Guest post by Ilmari Käihkö

“We will be victorious” is a famous statement made by the former Ivorian Youth Minister Charles Ble Goude before the elections in Ivory Coast in 2011. This statement soon became iconic when the group Les Galliets adopted it as an intro to its militaristic and anti-imperialistic pro-Gbagbo electoral song called C’est Mais.

As we now know with hindsight, Gbagbo was not victorious in the elections, and equally failed to cling to power in their aftermath. While Gbagbo is awaiting the beginning of his trial at Hague, Ble Goude himself is sought after following cross-border raids to Ivory Coast. Nevertheless, the song remains as popular as ever among the supporters of the former president, many of whom currently reside in the refugee camps and their environs in the Grand Gedeh county of the neighboring Liberia.

While Ble Goude’s words could initially be interpreted as either prophetical self-assurance or alternatively as a blunt way to promise vote rigging in case of defeat, today they offer hope to the Ivorian exiles that want to return home. As has been described elsewhere, many see repatriation as an impossible alternative in the current situation due to insecurity and lack of reconciliation. To these Ivorians Ble Goude’s words still speak of the imminent outcome of the current struggle against Ouattara. Others even mix this militancy with fervent Christianity that equally promises victory and deliverance to the righteous.  In some cases it is not very far-fetched to compare the love of Gbagbo to a personality cult, and this personality cult to religion.

But in reality it is very difficult to see how the supporters of Gbagbo could return to power in Ivory Coast through armed struggle. As I have described before, the active pro-Gbagbo supporters can be divided to two camps: the moderates and the militants. The moderates still harbor hope that Gbagbo will be freed in Hague and returned to the presidential throne in Ivory Coast. When confronted with the question what will happen if Gbagbo is sentenced (as he probably is), they usually become silent but then answer: “If Gbagbo is sentenced there will be serious war.” In other words, a guilty verdict will make any political solution more difficult in the short term, as the moderates will join the militant camp. On the long-term it is though likely that political solution is very difficult if not impossible as long as the Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters have inherently incompatible goals as both aim to monopolize power in the country. After all, is this not what Ble Goude promised, victory?

But victory for the pro-Gbagbo supporters seems like a very distant prospect. In fact there are only two ways that can enable challenging the Ouattara government. The first one is gaining access to enough external resources to finance an expensive large-scale war. In the region successful rebellions, such as LURD and MODEL in Liberia, have only been able to fight successfully with state backing. While some Ivorians are optimistic about this possibility, their view that it is ultimately the United Nations that will provide these resources to them after seeing the “true face” of the Ouattara government seems very remote and only wishful thinking. This view is based on the same conspiratorial thinking that sees the killing of the United Nations peacekeeping during the so-called “Tai mission” as being committed by Ouattara forces trying to muster international support against its enemies. It is though important to note that many moderates did not agree with the cross-border attacks, at least at this stage of the struggle, which makes it understandable that they want to shift the blame of these obviously damaging acts to the enemy camp.

The second way is that the Ouattara government will face so serious internal struggle that it will fall apart or at least weaken considerably, thus making it possible for the rebels to challenge it. While this alternative seems more probable, it is difficult to say how likely these prospects are. Without serious weakening of the Ouattara side or equally large empowerment of the rebels, the rebellion will likely remain a minor force in the Ivorian West. What though can change the situation are the reports of rising ethnic tensions between the Ivorian Krahn and other groups that have already resulted in local conflicts and internal re-displacement, which blow air into the kindling rebellion.

To sum it up, it is very difficult to see, how the pro-Gbagbo rebels can fulfill Ble Goude’s prophecy. What they can do, however, is to employ the same mobilization strategies as during the past decade in the region and contact a number of big men in networks who can in turn quickly mobilize the first wave of recruits. As one Ivorian explained, the second wave follows naturally after the first wave returns home with “cash and a car”. Some resources and looting can thus enable engaging in a protracted war against the current Ivorian government. But without external support or internal problems within the enemy camp this war cannot deliver victory, but mere destabilization to both Ivory Coast and Liberia.


Guest post by Ilmari Käihkö on the situation in the Liberian borderlands

Recent weeks in Grand Gedeh following the cross-border attack to Ivory Coast have been interesting. After the arrival of the “Joint security” consisting of the Armed Forces of Liberia, the armed Emergency Response Unit (ERU) of the Liberian National Police and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the city was transformed into an armed camp overnight. While not a new phenomenon, the white United Nations choppers landing to and rising from the airport only enhanced the mood that something was happening.

A police officer stationed in Zwedru spoke his mind about the new forces sent from Monrovia: he was concerned about the possibility of these forces harassing local citizens, which could lead to serious problems due to reasons found in the recent history of the country. Everybody in Zwedru remembers how the security forces of the now imprisoned former President Charles Taylor harassed people in Southeastern Liberia.

On the second day following the arrival of the joint security there was already the sound of wings of history to be heard: the new security was referred to as Taylor’s Anti-Terrorism Unit by people calling the local community radio to complain about harassments.

Despite the fact that the government gave an allowance of $300 per month (with rumors as well as hopes that the amount will be raised to $400 on July) to the new forces, they seem to have gone on to find new ways of making money. The Immigration officers have probably never checked so many cars and passenger documents and the police began to direct traffic by the market, and while doing so fining bikers for rather random traffic violations. Even the recent law that requires bikers to wear a helmet suddenly began to be enforced with previously unseen enthusiasm.

A bigger problem, however, was not the newly rich and seemingly always drunken officers on the streets of Zwedru, but the ERU: with limited options to make money in the city reports began to trickle that they have been engaged in harassment of both Ivorian refugees as well as local citizens outside Zwedru. For instance, a band of Liberian and Ivorian hunters armed with single barrel guns were arrested as they were selling bush meat by the Monrovia highway. Local elders tried to negotiate by vouching for the hunters, arguing that the gun permit was in order and providing a compensation of LD 4,000. The official response was accepting the money but still carrying the arrested hunters to jail. This is only one of several instances of the new security business in Grand Gedeh.

While some of the accusations against ERU are likely exaggerated (such as the one that claimed that it had robbed a commercial vehicle on Monrovia highway), there is a real concern about the powers that the security forces currently employ in Grand Gedeh. As the police officer, previously mentioned, reminded: harassment by state security was the main reason for the revolution against Taylor in Grand Gedeh. This means that in the end it matters little whether the joint security actually commit all the violations or not. More important is that what the people in Grand Gedeh feel and believe to be true. While some violations have been officially admitted, officials have been quick to note that “they are not systematic”. For the time being this is the case.

There was also discussion about a curfew, but it seems that this never became official. Shedding light on the relationship between official and unofficial business in Liberia, at least some policemen began enforcing the curfew, which some citizen took as a fact while others did not. Speaking about the curfew the main response has been disbelief: does the government believe Zwedru has become a frontline?

But yet the presence of the security forces and the few checks and balances placed on their behavior are only some problems facing the southeastern region, the county and its citizens. What has also taken place is the use of insecurity as an economic opportunity for local politicians. These opportunities ultimately arise from the government announcement to close the gold camps situated close to the Ivorian border, and where a recent Human Rights Watch report claims Liberians are financing and fighting the conflict in Ivory Coast, where the situation may be erupting into a civil war.

The government announcement of closing the camps and the government’s curious silence concerning its implementation has created considerable insecurity that directly affects the lives and futures of several thousands of people in Grand Gedeh. For anyone visiting the camps for a longer time the terminology soon becomes misleading: not all the gold camps are simply for miners, but they are more accurately towns as they are not only inhibited by the young men working on the gold fields, but in many cases also their families.

Some camp elders also bring out an important point, together with a veiled threat: many of the miners are former combatants, who are currently busy with mining in the camps. Forcing them to leave the camps would materialize in thousands of homeless and jobless people loitering around in the county capital – a prospect that worries many even in Zwedru. More importantly, the lure of a mission in Ivory Coast might become too alluring for some of the miners made unemployed by the implementation of the government decision.

The exploiting of this uncertainty is carried up on every level, beginning from local leaders upwards. Considering that vast sums of money are involved in gold business the amounts of money discussed are not small. It also seems clear that these transactions are not done with any (official) sanction from the government. Whether they will help to affect the situation is equally uncertain. If the government does not act swiftly and begin to provide real security both inside the camps and especially between them and the border areas, local political entrepreneurs can continue to make offers that are very, very difficult to refuse. The situation in Grand Gedeh at the moment seems to be a good example of how conflict can cause problems for the majority, while at the same time providing new opportunities for the minority.

This is the third guest post by Ilmari Käihkö. He is currently residing in Grand Gedeh conducting research for our project on mid-level commanders and their roles in post-war Liberia

Guest Blog by Ilmari Käihko

Following the attack from Liberian soil toIvory Coastthat resulted in the deaths of seven peacekeepers fromNigerworking under the United Nations flag as well as a number of Ivorian civilians and military an update is in order. While my previous post explained the general situation, the targeting of UN peacekeepers requires some further explanation.

I got the news about the attack immediately from my supervisor inSweden, who had learned about it from the Swedish television on the morning after it had been executed. During the day I must have asked around 50 people about their reactions and thoughts concerning the incident. Not one was aware that it had even taken place. Only on the second day had information begun to trickle down to Zwedru, mainly from theIvory Coast.

I cannot say that any of the reactions to the attacks were particularly strong. Most Liberians seemed to care little, while some even cynically claimed that the United Nations probably paid some Liberians to attack their own forces in order to further some business interests. Most were simply uninterested, possibly because of the multitude of unverified rumors that float around all the time. Others, of course, knew that there was something on the make, but probably had no exact specifics concerning this particular attack.

Reactions from some Ivorian refugees were different, however. At this point it can be in order to state my own position concerning an attack on UN peacekeepers. As a former peacekeeper I cannot justify an attack against the UN in any way. This said, apart from justifying the act I do believe that we must understand why it happened.

The first refugee I told about the attack answered with a single word: “bon” – “good”. Puzzled, I demanded an explanation to his positive reaction to events I consider to be bad. According to him the UN collaborated with the current President Outtara in removing President Gbagbo from power to the extent that “UN and Outtara are one”. Attack on the UN can therefore be seen as a way of opposing the government of Outtara, and from the perspective of a Gbagbo supporter therefore furthering their political goals.

It should also be noted that this refugee is not an inherently bad person even if he supports killers of UN forces. After sensing my bafflement he proceeded to explain that his whole family, including small children, was killed during the Ivorian crisis by forces loyal to Ouattara. After such an experience any chance to get payback is more than understandable. At the same time, it does lead into a vicious circle of violence that can be difficult to break out from. Already there are reports that the attack has driven thousands of people from their homes near the border. The refugee situation inLiberiamay very well be the first area to be affected.

Finally, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future. There are no indications that these attacks are the last ones. Rather the opposite is true. As Gbagbo’s trial begins the number of attacks may even increase. In the case of a sentence the situation will likely seriously deteriorate. Gbagbo’s supporters hope for a quick trial and acquittal, and not the six-year wait that the followers of Charles Taylor had to bear from 2006 onwards until his recent conviction. The announcement of the Liberian government to deploy the Armed Forces of Liberia to the border is also worrying, considering that no-one seems to have much trust in the military.

Another aspect of the conflict that I did not discuss in the previous posting is an ethnic one. As with the Liberian civil crisis, even the conflict inIvory Coastis seen as an ethnic one by many in Grand Gedeh. In this case it extends to the Krahn and Gio on the Ivorian side of the border. The Krahn inLiberiaalso claim that they cannot freely enter the neighboring Nimba county in fear of harassment by the Gio, whereas there are many Gio living freely in Grand Gedeh. While there are no signs that this dimension of the conflict is spreading toLiberia, it can be good to keep in mind that even this dimension is real to the people here. In any case, something is definitely brewing in Eastern Liberia andWestern Ivory Coast.

Guest blog by Ilmari Käihkö

The Ivorian refugees in Grand Gedeh are a common sight both in the county capital as well as the many surrounding villages. Even more importantly, the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia is porous and poorly patrolled by the Liberian authorities. Both Ivorians and Liberians cross at will, just as they have for a long time. This is especially the case with the Krahn, the most predominant ethnic group in Grand Gedeh, who are spread evenly across the border (in the Ivory Coast they are called Guere).

There are about 69,000 Ivorian refugees in Liberia, most of them in Grand Gedeh. Additionally an uncounted number of Liberians returned to Liberia following the Ivorian crisis and the influx of “northerners”, often erroneously nicknamed “Burkinabe”, supporters of President Alassane Ouattara to the western parts of Ivory Coast. These refugees and exiles are now sitting around in camps, villages and the county capital Zwedru, many of them spending their days loitering or sleeping. Their mood is one of depression and frustration – not many have high expectations of returning back home anytime soon, if ever.

An important date for all these Ivorians and Liberians is the forthcoming announcement on the 18th of June whether the International Criminal Court case against President Laurent Gbagbo is to proceed. According to the prosecution Gbagbo is responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people in the post-election violence in 2010. Most of my informants have another view and keep repeating that “Gbagbo is a good man”, whereas Ouattara has not only wrecked the Ivorian economy in a single year but is additionally increasingly disliked by the same rebels that brought him to power. True or not, it is easy to see that many of the refugees have enjoyed good years under Gbagbo thanks to their political connections. These same connections make them unwelcome across the border as long as Ouattara is in power.

What is however undeniable is the violence in Ivory Coast. According to the ICC most violence was committed by the supporters of Gbagbo, but the people on the Liberian side of the border naturally only tell of the violence committed by the opposing side. Many have shown me a video called “Yopougon” (an area of Abidjan particularly affected by the unrest) where the alleged supporters of Ouattara can be seen throwing living humans into a pyre. But this violence continues ever still. One elder in a village counted that there are five young Liberian men that have been killed in Ivory Coast as spies, the last one, Junior Gaye, in April. The total number of victims this year only might be anything from a dozen to ten times more. This means that violence is continuing beyond headlines. The United Nations facilitated a meeting between Liberian and Ivorian authorities including elders from the Liberian towns close to the border last Saturday, but from the information I’ve received the meeting ended without result. Liberian government now says that no Liberian should cross the border to Ivory Coast because of insecurity.

Historical precedents cause some alarm, however. One of the most common reasons for fighting in Liberia has been simply returning home. As one former fighter expressed himself, the only way he could cross back to Liberia from Ivory Coast was with a gun. The same goes for just about all factions opposing Charles Taylor’s government.

The case might not be entirely different for the Ivorians and Liberians from Ivory Coast who supported Gbagbo. As one Liberian returnee explained, if Gbagbo is sentenced they have no other course than to take to arms if they are to return home. And the chances of Gbagbo being set free and made president are slim. Reports indicate that some cross-border violence has already taken place. Something might be stirring in the east, as well as the west.


General of Bikers

Ex-fighters are not necessarily just a source of insecurity, but they can also have a productive function. They can generate incomes, employment and lead to social reintegration. The story of ex-general John gives a picture of the role of informal military networks in post-war societies.

When I went to meet John in the MC-taxi parking area – where he serves as a supervisor – he had his hands full trying to mediate a conflict between two bikers throwing insults at each other. Making good use of his authority as an ex-general he was soon able to separate the two belligerents and calm them down. Nine years earlier he had controlled several hundred fighters – and a good portion of northeastern Lofa County – as a commander for LURD; a rebel group that played an integral part in ousting ex-President Charles Taylor from power.

As one of the first persons in Voinjama to start riding a taxi-bike, it was natural for the local biker union to select him as supervisor for the town’s most crowded and busy ‘parking’. It is to these designated areas that local customers come to find willing drivers to ferry them to their destinations. John’s parking houses no less than 20-25 bikers, of which several are ex-fighters that fought directly under him during the previous war.

Commonly UN and NGO policymakers frown upon the thought of groupings of ex-combatants and commanders interacting and befriending each other. Equating such interactions with conspiracies of mercenary activities, organized crime or a source of potential riots, development and security actors generally seek to either ensure that such structures are broken up or at a minimum put under surveillance.

Even if such structures can be used for destructive purposes – as was shown during the 2010-11 fighting in Côte d’Ivoire when both sides of the civil war used Liberian ex-commanders to recruit Liberian ex-fighters as mercenaries – they are more commonly used for productive, income generating activities. The post-war story of John is a lucid example of this.

After being discharged from his unit in 2004, John organized several of his former fighters into day laborers working on a contract basis to clear agricultural land for farming. From the surplus of these activities he was – in 2005 – able to by a MC-bike that he began riding as a taxi service. Proving to be a profitable business he was soon assisting his former fighters to get bikes of their own; either by loaning them money to buy a bike or finding local businessmen that were willing to hire riders for bikes they had recently purchased. Thanks to the services provided by John, around 10 of his ex-fighters have been able to find gainful employment as taxi-bikers. In addition, through his position in the community John constantly recommends ex-fighters for different contract jobs – such as masonry, land-clearing or carpentry – that homeowners, farmers and businessmen need to have done.

Experiences such as those of John and his ex-fighters give an alternative picture of the role and importance of informal military networks in post-war societies. Rather than merely being a source of insecurity, they can also have a productive function. They can generate incomes, employment and lead to social reintegration. Considering the difficulties of dismantling these structures, it may be necessary for international actors, such as the UN, to start developing alternative strategies focusing on how ex-military networks can be used to strengthen rather than undermine peace. Such a new approach makes sense, especially when considering that networks in themselves can never be bad. It is just a question of what you fill these networks with.

Mats Utas, my fellow researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, has a new blog.

He is now on his way to Liberia on a ten-day field study for our research project ”The Informal Realities of Peacebuilding – Military Networks and Former Mid-Level Commanders in Post War Liberia”. 

On October 11th Liberians went to the polls for the second time since the end of the civil war. As expected none of the presidential candidates won an outright majority in the first round, forcing the top two candidates – sitting President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party (UP) and Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) – to a second round on November 8th. Perhaps most surprisingly former warlord Prince Johnson of the National Union for Democratic Progress (NUDP) received 12 % of the votes, placing him third. Initial analyses indicate that Prince Johnson was able to mobilize much support in Nimba County – where many see him as a hero for ousting the oppressive regime of former President Samuel Doe in 1990 – and amongst the country’s ex-combatants.

Sirleaf and Tubman have already begun negotiations to get the defeated candidates to support their bids for power. Prince Johnson has, for example, stated that he will rally his supporters behind President Sirleaf. If he is successful, Sirleaf is in a good position to win the presidency considering that she received 44 % in the first round. Sirleaf’s efforts to bind ex-warlords, such as Prince Johnson, to UP does not represent a new trend. In fact, since 2005 pacts and alliances with ex-generals and commanders have constituted a central pillar of her leadership strategy, as well-known figures such as Adolphus Dolo (General Peanut Butter), Roland Duo, Alhaji Kromah, to mention a few, have been tied to the regime.

It can be discussed whether Sirleaf’s political and economic cooperation with ex-generals is conducive for peace and stability in the long-run. A generous interpretation of her co-option strategy is that it is a necessary evil to prevent future wars. A more sinister explanation is, however, that it is handy to have these entrepreneurs of violence on her side if the second round of the elections becomes contested.

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