Category Archives: Conflict cases

War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone, by Krijn Peters


With his book “War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone”, Krijn Peters presents an analysis that is exceptional by the materials it presents, intelligent by the way it uses the material and full of marvelous insights about the motivations and reasons why young people would not only take up arms but also commit horrendous atrocities as RUF fighters and others did in the Sierra Leonean war. For this reason alone, Peters’ book is precious and rare in the literature on civil wars, a diamond one would be tempted to say if this book would not make so brutally clear what a curse diamonds and its economy have been for Sierre Leone.

The book is a major contribution to research on armed conflict and most particularly on child soldiering as Peters manages to carve out the motivations of the combatants for joining and staying with the RUF. He reconstructs the internal organisation of this movement which has remained rather obscure and been subject to quite some phantasms, and he has found sensible explanations for the atrocities committed by RUF rebels, mainly in the second half of the 1990s. With this work that builds on former publications (some with Paul Richards) Peters successfully debunks the myth of a disemparaged youth run wild. He replaces it with a differentiated, fine grained and sensitive portrait of the mainly rural underclass of Sierra Leonean society that was surely out to take its revenge for the injustice and (violent) exploitation it had experienced before but which also pursued a project of a better society as any respectable revolutionary movement. Such a perceptive analysis is rare in war studies and particularly when it comes to organisations like the RUF which have made headlines for their brutal violence. Peters painstakingly pieces together interviews on a large range of topics.

The analysts of wars in Africa who actually go and talk to those who fought the war are few. There are a number of reasons for this: ongoing wars are particularly unpleasant fields of research, not only for the dangers they represent but also for the logistic and communicative difficulties of these environments: people engaged in armed combat are likely to have other things on their mind than talking to academics; the discussions one can have in war will most probably be fully subjected to the emotional and intellectual exceptionality of wars and might therefore not give further insights into the larger picture.

Krijn Peters is well aware of all these difficulties and the materials he collected as well as his presentation reflect the tremendous care he has taken to deal with the fallacies of doing research in these situations. Just like Mats Utas argues in his marvelous “Sweet Battlefields“, he contends that standard interviews or polls will not lead very far with these young people (Mats Utas admits that his method was “deep hanging out” with the ex-fighters and that this was a much better, complete and honest information source than the over 100 hours of formal interviews he did with youngsters in a demobilisation programme). The former combattants are far too experienced in delivering standard narratives to curious folks whether from NGOs, state agencies, media or academia. They also might have personal, psychological and reputational interests in not presenting their own story but what they assume others want to hear; Peters and Utas make this point particularly clear for the question of abduction. Although abducted, many young people might have, or actually, have chosen to stay with the armed groups they fell prey to. Whether this is the effect of brainwashing, of the Stockholm syndrome or the not unlikely discovery that, in the end, the abductees found something genuine positive in their new roles is something only careful interviewing over a long period of time can tell. Representativity of the the interview sample is, in this case, less important than getting into deep with the former combattants and just like Utas, Peters chose to follow “his” informants over a longer period of time in order to peel off the upper superficial layers of standard narratives and discourses. He nevertheless keeps his critical distance, true to his initial statement that “empathy does not mean sympathy”.

The care he has taken to choose his interview partners, to follow them over a longer period and especially to come back in well paced intervalls shows in the wealth of insights he produces from these sources. He is thus able to correct a number of received ideas about rebels and child soldiers in general and the fighters of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in particular. With respect to recruitment, he makes a plausible case that the RUF mainly recruited from rural poor, and here from the lowest social stratum, namely young men (mainly) who lacked patronage networks to protect them from exploitation in villages or mining areas: orphans, “foreigners”, descendants from former house slaves and similar social groups. He explains internal cohesion of the movement partly with this common origin and the replacement of a hierarchical, class-based and gerontocratic social structure of the Sierra Leonean countryside by a meritocratic one in the rebel movement. In the RUF recruits could gain position and respect through their fighting; even if not spellt out in sophisticated and intellectual-theoretical terms such a “base socialism” provided important ideological ferment for the RUF. Ideology also translated into praxis with the creation of communal farms and the communal organisation of mining. Peters thus amasses evidence against a common thesis that movements like the RUF was void of political vision, just as he makes plainly clear that material incentives played overall a minor role in the motivation of the fighters, in the origins of the rebellion and in its internal organisation. For those used to the standard narrative of a “lumpen youth” (as Abdullah calls them) run wild, Peters conclusion will come as a surprise that “the movement had a set of rules and regulations and a guiding ideology which it sought to instil in its fighters during their training period”.

In the fifth chapter Peters actually provides a deep analysis of the causes for the atrocious violence deployed by, and this is an important qualification of his study, some RUF fighters and some points in time during the 12-year war and in some places. In previous chapters, Peters had explained at length the decentralized “cell” character of the movement which made consistent organisational training, monitoring and control extremely difficult, particularly during the “bush” years. This may account for the lack of discipline within the RUF but does not yet explain the actrocities committed (note that any war is brutal, the particularity here being the “specialisation” in certain types of violence like the amputation for which the RUF had gained its image as new barbarians in the onwatching world). Peters advances two sets of reasons and causes for the violence of the RUF: external influences and internal organisational dysfunctions. Among the external influences he notes that many of the atrocities committed in the early stage of war were so by Liberian fighters. This early stage settled the reputation of the RUF and the brutal repression of the rebellion by the army  (although ineffective) seem to have distanced the RUF from its natural constituency, hence, making violent antagonism between the RUF and villages escalate. Peters argues that this led to a strong paranoia among the RUF which was carried on into later phases of war and became particularly virulent in the phase after 1997 when the RUF took the bushes again. Internally, two organisational features supported the development of such paranoia and reinforced the key role particularly violent individuals could play. The RUF was organised in cells with flat hierarchies; in the beginnings, there were ony two military ranks and platoons were small. In this jungle guerilla warfare, paranoic suspicion towards civilians was actually an assett as it contributed to the group’s safety. With the rise and success of self-defense militias which would hunt down the RUF in the jungle, this paranoia became reinforced and was not mediated by a larger command or organisational movement. The second effect of this guerrilla organisation was that particularly “wicked”, i.e. violent individuals were not only difficult to control and punish for their behaviour, their aggressiveness might even be useful for the protection of the individual RUF platoons and therefore go unpunished despite the movement having a set of rules that prohibit unnecessary violence, rape and looting.

It is a pity that Peters does not engage with any of the theories of violence currently en vogue. Weinstein’s binomic and path-dependent distinction between low resource movements, who would engage in ideological training rather than loot and indiscriminate violence, from high resource organisations which will maintain adherence of fighters through lucrative material booty, does not fit at all to Peters’ descriptions. Kalyvas’ argument that indiscriminate violence will increase if territorial control, information and the loyalty of the population are contested fits Peters’ account much better. Yet, just as Elliott’s study of the Vietcong/Vietminh shows neither the material nor strategic or ideological position of these groups can fully explain how and which form of violence they employed. It appears from these two studies rather that the dynamics of violence in civil wars is also strongly determined by inner-organisational developments. For further research this is probably the most important conclusion from Peters book.

With respect to child or young soldiers, Peters book introduces also an important observation that is all too often missing from other accounts on child soldiering, namely that child soldiering is more frequent and more likely to happen if the youth that is recruited into the rebel movement had been already widely marginalised before; and that these young men take mature and responsible decisions despite their age. The latter leads us to having to rethink our understanding of childhood and youth as times of irresponsibility and immaturity. Rather, these young people have to be considered and their actions have to be analyzed within the social tissue of which they are part.



Bosnia revisited: a very, very quick relational analysis of the Bosnian war


In 2002, Rogers Brubaker published a fascinating paper “Ethnicity without groups” discussing different ways how the emergence of ethnic groups can be understood. The paper, and the later book of the same title, are extremely illuminating as they constitutes a clear departure from the reified identitary view of ethnic groups (that view that only speaks in the collective singular) through using a strictly relational analytical framework. Later on, Andreas Wimmer has developed this as “configurational analysis”, explaining the dynamics of ethnopolitics and ethnic conflict. In the 2002 paper, Brubaker refers mainly to Bourdieu’s theorizing about the genesis of social groups, exploring how the mutual perception and the mutual tit-for-tat between social groups may lead to ethnicization of a group or not, and to what kind of ethnopolitics.
Inspired by this paper, I tried, some time ago, to apply such a relational framework to the Bosnian case. While puzzling the different relationships together, I started drawing charts where different actors were positioning themselves and against whom in the space of the Bosnian conflict.

The result is the graph above which shows a quite complicated, almost fractal assembly of dichotomous conflicts in which there is always a primary competition between two or three actors in a smaller political field (often the national field, but in the case of the EC also the European field) and which is influenced and related to the competitive struggles in the larger field of the internationalized Bosnian conflict.
Pushing this relational framework further into the time after the war, this graph comes out:

What is striking in the comparison of the two is the orderly impression the last graph makes. The United Nations (in form of the UN mission to Bosnia, SFOR and the Office of the High Representative) seem to have bundled the struggles and relations between all actors like a prisma bundles light rayons. If the real mission of the UN, hence, consisted in absorbing competitive struggles on the global area and to serve as catalyst for conflicts on the local, national or regional level?


Was there a war in Iraq? Aaaaah, well, yes, no, uhm, dunno….


Was there a war in Iraq? John Tirman asks in the Huffington Post. Yes, “there was a war, started by the United States, pursued in violation of international law, and resulting in the deaths and displacement of more people than virtually anyone cares to acknowledge. If it’s not mentioned, it just might not have happened, at least for those who urged it on” he pursues in his paper after having looked at many different ways the US public and pundits are trying to forget already what has happened in Iraq. Just another way of forgetting is to endogeneize the fighting in Iraq by presenting it as just again an episode of an ancient struggle between ethnic or religious groups that has just been provisionaly buckled down by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The explanatory pattern is strikingly similar to the one used for the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, in Congo and other places: ancient conflicts which existed since the age of time and which a brutal, dictatorial regime stopped only through force, hence, making them briddle up once that brutal regime is gone.

John Tirman asks why there is this forgetting…and yet, the answer is obvious. By presenting these wars as internal affairs, the barbarian equivalent to the pub brawl of some aborigines in a far away country, responsibility of global and third actors is denied. This endogenization and denial are among others reflected in the data sets used in many quantitative studies. The Correlates of War project lists Iraq once in its Inter-state war set as inter-state conflict “Invasion” in 2003, and once in its “Extra-state war” data set for 2004…and that’s it. Otherwise no Americans, British or others seem to have been involved in any fighting in Iraq (or Afghanistan for that matter) — or at least not to the point to make into the COW dataset.

The PRIO dataset is somewhat clearer here as it lists the United States, alongside the other states of the coalition, as “side A 2nd” next to Iraq (side A) versus diverse groups on side B, and this from 2004 on. This still does not fully account for the particular responsibility of the United States in this mess but it does, at least, point to them and their allies as participating in an armed conflict although the main conflict is seen to be between the government of Iraq and rebel groups (Interestingly, Iran is not mentioned as being “side B 2nd”…). The US responsibility is nicely dilluted in the mass of countries appearing to be participating as secondaries. Yes, there was a war but the US was somehow but maybe not really or just a little involved….



The Economist, India and the Kashmir conflict: And the times when drawing lines was a threat to the state are not over yet…


Some China travellers might have already made the experience that Chinese costums confiscated their “Lonely Planet” travel guide. Reason: on the map of the People’s Republic of China and its neighbouring countries including the South China Sea, Taiwan is drawn in a different colour than the PRC. This could be interpreted, of course, as indicating that Taiwan is independent although it is, always has been, always will be, obviously, without doubts, afterthoughts and conditions or reserve, part of China…Now, it seems that not only vilain autocratic states like China are still itchy about the way borders are drawn in publications…the biggest democracy of the world, India, is so too. As Philippe Rekacewicz reports on his blog for Le Monde Diplomatique, India has blocked last May the delivery of 28000 copies of the Economist which contained an article and a map on the Kashmir conflict. So far for the freedom of information in India.

What is interesting in Rekacewicz’ report on the ensuing debate between the Economist and Indian journalists, is that the latter justify the censoring with the “sensitive” nature of the Kashmir issue and the emotional attachment Indians had to this part of the subcontinent. This is not without recalling Chinese rhethorics on Tibet and Taiwan. It seems that in times where geostrategic justifications just don’t sound good, where claims of sovereignty are not fought over borders but “responsibility”, contested territorial claims have to be defended emotionally rather than rationally. On can literally see the military and political powerholders at the top of the state in Delhi theatrically throwing the Economist on their desk and exclaiming with tears in their eyes “This is such a mean thing to do!”. As all things emotional, it leaves very little room to the other to say or do something that is not inappropriate and wrong in this very situation. Emotionalizing issues is always an excellent strategy to silence topics without having to debate them but also without having to answer to the real issues at stake. “Let me first calm down after this terrible shock, later we can talk… maybe”, is the message of emotional outcries; the hope that “later” will simply never come.

However effective emotionalization is for the protagonist in the short term, it is, in the end, complicating conflict resolution in the long term as it renders those issue indivisible. If the conflicts over Kashmir or Tibet were over natural resources, over land rights, over countable and taxable populations — all things divisible — deals could be found that allow every side to gain from resolving the issue. Emotionalizing is therefore an essential ingredient of escalating conflicts to the point of no-solution and of keeping them exactly there. India’s reaction to the Economist article is therefore not only an indicator for the miserable state of civil rights in the world’s largest democracy, it also clearly shows that the Indian ruling class is far, far, far from wanting a solution for the Kashmir conflict.


Conflicts in standard narratives: The Uppsala Conflict Data Base Application for iPad, iPod and iPhone


The Uppsala Conflict Data Program has created a conflict encyclopedia application for iPad, iPod and iPhone. Potentially interesting for quick reference when teaching or browsing through the web, this application is a huge disappointment. On the outside it does look interesting as the entries are simply presented; yet, if the entry on Sierra Leone is anything to go for than there outrageously simplistic not simple. Conflicts are listed by country and each entry is subdivided into six sections: “Overview”, “War and minor conflict”, “Non-state conflict”, “One-sided conflict”, “Conflict prevention” and “Peace agreements”. The texts are mostly reproductions of the texts one can find on the program’s webpage in the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia (

The greatest weakness is certainly that the application contains no references whatsoever (just as the web encyclopedia, by the way). Narratives of the conflicts, of the warring parties’ motives, of the reasons and causes of the fighting are simply presented as established facts that need no further scrutiny or discussion. Even in cases where debates are admitted, for instance in the discussion of casualty estimates, no sources are given.

And yet, looking at the case of Sierre Leone for instance the bias of the narrative is obvious to anyone having read a bit more than Paul Richards’ “Fighting for the rainforest”  and Ibrahim Abdullah’s “Bushpath to destruction”. These two seem to have been the major sources for the “overview” and “one-sided violence” section as themes of both writings are reiterated here although the authors clearly decided to follow Abdullah rather than Richards. As valuable both texts are for the understanding of the conflict, they remain limited and are both, albeit in very different ways, biased. Richards’ aim was clearly to build a better understanding of youth despair and exploitation whereas Ibrahim mainly bereaves the revolution that he believes the RUF has stolen from him and his like-minded student unionists.

However, in both sections of the encyclopdia entry what is not said is much more intriguing than what is said. And there is quite a lot that is not said. No mention is made of the Civil Defense forces which, in a (fake) allusion to traditional hunter societies, are also called Kamajor militias. Neither are the private military companies mentioned which were engaged to defend private mining interests and, later on, to “train” (and some would rather say lead) the Civil Defense forces (with the support of the British MI5 as some say but for that we will probably need to wait another 20 years or so until the archives open up). And there is certainly no word about the ECOMOG troops that were supposed to keep the peace that never was.

All three omissions are dumbfounding given that all three groups were equally involved in war crimes, atrocities against “civilians” (with the usual caveat note that civilians and combatants are hard to distinguish in these wars) and diamond exploitation. Private security companies were paid in concessions for mineral, notably diamond mining, and ECOMOG troops were allegedly involved in diamond mining and smuggling with the complicity of the United Nations which did all to suffocate any reporting on this (see The Guardian, Chris McGreal: Sierra Leone peace force accused of sabotage, 9 September 2000. See also on private security companies and diamonds: Douglas, Ian. Fighting for Diamonds – Private military companies in Sierra Leone. In: Cilliers, Jakkie, Peggy Mason, and Institute for Security Studies (South Africa). 1999. Peace, profit or plunder? : the privatisation of security in war-torn African societies. Halfway House, South Africa: Institute for Security Studies, p. 175-200).

Needless to say that the entry also does not discuss at all the role that Sierra Leone’s huge dependence on mineral exports and complete infeodation to multinational companies has played; according to a study from the 1980s the mineral sector constituted 70% of the country export value but employed only 3,5% of the labour force (see Cleeve, Emmanuel A. 1997. Multinational enterprises in development : the mining industry of Sierra Leone. Aldershot, Hants, England Brookfield, Vt., USA: Avebury, p. 35). From the UCDP application one could think that it was indeed only during the war, and only by the RUF, that under-age diamond miners were brutally exploited and not that it still is common that these boys are paid less than 2US$ a day for mining a piece of a mineral that is only of value for the Mr. Bigs of this world who stick it on the fingers of their Manhatten beauties at the Tiffany’s sale price of a couple of ten thousand US$.

And whereas the text follows Ibrahim’s grousing and groaning about the RUF’s “lumpen youth”, there is literally no discussion of how a country that at independence had one of Africa’s best education systems has produced an entire generation of illiterate and uneducated angry young men and women – not that conditioned World Bank or IMF credits would have had to do anything with that…No, according to this conflict encyclopedia it was “corruption” and “autocracy”  as well as “patrimonial cliques” that made “Sierra Leone’s vast natural resources (fall) victim to this ineffective economic system…(the patrimonial cliques and the autocratic political system) collaborated to create a country that lacked a developed industrial and agricultural sector, any effective and legitimate bureaucracy and democratic freedoms.”

It’s-the-Africans-fault is surely always a convenient presentation of the thin and inefficient economic structures of these countries but it only works if the colonial impact is quietly omitted… in this case, the UCDP has found a very elegant way of doing so: it’s data only goes back to 1975…

There would be much more to say about the incredibly low quality of the text on Sierra Leone, about the tons of orientalist descriptions (of course, tribes and ethnicities are not missing in the text), the way rumours are presented as certainties (for instance the support Charles Taylor is supposed have given the RUF but for which the Special Court for Sierra Leone still, after years, struggles hard to find evidence) and stereotypes colported but each of this would merit (and maybe will get) its own blog entry…So if the quality of the Sierra Leone entry is anything to go for, just give my two minutes to deinstall this thing!


And for those who want to have a look themselves: