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.