In most post-conflict countries much is at stake and tensions are high during elections. The Liberian 2011 elections were no exception. The difference between winning and losing can be huge, because in Liberia the winner takes it all. But here I’m not talking about the presidential candidates, the winner incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or her main antagonist Winston Tubman. The political elite will always find ways to survive no matter the electoral turnout.  Here I’m talking about the followers, Liberians (in this case, ex-combatants) far from the privileged elite who gave their loyalty to the competing candidates with hopes and dreams about a better future. Two years earlier, in July 2009, the formal closure of the Demobilisation, Disarmament, Rehabilitation and Reintegration process had been announced – which if successful – would have implied former combatants’ reintegration into civil society and the dismantling of rebel networks. But the election period was yet another evidence of remaining rebel structures still used for political purposes, despite all official initiatives of demobilisation and reintegration.  It revealed how very important it is for many ex-combatants to become what they regard as ‘politically active’, but more so, it highlighted the importance of supporting the ‘right’ candidate, to wit, the next president. While elections can be advantageous for ex-combatants, giving loyalty to the losing candidate can be devastating. The experiences of Alex and Michael illustrate this. Michael, a former LURD commander, managed to secure important political connections leading all the way up to president Johnson Sirleaf. Alex, a former vigilante leader, established a network of ex-combatants later mobilised by Tubman during his election campaign. For Alex and Michael and ex-combatants around them, with few opportunities in a post-war society, the elections were crucial. But while their political engagement was on the one side very beneficial it was for the losing side disastrous.

When I first came to know Alex, in 2009, he was leader of a vigilante group in Monrovia. The group saw themselves as local defenders; defenders of their community in an area were the Liberian police did not dare to enter at night. Alex himself had not been a rebel soldier but the main part of the approximately 50 men in his group had. They came from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, parts of Liberia and rebel factions. What they now shared was their community and their status as ex-combatants, but also poverty and unemployment. Alex made good use of their skills as security providers. Years in rebel movements had taught them how to organise themselves so they could secure and protect their neighbourhood. They knew how to fight, but more importantly as Alex and others in the community often pointed out, they were fearless and feared for their violent nature.

Before the elections life took a new turn for Alex and the vigilante group. They had as they said “gone into politics” as Liberian politicians had reached out to ex-combatants. Alex himself had been approached by Winston Tubman, presidential candidate for the CDC party. After being nominated Tubman set out to establish his own informal security group. Tubman wanted men around him as personal bodyguards, men who could protect him when campaigning, but maybe also to show force, power and status. To find men suitable for the job Tubman turned to Alex. The security force in many ways came to resemble a military unit. Alex and four former rebel generals were chosen as head commanders with main responsibility for areas such as Tubman’s overall day and night-time security, campaigning and motorcade security, private house and party headquarters security etc. Underneath each commander Alex assigned ex-combatants from his vigilante group as security providers. The members of Alex’ security group closest to Tubman could count on somewhat more regular payments from the CDC party but for them as the members of the wider security structures it was the hopes and promise of an eventual electoral victory for Winston Tubman that mattered. A victory, they thought, would mean permanent security jobs and a better life.

It proved rather difficult to get hold of any of my informants during the time before the elections, but to get hold of Michael was nearly impossible. We talked on the phone and arranged to meet up, but it often ended with Michael not making it, something had come up again, “election-business” he said. Michael was busier than any of my informants, but then again, Michael’s situation is very different from all the other ex-combatants I know. He has done what the others only dream of; he has managed to secure employment in the formal sector, a senior position within one of the country’s security institutions. If “reintegration is the process by which ex-combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income” Michael has certainly been socially and economically integrated into civil society. But Michael’s success lies not in his abandonment of his wartime rebel networks, but rather the reverse.

In March 2011, during the voter registration process, Michael who remained in close contact with his former rebels after the war, launched an ex-combatant organisation sponsored by a senior local politician in Sirleaf Johnson’s government. Michael wanted an organised network for ex-combatants’ rights. He wanted, he said, to keep them out of trouble, drugs and criminal activities, and he wanted to work for their employment opportunities by using his links to the political elite. But whatever motives Michael had for starting the organisation, it was evident that for the politicians, facing an up-coming election, supporting Michael’s organisation was a very strategic way of gaining votes. Michael soon had over 1,000 ex-combatants enlisted within his organisation and the network was approached by politicians at the very highest level. Michael and the leadership of the organisation (him and two other former rebel generals) even had a few meetings with the President herself. In exchange for financial support and promises of scholarships for some of the ex-combatants Michael and the former commanders promised to promote Johnson Sirleaf and the UP party during the elections. As Michael explained, he first encouraged the ex-combatants to register for the elections, then as he said “I told them why, when and how to vote”.

Winners and losers – ex-combatants post-election Meeting with Alex and Michael a few months after the elections I realised how high the stakes had been for them and their networks of ex-combatants. Alex was broken when I met him again. Tubman had left the country, leaving Alex and his men without work. But not only was Alex without a job, he seemed to be unable to get a new one due to his former commitment. The strength of Alex, that Tubman clearly had taken advantage of, that he had been well-known and popular with the ability to mobilise ex-combatants, was now turned against him. The opposition knew him very well, and no one wanted to employ him. With the victory of President Johnson Sirleaf positions within the formal security institutions were completely out of reach for Alex and my pro-CDC informants, but not for my informants on the winning side. Now Johnson Sirleaf had to pay them back, leaving nothing for the losing side. Alex was miserable, but not only due to his inability to find a job, he was also scared. A few weeks after the elections, Alex’ house was attacked. Masked men broke into the house in the middle of the night. They took everything of value and smashed the rest, leaving Alex’ small home completely devastated. Alex and others in the neighbourhood strongly believes that this was an act made against Alex as retaliation for not having been loyal to the ruling elite. The police, he said, had not investigated the incident and could even have been involved he thought. From this day Alex did not dare to spend another night in his old house. He feared another attack, he feared revenge and retaliation, he even feared for his life. Alex, in all those years I had known him, had been proud to be a well-known man in his neighbourhood. Now this was his biggest disadvantage. He and many ex-combatants around him had risked it all taking sides in the elections. They had seen no other opportunities. But they had lost. As Alex explained; “CDC can do nothing for the ones they mobilised. They are left with nothing. And now things are even worse than before as the winning side don’t want to have anything to do with them.”

For Michael the elections meant something entirely different. As I could see when we met again in April after the elections, Michael and his ex-combatants had clearly benefited from Johnson Sirleaf’s victory. Now Michael could feel more secure in his position at the security institution, a position he probably would have lost given a new political leadership. For his ex-combatants, Michael had used his personal contacts with senior politicians to get funding for a few scholarships for university studies. Others he had, through his contacts at various institutions and private organisations, recommended for different informal security positions. This was the government’s way to pay him back for the support he had mobilised. The official election results from the first round of voting in Bomi County, where Michael’s ex-combatant organisation was based and where he had the main part of his network, gave Johnson Sirleaf 65.3 percent of the votes, as compared to Tubman’s 28.7 percent. In the second round, as Tubman boycotted the elections, Johnson won a clear victory. Michael often laughed and told me that he won Bomi for Ellen. He said this half as a joke, but also half seriously. It is of course impossible to say precisely how much influence Michael and his ex-combatants had on the elections but what is evident, judging from how much the politicians invested in their contacts with him and his former fighters, the impact was far from insignificant. Michael, despite the war being over for many years now, has remained important for many ex-combatants and through him, if they are lucky, they might find employment. For the Liberian elite on the other hand, Michael is just as valuable. His network of ex-combatants is large and loyal and through him they can access these remaining rebel structures whether for personal gains, mobilising votes, unofficially employ security providers or for other financial or political purposes. For the ex-combatants, in order to find employment, it thereby becomes strategically important to preserve, rather than abandon, wartime rebel structures. Meanwhile, for the Liberian political elite, the reintegration of ex-combatants and the dissolution of post-war rebel structures, contrary to the official approach and statements, would be counter-productive as the networks of ex-combatants are useful for their own political and financial interests. As seen during the 2011 Liberian elections a mutual dependence still exists between the elite and the ex-combatants. But there is no doubt that the Liberian elite are playing a dangerous game with their strategic use of post-war rebel structures. We should not forget that these networks, with only eight years since the war ended, are trained and capable of violence and warfare. Used in the wrong way by the political elite or other influential actors they are potentially dangerous to future stability and peace in Liberia.

Mariam Persson is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. She has over the last three years conducted fieldwork in Liberia with a focus on former combatants