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?

Liberia and Sierra Leone fell apart by the end of the cold war. Up until then, stability, yet precarious, had been maintained through flows of patronage from the superpowers USA and USSR. In the early 90s both countries plunged into civil war. Rebel groups with rather shallow political agendas fought each other and the state armies that in many ways also came to resemble the rebel groups. People at first joined rebel groups to make revolution, to turn the tables, fight corrupt elites, but soon became aware that the leadership of their rebel groups had close ties both to political and economic elites and often had agendas that was very similar to the Big Men in power. If people at the onset believed in social change, in a couple of years down the road people joined rebel armies for protection and to some extent to better their life chances. Both wars went on for about ten years, killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed much of property and infrastructure of the countries. By the end of the wars scores of predominantly young men (but also quite many women), some who had grown up with warfare were to be demobilized and reintegrated in society. A good few came from poor marginal setting and one could argue that instead of being reintegrated they had only the possibility of being remarginalized.

Reintegration forms part of a package that is offered by UN and the international community called DDR, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. Millions of Euro are spent on such programs across the world at wars end – or maybe at a quite random point in a war/peace continuum as wars tend to have less clear endings than beginnings. A key problem with these projects is that the international community seldom has enough knowledge of how things work on the ground, and if there is a government at all it seldom has neither capacity nor will to really make things work. From my work in Liberia and Sierra Leone I can conclude that although efforts have been made from all sides, reintegration of ex-combatants is at best partial and at times non-existent. Not seldom spontaneous reintegration efforts by the ex-combatants themselves are more successful than formal DDR.

On the surface, and in the books of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean governments, the reintegration exercise has managed to destroy rebel/military networks, however according to my research this is mainly the surface that they want to maintain. It is to the contrary quite clear that politicians both in government and opposition have been quite keen to keep and also further establish ties with groups of former combatants. At first it may seem illogical: why would peacetime politicians be interested in wartime networks and armed actors. But there are several reasons. First these politicians were during the war not just sitting idle on the side of battlefield waiting for peace to come; many maintained ties with the rebel groups and at times also played direct roles in the war. Secondly as governance in Liberia and Sierra Leone is not just formal and state run, but also, and more importantly, informal and according to the logic of maintaining informal patronage networks (as I have discussed in African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks – Zed Books 2012), it is crucial for political figures to organize and keep people in place and military networks are very good doing so. Especially politics is run this way and thus we have in both Liberia and Sierra Leone been able to observe how former commanders have played decisive roles for instance during elections. Thirdly, also when it comes to organizing labor, businessmen, plantation owners, large scale farmer and others rely on informal networks and it has dawned on many that by employing former commanders they get managers who knows simultaneously how to organize people and maintain respect and loyalty over workers. Related to respect is fear, and the fourth, and final, key reason is that politicians and other Big Men in the elite are keen to link up with the right elements of commanders as a way of limiting the threat from these groups, but also of having the people others fear on their side, as threats of violence (and a few outbursts at times) is still very much the name of the political game. One need to acknowledge that in both countries police and judiciary are still toothless tools that keep playing political roles rather than catering for national security.

In this environment many former commanders have become service brokers. They can thus provide protection to people in need and labor for others. Anyone who needs fifty workers to their rubber plantation, or 150 persons for a demonstration can approach these brokers. They get what they want and in record speed. People in general know which former commander “belongs” to which political network, or which economic strongman, in these networked societies, but shifts in loyalties are not rare. Thus former commanders often shop around for the best deals. Partly these loyalties and networks are based on ethnic or regional belonging and family ties, but this is only partial, and in urban areas such ties are particularly blurred. In any case if I was a politician or a business man and I wanted things to be done and in time I would be very tempted to make use of a former commander and his/her network.

What is in it from a former foot-soldier/private perspective? Would it not be better to get out from under the wings of former commanders? If taking a quick look it appears that anyone who has been a soldier under often brutal rebel commanders would prefer finding his/her footing somewhere else. Indeed quite frequently this happens. Far from all ex-combatants are today connected to former commanders. Yet still surprisingly many are. Part of the reason is what I alluded to above: many soldiers came from marginal socio-economic settings and partly saw the war as navigation; a means to reach somewhere in society; of gaining wealth, education or social ties. Even if the war in itself was not directly sought after it was often seen as a means to break out of poverty. When the war ended many ex-combatants were remarginalized as the reintegration part of the DDR led to neither to some kind of alternative income nor integration in society. Many ex-combatants ended up in cities and towns with no job, no roof and little future prospects. Making do in the streets is hard and thus Big Men/patrons are central for survival and security to many ex-combatants. In general ex-combatants find it hard to trust people from the socio-economic elite – in fact many of their discussions center on how they have been betrayed by this elite. Former commanders have typically capitalized on the mutual mistrust between “elite and street” and have virtually become a social membrane between these two (although abstract) spheres. Indeed, they are not alone; other broker figures exploit the same divide and it should also be pointed out that non-excombatants are ever more present in the networks mustered by former commanders.

With former commanders and ex-combatants still being active in structures that in many ways resemble the command structures of the rebel groups one could state that Liberia and Sierra Leone is still militarized, yet I would say that this is the wrong conclusion. Indeed there is still the risk that these structures could be used for yet another war. The networks have indeed been used to mobilize mercenary soldiers aimed for Côte d’Ivoire, but also to mobilize soldiers aimed for Iraq by international private security companies. They could equally be used so if a new war would be waged in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But, and I think this is the important point, the maintenance of them in the postwar has shown that they may equally be used to foster peace and stability. As such the networks are neither military nor civilian, moral nor immoral, they are neutral and what they do depends on what they are mobilized for. Thus by and large what they do depend on what the political elite wants them to do. It is politically naïve to try to destroy them and as proven by the realities in Liberia and Sierra Leone the DDR processes have only driven them under the surface. The ties are still there, but now only for the initiated to see. Quite the contrary these commander/combatants networks have proved to be the chiefly means of survival to many ex-combatants, thus the more they are severed the more likely are ex-combatants to surface in violent means of survival. Indeed in a current research project that I run together with Anders Themnér we find that the weaker ex-combatant networks are at greater risk of being remobilized.

On the other hand if one wants to create stability in post-war countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone I would thus like to stress the structural futility of breaking commander/combatant networks and suggest that there is instead a possibility to use these networks to create stability and simultaneously to cater for the needs of former combatants that live very fragile lives. It is important to reach to these individuals and to integrate them into society – I am not saying reintegrate as many of the ex-combatants that I have studied arduously argues that they were not really part of Liberian or Sierra Leonean society prior to the war. Many felt that they were abject to society. A central task in the postwar is thus integration into society. Most probably the most efficient means to do so is through the very military networks the DDR aims to dismantle. Former commanders may be brokers of integration and opportunities to ex-combatants.

During a recent fieldtrip to Liberia I interviewed a former NPFL general who maintained rather good control over his former combatants. When I asked him what his position was today, in regards to how it was during the war. He watched me rather astutely and said: once a general, always a general. This was after a long discussion and it was rather clear that he did not say it with reference to that he would consider yet again taking up arms to fight the government. It was rather with reference to the fact that he felt that the organization principle of the labor forces he had to his service resembled the command structure he was part of during the war, and that he was still heading it.


  1. Sébastien Jadot

    October 23, 2013 at 6:55 am

    Interesting post and a good addendum to your recent “African Conflicts and Informal Power” book. I believe that streamlining the informal networks into the formal is a component of ‘long-term’ sustainability in DDR or SSR policies. If anything, ex-combatants have a lot to teach in terms of organisation, skills, duty, respect for authority,etc. which often due to structural problems and/or lack of political perspective in the post-conflict narrative end up relapsing into their previous activity. There is also a lot to do between decisions taken from a capital, where all the power is centered, and the regional and local perspectives which often are not being taken into account by the victor’s side. Looking at the DRC-Katanga relationship being one such example.

  2. I found your analysis interesting and convincing but wonder about the process of becoming a general. How do these individuals (I’m assuming mostly all men–hence Big Men), learn to be commanders? What is the process by which they establish and use networks, gain authority and legitimacy amongst their peers and others, and then exercise power and influence, command other men and cultivate obedience or willingness? Do their fathers and other male elders teach them? Do they watch and learn? Studies of conventional militaries often detail the ways in which militarism is inculcated into soldiers through a general and then a very specific and intense socialisation process inside the military institution. How does this work in this informal context?

    • Thanks Marsha
      I think so much in Liberian and Sierra Leonean societies are about learning how to utilize and position oneself in informal networks; how to relate to seniors, juniors, etc. It by and large comes with the breast milk. However the state of emergency during the war enabled new people who would otherwise not be in social positions to enter leading roles. Learning and living the chain of command within rebel armies taught them skills they could successfully use in the post-war as well. There is something similar with the western military where commanders are believed to have better skills organizing and running structures and are thus hired into civilian management positions. So to conclude I would suggest that it is a combination of a global military structure and local factors.

  3. Mats, I’m sorry to admit that I haven’t yet read your book, but am I understanding your research correctly to posit that major politicians have ‘shadow networks’ of idle combatants? Presumably, other politicians would be aware of this, and therefore I would imagine that the underlying threat of this would have a range of important effect on all sorts of aspects of politics, within and across various political parties, branches of government, ministries etc. Thanks.

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