Military Patrimonialism and Child Soldier Clientalism in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean Civil Wars

By Murphy, William P. | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview
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Military Patrimonialism and Child Soldier Clientalism in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean Civil Wars

Murphy, William P., African Studies Review


This article uses a Weberian model of patrimonialism to analyze clientalist and "staff roles of child soldiers in the military regimes of the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It thereby examines institutional aspects of child soldier identity and behavior not addressed in other standard models of child soldiers as coerced victims, revolutionary idealists, or delinquent opportunists. It shifts analytical attention from nation-state patrimonialism to the patrimonial dimensions of rebel regimes. It locates child soldiers within a social organization of domination and reciprocity based on violence structured through patronage ties with military commanders. It identifies child soldier "staff" functions within the administration of a patrimonial regime. A Weberian focus on the institutionalization and strategies of domination and dependency provides a corrective to views that exoticize child soldiers, decontextualize their behavior, or essentialize their "youth" as an explanatory principle.

Résumé: Dans cet article, nous utilisons un modèle wéberien de patrimonialisme afin d'analyser les rôles clientélistes et "l'emploi" tenu par les enfants soldats au sein des régimes militaires des guerres civiles au Libéria et en Sierra Leone. Nous examinons ainsi les aspects institutionnels de l'identité et du comportement de l'enfant soldat qui ne sont pas abordés dans d'autres modèles traditionnels de l'enfant soldat, en tant que victime forcée, idéaliste révolutionnaire, ou opportuniste délinquant. Nous détournons l'attention de l'analyse du patrimonialisme d'étatnation pour nous tourner vers les dimensions patrimoniales des régimes rebelles. Nous situons les enfants soldats à l'intérieur d'une organisation sociale de domination et de réciprocité basée sur une violence structurée par des liens de patronage avec les commandants militaires. Nous identifions les fonctions de "l'emploi" tenu par l'enfant soldat au sein de l'administration d'un régime patrimonial. Une approche wéberienne focalisée sur l'institutionnalisation et les stratégies de domination et de dépendance corrige les approches qui exotisent les enfants soldats, décontextualisent leur comportement, ou essentialisent leur "jeunesse" comme principe d'explication.


Child soldiers in the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which began respectively in December 1989 and March 1991, became entangled in structural forms of domination and dependency characteristic of ties between patrons and clients. In contradiction to the image of childhood as a life stage of protection and nurturance by selfless adults, children caught up in these civil wars experienced a major breakdown of kinship security. Many of them were driven into dependency on exploitative adults who seemed to offer power, protection, and economic opportunity that their kin group, traditional community, or national government could no longer provide. Children's normal dependency on their immediate or extended family was replaced with dependency on non-kin relations of the clientalist type, such as those that typically emerge when ascriptive ties, such as kinship, no longer "serve as an effective vehicle for personal security or advancement" (Scott 1972:101). In particular, many youths became dependent on the patronage of military commanders as a way to transform their physical vulnerability and economic desperation. Patronage also provided them with a response to the political marginalization and economic destitution enforced by the corrupt regimes of the nation-state. As a phenomenon, therefore, child soldiers illustrate a broader principle of youth clientalism in Africa (and elsewhere): the social production of dependency on patronage when local and national structures fail to provide for the social and economic needs of youth.

The concept of a patron-client relationship does not explain completely the social dynamics of child soldier relations with adults.

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Military Patrimonialism and Child Soldier Clientalism in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean Civil Wars


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