The Ties that Bind: Ex-Military Command Structures as a Foundation for Peace or Source for Insecurity? by Anders Themnér

The presence of large groups of ex-combatants is often seen as a major challenge to post-civil war stability. Experiences of ex-fighters engaging in different forms of violence have prompted policy-makers and scholars (and to be frank, at times also myself) to ‘securitize’ the ex-combatant issue. This has particularly been true concerning the phenomenon of informal military networks. The sight of ex-fighters interacting with their former commanders, often on a daily basis, is commonly seen as a direct threat to the post-war order, especially since such ties should – according to official disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) jargon – cease to exist. It is true that ex-combatant networks can, and have been, employed for detrimental purposes. Officially dismantled command structures have, for instance, been used for wartime purposes in Macedonia, Mali, the Republic of Congo and Tajikistan; electoral violence in Aceh (Indonesia), Niger Delta (Nigeria) and Sierra Leone; riots in Liberia and Mozambique; and organized violence in Columbia, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. However, recent research has also highlighted how ex-command structures provide vital social services that can further peace and stability. Informal military networks do, for instance, constitute an important source of employment, friendship and security for many ex-combatants.

The observation that ex-command structures are essentially value neutral and can be employed for both productive and destructive purposes, prompted Mats Utas, Ilmari Käihkö and myself to embark on a research project entitled Informal Realities of Peacebuilding: Military Networks and Former-Mid Level Commanders in Post-War Liberia (funded by Sida). The purpose of the project was twofold: (a) to understand how such networks are upheld; and (b) explain why some ex-command structures are employed for violent purposes, while others are not. To answer these questions we employed a three-pronged strategy: conducted a survey that included 58 ex-commanders and 180 of their former subordinates, did an in-depth social network analysis of eight ex-commanders and their ex-fighters, and engaged in anthropological field work.

In a recent article in Journal of Comparative Politics – “Former Military Networks and the Micro-Politics of Violence and Statebuilding in Liberia” (Vol. 47, No. 3) – I address the question of why some demobilized command structures are remobilized during times of armed conflict, while others are not. More specifically I compare two different ex-mid-level commanders (ex-MiLCs) and the networks of ex-combatants that they control. The reason for this is that ex-MiLCs function as gatekeepers, or social membranes, providing access to ex-combatant communities; without their services elites have few prospects of remobilizing ex-fighters for war.

The 2011 armed conflict in Côte d’Ivoire created an opportunity to compare how different ex-MiLCs reacted to the possibility of remobilizing their ex-combatant networks for war. In order to beef up their armed groups, people close to both President Laurent Gbagbo and Allassane Ouattara – the two latter were engulfed in a dispute over the results of the Presidential elections – launched systematic recruitment campaigns targeting Liberian ex-combatants inside Liberia. To gain access to the ex-fighters, the two sides approached different ex-MiLCs and asked the latter if they were willing to recruit ex-combatants for a military mission in Côte d’Ivoire. These interactions were often facilitated by old military ties, where Outtara loyalists had previously cooperated with members of ex-President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL) and Gbagbo supporters had assisted the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). Habitually the ex-MiLCs were given a down-payment in USD (anything from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars) and promised future economic rewards. In turn, the latter used parts of the money that they received to entice their ex-fighters, and sometimes ex-combatants who had fought in other units, to go to Côte d’Ivoire. Two ex-MiLCs who were given the chance to remobilize regional mercenaries were David and George (these are not their real names). What is interesting about these two ex-commanders is that even though they shared several similar traits – both were ex-NPFL and Navy Division commanders (the latter was also a pro-Taylor military outfit), resided in Monrovia and were part of the same socioeconomic class – it was only George that accepted to carry his ex-fighters to Côte d’Ivoire. How can we understand such differences in behavior?

Based on a systematic comparison of George and David’s experiences, I argue that the post-war belligerency of ex-commanders is best understood through the prism of brokerage. In fact, ex-military networks are most likely to be remobilized when ex-MiLCs lose their privileged roles as ‘wartime brokerage’ – positions that allow them to regulate the flow of resources and information between wartime leaders on the one hand and fighters on the other. Without continued access to such sources of patronage, ex-MiLCs risk losing their networks of ex-combatant clients once peace arrives. Such a development constitutes as serious threat, as social advancement is generally a function of the principle of ‘wealth in people’ – the ability to mobilize clients as voters, workers or fighters on behalf of Big Men or for oneself – in many post-war societies. One way for ex-MiLCs to salvage waning networks is to accept offers to fight for domestic or regional actors involved in civil strife; by extending promises of economic gain, ex-MiLCs can pull fledging ex-combatant clients back. Such offers of military remobilization are often welcomed by ex-fighters, who are habitually left in economic need despite having participated in DDR-programs.

Governing elites can, however, counter such post-war pressures by employing ex-MiLCs as peacetime brokers of patronage. Such a strategy deprives domestic opponents and regional warlords of the remobilizers needed to recruit ex-fighters for military missions; by becoming peacetime brokers ex-MiLCs receive the necessary resources to retain their ex-combatant networks, without having to engage in warfare. Such strategies also allow governing elites to efficiently distribute economic resources to aggrieved ex-combatants and transform the latter into loyal clients. According to this logic, post-war stabilization is not so much about dismantling military networks as it is about ensuring their survival by co-opting them into the statebuilding process. Counter-intuitively this implies that it is not always the strongest informal military networks that are the most dangerous, but rather those that are weak, fledging and disconnected from governing elites. The latter are often found in what Maya Christensen calls “shaky grounds” – typically urban ghettos, where the clientele is more hidden away, anonymous and often connected to the illegal economy. Ex-MiLCs presiding over ex-combatant networks in such shaky grounds are to a larger extent forced into marginal sources of income – the drugs economy or war-making – in order to maintain influence over their ex-fighters. According to this logic the military remobilization of ex-soldiers is the outcome of weak elite ties and weak ex-combatant networks. In contrast, networks that are not shunned by governing elites are often resilient to offers of military remobilization. Contrary to weak ex-combatant networks, ex-MiLCs and the ex-fighters in strong networks tend to have lives and incomes that are up in the open and by breaking away from this they simply have too much to lose as their activities would be scrutinized by the very governing elites supporting them.

How did all of this play out in the lives of David and George? Not only did David turn down the offer to fight in Côte d’Ivoire, he also actively prevented those of his ex-fighters who were contemplating to fight for other ex-commanders from going to Côte d’Ivoire. Evidence suggests that David did this because he had positioned himself as a strong peacetime broker and his employers – figures such as Roland Duo (security advisor to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), an unnamed National Patriotic Party (NPP) senator, and Benoni Urey (business tycoon and politician) – had an interest in preventing cross-border recruitment. There was, for instance, pressure from UN to prevent such activities and with the presence of large contingents of Liberian ex-fighters in Côte d’Ivoire there was always the risk that the fighting would spill back into Liberia. If David had remobilized his ex-fighters there was an acute risk that he would lose his position as broker and with it the resources that flowed through him (which he actively took a cut of). George did not experience such constraints. In fact, despite efforts to attach himself to various governing elites – in particular Duo – he was rarely employed as a peacetime broker. With limited patronage to distribute, he was beginning to lose control over his network of ex-combatant clients. For George carrying his former subordinates to Côte d’Ivoire was one way to arrest this development. The adventure in Côte d’Ivoire also proved to be a lucrative affair. Not only did George acquire a car and MC-bike that he brought back to Liberia, many of his ex-fighters carried with them loot ranging from clothes, cash and cameras, to laptops and mobile phones.

What implications do these findings have for local and international efforts to build long-term peace? Considering the crucial source of socioeconomic support that strong ex-combatant networks – that are attached to the state – are for ex-fighters, it can be beneficial to leave them intact. In fact, insisting that such structures must be dismantled may not only be unwise, but at times even immoral. Such policies promises to leave many ex-fighters without employment, economic support and social coping mechanisms, making them susceptible to military recruitment. Counterintuitively it may – as in the case of Robert and his waning network – instead be the weaker ex-command structures who constitute the greatest threat. When faced with such networks, it could be argued that peacemakers have – besides doing nothing and waiting for ex-command structures to become less volatile due to the aging of its members – two strategies at their disposal. One possibility is to try to disconnect ex-commanders from their ex-fighters by decreasing the value of possessing such clients. This can be done by providing ex-commanders with education (for instance abroad) or formal jobs or business opportunities, whereby they acquire a position of ‘officialdom’. An alternative approach is to develop strategies that de facto help ex-MiLCs regain control over their fledging networks, in the hope of employing the former as brokers of peace. This can either be done by state elites – who increase the number of government brokers they make us of – or peacemakers. The latter can, for instance, harness the agency of such ex-MiLCs to direct ex-combatants towards new employment opportunities, disseminate information about development projects and programs geared towards reconciliation and psychosocial counselling, diffuse norms based on human rights and democracy, as well gather information used for early-warning systems.

Anders Themnér (formerly Nilsson) is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research (DPCR), Uppsala University. His research focus is on post-civil war democratization; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR); and informal military networks in post-civil war societies. Some of Themnér’s recent publications include Violence in Post-Conflict Societies: Remarginalization, Remobilizers and Relationships (monograph at Routledge, 2011); “A Leap of Faith: When and How Ex-Combatants Resort to Violence” (Security Studies, 22:2); and Warlord Democrats in Africa: The Security Effects of Integrating Ex-Military Leaders into Electoral Politics (edited book, Zed Publishing, forthcoming 2016). His work is predominantly based on field research in Liberia, Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.

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