Understanding the Sierra Leone Civil War
Young People As Combatants in The Sierra Leone Civil War
After the end of the Cold War, Africa witnessed several violent conflicts on the continent. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the 1990s saw a sharp increase in civil wars with the number of armed conflicts beginning each year in the 1990s rising to twice as much as that of the previous decade (Mack & Nielson, 2008: 26). In these conflicts, young people featured prominently as combatants for the different factions involved in the conflict (Abbink, 2005: 17). Scrambling for reasons to explain young people’s involvements in these wars, Kaplan (2001) pointed to the new barbarism thesis blaming the conflicts on over population and environmental crisis of the time leading to general social breakdown in most post-Cold War African states. Others pointed to the youth bulge thesis arguing that the risk for the occurrence of conflict increases when there exist a high proportion of young people above certain critical levels in a specific country (Goldstone, 2001: 95; Huntington, 2002: 117-119). Scholars such as Collier, (2000: 91) has blamed young people’s involvement in civil wars on their greed whilst Cramer (2006: 131) points to young people’s grievances against the state as their reason for their involvement in civil wars. Others also highlights the failure of the patrimonial state in delivering its promises to its youth clients as a significant factor in influencing marginalised young people to join rebel groups which promise financial incentives for combatants (Peters (2011: 9).
This essay focuses on both local and individual context to combine the arguments on the patrimonial state crisis leading to socio-economic marginalisation of young people, and Vigh’s (2006) concept of social navigation to understand why young people fight in Africa’s civil wars. Using the Sierra Leone civil war as a case study, this essay argues that the pre-war socio-economic crisis suffered by young people as a result of the failures of the patrimonial state to honour its promises to young people remains a significant factor in influencing young people’s decision to fight in civil wars. The essay further argues that once a civil war begins, other young people are drawn to fight because of their quest to navigate the murky environment of war as active agents bent on improving their life chances for survival by taking advantage of the economic and social opportunities that come with wielding a gun as a combatant. The essay is divided into four main parts. The first part explores the general overview and debates on civil conflicts in Africa as done above. The second part gives a background of the Sierra Leone civil war to help understand the various factions involved in the war and the role of young people as combatants for the various fighting groups. The third section concentrates on interviews and other secondary works on the Sierra Leone civil war to analyse the reasons why young people fight in Africa’s civil war, and the last section will present a concluding argument to the points raised in this essay.
Understanding the Sierra Leone Civil War
The Sierra Leone civil war begun on 23rd March 1991 when a group of about hundred insurgents made up of Liberian, Sierra Leone and Burkinabe nationals invaded the Sierra Leone-Liberian border town of Bomaru of the Kialahum district in eastern Sierra Leone (Richards, 1998: 4). The group called Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF/SL) with Foday Sankoh as its leader, claimed their principal reason for the insurgency was to overthrow the corrupt and one-party state of President Joseph Momoh’s All People’s Congress (APC) and re-introduce multi-party democracy in Sierra Leone (Richards, 1998: 4). With support from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and ideological inspiration from Libya’s President Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’, the RUF advocated for a populist politics which sought to rid Sierra Leone of state corruption based on patrimonial distribution of state resources to give equal opportunity for all (Peters & Richards, 1998: 184). Within months of fighting, the RUF grew its numbers through willing and forced recruits from rural youth underclass in RUF controlled areas. RUF conscription tactic of forced and willing recruitment of mainly young people was to help them constitute a formidable force and create the impression of popular support of marginalised youth for the RUF agenda (Richards, 1998:5).
Countering the RUF insurgency was the weak and ill-equipped Republic of Sierra Leone Military Force (RSLMF) (Peters & Richards, 1998, 184). With poor logistical support and soldiers of no more than 3000, the government forces quickly lost ground to the RUF insurgents at the initial stages of the war (Peters, 2011: 64). To quickly make up for the insufficient number of fighters, the RSLMF adopted similar tactics of the RUF by recruiting hastily trained willing youth fighters as irregulars to support the government forces. This tactic helped not only in increasing the numbers of the government forces but also deprived the RUF of its possible pool of willing and forced conscripts in areas around fighting zones (Lansana, 2005: 76-77). Also, these young people with knowledge of the local environment of fighting zones near or around their communities served as spies and informants for government forces in countering the RUF insurgency (Peters, 2011: 65). The lack of logistical support and grievances of unpaid salaries of government soldiers fighting the insurgents led to a pay revolt which eventually saw the ousting of President Momoh’s APC regime in April 1992. A new government, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) led by Captain Valentine Strasser, was formed with the main task of ending the war.
With the principal reason of the RUF’s insurgency gone, the RUF vowed to continue fighting accusing the NPRC regime of following the APC practice of corruption and patrimonial politics (Peters, 2011: 64-65)). In mobilising efforts to improve the fighting forces of the new regime against the RUF, the NPRC embarked on voluntary mass conscription of both unemployed rural and urban youth including street children and even petty criminals to be trained and incorporated into the army (Peters, 2011: 64-65). Thus, the army grew from the initial 3000 soldiers before the war to about 15000 to 20000 during the NPRC regime (Peters, 2011: 64-65). Despite advances made the by NPRC army in recapturing major RUF controlled areas, issues of corruption, and internal power struggle between young officers and senior officers affected NPRC actions on the war front. Army officials were rumoured to be collaborating with rebels by exchanging weapons for rebel diamonds, and also being ‘sobels’ which meant soldiers by day and rebels by night looting civilian properties (Peters, 2011: 65).
To protect themselves from spontaneous RUF attacks, local communities began forming Civil Defence Force known as ‘Kamajors’. From as early as 1992, the ‘Kamajors’ combined traditional hunting methods with modern weapons to track down and kill rebels hiding in forests around their communities (Peters & Richards, 1998: 185). The widespread attack by the RUF in various forest regions of eastern Sierra Leone led to the conscription of more young people into the ‘Kamajor’ to protect these rural communities. Conscription was voluntary and sometimes obligatory for hunting groups who already had guns to protect their communities (Peters & Richards, 1998: 196). A palace coup in the NPRC government and subsequent elections months later saw the election of a democratically elected government led by President Ahmed Tejan-Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in 1996 (Peters & Richards, 1998: 185). This new government suspicious of the army’s loyalty to the NPRC regime alienated the army and focused on expanding the Kamajor as a special fighting force for the government. Disgruntled soldiers staged another coup in May 1997 where the new Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) invited the RUF in a power-sharing government which the RUF accepted. The Kamajor now became the “rebel” group bent on overthrowing the “illegitimate” AFRC/RUF government to restore the legitimate Kabba government. On February 1998, a Nigerian-led ECOWAS mission (ECOMOG) successfully attacked and drove out AFRC/RUF forces out of Freetown. The Kabbah government was restored to the power the following month and fighting between the RUF and government forces continued. After protracted peace agreements and sporadic fighting, a final peace agreement was signed in Abuja followed by a successful disarmament process of government fighters, ‘Kamajors’ and RUF fighters leading to an official end of the war.
In January 2002, President Kabbah finally declared the almost a decade long war over.
Young People As Combatants in The Sierra Leone Civil War
The existence of a patrimonial form of resource distribution and the post-Cold War economic crisis leading to the failure of the patrimonial state to honour its promises to its youth clients have primarily been explained as the reason for young people’s involvement in the Sierra Leone civil war. Bangura defines patrimonialism as ‘a system of resource distribution that ties recipients or clients to the strategic goals of benefactors or patrons’ (Bangura, 2004, 24). Thus, in the context of the state, political elites control state resources through their administrative functions and use their control over the resources to redistribute the resources to their clients in order to sustain power (Richards, 1998, 35). Richards (1998, 35-36) argues that the pre-war patrimonial state in Sierra Leone was able to avoid any generational tension degenerating into full-scale civil war because of the ability of the state to provide educational subsidies, overseas scholarships, vocational training and jobs for young people. Always found at the bottom of the patrimonial ladder, young people saw education and provision of jobs with stable income as the tickets by they attain independent livelihood and eventually adulthood. However, the post-Cold War economic crisis as a result of austerity measures brought about by structural adjustment programme in Sierra Leone, compelled the state to cut back on its social services such as school fees and jobs which directly affected young people’s aspirations for achieving adulthood (Peters, 2012, 881). This situation created a vast pool of alienated young people modernised and exposed to Western education and media, yet faced challenges towards self-advancement as a result of economic recession making them vulnerable to rebel recruitment which promises economic incentives (Fanthorpe, 2001: 369). Pushing this argument further, Bangura argues that the marginalisation of young people in Sierra Leone in the 1990s was not as a result of the crisis of the patrimonial state, but the entrenchment of patrimonial distribution of resources among political elites and their adult clients whilst young people were displaced outside the patrimonial networks (Bangura, 2004, 27-28). To Bangura’s, the majority of young people became frustrated and marginalised not because of the crisis of the patrimonial state in providing social services to young people, but the limiting of the provision of these social services to the small group of clients of the ruling elites. In such a situation, engaging in civil conflict presented an alternative way for young people to address their challenge of economic and social stagnation, to find alternative ways to attain their aspirations of adulthood (Abbink, 2005, 16-17).