Conflictual Motion and Political Inertia: On Rebellions and Revolutions in Bissau and Beyond

By Vigh, Henrik | African Studies Review, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Conflictual Motion and Political Inertia: On Rebellions and Revolutions in Bissau and Beyond


Vigh, Henrik, African Studies Review


Abstract:

Taking its point of departure in the distinction between rebellions and revolutions, this article sheds light on civil war in Guinea-Bissau and West Africa. It builds on prolonged fieldwork among the Aguentas, a militia of urban youth in Bissau, and interrogates their experiences of warfare to further our understanding of some of the dynamics of conflict in the region. It argues that a defining feature of the conflict we have seen in many parts of West Africa is political inertia. Key conflicts, rather than leading to actual sociopolitical change, seem to represent the tremors of chronically unstable political systems: incessant rebellions rather than decisive revolution.

Enmity and Amity

What holds them back from exterminating every male child, every last one of you, is not compassion or fellow-feeling. It is discipline, nothing else: orders from above. (John M. Coetzee, 1990)

Wars are normally imagined as Manichean landscapes. They are seen as polarized political scenarios, organized in black and white, with clear differentiation between self and Other, friend and foe. Coetzee's comment above thus neither shocks nor provokes. Though spoken by a fictional character, it seems a factual and almost commonsensical account of what we already know; namely, that war is about the destruction of the Other, and that the Other as enemy often becomes a generalized social category. Rather than being confined to opposed combatants, enmity comes to be seen as a dormant potentiality in entire population groups.2 This article, however, building on eighteen months of fieldwork among the Aguentas, a militia of urban youth in Guinea Bissau, shows a different picture of warfare and wartime relationships.3

When I arrived in Bissau immediately after the end of the war in December 1999, 1 wanted to study the social reintegration of ex-militiamen. As I started researching the Aguentas, I expected to be able to uncover their motives for joining the militia by illuminating whom they saw themselves as fighting against and by unearthing their idea of a perceived enemy and the threat that this enemy posed to their community. I equally expected that this construction of the enemy would elucidate a range of narratives that would position their activities ideologically. Figuring out whom they were fighting against would reveal why they were fighting and what they were fighting for and thereby clarify their ideological orientations and motivations.

Yet no matter how I went about it, I could neither get detailed descriptions of the Other nor a window into my informants' ideological positions and perspectives. As I continued my fieldwork, with some desperation, I slowly became aware that I, oriented by a Western perspective on war, was looking for something that did not exist. I could not extricate from my informants a defined picture of the enemy because they had no radical vision of the Other, just as I could not find ideological positions, simply because they had not entered into warfare in order to fight for an ideologically defined better society.

Indeed, the relationship between Guiñean combatants - as well as between combatants and civilians - has not been characterized by the articulated hatred and aggressiveness toward the Other that we would perhaps anticipate in such situations. In Guinea-Bissau, apart from actual battles, there has been frequent and amicable contact between opposed forces on the front line. The civil war from 1998 to 1999 was referred to by soldiers and civilians alike as "a brotherly war," guerra di hermonia, a term that encompasses an idea of fraternity which, as we shall see, clearly influenced life on the front lines and points our attention to the existence of a peculiar conjuncture of enmity and amity, of conflict and coexistence. At first glance this apparent paradox makes war in Guinea-Bissau stand out as exceptional. Yet a closer look may reveal that this coexistence of enmity and amity is more common than peculiar in relation to the dynamics of conflict in the region. …

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