Category Archives: Child soldiering

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.



Child soldiering as cheap option? Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman on child soldiering.


Carl von Clausewitz was 13 years old when he served as Lance Corporal in the Prussian Army. Napoleon was 10 years old when he was admitted to the Military Academy at Brienne-le-Chateau.  Childsoldiers, both. But certainly not the kind of child soldiers Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman are thinking of with their model of child soldier recruitment. The data they  use to construct their model is, in fact, derived from a survey of former child soldiers of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and is preoccupied with explaining child soldier recruitment in Africa. As true economists they propose a model to explain child soldiering in which child soldiering is the cheap option…sounds simple but, as so often, it is not really and it is, additionally, not entirely convincing.

Their model is, indeed, a bit slopsided: they assume that child soldiers are not as effective as adult soldiers. For a rational, utility-maximizing leader it is therefore, normally, not sensible to recruit child soldiers. However, if the difficulties of retaining rebels in the group are taken into account it is, in the end, cheaper and easier to forcibly recruit children  because the use of indoctrination as well as the impunity with which they can coerce children to stay with them makes it easier to retain them than adult soldiers. This is the case if children have few or no alternatives, i.e. they cannot run away and there is no prospect of being protected by the state. So far so good. What remains quite murky is their argument that children are less effective soldiers than adults and that therefore their recruitment is puzzling. Hinging upon this argument is their argument about the use of violence and the ensuing policy recommendations…it is therefore worthwhile to discuss this assumption a bit more.

Why should child soldiers be less effective than adults? Beber and Blattman suggest that they are physically not strong enough to make good soldiers  if compared to a 21-year old. But.. it is actually questionable that a 21-old is so much stronger than a 14-year old if we consider the physical lives people have in these countries. Of course, a 21-year old is strong, and probably still stronger than a 14-year old…yet, what is interesting about 14-year old  boys in these countries is that they are strong, too, that they are enduring, used to hard physical labour and certainly in the physical shape to do all what a soldier needs to do, yet, on top of that, they are malleable, easily compliant and, hence, easier to control.  All this together makes them actually a much more attractive recruit than a 21-year old!

Whereas in the US it is certainly true that a wimpy kid cannot outperform a college freshman, this is can be mainly explained by the long lifespan in industrialized countries where physical labour has largely disappeared and physical force is built up mainly during adolescence through leisure sports. But this is not how physical capabilities develop in rural societies in Africa. In Uganda (and other countries with high incidence of child soldiering and child labour like Sierra Leone or Liberia) life expectancy oscillates around 50 years, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two other countries where child soldiering was rampant, life expectancy before the wars was even lower: 43.1 (1980) and  43.8 (1980)  respectively. If we apply a simple development model of let’s say 30% of a life being childhood, 60% being a parent and 10% being old, we can see that childhood is over at the age of 10 in most of these countries. The short life expectancy also shifts the normal curb of peak performance capacities. If these are between the age of 24-28 in olympic sports among sportsmen of industrialized countries with an average life expectancy of 76 years, they are more likely to be around the age of 14-17 with a life expectancy of 50 years.

Such estimates are rather plausible if we consider additionally that rural children start working in household and farming at a very early age. If a Liberian, Sierra Leonean or Ugandan man of rural origin reaches the age of 21, he is likely to have physically worked for 15 years, hence, rather have the physcial strength and healthiness of a 35-year old in an industrialized country, or even older given the hardship of the labour he did (and malnutrition and diseases). All this considered, a 21-year old might still be stronger than a 14-year old, yet, the 14-year old is of such physical strength and endurance that it makes perfect sense to “engage” child soldiers, particularly adolescent boys  — as the authors’ own survey confirms, stating that 14-year olds were three times as likely to be abducted by the LRA than 9-year olds!

This holds particularly true if we consider that adolescents in most rural areas are already holding crucial roles in pastoring or farming, hence, that they constitute already an important part of the workforce. If we assume that children are exactly attractive because they are strong enough to be enduring  soldiers then they cannot be cheap…everyone, the farmer and the rebel leader, are in fact competing over the resource of strong and healthy boys. As a central pillar of rural labour, boys and young men would not be released into the army or a rebel group unless the family or patron would be appropriately compensated. For rebel groups it makes therefore perfect sense to abduct these children rather than having to pay for them. Abduction happens because strong and healthy children are a valuable resource in rural areas of these countries.

But what about the retainment argument of Beber and Blattman? Even abducted, or especially when abducted, the retainment of child soldiers remains problematic. In Beber’s and Blattman’s model, violence mainly serves the purpose of penalizing “bad” behaviour of the recruits and it is cheaper to use violence than to propose positive incentives… as long as the children have no or very few outside options (like running away or alternatives outside the rebel group). This argument fits well also if we assume that child soldiers have been abducted because they are better fighters than adults. Actually, it fits even better as it can explain also very specific types of violence which are characteristic for situations in which child soldiers are involved,  like attacks against the village and family of the child soldier, forcing them to kill their kin or committing taboo violations like “desecrat(ing) bodies” as described by Beber and Blattman. This violence barrs the children’s return to their village and family, hence, increases the retainment with the rebel group.

But if the family or village  is not killed, why don’t they always and by all means try to get their children back? Here, again, Beber’s and Blattman’s assumption about the outside options appear not to be thought through thoroughly and considering what we know from ethnographic research about rural African societies. Beber and Blattman argue that outside options would be the possibility that the rebel leader will be penalized by an external actor for abducting and violating the children and that, given the absence of the state or international powerful actors in these wars, this outside option is more or less nil. What Beber and Blattman do not consider is the outside option of society: the extremely strong stigma on the children (especially girls) and the fact that most of these children have been already on the lowest scale of the village’s social hierarchy — despite (or because) their value in rural work.

The low social status of children in African rural society can, indeed, be functionally explained by their crucial role as work force. As the strongest elements of the rural society their potential power has to be in check. Elder-based social hierarchies with clearly defined strata and positions (usually sanctioned by corresponding communitarian rituals, ceremonies, initiation rites etc.)  and refined patron-client structures within families (mind that most of the child soldiers were actually foster children) are excellent social means to keep the young, strong and potentially rebellious in their place. Physical punishment, and rather brutal physical punishment, of children has therefore often been explained by the disciplinary necessity to keep children and particularly young men in exactly their social position.  It might therefore very well be that for these children it does not matter whether they are being physically punished and having to work heavy duties for some family member or some rebel leader — at least this is what studies like Norma Kriger’s study on Zimbabwe, Mats Utas’s study on Liberia and Paul Richards’ study on Sierra Leone have found. And it explains why families, from their side, are not always keen getting those children back. Outside options are not (only) reduced by the absence of the state but by the particular social hierarchies of rural African societies and the stigma of childsoldiering in these societies.

What does that change in Beber’s and Blattman’s model? Well, it does not change much in the explanation of violence for retainment purposes but it changes a lot when it comes to policy recommendations…

Beber and Blattman argue that “raising the cost of child recruitment is crucial”, whereby they are thinking of penalizing child recruitment more effectively and severely through state or international institutions of justice. However, if the violence of abduction is the result of the already high costs of child soldier recruitment and if the violence internal to a rebel group serves the purpose of destroying social links then this policy could have exactly the reverse effect. The incentive to rapt children and to “turn them over” becomes higher as does the necessity to “wean” them from their home through violent acts becomes even more urgent.Violence might be increase even if the risks for the rebel group which are associated with the child’s escape or persecution require absolutising the soldiers’ loyalties.

The second recommendation is to raise “real opportunities”, i.e. educational and income, for adolescents to increase the outside options…yet, this makes only sense if these children and youngsters are not seen as being bound into social hierarchies and family networks but as the liberal, atomized, rational decision-making actor whose only impediment to chose freely between fighting, farming, schooling and becoming an accountant, are the rebel leader’s violence…this might work if demobilized former child soldiers find themselves atomized in cities and refugee centres and to avoid that they return into rebel groups or criminal gangs…but it is less likely to work as preventive measure where these kind of decisions are not those of the children in the first place. At least not if children remain in the double position of being essential for the rural economy and being on the lowest level of social hierarchies.