for example made themselves known in Sierra Leone
in the 1860s (Beatty 1915; Jackson 1989)—also being a widespread
phenomenon elsewhere in Africa (Lindskog 1954). In Liberia, leopard
societies were banned in 1912 along with other more indigenous secret
societies (Ellis 1999:238). Ritual specialists from remote places are
believed to possess more powerful magic and are thus preferred. The
late President Doe is said to have had a preference for Togolese magic
practitioners. Likewise, warlords in the civil war often engaged
practitioners from Burkina Faso and Senegal (as well as fighters, or a
combination of the two) because of their perceived extraordinary
powers. The tragicomic character Yacouba in Ahmadou Kourouma’s
novel Allah n’est pas obligé (2000) who left his business in the Ivory
Coast to travel around in the war zones of Liberia and Sierra Leone,
hooking up with military leaders and providing them magical charms
and amulets, is indeed a bit twisted, but does have a clear connection
with reality.
The rampant rumours of heart doctors roaming the streets of
Monrovia in normal day (pre-war) Liberia supplying political leaders
and top business men with human body-parts, including hearts as
their name indicates, point towards an individual engagement of
magic practitioners. Heart doctors, or heartmen, “functioned as
independent commercial entrepreneurs who obtained human organs
and sold them for monetary gain to those who believed that they could
acquire wealth and power by their ritual use and even consumption”
(Ellis 1999:266). Discussing this topic, it is easy to construct images of
exotic ‘others’ engaged in barbaric if not primordial behaviour, as is in
Stephen Ellis book The mask of anarchy (1999).13 Newspapers in
Monrovia, a central source used by Ellis to extract knowledge on the
matter, will print forms of oral lore more than actual substantiated
news, but as communicator of magic power, newspapers are of
importance. To a limited extent human body parts were used for ritual
matters, more so during the war. However the rumour that a
particular patron took part in such rituals, and thus possessed the
powers that they are believed to produce, is what is of primary interest
for him/her. The very employment of a ritual specialist and the
resultant public knowledge about it is a power-boost in itself. Thus the
ritual violence of engaging a heart doctor is a writing surface for
communication in the same category as the visual statement of the
Butt-naked brigade, who fought entirely naked in the streets of
Monrovia during the April 6 war of 1996. Playing on people’s ideas of
magic, functions as a symbolic membrane of power.
In my effort to understand the position of patrons I will discuss the
idea of national leadership. To enhance a basic understanding I believe
Ellis’ analysis lacks a historical perspective of cultural change. That is obvious in his treatment of heart-
men and leopard societies as part and parcel of more indigenous secret societies.
that it is important to account for the pre-war leadership’s relationship
to the military, and to see the military essentially as agents of
governmental violence directed towards its own citizens. The
leadership of the Liberian State has been using violence rather freely.
Liberia has been a thoroughly militarised society from its inception in
the Americo-Liberian colonial conquest. First the LFF (Liberian
Frontier Force) and subsequently the AFL (Armed Forces of Liberia)
functioned as violent agents of the Liberian government. In the
territories and in the hinterland of Liberia, the army relied on a high
proportion of violence to keep people in place. Tax collection usually
went hand in hand with practices of private looting. The rape of
women, flogging, and at times tortures, disappearances and death, all
appear to have been part of their technique. Myths of cannibalistic
practices also formed part of their reputation in many regions.
In an attempt to quell governmental opposition in Nimba County
after the failed 1985 coup attempt, AFL troupes loyal to President Doe
went on the rampage, killing civilians and instilling fear in the entire
county.14 Even so, at present many Nimbadians are still talking about
Samuel Doe as a great leader. One of the things they emphasise, in
particular, is that he was a strong leader and that he was not afraid of
loosing his power to get his will through. Even if people were tortured
and/or lost family and friends during the process, numerous people
believe in retrospect, that his ‘rule by fear’ was correct. Thus rule
through violent domination is customary to leadership. Prince
Johnson and his rebel group, INPFL, eventually vanquished Doe’s
power and killed him early in the civil war. Prince Johnson came from
Sources have estimated the number of dead to around 3000 (Cain 1999).
Nimba County and thus saw the civil war as a revenge on Doe.
During his time as leader for the INPFL, Johnson built up a
reputation of being an extremely powerful, thus potent, leader. How
he time after time tricked the Liberian army is something that every
child in Nimba County can recount. Johnson was also known for his
random violence: whenever he felt the urge, he would slay his own
soldiers, something excombatants under his command are quick to
point out. However, a strong leader also has many enemies. One of his
ex-soldiers pinpoints that by saying that if Prince Johnson would
return to Liberia, there would be many people who would like to ‘eat’
him, to gain his powers. For a Liberian leader it is immaterial to be ‘a
man of the people’ (Achebe 1966); the predominant feature of a good
leader is the fact that he is ruthless and omnipotent like a God.
Morally neutral powers
In a Sunjata-like fashion, power is obtained through magic powers
gathered in distant lands. The potency of these magical powers
generally grows with geographical and social distance. The methods to
gain power do not necessarily have to fit with a set of moral ideals, as
the power of patrons and big men is based on a concept of the morally
neutral hero. At a first glance, there is little similarity between the
current presidents Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in Sierra Leone and Charles
McArthur Taylor in Liberia. In fact their paths to state power appear
to be quite each other’s antithesis. One made a successful career within
the UN system, whilst the other, although a US college graduate, was
suspected of fraud and was imprisoned in the US. He later became the
main rebel leader of the Liberian Civil War. I will argue nevertheless
that part of their success is connected to their appearances as proto-
Sunjatas. Their struggle in and then mastery of far away places, herald
their successful return.15 Taylor and Kabbah returned as a masterful
leader should do, equipped with their western university degrees as
mythico-medicinal power. Power in their case, as well as Sunjata’s, is
established on merits from abroad. “Individuals who travel to, or learn
about, far away lands have privileged access to powerful, mysterious
knowledge” (Bledsoe 1990a:77). Kabbah’s return is crowned by the fact
that a contingent of Western governments offer him support, and the
aid money that he brings shows in a symbolic way his mastery of that
system. Taylor’s return, on the other hand, is even more Sunjata-like.
He returns as a warrior,16 employing magical skills as well as wit. In his
effort to gain ultimate power he is fearless and he uses all means of
power available to get all the way, thus complying with the ideal of the
morally neutral hero. But does he promise to transform his leadership
into a more morally recognisable authority (in relative terms—
following the argument of leadership/patrons above) by becoming a
Sunjata? Or is he inclined to follow the ever descending path of the
trickster heroes of Boya Manjbe and Musa Wo?
They are not scorned upon as others. Monrovians often use the expression JJC (Johnny-Just-Come) to
describe the category of people who went abroad but came back without the normative cultural capital
and economic wealth expected in popular myth. JJC is generally an expression used by African immigrants
to Europe or the USA to describe recent arrived immigrants who do not know their way around in their
new environment. In Nigeria the term is also used to describe rural people moving to cities.
Part of his legitimacy, even after the 1997 election rests on his warrior identity. This is obvious as he
is keen to be presented with his honorary titles Gankay (strong man in Gola), Dahkpanah (chief medicine
man in Kpelle), and less often Okatakyie (brave warrior—title given by the Ghanian business community), but also Dr. (a honorary title received from Taiwan).
I have so far argued that violence carried out by young Liberians in the
civil war to a certain degree mimicked violence of the pre-war years.
In the process of socialisation, violent measures were often present.
Violent forms of punishment followed a specific socialisation logic, but
were considerably modified according to the circumstances. When
focusing on leadership, I have argued that we find the concept of a
morally neutral hero in the region. The hero does not have to be good,
per se. Leadership is to a certain extent seen as amoral, and to seize a
leading position one has to go through moral badlands. The concept of
power itself is a consequence of the morally neutral hero concept.
Mythical persons of Sunjata-like character guide young people on
their paths towards adulthood whilst the mimicking of patrons and
leaders is also socialising young people into violent behaviour. In this
last part of the chapter I intend to discuss the function of violence for
young people who fought in the civil war itself.
Mary Kaldor points out that the greater the sense of insecurity in a
society, the greater is the polarisation of social groups: “Nothing is
more polarizing than violence” (Kaldor 1999:89). “Conflict itself
generates a frantic search for moral community. A frightened and
disoriented populace, we are told, tends to seek refuge in ethnicities
and/or religious sodalities that offer to take on the burden of their
alienation and represent it as a struggle for cultural rights” (Fanthorpe
2001:367-368). This is indeed often the case but other primary
identities, such as participation in a fighting faction, often appear to
overrule primordial attachments such as ethnic identity. In the
Liberian Civil War, the various militant factions or rebel armies were
comprised of soldiers with different ethnic backgrounds. Soldiers
shifting to another faction to enter the ranks of former enemy units
was a common occurrence. Some combinations, as for instance Krahn
personnel in the NPFL line were rare, but far from impossible. The
Ivorian child soldier Birahima, the main character of Kourouma’s
Allah n’est pas obligé (2000), served in several Liberian rebel forces and
then left for Sierra Leone and joined first the rebels and then the
government side. Several of my informants have had similar
experiences. Thus, to most youth combatants, youth identity—of
being excluded from society—appears to have been a ‘touchstone of
fraternity’ (Scott 1990:39), or a common ground for fomenting a ‘moral
community’ irrespective of ethnic attachment.
Violence and the rationality of the irrational
Anthropologists often try to rationalise violence by explaining its
functionality in local cosmologies, as integral elements of ritual
systems (Richards 1996; Taylor 1999). It is important, however, not to
overemphasise the functionality or rationality of violence. On the
contrary, I believe that the very component of irrational violence is
crucially efficient in times of armed conflict. Violence is a kind of
communication that often follows, as well as uses, a certain cultural
logic. By breaking with certain cultural conventions, and by applying
novel techniques on the battlefield, armies or individual soldiers
sought to gain the upper hand. Launching an unexpected attack is a
typical example. War is a time for experimentation and for the
invention of new forms of violence, borrowing, in a bricolage fashion,
from available models. As war is so much about controlling fear, there
must be techniques for diminishing fear among one’s own group whilst
instilling fear in the enemy. A good example is General Butt-naked.
During the April 6 war in 1996 which ravaged much of Monrovia,
‘the peanut butter brigade’ instilled limited fear in the minds of
Monrovians. In fact, they soon fell into oblivion. Their epithet was
established because some of the boys in this irregular force found
special pleasure in looting jars of peanut butter from the shelves of the
downtown supermarkets. Quite in contrast to ‘the peanut butter
brigade’, another group of irregulars graphically carved their presence
into the minds and memories of the entire Liberian populace: ‘the butt
naked brigade’. The ‘butt naked brigade’ formed part of United
Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-J) and was
established under the leadership of General Butt-naked, alias Joshua
Milton Blayee. Butt-naked made use of his super powers in the battles.
As the name suggests, Butt-naked and his fighters were fighting
naked. Prior to a fight, Butt-naked would turn his rear towards the
enemy and fart—but before doing this he had to remove a small goat
horn containing ‘medicine’ from his anus.17 Butt-naked then connected
all his fighters with a rope and warned against cutting themselves
loose. As long as they were connected to him they were under
protection of his powerful ‘medicine’. Due to the medicine, Buttnaked was extremely hard to kill. He could not be shot in any ordinary
way. The secret was that he was standing on top of the image of his
body. That is, to kill him you had to shoot above what appeared to be
his head. In post-war Monrovia, Butt-naked, who is quite a handsome
young man, has left the war business behind and has become a
religious leader in the Soul Winning Evangelist Ministry.
Ex-president Samuel Doe (1980-90) had the same kind of ‘medicine’. The ‘medicine’ is believed to give
the user the ability to disappear.
Undressing entirely like General Butt-naked also plays on the
irrational, as it is generally seen as a sign of mental disorder. But in
extreme situations, like a civil war, this kind of irrationality
communicates both an atmosphere of control to one’s own soldiers and
bewilderment to the enemy. The myths around his behaviour spread
rapidly among friends and foe. The more or less immediate
mythologisation of his behaviour establishes him in a superior position
in relation to other magic interlocutors, not unlike the way a new dress
style enters the fashion market.
Magic and dangers
There is always a danger that those unaccustomed to dealing with
highly potent magic, will try to use magic powers that exceed their
capacity as human beings. There is a basic idea that people’s capacity
for magic varies greatly from person to person. The outcome of
exceeding one’s capacity is either death or mental illness. In popular
discourse, mental illness among excombatants may be explained by
saying that he/she consumed too much magic power or human flesh.
You ought not to play with the devil. Overuse/abuse of magic powers
can also make strongmen lose their connection with real life and thus
open a window of opportunity for someone to take revenge or to get
rid of them altogether. High commanders of the different rebel
factions in the civil war were quite often very young. Casual Jacobs
was a young NPFL commander, born in the early 1970s, who built up
a reputation around himself. He was feared and respected for his
brutality as well as his possession of magic powers. Even Charles
Taylor, the rebel leader himself, feared him and avoided visiting his
headquarters. Casual Jacobs took special pleasure in cutting peoples
throats in a way that made them slow to die; he worked up a technique
carefully avoiding cutting the carotid and damaging the cervical
vertebra. He was also renowned for pulling out eyeballs, cutting off
tongues and ears of his victims. According to the myth, he was not
torturing people for the reason of getting information, but for sheer
pleasure. “He just wanted to be wicked” explains one of my
informants. Another person who worked within his bodyguard, stated
that he was ‘carried away’ by his use of magic powers:
They promoted him and carried him high up. Then when it starts
with you it will make you live a good life—a good life! But soon it
reaches a certain round and then things get tense for you. You can go
to any other African scientist (ritual specialist) and he can make it,
but you can end up dying. (excombatant in Ganta)
As we can see, the use of violence and of magic is intimately connected.
In fact, to be able to carry out requisite violent acts, and indeed to
become a good fighter, one needs to have access to magical powers.
Magic is also a means of protecting the individual from prolonged
mental suffering, provided that the user abides by premeditated
taboos. Seeking power outside of the ordinary structure, one will have
to associate with “skilled, secretive, and dangerous practitioners of the
occult, the hunters’ societies, the epitome of antisocial behaviour”
(Johnson 1999:19). It is not only a direct cutting in on power that is at
stake; even the mere manifestation of ties with some practitioners may
have important implications, as “the ability to cause others to believe
that one has a great stockpile of occult power is a key element in the
acquisition of power” (ibid. 17).
In this vein it is advantageous for a warrior/soldier to promote a
reputation for being a cannibal, for having taken the extreme magical
measure of eating human body parts, transforming it to personal
powers. Casual Jacobs and another young Gio fighter, Nelson Gaye,
constructed their power base on myths of cannibalistic rituals. It is
highly likely that both took part in cannibalistic rites, but it is also
quite clear that part of their reputation was staged, in order to acquire
formal power over other NPFL soldiers and to instil fear in enemy
groups. The power of staged reputation is obvious in sequences such as
this one, commenting on the late President Samuel Doe:
Samuel Doe was widely credited with the power not only to be impervious to bullets, but also of disappearing in the face of danger, including plane crashes. He had a coterie of juju men from all over Africa,
notably Togo. And some of the rituals he was rumored to be practising in order to maintain potency of his powers including drinking the
blood and/or eating the fetuses of pregnant young girls. (Enoanyi,
Behold Uncle Sam’s Step Child, cited in Ellis 1999).
Likewise Stephen Ellis states that Charles Taylor “according to some
who know him well” had been drinking the blood of sacrificial victims
(Ellis 1995:192). A local newspaper had also been stating that “Taylor
and his closest aides form an elite society known as the Top Twenty,
which practices a cult of cannibalism” (ibid.).18 Occultism, or magic,
Ellis appears to be obsessed with the occult, cannibalism in particular. His otherwise thorough reading
of the Liberian Civil War is somewhat blackened by his lack of in-depth understanding of local ritual and
may thus be used as a shortcut to power and/or a technique to remain
in power. As a technique it is used by patrons/big men in differing sets
of hierarchies as well as at different levels in these hierarchies. As such
it is utilised as a tool for politicians, businessmen, military commanders
and soldiers of rank and file alike.
Masculinity and militarism
The construction of masculinity is of great importance in the
understanding of the aptitude by male youth for violent expression.
Cross-culturally, violent manifestations shape social formations of
masculinity (Gow & Harvey 1994; Bowker 1998), but as Robert
Connell has pointed out “in any cultural setting, violent and aggressive
masculinity will rarely be the only form of masculinity present”
(2000:216). Every society has ‘multiple definitions of masculinity’, but
“there is generally a hegemonic form of masculinity, the centre of the
system of gendered power” (ibid. 216-17). Thus Connell speaks of a
‘hierarchy of masculinities’. In the Liberian case, we ought to look at a
militarised masculinity which is learned by men from a young age.
The militarisation is twofold, first it stems from warrior ideals of preLiberian times, and secondly it emanates from violent confrontations
with the state through the national army. I argue that this form of
violence is not something masculine per se, but that it operates as a
hegemonic mode within a militarised masculinity. Even within the
rebel armies, violent masculinity manifests itself differently to
Generals and foot soldiers (Connell 2000:224).
“Rape and sexual violence appear to be a universal and widespread
characteristic of warfare” (Byrne 1996:37). A clear picture of the
number of women who were raped and sexually assaulted during the
Liberian Civil War does not exist, and the issue of men raped has not
even been discussed. Studies of a relatively small sample of displaced
women who had taken refuge in IDP camps around Monrovia
indicate that around 33 percent of these had been raped (Cain
1999:274).19 It should be observed that the ethnic dimension of rape
assaults is quite weak. Women from ethnic groups in direct conflict
could at times be raped because of their ethnic background. Men who
were captured and were believed to support enemies, on the other
hand, were generally tortured, often to death. However, the material I
have collected shows that women, or girls, who have an ethnic
background to match with the rebel’s core identity, were preyed upon
and raped to a similar extent. Thus one cannot talk about rape as an
ethnocidal technique, as is done in for instance Rwanda (Taylor 1999),
or former Yugoslavia (Korac 1994; Meznaric 1993; Stiglmayer 1994).
Instead I suggest that we must understand military rape as part of a
hyper-masculine institution.
Rape as a hyper-masculine phenomenon is not solely a military
activity, but is found in other environments comprising of mainly men
(military, prison, street gangs, fraternities, etc.). In that sense it bears
resemblance to male violence directed towards other men, as it is not
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are quite probably in the most exposed position to rape assaults
and other forms of militarily gendered violence. One might argue that if we included figures of refugees
and women living in the relative safe of Monrovia and Buchanan the figure would be considerably lower.
On the other hand there is also the possibility that many women did not reveal this type of information
to the survey team. A resent study carried out on female IDPs in neighbouring Sierra Leone states that
the rate of women assaulted by conflict related sexual violence was about 9% (Human Rights Watch
2003). There is no natural explanation why sexual assault would be much more prevalent in Liberia than
Sierra Leone.
hidden, but on the contrary it is often staged. It is carried out as
friendship-centred group activities in an environment where there is
competition over ‘outrageous’ behaviour, such as antisocial acts to
establish a valued identity—fearless or fearsome (O’Sullivan 1998:85).
As O’Sullivan concludes in a study on the issue of gang rapes carried
out by ‘frat boys’ in the US:
Gang rape is “about” the relationship among the men doing it rather
than their relationship to the woman they are abusing. It is also “fun.”
It is a way of cooperating and competing with male friends through a
shared risky and risqué, socially sanctioned (in the sense that it’s something to brag about among men, although not something to write
home to mother about), behavior. (O’Sullivan 1998:105)
It is in this light we should see the practices of Liberian soldiers
assaulting and raping young women among the very people they have
set out to protect, and indeed this behavoiur forms part of getting
initiated into an exclusive group of soldiers.
Violence as initiation to manhood
Violent measures and the acquisition of occult power is the Sunjata
path to overcoming his ‘symbolic castration’. In this fashion, Sunjata is
“transformed from a crippled youth to a strong man” (Johnson
1999:20). The sense of being socially crippled, or castrated, is basic for
the understanding of the motives of young Liberians who joined the
rebel factions in the civil war. Framing the war as ‘youth revolution’,
as many young combatants prefer to do, makes it possible to talk about
civil war participation as the most brutal kind of armoury among the
arsenal of the ‘weapons of the weak’ (Scott 1985), and of the civil war
itself as a technique of turning power relations upside down. However
it appears relevant to see ‘youth revolution’ not as a collective measure,
but ultimately as an individual endeavour. Illicit violence is the medium
of turning power relations upside down as in the tradition of Musa Wo,
Boja Manjbe and other trickster heroes. Violence is a maelstrom,
sucking down youth and turning them into pernicious warriors. But, as
the warrior is symbolically masked, once he leaves this path he has the
opportunity to leave his violent past behind. Writing about the
thoroughly militarised society in Israel, Eyal Ben-Ari points out:
In warrior societies around the world, rites of passage usually involve
the dramatic enactment of trials on public stage. These trials give
youngsters an opportunity to display (before their community) their
courage when faced with pain and mortifications. In the army, soldiers must display qualities of fortitude, tenacity and endurance
through practices publicly enacted before their superiors, equals and
(later) underlings. (Ben-Ari & Dardashti forth.:4)
The ultimate test of manhood is combat:
In military organizations around the world combat is seen as the core
of masculinity. The prime trial of men—the chief ordeal for achieving manhood—is that of mastering the harsh and stressful conditions
of battle. (Ben-Ari & Dardashti forth.: 6)
In Juliet Peteet’s work (2002), dealing with young Palestinian males of
the intifada, the rite of passage is also central. Stone throwing and
other forms of active resistance are seen as entry points in the process
of becoming a man. The fulfilment is in imprisonment and its
endurance. If we compare these two examples with the situation of
Liberian youth, we find a combination of the two. First there is the
violent initiation into resistance. This ordeal is followed by an equally
violent phase, initiating youth into the battle-zone way of life. Thus
both situations form a militarised ideal of masculinity which
eventually transforms young boys into men (mainly in their own eyes).
The use of violence in both situations appears therefore as integrated
into the process. Ideally, and certainly valid in both cases as presented
above, the violent masculinity of military initiation offers an individual
identity within hegemonic masculinity. A historical case from Sierra
Leone highlights this:
Like other Kuranko men of his generation, Mohammed regarded military service as a kind of initiatory ordeal, a way to manhood directly
comparable to the traditional rites of initiation which were already in
wane. As he put it, “The army gave discipline, made you a man, made
you real force. In those days a soldier was like a white man in the villages; he commanded great respect”. (Jackson 1989:108)
Participation in the Liberian Civil War commanded respect during
the war process itself but few excombatants were able to exchange
their violent rite of passages into tickets to post-war hegemonic
masculinity, being often relegated to the back alleys of society. At that
point, many dreamt of a return to war and the somewhat more
horizontal power structures which existed, where their combatant
identity secured them a position on the boulevards.
Horizontal power structures
In sharp contrast to the hierarchical image of military organisation, is
the often-neglected feature of the rebel armies as flat structures. The
possibility to become one of the boys was indeed an opportunity for
many young people with pasts in the margin. Many ex-NPFL soldiers
remember with affection some of the incidents of equality with their
ex-leader Charles Taylor. For example, when he joined them around
the camp fire one day to share a joint, or when he threw away his flak
jacket, uttering “to hell with it” and ran with the rank and file soldiers
to save his life during a dudu-boy (jet bomber) attack. But also at the
time that he showed human qualities, not expected by a great warrior,
and cried during an NPFL attack on Kakata because of all the
civilians that would die. The one of the boys ideal was of course
exploited to a large extent and used to maintain loyalty. It is generally
agreed among combatants that Prince Johnson, the leader of the
INPFL, was the one that was closest to his men, something that is
maintained in the manifesto published by Johnson himself.
Introducing Prince Johnson we find the following, highly
romanticised, observations:
While rocket prepared grenades (R.P.G.s) missiles,20 and other automatic weapons were being fired he lead his men always in the forefront fighting, feeding the hungry, medicating the sick and wounded,
and sharing clothes and money to all those who he came in contact
with. (Johnson 1991:9)
The acronym RPG is wrongly translated. Originally in Russian it could be translated to English as hand
managed anti-tank grenade.
By nature, General Johnson is an introvert. One may only see a different Prince Johnson on the battlefield. He is the soldier’s man. The
type of leader who is always with his men, never feeling too proud to
identify with them. He eats their “G.I. boogie” along with them,
while talking and sharing their beers. Notwithstanding, they all refer
to him as “Papa, C.O., or Fieldmarshall”, not one day losing their
respect for him. (Johnson 1991:11)
If Taylor displayed more of the Sunjata qualities, Prince Johnson was
much more the trickster hero type. His men would often account for
his extreme and at randomly directed violence, and also for his
trickster character, as many battles INPFL fought with AFL and
NPFL were won due to his ability to simply outsmart these groups’
superior armoury. In fact, some of the stories told about him involve
him in shape shifting in the sense of wearing a uniform of other
groups, thus tricking them into various traps.
One expression of the horizontal ideal was that everyone was
starting from zero in military rank and was subsequently promoted. It
was often bravery and violent acts that would be rewarded by an
increase in rank. An upsurge in violent acts was an outcome of this. As
pointed out for instance by UNOMIL’s Chief Operations Officer,
Colonel Winkler:
It’s a children’s war. Kids get promoted in rank for committing an
atrocity; they can cut off someone’s head without thinking.
(Fleischman & Whitman 1994:32)
In my effort to collect visual images (pictures and videos), I
encountered a batch of pictures that stood out from other ordinary
styles of representing war. It was a few images of various rebel groups
who posed as a regular football team, with the significant modification
that the customary ball had been replaced by a severed head. I was
reassured that the images were from neighbouring Sierra Leone. True
or not, I believe that the images symbolise the egalitarianism (the
football team) and the brutal violence (the head) that lies at the very
root of this particular trait of the egalitarian military system.
The rebel and the mask
Many times it’s like a game. A game of learning how to deal with it.
There is a certain problem and you have to give a solution. You—I
think—cut yourself off from all sorts of thought about what you’re
doing, and how and what’s happening here. It’s a game like a crossword
puzzle, of technique, of how you deal with a problem. (Israeli soldier in
Ben-Ari 1989:378)
In my interviews with those who were in the thick of battle, they
remarked again and again how much they felt like they were in a
movie, and had to remind themselves that this horror, the blood, the
deaths, was real. (Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: a story of modern war, cited by Fuchs 2002)
In his attempt to come to grips with Israeli soldiers’ action on the
battlefield, Eyal Ben-Ari says “they become other to themselves—real
but not really real”.21 Israeli soldiers comprehend gearing themselves
in uniform the first day of duty “as the donning of disguises” or “as the
Lecture at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University, October 4, 2002
bearing of masks” (Ben-Ari 1989:378). The sense of masking evokes an
alternative behaviour, something that is different to civilian life and in
a sense also non-normative. It creates space or “a legitimate license to
behave in ways that they would not normally…..associate with
themselves” (ibid. 379). One can suggest that they enter a mode of
pseudo-reality where reality appears as ‘a game’, or ‘as a movie’ as the
citations above suggests. My informants often made similar references
to the feeling of being not ‘real’ and indeed many descriptions of a
specific battle convey the same sense of pseudo-reality. After
describing a particular fierce battle, one informant concluded—in a
tone of sincere affection, “being in the battlefield is so sweet. Nothing
is as thrilling as fighting when it is going fine”. Just as Ben-Ari (1989;
1998) has proposed, I too believe that the hyper-reality of experiencing
‘flow’ during ‘deep play’ (Geertz 1973a) as developed by
Csikszentmihalyi ([1973] 2000) is very important in any effort to
understand this type of situation. Flow in combination with fear and
direct danger, shuts off streams of consciousness, making it possible to
focus on only a few tasks. In this process, the enemy is dehumanised as
the very goal of the mission is to take them out of action. In this
manner, it is quite conceivable that assaults of extreme violence are
taking place. As a ‘moral boost’,22 a variety of drugs, taken prior to a
battle, further focuses the soldier and increases the experience of flow,
masking every experience of normality.
During the first years of the Liberian Civil War, rebel fighters
wearing wigs, wedding gowns and other female paraphernalia caught
international media attention as something truly bizarre (Daniels
Expression used by the Sierra Leonean Army (SLA).
1991; Jameson 1991; Johnson 1990). The cross-dressing phenomenon is
explained by placing it in its proper context in a very interesting article
by Mary Moran (1995; 1997). It forms part of a regional preoccupation
with masking and masquerading (Cannizzo 1983; Nunley 1987;
Ottenberg 1989).23 In Liberia, the utilisation of a mask and other
regalia is a highly visual way of pointing out that you have entered a
morally different role. Certainly the use of magic power functions in a
similar way. When you enter the battlefield and commit atrocities
behind a mask and under the influence of magic power, then it is the
spirits who are responsible for your actions, and not you personally.
Elizabeth Tonkin has written about the power of the mask.
According to her, “the mask is the exponent of power manifested in all
its action” and “power is believed to be generated through the act of
masking, the mask itself, the transformer, will often be revered as the
repository of power” (1979:243, 246). The use of mask and/or magic
protection, follows exactly this logic as objects of concentrated
symbolism, communicating with both the self and the other. The lack
of ordinary personality, not only if masked, but also if one changes
one’s ordinary behaviour, frightens the other and in the mask-on
mode, the self can act with alternate powers, i.e. a spirit etc. However,
once the mask is off, or the magic charms are removed, or the
behavioural patterns restored, the powers in both the eyes of the self
and the other is gone. The video sequence of the torture of President
Doe is instructive, because as soon as his captors have removed his
magical charms, it is understood that his super-powers have left him.
With a concept of the morally neutral hero, the mask-on/mask-off
Masking and cross-dressing is a universal trait of rebel heroes (Austen 1986:94).
concept becomes crucial. One and same person can be, and behave,
both morally correct and be immoral. This makes it possible to leave
the warrior identity behind without personal guilt, indeed making it
easier for both the person and the surroundings to re-enter moral
society without too many repercussions. However, a morally neutral
hero is a shape-shifter: “his power to shape-shift thus condemns him to
the very marginality he struggles to escape” (Jackson 1989:112), and
shape-shifting is thus a tactical, rather than a long-term strategic
response to larger society (Certeau 1984). In the process of the Liberian
Civil War, Charles Taylor takes control over, and learns to master, the
various powers at his disposal in the same fashion as Sunjata.
However, most of his soldiers were just taken for a ride by the same
powers, using their individual destructiveness as Musa Wo or Boya
Manjbe. They never managed to curb the power, and thus were
condemned to the very marginality from which they struggled to
Young combatants in the Liberian Civil War took upon themselves
images of a rebel-hero character. Just as Sunjata gained some of his
legitimacy as a warrior, so too did young Liberians. Joining the rebel
forces they found a path similar to other migrant patterns. Turning the
moral upside-down, linking to myths of extreme egotistical
individualism can be effective in the short-turn, but eventually one
will have to repent and turn morally virtuous again. Such was the case
of my good friend Alex, a die-hard fighter during the civil war in the
INPFL, and later the NPFL. In the war, his distinguishing-mark had
been to cut the ears of his enemies. This is in stark contrast to his
current life, where he spends most of his time in church, even acting as
accountant for a local Pentecostal parish. Upon asking him about this
apparent paradox, he shrugs his shoulders and points out that there are
times when you have to do bad, and times you have to do good—A
typical response from a morally neutral war hero.
In downtown Monrovia a taxi is pulling over picking up a male passenger. As we are squeezing together (or ‘dressing’ as Liberians would
say) in the back to make place for the newcomer, a woman on the
front seat turns to him and bluntly states that he does not respect her.
Nothing indicates any relationship between the two. The man—identified by another passenger as a police officer (most possibly indicating
that he is a former fighter)—starts to brag about how brave he was
during the war. The woman retorts by stating that men were the real
cowards during the civil war: “we were out there when you men were
hiding under your beds”. “Some men don’t even dare to pull the trigger; I have seen it myself” she continues and finally ends by saying
(boldly) “please—don’t call me a civilian”. The man continues to
brag but the woman pretends not to listen any more. The man, now
with an uncertainty in his voice, states that “there were only female
fighters in Nimba”. She looks at him and signals to the driver that she
is getting off, without another word to the man as she exits the cab.
This chapter deals with young women’s (or girls’) lived experiences of
the Liberian Civil War.1 I would argue that if the actions of young
As the war lasted for seven years, girls grew up and became young women. Consequently it has not been
possible to be consistent in separating a category of girls from one consisting of young women. As such
girls and young women in the text below are interchangeable with each other.
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women in war were to be categorised as ‘victim dynamics’—we may in
essence not only rule out women, children, refugees and civilians as
victims, but also most of the fighters in the Liberian Civil War. Therefore
there is an evident need to re-operationalise the inimical opposition of
victim/perpetrator, civilian/soldier (Keen 1996; 1999) and rely on more
complex explanations of war realities (Macek 2001), as well as establish
alternative configurations of gender (Butler 1990:142ff) in war zones.2
Most of the material in this chapter stems from the second part of
my fieldwork, in Ganta.3 To study a field such as women’s war
experiences as a male, and above all a Qwi plu (denoting white, or
rather civilised, in Mano, the dominant vernacular in the Ganta area),
was a delicate matter. Liberian women rarely spoke about these issues
to outsiders. Stereotypes of female victimisation tend to be cemented
when (even female) social scientists or other researchers make
interviews with refugees or communities going through a war
experience. What made this part of the study possible was the presence
of my wife—a woman from neighbouring Sierra Leone, who has been
through similar scenarios as my informants and who was not much
older than my target group. Even so, a certain amount of distrust is
noticeable in the text of these interviews. This stemmed mainly from
the uncertainty factor of the tape recorder. Active roles in looting,
fighting etc., which were openly discussed in the informal setting,
were often left out or downplayed when recording was in progress.
Consequently, my wife had often been informed of matters during
It is noted that gender categories are be no means exclusive and that “cultures do not have a single
model of gender or a gender system, but rather a multiplicity of discourses on gender which can vary both
contextually and biographically” (Moore 1994a:142).
For a discussion in young women in Monrovia see (Utas 1999).
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informal discussions rather than during taped interviews.4
A majority of my informants were aged between 10 and 18 at the
onset of the civil war. They had not been under parental guidance during
most of the conflict, for reasons that are different in each case. Many lived
in loosely structured youth collectives on which adults only had a
peripheral impact. In Monrovia for instance, most of my informants
lived footloose lives, and were out of touch with the larger society. To a
lesser extent, this was also the case for my informants in Ganta who
generally were more incorporated into society through interaction with
neighbours, work places, churches etc. (see chapter 6). To enhance the
accessibility, I have chosen to base this chapter on the accounts of three
key narrators: Bintu, Hawa and Masa.5 I value these three voices as I
believe they are representative of young women’s war-stories/scenarios in
Liberia as a whole. These voices are used here both as accounts of what
took place during the war, and as sources for a narrative analysis. To
make the description ‘thicker’, I have added the voices of other young
women,6 of men relating to this subject, as well as personal observations.
Though a description of young women’s lives in the Liberian war zone
my contribution aims, on a more theoretical level, to take issue with
prevailing views on agency and gender stereotypes in war.7
As noted by Henrietta Moore (1994a:141), individuals take up different positions within different dis-
courses, resulting in subject positions that will contradict or be in direct conflict with other.
The names of the young women have been changed to protect the identity of the informants. The inter-
views were made in English. However as Liberian English is rather difficult in syntax the quotations have
been adapted to a slightly more standard form of English.
In particular in the section on female combatants I have added material from an additional interview
with a female ex-combatant.
People fall in love even during times of war. Due to the focus on agency and young women’s tactics in
the civil war issues of love and passion have been largely put aside in this text. Indeed, even if most
young women have downplayed such emotions, ‘soft’ relations still existed.
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Women became objective tragedy in wars from which they were
excluded. (Virilio 1989:22)
In her book Women and War, Jean Bethke Elshtain argues that people
in the western world “are heirs of a tradition that assumes an affinity
between women and peace” and “between men and war” (Elshtain
1987:4; see also Aretxaga 1997; Rolston 1989). The prototype is that
“men fight as avatars of a nation’s sanctioned violence” and that
“women work and weep and sometimes protest” within a given
framework (Elshtain 1987:3). In opposition to these simplified images,
Elshtain furnishes women with agency in war: “Women have
structured conflicts and collaborations, have crystallized and imploded
what successive epochs imagine when the subject at hand is collective
violence” (ibid. x). Another, more recent book on women activities in
war edited by Turshen & Twagiramariya (1998) takes a similar stand.
In the introduction, Meredeth Turshen argues that “the enduring
wartime picture of ‘man does, woman is’ has depended on the
invisibility of women’s participation in the war effort, their
unacknowledged, behind-the-lines contributions to the prosecution of
war, and their hidden complicity in the construction of fighting forces
(…) It is no longer possible to maintain the innocence of all women”
(Turshen 1998:1). She further states that “women are also combatants;
women resist and fight back; they take sides, spy, and fight among
themselves; and even when they don’t see active service, they often
support war efforts in multiple ways, willingly or unwillingly” (ibid).
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In fact Turshen’s argument for the agency of women in war exposes a
rift in feministic studies. Some chapters in the book take a
‘traditionalist’ stand, arguing that women are stuck within structural
confines. Other contributors contend that women have agency in every
situation and use deliberate strategies in the utilisation of it.8 According
to a thorough literature study done by Judith DiIorio (1992) this rift is
very much apparent in literature on women in war in general.9 I here
argue that neither of these divergent theoretical standpoints has to be
condemned as false. Individuals might simultaneously be seen as social
agents, and victims in the structural sense. As I noted in the
introduction (chapter 1) women are often believed to live on the
fringes of war zones, in camps for internally displaced or as refugees in
neighbouring countries (Ruiz 1992; Malkki 1995:10ff; 1996), but as
Turshen points out, women and children are only slightly overrepresented in refugee populations. Observing mainly women and
children in a refugee camp, this is only to be expected as, 72 percent of
the African population are either female or under 15 years of age
This text elucidates young women’s activities in the war zone and
more particularly the ways in which they oscillate between the
positions of victim and perpetrator, of fighter and civilian. The agency
of any human being is set within certain societal confines—it is not
unique to womanhood. Rather, the amount of individual agency or the
However most of the contributions maintain the victim status of women in war (as noted in a review
by Omaar & Sevenzo 1999).
In a study considering historic accounts of women roles in Africa, Margaret Hay (1988) argues that the
amount of agency authors furnish African women with rests heavily upon contemporary trends in the academic world.
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amount of victimcy10 changes from situation to situation, and from one
social relation to another—whether a person is a man or woman. In
war, men and women are situated on the same sliding scale between
abundant agency and victimcy. Even most so-called perpetrators are
severely limited in their agency: to survive, civilians are often forced to
participate in war trade, while fighters are forced by their
commanders to participate in atrocities. Likewise, commanders are
forced to command so as to keep their men in place and the enemy
terrified. Alcinda Honwana (1999b; 2000) has proposed a distinction
between ‘strategic agency’ and ‘tactical agency’ following de Certeau’s
(1984) distinction between strategies and tactics. De Certeau ‘sees
strategies as having possible long term consequences or benefits, and
tactics as means devised to cope with concrete circumstances, even
though those means are likely to have deleterious long-term
consequences’ (Honwana 1999b:9). If we follow this distinction, most
actors in the Liberian Civil War would be limited to ‘tactical agency’.
Indeed ‘tactical agency’ can be ascribed to rape victims on the one
extreme and female combatants on the other. As the case studies below
will demonstrate, the very same person can be both rape victim and
Victimcy being the most limited form of agency, that of depicting oneself as a victim, and thus reap-
ing the benefits that other people’s mercy might give. In the presence of foreign humanitarian aid victimcy can at times be a very fruitful mode.
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G I R L S I N T H E WA R Z O N E 1 1
All that time when the Freedom Fighters (NPFL) were here they
could just grab you and force you: saying you are my woman now.
(Young woman in Ganta, Nimba County)
I lived with the soldiers and they did not harm me. (Young woman in
Greenville, Sinoe County)
At that time girls were floating—every fighter was entitled to four or
five. (Young ex-combatant in Ganta who fought for INPFL and
The soldiers caught us and put us in the attic (the granary on the
farm) and lit fire under us. They also raped us. Even my smaller sister was raped by seven fighters and she later died. She was born in
1984. (Young woman in rural Sinoe County)
It is difficult to imagine how daily life is experienced in a war zone.
Personally I was caught in the crossfire in Monrovia for a only few
days in the midst of the conflict in 1996, and I did witness some of the
horrors of war. Even with such experience though, it is hard to
imagine what it would be like to remain in a war zone for a longer
time without being able to pull out.
The notion of a ‘war zone’ does not only connote the actual area of
Issues of gender relations and ethnographic descriptions of life realms of women and young girls in pre-
war Liberia have been discussed elsewhere see, Bledsoe (1976; 1980a; 1980b; 1980c), Fuest (1996),
Moran (1988a; 1988b; 1990; 2000a; 2000b).
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combat, but may also include a much larger area into which fighters,
war traders and others, extend their activities (just as the Liberian war
zone includes not only Liberia itself but also the border zones of
Guinea, Ivory Coast and large parts of Sierra Leone where Liberian
fighters have been active). The struggles of daily life in the war zone
were an immense pressure for most young women. The years of
conflict were a constant battle for protection—under the wings of the
right commando. Young women in the war zone had no choice but to
cling to a fighter with enough power to protect them. Without such
protection, young women ran the very real risk of being forced to
provide sexual services, or they underwent rape, forced labour and
abduction.12 Even if protectors were ‘big men’—commanders or other
key actors—in the rebel armies, they were quite often just young boys.
When your protector was out on a mission, it would be best for you to
go into hiding. Further, in case the young woman’s protector was
either killed, moved to another location, or simply became unbearable,
it was advisable beforehand to find another protector, in order to avoid
the risk of going through a rather turbulent period during the timegap between men. To try to team up with a new man before leaving
the previous one, however, was a hazardous game that, if detected by
the jealous boyfriend, might even endanger the girl’s life.
Having a relationship with at least one fighter was crucial for the
survival not only of the woman herself, but of her entire family.
Looted goods for example would be delivered by boyfriends returning
Rape and sexual abuse in war is a much-discussed topic. On Liberia see e.g. Lucas (1997), elsewhere
and theoretic approaches see e.g. Stiglmayer (1994), Card (1996), Littlewood (1997), Omar & de Waal
(1995). As well as sections in numerous monographic accounts on war and violence.
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from the war front and would help to support the family network.
Furthermore, it was important for the family to have a ‘big man’ in the
rebel movement around so that their estate and property would not be
looted and ravaged. It was therefore good to have at least one son join
the military, or at least to be related to people with important posts in
a particular rebel movement. It was even better if one of the daughters
was having a relationship with a local commando. My ex-fighter
informants described to me how they entered and raided villages in
the countryside during the war. Sometimes they caught young girls
and women whom they brought along as girlfriends. Sometimes
villagers also left young girls, or sent them back from their hiding
places in the bush, so that they could befriend the fighters and establish
a relationship in the hope of protecting their property this way. This
daring move could even make it possible for the relatives of the girl to
return to the village. Some girls were dumped as fighters left, but a
good proportion of them were taken to the front, or back to base.
Later, these girls might leave or be abandoned in another location.
Clearly visible all over the war zone was an abundance of displaced
young girls with a total lack of social ties in their new setting. In
Nimba County for example, there are many young Sierra Leonean
women living. As the NPFL fought in Sierra Leone, in the same
pattern, many of the fighters brought girls back from the Sierra Leone
front line to Liberia. One of my ex-fighter informants related how one
fighter brought a new girl from the Sierra Leone front line every time
he went home. Numerous similar accounts reported that fighters
brought girls back with them to use them as unpaid labour on their
farms—my informant used the term ‘slave’.
The war has indeed uprooted many people. Many young women
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left voluntarily, or were forced to leave their families, their towns and
villages—their whole social context. This has made it possible to behave
in ways that would not normally be tolerated. To survive, or out of selfinterest, many young women in fact teamed up with fighters in looting
actions. Sometimes this led to direct participation in the war; in other
circumstances they just kept in the background. To enlist in the fighting
forces was yet another alternative for young girls to protect themselves
and their families, and to gain relative independence and power.
Statistics from the demobilisation in 1997 point towards only moderate
participation by women in the war. Part of the reason for this could be
that only a few of the women who fought in the war were officially
enlisted and therefore quite often did not have their own weapon. Even
if all factions had their share of women fighters, young women were
seldom trained as soldiers.13 As in the case of Bintu, they often joined up
with their boyfriends to fight. In addition, looting seems to have been a
main incentive for participation. Breaking with accepted social norms
has meant that many young women in the post-war era have not
returned home but stayed in whatever setting they found themselves at
the end of the conflict. In the process of war, many young women
oscillated between a direct presence in war zones, residing in displaced
camps in Liberia, and taking refuge in neighbouring countries (see Utas
1997). Camps for the displaced, however, often failed to provide even the
most basic needs. As a consequence, many young women preferred to
return to life in the war zone, even if such life was more hazardous.
The issue of women fighters has been explored in several historic accounts (see e.g. Jones 1997;
Goldman 1998; Newark & McBride 1989). Ethnographic accounts of the ‘Ferocious Few’ (Elshtain
1987:163-180) are regrettably few (see e.g. Schalk 1992; 1994).
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They would just call you—say, ‘come’. When you came they would
say, “I will detain your time today”. That night those girls slept with
them. The next morning the girls became the ‘wives’ of the fighters
and then they carried the girls away. (Masa)
Any commando who was ready to see a woman for free would come
and rape me—with my sabou (shaved head – as done to prisoners). I
did not have clothes on. They did not even want to know that I was a
human being—they did not want to know. (Bintu)
“Anybody found raping or looting will face a firing squad.” Charles
Like one of my friends, they called him ‘Disregard’, because he killed
plenty people. He caught a girl in Ganta parking (car park where
shared taxis heading for Ganta leave) when we captured the town of
Gbarnga. He caught a girl and asked her to lie down on a table. As
she was lying there he took a mortar pester and cut it into half and
nailed her with it. (Young ex-fighter in Ganta)
Women who failed to team up with any of the local ‘big men’ became
the worst victims of the war. One of the most dangerous moments for
any young woman was the point at which rebels entered an area for
the first time and the young women did not have any first hand
experience of how to deal with these men (boys). This is the situation
that Masa describes in the first quotation above. The fighters would
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arrive and just pick their choice among the village girls. This activity
was a way of demonstrating their power.
Hawa was fifteen years old when the war reached her region in
southern Liberia. After escaping from a rebel attack on her hometown
in Grand Gedeh, Hawa and her brother fled north hiding in the bush,
living on what they could find in the forest or steal from farms.
Eventually the NPFL caught Hawa in the vicinity of Buchanan and
she was put into detention not knowing what would happen to her.
She spent two months in jail; a stay lined with physical abuse, rape,
mental torture and humiliation, until one of the rebel soldiers came to
her aid:
It did not take long time before I started seeing a rebel boy. He just
came my way. He said that he wanted me. I said I did not want him,
but then I started hearing from other people that he was the commander of the town. That’s why I started going with the boy. When I
started seeing him I found out that he had a lot of other women. Now
when I moved in with the boy I was still facing problems. It was no
longer from the rebels but from the other women in the house. The
man was having five women and I made it six. I was the youngest of
them all.
Even when not in prison, Hawa still faced a lot of problems—mainly
originating from the other women in the household. As the youngest,
and as an ‘ethnic outcast’—a Krahn, she had to carry out most chores
in the household. When the boy later died on a patrolling mission, she
was categorised as belonging to the enemy, and was thus blamed for
his death.
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The man was not there when we had the last palaver. He had gone on
patrol in the Firestone area. That’s where the enemy captured and
killed him. When the news hit us saying, “oh—they kill your husband” then all the other women in the house turned against me. They
started making palaver with me. They said, “but how come this new
girl that our husband brought didn’t stay long before they captured
and killed our husband—that means that the girl killed our husband”. So they set for me. The women called the soldiers that were
close to the house to show them the place where I was. I was trying to
hide myself. They caught me and arrested me. Once again they carried me back to the soldier barracks. I did not really want to hide
myself in the first place but one woman, who did not like my business
in the house, was saying she would call the soldiers so they could come
and kill me. That’s why I hid. So, anyway, the soldier people arrested
me and put me back in jail. They said it was because I was a Krahn
so I must have been the one who sold out the man.
This time jail was even worse. They used to do bad, bad things to me.
They would come in a group. They turned me around, put me under
the hot sun and then they would start beating me for the whole day.
They would also tie me behind the car and drag me around. There
were two jails. They kept me in the dark one. That was the place they
used to have me. When they were done eating they threw the balance
food (the leftovers) for me. When they pee-pee (urinated), they poured
the pee-pee water on me. During that time I was sixteen years old.
Yet again another young fighter picked her up and brought her with
him to Gbarnga and then Ganta. In Ganta she moved between young
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fighters and even tried to manage life on her own by helping people in
their daily housework. Eventually she teamed up with a rebel soldier
again. When the boy decided to leave one of his other girlfriends, that
girl started to run bisa (to gossip) to the high commandos that she was
of Krahn origin. So she was taken to the neighbouring town Saglepie
and imprisoned and once again she was severely abused.
The commandos came for me when my boyfriend was away and they
carried me to Saglepie. I spent one month and two weeks there under
punishment. They started beating me every morning. They stripped
me naked and left me in the sun. They poured (chili)pepper water all
over me and let me lie in the sun. I was ‘duck fowled’ (elbows tied
together on the back—generally called ‘tabave’) lying there in the
baking sun, my eyes felt like bursting. Sometimes they pointed a gun
at me or they would put a knife to my throat pretending to cut it.
That’s what they were doing to me—kicking me to the left and to the
right. Every night different commandos used to come for me. They
would carry me to their base and then they would have sex with me.
They used to force me, and I knew if I did not agree doing it they
would kill me. No, I did not agree, but they used to force me. I did not
want to go myself so the people would tie me on the car and then they
would drag me there. They tied my hands and were forcing me to
have sex with them. I got pregnant from that. When I got pregnant
every one of them disowned the belly (implying that no one took the
responsibility for the child). After they disowned the belly God fixed
the belly to move (she miscarried).
The sad story of Hawa parallels the account of Bintu. Both girls faced
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extraordinary problems because they moved out of their own confines
and crossed into ‘enemy country’. Hawa as a Krahn and Bintu as
Mandingo, were caught in ‘Taylor Land’, NPFL territory. In the
NPFL’s political rhetoric, the Krahn and Mandingo peoples were
often depicted as main violators of the Liberian people. In this climate,
Bintu left her safe haven in Monrovia and took a risky drive through
the heart of NPFL territory to aid her mother who at the time had
sought refuge in Guinea.
(M)y mother wrote me that she was suffering a lot as a refugee in
Guinea. I had a (mini)bus and I was making business with it in
Monrovia.14 But I decided to carry this bus to my mother. To get the
bus to Guinea I had to pass through Gbarnga (during that time
Gbarnga was HQ for NPFL). It was during the first cease-fire in
1992. February 11 I left from Monrovia to Gbarnga. When I reached
Gbarnga I was arrested by Charles Taylor’s commandos and raped.
They beat me and scraped my hair to sabou (skinhead) with a snail
shell and then they put me in jail. The man that looted my car was
called Johnson.15 They raped me. I suffered a lot. For eight months I
was in jail. They beat me, and raped me—more than more—and I
lost everything I had.
During the war years there was nothing strange in seeing underage persons driving. Looted cars often
ended up in the hands of young fighters—at times also in the hands of their girlfriends. When driving
the car through NPFL territory Bintu most probably caught attention as someone having military connections on the enemy side.
All names in the text are fictitious.
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In jail, Bintu denied that she was Mandingo, even under torture and
this denial most probably saved her life. In prison she was held with six
other girls. All of them were executed on suspicion of collaborating
with enemy groups.
We were seven and those other girls confessed; they said they were
reconnaissance girls and then they killed them right on the spot. They
said ULIMO had sent them to come and observe and go tell them how
the NPFL fought—how they did things and what so ever—that’s
why they were killed.
Eventually, the girlfriend of an important NPFL commander, today a
minister of the NPP government, felt sympathy for her plight. In
addition to this, a civilian man with family connections to another
important NPFL commander (Tom King), took an interest in her and
advocated her release.
At that time they were not raping me again because I was in the hand of
one person now, Tom King’s brother. So they were not raping me again.
Bintu was released from prison after eight months of ordeal. At that
time she was pregnant. The baby’s father was one of the numerous
unknown soldiers that had passed through her prison cell. Even after
her release, she was not free to leave Gbarnga town and had to go into
hiding when Tom King was out of town.
Joint forces of the NPFL and RUF (Revolutionary United Front of
Sierra Leone) abducted Masa, the third of my key narrators, from her
hometown in south-eastern Sierra Leone during an attack. One of the
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NPFL commanders then brought her back with him to Lofa County
in northern Liberia.
We were hiding in the bush when the rebels were running behind us.
So one man captured me and held me by force. He brought me to
Liberia here. There we stayed in Lofa. The man that held me in the
bush was treating me bad. Every morning he used to beat us. When
the people asked him why he was beating the children, the man said,
because he was the one who brought us. He was the one that saved our
lives so if he wanted to beat us he had the right to do so.
The man forced Masa, and two other girls that he also brought from
Sierra Leone, to work for him on his farm. Masa was not used to
labour on the farm and had a hard time adjusting to her new life.
We were stuck over there. The people told us that we had to make a
farm. So I told him that I was not able to make a farm, that I did not
do that at home in Sierra Leone. But the man told us that we were
forced to make the farm. If we would refuse he would beat us. We
were making that farm for a long period of time so I really got tired
from it. My body was spoiling now. ‘Kro-kro’ (rashes that develop
into small black scars—word of Sierra Leonean origin) was coming
on my body. So I told him: “this farm business I’m not able to do it”.
So then the man said that if I did not make the farm he would beat
me. In fact, the reason why he was beating us every morning, he said,
was because we were not able to make the farm. He used to beat us
bad so in the end I complained to his C.O. (Commanding Officer).
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In this case Masa was successful in using the existing military
structure. The Commanding Officer in the area ordered the man to
release her from working on his farm and she managed to move to stay
with another family. Eventually, she initiated a relationship with one
of the boys in the family who was also a soldier. During a relatively
peaceful time in 1992, they moved down to Nimba County were she
was left once again on a sugarcane farm.
No, the boy was not fighting now. But I was in that bush—he was in
town and I was in the bush suffering. When I was not busy planting
sugarcane I was cutting it, or I would cook it. I was always busy and
I would not even wear slippers (seen as the ultimate sign of poverty).
His father didn’t like me and neither did the other people in the surroundings. So the last time when he told me to go back in the bush
again I simply said no “since me and you come 92 I make my cane, I
take the money and give it to you. When you go you can spoil it (waste
it on liquor and girls in the town)”. I could be telling him that we
must look for money because we had a child. But when I got money
he just went and spoilt it.
Towards the end of 1998, she subsequently ran away from her man
and took refuge with a Sierra Leonean family in Ganta. Apart from
lacking money to survive, she was suffering most of all from the fact
that she was not able to bring the child with her when she had run
away from the farm.16
The yearning for her child was too strong. When I returned to Ganta in early 2000 her Sierra Leonean
hosts told me that she had left to visit her child several months earlier and had not yet returned.
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These three stories—accounts of severe suffering, are instructive in
several ways. Prison experiences, torture and crude coercion were all
part and parcel of the war experience. But that is only one level of these
accounts. As we will see, it is also possible to discover accounts of
personal agendas and agency within the same narratives. In them,
there is a clear ambiguity between victimhood and agency.
You mean that you were seeing him only because he was a commando?
Yes. That was the only way I could be safe. (Hawa)
But for some women, the military represent security……….. women
fled villages to seek security next to armed military camps. (Turshen,
Bintu was released from jail after the intervention of several people.
For her protection she had teamed up with a high rank officer. Her
boyfriend was not a fighter himself, but she benefited from the
protection that his cousin who was a commando, provided her with.
The eyes were on me (the NPFL administration kept her under surveillance). I had to remain in Bong County. I was pregnant when
they freed me. The chief of the protocol came and that guy Camara
also. They talked for me and I was free now. But at that time I was
already pregnant. This boy (the boy that helped her out of jail and
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took care of her) was not a soldier. Because of that he could only go
around with me if his cousin was in town. The cousin sometimes
came from the bush. His name was Tom King and he was a guerrilla fighter. When Tom King came he would be free to take me around
in town. The three of us would get in the soldier car. We would then
drive around a little bit and it made me feel a little better. And then
when Tom King left I would have to hide myself again. If not, other
commandos would be hunting for me and force me to have sex even
though they could see that I was pregnant. They would have fucked
me on top of that belly again—just because they did not see any other
free woman. So that was how it was. I did not even dare to go outside
if Tom King was not in Gbarnga.
Bintu was out of prison now. However, she still had to be very careful.
In the lawlessness of ‘Taylor land’ she certainly had to play smart—
Tom King was her shield, protecting her from all evil perpetrators. In
this case, the enemy was dwelling within her confines. This was made
clear to her when King left her before the birth of her child:
So when I gave birth to this baby—it was a boy child—I asked Tom
King if he could assist me before I could give birth to this baby. Tom
King was going to Lofa. They sent him to Lofa again to go and fight,
and he never had cash to give to me. So he gave me a solar system to
sell to get cash if I gave birth when he was gone. But one of the generals, named Junior Rambo, came and harassed me. He took the solar
system from me. So when I gave birth the boy that claimed the belly
(her boyfriend) never had any money.
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After King left, other officers started to harass Bintu. Unfortunately,
her civilian boyfriend lacked the power to protect her (when Bintu
says that he ‘claimed the belly’ it means that he had agreed upon being
the social father of the child). As King was a fighter, she was fully
aware of the fragile situation. She could not afford to put all her eggs
in the one basket. For that reason, she soon started to see another
fighter. When King was out of town she was in dire need of other
protection and support.
Q: But you told me you were having a relationship with yet another
commando when you were with Tom King’s cousin?
A: Yes that was also in Gbarnga and that one too always liked to carry
me at the front. But you know I was picking chance, I never used to
like him too much.
Q: But how did you manage when you were also seeing the civilian.
How were you managing to escape and go and meet the fighter?
A: Because when Tom King was not in town the civilian boy had no
power. When Tom King was out of town the girl that helped me out
of jail (that is the cousin of Bintu’s boyfriend—the civilian) was the
one that covered up for me and gave me the chance to go to the other
one. Sometimes Tom King used to go for two-three months at the
Bintu had understood quite correctly the need to master the game, and
was therefore prepared, when King was killed during a battle in Lofa
County. In a related story, Bintu recounts an incident that occurred
with another girl who likewise tried to master this hazardous situation.
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This story happened once upon a time in one club in Gbarnga. We
went to the club and there was this girl who used to go out with one
commando. Later she left him because she was very jealous—you
hear. This commando used to love around a whole lot so she decided
to leave him. And you know, if you told these commandos that you
didn’t want them—just like when you are fed up with somebody—
that meant serious problem. When you retreated from them and they
saw you with somebody new, might God bless you that your new
boyfriend would have a higher rank than the old one. If your new
boyfriend’s rank was lower than the old one’s then he would definitely go and disturb you. You would be forced to love to (have a relationship/have sex with) him again. So this girl she wanted to act ‘kwii’
(‘civilised’ in Liberian English). She left her old boyfriend for a new
So we all went out that night—Tom King was in town. You know
when Tom King was in town that was the time I could boil. When
we went to the club this girl I am talking about was sitting down
there with her new boyfriend. She was two months pregnant for this
boyfriend and her new boyfriend had given her money to plait her
hair. She had her hair plaited with attachment (synthetic hair). So her
old boyfriend came and met her sitting with the new one. Now this
new boyfriend was boasting too much. So it hurt her old boyfriend too
much. It wasn’t easy; the old boyfriend went and commanded her saying “get your ass out—let’s go”. She said “no I’m not going, you and
me are not loving any longer and in fact I’m pregnant with this man’s
child. So you don’t have any right to command me and carry me
home”. He replied “I will command you and carry you home because
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this man just feels that he is all and all. So for that reason I’m carrying you home”.
A fight broke out in the club—it was not easy that night. They fought
until they had rooted up the whole hair of the girl. Her old boyfriend
grabbed her one way and the new one another. They tore her skirt
open. It was not an easy fight. I myself joined in that night. The boy
that I used to sneak out to meet was fighting on the side of the new
boyfriend and Tom King was taking the other side. I don’t know
where the grudge came from. They tore off my own skirt too. It was
not an easy thing that night. In the end they had to carry us to the Task
Force Office for investigation. I had to explain how I got involved in
other people’s confusion.
Those were some of the experiences that girls would have if they were
having a relationship with a fighter and got tired of their problems.
You could not just get rid of them by saying, “I don’t want you”. They
wouldn’t understand—they would just force you. They could have
more than fifty women, but as long as they saw you and their heart
would cut for you again they would force you. They would only leave
you alone if your new boyfriend had a higher rank than the old one.
Then, maybe, they would respect that person but not you—because
they would never respect a woman.
This narrative pinpoints some of the difficulties experienced by young
women in choosing someone who might offer them security. Not only
did they need a fighter to protect them, but also their choice to select
this man was very limited. The young woman needed to find someone
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of higher rank in order to be able to leave the old ‘boyfriend’ behind
without being harassed, or forced to hand out sexual favours. A
woman who had left a high ranking officer, risked remaining without
a man, because junior fighters knew the dangers of having an affair
with a high rank officer’s ex-girlfriend. Such a woman would thus
become likely prey for occasional sexual endeavours by men of any
rank and file. Masa recounts another incident that had a deadly
One man by the name of Johnson killed his own girlfriend because of
money. The girl had a relationship with Johnson’s ‘big man’ and she
got some money from him. Johnson told the girl that she must give
him the money, but the girl refused. So Johnson grabbed his gun and
killed the girl.
In their accounts, Masa, Bintu and Hawa depict the structural trap of
women during the civil war. To have a boyfriend or another protector
in the right position in the war machine, was of extreme importance.
In Hawa’s case it was her boyfriend’s cousin who protected her. A
civilian protector was of no use at all when the military strongman was
out of town. Thus the ideal arrangement, despite its dangers, was to
have several boyfriends simultaneously. As it was expected that
fighters would eventually be killed, it was appropriate to have some
kind of pre-arrangement with other fighters. The difficulty of rank
among boyfriends has further to be stressed: to get a new boyfriend
with a lower rank than the previous, generally equalled trouble.
Likewise, to leave a high-ranking officer might invite its own trouble,
because junior officers did not often dare to approach such a girl.
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Instead, she might fall prey to occasional sexual endeavours. The story
of Johnson’s girlfriend stands as a reminder of the maliciousness of the
war system. Even when playing this game with great care, and
according to the ‘rules’, the fate of individuals within the system
remained quite unpredictable, where the smallest of movements could
even threaten one’s life.
B OY F R I E N D S — B O N U S
You should make use of what you have (your sexual organ)—because
when you die the bocabo (termites) will eat it. (Young woman in
Q: Did the girls send their boyfriends or husbands to the front to go
and bring goods for them?
A: Yes, they would force them. You know all these soldier boys when
they went most of them would go on looting missions—they did not
usually go and fight war. (Masa)
When the spaces of everyday life turned into battle zones and
compatriot began to fight compatriot, social structures started to
crumble. Many young girls were left to their own devices for extensive
periods of time in often totally unfamiliar and unpredictable
settings—as in the cases of Hawa, Bintu and Masa. Even if these young
people became involuntary tossed into these situations, I would argue
that without the enthusiasm of young men and women to get involved
in war events, the war would never have kicked off in the first place.
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Just as a vast number of young men took up arms, many young women
participated in ways expected of them. Bintu was already flirting with
the war before it brutally intruded into her life as she was already in a
relationship with a high ranking official at the ministry of defence. She
saw this as a path towards independence from her parents who in her
eyes were too ‘traditional’.
Milton Toe was the one that was supporting me. He took the whole
initiative: I mean everything I wanted he was doing it for me. My
parents never liked the idea. You know how Mandingo people are. I
was just living that life because I wanted to live it. Do you understand? It was he and myself who were together until the war came.
A system of sponsoring young girls might be viewed as traditional in
Liberia, where older men often patron young girls in the hope that
they might become future wives. Important men have a wide
assortment of young girls whom they provide for in varying degrees,
in exchange for sexual favours, or social activities in the present or the
future (Bledsoe 1980a; 1980c; Fuest 1996; Utas 1999). Especially after
the war, these boyfriends have become the most important source of
paying school fees for young girls.17
Many young girls teamed up with fighters in the same way as they
would have teamed up with older men—the difference in this case
though was that they teamed up with ‘the homeboys’ whom they
In Monrovian schools, according to an expatriate aid-worker with experience in education, there are
only slight differences between girls in the street and those residing with their families. Both categories
totally depend on boyfriends for paying their school fees.
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would earlier have viewed as possibly attractive but too poor to be
considered of any help. Without second thoughts, most girls jumped
into a tumultuous process with potentially horrific consequences.
They teamed up with a novel, but treacherous form of power. The
new boyfriends were in general not used to money. They felt so
affluent that they could wash their cars in beer—a beverage most
could not even afford to drink prior to the war—and that they could
drive a car until it got out of gasoline and then just dump it for another
one. Likewise the young girlfriends would get hold of commodities
that they had only dreamt of before. Here we move to the topic of
looting. Some young girls deny that they ever looted at all or that they
ever acquired any looted goods. Instead they talk about the actions of
other young women in order not to appear immoral in the post-war
setting. However, large numbers of young women did enter war
relations with fighters for privilege and the reaching out for ‘the bonus
of war’. As Bintu notes:
Some of them really enjoyed being with commandos because they
used to encourage the commandos to go and loot and because of that
some of them have got money up till this day. Some of them looted to
the extreme. They went to Bomi Hills and looted diamonds, gold and
other things. But some of them suffered through the war like me.
Some of them suffered a lot. But then again some of them were lucky
to have a commando who understood. If not, they were beaten everyday. As soon as you finished cooking them food—as soon as their bellies were full they would start beating you. They smoked jamba (marijuana) and then they would flog you—I mean most of us girls were
living a mix-up-box-up life.
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It is clear from Bintu’s case however, that to be with a fighter also had
its disadvantages. Nevertheless young girls teamed up with highranking officers, even if these had more than five other girlfriends to
cater for. In the case of Bintu, she behaved differently with different
men. In the first case she seems to have been rather reluctant to join in
the looting. She stated that the reason for this was that she was feeling
bad because her pre-war sponsor was killed—in fact, her new
boyfriend was amongst those who killed him. However, she explained
how her ‘mates’—his other girlfriends—used to pressure him to take
part in the looting.
I never forced him to loot but those other girls (Bintu’s ‘mates’) they
used to force him to loot. Even when I was with him I used to hear
them arguing when they were going on mission. They would tell him
”you must bring this, oh—you must bring that, oh”. These girls had
not owned such things before and now they wanted to get rich over
night—do you understand? So I used to hear them telling the man to
bring such and such things for them and indeed he used to do so. He
used to ask me why I didn’t tell him to bring things for me, but then
I said that his life was more important. I used to make him feel good
by saying, “if you just bring your life back it is alright”.
That man used to like me too much. For the looting business in
Freeport (the commercial harbour in Monrovia) he always gave us
arms. He would give us uniforms so that we could go and loot, but
during that time I did not like the idea too much because my heart
was spoiled (because of the recent killing of her ex-boyfriend). But the
other girlfriends always joined him in fatigues. They used to return
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with looted videos, freezers, and all those other things. All good, good
things you can think about. They looted the whole Freeport area. But
for me I never used to like the looting too much during my time in
However, after her experiences in Gbarnga she changed her attitude
and joined the looting missions herself. She stated that it made her
both feel fine and that it was necessary for her survival.
Q: But you used to like looting with Charles Taylor’s men?
A: Yes I used to like the looting with Charles Taylor’s men, because
during that time in the Gbarnga area if you didn’t loot you didn’t eat.
She also framed her friends’ activities similarly:
Q: But were your friends forcing their boyfriends to loot?
A: Some of them forced them to loot because they wanted to survive,
do you understand. They would tell them, “ if you go bring this for
me” or “I want this because you see your friends’ women have got it.
They can wear this, I myself I want to be like them now”. If the fighter was fond of the woman and did not want to loose her to another
fighter then he would have to do what his girlfriend wanted him to
do—if you want someon,e you need to satisfy her.
Hawa explained how she worked hard to stay out of the looting
economy—how she took casual jobs for other people. Even so, it was
with money from the war that she managed to start a business. She
began making and selling cookies and also had a small market table
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where she sold miscellaneous merchandise. She admitted that she sold
looted commodities, appropriated by the same boy that gave her
money to start her business.
In Ganta, now, I was struggling on my own. Working for people. The
whole day I would work for them. When I worked for them I would
get food. When they helped me with the food then I ate. After I finished with the job I was doing in Ganta I was working for different
people going from place to place helping them with their water and
such things. I did it for my own survival—that was how I was living
in Ganta. After struggling this way for some time I met up with one
other boy. The boy started helping me.
The boy gave me one hundred dollars (JJ)18 to start my own business.
I started fixing cookies now. And I had a small business. I used to sell
‘wallah’ (having a small market table). I got my goods from the front.
My husband and his friends used to go to the front. When they
returned he could bring market goods for me. When he went to the
front and they captured a place they busted people’s stores. When they
busted the stores they took the goods and put it in their car and
brought it for me. But my business never improved because it was
based on ‘blood money’.
During most of the war Liberia had two currencies. The JJ (nicknamed so since the late President JJ
Roberts face appeared on the note) was the existing currency when the war started and was used throughout the war in the ‘greater Liberia’. The Liberty (showing the national emblem of Liberia including the text
‘The love of Liberty brought us here’ appeared on the note) was issued by the first interim government
and used mainly in Monrovia. In early 2000 new notes have replaced the old ones.
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The fact that Hawa connected her failure in business with her sale of
looted goods—she was dealing in blood money, and that this remained
the reason why her business never prospered—clearly points towards
her moral consciousness, even if it might actually be a post-war
rationalisation. She also stated that she was trying to convince her
boyfriend to change his looting behaviour. Clearly she did not connect
her business failure with the fact that most people lacked both money
and items to barter.
When he brought looted things home I used to tell him: “Oh, that
thing you are doing is no good”. Going around bursting other people’s
stores open, or going around putting people under gunpoint taking
their money from them. But the boy never listened to me. After some
time I decided to move my hands from his market business. When he
sold his looted things he bought liquor for the money and got drunk.
Then they bought beer and started washing their car with the beer.
They said they were rich so they would only use beer for washing the
Even if Hawa condemned the looting, she was still active in the selling
the looted goods. Initially she was putting all the blame on her
boyfriend and his friends, protesting her innocence, but, by saying that
she later took her hands away from the business, clearly shows that she
was aware of her own participation and thus her own guilt. The fact
that young soldier boys were washing their cars in beer, gives a glimpse
of the looting euphoria of those days.
Looting and the commandeering of goods was one of the key
features of the Liberian Civil War. Young boys, as well as girls, were
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active agents in these actions as in most wars. Instead of teaming up
with one fighter who supported his young women with looted goods,
some preferred or were obliged to relate to several men. This would
either be done in the form of direct prostitution—in a direct exchange
of sexual favours, or, in some more subtle form. Sexual favours might
for instance be exchanged for food, house rent, goods or a market
table. When Bintu got out of prison, she was forced to see other men
to meet the needs, demands and requirements of the people she went
to live with. Initially it was because the girl who had helped her out of
prison lost her boyfriend because of her commitment to Bintu. Bintu
as a result acquired a debt to pay back.
Q: So you mean your boyfriend’s cousin used to give you men to go
out with?
A: Yes. Because of my business she lost the contact with her boyfriend
and he was the one that used to sustain her. Her man said she was too
involved in my business. And if I was a ‘reconnaissance’ why then
would she fight so hard to get me out of jail. Anyway, they then started accusing her too. That’s how their relationship came to an end. The
man told her that if she didn’t take her mouth from my business it
would be problem between them. She decided to take the problems in
her relationship rather than leaving me. So she was facing problems
because of me. And now I had the problem that men used to like me
more than her. So that’s why I stared to do ‘crocrogy’ (Liberian
English: immoral activities—prostitution etc.). I did it for us to survive.
Bintu’s friend was now stuck with her reputation as girlfriend of a ‘big
man’. As a result she had problems in finding another man whom she
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could rely on. Bintu became the solution. Although Bintu went out
with other soldiers, it was also something that her boyfriend had to
accept, because he was just another powerless civilian when his cousin
Tom King, was not in town.
I feel like my boyfriend used to know that I was going out with other
men, but he just had to bear it because he never had any money and
it was only Tom King who could help us. When Tom King was gone
for two-three months we did not even have money for toothpaste.
These other ‘small’, ‘small’ boys and even other big men were afraid
of going out with the girl (the one that had taken care of Bintu)
because she had this relationship with a ‘big man’ earlier. So because
of that I was the only person to ‘mago-mago’ (Krio: fighting for something by all means) at least to bring food home.
I never really used to enjoy going out with these fighters. I was doing
these things because I wanted to survive—do you understand? It was
no enjoyment at all. I just wanted to survive, because the crime they
put on me was very bad. Reconnaissance—if they caught you for that
they would kill you. So I was forced to make life ‘sweet’ for myself.
Besides that things were so difficult for the girl who had left her
boyfriend because of me. So I just had to strain. You know strain—to
the full meaning of the word. For me it was not really any problem
because I knew the life I had been living, but for her; she lost her
whole home for my business. So I used to strain myself to satisfy her.
Bintu justifies her actions by saying it was necessary for her own
survival and because she owed the person that saved her life a lot, and
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this was a way to pay back some of the debt. Here we are at one end of
a spectrum, between having several boyfriends and being a prostitute.
During the war, many young girls went through various stages,
especially so in Monrovia. Being the capital and the commercial axis of
the country, as well as the locus for international humanitarian
assistance, more hard cash was available in Monrovia and it had
become a magnet for girls ‘selling’ sexual favours. The least paid form
of prostitution barely offered the daily bread for the young girls
involved—however fortunate they might be at times (see chapter 2).
The best-paid forms, on the other hand, would take the girls to a life
in financial prosperity, with the political and economical elite.
Your ma is a hopo-jo (prostitute), don’t cry baby. Your ma go
look for food, don’t cry baby. Your ma fucking for you, don’t
cry baby. Your pa is a useless man, don’t cry baby. Your pa
doesn’t care for you, don’t cry baby.
Liberian Lullaby
To give you an example: I would go and love to (have a relationship
with) this commando. He would take me from my home and bring
me to another town. When bringing me to this new town he would
take another girl from the street and bring her to our home. Then the
girl and I would be sleeping in the same room and if I would com-
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plain he would kill me. Of course I would agree with everything he is
saying. And then the man would go and bring a third one—again you
could not talk or they would shoot you. The only thing to do would
be to take your hands from there. You would find your way. But if you
would start to play jealousy they would kill you for nothing. (Masa)
The experience of sharing a man with several other women was of
course not unique to the war years. The extent of such informal
polygyny however, appears to be unprecedented. Young boys of 14-15
years of age might have as many as five ‘wives’/girlfriends or more.
Older men who prior to the war did not have a single wife, now
secured ten. Girls from urban areas, where polygyny was viewed as a
rural, backward habit (Little 1973) were forced nevertheless to get
along with several ‘co-spouses’. Female stories from the war years
commonly refer to ‘mates’ and their problematic relations to them.
One of my male informants in Ganta who actually had two ‘wives’
himself, stated that during the war years, it was common among his
friends to render two or three ‘wives’ pregnant simultaneously. To be
‘entitled’ to more than one ‘wife’ was a question of status and power.
For young men and boys, the war created both the possibility and
deepened the urge to demonstrate newly found power through setting
up polygynous households. Bintu first experienced this when she
became the girlfriend of the INPFL fighter.
Q: So the first commando you were having a relationship with was a
Prince Johnson fighter. How many girlfriends did he have?
A: We were seven. It wasn’t easy to live with these girls because some
of them had never been exposed to such a life, and lacked experience.
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They felt that they had met the best of men, because of all the looted
things they got. They did not know that these boys were just doing
these things because they had not been with nice girls before. They
just used the gun to get relations with nice girls. Some of my mates
just wanted to start confusion—to make palaver. I just used to play
low (keep a low profile) because I was just doing it to save my life.
Some of them would abuse me because—I mean—the boy used to
like me best. That was because I used to play low and he also knew
who I was going out with before I met him. Sometimes when they
were cursing me I would call them and try to advice them. I would
say: “you stop cursing me” but I was not making a big issue out of it
because these girls lacked experience and if I would talk too much
they might have gone behind my back and told this man something.
One wrong thing and he could have killed me. Rather I used to talk
to them in a kind of petting way. Sometimes when I cooked food for
the man, some of them would take the pot and waste it on the ground
because they were jealous of me.
Bintu learnt the importance of keeping a low profile. She was trying
not to stand out too much. She stated that her boyfriend valued her
highly. Because of that, one can assume that it made her unpopular in
the eyes of the other girls. Later on during our interview, she returned
to the same topic but from a slightly different angle:
You had your family and they did not have any food. If you did not
have a relationship with a commando how would your family survive? You had your mother, father, brother, sister, uncle. If you didn’t
love to a commando they would not get food. Any commando you
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would see with more than two, three women you would know that
they were commandos with rank. If you had a relationship with one
of these high rank commandos you knew that they had their own boys
who would go loot for them and bring it back to you. When they went
looting then you knew that you would at least be able to send something small back to your family. The soldiers without rank had of
course also power but it was not like the others.
According to Bintu’s experience it was preferable to stay with a
commando that already had several ‘wives’ because this situation was
proof enough that he could provide for them. Nevertheless, ‘mates’
also meant trouble, as Hawa’s case has illustrated. It was because of
these ‘mates’ that she ended up in prison and was severely tortured.
When Hawa came out of jail, she still did not feel safe, with the danger
actually coming from within her ‘home’. It was her five ‘mates’ that
later, when the man was killed, got her jailed. Likewise, when she was
living in Ganta, it was her ‘mate’ who out of jealousy, informed other
rebels of her ethnic status and thereby got her imprisoned again. At
that time, her ‘mate’ was having a relationship with a man from the
Special Forces whom she had persuaded to get Hawa out of the way,
on his ‘sweetheart’s’ account. Jealousy was at the base of a lot of
infighting in these situations. The mere fact that a girl risked losing
her protection if dumped by her commando, meant that the ‘family’
itself became a hostile environment where women fought each other
and slandered each other behind each other’s backs.
Girls used to fight over men most of the time. They would fight like
hell because sometimes the man did not even want to look their way.
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You know how men commandos were: they just picked the one they
liked most for the time being and the others they just ignored. So if one
of the others had more strength than this favourite girl then she would
beat the hell out of her when the man was out. When the man went on
mission and returned with all those things he would give most of it to his
favourite girl. But if she were weak the other girls would beat her and
take every goddamn thing from her. That’s how it used to be. (Bintu)
The pattern of ‘mates’ fighting for a good position within the
household was not unique to the war years (Bledsoe 1976; 1980a;
1980c). Anyone who arrives last is automatically the youngest, and if
one comes from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group, she always had a hard time.
Says Hawa:
Being the youngest, I had to work hard for the others. Every morning
I made sure to take the dirty clothes outside. I washed them. I cleaned
up the place and then I had to cook. Sometimes I even went working
on the farm. When the people were harvesting rice I had to go along.
I used to do everything and after I arrived in the house the others did
not do anything, but still they were against me. In all this my husband
did not do anything to improve my situation.
In some cases, women would use pregnancies as a means to get
permanent access to powerful men.19 In other cases, the fact that a
young woman had a child meant that she had to find a fighter who
Pregnancies might be one of the main powers women have over men. Such has been the case long
before the civil war (Bledsoe 1980a).
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could sustain her and her child. For men it was often proof of potency
and power both to have many children, and to have children with
many ‘wives’. But for a young woman, a child is not always a successful
way to secure a relationship to a man, as in the case of Hawa:
When I was pregnant for the man I too seized the man’s money. When
I seized his money then he fell in love with another girl. After he had
fallen in love with the girl he started treating me really bad. The man
did not even look at me. So I suffered a lot during my pregnancy.
When I had given birth to the child I really started to regret that I had
left the boy I was with before I went to this one.
Polygyny, both formal and informal, was far from a new phenomenon
in Liberia. The novelty was that increasingly, young men have a whole
entourage of ‘wives’ or girlfriends at their disposal. To a great extent,
this was a mode of displaying their newly found powers. Girls
originating from urban centres who viewed polygyny as a backward
institution, were equally forced to submit to war polygyny. Capricious
and often violent ‘husbands’ of limited maturity were clearly one
obstacle, although in reality young women seem to have had as many
difficulties in relation to other women within the house. Jealousy games
seem to have been a daily problem between ‘mates’, and little stopped
them from committing horrible crimes towards each other. With the
war receding, many of the powerful and rich fighters have yet again
become marginalised youth and young mothers now suffer severely.20
UNICEF statistics reveal that Liberia has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies worldwide. It should be
noted that teenage pregnancy rates were alarmingly high even in the pre-war setting (Bledsoe & Cohen 1993).
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She was having a relationship with one of the commandos that’s how
it started. Then she went with the man to the warfront and she saw
how the man was fighting. Then the man gave her a gun. It was right
there she became a fighter, but she never took any training on base.
When the man gave her the gun he just said that “you do like this and
your gun will fire and like this and the gun will stop”. After that she
always used to go to the front fighting along with her man. (Masa)
Their (the female combatants’) aggression was mainly against
women. They would strip you naked. They would show the grenade
somewhere up your private parts. They would put their hands where
they’re not supposed to go, saying they were looking for grenades.
People were more afraid of them than the men, because the female combatants’ temper was very quick. (Liberian girl in Olonisakin 1995a:38)
‘They are not just gun-toting women,’ Taylor said as we walked out
of the small house into the sunlight, and the two women sentries stood
briskly to attention, clasping their Kalashnikovs to their breasts. ‘They
are highly trained, and have become an important part of our fighting force.’ (Huband, 1998:76).
A majority of the young women who fought in the civil war became
involved through their boyfriends. Most of them never attended any
formal training and many of them only went to the front with their
boyfriends and were thus never part of a regular force. However, both
the INPFL and the NPFL had special female units. According to
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statistics taken during the disarmament process in 1996/97, less than
two percent of the fighters in the civil war were female (UNDHAHACO). During the conflict, women soldiers were known to be at
least as fierce as their male counterparts; men and women alike
committed atrocities.21 A young ex-fighter noted that “it can be too
fearful when you are fighting with a woman amongst you”.
Bintu’s boyfriend was a civilian, but she joined her boyfriend’s
cousin on the frontline, and actually felt rather excited about being on
the battlefield.
Tom King was the rooster for us. Sometimes he would give me a gun
and I would follow him to the front. I was just tired of all the talking
and the raping in town so when King gave me a gun and said “let’s
go” I was relieved to get out of town. We went fighting—I used to
join him in the bush. The first time we went all the way to Grand
Gedeh. The second time we went there he got killed, but we went to
so many other places before that. I remember when we fought in
Kakata. During NPFL’s first attack on Kakata I was there with him.
This was when they attacked BWI (Booker Washington Institute).
He gave me a gun and said, “today we will all go fight—do you
understand”. So we all went into the battlefield that day. I will tell
you one thing about fighting: to fight, to meet your enemy and to
exchange bullets with them is not hard, but to retreat, that is the real
problem. And I was not a military woman. It was God and nobody
else that saved me that day. To retreat from BWI all the way to fourteenth street that was problem. But God brought me out of that.
The most ferocious atrocities during the war have often been ascribed to child and youth soldiers.
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When in Monrovia with her INPFL boyfriend, she also wore fatigues.
As noted earlier, Bintu was not too keen on the ‘looting business’
during that time. However, her boyfriend gave arms and uniforms to
his other girlfriends, who took advantage of this. The girl that helped
Bintu out of jail in Gbarnga also used to follow her man to the front,
mainly for the purposes of looting:
When she was with her boyfriend she went to the front with him. He
used to give her arms too. She had war experience. She used to join her
boyfriend because she liked him. It was just because of me that she lost
the man. But she really used to like the man, so when he said “let’s go
to the front”, she would join him. (Bintu)
Evelyn was 18 years old when the war started. She was in Monrovia the
first time she heard about the rebels. As with many others, she did not
even know what a rebel was; rumours held that they had tails or that
they had wings and could fly. A few months later, Evelyn had her first
encounter with the NPFL as they captured Bomi Hills, the area where
her family were residing. A rapid course of events followed, turning her
into a rebel. When she first met her boyfriend, a notorious commando
nicknamed Bruce Lee, he accused her of hiding enemy soldiers. In front
of her family he stabbed her with a knife and then started shooting at
her. She survived the incident and later he demanded that she become a
‘wife’. Evelyn accepted, being too afraid to say no. Then he wanted her
to go to the front with him and again she was obliged to agree. She not
only went to the battlefront but also remained armed in town where she
earned the reputation for being a ‘commando lady’. When Bruce Lee
died, she continued in the same line of bargain with another fighter.
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He forced me to take up arms. He gave me a gun to hold—I used to
be very scared. Sometimes he just sent his car up to my house to fetch
me. Then we left for the warfront. He always took me along on his
missions and let me carry his arms. I had no other choice but to follow. In town they used to see me as a commando lady. They used to
like me. They welcomed me, took care of me and served me. They
used to like my business. Sometimes when some of the commandos did
bad in town I would try to assist in solving the problem. For instance
when people were beating up other people who had been stealing
things, I would go in between and tell the people to stop and to please
forgive them. Sometimes when they wanted to kill somebody I would
go there and convince them to forget about the issue. That was what
I used to be doing, taking a responsibility behind the fighters. That
was the reason why the civilians liked me.
Evelyn tried to legitimise her seemingly immoral behaviour by
claimimg that she was helping to solve conflicts in town. Armed and
backed by one of the important commandos in the town, she possessed
a certain power of jurisdiction. Whether people really believed her
purported care for the community, it is of course questionable. In most
cases they had to comply with whatever the military ‘desperados’
decided. After the war, Evelyn, like thousands of young women and
men, chose not to return to her home, but to stay and live with a group
of young people in a shared house in Ganta.
Even if they actively partook in the war, most women were still
unable to compete favourably with their men, both in private, or
publicly. Masa recalls a women fighter she used to know.
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She was a fighter and she found her boyfriend with a different woman
and then she couldn’t say anything. The man was above her—the
man had a military degree. She didn’t have a degree because she never
went to base camp for training. Then the man went on training and
then he (in his turn) trained her. She even used to call the man chief.
But the chief thing is finished now (implying that now when the war
is over he cannot continue to boss her around in the same fashion).
However, some young women who fought the war, were able to turn
it into a successful endeavour. These were most often fighting
commandos, in some cases high ranking officers.22 With looted wealth,
they managed to build up business enterprises and with contacts in the
NPFL/NPP establishment, they often had a plethora of ‘big men’ to
back them. Naturally women who fought for other warring factions
than NPFL did not have the same political advantages. Probably the
most well known example was that of Julia Rambo, who fought for
NPFL during the war and who in 1998 became the owner of one bar
in central Monrovia, another on the beach, and a third in Buchanan.
Women who were successful in the NPFL were often recruited into
the civil service. For instance, a woman with a notorious reputation—
Martina Johnson, a General in the NPFL artillery and one of the
brains behind the launching of NPFL’s Operation Octopus—became
head of security at Robertsfield International Airport (RIA). Julia
Rambo, Martina Johnson, Agnes Taylor (Charles Taylor’s ex-wife),
Ruth ‘Attila’ Milton of the Liberia Peace Council (LPC) and other
Paul Richards has noted that female participants in the NPFL seldom were as young as their male coun-
terparts (1996:89). This observation contradicts UNDHA-HACO statistics.
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female fighters, functioned as role-models for many young females
during the war. The power and integrity they upheld was in sharp
contrast to the fragile positions most girls found themselves in. The
power potentially wielded through the barrel of a gun was certainly a
tempting possibility.
Liberian national and regional politics have to a rather large extent
been a male playground. If war is politics by other means (to
paraphrase Clausewitz), then it falls rather naturally that the strategic
agency of the war is mainly the property of men. Some women also
participated in the war: they commanded soldiers, and upheld the war
economy by trading with loot. Further they influenced their husbands
and their sons to fight, and certainly young girls motivated boys from
their own age to join the fighting forces. Female participation was
generally facilitated by men, but one has to remember that it was not
by men as a category; a few political actors—persons often referred to
as ‘big men’, ‘boss-men’ or warlords—were the ones who enrolled
most both men and women into the war system.
I have described how young women moved from a passive to a
more active role in the conflict. As we have seen, entering into the civil
war meant that young girls became involved with fighters for several
reasons. Whatever ‘choiceless decisions’23 introduced these young girls
The expression is used by Aretxaga (1997:61), arguing that women in Northern Ireland exhibit both
individual agency and simultaneously are victims of the social setting.
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into the war system, they all had one thing in common, namely that
they soon got used to the system, and thus created different ways to
cope with it. Boyfriends and looted goods came to have a central
meaning in this complex. The struggles among the young women
were often over access to important fighters, mastering one’s ‘mates’,
and the search for protection, etc. The wrong choice might in fact end
one’s life. Therefore, some women also induced men to continue their
actions. A boyfriend who did not loot, or wanted to pull out of the
fighting system altogether, was quickly deemed worthless and would
be dropped promptly for another more powerful fighter. Intelligent
and smart young women were often seen parading with the most
powerful commanders. It was status among young girls to go out with
high-ranking fighters. The war therefore created a category of ‘war
women’ who skilfully mastered fighters and thus became
economically prosperous. Many of these had the possibility to move
out of the war zone, but quite frankly felt that they could manage their
lives much better in the vicinity of the battlefield, despite the obvious
dangers. When the fighting became too intense, they might follow
their men to a safer location, or even take refuge in neighbouring
I have tried to dissolve the dichotomy of victim/perpetrator, not by
creating a third grouping in-between, but rather by demonstrating
that even in war, people are most likely to be both. I have suggested
that the Liberian Civil War in some senses limited most peoples’
During the April 6th war in 1996 I was living across the border in the Ivory Coast and experienced how
many of these young ‘war women’ crossed the border. They arrived to the border towns in decent cars and
posh clothing only to continue down to Abidjan, or even further.
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agency. People in general were limited to a ‘tactical agency’, using de
Certeau’s terminology. The minimal amount of a ‘war agency’ is what
I have called victimcy, i.e. the agency of portraying one’s actions as
passive victimhood and reaping the benefit of other people’s pity. Most
young women in the Liberian Civil War have clearly had a much
greater portion of ‘tactical agency’ than that—but even so, they were
still victimised in the war. Tactical agency is the art of the weak, or the
agency of the powerless. I have described different modes of mastering
the confines of war, the daily tactics of living in the war zone as a
young woman or girl. Primarily this has been about obtaining security
for oneself, and secondarily to provide security for family and friends.
The tactical agency of mastering the war zone from a young woman’s
perspective, anticipated close contact with potentially dangerous rebel
fighters or army men. If unwisely dealt with, it could lead to sexual
abuse, rape and in some instances loss of life. Basically their agency was
about the manipulation of male combatants; about teaming up with
the appropriate man, about secretly seeing other men, and having the
right substitute prepared if, and usually when the current boyfriend
got killed on the battlefield.
Fighters with high political and economic potential had numerous
girlfriends or ‘wives’ and, as we have seen, one tactical aspect of life
was to deal with jealous ‘mates’—mastering the game was also to
master one’s ‘mates’. Playing wrongly in the house, disclosing secrets
to the wrong person etc. could have fatal outcomes. Tying up with
fighters also implied achieving power. Many poor girls used the power
of military fatigues and the barrel of the gun to lay hands on the
commodities of modern society, something that they never would have
been able to obtain during normal circumstances. Their power put
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them in a position to rule communities and command individuals that
had previously looked down on them or ignored them. Many young
women turned this circumstance into a lifestyle. Enjoying their
newfound power meant that even if they had the choice to leave and
go into exile, they would choose to stay—to ‘enjoy’ the war. Likewise,
girls in exile moved back to the Liberian war zone despite the obvious
dangers inherent in such a move. In these instances, their agency could
be viewed as exceeding that of tactical agency. Indeed the end of the
war became a most brutal awakening for many of these young warenterprising women, turning them in one blow into pariahs in society.
During the war, I used to be out there doing business. My husband
used to be at home taking care of the cooking. But now he is out there
again. (Ganta/fieldnotes)
The relationship between men and women is strictly financial in
Liberia now. If you don’t have money you have no true love. We just
believe in the barter system that started during the war. You get the
pleasure of my body, and I get the pleasure of your pocket. (interview
with high school graduate in Olonisakin 1995b:22)
As social norms ruptured during the war, behaviours earlier
viewed as immoral, were now legitimised out of necessity. In two
separate articles Funmi Olonisakin (1995a, b) argues that the war has
caused young girls to care less for how the community conceives of
them. In much the same fashion as urban youth cultures in the West,
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this is a response to a perceived stigma in the post-war society. A young
‘war-generation’ has constructed a loosely knit sub-culture with clear
markers of opposition to the broader society; created on construed
markers of marginalisation by a dominant culture. A more marked
existence of such a sub-culture can be seen in urban centres. In the
quotation above, a high-school graduate proposed that gender
relationships in the Liberian war zone became entirely commercial.
According to her, love was one of the first war victims. Most women
in pre-war Liberia would probably have reached the same conclusion,
but would have blamed economic hardship. In war and post-war
discourses, it is the war itself that is given the blame.
Gender antagonism had been highlighted during the war. The fact
that men saw women as prostitutes and that women saw men as
careless beings who only craved insouciant sexual relations, is all too
often pointed out in popular discourse. The woman in the taxicab with
whose account I started this chapter, stated that men were cowards
during the conflict. Like her, women often claim that men were
useless during the war. Quite often male family heads could not fulfil
their commitments to their families, instead women would step up as
main providers. To attach oneself to a fighter was one way of doing
this—thereof follows the statement that men see women as prostitutes.
Many families were broken up when women were forced to leave the
domestic sphere, venturing out into the public. In Monrovia, the most
prosperous relationship that a woman could engage in would be with
ECOMOG personnel.25 The crude wisdom related by these women to
ECOMOG was a West African peacekeeping force. Although their salaries were rather modest they often
had access to other cash flows due to business with minerals, looted goods etc.
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their husbands during the war years is said to have been “you will chop
(eat) when the ECOMOG leaves”. ‘Eat’ thus plays a double tenor by
signifying both food and sex. The teaming up with an ECOMOG
combatant, a rebel or a government soldier was also a technique to
protect the very man they deceived. For many men this issue was, and
still continues to be, hard to deal with. During the war it also led to
decisions to join the warring factions out of despair over the loss of
power and control over one’s own wife, daughters and sisters. In some
cases it also led to the expulsion of wives after they had been forced to
have sex with soldiers or rebels.
Indeed many women were tragically excluded from their families
and social networks due to being subjected to sexual abuse and rape,
although it is important to emphasise that more often than not,
husbands or parents chose to accept what occurred. Possibly they
brought their wife or their children to spiritual healers for ritual
cleansing ceremonies (Honwana 1999a; 1999b; Nordstrom 1997b). As
rape was not an isolated occurrence during the war, but rather
something that happened to all families and social networks, Liberians
have generally chosen to accept it as a heritage of the conflict and thus
something to deal with in the public process of reconciliation and
healing in the nation. It is sometimes suggested that the large amount
of girls raped during the war is a reason that individual women will be
mentally able to leave a rape assault behind. An inclusive mode in
society will largely help to purge the wounds of rape victims. My
experience is that young girls can talk about rape. Several of my
informants have been very up front with their experiences—however the
pathos of trauma is more intricate to talk about. The fact that many girls
do not hide their personal experiences of rape, suggests that rape is not as
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stigmatised in war and post-war Liberia as it was in the pre-war setting.
What has happened to those girls who had intimate connections
with people in the fighting sphere or who themselves fought the war?
As stated above, many of them have chosen not to return to their prewar setting, due to an experienced stigma. Cynthia Enloe talks about
‘camp followers’ in one of her books (1983).
The archetypal image of the camp follower is a woman outcast
from society, poor but tenacious, eking out a livelihood by preying on
unfortunate soldiers. She is a woman intruding in a ‘man’s world’.
Skirts dragging in the battlefield mud, she tags along behind the
troops, selling her wares or her body, probably at unfair prices. If by
chance she falls in love with a soldier, she is destined to be abandoned
or widowed. (Enloe, 1983:1-2)
The images I have brought forward in this text are not entirely
different from those suggested by Enloe. Young Liberian women as
well as ‘camp followers’ learned how to manage life under the difficult
conditions of war. Some literally grew up in it and became dependent
on the fabric of war. Just as a ‘camp follower’ who stated after the end
of the Thirty Years War ‘I was born in the war; I have no home, no
country, no friends; war is all my wealth and now whither will I go?’
(Enloe, 1983:4), so many young women knew little of life outside the
reality of conflict. War shaped the realities of life for many, and during
the hostilities, they ventured out into a public sphere, because their
fathers, husbands and boyfriends were in greater danger of getting
killed out there. They too were in danger, but cruel as it might sound,
they had something to trade with.
The civil war was an ugly process for most Liberian women.
However, war often implies periods of rapid change in both social and
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political conditions (Elshtain, 1987). In addition, war has often been
seen as a period where processes of female emancipation take place
(Massey 1994; Stanton et al. 1985). As Meintjes et al put it:
It is a paradox that war offers opportunities for women to
transform their lives in terms of their image of themselves, their
behaviour towards men and towards their elders, and their ability to
live independently. (Meintjes et al. 2001b:7)
Concerning Liberia, Stephen Ellis notes “a radical shift in the
position of women” and he states that “some women travelled widely
to trade, and the effect has been a remarkable emancipation of women
from their pre-war position” (1999:43). How durable are such
changes? Just as in the various contributions to the volume The
aftermath (Meintjes et al. 2001a), I observed a general inability of
Liberian women to consolidate wartime gains. If women came to
occupy a part of the public space formerly unknown to them, I believe
that the quotation at the onset of this section has an important message
to relay. During the war the wife took care of her family’s public
matters, whilst her husband remained in the home, taking care of food
preparation and other domestic concerns. Now in the post-war setting
this scenario is yet again reversed: her husband is out in the public and
she is taking care of the domestic life again. To a considerable extent
this situation signifies the nature of post-war reality. Most women have
moved back into the domestic sphere and certainly more young
women than before the war live in polygynous
relationships/marriages. Even if education is viewed as crucial, most
young women do not stay in school for any longer period of time, if at
all. According to statistics from 1999, available at UNDP, only 22
percent of Liberian women are literate compared to 54 percent of men.
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Girls make up only 40 percent and 32 percent of enrolments in
primary and secondary schools, respectively. Women also only occupy
two percent of ministerial positions, five percent of legislative seats and
only one percent of executive positions in the country.26 These are
possible indications of a future situation, similar to the pre-war reality
for women in Liberia. The war may have exposed young women to
new realities, but to state that their roles in society have changed
drastically seems rather exaggerated.
Cf. http://reliefweb.int/IRIN/wa/countrystories/Liberia/19990917a.htm
In this connection, we are faced with the responsibility of providing
assistance to former combatants through the repair of schools, clinics,
and the provision of jobs, in order that they will be gainfully
employed. Excombatants from all former factions remain a serious
concern of this government, and legislation will be introduced for the
creations of a Nations Veterans Administration Agency, to attend to
the needs of our injured young men and women nationally. This
administration is going to work hard to solve the problem of getting
our excombatants readjusted (President Charles Taylor’s annual message to the National Legislature quoted in Daily Times, Monrovia,
February 2/98, p. 2).
Quite contrary to the President’s speech, little or nothing was done by
the Liberian government to accommodate young excombatants in the
immediate aftermath of the war. As compared to many other
excombatants worldwide, Liberian war veterans are far from viewed
as heroes in post-war Liberia. Joe was fighting as a soldier in the
NPFL when he was wounded in his foot by a grenade. After
recovering at the Methodist hospital in Ganta, he found that he could
not return to his previous trade due to his heavy limping. Even though
he was a veteran in the victorious NPFL army, and despite promises
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made by Charles Taylor, he did not receive any government aid—he
simply had to take care of himself. Joe however, fought well for
himself. Where many others would have failed, Joe managed to
establish a small shop in a residential area of Ganta, thus eking out a
living for himself and his girlfriend. In his small shed, candy,
cigarettes, Maggie cubes (soup stock), chilli-pepper and at times
cassava, were traded over the counter. By far the most attractive part
of the shop however was the drinking booth. Here, a mixed clientele
of unemployed youth, police, military, and night watchmen hid to
drink bottles of gin (homebrew taking the detour around Monrovia
for cleaning, bottling and labelling), or cane juice (homebrew straight
from the sugarcane farms outside Ganta), smoke dope and to play
checkers. The status as excombatant was what most of the clientele
had in common.
In Joe’s shop I met up with Adolphus who had lost a leg in combat,
Georgie, Anthony, and a number of other people. Complaining about
post-war society was a predominant pastime here, most especially
when the police and military were absent. One day Georgie came and
told us about a wartime friend who had chosen to return to his village
right after the end of the war. The previous day, the friend had come
to Ganta, and paid him a visit. Georgie said:
The man is talking about his cassava farm, his rice and palm-nuts. He
is living with his two wives and has recently got a child, and all we
are doing here in Ganta is just sitting and looking at the coal-tar road.
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Georgie expressed this with clear envy in his voice, hesitating about the
sweetness of modernity.1 Another time, Anthony explained to me
about the problems he had with his family.
Me, my people rejected me because today I am a wounded man. They
all believe that we (excombatants) have gunpowder in our heads.
Today, the only man I depend on is Charles Taylor. If someone would
give me 2500 USD to go fight in Zaire, I would go. I would leave the
money with my family and if I die at least I would have helped them.
I fought for Liberia and I died in the war.
His statement is actually full of contradictions. It is apparent however
that Anthony feels rejected by everyone, from family to the
government of Liberia. His reference to Taylor is chiefly rhetorical,
although it does hint at a frail hope that the president will live up to
the promises he made to his men during the war. He is, like Georgie,
dragging his feet up and down the tarmac road not knowing where to
start or where to go. On the other hand, Georgie’s friend back in ‘the
bush’, and Joe in his small shop, arduously, through different means
and positions in the local opportunity structures, work their way back
into respected positions in society. In this chapter, I address some of the
concerns associated with demobilisation and the social reintegration of
The tarmac road ends right after Ganta town and the continuing main roads leading either to the Guinea
(via Yekepa), or to the Ivory Coast (via Kahnple) are dirt roads. The tarmac road bears heavy symbolism
as the main connection between Ganta and the experience of cosmopolitan modernity of Monrovia.
Ganta’s connection to the larger world was completed by the construction of the road from Monrovia in
1945-46. During the first period it was only an American missionary, Dr. Harley, who had a vehicle to traffic the road with.
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excombatant youth in the aftermath of the Liberian Civil War. What
happens to the young combatants who fought the war in the post-war
existence? How is the social reintegration of excombatants
functioning? Bearing in mind that many of these young people
committed terrible atrocities during the war years, even in their home
settings, how are they received? Do excombatants at all have the
possibilities to go home? Is there still a place to call ‘home’? How are
they perceived in the home setting? In this chapter I show that the
social reintegration of excombatant youths differs considerably from
setting to setting. In some situations, reintegration has hardly been
taking place at all, whilst in other settings it is working remarkably
1998, the year of my fieldwork in Liberia, was a relative peaceful
year, except for a few incidents (the September 18 fighting in
Monrovia was the most serious). The prevailing view was that Liberia
was heading towards peace. Taking an institutional perspective, the
time after the election in mid-1997 is generally referred to as the postwar period. I have also chosen to refer to the period as post-war, but as
peace in Liberia has remained fragile, and as a new rebel faction
appeared in late 1999 in Lofa County, it could also be argued that 19971999 was just an intermediary period in a longer war. From a
combatant perspective, reintegration was important to achieve as soon
as possible, although there was also a kind of post-war standby
mentality, where it became tactically important also not only to
reintegrate, but to maintain contacts with commanders as well as rank
and file within war-networks, just in case the war would start up all
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over again.2 So, when we talk about excombatants in the post-war
setting, it has become natural to talk about reintegration. As I have
argued in this dissertation, combatants were mainly youth who already
experienced marginalisation, and in the concluding part of this chapter
I shall argue that alongside a process of reintegration there also occurs
a process of remarginalisation.
Officially the Liberian Civil War started on Christmas Eve 1989 and
ended with general elections in 1997. However, war ought to be seen
as a continuum without a clear beginning or a clear end. For a small
group of Liberians, the war started much earlier than 1989 as they
were drafted for military training in Libya in the first half of the 1980s
(Richards 1996; Ellis 1999). Certainly in the town of Butoe in Nimba
County, the arrival of NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia)
rebels on Christmas Eve 1989 signalled the onset of the civil war. But
in other areas, people were affected much later, or hardly at all. Even
during the war, people in most areas experienced long periods of
relative peace and normalcy, suddenly interrupted by fierce battles and
fighting with newfound intensity. As Paul, one of the key informants
noted “you know the war was just in some places while in other places
people can be enjoying themselves”. In 1998, Liberians tended to agree
that the war had started in 1990 and ended in 1997, Although in the
The civil war has dragged on in a low intensity mode. Both the Liberian army, a plethora of pro-gov-
ernment militias and LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) have recruited from
among many excombatants willing to pick up arms again. In that sense the standby mode can be seen as
a sound strategy.
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midst of it, no one could tell whether a particular incident marked the
end of the war or not. Such an uncertainty is understandable if one
looks at Liberian refugees in the neighbouring countries of Ivory
Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Some refugees have stayed behind
right up to the current day, simply because they are not sure whether
the war has ended or not. Was 1998 therefore just another period of
relative peace in the war continuum?
During the first half of 1996, when warlords, national and
international experts called the war off, many refugees were heading
home when the news of renewed fighting in Monrovia met them.
Learning from such experiences, refugees have been reluctant to
return home (the lack of clear opportunities in Liberia has further
deterred refugees from going home).3 The Liberian Civil War entered
a new phase as the former warlord Charles Taylor was elected
President in democratic elections of 19 July 1997. Even so, during 1998,
parts of what we would generally call war activities continued.
Renewed fighting took place in pockets of the country. During my stay
in Liberia in 1998, I experienced a few battle-like incidents with
dissident groups fighting against government soldiers in Monrovia. By
far the worst fighting in Monrovia was the so-called September 18
battle that again turned Monrovia into a war zone and had nationwide repercussions.
Liberians’ continued war experience has been not only of war in its
most obvious form. It has also been of the government’s maintenance
Larger groups of Liberian refugees returned from Guinea and the Ivory Coast during 1999-2000 (Guinea)
and 2002-03 (Ivory Coast). This is not because stability has returned to Liberia but rather because of
political unrest in the host countries.
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of a war bureaucracy with the transformation of the NPFL rebel army
into a ‘democratic party’, the NPP (National Patriotic Party). For
instance, the security apparatus is maintained by former NPFL
commanders and as such it continues to harass the Liberian citizens.
Furthermore, elements within the civil service on all levels of the
hierarchy continue to loot private and state property in rebel-like
fashion. For instance the SSS (Special Security Service), SSU (Special
Security Unit) and SOD (Special Operations Division) are notoriously
known to carry out ‘go-by-chop’ raids, emptying whole stores during
night hours. Many excombatants are involved in these activities.
There is no more revolution except in resistance (Virilio & Lotringer
It was to a very large extent the youth of Liberia which fought the civil
war. In their minds, participation in the civil war was a revolution—
fitting rather well with Paul Virilio’s words above—a way of freeing
themselves from a heavy workload and parental expectations
(Richards 1995; 1996). It was also a response to the lack of
opportunities in society (Chingono 1996; Cruise O’Brien 1996). The
war served as a means for young people to wrestle power out of the
hands of big men (Keen 1998) and do something about their own
precarious economic situation—i.e. using their gun as a credit card
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(Sesay 1996).4 In reality however they became subjects of another set of
other even more unscrupulous big men (Ellis 1998; Reno 1995; 1998).
A feature of Liberian society that has often been neglected in
discussions about root causes of male youth participation in the civil
war, is young men’s limited access to girlfriends and potential wives,
perhaps because this seems a rather mundane concern compared to the
more dramatic aspects of the war. Indigent young men are relatively
speaking excluded from the possibilities of establishing long term
relationships with women. Passively they sit and watch older,
wealthier men pick up their sisters, cousins as well as the girl next door
whom they innocently played love games with just a few years earlier,
and who is now totally ignoring them. The prospect of remaining a
bachelor for one’s entire life (quite normal in Liberia because of formal
and more often informal conventions of polygyny)5 might indeed serve
as an important reason to join a rebel force. Obtaining power and
wealth as a rebel fighter reverses the scenario, granting young men
access to numerous girlfriends and the right to take ‘wives’ (as I
discussed in the previous chapter). As the category of youth is
constructed upon notions of social age, social markers such as
marriage—or at least a stable relationship with a woman, such a
relationship is a requirement for moving out of the youth category and
into that of adulthood. Many of the older men (aged approx. 20-45)
who participated in the civil war formed part of the social category
As youth in general only participated in very rudimentary forms of the Liberian economy, on the very
bottom of economic transactions, the increased economic hardships that affected Liberia during the past
three decades have hit this group the hardest (for similar argumentation see e.g. Ferguson 1999; Guyer
1995; MacGaffey 1991).
See, Bledsoe 1980c.
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youth; i.e. they were mature men, but lacked the necessary wealth and
power required to cross the border between youth and adulthood.
Youth participation in the Liberian Civil War must be seen as
means of strategic upward mobility, aiming at obtaining respect and
status by turning society’s power structure upside down (taking
command, instead of being commanded). Rising from self-perceived
(however, largely real) modes of victimcy—involving tactics such as
foot-dragging and pilfering, dissimulation, i.e. the infrapolitics of the
powerless (Scott 1990:xiii)—to the means of taking agency in their
own hands goes through taking up arms. As wealth achievement also
functions as a principal means of upward mobility, the massive
possibilities of looting, further enticed youths to participate in the rebel
trade. However taking up arms and getting involved in guerrilla
warfare might also be regarded as examples of ‘weapons of the weak’
(Scott 1985), and thus as tactics (Certeau 1984), that only will pay off in
the short term. Once the war is over, marginal souls are once again
deported to the margins.
In this chapter I deal with three different cases that I have loosely
categorised as urban, semi-urban and rural. My first case is from
Monrovia, where I did fieldwork for six months during the first part
of 1998. My second is taken from the rural areas of Sinoe County
where I toured the countryside during a week in April 1998, with a
team of local Red Cross volunteers, conducting 97 semi-structured
interviews with youth for the Belgian Red Cross. The third case is
from Ganta in Nimba County, NPFL heartland, where I spent an
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additional 6 months during the autumn 1998. These three cases exhibit
differing trajectories in the reintegration of youth in post-war Liberia.
However we should bear in mind that urban, rural and semi-urban
are only analytical categories constructed to organise the material. The
borders are in reality blurred, local differences occur, and on an
individual basis they are repeatedly transgressed. This fact becomes
most clear in the focus on the semi-urban case, where it is easy to
observe both urban and rural traits in a small enclosure as Joe’s shop,
presented in the vignette.
For the sake of the argument in this chapter, it is necessary to reiterate
some of the main issues of Palace life, already described in some detail
in chapter 2. The Palace was situated right on the beach in central
Monrovia. The location was quite pleasant, were it not for the fact that
the beach was used as a public latrine, and that the plot next door was
a garbage dump. Indeed, some of the houses in the near vicinity were
inhabited by expatriate aid-workers and well-to-do Lebanese
businessmen. The Palace was a deserted petrochemical factory with
only the concrete structure remaining. In early 1998 more than a dozen
excombatants had settled in the Palace. They originated from all over
Liberia, but this was where the latest fighting had discharged them.
Their war histories differed a lot, and it was something that many kept
hidden due to their dangerous liaisons during the last part of the war.
Thus instead of going into detail about their backgrounds (as in
chapter 2) I here give a more general picture of the origins of
excombatants currently living in Monrovia.
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Those who originated from southern Liberia had primarily joined
the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) as they swept over the
southern part of the country early in the war. Later, those who
remained in the south would typically shift to the southern force of
LPC (Liberia Peace Council)—see below for more details. Those who
originated from eastern Liberia typically joined NPFL, or INPFL
(Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia), and remained loyal
up until the April 6 war, when some were incorporated into the
ULIMO-J (United Liberation Movement for Democracy in
Liberia/Johnson-wing), or ULIMO-K (United Liberation Movement
for Democracy in Liberia/Koromah-wing).6 Northerners could have
been included among the ranks of NPFL, ULIMO-K, ULIMO-J, or
the regional LDF (Lofa Defence Force). Additionally, some with roots
in the south, or from the Mandingo diasporic minority, who were
living in Monrovia when the war started, went into exile in Sierra
Leone. There, they joined the ULIMO faction (that later split into
two) during its creation in Freetown. Those who remained in
Monrovia could have joined any of the factions, including the
remnants of the AFL (Armed Forces of Liberia). Once inside the
various rebel groups, they often shifted their allegiance between
different factions, encountering little ethnic prejudice. During the
April 6 war, Palace youths along with many others from urban
Monrovia, joined the ULIMO-J forces, who at the time recruited
heavily among urban footloose youth. Following the April 6 war,
Palace youth laid down their arms, either spontaneously or as part of
the demobilisation exercise instigated by the international community.
During the April 6 war ULIMO-K fought alongside NPFL against ULIMO-J.
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In the post-war setting, the youth in the Palace were making a
living by securing day to day contracts in constructing work, making
coal pots7 out of scrap metal, selling sand from the nearby beach, or
searching the garbage dump for copper and other valuables for resale.
They were also highly involved in rough activities. Some of the youth
in the Palace sold marijuana—all of them smoked it—and other drugs
were also sold. Stolen gasoline, mainly from the generators sustaining
the offices and staff housing the international NGOs, was traded in the
Palace during night hours. Another nocturnal activity which involved
Palace dwellers was petty thievery in various forms. A feature of postwar Liberia became crimes sanctioned by the security apparatus. It was
particularly common as long as curfew was maintained, and only
police and military in their various guises were allowed to pass in the
streets during the night hours. Loyal youth operated in conjunction
with these units. In this activity, Palace youth relied on their close
connections with the army (AFL), yet others had connections and
carried out missions in alliance with the police or other units of the
security block.8 Certainly the daily struggle of Palace youth and other
marginal youth in Monrovia did not differ much in shape from others
in similar settings elsewhere in urban Africa.9
A small charcoal-fired cooking stove used by most urbanites.
Palace youth’s close contacts with AFL revealed the prevailing connections between part of the AFL and
ULIMO-J fighters. Ex-fighters from NPFL lines largely occupied positions in police, special security forces
and immigration, agencies that have been thoroughly restructured and reoccupied after Charles Taylor taking up office. Former NPFL fighters carried out mission together with these units.
See, Abdullah 1997b; 1998; Abdullah et al. 1997; Cruise O’Brien 1996; El-kenz 1996; La Fontaine 1970;
Jensen 2001; Kynoch 1999; Marks 2001; Momoh 1999; Ssewakiriyanga 1999. Resemblance is also
observed with youth in similar settings in the western world, see Bourgois 1995; Bucholtz 2002; Hall &
Montgomery 2000; Hazlehurst 1998; Panter-Brick 2002; Schneider 1999; and elsewhere: Bernat 1999;
Rodgers forth.; Sykes 1999; Scheper-Hughes 1992.
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There were few indications of Palace youth reintegration into the
larger society. Palace, and other footloose youth were rather parts of a
subculture, much at odds with the larger society. Even so, Palace
youths at times participated in the plethora of reintegration and
rehabilitation programs hosted by both international and national
NGO’s. Thus having obtained skills in mechanics at Don Bosco
(Catholic Relief agency), carpentry at LOIC (The Liberian branch of
the US based NGO: Opportunity and Industrialization Center), and
then another go at a drama course held at Don Bosco, this was a fairly
normal career among youth in the Palace.10 Irrespective of what kind
of skilled training they undertook, and whatever trainee position the
NGO managed to arrange, very few students were actually able to
obtain any stable work. Well aware of such limits, participation in
reintegration and rehabilitation programs generally served as a means
of getting away from the daily grind, to enjoy the logistic advantages
of these programs.
From a perspective of reintegration and reconciliation, there were
no indications that Palace youth were preparing to return to the
communities from which they originated. Generally they had no idea
if their parents had survived the war, or of their families’ whereabouts.
Neither were they in position to find out. The resettlement programs
that some of the international organisations were offering were not
utilised by Palace youth. In fact, even those who had parents or other
relatives in Monrovia tended to avoid them. Family networks were
instead replaced with informal structures of wartime friends and
For young females the programs were rather limited at the time, and the NGO community stated that
they had a harder time to reach out to them.
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commanders. Post-war livelihoods made little to change this, and it
was clear that in the Palace, the military structure prevailed. The
military structure was for instance used to maintain discipline. Senior
Palace dwellers effectively punished theft inside the Palace, or crime
outside of the Palace that lead to police raids, or roundups. Inhabitants
were also punished if they broke other informal laws.
Palace youth also formed the lowest echelon in larger patron/client
networks, mainly populated by former commanders but often
reaching all the way up to government level. Through such vertical
links, the Palace youth was exploited by big men in town for boosting
up political rallies and to carry out illegal activities; such as busting the
business of rivals’ stores etc. (Momoh 1999; Rashid 1997, for similar
activities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone). Another feature of life in the
Palace was the chronic lack of young women, or girls. Of the fifteen or
more people staying in the Palace—the population fluctuated
considerably during my stay—only four were females, and male
youths had few possibilities to obtain a girlfriend. Even short-term
relationships were few. Of the four young women/girls in the Palace,
two sustained themselves as prostitutes (see Utas 1999), the third was a
substance abuser suffering from mental disorder. Even if I cannot
confirm it, it is quite likely that she was given shelter, food, drugs etc.
in exchange for sexual favours to the male Palace dwellers. The fourth
was a young girl who was under protection of the informal leader of
the Palace. It is hard to see how youths like those in the Palace would
ever be reintegrated in the larger society. Even if they were not part of
a footloose culture prior to the war, they were in any case placed at the
margins of urban society permanently—they were there to stay.
Youths also lived in the streets of Monrovia before the war, although
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in post-war Monrovia, their numbers widely surpassed any of the prewar figures.11 Leaving individual tragedies aside, on a socio-structural
level alone they formed a highly volatile and dangerous group, that
would hesitate little if they would get the opportunity to pick up arms
On the other extreme to the process of reintegration, we find
excombatant youth in rural Sinoe County in southern Liberia. Mainly
Sarpo and Kru peoples populate Sinoe County and the war had clearly
drawn a wedge between the two populations. The first group of rebels
that emerged in the area was the NPFL. Initially youth of both Sarpo
and Kru origin joined their ranks. However, as time went by, the
leaders of the NPFL started to view the Sarpos with increasing
distrust. Sarpo peoples speak a language closely related to that of the
Krahn, the group from which President Samuel Doe originated and
which was favoured in both the civil service and the army during his
1980-1990 government. Krahn was thus envisioned as being the main
enemies of the NPFL. The gradual expulsion of Sarpo soldiers within
the NPFL was accompanied by atrocities against the Sarpo population
To my knowledge there exists no quantitative studies substantiating this statement. However,
Monrovian residents maintain that this is the case.
As became apparent already during my fieldwork, when elements loyal to the ULIMO-J leader Roosevelt
Johnson repeatedly created problems in town (partly provoked by the security forces). A few times it
developed into shootouts and during the September 18 battle excombatant youth rearmed and again
turned Monrovia into a battle zone. During that incident one among the Palace youth participated on R.
Johnson’s side and later escaped with him to Nigeria. In the aftermath of the battle another Palace
dweller got picked up by security forces and tragically got executed.
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who fled into the bush or into exile. Partly as a response, Sarpo peoples
organised themselves into their own warring faction, the LPC.
Initially, the creation of LPC led to more atrocities against civilian
Sarpos.13 Both the LPC and NPFL fought over power in the Sinoe
County, and both carried out gruesome atrocities on civilians as a
means of gaining control.
In post-war Sinoe County, excombatants, originating from all over
Liberia, dwelled in the urban centre of Greenville. In rural areas,
excombatant youths were mainly of Kru or Sarpo origin (and a few
Bassa), originating in Sinoe County itself. In contrast to the youth
hanging out in Greenville, most youths in the rural areas had already
returned to their villages. The process of spontaneous social
reintegration was remarkably rapid here. In many cases, excombatant
youths had moved back to their home villages and often under the
roofs of their families. Discourses of reconciliation prevailed among
the adult generation. Indeed, their sons and daughters had committed
crimes in the area, even direct assaults on family and kin, “but they are
our sons and daughters, so we have to forgive them”, was the common
answer to how this was possible. Protection of self and family was a
main incentive for youth as they joined with rebel forces in the first
place, and this further enhanced the mode of forgiveness.
Reconciliation and reintegration programs implemented by the
international aid community played only a marginal role in rural
Sinoe. Reconciliation and reintegration were mainly taking place as a
As such LPC was not a direct response of resisting NPFL rather LPC was a creation of people residing in
Monrovia and Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh County. Quite likely, a split between the citizens of Sinoe
(Sarpo and Kru) was what the men behind LPC wished to obtain. A lasting outcome of the war has been
that Sarpo peoples have been forced to harmonise with Krahn peoples.
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spontaneous process. During 1998, the Belgian Red Cross (BRC) tried
to establish programs to speed up social reintegration in rural areas. In
several rural towns they created schools for skilled training, aimed at
giving youth from the vicinity both theoretical and practical education.
As part of the assessment team for this project, I toured rural Sinoe
together with a team from BRC and interviewed inhabitants, trying to
locate specific needs in each community. We concluded eventually that
there was little need for the skilled training of carpenters, mechanics
and electricians. In one town, we located three skilled carpenters, all
three were unemployed. The need for mechanics was equally limited.
Only three cars were registered in the entire county, and other needs
for mechanics were marginal. Electricity was not available and even in
Greenville town there was at the time only generators at the hospital
and in three INGO compounds. Even under these limiting
circumstances, half of all youth, girls included, we interviewed,
wanted to become mechanics. Notwithstanding these preconditions,
the BRC rushed the programme through, going against our
recommendations and educating youths in just those trades.14 In fact it
is highly questionable whether a programme of any design was needed
in the area, because social reintegration was proceeding so well.
Educating youths in skills for which they have no use only forges a
class of educated, but disgruntled individuals yet again deceived by the
world. Even worse, it would be a further incentive for urbanisation, as
The director of the Belgian Red Cross did not have the slightest patience to understand the local soci-
ology. That the project hired an anthropologist was a requirement from Brussels, and our report (Utas &
Gbessagee 1998) was totally disregarded by him. Ignoring local officials, the local Red Cross administration and his own staff’s advice he soon managed to make himself and his NGO remarkably unpopular.
Within a year these circumstances forced the project to close down.
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many of these semi-educated youths would leave the area to try their
luck in Monrovia, or in any other overcrowded urban environment
already filled to the brim by unemployed people of rural origin.
As noted above, many of the young excombatants in Sinoe County
had already by mid-1998 returned to their families and villages. Many
were resettling in the larger networks of extended families and
beginning to reintegrate into village life. In most cases they had severed
contact with other excombatants and were no longer enmeshed in the
patron networks of the war years. Other vertical relationships had
effectively cut off their dependency under rebel commanders. Even if it
appeared that life was returning to the way it was during ‘normal day’,
it should be observed that permanent changes had also taken place. For
instance an upsurge in marriage involving quite young men, or of
young couples living together in their own house was noted. There was
also a tendency for young men and even boys (the youngest I heard of
was 15) farming their own land. Prior to the war, it was rare to find
men establishing themselves as individual farmers and family heads,
before they had turned 25. They would normally work on the family
farm or participate in communal farm activities, but seldom work for
themselves. This suggests a push of the dividing line between
childhood and adulthood further down in age. A fact fitting rather well
with the ‘traditional’ idea of warriorhood as a path towards becoming
a man, thus being rewarded with a farm and a wife.
S E M I - U R BA N — GA N TA
Ganta, the largest town in Nimba County, was a temporary settlement
for many excombatant soldiers. Characteristically, groups of
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excombatants lived together, either squatting or paying symbolic rent
to the owner of the house. At the beginning of my fieldwork in Ganta
I targeted several groups of excombatants, but as I deepened my focus,
I choose one particular group of people with which to work. Paul and
his friends were living in a house together; the group consisted of
several wartime friends, their girlfriends and children. Their house
had also become a meeting-point for people of their own kind. It is in
this socially extended form that I discuss ‘Paul and his friends’. I knew
Paul from my work in the Ivory Coast and our acquaintance proved
instrumental in the process of building trust. I soon felt that we could
talk openly about most issues, and they went out of their way to teach
me about their post-war livelihoods as well as tell about their lives as
combatants during the civil war years.
Paul and his friends originated mainly from Nimba and Bong
Counties and had histories of fighting for the INPFL (Independent
National Patriotic Front of Liberia), NPFL, or both. Nimba County
functioned as the primary recruitment area for the NPFL, with Bong
County coming at a close second. As the NPFL entered Nimba, the
population in general saw it as a Nimbadian revolution against a
government which had persecuted them, in particular, due to political
issues following the failed coup attempt in 1985 (Osaghae 1996; Ellis
1999; AfricaWatch 1990). To join the NPFL, or its sister movement the
INPFL, was a natural step for most youth in Nimba. The NPFL split
soon after they entered Liberia due to disagreements between Charles
Taylor (NPFL) and Prince Y. Johnson (INPFL). Hailing from Nimba
County, Johnson was the more popular of the two. After the split,
Johnson maintained the command over most of the Libyan-trained
soldiers (the core of the original NPFL) and further managed to enrol
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a huge portion of local youth into his force. In this fashion, Johnson
was more successful than Taylor during the initial phase of the war. In
the longer term however, Taylor turned out to be the shrewder
politician, and eventually outsmarted ‘the soldier by profession’
Johnson who left soon after he succeeded to catch and kill President
Doe (Huband 1998; Ellis 1999; Van den Boom 1995).
After the war came to a halt in 1996, Paul and his friends, for
various reasons, ended up in Ganta. Even if they had plans to go back
to their own hometowns and villages in the rural areas, this had not
happened by late 1998. To sustain themselves, Paul and some of the
others started making mud bricks. The later part of 1998 was the
starting point for a construction boom in Ganta, and there was a need
for construction materials, primarily bricks. Making mud bricks on
contract was a heavy and tedious job, but it paid quite well.
Simultaneously with Paul and his friends, a number of others started
off in the same line of business. The brick-making guild consisted
predominantly of excombatant youth with close bonds to each other
and with roots in the warring factions.
Three or four boys would generally work together on a contract
basis. The building contractor was generally a private person,
although work could also be carried out for churches, or schools. The
contractor would first allocate a spot where the soil was feasible for
extracting material for making bricks. He/she would also provide
shovels and some food money in advance, alternatively rice, soup stock
and a tin of sardines for a daily meal. The arrangements were simple
enough; money was paid per brick after fulfilled work. Generally the
price was agreed upon in advance and also how many bricks should be
made. On location, the boys constructed a small hut, thatched with
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palm leaves for shade and protection from the rain. To prevent theft,
someone always slept on the site overnight. During the rainy season it
was not possible to make the bricks, as they would not dry out.
However as heavy showers were frequent, even towards the end of the
dry season, banana leaves, and other leaves of similar size were used to
cover the bricks, thus preventing them from getting wet and
subsequently cracking in the sun. Another activity engaged in by some
excombatants was rock breaking in small quarries (used in the
foundation of houses, or when constructing roads). A few also worked on
large-scale projects such as EU funded rice fields, earning a dollar a day.
On the domestic side, Paul and his friends were taking care of their
backyard gardens mainly for subsistence, although their
wives/girlfriends sometimes sold the surplus produce at the market
table, wallah, they placed in front of their house. Excombatant youths
were also involved in other forms of petty trade, such as buying hard
liquor produced on sugarcane farms in the rural areas, and
transporting it to Ganta, or even Monrovia. They would also buy
cassava, rice, and bush-meat from the countryside, depending on what
was available for the season, and sell it in the larger towns. Yet other
excombatants engaged in petty trading activities such as money
changing (indeed excombatants had close to a monopoly on that
business—in general having some senior businessman backing them
up), small scale diamond transporting etc. Learning to do business was
one of the positive side effects of the war years as many young
combatants, as well as their girlfriends, organised the selling of looted
goods. Many continued to use the trade they had learnt in the post-war
Earnest and hard work was a key aspect of social reintegration into
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post-war society. Paul and most other excombatants around him
worked hard towards achieving this goal. It was surprisingly seldom
that other neighbours complained about ex-fighters misbehaving and
creating problems. All members of Paul’s house went to church on
Sundays, and many spent surplus time in church doing Bible studies
and other social activities. Even a renowned hard-core fighter like
Alex was active in church life. He spent a lot of time doing ‘church
business’ as he had been appointed accountant for a local parish.
Religion, mainly in the form of Pentecostalism played a central role in
Liberian society even during ‘normal day’ (Gifford 1993; Noonoo
1991). However, during the war years, churches became a central place
to deal with war and exile experiences. Among Liberian refugees in
the Ivory Coast, churches were the most important institutions
organising refugee life (Utas 1997). From a different geographic
setting, Marc Sommers (2001a; 2001b) has noted the immediate appeal
which Pentecostalism has on young urbanites, creating bonds between
people previously regarded as different. In that vein, I argue that the
inclusiveness of Pentecostal churches makes it a primary tool for
reintegration in post-war society. Joining a local church is an attempt
to ask for forgiveness and therefore reacceptance from God and the
local community.
Neighbours showed little direct contempt towards excombatants.
Even if many still abused alcohol and other drugs and thus at times
misbehaved, neighbours were also aware of the advantage of having
them in the vicinity. During the war, civilians had learnt the benefits
of maintaining good contacts with high-rank combatants in the
neighbourhood, and to a certain extent such benefits prevailed. The
mere presence of excombatants living nearby functioned as deterrent
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for thieves. As thieves themselves where quite often also excombatants,
they formed part of the many overlapping social networks, and as
such, it was quite unlikely that they would target an area protected by
their peers.
Although Paul and his friends did not live in their home
communities, they were still trying to rely on the supporting capacity
of old ties with their kin and home communities. However, a great
uncertainty prevailed. What would happen to them when they
returned home? Would kin and community members punish them?
Would they be blamed and stigmatised for what they and others had
done during the war years? Paul and a few of the others talked with
confidence about their family ties. Others were bitter and blamed their
parents for pushing them into the war in the first place. By this time,
many had become acutely aware that their war endeavour had placed
them in a much worse predicament than where they came from when
they first joined the rebel forces.
In the lives of Paul and his friends it was the war-friend network
that still dominated social ties. Many young excombatants in fact lived
together with the very friends they fought with. They generally
worked together and spent most of their leisure time in the company
of other excombatants. Such living arrangements appeared to be
representative in the semi-urban setting. In most cases the wartime
families also remained intact. It was common to find a young man
sharing a house with his friends, staying with one or two
wives/girlfriends in a single room. Often these young ex-fighters had
several children with different girlfriends. Another characteristic of
this environment was the relative absence of adults. Except for the
neighbours, who had limited authority over them, adults were largely
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absent, with one exception: the presence of big men. Often big men
were the very same men who had commanded them in the rebel
armies. In some instances, other local patrons from outside of the
military hierarchy had resumed such functions. One thing to bear in
mind, however, is that many of the commanders during the war years
were actually young boys in the same age range as the fighters
themselves. These big men often maintained their standing within
these war networks, although it was more unusual that they managed
to maintain any position of power within the society at large.
In 1998, young excombatants in the semi-urban areas were slowly
preparing to move back towards their home communities.15 They
were, however, not able to proceed too fast, as they had to assess their
situation wisely lest they might get stuck in any untenable position.
Further, they were delaying their return home until they could bring
something with them to prove that they had managed well—that they
had got something out of the experience. To return in rags was not a
prospect.16 Many of the young excombatants in Ganta, including most
of Paul’s friends, saw education as an opportunity to make things up
with their families. Returning with an education could quite likely
make up for some other losses, and thus provide an entry ticket to
acceptance. Another path available at the time was to enter wage
labour work. The plantation industry was slowly re-emerging as an
As I returned to Ganta in early 2000 I found that all, with the exception of two young girls, had left
Paul’s house. This is a clear indication that the resettlement/reintegration process was proceeding. I was
told that Paul had again left for Danane trying to get on a resettlement program to Canada. Later the
same year I learned that he was back in Ganta.
Cf. urban refugees: they are often prepared to wait for several years, so as they can return with some
kind of wealth and pride.
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employer. Alluvial mining was another business where young labour
was sorely needed. Likewise, logging had become an important
business in post-war Liberia. Cutting down the remaining rainforest
might not be a good business for the country in the long-term, but for
excombatant youth it was a job where they could get both a salary and
renewed respect in society. To join the army was yet another path. In
short, they were back to the opportunity structure of which youth were
part prior to the war (Jackson 1977; Richards 1996).
As we have seen above, there were considerable differences in the
opportunity structures for excombatants, depending on where, along
the sliding scale between urban and rural they were situated in the
post-war environment. In the Monrovian case we saw that youth were
aided to get back into society by numerous international and national
aid organisations. However, it seems that whatever education or skills
were being taught to the excombatants they invariably remained
jobless and footloose. In rural Sinoe the situation was quite the
opposite. Social reintegration seemed to be working well, and with
surprising speed. As I showed above, aid directed towards the
reintegration of youth in this setting might even harm such a process
in the long-term. Finally, in the semi-urban case, we followed a group
of highly motivated excombatant youth who were arduously working
to gain re-acceptance and integrate into their pre-war homes, or
within a novel post-war environment. The international donor
community, in their attempts to aid excombatants in reintegration,
should really invest their efforts in these kinds of settings—in 1998
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surprisingly few donors targeted excombatant youth in Ganta.
Parts of the military structure remained intact in excombatant
networks, and organisational skills were maintained within these
networks.17 For example, the smooth operation and general success of
the brick making guild in Ganta can be seen as resting on war
networks. The boys who made up the brick-making guild were to a
large extent excombatants, and when they structured their work they
made use of organising skills learnt in the military framework of the
rebel armies. Their former commander could work as a contractor or
broker between them, as well as the buyer. Similar networks of
excombatants were found in gold and diamond mining, smaller (as
well as a few larger) logging projects, sugarcane farming and on
rubber, coffee and cocoa plantations. In larger corporations,
alternatively the wartime patrimonial structures were often broken
down and replaced by civilian patron/client networks.
To have participated in the war, as opposed to not having done so,
was clearly seen as a ‘touchstone of fraternity’ (Scott 1990:39). On the
basis of war experience, excombatants remained part of a subculture
with distinctive social codes and standards. Thus, such a comradeship,
or military ‘buddy system’ (Ben-Ari 1998:101), was retained for means
other than for fighting a war. I suggest that military structures and
discipline could be regarded as positive, and if utilised with care, it can
help speed up demobilisation and reintegration. Commanding skills
transferred from the national military is often highly rewarded in
Aid projects could make efficient use of that. Already now many aid projects have ex-commanders high
up in their organisations, who are making informal use of excombatants from their former military units.
Many international organisations are either unaware of the employment of senior rebel commanders, or
have chosen to ignore such facts.
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private corporations as well as in the civil service in the western world.
It could certainly be used as such in Liberia, too. I equally express fear
over aid projects further enhancing urbanising tendencies, already
strong in Liberia. During the first post-war years, too much effort
seemed to be spent on educating excombatants in a few skills.
Carpenters, mechanics or electricians were flooding Liberia. Every
single young woman was educated in soap making and in the process
of tie and dye. How would they benefit from such skills? The
possibility would be that more and more Liberian youth would
urbanise and, as a result, risk ending up in places like the Palace.
As I briefly suggested at the beginning of this chapter, the data I have
presented, points towards a complex picture of reintegration.
Reintegration is a typical NGO buzzword that is not saying much
about the social realities of a particular area. In the rural geography of
Liberia, reintegration was a process that was clearly taking place. But
in the other two settings, reintegration was a more difficult issue with
which to grapple. One of the cornerstones in this dissertation has been
that the Liberian Civil War partially was an outcome of the structural
marginalisation of youth. Due to the economic crisis and increasing
dependency on the central state in the 1980s, an ever-growing number
of young people in urban and semi-urban environments were
excluded even from the possibilities of becoming socially an adult.
Possibilities to participate in the wage economy diminished and
education ceased having any importance. With this crisis in view,
many young men lost even the possibility of establishing themselves as
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adults, through the building of a house, or getting married—however,
they continued to become fathers but for children they could not
provide for. Chronologically they outgrew the age of youth, but
socially they remained ‘youthmen’ (Momoh 1999).
The rebel factions were specifically successful in recruiting from
the category of already marginalised and highly dissatisfied young
urbanites and semi-urbanites. Is it thus strange that in the post-war
setting, we see little enthusiasm for the reintegration of youth in the
urban case? Marginalisation appears to be the norm for a large
proportion of young urbanites. Thus remarginalisation, and not
reintegration, has become the natural outcome awaiting most
excombatants. In the semi-urban case we see a tendency of both
reintegration and remarginalisation. Young excombatants are
working arduously to escape from the margin. They know very well
that they risk ending up there, because that was where a large number
of excombatants came from in the first place. In this sense, the initial
enlistment in the rebel armies was envisaged as a move away from the
margin and into the centre of society—a means of integrating right
into society. But again, it is only natural that they will be
remarginalised at the end of the war. Some however, strive hard and
are successful in turning the tide. The war endeavour for them might
actually have made the difference—it has clearly enabled the
integration of some youth. But for a large part of Liberian
excombatants remarginalisation not reintegration, is the reality.
Promising both revenge and redress, warlords ruthlessly exploited the
manifest or latent resentment that large numbers of marginalised
Liberians felt towards the government. At the outset of the war, rebel
movements appealed successfully to various ethnic groups from the
interior by heightening their sense of marginality in national politics.
NPFL largely directed people’s wrath against the Samuel Doe
government in Monrovia, but also against the Krahn and Mandingo
peoples in general. The rebel forces gradually lost their control over
the images of negative ethnic stereotypes, however, and they began
terrorising the very peoples they had promised to protect. At this point,
the growing resentment of many young Liberians, responding to their
own blocked opportunities to become adults, became channelled
towards the adult population in general. This became a reason in itself
to fight in the civil war. As we have seen, the Liberian Civil War
created new opportunities for earlier, otherwise marginalised peoples.
Young men from marginal backgrounds became field commanders
and strongmen of society. Young women too left their homes and
ventured out into the public sphere. It was a high-risk game—an
illusio of violence1—with high-risk stakes; but it also offered highyield gains. Initially, young combatants experienced great flow and
indeed found great gains. But as de Certeau has argued (1984), the
agency of the weak, and the marginal, is tactical rather than strategic.
Bourdieu uses the term illusio to connote a social game were people are aware of their bets (1998:77).
Most Liberian youth combatants found that their investment in the
war was only temporarily rewarded. In the long term they were again
exiled to marginality as the war waned.
As for the erstwhile warlord and current President of Liberia,
Charles Taylor, can we establish his agency as long-term and thus view
his participation in the war as being strategic? If we follow my earlier
comparisons with the rebel hero and liberator Sunjata, this would
certainly be the case. After gaining power through violence and magic,
Sunjata—according to the epic—transformed himself into a ‘just and
respected leader of his people’. We should bear in mind, however, that
the social environment looks quite different today from what it did
during the time of Sunjata, and Taylor actually has little space for
transforming himself into a national hero. International opinion is
bothering him, with troublesome questions about his dubious human
rights record, his support of rebel movements (RUF), and of terrorist
groups (namely al-Qaida—see Global Witness 2003).2 Taylor is
concerned by the international community’s refusal to forget his past
deeds, and he is continuously forced to resort again to the rebel tactics
he masters. In order to stay in place as the President of Liberia, Taylor
has little choice but to negotiate clandestine deals with arms traders
and looking for support from criminal networks. If he ever thought of
going straight, how could he possibly do that? Like Doctor Faust, his
deal with the devil is not easily rescinded. In addition, the
international community is increasingly limiting his mobility, and
forcing him to remain within Liberia itself. Inside the country too,
See also Washington Post, November 2, 2001. Al Qaeda cash tied to diamond trade: sale of gems from
Sierra Leone rebels raised millions, sources say, by Douglas Farah.
revenge-prone citizens now force him to spend most of his time within
his fortress-style Monrovian home. Whenever he is en route, the
security entourage surrounding his motorcade bears witness to the
existence of a very scared man.
After the official end of the 1990-1997 war, Liberia experienced the
further social exclusion of its citizens, with most excombatants
becoming remarginalised, not reintegrated. The formal end to the war
did not lead to reinvestment and rehabilitation in Liberia. The
remnants of a pre-war economy did not yield a tangible income for
young people, and thus it was only natural that deep-seated
resentment resurfaced. Although 1997-1999 was mainly conflict free,
some fighting did take place. Over this period, by far the worst
incident was the September 18, 1998, fighting in Monrovia which
brought the country back to the brink of war. In late 1999, however, a
new rebel movement entered Lofa County from neighbouring
Guinea. From then on, the rebel group, called LURD (Liberians
United for Reconciliation and Democracy), has continued to attack
locations in Liberia, and at times towns in the proximity of Monrovia.
It appears to have been quite easy for both rebels and government
forces (army and a variety of pro-government militias) to enlist new
soldiers. With the intense marginalisation of youth, serious abjection
and the flourishing of self-empowering ressentiment,3 this is hardly
In my dissertation, I have sought to maintain a micro focus on
some of the individual motives behind the actions of soldiers
Nietzsche uses the term ressentiment to denote reactions towards ‘the other’ by those who have been
“denied the proper response of action” and “who compensate for it only with imaginary revenge”
(1994:21-37). It is thus a kind of empowered abjection, or an agency of the abject.
comprising the various rebel movements during the 1990-1997 part of
the civil war. I have only given limited attention to the macro
perspective. By doing so, my intention has not been to say that the
reasons for war are primarily to be found in Liberian society or
culture, but rather to point out the importance of understanding the
perspectives of ordinary people, i.e. locating the motives of people who
support, or directly join rebel movements. However, if we do see the
Liberian Civil War from a macro perspective, we need not only to
account for the tactics (and to some extent strategies) of a Liberian
leadership, but also for the role of international politics. We should
then pay attention to the fact that many among the Liberian leadership
obtained their academic education in the United States; Charles Taylor
is but one example. Many senior Liberian military officers received
their training within the US military, while others have had both
military and political training in Libya. Thus the perspectives and
strategies of leadership are at least in part formed from experiences
received outside of Liberia. There is also a very politically volatile
diasporic Liberian community in the US—a brief glance at Liberian
internet pages confirms that. Generally, political leaders maintain close
ties to specific diasporic groups, as well as to political contacts such as
high profile politicians, civil servants and the lobby groups of foreign
states. Those who lack such connections certainly have difficulties in
their political, as well as military activities.
On an international level, the different rebel movements have also
received various forms of open as well as covert support from the
governments of France and the United States. The longstanding
interest in Liberia by the United States took a downturn at the end of
the Cold War, but did not vanish altogether. During the 1990-1997
portion of the civil war, the US in fact supported the two ULIMO’s,
AFL and LPC, whilst France maintained close relations with the
NPFL (see Ellis 1995; 1999; Reno 1996). Backing from nations in the
region has varied a little over time, but generally one might say that
Nigeria and Guinea have remained in support of the ULIMO’s, AFL
and LPC, whilst the Ivory Coast, up to the Laurent Gbagbo take-over
(2000), as well as Burkina Faso and Libya, have supported the NPFL
and later the democratically elected NPP (ibid.). In the renewed civil
war (2000 and onwards) the Guinean government, despite its official
denials, has been supporting and training LURD (see International
Crisis Group 2003:10-12). There is little doubt that US support to the
Guinean army has benefited LURD rebels (ibid. and Human Rights
Watch 2002), and the US government stands firm in its wish to rid
Liberia of Charles Taylor. Currently it would also appear that since
March 2003, the Ivorian government supports the new rebel force
MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia), active in southeastern Liberia (International Crisis Group 2003:20-24). Its presence is
an outcome of an apparent split in the LURD leadership along old
ULIMO-J/ULIMO-K lines.4 By pointing to the involvement and
intervention of other governments in Liberian affairs, I do not imply
that Charles Taylor has been sitting idle and is now under attack. On
the contrary, since the creation of the RUF (Revolutionary United
Front of Sierra Leone) in Sierra Leone in 1991, Charles Taylor has
been deeply involved in that movement. It is also quite clear that proTaylor militias have been very active in MPIGO (Movement Populaire
MODEL has emerged as a separate movement from LURD only in April 2003, thus it is yet not clear what
the objectives are. However see their Declaration of intent on The Perspective homepage:
Ivoirien du Grand Ouest)—the western based rebel force engaged in
the civic struggle in which the Ivory Coast is now involved
(International Crisis Group 2003:15-20). The MPIGO is based in
Danane, the one-time Ivorian stronghold of the NPFL.
As I write this epilogue (in April 2003), LURD and MODEL are
engaged in fighting in large parts of Liberia. Taylor’s troops are in
control of less territory than they have been at any time since the
election, and LURD and MODEL are closing in on Monrovia.
MODEL’s strength is much dependent on what is happening in the
Ivory Coast, and a qualified guess is that LURD’s future will depend
on US support to Guinea. In the shadow of the ‘US led war against
terrorism’ and the 2003 Iraqi conflict, it is quite likely that the US have
again opened up a direct supply line to LURD. However, there is a
question whether the Americans will proceed further, once the
international media and human rights groups divert their focus from
Iraq. Since 2000, rebel pressures on Monrovia have waxed and waned.
With the opening of a southern frontier, and MODEL now in control
of large parts of Grand Gedeh County5 as well as maintaining a keen
presence in Sinoe County,6 the situation has become all the more
serious for the Liberian government. At the same time, LURD troops
have established themselves in Grand Cape Mount County for the first
time (reportedly aided by ex-Kamajor militia from Sierra Leone—
see e.g. ReliefWeb: Liberia: Defence minister reports fresh fighting in the southeast, April 14, 2003.
See e.g. ReliefWeb: Thousands flee Liberian town in fear of rebel attacks, April 21, 2003.
01937c0?OpenDocument. And IRINnews.org: New rebel group pushes closer to capital, April 28, 2003.
International Crisis Group 2003:12-13).7 LURD overran government
forces in the strategic stronghold of Gbarnga, in Bong County—the
third largest town in Liberia—and maintained command for a week.
They are also currently in control of Ganta, Nimba County partly due
to armed support from Guinea. This action could be viewed as a joint
strategic operation by Guinea/Ivory Coast as it effectively cuts off the
Liberian supply routes to MPIGO. Simultaneously, efforts are being
made to oust Liberian soldiers from the Ivory Coast and MPIGO, by
both the larger Ivorian MPCI (Mouvement Patriotique de la Côte
d’Ivoire) and Ivorian government forces as the Ivorian peace
agreement is implemented.8
When we look at this larger picture, we can clearly see that other,
major national and international players have no intention of letting
Charles Taylor transform himself into a Sunjata-style leader. Quite the
contrary, they are inevitably going to make life difficult for him. So,
not even Charles Taylor’s war endeavour turned out to be strategic
agency, but rather a tactic response if studied from this perspective.
His current political situation is actually a result of his own complicity,
something which has turned the game to one in which he perpetually
loses his assets. In the Liberian Civil Wars there were, and are no
lasting winners, only bidders. If we can talk about any long-term
winners at all, then surely, in reality, these must be the international
businessmen and covert investors who deal in arms for Liberia’s rich
See also allAfrica.com: Sierra Leonean Kamajors fighting with Lurd, government says. February 14,
2003. http://allafrica.com/stories/2003022140524.html.
See, ReliefWeb, Ivorian rebels clash with former Liberian Allies. April 25, 2003.
resources of diamonds, gold, timber, coffee and cocoa. Trading far
below market prices, and dealing only in the “shadows”, they too help
to sustain the unending cycle of violence and bloodshed in Liberia.
Stephen Hlophe dedicated his book Class, ethnicity and politics in
Liberia (1979) to the youth of that country, calling them “the Precious
Jewels of Liberia”. Few others saw Liberian youths as either ‘precious’
or ‘jewels’, and in the years following his book, young Liberians
became marginalised to the point where they became abject to society.
In this light, my dissertation is a tribute to the young abject heroes who
fought in the Liberian Civil War.
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