“Social Death”, Militancy, and Crime and Opportunity in Guinea-Bissau
I spent the last couple of days at a fascinating and eclectic conference on militancy in West Africa at KCL, which is part of a wider ESRC-funded programme on radicalisation. There were many presentations worthy of note, but one I want to flag up here is Henrik Vigh’s presentation of his fieldwork on mobilisation/demobilisation of youths into militia groups in Guinea-Bissau. His overall point was that youths in parts of Guinea-Bissau join up to various armed groups because it enables them to escape the ‘social death’ of being a youth in the country. Militancy is a route into a meaningful and worthy life. While in the West having ‘youth’ is a generally desirable social commodity, in G-B and elsewhere in Africa the term has deeply negative connotations, suggesting inferiority and lack of opportunity. It is a condition one should strive to escape from.
Much of these developments in militancy have resulted from the crippling lack of economic opportunities in G-B, which has almost no natural resources compared to some of its neighbours. Interestingly, however, as Vigh points out, the rise of G-B as a major hub for the illicit drugs trade has now begun to change the opportunity structure somewhat. Participation in this trade is emerging as an alternative way out of the economic and social impasse. Whereas before, militancy was sometimes the only attractive option, now, say, one can sign up to becoming a drugs mule and head to Europe in attempting to change the course of one’s life.
We usually think about criminal networks in terms of their threat to state institutions. But it’s easy to forget that illicit economic activity has the potential to significantly undermine militant institutions as well.