The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia

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Overview


In The War Machines, Danny Hoffman considers how young men are made available for violent labor both on the battlefields and in the diamond mines, rubber plantations, and other unregulated industries of West Africa. Based on his ethnographic research with militia groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia during those countries’ recent civil wars, Hoffman traces the path of young fighters who moved from grassroots community-defense organizations in Sierra Leone during the mid-1990s into a large pool of mercenary labor.

Hoffman argues that in contemporary West Africa, space, sociality, and life itself are organized around making young men available for all manner of dangerous work. Drawing on his ethnographic research over the past nine years, as well as the anthropology of violence, interdisciplinary security studies, and contemporary critical theory, he maintains that the mobilization of West African men exemplifies a global trend in the outsourcing of warfare and security operations. A similar dynamic underlies the political economy of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a growing number of postcolonial spaces. An experienced photojournalist, Hoffman integrates more than fifty of his photographs of young West Africans into The War Machines.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Hoffman’s book is at once a tightly-wound first person account of life amongst Sierra Leone’s ‘lumpen proletariat’ and an impressive work of economic and cultural theory. It is this unusual lens that makes The War Machines so thought-provoking, even for those intimately familiar with the Mano River War, and Hoffman provides enough background and context that it is still a powerful read for the uninitiated. “ - D. Tsomondo, cool’eh

“This is an exceptional read for an audience well-beyond war and conflict interested anthropologists. Hoffman has an apt eye, is analytically sass and writes in straightforward prose. The book is richly illustrated with Hoffman’s excellent photos.” - Mats Utas, Anthropological Quarterly

“Hoffman avoids the common language of chaos and failed states, noting that though it is hard to idealize militia life, in this context it may be seen as asocial movement prepared to defend itself against external predations. Highly recommended.” - O. Pi-Sunyer, Choice

“This is a novel departure from most previous studies of youth and violence in Africa, and as such it is a necessary and provocative addition to the literature.… [A] wealth of material he brings to bear on our understanding of youth violence.” - Catherine Bolten, Anthropos

“It is to Hoffman’s great credit as a scholar and author that his writing… is equally compelling, deftly articulating political philosophical concepts (no small feat with the repertoire he has selected) and evocatively rendering dynamic social environments…. Hoffman succeeds in making the political, economic and social connections he sets out to make. The War Machines provides a welcome addition to the modest Mano River canon, and a valuable entry point for academic visitors in and voyageurs out.” - Zoe Marks, The Journal of Modern African Studies

“[A] path-breaking ethnography that offers a completely novel analytical framework for the anthropology of war in general, and for the interconnected wars in the West African Mano River Basin region in particular.” - Sverker Finnström, African Studies Quarterly

“The ethnographic narrative, as well as the crafted images throughout the text, conveys a rich and nuanced portrayal of the lives of Hoffman’s subjects and their context, which avoids at all times violence aestheticizing or full denial of individual’s agency…. This book is a must read for any serious scholar interested in the study of globalisation, post-colonialism, or visual research methodology.” - Yolanda C. Martin, Visual Studies

“It’s clear from the onset that the questions pursued are quite original and nontraditional for an anthropological reading of young West African combatants….widely accessable to those without a specific interest in an anthropological study of Africa.” - Sammy Badran, Theory & Event

Sverker Finnström

“[A] path-breaking ethnography that offers a completely novel analytical framework for the anthropology of war in general, and for the interconnected wars in the West African Mano River Basin region in particular.”
O. Pi-Sunyer

“Hoffman avoids the common language of chaos and failed states, noting that though it is hard to idealize militia life, in this context it may be seen as asocial movement prepared to defend itself against external predations. Highly recommended.”
D. Tsomondo

“Hoffman’s book is at once a tightly-wound first person account of life amongst Sierra Leone’s ‘lumpen proletariat’ and an impressive work of economic and cultural theory. It is this unusual lens that makes The War Machines so thought-provoking, even for those intimately familiar with the Mano River War, and Hoffman provides enough background and context that it is still a powerful read for the uninitiated. “
Zoe Marks

“It is to Hoffman’s great credit as a scholar and author that his writing… is equally compelling, deftly articulating political philosophical concepts (no small feat with the repertoire he has selected) and evocatively rendering dynamic social environments…. Hoffman succeeds in making the political, economic and social connections he sets out to make. The War Machines provides a welcome addition to the modest Mano River canon, and a valuable entry point for academic visitors in and voyageurs out.”
Sammy Badran

“It’s clear from the onset that the questions pursued are quite original and nontraditional for an anthropological reading of young West African combatants….widely accessable to those without a specific interest in an anthropological study of Africa.”
Yolanda C. Martin

“The ethnographic narrative, as well as the crafted images throughout the text, conveys a rich and nuanced portrayal of the lives of Hoffman’s subjects and their context, which avoids at all times violence aestheticizing or full denial of individual’s agency…. This book is a must read for any serious scholar interested in the study of globalisation, post-colonialism, or visual research methodology.”
Catherine Bolten

“This is a novel departure from most previous studies of youth and violence in Africa, and as such it is a necessary and provocative addition to the literature.… [A] wealth of material he brings to bear on our understanding of youth violence.”
Mats Utas

“This is an exceptional read for an audience well-beyond war and conflict interested anthropologists. Hoffman has an apt eye, is analytically sass and writes in straightforward prose. The book is richly illustrated with Hoffman’s excellent photos.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822350774
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 8/30/2011
  • Series: The Cultures and Practice of Violence Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,392,793
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Danny Hoffman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. As a photojournalist, he documented conflicts in southern Africa and the Balkans from 1994 to 1998.

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Read an Excerpt

The War Machines

young men and violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia
By DANNY HOFFMAN

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5077-4


Chapter One

THE MANO RIVER WAR

A Chronology

THE MANO RIVER runs between Sierra Leone to the west and Liberia to the east. It is the (in)effective boundary between the two countries for more than half their shared border. The river cuts arbitrarily through ethnic, familial, and trade ties between the two countries, linking the nations as much as it divides them.

Accounts of the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia (as well as the periodic violence in Guinea) typically explore the influence of one conflict on the other. More rarely are they treated as the same war. I do so here, and name that war after the river boundary between the states, to reflect the seminal role that border crossing and movement played in this conflict. By this I mean movements of personnel, war materiel, financing, plunder, refugees, the infrastructure of nongovernmental organizations (NGOS), tactics, and ideas. This was a war in which the same actors appear on both banks of the river, a war in which events on one side can only really be understood in the context of events on the other.

The best histories of the conflict in this region begin their narratives well before the events of Christmas Eve 1989 when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched its first cross-border raid into Liberia. War broke out in both countries after long stints of repressive rule and the deliberate marginalization of the "opposition" (real or imagined). In Sierra Leone the All People's Congress (APC) party ruled for twenty-four years in the mode of a textbook African dictatorship. The long-serving president, Siaka Stevens, passed power to his chosen successor, Joseph Momoh, in 1985, leaving a legacy of sham elections, real and fictive coup attempts, a patrimonial political and economic system, and a sense of acute alienation in the country's rural south and east. Liberia was rid of its long-ruling True Whig Party in 1980 when a military coup ended the hegemony of the party (though not the dominance of the Americo-Liberian elite who composed it [Reno 1998, 80–84]). However, the new Liberian president, Samuel Doe, put in its place an even more ethnically divisive and criminalized mode of politics that set the stage for war a decade later.

Structural forces facing both countries appear now as obvious predicates to the war to come. The relationships these two small but resource-rich West African states maintained with their colonial and neocolonial metropoles hardly lent themselves to long-term stability. The diamond industry in Sierra Leone, rubber and iron ore production in Liberia, and timber harvests in both nations were structured to concentrate most of the earnings in the hands of a small in-country elite and their partners overseas. Both countries were severely wracked by Cold War-era geopolitics, including the end of superpower patronage and the disastrous reforms demanded by international financial institutions in the 1980s. As A. B. Zack-Williams puts it, "In an ironic way, Foday Sankoh's infantile revolution [in Sierra Leone] aided the flight of skilled personnel out of the country by finishing the job begun a decade earlier by World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs" (2002, 310). In both countries the deliberate impoverishment of much of the country by its domestic elite, combined with international interventions that were incompetent at best, exploitative at worst, guaranteed tragic outcomes for the majority of the region's population.

What follows is a brief chronology of key events in that tragic history. It is hardly exhaustive. The Mano River War was long and complex. There are others better positioned than I to tell that story in detail. What's more, a great deal of the book that follows is an effort to recount the history of the war in terms that are frequently omitted from narratives of this region. Like that of many anthropologists, my interest in history lies partly in telling it differently, partly in analyzing how various histories are deployed in the present. What may be most important to understand about the subject of this book, the region's militia movements, are the ways in which they escaped history. I am most concerned in the chapters that follow with the innovations and the experiments that could not necessarily have been predicted by history or existing cultural orders.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Lubkemann has argued, anthropologists (especially anthropologists of war) cannot help "actually 'doing history'" in the conventional sense of reconstructing a past (2008, 31). The alternative is to begin only with the violences of the present, to write ethnographies of war that treat violence ahistorically and reduce the nuanced life trajectories of existing people to characters in a just-so story of violence. Despite the valid critiques anthropology brings to the study of history, at some level the project of relating what happened, event by event, must be a central concern of the anthropology of war.

I therefore have two specific imperatives for "doing history" in this chapter. First, because the history of this war is so little known outside the region. Although Sierra Leone and Liberia briefly dominated the international news section of various world media outlets in the 1990s and early 2000s, for the most part this was not a war that was well covered or well understood. Even basic facts about the conflict are largely unknown outside the region and to a small group of experts and expats.

The second imperative behind including an "official" history chapter in this volume is that even among those who are familiar with the details of this conflict, those details are very rarely read synchronically across both sides of the Sierra Leone and Liberia border. While most observers acknowledge that events in Sierra Leone influenced those in Liberia, and vice versa, most studies focus on one conflict and present the other as background material. Yet as Morton Bøås and Kevin Dunn have argued, the way in which this war was "regionalized" tells us a great deal about the nature of postcolonial West Africa (2007, 36). It is only when we consider them together that we begin to understand the larger implications of this war for the future of this region and the future of the modes of militarization we find there.

The Invasions

This history of regional exploitation was the context in which Charles Taylor and the NPFL crossed the Ivorian border and attacked the town of Butou in Liberia's northern Nimba County at the end of 1989. The ethnic politics of Nimba County had grown increasingly violent in the preceding years as President Samuel Doe stoked ethnic tensions and marginalized Nimba County's Gio majority. If the particulars of the NPFL invasions were not predetermined, the likelihood of violence was. Nimba was rife with rumors that major conflicts were coming (Ellis 1999, 72–73). There were clear signs that politicians and community leaders were prepared to fight back against Doe's government, and at least three factions or splinter factions outside the country were training recruits for armed assaults.

Taylor, a former bureaucrat in Doe's government, had been in exile since 1983. He was well positioned to launch an anti-Doe campaign. Taylor had spent the years before the invasion moving through a network of West African dissidents and interventionist politicians prepared to assist an armed effort in Liberia, a circle of anti-Doe actors that included Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Burkinabe president Blaise Compaore. Libyan president Moammar Gadaffi hosted both Taylor and Foday Sankoh, the eventual leader of the rebels in Sierra Leone, as well as other key figures in both wars, as part of an effort to establish a West African sphere of influence. Taylor benefited further from efforts by French businessmen in Côte d'Ivoire and members of the Lebanese diaspora throughout the region to solidify relations with Liberian exiles who might one day give them in-country access to Liberia's natural resources.

Though the NPFL has over the years become synonymous with Charles Taylor (an elision Taylor himself encouraged), in its earliest days it was a more amorphous, chaotic affair. As Stephen Ellis notes it is probably more accurate to call the NPFL a "network of armed dissidents than a political party or a guerrilla army ... united by little except their dislike of Samuel Doe" (1999, 74).

Still, one of the keys to the NPFL's success is attributable to Taylor: a canny media strategy. Despite the relatively poor military quality of the NPFL, Taylor garnered early support in Nimba by announcing that the invasion was an extension of a popular but unsuccessful 1985 coup attempt. Taylor routinely phoned the BBC to update Liberia and the world about his advances across the country and his plans for Samuel Doe. With these phone calls, Taylor set a precedent that would become integral to the logic of this war for the next two decades: his most important weapons were the video camera and the satellite telephone.

The NPFL retained the character of a loosely coordinated network in these early days. Though it made rapid progress across Liberia, and had Monrovia surrounded by early July, there was already a splintering of forces. Prince Johnson, one of the more highly trained members of the leadership, broke with Taylor early on in the invasion and by July was leading what he called the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (the INPFL). Johnson's INPFL was considerably smaller than Taylor's forces but better trained and more disciplined. Taylor by contrast had a larger contingent of foreign fighters, civilian supporters, and child soldiers, including his infamous Small Boys Unit. What's more, Taylor had extensive contacts with Liberians in the diaspora and non-Liberian supporters outside the country. By the time he laid siege to Monrovia in mid-1990, Taylor had brokered deals with companies interested in the timber, rubber, and iron ore resources that lay in territory he controlled and could be exported through the recently captured port.

On 24 August 1990 a contingent of West African peacekeepers led by Nigerian troops arrived in Monrovia. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) voted to send in forces to stablize the country; at least in the opinion of ECOWAS's Anglophone members, the toppling of the Doe regime could potentially destablize the entire region. The staging ground for ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) was the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, from which they entered the INPFL-held Freeport area of Monrovia. Unlike Taylor, Prince Johnson welcomed the intervention and agreed to work with the foreign troops, while ECOMOG and the NPFL immediately clashed on the city streets.

The relationship between Prince Johnson and ECOMOG set up one of the most surreal moments in a generally surreal war. A few days after a cease-fire agreement was brokered between Johnson and Doe, the Liberian president left the Executive Mansion and drove to ECOMOG headquarters. In what was either a carefully orchestrated plot by international forces, or "a tragic catalogue of misunderstandings, misjudgments, and coincidences" (Ellis 1999, 5), Doe was captured by INPFL forces. Over the next several days, the Liberian president was tortured and eventually executed, an ordeal famously captured on videos that still circulate around West Africa.

In the wake of Doe's killing an ECOWAS settlement established an interim government under President Amos Sawyer. Taylor, meanwhile, set up a capital for what he called Greater Liberia at the northern city of Gbarnga, and for the remainder of 1990 consolidated his grip on the majority of the country.

Life for civilians in Greater Liberia could be terrifying. The NPFL presence was most evident at the numerous "gates" erected on major roads, checkpoints through which civilians had to pass Taylor's poorly trained and undisciplined troops. This, too, was a pattern to be repeated through much of the next two decades. Roadblocks and ambushes were the primary sites of encounter between civilians, rebels, and security forces, and it was here that much of the violence of the war took place. Regular "taxation," outright looting, violence, and arbitrary executions were a part of the logic of these barriers. Given the relatively small number of large-scale operations (relatively few, at least, given the length of the conflict), these microencounters made up the fabric of the war on both sides of the border.

The regional impact of the Liberian war was evidenced not only by the ECOWAS intervention. Refugees from Liberia fled the fighting across the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire, and expatriates from those countries who were living and working in Liberia moved back across the border. By October 1990 there were rumors in Freetown of the recruitment of Liberian Mandingo and Krahn youth living outside Liberia to join an armed resistance to Taylor. In February 1991, a Liberian politician in Conakry, Guinea, Alhaji Kromah, announced the formation of the Movement for the Redemption of Muslims (MRM), a nakedly Mandingo nationalist project dedicated to the defeat of Taylor. Taylor himself fanned the regional flames as he continued to strategically deploy the BBC as a weapon. He announced, for example, that he was prepared to attack and destroy Freetown's Lungi Airport as a legitimate military target for its use as a staging area by ECOMOG forces. And in the final days of 1990 and the early months of 1991, there were at least three NPFL attacks on villages within Sierra Leone itself.

It was the cross-border attack on 23 March 1991, however, that truly inaugurated the Sierra Leone front of the war. A group calling itself the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched assaults on two border villages in the Kailahun district. As with Taylor's NPFL assault on Liberia, the RUF entered Sierra Leone with a small group of fighters, a mixture of Burkinabes, NPFL-affiliated Liberians, and Sierra Leonean exiles. Foday Sankoh, the Taylor associate who would emerge as the RUF's leader, had foreshadowed the attack in a call to the BBC a few weeks earlier. He promised listeners a revolution if President Momoh refused to step down. Drawing on the populist, revolutionary rhetoric that he would invoke throughout the war, Sankoh announced that the "people's armed struggle" against the APC had begun (quoted in Gberie 2005, 59).

Within a week the RUF had attacked much larger towns in the east and within a month had captured virtually all of Kailahun. As with the NPFL in Liberia, the RUF initially had significant popular support in the rural Kailahun District. Though its ethnic politics were not as divisive as in Liberia under Doe, the APC was viewed as a party of northerners that had deliberately marginalized much of the south and east. Popular RUF support did not last, but even late in the war Mendes from the Kailahun region (including many who fought against the RUF) maintained that the initial RUF invasion was necessary and justified.

As soon as word reached Freetown of the RUF attack, the former Liberian ambassador to Sierra Leone under Doe, General Albert Karpeh, offered to assist the Sierra Leonean government in the defeat of the RUF and NPFL in Sierra Leone. Karpeh mobilized Liberian refugees and Armed Forces of Liberia veterans who had scattered throughout Sierra Leone with the fall of Doe, naming his new force the Liberian United Defense Force (LUDF). With some assistance from the government in terms of weapons and materiel, the LUDF began to deploy alongside Sierra Leone Army forces.

By the end of May 1991, the LUDF had merged with Alhaji Kromah's MRM and other dissident Liberians. The combined force, United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), was to be a major factor in the war on both sides of the border. In its early days, ULIMO received support from the governments of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria (via ECOMOG), as well as from Liberians throughout the region. Under the military leadership of General Karpeh and the political leadership of Alhaji Kromah, ULIMO forces were more or less headquartered in the eastern Sierra Leonean town of Kenema but deployed around the country.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The War Machines by DANNY HOFFMAN Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

illustrations....................ix
preface....................xi
acknowledgments....................xxiii
introduction War Machines....................1
1. The Mano River War A Chronology....................27
2. Hunters, Lumpens, and War Boys A Social History of the Kamajors....................55
3. States of Conflict A Social History of the Kamajors, Continued....................88
4. Big Men, Small Boys....................127
5. The Barracks....................162
6. The Hotel Kamajor....................194
7. The Magic of War....................224
conclusion A Laboratory of the Future....................252
notes....................261
bibliography....................273
index....................289
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