CategoryPost Conflict

Freetown – tangible progress, by Mats Utas

New roads and through fares, broadened streets, less traffic congestion, paved streets, a toll road making the exit out of the city much easier.

Thousands and again thousands of new houses being constructed, literary littering the hills around Freetown, and strewn out around stretches of road where their used to be forest and scrub.

The sound of generators, that once was a fundamental rhythm of the street, has silenced. During one of the few blackouts we drove through dark streets and I asked a longtime friend of why there were no lights in the windows. He simply stated that people had gotten used to the presence of electricity so they no longer maintain their generators. They tossed away their embarrassing Kabbah Tigers – a 100 USD generator named after the president at the time. Darkness still overcomes Freetown once in a while, but most nights when I am here the city is dressed in light.

It has been ten years since I last visited Sierra Leone

The first morning after my arrival it is cleaning Saturday. People clean their backyards but also public areas. Cars are not allowed to ply the streets up until noon. Smoke and the smell of burnt plastic dominate airspace. I enjoy the sounds of Wilberforce village an older part of the city that has received a good brush-up and now appear rather middle-class. A radio is playing E get Cro Cro a tune by Sierra Leonean musicians Manzu avec C-Bolt popular in 2004-05. Cro-cro in Krio (as well as in Nigerian pigeon) means rashes and although the song is mainly a cautionary tale over deceases a prostitute has, cro-cro was back in my days most often mentioned in relation to how filthy the city was. Cro-Cro, just as cholera, typhoid fever and the likes, is an outcome of a filthy city. Yet with a variety of cleaning efforts Freetown is much cleaner today. By stating that I am not saying that all is good. But, just as with the availability of power and the paving of streets, it has improved greatly over the past ten years.

Between 2004 and 2006 I did a two year long fieldwork centering a street corner in downtown Freetown. It was a quite messy area both socially and infra-structurally. Many of the guys I worked with were former combatants struggling to make do in the post-war realm. The more legal part of the income they made came from washing cars. The street corner was unpaved and in the dry season within minutes red dust covered newly washed cars. In the rainy season roads turned to muddy stretches and gutters were overflowing. Today the street corner is paved. Many of the guys from my fieldwork still hang-out on the corner, but to a much lesser extent. They are no longer dependent on the infrequent and ill-paying carwash business, but have jobs elsewhere in the city. They no longer live rough in the streets. Thus looking in the back mirror they were not as stuck as they themselves felt at the time. Life to most is still not easy, wealth is not available in abundance, but it is important to point out that they have maneuvered out of the hazy social death they at the time believed they would remain in.

Back in 2004-06 our discussions were dominated by topics centering the civil war, but also an equally violent aftermath. We talked about death, about drugs, about crime and about bare survival. Today we talk about children and we talk about relations. I want to repeat that life is still not easy for a majority of these guys. And quite a few are no longer with us having at a far too early age passed away – most recently Ebola took its toll. Yet still there has been progress. And in their faces it is hard to see that ten years has past. Their facial expressions signals newfound dignity and quite a bit of health. Rounder faces, clearer eyes. They made it this far.

Freetown is far from problem-less. The growth of the city is creating new emergencies. The shaving of the lush green hills surrounding Freetown is not just making the city look less attractive, but it destroys delicate eco-systems, creating ample space for catastrophes like a mudslide in August 2017, killing around 400 persons. Freetown has grown from a city of 130.000 in 1963 to over a million today. Despite good efforts has been placed on widening the road networks it is hardly enough. There is abundant need for a public bus system, and if being more ambitious a tram line. More serious the water and sewage systems are severely under-dimensioned and the lack of water might well turn into a serious emergency in a not so distant future. As I stated above electricity is much more reliant today, but how sustainable it is can be questioned. There is currently a big ship producing much of the power for the city on roadstead outside the city. It is reliant on oil – not very sustainable – but more seriously, on the short term, it could sail off with the blink of an eye if the government fails to pay for it. Close by where the ship is anchored, there is the slum of Kroo bay where people continue to live in pan-bodies, shacks, and where many people balance on the edge between life and death on a daily basis. When I was in Freetown a fire ravaged the community and it is alleged that several hundred houses were burnt down.

Socio-economically Freetown is still crumbling under a corrupt bureaucracy and with an insufficient taxation system that does not render a sustainable national economy. Little is indicating that improvements on this front are enough. The new president’s paopa (force in Krio) ways may make some more apprehensive, but it is difficult to believe that people within the vicinity of the president will not maintain impunity. I hope I will be proved wrong. There is however also a risk that paopa and the new ideal of a soldier team (written on mini-busses and an expressed idiom by local gangs) will once again turn the Sierra Leone to a more authoritarian country – and again let’s hope I am wrong.

I keep returning to roads. I believe in order to improve the Sierra Leonean economy it is pivotal that road transport from the countryside is good. If roads are in a bad state agricultural products ends being spoilt during transport thus driving up prices. But also the transportation itself will be expensive as bad roads demands high maintenance and repair costs on vehicles. With regards to infrastructural problems East-Central Freetown is still a bottleneck, but once leaving this behind the eastern part of the city has now a road of free flow all the way to Waterloo. Although some Freetonians are worried by the fact that the Chinese are making profit because of a road toll, even the toll gates are seen as a proof of progress by most. And one driver told me that except for the toll gates, there are virtually no police checkpoints taking your money:

you can go all the way upline with only a 2000 Leones (20 cent) bribe 

That’s development. Still local rice sold in Freetown is more expensive than the imported one. That’s sad.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many people can hardly afford to put food on their table. Most do not have the resources to plan ahead. However that said Freetown is still a city of smiles and amicable social wealth. Much more smiling than my home country Sweden. That’s a conundrum. It is a country of “shuffering and shmiling” to quote great Nigerian singer Fela Kuti.

Postlude

First time I visited the country was in 1992. The next time was during the war in 1998. I lived in Sierra Leone for two years between 2004 and 2006. Between 2006 and 2009 I on average visited the country twice a year. After a ten years long break I returned during the spring of 2019. The worst condition I have seen Sierra Leone in was actually in 1992 weeks prior to the military coup that brought Valentine Strasser and NPRC to power. It was at the very beginning of a civil war that took off because of a direly mismanaged state. Although the war caused devastating destruction and human suffering, international attention drew more resources to the country and already a year after wars end conditions in the capital Freetown, but also in much of the “upline” provinces, was arguably better than before. The Ebola epidemic (2014-2015) was the next set-back, but it appears that at least Freetown has recovered well. Indeed lots of people passed away and it devastated families, but although I have no date to prove it I wonder if the resources which the international community provided is now in parts spent in the ongoing construction boom?

How John Richardson Joined the NPFL: Charles Taylor’s Confidant Speaks on Liberian Politics and American Warmongering, by Brooks Marmon

One of Charles Taylor’s best known and most eloquent defenders is John T. Richardson, a Liberian architect, who continues to speak with the former Liberian President two to three times a week. Richardson, an American trained architect who launched his career in the 1970s, winning contracts from the African Development Bank, USAID, and the World Bank to construct rural schools and hospitals across Liberia, became an international pariah several decades later when he was placed on a UN travel ban during the last years of the Taylor administration, which he served in various capacities.

Today, Richardson operates from a cramped but well decorated office in a gated compound just off Tubman Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of Monrovia. His father, Nathaniel Richardson, was one of Liberia’s greatest historians of the era when the country was dominated by the True Whig Party (TWP) and the descendants of black American immigrants (in which both Taylor and Richardson have their roots).  Although the younger Richardson states, “I have no ambitions politically” he came, as a result of a self-described humanitarian impulse, to play a major role in the calamitous struggle to shape post TWP Liberia, serving as a loyal adviser to Taylor throughout Liberia’s 14 years of armed conflict. Continue reading

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

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

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Can Sirleaf survive ebola? Political legitimacy and government response to the ebola crisis in Liberia, by Mary Moran

The following is the complete address given by Colgate’s Mary Moran, professor of anthropology and Africana and Latin American studies, at Duke University in September. It was written for oral presentation, is unrevised, and should not be cited or circulated without permission.

When I submitted the title for this talk about two weeks ago, I was very much thinking of the term “survive” in its metaphorical sense. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president of an African nation, faces the greatest challenge of her career, and unprecedented criticism both at home and abroad for failing to rebuild the national health care infrastructure and for her handling of the present crisis, including calls for her resignation (VOA news, Sept. 2, 2014).

I am a political anthropologist, not a medical one, and my intention here today is to try to place the government and public response to ebola in Liberia squarely in its local, historical and social/cultural context. But metaphor became concrete reality with a Front Page Africa headline on Sept. 10, “Ebola Hits Seat of Liberian Presidency; 1 Dead, 1 Quarantined” reporting that an administrative assistant to the Foreign Minister had died from ebola while her husband, also infected, was a staffer in the President’s office, two floors above in the same building. Continue reading

Fourah Bay College: The Decline of Sierra Leone’s “Oxford in the Bush”, by Tom Gardner

Sitting astride Freetown’s Mount Aureol, Fourah Bay College (FBC) is often regarded as the crucible of Sierra Leone’s post-independence history. ‘When Fourah Bay College sneezes”, one student reflects, ‘all of Sierra Leone catches a cold’.

In the mid-1980s, FBC sneezed. Radical students, alienated by Siaka Steven’s brutal one-party regime, decamped to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. The move set in motion a train of events which meandered, in fits and starts, towards the outbreak of the rebel war.  By the time the students returned to Freetown in the early 1990s, Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was laying waste to the country’s south-eastern flank and their idealistic dreams of revolution had evaporated. The combative student movement that had flourished throughout the 1970s and 1980s seemingly slipped off-stage.

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Liberia, the emerging middleclass and tiny bits of tension

He looks very frustrated behind the steering wheel of his SUV. He is making his way over the sandy road; crisscrossing between the people walking from the beach. There are many close escapes as his car skids in great speed and nearly out of control. Indeed when he reaches the junction he has angered enough people. Traffic is now blocking his way forward and as he tries to make his way around yet another car he must slow down. He is very intoxicated. Maybe he has been fighting his girlfriend? He is forced out of his car. An argument starts and within soon he starts to fight. A bottle cracks on his head and the situation looks ugly. The air is tense. It is in the late afternoon and a national holiday. The whole area is packed with people. Down the road riot police has just entered an area where the beach hotel holds a show. Young people are feverously trying to jump the fence and there is a scrimmage on the inside. The commander of the riot police tells me he will clear the area so we can enter in safety. There is still tension hanging in the Liberian air, but it is a different kind than during the years of civil strife. Liberia has moved on.

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Once a combatant, always a combatant? by Ilmari Käihkö

In the recent report of the United Nations (UN) Security Council Panel of Experts on Liberia the authors express a stern warning concerning the dangers posed by former combatants for the cross-border security in the Mano River belt. According to the Panel of Experts, these former combatants in Liberia “present in remote border regions… live in semi-organized autonomous groups outside of any State authority, often under the direct influence of former ‘generals’ who commanded rebel factions during the Liberian civil conflict”.[i]

I acquired the report less than a week after returning from Liberia, where I’ve spent more than ten months during the past two years investigating networks of former combatants as a part of my PhD research. The bulk of my fieldwork has been conducted in the Southeastern Grand Gedeh County, which is also the area the Panel of Experts focus on due to the recent cross-border attacks from Grand Gedeh to Ivory Coast. Because I am most familiar with this setting, and because the report obviously focuses on Grand Gedeh, I will also concentrate on the county.

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Ernest’s looking glass, by Anne Menzel

“Development” reflections from a long awaited return to Sierra Leone

Among my friends in Sierra Leone I have a reputation for “not knowing how to walk properly” (“waka fine”) especially at night. One time in April 2009, during field research for my PhD thesis and after a late evening visit to a friend, I even stumbled into a nasty ditch that I “should have grown used to” (so I was told) a long time ago, since I regularly frequented the same street during daylight. I ripped my jeans, received a cut on my ankle and had to suffer the amused assistance of bystanders who pulled me out of the ditch. According to next day’s gossip I managed not to cry but was so ashamed of my clumsiness that I begged my friendly helpers to please keep quiet about the incident. However, my Western inability to gracefully cope with Bo Town’s road conditions and nearly constant blackout was just too delightful.

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Once a General, always a General?

This is a somewhat adapted English version of my text “Im Frieden hilft der General” published in the latest Issue of Welt-sichten (October 2013, pp. 45-47). see  http://www.welt-sichten.org/personen/18332/mats-utas 

One of the central aspects of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs in post-conflict settings is to break the ties between rebel commanders and their soldiers so as to make remobilization more difficult and reintegration into civilian life easier. I have over the past 17 years conducted research with ex-combatants in Liberia and Sierra Leone, two small West African countries still recovering from years of brutal rebel warfare. I have in both countries built up close relationships with former combatants and therefore dug deeper into the realities of commander/soldier networks and the socio-political realities wherein they exist. Questions I will ask in this text centers around DDR and the breaking of commander/soldier networks and I will try to answer three interdependent questions: Who benefits from this breaking of networks? And contrary in whose interest is the maintenance of these networks? Is it at all feasible, or even desirable for post-war societies to break these networks?

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Ivory beyond the LRA: why a broader focus is needed in studying poaching – By Kristof Titeca

Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the LRA’s involvement in ivory trade. This was sparked off by the Enough report ‘Kony’s ivory’ released in June, which described the LRA’s ivory activities in Garamba Park, North-Eastern DRC. The report was followed by a range of articles highlighting how ‘tusks fund terror’; and further elaborated in other reports. All of these highlight how the LRA “gains vital resources through its participation in the illegal ivory trade” – as the Enough report summarized (p.11). Yet, narrowing down the ivory problem in and around Garamba Park to the LRA is problematic for several reasons. Most importantly, in order to effectively address the ivory issue, it is crucial to understand the functioning of the commodity chain in and around Garamba Park. Below I discuss a few basic points about this commodity chain, based on ongoing field research, in order to contextualize the LRA’s engagement in ivory.

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