CategoryElection violence

The making of a market: politicizing gangs in Sierra Leone, by Kars de Bruijne

The back of a clique member

By January 2019, politicians were recruiting gang members again, nearly a year after the Sierra Leone elections. They were asked to join in protest against the decision of a commission of inquiry to go after prominent political figures. Rival politicians, however, tried to shift gang allegiance and used an informal-intelligence network to single-out, beat-up and warn potential troublemakers. By the end of the month, I spoke to one senior politician about how his party seemed to lose control over the cliques (the local name for gangs). The talk alternated between refusing to talk about cliques and him showing pictures of Commanders (COs) and so-called 5Os he supported in college, bragging how they accompanied him during rallies and boasts about how he could command them still given his leading role in the secret society. Politics and gangs in Sierra Leone are closely intertwined.

In this post I explore the relation between politicians and cliques: why, when and how do politicians interact with the gangs? I consider three elements in the relation between politicians and gangs: attempts to engage in “peace-making”, the role of cliques in elections and finally the role of Sierra Leone gangs outside of elections. Based on the evidence, I suggest that the growth in cliques is in part politically sponsored and I use the metaphor of a market to describe the present situation. Prior to the emergence of cliques, political violence in Sierra Leone was best described as a post-war “oligopoly”; a few big-men had extensive connections to former warring factions and their leaders. Today, the supply of cheap violence has increased but so has political demand. Consequently, a “free-market” for violence has emerged.

Politicising peace

Violence is a common feature of Sierra Leone politics. Yet, many politicians are uncomfortable with the role of political violence in general and the role of cliques in particular. Take a look at politics in the Western Area (Freetown urban and rural). In Freetown, attacks on political opponents, journalists and political friends are common resulting in a constant threat of (small-scale) political violence. Hence, senior party members in the area are expected to control cliques and other violent groups (often through a government sponsored role in the secret societies). Yet, I spoke to various that ambivalent about having to resort to (cliques) violence for political survival. This fits my experience out of Freetown; the vast majority of politicians do make small cash payments to cliques to maintain some influence and hire them during elections. Yet, these links are from the side of politicians accepted as necessary evil are generally transactional and shallow.

Over the last ten years, however, a small group of politicians (around 20 people) has developed extensive relations with cliques. These relations were primarily developed as a result of politically sponsored peace-deals between the three gangs (represented by a colour; blue, black or red). The earliest traces stem from 2009/2010, when one minister sponsored peace between the then Black and Blue Movement and the Members of Blood (Red) after a kill in a nightclub. An organization was created with representatives of every colour and used for political purposes. A second attempt came a few years later when another politician set his eyes on becoming minister and brought the three gangs back together. Being able to unite them was the prime reason to grant him a ministerial position and the ties were extensively used in and out of (party) elections (2017-2019). A third attempt to foster peace were various initiatives in 2017 and 2018 when another politician encouraged cliques to “come together”. Also, this third peace became a political instrument as it ensured loyalty to the politician during the election and cut the opposition out.

I started to realize how “threat to Peace” and “inter-gang violence” are also used by cliques to “demand” political patronage when I called “Dog-Chain” – one clique-leader. In the months preceding this call, I had developed extensive public ties with someone central in the above-mentioned peace efforts. But when I spoke to Chain he boasted that he was the one I should deal with; “I’m the overall clique-leader, I can command cliques throughout the country” and “I am the only one who can bring all colours together”.(1) Later as we sat down he confined that: “with N.N. (a prominent) politicians you can mess around”. Tell god tenki, that Sierra Leone is not El Salvador but I couldn’t help but think about how well-developed gangs like MS-13 and Barrio-18 discovered their political strength: “We dump bodies on the street until they say yes. And they always say yes” (Farah, 2018).

Electoral Politics: Playing the Game and Politics

It is helpful to make a distinction between “Politics” and “the Game” (see Utas, 2014) to better understand the relationship between cliques and politicians. For cliques, “Politics” represents the wider socio-political system while the “Game” is their hustling for livelihood, hanging-out and intergang beefing. The relation between the two is ambivalent. For example, one gang leader had the name of a minister tattooed on his shoulder but while showing the tat, told me how he despised politicians. Despite the ambivalence, “Politics” generally takes supremacy. This is perhaps best illustrated by the explicit and negotiated agreement that governed clique involvement in the past election campaign; early 2017 heads of the Blue, Black and Red came together in a meeting sponsored by politicians and jointly agreed that “the Game was off”.

This agreement (effectively freeing gang violence for political usage) had two effects. Foremost, it meant that all inter-gang beefing was forbidden – something that was violently enforced by gang-elders who sponsored the deal. Yet it also meant, that every hood and some members were free to link up with politicians of rival political parties. As a result, political units would consist of different gangs – e.g. Blood and Black, foes in “the Game” but now brothers in “Politics”. It also meant that members of the same gang (e.g. the Black) had allegiances to different political parties. Hence, they were one another friends in the “Game” but enemies in “Politics”. Probing into this dilemma, I was told that gang hierarchies takes precedence; those higher in the gang-hierarchy (e.g. a CO) would be allowed to campaign while those “lower” in the gang-hierarchy (E.g. a 5O) had to leave the area.

The agreement and previously developed ties, meant that the role of cliques in the past election campaign has been unprecedented (it is very similar to the 2006 deals that managed the political “integration” of ex-combatants, Christensen & Utas, 2008). Many politicians employed cliques for general protection, ability to hold rallies without disruption by opponents, have large crowds (cliques can and do call on many followers) and to influence voter turn-out. My more extensive work in six hoods as well as various one-time visits to other cliques tells me that politicians at all levels and from all major political parties have employed cliques; councillors, parliamentarians and presidential flagbearers (see table 1). The only difference between them seems to be the size employed. Councillors and parliamentarian use groups of around 15 to 20 while flagbearers go up to 50.

Cliques are for hire and expect direct pay (see a previous post highlighting how “direct pay” is the modus operandi of gangs). Except for some gangsters at the very top, payment is not negotiated. Prices vary but are generally low – at around 100 dollars for months of work or 2 dollars a day for a group (the lowest was 70 dollars for about 7 months to a group of 50 cliques by one politician aspiring to be the flagbearer of a major political party). In addition, candidates are expected to provide daily moral boosters (Pega and Maggi – cheap-alcohol and Ganja). Promises of jobs or large sums of money after elections – or at least continuing favours – occur but do not replace immediate pay. There is massive disillusionment among cliques for broken promises and internally many advocate a more instrumentalist approach in the future; more and daily pay. There are clear differences between cliques and other providers in the market for violence; ex-combatants do negotiate for their services, do not always seek direct pay but instead cultivate patrimonial debt-relations.

Political competition and the usage of gangs

By March 2018, as the elections were over, most politicians left the gangs and “the Game” was back on. However, during my time “Politics” regularly took precedence over the “Game”. One time I hang out with a MoB hood when two busses with Blacks arrived to see the parliamentarian they had campaigned for. Their car-wash was demolished. As rival gangs cannot enter one another’s territory, I expected a move by MoB but to my surprise they casually dismissed this intrusion into “blood” territory as “politics” (and they recounted stories of individual Black-members that had been “very strong” during the past campaign). This is one out of various examples where “Politics” overtakes or at least influences “the Game”. For example, gangsters that “make a name” for themselves in the centre are generally considered more successful than those that operate in the East and West of Freetown. The explanation is that the centre is most political and being able to succeed in that environment shows that C.O.s (Commanders) are able to play against “the system”. Another is that becoming a CO – particularly a CO of a large hood – is generally only possible when having “political connections”. The connection ensures that the CO and those important for the gang are protected. The connection can pay or stand for bail, influence the court, change charges or provide income.

Hanging out with cliques and probing into the usage by politicians, I discovered however a more concerning reality of extensive employment of gangs outside of elections. For reasons of space, I limit myself here to horizontal politics (competition between politicians from the same party). One way in which cliques are used is for ministerial positions and stave off contenders in the party. I’ve specifically looked into the selection of one politician who aimed to be promoted to a minister. Both clique-leaders and the politician told me how they first organized a public appearance with clique-leaders and the minister-to-be and later a private meeting to back his candidature. The politician who was soon thereafter appointed as minister by the President as it was understood he could control (and use) the gangs. In the subsequent years, this access was used to stave off contenders through an ingenious clique-payment scheme. House-rents of various prominent CO’s with a wife and children (of Blue, Black and Red) were paid and on a monthly bases large sums of money were disbursed to individual COs (80 million Leones – around 8000 dollars). These COs in turn set up a rotating system for lower COs and 5Os (some would be paid every month and others on a one-month-on-one-month-off basis) reach perhaps close to 300 prominent cliques members. The ministers control of the cliques has been used at various moment to put pressure on contenders.

Another example of politicians using cliques for horizontal competition are the October 2017 election for the APC leadership. Nearly all big-guns had vied to become flagbearer of the APC and many had spent fortunes on their campaigns. However, a pliable candidate was imposed by the leadership and the former president elected as Chairman-for-Life and Party Leader “until death do us part”. There are various reasons for the ability of the APC executive to succeed in imposing people, but control over cliques played a role. I have confirmed, that in the days before the APC-convention large cash payments were disbursed to cliques to ensure loyalty. At the convention, gangs engaged in threats and occasional violence against other contenders. Various flagbearer contenders confirmed that they felt under physical threat. Some contenders had equally hired cliques-services. Yet, mechanisms like the aforementioned payment scheme meant that nearly all cliques were ultimately loyal to the executive and their middle-men. Hence, cliques were used to be for competition over the highest offices in the party.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the usage of cliques; I have seen cliques being used to attack opposing internal factions as well as to ensure protection against too centralized executive (party) power. And cliques play(ed) a substantial role in inter-party tensions in the country. Cliques are therefore “capital” worth protecting. For example, in 2016 the then Deputy Minister of Defence started a “war” on cliques, carrying out massive arrests and declaring himself “the only 5O in the country”. Yet, a handful prominent politicians hid the most prominent COs and 5Os in Guinea and Liberia to weather the storm until the elections.

Political violence: Gangs and African politics

The example of hiding clique-leaders illustrates that the prominent role of gangs has not “just” emerged. Political demand for their services has sponsored their growth. There are a couple of reasons for increased political demand. Foremost, the geographic imprint of the war has had the effect of unevenly distributing ex-combatants over Sierra Leone’s two political parties with the majority of ex-combatants hailing from the South and East. In power the northern-based party could draw from a much smaller reservoir of ex-combatants from the disbanded army in 1998, some parts of the RUF, some Northerners and South-Easterners who had shifted-sides. Yet, compared to the south and east, the reservoir is smaller and ex-combatants are growing older. Hence, it was strategically understandable that younger providers of violence – i.e. cliques – were recruited.

Increasing demand for the usage of cliques is not only a matter of replacing one group with another. A second reason is that Sierra Leone’s political order is increasingly generating demands for violence. Politics in Sierra Leone is simultaneously highly centralized and hyper local with the effect of reproducing Sierra Leones bifurcated party-order everywhere at the local level. Post-war decentralization – both reinstating the chieftaincy and decentralizing central state function – has led to a continuous contest over local power and corresponding pressures. As violence was often a tool in local contests (Rosen, 2005; Tangri, 1967; Christensen & Utas 2008; Utas & Christensen, 2016), more contests has simply meant more violence.(2)

It is a paradox, but a third reason for higher demand for violence is the possibility of a democratic transition. Sierra Leone has a hybrid political order; informal subnational institutions perform state functions but are in turn co-opted by the centre. Democratic transition, however, means that not only the central state but also the hybrid political order has to change; heads of unions, markets, bike-riders, golf-clubs and student-bodies have been replaced. Studying power-transitions of over twenty hybrid-institutions taught me that change-by-force or management-through-force is very common. Hence transitioning and sustaining this hybrid-order given attempts of a strong opposition to return to power, generates a continuous demand for (clique) violence.

Increased demand for violence has had a major effect on the market for violence. From 2002 to about 2012, violence was almost exclusively regulated through oligopolistic principles; a limited number of ex-commanders controlling sizeable groups of ex-combatants and long-standing patrimonial relationship with some politicians. But the increased supply of clique-violence and the increased demand for violence has given rise to a free-market. In this free-market there is an abundance of available labour, many different groups offer the same product and therefore are unable to negotiate prices, a lower price (cliques are being paid less than task-forces), less brand-loyalty (cliques can work for different sides, sometimes at the same time) and a larger number of buyers. In short, a free-market for violence has been emerging where buyers are king.

One should not be fooled. The emergence of this free-market is not just a bye-product of failed social policies and the “unexpected” emergence of gangs (just as the reintegration of ex-combatants did not “just” happen). Rather, it is a market that is deliberate and politically sponsored. Sierra Leone is no longer a weak state in terms of its security – it has a strong and relatively well-disciplined military and a sizeable police force. Both have deliberately not been used to combat gangs but instead have been used to sponsor the cliques for example in conniving with crime or by providing gang leaders with a get-out-of-jail-free-card. Politicians have contributed to the growth of gangs through mechanisms like the payment scheme which allowed gang-leaders to strengthen their position within the gang and ensured some form of income. To me, the political sponsoring is the most concerning part of cliques in Sierra Leone. Rather than addressing real youth needs, political elites have purposively kept youth in a position of dependence and modelled a market for violence that fit their political need; disposable and cheap violence for hire.

Kars de Bruijne is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex researching Sierra Leone politics, hybridity and incentives for violence. His PhD-research (University of Groningen)looked at the role of mutual optimism for political and military decision-making in the Sierra Leone conflict based on fieldwork between 2012 and 2015. He is also a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute.

Endnotes

  1. Despite tiring everyone in explaining that I was a researcher with no means to engage in projects, clique-leaders competed over contact with me, expecting future pay-back.
  2. NEC officials told me (confirmed through local data) that that the majority of (bye-) elections has been violent.

Congosa politics: Rumours and elections in Sierra Leone, by Diana Szanto

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The red party. APC political rally in Freetown

Congosa in Krio means gossiping and spreading rumour, but its connotations are much darker than in English. It equals with name spoiling. In a society where attack against somebody’s public image can meet mundane as well as occult retaliation, gossiping is considered as the antisocial behaviour par excellence. However, although unanimously condemned, congosa is omnipresent and is an essential part of public life. Friends, as well as strangers constantly share, comment and analyse stories of uncertain origin in a sort of collective jubilation. Rumours are much more than stories circulating without signature with questionable truth content. Because they are often the expressions of mistrust, doubts and alternative hypotheses challenging – while evoking – the moral order of a society, they touch upon the political, everywhere. But in Sierra Leone the political and the rumour are probably even more tightly knit together, in a way that congosa and politics become inseparable. Commenting on a previous Sierra Leonean election (that of 1986, still within the one party system) Mariane Ferme notes: “only through the careful and sometimes unpredictable management of rumours of secrete gathering and strategies can the abuses of the electoral system be kept in check” (Ferme 1999:161). Continue reading

Sierra Leone General Elections 2018 – A personal diary, by Diana Szanto

On the 4th of April, I was sitting on the veranda of a restaurant in Lungi and watched mesmerized the police officer next to me who, in his full gear, consumed bitter wine sold in small plastic packets. As he was finishing one packet after another, he was visibly getting drunker with each sip. The scene provided the context – both in historic and sociological terms – for what had been the most important public issue for Sierra Leone for the past few weeks:  the presidential elections.

With his drunkenness, the policeman’s voice grew louder. I could not miss it: he was boasting of his rebel past.  He was armed.  With this open and embodied reference to the RUF he reminded us all how the brutal memory of the civil war was still so near, constituting a permanently threatening background to national politics.  Sierra Leone got liberated from a deadly civil war just 16 years ago, too short time for a nation to forget the trauma but sufficiently long for the new generation to forget about the healthy fear of violence. In fact, the spectrum of violence seemed so real that the maintenance of peace and order was the number one stake in this election. A lot of people whom I asked about their hopes responded me spontaneously: “I just pray for peace”. Continue reading

Generation Terrorists: The Politics of Youth and the Gangs of Freetown, by Kieran Mitton

Youth at Risk – Youth as Risk

On the evening of the 15th February, six leading presidential candidates for the Sierra Leone presidential elections took to the stage. Over three hours of a live broadcasted debate, each answered questions about their plans for the country. Seen by some as a milestone in Sierra Leone’s post-war political development, the following morning the capital Freetown was abuzz with talk about who had acquitted themselves, who had failed to impress, and what – if anything – this might mean for the election result on the 7th March. In the offices of a youth development organisation, staff enthusiastically discussed the event.

In an adjoining room, I met with their colleague Mohamed*, a man with decades of experience working in the city’s poorest informal communities. What did you think of the debate? I asked. Was it a sign that Sierra Leone’s political scene is moving towards serious discussion of policies, or as one report put it, ‘growing up’?

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A poster in Susan’s Bay calls on Sierra Leone’s youth to be peaceful during elections. Photo by the author

Mohamed smiled. Pointing to his colleagues next door, he replied: ‘Each person there is arguing about why their preferred candidate won the debate. What the candidate actually said, how they performed – it doesn’t matter.’ He went on to make a familiar point; voters put party, tribe and personal loyalties ahead of policies. Whilst certainly not new or unique to Sierra Leone, this he contended, meant such debates had little bearing on the electoral outcome. The promise of some candidates to provide free education, surely a positive development for the country’s youth, was just rhetoric, he concluded. In fact, ‘politicians keep the youth uninformed and uneducated so they can use them to their own advantage.’ Continue reading

The New Gambia, by Niklas Hultin

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President Adama Barrow greeting the people. Photo by Katarina Höije

It finally became clear on January 21, 2017, that Yahya Jammeh, the long-serving autocratic president of The Gambia would step down and leave the country. The road to this point was a twisty one. Jammeh had lost the December 1, 2016, election to Adama Barrow (who represented a coalition of opposition parties). Although Jammeh, much to everyone’s surprise, initially conceded the election he quickly reverted to form and suggested that the election was not valid and called for a new one to be held–a position rejected by the opposition and the international community. Most notably, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took a firm line and recognized Barrow as the legitimate president and suggested that they might use military force to oust Jammeh. As negotiations between the parties remained inconclusive,arrow and his associates travelled to Senegal where, on January 19 he took the oath of office at the Gambian High Commission in Dakar. Meanwhile, ECOWAS forces, consisting primarily of Senegalese troops with Nigerian air and naval backing, mobilized to enforce the election results. After a tense period that saw ECOWAS forces briefly enter the country only to pull back, Gambians–and West Africans–could breath a sigh of relief as the by now completely isolated Jammeh agreed to go into exile with not a drop of blood shed. In the evening of January 21, Jammeh boarded a plane for Equatorial Guinea. Continue reading

One year after the elections: a deceptive calm in Burundi? by Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

Burundian army

Burundian soldiers patrolling the streets of Bujumbura. Photo by the author

The car stops and the driver turns off the ignition and leans back in the seat. Before us winds a long queue of cars and minivans in the afternoon sun. People have gone out of their cars and sit in the shade along the roadside. Talking, eating, listening to the radio. The atmosphere is calm and quiet, but also restrained, subdued. Everyone is careful, observant. The scenario has become common in the capital Bujumbura in recent times. Streets and intersections blocked off to all traffic, often for several hours, waiting for the President’s convoy to pass. Usually it occurs when Nkurunziza is on his way in or out of the capital to the countryside where he prefers to stay most the time. When the convoy eventually passes, nobody is allowed nearby, no cars and no people. All street corners are emptied. Even the security personnel guarding the streets must physically turn their heads away, direct their weapons in a different direction, and may not look at the passing cars.

 

Continue reading

The Inner Beast released after Ugandan Elections 2016, Marianne Bach Mosebo

The Ugandan Presidential Election in 2016 left many Ugandans frustrated and angry at the election process and the announcement of the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, as the winner with approximately 60% of the votes. Unfortunately, rather than uniting the Ugandan people in a fight for a free and fair democratic environment in Uganda, social media is reap with statements blaming the result on the marginalised and already maligned Karimojong people in Uganda’s North-eastern corner. Karamoja is a remote region in Uganda, which has the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in the country. Ugandans are angry and frustrated and they are releasing the Inner Beast on those that are easy to blame rather than those who are actually to blame. Continue reading

Elections in Uganda 2016: Rumours and the Terror of the Unknown, by Henni Alava and Cecilie Lanken Verma

Two parallel realities appear to exist in pre-election Uganda, especially when seen from the northern region of Acholiland ten years after it was declared ‘post-conflict’. In one, everything is ‘fine’: the elections will be smooth. There will be no problems and things will continue as normal. In this view, it seems, elections have to be fine, as peace is the main priority. It simply must not be jeopardized, not even if that means to keep the sitting President in power. In the other, the nation is preparing for war, amid breaking news about pre-election violence and rumors about violence committed and building up to momentum in the scenes. In some towns at the far periphery of the Ugandan political hub you can find mothers preparing to run from their homes with their children and most valuable belongings – just in case things turn sour. Continue reading

The power of language: discourses and efficacious fussiness in the Ugandan elections, by Anna Baral

On February 15, 2016, three days before Ugandan general elections, the four-times presidential candidate (and never a winner) Kizza Besigye was stopped by anti-riot and military police with his convoy in Jinja Road, central Kampala. Following a script reenacted at each election, scuffles between the opposition candidate and police started, with heavy use of tear gas, stones thrown and bullets shot. Besigye was detained for few hours by police (that denied rumours of arrest, claiming that the candidate was instead just “being advised” on which route he should take for his campaign through the city). Escorted back to his home in Kasangati, a suburb on the city’s outskirts, Besigye came quickly back to town and was stopped again at the big crossroad that separates Makerere University from Wandegeya Police station, famously active in countering students’ strikes. A young man seeking refuge in a building near the crossroad lost his life, shot by police. Continue reading

Burundi, I, and the year of 2015, by Gudrun Sif Fridriksdottir

“I miss dancing” a friend of mine says sometime in late June. “What?” I reply, thinking I must have misheard him. “I miss dancing”, he hesitates a bit “…and information [independent media]”. I can’t help laughing “Well one is very important for democracy, the other … not so much” I claim. But then again he has a point. At this stage Bujumbura has been in turmoil for almost two months, he lives in a turbulent neighbourhood, I don’t, but we are all already very tired. People just want their regular lives back, and being able to enjoy life, not just live it. Unfortunately this is not to happen in 2015. Continue reading

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