The Representation of Child Soldiers in Contemporary African Fiction

By Kearney, J. A. | Journal of Literary Studies, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Representation of Child Soldiers in Contemporary African Fiction


Kearney, J. A., Journal of Literary Studies


The 2008 Global Report on child soldiers reveals that there has been continued progress towards universal consensus against their use in hostilities. Over three quarters of states have now ratified an Optional Protocol designed for this purpose, which requires state parties to provide a recovery and rehabilitation agenda for former child soldiers. In fact international law prohibits the recruitment and use of under-18s by nonstate armed groups, and criminalises the recruitment and use of under-15s by state and nonstate forces alike.

However, the military recruitment of children under 18 still takes place. Even in the case of states, a small number still persist in recruiting children and exposing them to all the dangers of combat. Nonstate armed groups show little concern for international law and continue with child recruitment on a fairly large scale in 23 countries, 10 of which are in Africa. In Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone the end of conflict has fortunately halted the massive recruitment and use of children by armed groups. In Cote d'Ivoire and Sri Lanka the armed groups have agreed to UN-sponsored action to end the recruitment of child soldiers and effect their demobilisation. On the other hand the LRA in Uganda, after a 22-year-long conflict, has ignored appeals to release children in their ranks.

The public naming of certain armed groups in the UN Security General's report to the Security Council has encouraged several groups to renounce the practice. Community involvement needs to be encouraged, the report stresses, but some countries (as where Islamist doctrine is strong) may not be opposed to the practice. In the Central African Republic, Chad and Somalia ineffective government, absence of legal protection for children, poverty and lack of access to education create the conditions for recruitment. In some cases a stated intention to recruit only those above the age of 18 is undermined by the absence of measures to determine the age of recruits. Also in some countries low birth registration rates have facilitated forced conscription. There is now also increasing evidence that certain schools are used by armed groups to indoctrinate children. Furthermore, military training is compulsory for school children in some countries, for instance China and the Russian Federation. In many cases such schools fill gaps in state education. Such early exposure to military life can of course be exploited to facilitate military recruitment.

Prompted by this sobering international report, my study explores the representation of child soldiers in five contemporary African novels by African authors (in chronological order of publication in English): Johnny Mad Dog ([2002]2005) by Emmanuel Dongala; Allah Is Not Obliged ([2000]2006) by Ahmadou Kourouma; Beasts of No Nation (2006) by Uzondinma Iweala; Half of a Yellow Sun (2007) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and Song for Night (2007) by Chris Abani. However, since these dates are very close, and there is no actual evidence of intertextuality between the novels, I have not attempted to keep to this order in the various stages of my analysis, but have instead used whatever order seemed appropriate for the purposes of comparison or contrast. The settings of these novels are: the Republic of the Congo (Dongala), Liberia as well as Sierra Leone (Kourouma); an unnamed West Africa country (Iweala), and Nigeria (Adichie and Abani).

Two criteria were applied in my selection of these five novels. First, a significant focus throughout each novel needed to be a child's life, even though only part of it might involve the experience of being a child soldier. For this reason I have not included Angelina Sithebe's novel, Holy Hill (2007), in which we are informed that the male protagonist was forced to become a child soldier at the age of eleven. His experience as a soldier, however, only serves briefly (eight paragraphs altogether) to indicate his very troubled background when he enters the novel in its final section, and is presumably intended to induce a sympathetic view of his extremely corrupt adult life. …

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