Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: March 5, 2018

How do African rebel leaders succeed politically after the end of military conflicts? Ten Africa-experts have examined the question.

Warlord Democrats in Africa: Ex-Military Leaders and Electoral Politics

Anders Themnér (ed.)

Zed Books, 2017


In November 1999 I sat in the home of Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. Sankoh was seated in his living room, crying over the children whose hands his rebel soldiers had chopped off with machetes. “Short sleeves or long sleeves?” went the question. If you answered “long”, they would only chop your hand off; if you answered “short”, they would chop it off higher up.

I can remember it as if it was yesterday. Along with a British anthropologist and a South African expert on peace and reconciliation, I, who at the time was working for Norwegian Church Aid, was there to talk to different factions in Sierra Leone’s Civil War while the July peace deal was still in effect. With us we brought promises of millions of dollars in aid to actors we thought would one day contribute to creating a lasting peace in the country. The truce was eventually broken, however, and the civil war resumed a few weeks after we left Freetown.

Criticism Wanted

Foday Sankoh was the most notorious of all the rebel leaders in the country. Now he was sitting there, crying; he had never wanted his men to dismember innocent children, he said. Now that a truce was in place, the international community and the civilian population of Sierra Leone were both hoping for peace. Sankoh asked us if we had any suggestions for the name of the political party he was going to establish. We didn’t, but strongly advised him to choose something that wouldn’t connect it with the RUF. All the same, the name he came up with was the “RUF Party”. When the 2006 movie Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a shrewd diamond smuggler in Sierra Leone) became a big success, the world became more aware of the RUF and its use of child soldiers and child labour in the country’s diamond mines.

In Warlord Democrats in Africa, the chapter on Sierra Leone, written by M.S. Kovacs and I. Bangura, deals precisely with this. Among others, the authors have interviewed Eldred Collins, the RUF spokesman during the 1991-2002 Civil War, in both 2012 and 2013. While it’s obviously interesting to get the views of key players, it’s also sad to see the authors accepting Collins’ remarks at face value; what is missing here are critical reflections on both the choice of sources and on the post hoc rationalization of actions committed 10 or 20 years ago. But then again, the chapter on Sierra Leone isn’t among the best in the book.

«One cannot compromise democracy in order to create stability in a post-war situation in Africa–the resulting stability is often short-lived.»

Ethnic Conflict

Such a description more accurately describes the chapter on South Sudan, written by J. Brosché and K. Höglund. Here the authors explicitly utilize the analytical tools that Themnér, the editor, has thoroughly introduced us to in his 40-page long introduction to the book. So to give some direction to the analyses of the former warlords’ peacetime role, Themnér asks the writers to focus on three main questions followed by a number of sub-questions: What election strategies did they use to win votes? Did the warlords contribute towards consolidating the peace processes in their respective countries? And what stance did the international community and the governments of the countries involved adopt when it came to using former warlords in the reconciliation process?

Foday Sankoh

In their contribution, Brosché and Höglund analyse the strategies employed by Riek Machar, a former rebel leader who served as vice-president of South Sudan from 2005 till July 2013, when president Salva Kiir dissolved the whole government. They describe Machar’s attempts at acquiring more and more power and why this led to the civil war in December 2013. Machar claimed that president Kiir had not introduced democracy, but dinkacracy (so called after the Dinka ethnic group in southern Sudan) in the barely two-and-a-half-year-old country.

Machar himself deliberately and actively played on ethnic divisions–dating back to the long civil war that predates Sudan’s split–in order to defeat president Kiir. But in addition to employing rhetoric from the days of the civil war, the former rebel leader also emphasized his military capacities. In a country torn apart by long-running conflicts, military prowess is a source of power and prestige; one can never be too sure how long peace will last.

War and Peace

Anders Themnér’s anthology includes fascinating analyses of former warlords who often transformed their rebel militias into political parties and who, to varying degrees, have become democrats inside (or outside) positions of power. In addition to the two previous mentions, we are given in-depth presentations of Mbusa Nyamwisi in DR Congo, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Prince Johnson in Liberia, Afonso Dhlakama in Mozambique and João Bernardo Vieira in Guinea-Bissau.

“Short sleeves or long sleeves?” went the question. If you answered “long”, they would only chop your hand off; if you answered “short”, they would chop it off higher up.

Not all warlords manage to turn their military forces into political actors after the peace treaties are signed and democratization processes are ready to be implemented. Take Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh and Eldred Collins, for example: Sankoh died of a brain haemorrhage in 2003 while awaiting trial for war crimes, torture and murder, while Collins never won more than 2% of the votes in the elections he participated in.

Riek Machar, on the other hand, succeeded in transitioning from his position as a powerful distributor of patronage–a so-called “big man”–to becoming vice president of South Sudan. But Machar can hardly be called a lord of the peace; after being removed from office the conflict escalated, leading to the death of more than 10,000 people in 2014-15 alone.

More successful was Paul Kagame, who went from leading the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to becoming Rwanda’s elected president for the third time in 2017 with 98.8% of the vote. And peace is still maintained in Rwanda.

Good Advice

Editor Themnér’s thorough introduction takes up roughly a quarter of the book and contains, in addition to the presentation of the analytical framework, a clear and synthetizing conclusion. In it, he offers the following advice to people who work with peace and reconciliation processes in Africa: Based on the lessons provided by the book’s seven case studies, he strongly counsels against compromising democracy in order to create stability in post-war situations, as the resulting stability tends to be very short-lived. This is advice all peacemakers in Africa should note.



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