‘Identifying with War: A Historical Appraisal of Child Combatants in African Conflicts, c.1950-2010’ (Review of Stacey Hynd’s presentation on the 13th March 2013)

This post is a review of the seminar given by Stacey Hynd on African child combatants (University of Leeds, 13 March 2013).

Hynd’s paper tackled a range of disparities between the humanitarian narrative of the child soldier and the actuality of warfare involving children.  To solve this misunderstanding Hynd’s paper took an alternative two-step approach: first, she contextualised the child’s role in warfare and, second, she historicised the reading of the basis to current arguments.  This process is conducted through three main stages and by using non-traditional archival material, such as oral interviews, media camps, grey literature, and humanitarian and NGO reports.  It should also be noted that Hynd tackled the definitional debate surrounding childhood in Africa and attests much of the Western misunderstanding to this difference. 

Child soldier (Unicef)

Child soldier (Unicef)

Initially Hynd addressed the first discrepancy between African actuality and Western perception of child soldiering, that child soldiering is African-centred contemporary crisis.  She argues that this trope is due to the rise of the New War Theory (NWT), which depicts war as increasingly criminal, with high and rising mortality, high levels violence and illogical methods.[1]  Children have been involved in wars across time and space, however, such as in WW1 Soviet Russia and the Congo under King Leopold.  Specifically to post-colonial Africa, there was a definite rise in child soldiering from the 1960s to the 1980s, not just from the 1990s onwards.  This phenomenon cannot be accommodated for in a NWT framework.  Rather, Hynd argues that it was due to a combination of youth-led revolts and the crisis of the post-colonial state.   The NWT school of thought did not cause this misunderstanding.  Rather, it attempted to explain why it was the case.

It was the late 1980s and early 1990s humanitarian narrative that created this allegory.  It was formed as part of the new forms of liberal humanitarianism rooted in a convergence of an African pattern and the fall of the Soviet Union.  This led to two important processes.  First, there were reports for the United Nations, such as the Graça Machel Report in 1996.  These highlighted the image of child soldiers, a new barbarism and the abandonment of all standards.  Second, and somewhat reactionary to the first, the media began to increasingly focus upon extreme violence and psychotic actors.  These developments converged to create a humanitarian narrative that displayed children as victims with a distinct lack of agency.  Hynd argues that this humanitarian narrative is encapsulated in the KONY 2012 campaign and is paradigmatic of modern perceptions of the passive African receiving aid from the West.  Through this relegation of the African, a comparison to the justifications for intervention used by the colonial state was explicit.  Hynd, however, argues that this lack of agency is a fallacy.  This is misperception is partly explained by Matt Utas.  Most likely, he argues, children know that if they hold a gun in a war-torn area they are a commodity to a western audience and may gain money for doing so.[2]  According to Hynd, however, this is only one element of agency that African child soldiers display.  Memoirs of child soldiers offer a range of ways in which these children display agency, which are not recognised by humanitarian narratives.

Hynd uses five memoirs yet the main focus is upon Ishmael Beah and China Keitetsi.[3]  Initially, the main theme throughout these accounts seems to be a self-depiction of passivity, where they are acted on by the African militia and then Western organisations.  Hynd explains that this image is due to a range of distortions including versioning, exceptionalism, contextualisation problems and the purpose of the memoir.  Hynd endeavours to strip away these falsifications and critically analyse these sources.  This exposes two revealing themes that conflict with the humanitarian narrative described above.  First, there is a constant feeling of commoditisation of the experience.  The memoirs conform to a certain structure that is designed to gain support from Western governments or private donors: an innocent childhood experience that is distorted when they enter into conflict yet the child is then saved and grows again as a real and fulfilled person.  Beah conforms most explicitly to this pattern.  This is reflective of Maureen Moynagh’s work, which argues that the child soldier is represented as morally pure, then morally corrupted and then morally pure again.[4]  The second theme counters the lack of agency of the child soldier.  The memoirs highlight how it was a rational choice to join the army due to a multiplicity of reasons, such as access to food and shelter.  Additionally, a prime example is that whilst Keitetsi presents a victim narrative, she describes her agency, through bribery and stealing.

As previously explained, earlier literature on child soldiers in Africa looked through a political or legal lens.  This includes Michael Wessels, David Rosen, Alcinda Honwana, Peter Singer and Ilene Cohn’s work.[5]  Hynd’s synthesis of cultural history and the social sciences provides a valid and insightful foundation for the analysis of the discrepancy between the actuality of child soldiering and Western perceptions of it.   It is her use of child soldiers’ memoirs to analyse the strength and fallacies of the humanitarian narrative that made this paper unique.  Previously, most academics have referenced memoirs rather than critically analyse the sources.[6]  The two papers that focus upon these memoirs either centre upon the legal aspect of child soldiering, Mark Drumbl’s work, or are not as comprehensive as Hynd’s thesis, Moynagh only uses two memoirs to Hynd’s five.[7]  Nevertheless, this should not detract from importance of the other non-traditional sources that she uses, however.

Her report was not completely comprehensive, however.  Understandably, Hynd could not explore all aspects that she mentioned in her analysis, such as the generational divide in Africa and the crisis of the post-colonial state.  There were aspects, though, that she should, and feasibly could, have expanded upon.  Most notably was the missed chance to explore how the Western public are ‘presented only with civil war, famine and AIDS’ in Africa, a trope that has been prevalent in the international press before the emergence of this humanitarian narrative in the 1990s.[8]  Further, there were two main areas that were excluded altogether.  This included local media representation, a field of study that POLIS researchers (LSE) recognise to be vital to humanitarian projects in sub-Saharan Africa,[9] and a broad historical overview of Africa.   Although, given the length of her research project, this may be an aspect she covers later in her work.      

Hynd’s thesis can potentially have a huge impact upon both this field of history and the contemporary narratives of humanitarian groups.  When her long and extensive research project is complete it will reconstruct the framework in which modern academics analyse recent African warfare.  This stretches beyond the academic discipline, however.  Hynd explained that she will present this piece to humanitarian organisations to try and ensure a more accurate and effective representation of child soldiering in Africa.  This is aimed at ending the industrious charity, such as the KONY 2012 campaign.  Whilst this NGO operated within a framework of structural problems, such as Disaster Tourism[10] or the negative discourse of Africa[11], they had an agency.  This was demonstrated by KONY 2012 in how they modelled their depiction of child soldiers in a way to gain international recognition and funding.  These actions exacerbate the myth of child soldiering, which Hynd’s paper serves to dispel.    

Brendan Lawson

[1] M. Kaldor, New & Old Wars: organised violence in the global era (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[2] M. Utas, ‘Victimacy and Social Navigation: From the Toolbox of Liberian Child Soldiers’ in Child Soldiers: From Recruitment to Reintegration, ed. by S. Podder and A. Ozerdem (London: Palgrave Macmillan,2011) pp. 213-230.; M. Utas, ‘The rewards of political violence: remobilizing ex-combatants in post-war Sierra Leone’, Small Arms Survey 2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] I. Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier (London: Harper Collins, 2007); C. Keitetsi, Child Soldier (South Africa: Jacana Media, 2003).

[4] M. Moynagh, ‘Human Rights, Child-Soldier Narratives, and the Problem of Form’, Research in African Literatures, 42 (2011) , 39-59 (p. 48).

[5] M. Wessells, Child Soldiers: from violence to protection (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009); P.W. Singer, Children at War (Berkely, California: University of California Press, 2006); D.M. Rosen, Armies of the Young: child soldiers in war and terrorism (Newark, New York: Rutgers University Press, 2005); A. Honwana, Child Soldiers in Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006); I. Cohn, Child Soldiers: the role of children in armed conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[6] J. Gregory and D.G. Embrey, Reducing the Effects of Profound Catastrophic Trauma for Former Child Soldiers: Companion Recovery Model, Tramatology, 15 (2009), 52-62 (p. 55); R. Fegley, ‘Comparative Perspectives on the Rehabilitation of Ex-Slaves and Former Child Soldiers with Special Reference to Sudan’, African Studies Quarterly, 10 (2008), 35-69 (p. 42).

[7] Moynagh; M.A. Drumbl, Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 39, 217.

[8] Drumbl, p. 41; ‘The conditions of Africa’, Times Literary Supplement, 20/09/1991 in J. Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media (London, I.B. Tauris, 1995), p. 184.

[10] A. De Waal, Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 20.

[11] Benthall, p. 186.; J. Fiske, Television Culture (Routledge, London, 1987), p. 285.



About perspectivesonafrica

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One Response to ‘Identifying with War: A Historical Appraisal of Child Combatants in African Conflicts, c.1950-2010’ (Review of Stacey Hynd’s presentation on the 13th March 2013)

  1. Simone Pelizza says:

    An excellent review of a fascinating paper. Good job, Brendan!

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