The rule of the gun in Central Africa, the Sahel and East Africa – soldier-rebels, rebel-soldiers, robber-soldiers and other identities built with guns
Reading Marielle Debos’s excellent and innovative book on earning a living through the gun (Debos, 2016) and the concept of the “inter-war” as state of not war but not peace in Chad, I was struck by the power of the argument and that the idea of shifting identities that all have possession of weapons as a core element – possession to prosecute war, earn a livelihood or provide for or protect one’s own community – could be applied to many societies in conflict or trying to recover from it across a belt from the north of Kenya right across to Mali. This was reinforced by reading Alan Boswell’s analysis of violence in South Sudan, The genocidal logic of South Sudan’s “gun class” and the account of a recruit and then deserter from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the book When the Walking Defeats You.
It was then reinforced by recent news reports of the raiding of farming communities in Nigeria by armed Fulani livestock herders and cattle raiding by well-armed groups in Kenya. Very different narratives and causes, but a common thread in the access to modern automatic weapons and the way in which the proliferation of small arms across regions of Africa affected by conflict or adjacent to chronic conflicts have brought misery and a means for the desperate, unscrupulous or those who have known nothing but conflict and brutality in their lives to earn a livelihood or supplement the meagre rewards of nomadic pastoralism through raiding or other forms of violence.
This phenomenon is nothing new. In 2001, Michael Fleshman wrote an important account of the negative effects of the wide availability of small arms in eastern and central Africa Counting the cost of gun violence in Africa Recovery. He recounted how in northern Kenya the availability of automatic weapons from conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda had transformed the centuries old problem of cattle raiding between Pokot, Turkana, Samburu and other communities from small-scale violence into serious community conflicts. The ability of elders to mitigate the effects of raids through payment of blood money was being destroyed by the death tolls and revenge killings brought about by the escalation in loss of life and firepower through access to AK-47s. He detailed the impact of modern military weapons on the Pokot and surrounding communities “was brought tragically home in early 2001, when Pokot youth opened fire on a rival settlement, killing 47 people, burning down the village and transforming the almost-ceremonial tradition of cattle raiding into an occasion for human slaughter.” He quoted a young Pokot man as saying, “Guns are changing things,” with an older man adding, “The young ones, they don’t respect elders.” A third man said, “If you don’t have a weapon, “your grave is open.”
Little has changed and, if anything, years more conflict in South Sudan, Somalia, the DR Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria have worsened the problem. The accounts I mentioned at the start are but to be found now in the news and in more academic studies in recent months that look at the consequences of war, the wide availability of small-arms and the use of weapons. They emphasise that guns are not just a means of waging war, carrying out rebellions or defending communities from attack, but are an economic resource that can bring both status and livelihoods in areas where the absence of war does not mean peace.
Debos captures it well in her thoroughly researched book, arguing that being armed and experienced in the use of arms becomes a metier, a practical occupation or profession which “refers to the activities of those who have lived by the gun for years, being alternately or simultaneously soldiers, rebels and road bandits” (Debos, 2016, p. 3). While the Chadian examples she details differ from the circumstances of South Sudan, regions of Nigeria that form part of the nomadic range of Fulani herders, Central African areas plagued by the marauding of the LRA or areas of northern Kenya where cattle-raiding is a common and increasingly bloody activity, there is a common strand that in these areas all suffer from the actions of those who choose to live by the gun or supplement other livelihoods by aiding, extortion and selling themselves to politicians, movements or factions that have periodic needs for armed men.
The examination of Chad’s armed men is fascinating both in its depiction of a country that for over 50 years has existed either in a state of war or what Debos calls inter-war, “the spaces and times that are affected by violence even if there is no direct fighting between rebel and governmental forces” (Debos, 2016, p. 8). The state of violence where there is no war can be said to apply to those examples I have given of where armed groups – whether involved in political or ethno-political (as in South Sudan) struggles at a lower level than full-scale warfare, communal violence, cattle-raiding or the bandit existence in the DR Congo, CAR and border lands of Sudan and South Sudan of the LRA – engage in violence against communities perceived as hostile, used armed force to gain access to grazing land, steal cattle from other communities or, a Debos details with ex-combatants in Chad, act as unofficial revenue gatherers on roads or at borders purely by virtue of having guns and links to well-known, perhaps notorious, armed factions or the national army. As the LRA recruit, whose account is contained in When the Walking Defeats ( (Cakaj, 2016) you, relates at one stage in describing the violent, criminal and hand-to-mouth existence of the nomadic LRA groups, “A gun should make your stomach full and you rich”.
The possession of guns by groups of individuals, communities or factions of political or insurgent groups enables them to pursue political ends but also, and this is the focus here, of extorting, exacting unofficial taxes or tolls or thieving their way to a livelihood derived from the threat or actual use of violence. For many, particularly in Chad and parts of South Sudan, Nigeria and even Kenya this comes with a degree of impunity and the only threat is from other armed groups or communities – the absence of the rule of law, police or other means of enforcement that are not either part of the conflict of impeded from taking decisive, legal action to end violence and remove guns because of political circumstances and the protection of armed groups or communities by powerful factions within their states – something Debos articulates well in the Chadian case.
As I write this article the trial is getting underway at the International Criminal Court in the Hague of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the LRA. He is facing 70 charges of crimes against humanity, rape and abduction – crimes all believed to have been carried out when he was one of Joseph Kony’s deputies in the LRA during its failed insurgency in northern Uganda and then bloody peregrinations across areas of the DRC, CAR and South Sudan, living as a parasitic armed band rather than any serious political or insurgent force, something very clear in the account already mentioned by a former LRA recruit. Ongwen’s defence, which may be a mitigating factor but doesn’t diminish the horror of the crimes with which he is charged, is that he was abducted and forced to fight for the LRA. While the LRA doesn’t act with the impunity described in Debos’s book or the seeming ability to evade law as in cattle-raiding communities in northern Kenya or the depredations of the armed Fulani in Nigeria, it is an example of how in the dying stages of an insurgency guns are no longer the means to fight for a cause but purely a means of survival for those who possess them, who themselves may be as brutalised by violence as are their vidctims.
The persistence of the problem of small arms proliferation is one that is periodically the subject of appeals to the UN or calls by the Security Council for action to disarm and demobilise armed groups after conflict but the debates and declarations remain largely paper ones. Governments in conflict or former conflict zones often have vested interests in maintaining informal armed groups beyond the army and other state security forces, and as Debos repeatedly demonstrates in Chad, either for the entrenchment of political elites, the garnering of rents through armed extortion or as potential weapons against hostile neighbours. The over-arching problem, again to quote Debos, is that “Ending the war is not enough. The issue is to escape the the inter-war situation maintained and reproduced by the state” (Debos, 2016, p.177). Even in countries like Kenya and Nigeria the inter-war is relevant as a situation in which conflict exists outside what would be labelled a war and means that even though there might not be a recognisable war, for communities affected by raiding or the violence of armed groups, the absence of war certainly doesn’t mean peace.
Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, teaches at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent and is founder and editor of Africa – news and Analysis. His new edition of Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent is published by Penguin in January 2017; his latest book – Ivory.Power and Poaching in Africa was published by Hurst and Co in November 2016.