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

The back of a clique member

By January 2019, politicians were recruiting gang members once 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 whom he had supported in college, bragging about how they accompanied him during rallies and boastings about how he still 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 relationship between politicians and cliques: why, when and how do politicians interact with the gangs? I consider three elements in the relationship 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 the 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. We only have to take a look at politics in the Western Area (Freetown, both urban and rural). In Freetown, attacks on political opponents, journalists and political allies Name: Mats Utas Title: Professor in Cultural Anthropology and Head of department Department: Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology How does your research contribute to a better world? (med cirka 100-150 ord): “Anthropology should have saved the world” says one of today’s leading anthropologists, but he goes on saying that this far we have failed to do so. Anthropologists understand what people do, not what they say they do. In my research I have studied child and youth soldiers. Some of my findings are radically different from what the western world wants to believe. In one case I hung out with ex-combatants for two years. I learned to know what they did and why they did what they did, which was not at all what they initially said they did. From the beginning they made up stories because they did not trust me. My research results were often at odds with general knowledge and it took a lot of time to convince aid-organizations working with reintegration of young ex-combatants to proceed differently with their work. I was certainly not alone. A whole group of researchers armed with similar results did it together. Maybe we didn’t change the world, but in our own small way we help to make the world a better place. 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 persons who were ambivalent about having to resort to (cliques) violence for political survival. This fits in with my experience of Freetown; the vast majority of politicians do make small cash payments to cliques to maintain some influence and hire them during elections. Yet, from the side of the politicians these links are accepted as a necessary evil and are generally transactional and shallow.

Over the last ten years, however, a small group of politicians (around 20) have 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 killing 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 a minister and brought the three gangs back together. Being able to unite them was the prime reason for granting him a ministerial position and the ties were extensively used both in and outside 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 attempt became a political instrument as it ensured loyalty to the politician during the election and thwarted the opposition.

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 use) had two effects. First and 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 the 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 friends with one another 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 to have 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 a month’s 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 as to 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 use of gangs

By March 2018, when 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 hung out with a MoB hood when two busses with Blacks arrived to see the parliamentarian they had campaigned for. Their car-wash had been 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 who 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 for this is that the centre is the 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 who are important for the gang are protected. The connection can pay or stand for bail, influence the court, amend the charges or provide income.

Hanging out with cliques and probing into the usage by politicians, I however discovered a more troublesome reality of the 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 to stave off contenders in the party. I have specifically looked into the selection of one politician whose aim was 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. Soon thereafter the politician was appointed as minister by the President as it was understood he could control (and use) the gangs. In the years that followed, this access was used to stave off contenders through an ingenious clique-payment scheme. The rental accommodation of various prominent CO’s with family (of Blue, Black and Red) was paid for and on a monthly basis large sums of money were distributed among 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) reaching perhaps close to 300 prominent cliques members. The ministers control of the cliques has been used at various times to put pressure on contenders.

Another example of politicians using cliques for horizontal competition are the October 2017 elections for the APC leadership. Nearly all big-guns had vied to become the flagbearer of the APC and many had spent a fortune on their campaigns. However, a pliable candidate was imposed by the leadership and the former president was elected as Chairman-for-Life and the 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 their 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 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” suddenly emerged. Political demand for their services has sponsored their growth. There are a couple of reasons for this increased political demand. First and 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 becoming 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)

Paradoxically a third reason for the 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, bikes, golf-clubs and student-bodies have been replaced. Studying the power-transitions of over twenty hybrid institutions has taught me that change-by-force or management-through-force is very common. Hence transitioning and sustaining this hybrid-order given the attempts of a strong opposition to return to power, generates a continuous demand for (clique) violence.

The increased demand for violence has had a major effect on the market for violence. From 2002 to around 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 relationships 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 are therefore unable to negotiate prices, there are lower prices (cliques are being paid less than task-forces), there is less brand-loyalty (cliques can work for different sides, sometimes at the same time) and there is also 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 by-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 has allowed gang-leaders to strengthen their position within the gang and ensures some form of income. As far as I am concerned, the political sponsoring is the most worrying part of cliques in Sierra Leone. Rather than addressing real youth needs, political elites have expressly kept the youth in a position of dependence and modelled a market for violence that fits their political needs; 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.


  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.

Are Sierra Leone’s gangs a new phenomenon? by Kars de Bruijne

One Friday afternoon, they trickled in. One by one. Young faces with scars, tattooed, waving handkerchiefs and wearing coloured wrist-bands. We met in a concrete hideout constructed as a visible sign of one gangs’ ´mediation´ in a land-conflict – making sure that whoever would end up victorious would have to make arrangements with them. It was a surprising week, where I had accidentally stumbled upon a senior gang leader, hung out with him, and who – no doubt in an attempt to raise his own profile – called upon gang-leaders from all over Freetown to meet me. 

On these pages, it was Kieran Mitton who first highlighted the significant presence of gangs in Freetown. I accidentally stumbled upon them as I probed into Sierra Leones politics and encountered multiple links between politicians and gangs. (1) To me it has become clear that Sierra Leone has indeed developed a gang problem. Sierra Leone like other West African countries continues to face a youth bulge and rapid urbanization. Evidence suggests no direct connection between a youth bulge and gang emergence – there is too much individual variance – Pollard 1999; Howell & Egley 2005 – but Sierra Leones various social problems impacts many youths in Sierra Leone and allows gangs to grow. Moreover, gang emergence is a problem as political competition is increasing in Sierra Leone. Post-war decentralization attempts have reproduced political competition at many levels and there are tensions between SLPP or APC especially after the transfer of power in 2018. Hence, the demand for violence and the supply of violence has increased.

Yet, we presently know very little about Sierra Leone gangs; how are these gangs organized? And how do they compare to other sodalities in Sierra Leone? In this post, I present some information on the organization of the gangs and argue that they are in three ways somewhat different from earlier sodalities; their organization, their rejection of patrimonial debt-relations and their embeddedness in society. While not meant as a systematic comparison, I posit Sierra Leones new gansterism against historical sodalities; youth groups in the 50s and 60s (Banton 1957; Rosen 2005), the rarray-boys of the 70s and 80s (Abdullah 2002), the armed groups in the war (Peters 2011; Hoffman 2011), and the post-war phenomenon of ‘youth-crews’ (Utas 2014) and party-taskforces (Christensen & Utas 2008; Christensen 2012).

Gangland Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has three main cliques. The oldest and largest gang is the So So Black (Black), the youngest is the Cent Coast Crips (Blue) and their main rivals are the Members of Blood (Red). Gang members are recognized by a red/blue/black muffler (bandana) and most commonly a set of tattoos as identification markers. Members of Blood (MoB) have SoT (School of Thugs) and Blacks KKK (Keep the Secret) tattooed on their fingers or arms, sometimes alongside the number of their constituency. Older gangsters still have ‘BBM’ tattooed on their arms which refers to the Black and Blue Movement (BBM), when most Cent Coast Crips were still part of the So So Black.

Gangsters can also be identified by two other labels that crosscut them: Gulley (green) and Gaza (yellow). Those originating from Gulley hail from the seaside slum-areas such as Kro-Bay, Susu village (Aberdeen), Funkia (Goderich) while Gaza’s are ‘uptown niggez’. There is a subtle judgement in these terms; living in Aberdeen village at less than 100 metres from the sea I assumed that I lived in the ‘Gulley’ but one of the local MoB-hoods I live and hang-out with was adamant that they were ‘Uptown-Gaza’ rather than ‘Stinking Gulley’. Hence, Gulley vs. Gaza is a socio-economic judgement that is largely inconsequential; in gang feuds only the Red, Black and Blue matter. Almost every hood in Freetown can be mapped in one of the three gangs and the Gulley/Gaza label.

Similar to war sodalities (Richards 1996) and post-war street-crews (Utas 2014) gang-names are assemblages of western/global icons. The Red (Flag Movement) and Black (Leo) were imported by two US-based Sierra Leone rappers LAJ and Kao Denero. (2)  They seem to be loosely based on the Los Angeles rivalry between the Bloods and Crips (where the Crips have both blue and black as colour). The word cliques is likely a direct reference to Clicas or hoods in Latin America. The terms Gaza and Gulley stem from the (hugely popular) Jamaican gang scene – it is common for cliques to give you detailed histories on Jamaican gangsters and their feuds.

Gangland Sierra Leone should not be viewed as a Freetownian phenomenon (just like the rarray-boys were a country-wide phenomenon – see e.g. Abdullah & Muana 1998). There is a gang-presence in the whole peninsula (e.g. Tombo, Tokeh and Sussex) all major towns (Koidu, Bo, Kenema, Makeni, Kabala and Kamakwie) and strategic rural places such as border checkpoints (Kabala, Kambia). Some towns in the provinces have own gangs, such as the Green Flag Movement in Kambia. A prime reason for upland presence is refugee for gang-retaliation after ‘tjukking´ (stabbing) somebody. Consequently, cross-country links between gang leaders of the same colour are very well developed and leaders in Freetown are involved in political tensions across the country as their members are hired. In ‘the provinces’ the Blacks are by far the largest with the Red only hailing the majority in Kamakwie.

Organization and control

Gang organization into large hoods, commanders, and varying degrees of hierarchical and centralized control set the gangs apart from the more loose organizational structure of previous urban sodalites like the rarray-boys of the 80s and the red-shirt and palm-attire groups of the 60s (Rosen 2005). Present gang-structures seems more akin to the direct war experience where groups were formed around strong commanders and varying degrees of informal centralized command (CDF: Hoffman 2007; RUF: Peters 2011).

Gangs are organized into ‘hoods’ and ‘sub-hoods’ (except for the Blue who are a ‘society’). The So So Black for example have a few very large hoods (E.g. G-State, P.H., C.W.H.) and each contains a number of smaller hoods. The smallest sub-hoods have around 30-50 gangsters and the large ones at least 400 to 500 members (men and women). (3) Sub-hoods emerge in one of two ways; a) by command as the leader of the overall hood rewards rising members with an own crew; b) self-organization by a powerful person creating his own team and later aligns himself with a colour. The organization into sub-hoods leads to the dazzling variety of names and the sub-hood structure may be a ‘compromise’ with the fluid street-corner boy organization immediately post-war (Utas 2014).

In general, most large Black hoods are in the east, Blue societies in the Centre and Red hoods overall in the West. Yet there are so many exceptions that it is at most a general statement of dominance and certainly not a real presence, e.g. every colour has numerous teams across the city, there is a prominent Black-hood around Lumley-Carwash, Funkia and from Ogo-Farm onwards (hence in MoB/West territory) and by the same token MoB controls Brookfields, Kroo-Bay and parts of Lightfood Boston Street (all central – Crips – areas). Gang members cannot travel to areas controlled by others, unless they travel with Jew-men (‘fences’ for stolen goods), white researchers, politicians or when they are famous and/or have connections (which only holds true for a handful of gang leaders).

Within the hood, gangs are hierarchically organized. There is some variation but the general model is that hoods are controlled by a CO (commander) with 50 (or 5-star), 4gen, 3gen as statuses of decreasing importance. Around the CO is a team with authority, with a Godfather (the key advisor), Chairman (chairing meetings), Brigadier (muscle), Beef-King (muscle for intergang fights) and Bouncer (clearing the way for the CO in large crowds). The CO is the most powerful – initiation, the type of operation and promotion are his exclusive right – but he generally takes most decisions in collaboration with the Godfather. The 5, 4 and 3 in 5O and 3/4Gen are claimed to refer to the number of major offences committed, but older members say that 5-start is awarded after a kill, meaning you need ‘only’ one offence. (4)

The three colours differ most notably in their extent of centralized control. Gangs do not have a central command although overarching gang structures do exist. The power to command many goes to ‘informal’ leaders who get their status from controlling very large hoods, a long history in the gang (all COs I spoke to claim to have over 15 years of ‘experience’) and ‘connections’. The So So Black are the most centralized; the leaders hold positions in the overall ´EastHood´ can issue orders and mediate in intra-gang fights. The Blue and Red have ‘CentCoast’ and ‘EastCoast’ as overall label but lack centralized control. The Blue have emerged out of a power-struggle within the Black and Blue Movement and the constant threat from the Red. Since 2010 the Blue have had two informal leaders but the reign of each was short (one was killed, the other fled after a stabbing). At this moment in time, overarching control is limited. The MoB finally are the most split and have internal power-struggles. The best-known faction is the ‘Brookfields’ hood while other strong hoods are around Mount Areol (the Mountain cut area) and ‘BlackStreet’ (the Stadium area).

Big men, debt and the last day

Perhaps the best reference point for comparing the cliques phenomenon is Mats Utas’ work on street-crews after the war (Utas 2014). At that time, many youth harboured feelings of exclusion after being used during the war and now losing out on the peace. According to Utas this lead to a new imagined community, a ‘rarray-boy nation’, where street-crews played their ‘game’ against the ‘system’ and simultaneously sought integration within it. I’m neither trained as a sociologist or an anthropologist, yet based on ten months deep hanging out with cliques I think the clique-game is very similar to the one described by Utas. Yet, there are two main differences: 1) unlike the rarray-boy nation, cliques have very few links with big-men and; 2) they demand direct pay rather than develop extensive debt-relations.

Youths in Sierra Leone typically seek to develop patrimonial relations and sababu (connection) in search for work. Violence is governed by the same similar principles. Enria shows that youths within the political parties are bound by patrimonial relations; their loyalty to their big-men is described as love (Enria 2015). Christensen and Utas (2016), argue that party task-forces, seek protection from big-men in their attempt to find jobs and engage in work that leads to lasting debt relations that bind big-men and followers. This modus operandi is similar to the groups in the 60s and 80s (Banton 1957; Abdullah 2002) and continues todays in the form of political party task-forces. For example, in one ‘solda’ team Group. (5)  I hang out with have received everything they own (Money, cooking-pots, a coleman, thee-can and storage bags) by big-men from various political parties, offices nearby and businessmen. The group has campaigned for nearly two years expecting jobs and get-out-of-jail cards. After elections, little is given yet they remain loyal to the party. The group is a typical example of love (and betrayal) and the lasting debt relations that bind big-men and followers.

It seems that the gangs are different. First and foremost, cliques are governed by direct pay rather than debt relations, as is particularly clear from the way they conduct their ‘economies’. Many gang members actually ‘work’, hustling in the informal economy during daytime – operating at carwashes, carrying loads, manning roadblocks, doing casual jobs and cleaning. As this income is generally minor, gang operations are used to top-up income and/or to cover for large expenses (I have met various gang-members who pay their college fees through gang operation). Younger members, engage in pickpocketing and purse/bag grabbing while the older ones take part in robberies. (6) Burglary is generally viewed with disdain (‘for thieves’) as it does not require ‘heart’ – but it is grudgingly allowed by COs when the ‘gron dry’ (there is little money going around). Daylight robbery is most appreciated; you directly take what you want knowing that no one can challenge you. (7) It is an immediate economy that satisfies instant needs.

The absence of patrimonial relations and the requirement of direct pay are particularly pronounced in the gangs relationships with big-men. Except for leaders with extensive political connections (see a forthcoming post) there are very few patrimonial relationships. I have found some links between cliques and some nightclub owners and businessmen (e.g. Med Keh, Sanusi Buski, Washing Guy). Yet, in the rare instances that these connections exist, dependency relations are absent. There are occasional patrimonial exchanges (e.g. paying bail) and are mostly restricted to COs (e.g. with separate evenings on which they get free drinks). For example, at one point in time a journalist was beaten up for reporting on frequent burglary, in a hood that I frequent. One big-man who owned the outlet, suspected the gang demanded an explanation from the CO. Yet he was cursed and told that he could never inquire about these affairs after which the big-man paid 50.000 Leones to the CO (which was in turn refused). (8)  As a forthcoming post highlights, the exchange between clique-leaders and politicians is also based on direct pay (in a lump-sum and in a limited number of cases ‘per diem’) rather than promises of jobs. Gangs themselves refer to their alternative order as the ´last-day’; an individualized ‘end-of-the-world’ concept where you now take what you need.

Embeddedness in society

I’m closing this post with a final observation. As I just argued, the cliques can be read as a partial rejection of patrimonial relations (similar to the RUF, see e.g. Richards 2005) and society (just like Utas’ post-war rarray-boys). Yet, unlike the inward-looking RUF that enclaved itself from 1993-1996 (physically) and later mentally from society, todays gangs are situated within society. A prominent testament is that gangs generally have good relationship with the neighbourhood; many members (though this depends on the hood) are son-of-the-soil, most crime is performed outside of own hoods and gangs provide security against roaming cliques and rarray-boys. At one point in time, 7 gangsters (‘mercilessly’) beat up a boy and stole in his phone. Yet, as the crime was committed in his own neighbourhood, the CO ‘arrested’ the guilty members and put them in police-custody for one day. Demonstrating the social standing of the gang in the neighbourhood, the mother of one of the gangsters came in crying, begging for her son’s release – which was subsequently arranged by the CO with the local head of police during a gang football match. On another occasion, I witnessed the spoils of crime being shared with family members and dependents. Of course, there are difficulties in that the community may not want the security that is provided, complaints about the need for it to happen (as the gangs are themselves a major cause of crime) and family members in the community accusing their sons (and daughters) ofbeing idle and lazy. Yet, every hood that I hang extensively hang out with has tight connections between the local sub-hood and the community.

A second indication of the embeddedness of the cliques in society is the relations with the secret societies (Ojeh, Odelay, Hunting and Padul). For example, both the CO and the head of police in the previous examples were Agba’s (leaders) in neighbouring Ojeh’s. Moreover, the vast majority of gangs are a member of these societies. For example, the main base of the Crips is literally between one of the largest and most political Ojeh’s in town and a very political Hunting Club-House (it is the only clique that I am aware of that has stronger ties with big-men from the secret-society than with political big-men as evidenced by the fact that most of the money comes from the society rather than politicians). And perhaps, most telling: when I had my first meeting with all those COs and 5Os at the invitation of one of the leaders the cliques spoke Yoruba, a Nigerian language used in Ojeh.

Hence, unlike the Rarray-boys pre and post-war as well as some inter-war sodalities, it seems that the current gang-scene in Freetown is more embedded in society than previous sodalities. In fact, it is this embeddedness that could prove to be the ideal entry point for policy-makers. It is clear that repression is not the best way to address problems involving gangs. Yet, what approach should be taken in tackling the clique-problem without repression? As the next post that I will write on this forum shows, politicians have been trying to reduce the social violence and have engaged with most of the current gang-leadership. Yet, the effect has been that leader positions have been strengthened and the appeal of cliques has increased. Perhaps a better way is to tackle the clique problem with an indirect approach; improve societal structures with an appeal to cliques so that they can be dislodged without strengthening existing clique structures. In fact, as everyone who interacts with cliques and their leaders will testify: without exception they want a way out. Addressing real youth needs through societal channels seems to be a promising direction.

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.    


(1) I undertook research in the country for ten months and extensively hung out in six hoods. 

(2) LAJ formed the Red Flag Movement – out of which the MOB emerged whereas Kao Denero headed Black-Leo.

(3) With about 200 hoods belonging to the Freetown EastHood (Black)means that the blacks may have a membership of (at least) 6,000 members in Freetown. With the Red and Blue gangs and presence in the interior it seems likely that the absolute lowest membership is somewhere around 10- to 15,000. 

(4) It remains hard to verify these claims.

(5) An informal security provider attached to a political party (the groups described by Enria)

(6) A nation-wide ban on guns after the war meansthat armed attacks are manual and either take place with a ‘punch’ or with a ‘chopper’  (knives/scissors/iron bars).

(7) Note that gangs no longer really engage in the flourishing drug market. Ganja farming is operated by separate ‘Cartels’. Previously some gangs were involved in the cocaine trade but the highly secretive nature of this trade means that gangs can no longer be bought.

(8) Note; the gang was not responsible for this particular beating

In between homes – the in-between existence of refugees in transit in Eastleigh, Nairobi, by Lena Johansson (master student at Uppsala University)


Eastleigh shop in 2009 soon after Obama became US president. Photo by Mats Utas

Eastleigh, Nairobi is pictured as a good area for Somali refugees in media and in UNHCR reports. The migrant Somali population in Eastleigh has developed trade networks and made it a commercial area with major significance not only in East Africa but also globally. According to a report from 2012, by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), asylum seekers and refugees are surprisingly independent and integrated into the socio-economic life in Nairobi. The estate is considered a good area for refugees because of possibilities to socio-economic activities and according to the report, the profile of Eastleigh refugees is “one of incredible resilience and ability to survive in the face of significant odds” (UNHCR 2012). Continue reading

Fragile Security or Fatale Liaisons? Reflections on 2 March 2018 Attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, by Sten Hagberg

On Friday 2 March 2018 around 10 o’clock, two coordinated of terrorist attacks took place in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The first attack involved gunmen seeking to enter the Embassy of France, exchanging fire with soldiers from Burkinabe and French special forces. Four gunmen were killed in the attack against the Embassy, and no casualties among the special forces. The second attack took place a few minutes later. A vehicle stuffed with explosives detonated at the Chief of Defence staff’s headquarters (État-major des Armées), followed by shootings between attackers and Burkinabe defence forces. Eight Burkinabe militaries were killed together with another four attackers. Moreover, there were many wounded in the headquarters. The car bomb seems to have targeted a high-level meeting of senior military staff of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The blast destroyed the room where the meeting would have taken place had it not been relocated shortly before the attacks.

In total, the attacks led to 16 deaths, including eight assaulters. The number of wounded people amounted to some 80 persons. Yet in the afternoon the same day, French media outlets held that as many as 30 people had been killed. While this information was rejected by Burkinabe public authorities, and soon turned out to be false, it did fuel rumor and speculation, fear and anxiety. Continue reading

Prevention and militarization in Africa’s security governance by Linnéa Gelot

At the 27th African Union Summit held in Kigali, Rwanda, member states adopted a new funding model. The proposal by Dr Donald Kaberuka to institute an import levy of 0,2% on ‘eligible’ imports’ is widely hailed as a historic step forward for the organization and its ambitions to become independent and self-reliant. If implemented as expected, the Kaberuka model will fund the AU general budget and its programmes and is expected to raise approximately USD 1,2 billion beginning in 2017. Starting in 2017, each of the continent’s regions have committed to paying USD 65 m into the AU Peace Fund, which will enable Africa to fund 25% of the costs of AU peace operations. While this decision is imperative, I would like in this article to reflect on some of the broader challenges and trends in Africa’s security governance.

Continue reading

New Developments in Drone Proliferation: How Africa was Deployed to Rescue Drones, by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

Debates on global drone proliferation tend to assume that adoption and adaptation of drones follow a universal logic and that the drone industry is a singular thing, geographically concentrated in the Global North. In this blog post I argue that these assumptions make it difficult to critically assess the growth in drone use across Africa. I suggest that one way to think about African drone proliferation is by considering the way drones and Africa are being construed as solutions to each other’s problems: drones are seen as a game changer for develop­ment and security, while in return Africa inspire new and innovative use of drones. The percep­tion of Africa as being in need of external drone intervention dovetails with the drone industry’s efforts to identify and promote good uses for drones — efforts that are central to increasing the legitimacy of drones in the eyes of a skeptical global public. Here I want to highlight three key issues related to drone proliferation in Africa. Continue reading

Report from the blue zone: some scant observations on race and security in South Africa

When it rains the whole area goes tick-tick as drops fall on the electric fences. Visitors are greeted with a sign saying ”Warning criminals you are entering a Blue Zone 24 hours dedicated patrols in operation”; we are in the thriving white ghetto Umhlanga outside Durban, South Africa. It is my first visit to South Africa and it is a very different and to some extent disturbing experience compared to my previous stays in West and East Africa. It is altogether a different zone – a blue zone. Indeed the airport works smoother than any in Sweden. Roads in Kwazulu-Natal are great. Traffic is flowing; traffic police monitoring our moves. Huge farms are impressive and scenery fantastic. People are all nice and talkative. And we all talk security. Maybe it is unfair, maybe we make them do so, but with my landlords, with taxi drivers and people in the street we always end up talking security. Our interpreters are white, black and Indian. Security is central to our discussions.

Big Brother is watching you. But he is not the state.

Big Brother is watching you. But he is not the state.

Continue reading

Sweeping for Change in the Burkinabe Revolution, by Jesper Bjarnesen

As the dramatic scenes of public protests have given way to political negotiations of the terms of a transition towards new elections in Burkina Faso, the initial reports on events unfolding hour by hour are gradually being replaced by reflections on the overall implications of the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré. Questions are now being asked about the possible spill-over effects of the popular uprising – the possibility of an “African spring”, mirroring the wave of uprisings in Northern Africa in 2011. We might also begin to ask more anthropological questions of the potential for more enduring social and political change in Burkina Faso. Which changes in terms of political participation can the uprising be expected to have? Which actors were the driving forces for the public protests that brought Compaoré’s reign to an end, and are they included in the current negotiations? What has the monopolisation of power by the CDP at the national level meant for ordinary citizens? This brief text suggests some possible answers. Continue reading

Post election – The Liberia situation

Funny election poster

Most CDC supporters followed the recommendation of their party leader and restrained from voting on November 8. The election results show this with all clarity. After counting all the votes  NEC  showed that Johnson Sirleaf and the Unity Party had received more than 90%. Johnson Sirleaf has declared that she wants an inclusive government working for national unity, and there is clearly a need for this after the election period laying bare such cracks of conflict. Socio-political cracks are twofold: first between different regions within the country, and secondly between those who have and those who have not. These rifts are not new, but where rather central tenets of the civil war as well. For long term stability the Liberian government must in a comprehensive way deal with these issues – something that the UP has during their last period in office by and large failed to do. A further problem appears to be a centralisation of power to the UP. In fact they managed to “buy” up most of the smaller parties, with supporters and all, after the first round, and made deep inroads in the CDC opposition. This appears to be an obstacle for real democratic transition, and critical voices in Monrovia have started talking about the return of the one party state. Continue reading

Election Riots

The police used their big Guinea whips yesterday (see my previous entry). On November 7, CDC organised a “peaceful” party march intended to show their continued discontent urging people to boycott the election today. It appears to have turned ugly quite quick. The police tried to prevent the protestors to leave the party compound in Tubman Boulevard and started using teargas on the CDCians. The CDC supporters threw rocks and looted private property. The police fired live bullets into the crowd leaving at least one person dead and several wounded (there are a few clips uploaded on youtube). At some stage peacekeeping forces got involved. Continue reading

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