RIKO has interviewed professor Henrik Vigh of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Vigh has closely researched a militia group in Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, since the turn of the millennium. The group was first mobilised during the civil war of 1998-1999 and remobilised in the conflicts that followed. Vigh states that people in situations of violent conflict do not necessarily fight against a defined enemy or for an ideological cause, and explains how this can actually improve the process of reconciliation on a local level.

Today Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world. 70 per cent of the population in Guinea-Bissau lives below the poverty line, and more than a third live in extreme poverty. Portugal surrendered their colonial power in 1974, which gave rise to visions of democracy in the young West African country. However, the visions were not fulfilled; by 1998 the political tension and division within the government and populace reached its limit. On June 7th a coup d’état carried out by factions of the military sparked a civil war that lasted from June 1998 until May 1999 and laid Guinea-Bissau in ruins. The war claimed hundreds of civilian lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The country has been tormented by outbreaks of violence in the years since, and a state of war and conflict has become everyday life for the majority of its people.

Interview by Louise Southwell.


RIKO: What is the situation in Guinea-Bissau today?

Henrik Vigh: There has just been an election. International observers have a very pragmatic approach to an election like this: if it is not fully corrupt, it is said to have been a free and democratic election in order to support a democratic process.

One can say that Guinea-Bissau is caught in a state of nervous tranquillity. There is an underlying nervousness despite no open conflicts at the moment. 10 years ago the UN declared Guinea-Bissau the world’s first narco-state. The current anxiety is due to the decade long struggle between politicians, government officials, and the military for access to the narcotics market and its economic profits. At the moment, the military commander-in-chief is the country’s biggest drug lord; he sits pretty securely on the market, and therefore the power, which generates the nervous tranquillity within the country.

RIKO: You primarily focus on the Aguentas in your monograph “Navigating Terrains of War”. What does it mean to be an Aguenta?

Henrik Vigh: During the civil war it meant being attached to a paramilitary network. These militias were trained to protect the president in Bissau. The Aguentas were people who found themselves increasingly isolated and marginalized with no access to existing networks. They lost the civil war and were forced to return to the very bottom of society from which they came.

However, peace did not last long and the conflict broke out again while I was in Bissau. I witnessed how quickly former Aguentas were remobilised into militia despite various UN demobilisation and reintegration programs. There was a fundamental problem with the national and international reintegration efforts: the Aguentas did not have lives worth being reintegrated into. One can say that it is a good idea to reintegrate people after conflicts. But if reintegration means going back to the unsustainable position people were in before the war, the structural problems have not been dealt with sufficiently.

Guinea-Bissau is no longer a state governed by law; there is no police force to protect people and their rights, and the military is the biggest crook of all. It is important to understand that if you are a young man in Bissau without any connections to networks, you are very vulnerable. If the state cannot offer security, people will find it elsewhere. Becoming an Aguenta was a way for young, vulnerable men to exchange a fundamental, long-term uncertainty with the momentary uncertainty of a violent conflict, in order to find security within the Aguenta network.

RIKO: You describe that the Aguentas fight in conflicts without the notion of enemies or ideological cause. You even describe the conflicts as a ‘brotherly war’. How do the conflicts in Guinea-Bissau differ from other national and international conflicts?

Henrik Vigh: The conflicts in Guinea-Bissau only really differ in the way we understand what an armed conflict is. We tend to understand conflicts as political battles between different ideological positions. The people of Guinea-Bissau do not necessarily fight for or against existing ideologies or political structures. People actually agree on what is right and wrong and how things should be, but have different ideas about who should distribute the resources. It sounds very instrumental, but it actually means that people easily identify with what those “on the other side” are fighting for; they basically fight for the same thing. People are painfully aware of the fact that there are not enough resources for everyone, and that they have to fight to access them. This generates some interesting conflict dynamics.

First of all, it means there is no notion of a radical Other. People generally understand each other’s situation and motivation to fight. What is more, people on opposite sides of conflicts are often related. Is it the relatedness as well as the mutual understanding and common purpose that people are referring to when they describe the conflicts as ‘brotherly war’.

Second of all, militias interact socially with each other. Opponents meet during cease-fires and share food. They shift sides if their side is losing. It is not possible to explain these movements as oppositionism, as ideology is not part of the equation. It is an expression of what a militia network can offer in the absence of a functioning state: physical survival and social acceptance amid chaos.

RIKO: You argue that conflicts in Guinea-Bissau are understood as situational actions. How so? And what role has that played in the process of conflict resolution?

Henrik Vigh: In Bissau it is said that “the situation placed the violence within me”, which is generally understood to be true. This offers the possibility to understand violence and conflict as situational; we all have the capacity to act violently, and certain situations trigger violent reactions. And I actually think that understanding each other’s situations and actions are the first steps in a successful reconciliation process.

Acknowledging people’s vulnerability is another essential element in reconciliation – regardless of how violently people may have acted. It is necessary to acknowledge that people can find themselves in such vulnerable positions or situations that they turn to violence. Vulnerability can be on a micro sociological level, forcing people in life-threatening circumstances to act violently. But it can also be macro sociological like in Guinea-Bissau, where people know resources are scarce, and the struggles over them are battles of life and death. It is important to understand that actions are driven by vulnerability and deprivation rather than a need for power and domination.

RIKO: What are your thoughts on those in positions of power using child-soldiers to kill their enemies in order to maintain power and authority, like in Guinea-Bissau?

Henrik Vigh: Well, in Guinea-Bissau the struggle is about accessing and controlling resources. There is not enough for everyone. The people in power have very little, and the people cut off from power have nothing. To lose power means losing the fundamental ability to support one’s family. When I tell my informants that the people in power seem greedy and violent, they answer that if you know hunger, you are willing to do anything to prevent yourself from being hungry again. There is deep desperation in these conflicts, which can easily be misinterpreted as domination. In reality it is the urgent attempt to survive.

RIKO: What role should the international society play in the conflict resolution in Guinea-Bissau?

Henrik Vigh: If we begin with what Denmark could do, we should start thinking about and action towards people’s needs rather than strategy, and Guinea-Bissau should be a top priority in our foreign aid programs. A few years back, 80 per cent of the country’s economy came from foreign financial aid, but many international donors have withdrawn their funds as a response to insufficient economic and governmental transparency. As a result, a major part of the population lost their primary means of livelihood.

I understand the need to document the use of foreign aid and international donations, and that governments have to meet certain democratic demands in order to receive international financial aid. The problem is that a democratic state is sustained by voters who make active, critical choices. And in a country like Guinea-Bissau, where people say they think with their stomachs instead of their heads, the democratic variable disappears. Democracy as a form of government and political ideal cannot exist when the population is desperate and struggling to survive.

In order to contribute to the conflict resolution in Guinea-Bissau, we might have to accept that we cannot mandate ideas like economic and governmental transparency. We might have to accept the risk of money transferring into networks that function in ways we disapprove of – like the drug trade in Guinea-Bissau. Of course the illegal drug trade brings a lot of suffering with it. Nonetheless, it has produced some form of economic development within the country, and functions as the primary economical structure and social ‘safety net’ for a lot of people. The obvious problem is that most people are excluded from this ‘safety net’. But I think by accepting that these structures exist and by providing the country with financial aid anyway, we can help take the edge off the immediate desperation for a lot of people.

The interview is based on the monograph Henrik Vigh wrote in relation to his fieldwork among the Aguentas in Bissau:

Vigh, Henrik. 2006. Navigating Terrains of War – Youth and Soldiering in Guinea-Bissau. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Louise Southwell holds a bachelor degree in Anthropology from the University in Copenhagen.