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Recipe for strife

by John Emeka Akude
In West African civil wars, militias have committed some of the worst orgies of violence in modern times. Members of an elite that was made redundant in the course of structural adjustment tend to lead these armed outfits, and marginalised urban youth serve as their foot soldiers. It is of critical interest that militia leaders depend on links to the world market – procuring arms and selling commodities. [ By John Emeka Akude ]

Since the Cold War ended, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Côte d’Ivoire have experienced long drawn-out civil wars. Violence is on the increase in Senegal, Guinea and Nigeria too, though there is no reason so far to speak of outright state collapse. To understand the dynamics of those conflicts, it is necessary to understand the reasons for weak statehood.

The way statehood has come about in Africa in modern times precluded the emergence of the preconditions and processes for good governance (see box on p. 242). In general, post-independence governments in Africa tended to exploit their countries for their personal benefits. After colonialism, only lip service was paid to the idea that governments should serve their nations by providing essential services and creating an environment for the private sector to prosper. Up to today, that is not the African ruling elite’s conception of their duty. Without a thriving public sector, however, a country has no tax base to raise the money the government needs to serve the nation and allow it to prosper.

In other words, there is a vicious cycle of weak statehood. As governments do not have the means to do their job well, bad governance becomes inevitable, state institutions deteriorate further as the elite accumulate and distribute wealth through violent and non-transparent means. If these dynamics continue unchanged, there is hardly a chance of governments rising to the duties of more successful statehood.

In all West African conflicts, militias are crucial actors. Their members are mainly young, barely educated and unemployed. Civil strife tends to persist, because it offers disgruntled elites as well as the marginalised urban youth opportunities that do not exist in peaceful environments. That conflicts tend to flare up again and again suggests that analysts and policymakers should focus on a coherent approach to state transformation rather than the conventional attempts at piecemeal post-conflict re-construction.

Generally speaking, issues of development were neglected in post-independence Africa, as rulers took over a colonial order und began to siphon off states’ resources. Typically, local strongmen would dominate access to resources. Hand in glove with officialdom, they would pauperise states – often in cooperation with foreign powers. As West African elites increasingly looked for international contacts to amass wealth, there gradually arose an urban lumpenproletariat in the neglected cities. Groups, made up mostly of young, hardly educated men made their living through criminal and grey activities.

Results of structural adjustment

Structural-adjustment programmes made matters worse. Neoliberal policies reduced social spending, relaxed border controls and permitted free movement of capital. Aided by advancements in telecom technology, conditions became favourable for global trade outside state control. To hold public office became less important for accumulating wealth. Disgruntled members of the elite harnessed these conditions and recruited the unemployed youth in pursuit of their personal interests. As a result, the established elite fragmented – and so did entire states.

Under the new international dispensation, it is no longer necessary to control an entire state in order to exploit natural resources. It is enough to have access to the commodities in question. Some strongmen who lost state-guaranteed privileges turned to attacking states’ resource bases. Precious stones, gold, iron ore and even timber are lucrative resources on the world market. Those who sell them – whether legally so or not – make good incomes.

As state institutions became redundant, however, employment in the public sector began to dwindle. The number of alienated youth rose astronomically. Even many educated young men no longer had a perspective of steady employment. Youth unemployment in West Africa today is about 50 % (UNOWA 2006: iv). For most of the affected, the choices are
– armed robbery,
– joining a militia,
– smuggling cocaine to the West, or
– embarking on a dangerous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean with shanty boats.

It is easy for members of the disgruntled elite to recruit the unemployed as foot soldiers. Militia leaders can thrive on the global trade in conflict resources, while their rank and file terrorise societies. In an ironic twist, spreading violence boosts the standing and credibility of warlords, as they can offer a sense of security to those loyal to them.

Guns and other commodities

Militias are typically led by politicians and businessmen, rather than by military officers. Distinctions between soldiers and combatants, between peacetime and wartime, as well as between warfronts and civilian zones, hardly matter anymore. Conflict is not about clashing ideologies or the confrontation of superpowers and their allies. Rather, it is about access to internationally traded commodities. In the beginning, the commodities in question were of local origin, but recently the transit business with illegal drugs has begun to compound the problems. Revenues from such transactions are needed, not least to procure arms and ammunition on an international black market.

In 1995 alone, Liberian warlords exported gold worth about $ 300 million, diamonds worth $ 500 million, timber worth $ 53 million and rubber worth about $ 27 million to Europe and Southeast Asia (Atkinson 1997: 9). In 1999, 20 % of the global supply of diamonds came from African rebels, according to a UN Expert Panel.

Foreign firms active in Liberia – and, consequently, in the conflict – enjoyed the support of their home governments. In 1991, strife-torn Liberia was France’s third largest African supplier of logs. At the time, warlord Charles Taylor controlled almost all of the country’s logging industry. In 1992, Usinor, the French steel giant, imported iron ore worth $ 18 million from Liberia. At the time, France (joined by China) vetoed the attempts of the Security Council of the United Nations to place embargoes on the commodities from Liberia’s war economy.

Eventually, the UN managed to impose an embargo on conflict diamonds from Liberia. Consequently, exports shifted to timber. The Oriental Timber Company (OTC), owned and run by Gus van Kouwenhofen, a close associate of Taylor, imported timber from Liberia to the USA in 2002 and 2003. This firm is linked to a network of Indonesian, Malaysian and Hong Kong investors who dominate the bourgeoning Chinese wood industry. China has since replaced France as leading importer of Liberian timber – simultaneously becoming the leading exporter of furniture to the US.

OTC investors are also linked to Global Timber Corporation, a giant Chinese processing firm that supplies most Western markets. Greek, Danish and Dutch firms also ship Liberian wood to the West. Logging became even more aggressive after Taylor became president of Liberia (1997) and appointed his brother the manager of all timber concessions.

Although Nigeria is not engulfed in an all-out civil war, there is an economy of violence in the Niger Delta. Several militia leaders (notably those of the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) accumulate wealth through kidnapping expatriate oil workers and oil bunkering. Again, there is an international dimension.

Often Dutch vessels wait offshore to transport the bunkered oil into the global market. In August last year, Nigerian security officials arrested fourteen Philippines suspected of bunkering oil in the Niger Delta. According to media reports, they were caught on a ship named MV Lina, which was flying a Panama flag, even though it actually was owned by Corinthian, a Greek shipping company.

The commodities-for-arms dynamics became evident in other conflicts too. According to UN data, about 55 % of the total cotton production in Ivory Coast – predominantly produced in the North, which is controlled by the Forces Nouvelles, a militia outfit – is smuggled to Mali and Burkina Faso en route to the global market. Another report states that a lively trade thrives between the Forces Nouvelles and Guinean customs and military officials along the border. The proceeds are then used to purchase weapons.

A regional arms merchant

Security experts call Guinea “the regional arms merchant” (ICG 2005:16). This reflects that country’s special role in the West African war economy: granting official seal to the illegal business of arms trafficking. For arms deals to be legal, the seller must receive an end-use certificate. Only sovereign states are authorised to issue such certificates – and largely thanks to Guinean documents, only 10 % of the weapons used in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflicts are classified as illegal; meaning that they entirely lack documentation. The rest are classified as illicit; their documents are falsified (ICG 2005: 16-17). Apart from Guinea, UN experts have also mentioned countries like Moldova, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan as the origins of such weapons (UNO Panel of Experts 2002, 2003).

Illegal arms deals are not only about handguns. A well-documented ICG study (2005) elaborates how businessmen from Africa and Eastern Europe exploited loopholes in Slovakian law, delivering three helicopters to Guinea “for repairs” – even though Guinea does not have the facilities to carry out such work. Obviously, these aircraft were destined to war zones in West Africa. Indeed, one of the helicopters destroyed by the French air force in September 2004 in Ivory Coast was said to be Guinean.


West Africa’s integration into the global economy has exacerbated civil strife. Despite all measures taken by the international community to illegalise or stigmatise products from conflict zones – embargoes, the Kimberley process and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – state weakness, fake documentation and corruption, which is also rampant in international organisations, ensure that arms and commodities reach their destinations.

The donors and the international community have tried various approaches to conflict management – including the negotiation of ceasefires, the organisation of elections (which typically turned out to be quite dubious), support for the re-establishment of state administrations and reforms in the security sector. These measures have not been successful. That is evident in recurrent violent tensions. What is striking, is that the imperatives that could lead to good governance have not been put in place. Simply put, the character of the West African state remains the same.

To improve matters, countries would need diversified economies, in which wealth is generated through high-quality processing of commodities. Accordingly, there would be enterprises worth taxing, and political and economic power would finally be separated. Productivity would depend on education and other aspects of human capital that come about thanks to good governance. There would be jobs to absorb the restless youth. They would then desist from destructive activities like joining the militias as various roads to higher standards of living would be opened to them.