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Risks and Opportunities

Securing futures in Côte d’Ivoire’s violent crisis and beyond
Risques et opportunités : assurer son avenir dans la violente crise ivoirienne et au-delà
Katharina Heitz Tokpa
p. 20-39


Cette étude examine comment les gens qui ne vivent pas directement dans les sociétés dites à risque s’organisent pour faire face à l’insécurité et risques prévalant dans leur environnement quotidien. Tout au long de deux trajectoires issues de la crise en Côte d’Ivoire, l’étude analyse les différentes voies empruntées par deux sujets pour sécuriser leur futur dans un contexte de guerre. Les deux sujets avaient un métier similaire de mécaniciens juste avant que la guerre n’éclate. L’un s’engagea dans la rébellion pour faire la guerre alors que l’autre décida d’opter pour une autre stratégie de petits business, de vie associative, et en tissant des relations avec des acteurs politiques importants du moment.
Quand bien même la stratégie de l’évitement du risque est utilisée, les résultats montrent que les risques sont pris de façon consciente pour rechercher avant tout des opportunités. Dès lors, une fixation exclusive sur l’idée que nous nous faisons du risque serait incomplète pour expliquer leur choix de vie en période de crise. Pour cela je me propose d’analyser plutôt une perspective complémentaire de la recherche des opportunités que celle de l’évitement des risques.

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Texte intégral

I wish to thank the editors of this volume for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper.

1Sociologists have theorized industrial societies with a welfare state as risk societies (Beck 1986). The risks associated with these societies are potential dangers issuing from human-instigated developments (for instance, genetically modified food or high-risk investment banking products) that non-specialists no longer seem to be able to understand or control (Beck 1986, Adam et al. 2000). The booming insurance industry has often been cited as an indication of risk society or even “risk culture”(Adam et al. 2000: 5). Risks are not constructed voluntarily ; rather, they are part of an anxious attitude to preserve a certain lifestyle. Therefore, it has been highlighted that risk societies are affluent societies (Macamo 2008 : 248), in which the majority of the population enjoys a high standard of living and where the average life expectancy is equally high. Hence, the notion of “risk society” is not about the frequency and severity of hazards to which people are actually exposed (Douglas 1992 : 29, O’Neil 2002). Malicious tongues may say that although living in clover, Western societies are obsessed with risks and risk-avoidance (Tulloch and Lupton 2003 : 132). What sociologists call “risk societies”, are societies characterised by the way people construct and perceive possible risks and by how they deal with them.

  • 2 In this war-related context, I use the notion of insecurity to refer to threatening conditions infl (...)

2Due to the growing global interconnectedness, people beyond affluent societies, too, are exposed to and affected by the same risks in one way or another (Beck 2008). However, in the post-conflict context examined here, other risks and insecurities have a more immediate effect on people’s everyday lives. The question I would like to explore is how people who do not live in so-called risk societies deal with risks and insecurities2 and how they secure their futures. If actors in these societies do not rely on insurance companies, what are their strategies to handle risks ? What attitude do they adopt when faced with risks and insecurities ?

3To look at how people deal with risks in a specific cultural context – here in Côte d’Ivoire – we must move beyond a one-size-fits-all definition of risks. Anthropological treaties of risk largely agree that “risks” are attributed different meanings in and within societies around the world and often, there might not even be a word for it (Casimir 2010 : 31-32, Douglas 1992, Boholm 2003 : 159). Following Lupton, we can say that the identification of “risks” is dependent on specific socio-cultural and historical contexts : “To call something a “risk” is to recognize its importance to our subjectivity and wellbeing. In some societies at some times, certain phenomena are selected as the focus for anxieties” (Lupton 2004 : 13).

  • 3  Johnson-Hanks’ understanding of opportunity has no leanings towards (neo)liberalism. Her conceptio (...)

4As I will argue, different approaches to risks are observable both in risk societies and elsewhere ; risks are avoided or reduced on the one hand ; but as my empirical findings suggest, risks are also accepted and consciously taken to seek opportunities in the first place. Hence, in addition to a conceptual lens that focuses on risks, I propose to adopt a complementary perspective that looks at opportunities rather than risks, as Johnson-Hanks (2002, 2005, 2006) has suggested with “judicious opportunism” 3 in a similar societal context. Two empirical case studies from post-conflict Côte d’Ivoire will illustrate this argument below. The next part outlines the contextual and conceptual framework.

Two men in a vital conjuncture in rebel-controlled western Côte d’Ivoire

5In the 1960ies and 70ies, Côte d’Ivoire was regarded as the most prosperous “young nation” in the sub-region. Under its first President Houphouët-Boigny, the main export products, cocoa and coffee, boomed. However, after this period of relative prosperity and stability, the country’s economy was hit by the dramatic drop in cash crop prices. The Ivoirian miracle – as the economic success was hailed – gradually faded into a mirage (Amin 1967, Dozon 1989 : 137). Widespread impoverishment and rivalries between leading political figures, as well as constitutional and legal arbitrariness all pointed to a major crisis.

6When elections in 1995 and 2000 brought party representatives to power with little legitimacy by excluding other candidates with good prospects in advance, unrest grew in the population (Dozon 2000, Bouquet 2011). In 2002, a failed coup d’état turned into a fully-fledged rebellion which cut the country into two halves (Akindes 2004). Blocked in a political stalemate, the northern part of the country remained under the control of the rebel movement Les Forces Nouvelles, who put up military governance structures to administer the territory (Förster 2010, Förster and Köchlin 2011, Fofana 2011). In comparison to the Mano-River wars in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, the fighting in Côte d’Ivoire was rather short and in a certain sense, the civil war has “never yet fully taken off”(McGovern 2011 : 208).

  • 4  Mouvement pour la Justice et la Paix (MJP) and the Mouvement Populaire Ivoirien du Grand Ouest (MP (...)

7The paper’s case-studies are situated in Man in western Côte d’Ivoire. Man is the capital of the region «  Dix-Huit Montagnes  »/Tonkpi in western Côte d’Ivoire, an area sharing borders with Liberia and Guinea. The region is known for its mountainous scenery and masks (Steiner 1994, Reed 2003 : 31-46). With the outbreak of the violent crisis, the town lost most of its upper-level civil servants, as they fled the heavy fighting fuelled by the presence of rebel groups staffed with foreign mercenaries, particularly fighters from Liberia, but also from Sierra Leone (Ero and Marshall 2003, Banégas and Marshall-Fratani 2007, Chelpi-den Hamer 2011)4.

8After the eviction of the foreign rebel groups from Ivoirian soil in April 2003, the town of Man has remained firmly in the hands of Les Forces Nouvelles. A former Ivoirian corporal, Losséni Fofana, has served as the commander and governor of the zone, since mid-2003. Even though the state’s prefects took office in mid-2007, Les Forces Nouvelles have remained the most powerful actor in the local arena (Heitz 2009).

  • 5  Drawing on Ortner’s concept of the pursuit of “(cultural) projects”, I use the term life project t (...)

9Hence, with the outbreak of the war in Man in November 2002, the population faced war-related risks such as political violence and physical insecurity, as well as economic difficulties. Despite that everyday lives in violent conflicts are not exclusively determined by war-related issues (Lubkemann 2008 : 11-15, 330). People’s major concern remains the pursuit of their life projects5 despite the crisis (Lubkemann 2008, Fuh 2009). Those who stayed in rebel-held areas have learnt to deal with the risks that life with armed actors entailed ; they avoided conflicts with them, endured certain things and made arrangements with those in power.

  • 6  For studies on women in the no-war-no-peace continuum see Utas (2005) and Kaufmann (2011).

10To examine how people secured their futures in the Ivorian armed conflict, I have picked the stories of two men, Paul and Camara, aged around 30 6. Both men happened to work as employees in car repair shops before the war and lost their jobs with the occupation of Man by the rebels. Whereas both of Paul’s parents are autochthonous Dan speakers from villages in the South of Man, Camara’s father is a Manding from Odienné. As in other towns of the Upper Guinea forest belt, the city of Man basically consists of these two communities : the firstcomers (autochthones) (Dan speakers) and newcomers, particularly migrants from the drier north (mostly from Côte d’Ivoire, but also from Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea).

  • 7  Robert Guéï had served as Army Chief of Staff in the 1990s and was the interim Head of State durin (...)
  • 8  By 2010, Laurent Gbagbo had managed to win back parts of the electorate of the autochthonous popul (...)

11Contrary to the much described (militant) support for President Laurent Gbagbo by autochthones groups in the South (e.g. : Chauveau and Bobo 2003, Banégas 2006, 2010), the political configuration in the Dan-speaking areas was different. On the first day of the failed coup in September 2002, General Robert Guéï, a Dan speaker from Man and interim Head of State after the coup in 1999, was killed by armed units presumably close to the government7. Thereafter, the popularity of Laurent Gbabgo’s government dwindled among Dan speakers, particularly following the use of repressive violence by the government against members of Guéï’s party (Human Rights Watch 2003, Bouquet 2011 : 114)8. As a consequence, the rebellion had support from both autochthones and non-autochthones in the region of Man at the beginning of the war. In a survey from 2007, recruits in Man show equal shares of autochthones and non-autochthones (Chelpi-den Hamer 2011 : 138). Circumstantial and subjective factors – aspects that are often downplayed in the literature – were more decisive than ethnic belonging for enlistments in Côte d’Ivoire’s West (Chelpi-den Hamer 2011 : 116, 226). Therefore, I offer an alternative angle to explore the question of mobilization and securing one’s future in an armed conflict by drawing on the notion of risk and Johnson-Hanks’ concept of “judicious opportunities” (Johnson-Hanks 2005).

  • 9  In more abstract terms, “vital conjunctures are socially structured zones of possibility that emer (...)

12Left without a job, Paul and Camara were at a crossroads so-to-speak in a “vital conjuncture” following the conceptual terminology of Johnson-Hanks (2006 : 212). Without salaried income, they were forced to seek new opportunities to secure their livelihoods. As Johnson-Hanks describes for Cameroon, possible pathways leading out of such vital conjunctures have to be forged with whatever resources one gets hold of (Johnson-Hanks 2006 : 215). People are forced to envisage “alternative strategies and seize promising chances as they appear” (Johnson-Hanks 2006 : 205), in other words, to grasp “judicious opportunities” (Johnson-Hanks 2005)9.

13In the literature, opportunities have also been described as short-term strategies and therefore linked to tactical – or with a derogatory slant – “opportunistic” agency (Boas 2008 : 37, Honwana 2006 : 61). The way I would like to use the term opportunities here is in the sense of more concrete possibilities. If we look at the empirical examples explored, an obviously promising strategy in volatile contexts is to follow every lead that presents itself and to diversify one’s possibilities, in the hope that one option works out and turns into an opportunity to be seized. This being said, I would like to emphasise that “judicious opportunism” is neither understood as an exclusively universal nor a singularly culturally-determined response in volatile contexts, but “a social practice both grounded in material conditions and variably culturally elaborated” (Johnson-Hanks 2005 : 383).

14Even though the two trajectories are inevitably subjective (De Bruijn and Van Dijk 2007 : 75), they stand for common orientations and strategies specific to the local Ivoirian context, but they also mirror deliberations and strategies relevant to comparable situations in Africa and beyond (Vigh 2010). I focus on two aspects, on how the two young men deal with war-related physical insecurities and on strategies to generate a new income.

15My interpretation of the empirical material is based on more than a year of fieldwork between September 2008 and February 2012. Most of the data was collected with semi-structured interviews with a broad range of informants, several of whom were members of Les Forces Nouvelles. Data collection also included informal talks, observations of events and participation. I have met Paul and Camara regularly during my research, which allowed me to follow their life trajectories. Both case-studies are presented below and analysed subsequently in relation to strategies and risks. In a final part, both life trajectories are discussed in reference to the concepts of risk society and judicious opportunism.

Case-study Paul

16Every time my research assistant and I met with Paul in his hairdresser salon at the road side in 2008/2009, he gave us the news of the neighbourhood. Later, we began to meet at his house, behind the salon, which was more discreet. I taped him for the first time in 2011 ; all previous talks were reconstructed on the basis of notes during and after the talks.

17Paul is in his thirties. The hairdresser salon is just one of his businesses. He also rents a simple room to visitors, is involved in associations in the neighbourhood and in his native village in the South of Man. This is where he was born and raised by farming parents. Before the war, he had had a salaried job in a car repair shop owned by a Lebanese and managed to get additional income with a video studio, too. At the outbreak of the war, many expats left including Paul’s employer.

18To avoid the physical insecurity due to heavy combat in town, Paul, like many others, fled to the village. With the arrival of international NGOs, larger cities offered more safety and job opportunities. So, Paul returned to Man where he found that his house had been looted during his absence. To get by, Paul temporarily worked for an emergency relief agency. When this casual labour ended, he was left with very little.

19Without a regular job, his wife left him for a man who had found employment with one of the international NGOs. One of his sons stayed with him. Unable to provide for the family, as he was supposed to do by local standards, he did not seem to think too badly of his wife. Under these changed circumstances, life had become different. In a vital conjuncture, they were faced with constraints and few options. As most people, the couple had had to put up with conditions never thought of before. According to their possibilities and resources, they seized “judicious opportunities” and got by. As Paul said : «  on se débrouille  », one makes do, as the local French expression goes.

20Belonging to the first settlers in the region, Paul had come to join the followers of Laurent Gbagbo by 2008. To him – speaking in 2009 – the rebellion was a project by “northerners” and he does not want to remember that his own group, the Dan, have supported the insurgents after Robert Guéï’s assassination in September 2002. After the devastation of the region by the war, he held the rebellion responsible for his precarious, and in his view “unworthy” state. To him, it seemed preposterous that the rebels who have destroyed his livelihoods, ask him to pay tax money now that he had found a way to get by. His relationship with certain rebels became rather tense every once in a while.

21As others in the neighbourhood had similar grievances, Paul and his friends teamed up and decided to stick together. Whenever one of them had a problem with a rebel, they would treat it as everybody’s problem. Always on the look-out for a powerful mediator or «  patron  », Paul made friends with a UN police officer ; this gave him an additional sense of protection : With his salon at the roadside, Paul was in a prime position to become an informant and receive small gifts and protection in return.

22At one point, a low-ranking rebel started picking on Paul. He often showed up at his hairdresser salon to ask for the weekly tax. What was unfair in Paul’s eyes was that the rebel did not care if he had had any customers or not. When the tax collector discovered that Paul also had a room to rent, for which he was expected to pay additional taxes, the dispute was taken to a higher level. They had several verbal confrontations. Paul proceeded to be absent when the rebel came to collect the taxes. On one occasion, when Paul had “gone out”, the tax collector confiscated parts of his hairdressing equipment and took it home with him.

23With the UN police officer to back him up and encouraged by his friends, Paul felt confident enough to complain at the rebel’s headquarters. When the senior rebels eventually confronted the tax collector after several visits from a persistent Paul, he got some of his equipment back. Eventually, he had to content himself with that, as otherwise he risked to receive revengeful acts by the tax collector. Most of the time, Paul said, he felt forced to comply to the rebels’ demands, because they had arms, after all.

24Another solution to the problem with this particular tax collector who constantly picked on him would be to simply make the latter forget about Paul, as he explained to me. Therefore, Paul went to see a witch doctor who specialises in taking “thoughts” out of other people’s minds. The combined strategies eventually worked and the relationship between the tax collector and Paul improved. Both became less harsh towards one another. Paul offered him a haircut instead of tax money when the week had generated little income and the tax collector was more generous with Paul if he had not earned much during the week. After some time, Paul became so relaxed that he even referred to his adversary euphemistically : «  C’est mon ami, maintenant.  »

  • 10  See Utas 2012 on the subject and use of the term Big Man in armed conflicts.

25Still in search of work, the presidential elections in 2010 offered Paul an opportunity to align himself with a local Big Man in politics10. To «  faire la politique  » (be in politics) is a common means of making money. To be part of the network of a politician who supports the sitting president raises hopes to get a share of the national wealth.

26Paul mobilised the young people to clean their neighbourhood and free it of shrubs. Subsequently, the politician brought the neighbourhood electricity and financial support to re-open their drinking place. They put up some benches, where people sit, chat and drink. The preferred drink is bangui, palm wine, affordable for everyone. This set-up generated income for the women who sell food : fried plantains, some fish, rice with sauce and bush meat. Soon, it attracted people from other parts of town and filled the neighbourhood with pride.

27As described, Paul was able to reap the fruits of his labour, partly by monetary compensation, but more by acquiring prestige in the neighbourhood as a youth leader. When he had a motorcycle accident, his house was always full with people from the neighbourhood who came to greet and support him emotionally and materially in this difficult situation.

28I met Paul again in June 2011 after the period of post-electoral violence. For the time being, his venture into politics had reached a dead end, as his candidate (Laurent Gbagbo) had lost the presidential elections. This particular source of revenue had dried up and the promise of politics had even led to more insecurity, temporarily. His exposure during the campaign for a candidate who did not accept election defeat produced extra risks for him during the violent post-electoral period. For a couple of nights he stayed away from his house and slept at different places for security reasons.

29His hairdresser salon had to make way for the new President’s road construction projects. In distress Paul told me «  On chôme !  » (we are out of work). Again at a vital conjuncture, Paul decided to rely on the solidarity networks of his parents and retreated to his village, where he ventured into cash crop production, away from town and politics.

Analysis Paul

30In this analytical part, I will focus on war-related physical insecurities and ways of securing income-generating activities.

31Many people in Paul’s situation, with a village nearby, decided to flee the town during the most violent times. Due to the rebels’ reliance on the merchants’ trading activities for income, Les Forces Nouvelles soon provided some security and order that was later enhanced with the reassuring presence of the UN. This allowed people to go about their business without immediate physical threat. However, with combatants who openly carried arms, basic social trust remained precarious and the rebels continued to be perceived as a possible threat. Hence, many civilians avoided the rebels as best as they could, even though they lived next door to each other in towns and villages. To pass unnoticed, to not be perceived, meant not to enter into any problems with rebels, thus reducing the risk of conflict with them. Since just one small conflict with a rebel could escalate and become detrimental, such high-consequence risks (Lupton 2004 : 79) were avoided, even if one felt unfairly treated. Many civilians decided to keep quiet and adopted the strategy of avoidance, as Paul did for a while when being absent from his jobsite. However, when things got worse and simply unacceptable, as for instance when Paul’s equipment was stolen, actors confronted the rebel hierarchy with their grievances alone or in a group, for a large number of people cannot be as easily passed over and ignored.

  • 11  In the context here, he or she is somebody who has access to strategic positions and funds, and is (...)

32A major reoccurring topic in Paul’s trajectory was to seek job opportunities in order to secure his livelihoods. Often, it was the family in the village that provided him with a solidarity network that gave him material and emotional support. Whenever he visits, he delivers something from town and receives foodstuff from the village in return. Furthermore, Paul repeatedly employed the strategy of looking for a patron, to court/follow a Big Man as well as to venture into politics, as the examples with the politician and the UN policeman have shown. With a powerful contact backing him, Paul tapped a new resource he could bring to bear in a certain situation. Looking for a powerful patron was a common strategy11. Material and protective needs were both issues with such contacts. Even if some connections turned out to be less profitable than expected, it seemed a worthwhile strategy all the same. This is also the manner in which we should read Paul’s investment in the connection with the young anthropologist who passed by from time to time. He suggested taking her to his village and introducing her to the chef de terre and the village headman. Once the cooperation was on solid ground, he asked her to do him a favour and send him some badly needed money, which she did.

Case-study Camara

33I met Camara at the entry of the rebels’ headquarters in Man, when he was on guard. It was shortly before lunchtime. My assistant asked him and his two fellow rebels whether I could sit in their porter’s shelter at the road side to wait for a friend from the UN to pick me up for lunch. They agreed. When talking to the three rebels, I learnt that as a porter, Camara had to keep guard from 7 am to 5 pm and that he had been doing the job for two years already. When somebody wanted to drive out, he opened the big gate and stopped the traffic to let them pass. For pedestrians there was a smaller entry, but it was quiet now at noon.

  • 12  Most of the following information is from an interview that I was able to record and from which I (...)

34As previously mentioned, Camara’s father is from Odienné, a town further North ; his mother is from a village near Man. Their small compound is at one of the entries to Man, at a large crossroads. Before the war, he had worked in a car repair shop in Man ; «  coller pneus  » (to glue/repair tyres), as he called the activity. Although I did not ask specifically, he has probably had little formal education, judging by his French12. Perhaps more than Paul, Camara was prepared to take risks in order to grasp opportunities rather than to avoid risks at all costs.

35At the beginning of the violent crisis, Man changed hands three times, as the city was hotly contested. Therefore, in this first phase of the conflict, Camara’s family left and took refuge in a neighbouring village, as Paul had done. Camara stayed behind in order to accompany his boss from the car repair shop to a village in the region bordering Guinea. Aware of the dangers of war, Camara said in retrospect that he “prepared himself” before he went back to Man, as he found himself in a region renowned for its mystical powers : «  Si la guerre vient, tu dois te protéger.  » He returned to the family compound at a strategic crossroads where groups of rebels had taken up position. This is when, on his own account, a group of Liberian fighters recruited him “by force” due to his physical qualities : «  Parce que je suis en forme, ils sont venus me prendre par la force.  » In retrospect, Camara also adds other justifications, such as protecting his family :

C’est pas mon souhait que la guerre vient dans mon pays. Mais si la guerre vient, au lieu de rentrer dedans, il faut protéger ta famille d’abord  ; c’est ta famille qui est important d’abord. [...] Si ma famille passe, je peux leur dire que c’est ma famille, «  laissez les passer, laissez tous ceux qui sont dans le village, ils sont ma famille.  » [...] Voilà c’est pour ça, je suis entré.

36As other researchers have shown for the West African conflict zone, one way of protecting yourself and yours in a power vacuum is to be part of an armed group, in order to have the power to protect (Utas and Jörgel 2008: 489, Hoffman 2006: 14, Boas and Hatloy 2008), even if it means taking risks.

  • 13  Do you see how man needs to do good to man!?

37In the rebellion, he served different rebel leaders in several towns of the region : «  Il y a un chef qui est venu me prendre.  » He accompanied this boss on all missions and soon after became his bodyguard. Concerning the relationship with his superiors, he said : «  On les appelle Commandant, Commandant.  » At one point, he had to accompany one of his superiors to serve in Korhogo (the major town in the North). To be far away from his family, did not make much sense to him and he was ready to seize the next opportunity to return to Man to be closer to them. This opportunity came, when an old woman whom he had helped out in a difficult situation told him to leave the town due to a coming disaster in which he was going to perish. As soon as he had left Korhogo, an internal conflict among the rebels left his boss and entourage dead. Having helped the old woman who then helped him in return, Camara exclaimed : «  Tu vois comme un homme faut faire du bien à l’homme ! 13  »

38Back in Man, he registered with one of the camps. Soon he received his post as a porter, because he showed his willingness to work :

Voilà, c’est comme ça. Sincèrement, si c’est le travail, je me donne, voilà. Je suis en civil-o, je suis en tenu-o, toujours je travaille. Même si je dors, je travaille.

39Indeed, on one occasion I witnessed his commitment to hard work. It was right after an attempted assassination of his patron, the zone commander, and he was charged with searching young people at the entrance to a concert sponsored by his patron at the municipal stadium. He continuously fended off the excitedly pushing crowd of youths and without compromise carefully searched each person. Dripping with sweat, he gave his all, whereas his colleagues next to him took it much less seriously or let him do the job entirely.

40As a porter, he does not receive a regular salary, so I indicated surprise at having seen him in a basin riche, an expensive cloth. He simply said : «  Je suis [un] garçon  », meaning that he knew how to live by his wits.

Chaque jour, je me débrouille derrière les gens. Lui qui est à côté de moi, il sait que moi, je travaille. [...] L’homme qui sait que je travaille, peut au moins me donner 2000, 5000 ou bien 10’000. Je peux économiser un peu, un peu.

41As he works at the headquarters, he is indeed surrounded by the top ranks of the zone’s hierarchy, who can easily give away 10,000 francs CFA, roughly fifteen euros.

42Several times, his former boss from the car repair shop encouraged him to come back and work for him again. Camara, however, does not want to work for someone else anymore, it is time to stand on his own two feet and work independently.

Je suis devenu grand déjà  ; j’ai ma famille  ; je peux pas travailler pour quelqu’un encore, je veux travailler pour moi-même.

43Camara expects and hopes for a compensation for his labour at the end of the conflict. With this money he wants to pay for the tools he needs to start his own business in his former line of work :

Donc si Dieu a fait qu’ils ont pensé à nous, qu’ils ont donné nos 270 000, je prends pour moi, je mange pas, je mets dans mes activités et puis, je fais. C’est ça mon problème actuel. Si non, je n’ai pas envie de rester dans le mouvement.

44Hence, a major reason as to why he still stayed in the rebellion is the lack of a judicious opportunity to start his own business that would allow him to follow what he considers a worthy other path.

45During a visit in June 2011, I did not see Camara at the entrance to headquarters. I called him, but a woman answered his phone : “He is not here”, she said. I sent my assistant to the family’s compound to check. The woman on the phone was his sister. As is the custom in this part of Africa, she wanted to give me time to learn about the sad news gradually. Camara fell ill in December 2010 and died ; and though some might attribute his death to witchcraft in this part of the world, it was a rather ordinary death after the many risky situations he had faced as a combatant in the armed conflict of Côte d’Ivoire.

Analysis Camara

46Contrary to Paul, Camara joined the rebels. Explanations for the fact that Camara entered and actively stayed in the rebellion, as his voluntary re-enrolment after Korhogo shows, can be attributed to a couple of factors that shall be analysed here.

47From extensive research on ex-combatants we know that there is nothing that distinguishes the social background of combatants and non-combatants and that it is the accumulation of several factors and situational circumstances that lead people to enter a rebellion (Boas and Hatloy 2008 : 52-53). Therefore, it seems best to conceptualise these reasons as a mixture of causes and self-legitimising strategies. I would argue that a decisive factor is his choice to seek opportunities in the rebellion.

48Contrary to the northern parts of Côte d’Ivoire, the experience of exclusionary identity practices figured less prominently in self-legitimising discourses (Fofana 2011 : 55). The combination of coercion and insecurity as well as the wish to protect one’s family were the most common discursively mentioned factors for enrolments in the region of Man (Chelpi-den Hamer 2011 : 160). Camara’s account mirrors this. According to him, it was his physical attributes that played a central role at the moment of his recruitment. He was well-built and therefore considered a valuable fighter for the conquest of the South at that time.

  • 14  Some men hid in the bush over long periods in order to avoid being recruited; they relied on women (...)
  • 15  Whereas strategic decisions are formed from a relatively comfortable position, in which actors hav (...)

49In comparison with other young men, though, who hid from the rebels by going to the bush to avoid recruitment, Camara seems not to have actively excluded recruitment from his range of alternatives14. By going back to the family house at the main road, he took the risk of being exposed to the rebels. Thereby Camara found himself in a situation that reduced his scope of action to what anthropologists have called tactical agency (Honwana 2006 : 69-74, Utas 2005 : 416, 426)15. When Camara went back to the family compound at the crossroads where the rebels had taken position, they stopped him and “told” him to come along. He had to consent : “If you don’t go with them, you risk to get killed there”, Camara said. It was the only time in the interview that he used the word “risk”. Even though this might look like a forced recruitment, Camara had not opted to stay away from the rebels and later in the conflict actively enrolled in another battalion, despite the inherent lethal risks.

50Some scholars have wondered about the “extraordinary risks” that individuals choose by enrolling as fighters in civil wars (Humphreys and Weinstein 2008 : 436). A focus on risks alone, however, is not able to explain the ambivalences of Camara’s social action any further. As has been argued elsewhere, joining an armed group also means being at the stronger end (Utas 2005), getting a job (Hoffman 2011) and achieving a better social status (Gnangadjomon 2011, Arnaut 2012). The way Camara framed his entry into the rebellion illustrates this. Many constraints had already reduced the range of options he had : in Camara’s case, unemployment and insecurity for his family. In this vital conjuncture, he had to seize any judicious opportunity that came along, even if it had its own risks.

51Moreover, the way Camara expressed himself made clear that it was not just about him as an “individual” ; to join the rebels only really made sense for him as a family strategy : for income and protection. He repeatedly used the word “family”, when talking about the choices he, or rather they, made. It became clear that his family was always part of his long-term deliberations. When he had to accompany his superior to the northern town of Korhogo, he kept saying that he would have preferred to be back in Man close to his family to protect them and support them financially.

52Apart from the risk of falling during battle, irregular groups of armed actors are also prone to rivalries. In Camara’s case, if a companion of his wanted to be called “commander”, he called him commander to avoid the risk of disputes that could turn lethal. An important strategy in this social milieu was to “mind one’s own business”, to display respect and subservience. Joining the rebels and going into combat had its own risks. Hence it is noteworthy to state that risk-taking is an important strategy to avoid other risks (getting harmed, having rebels loot one’s family property).

  • 16  Local French term, similar to an amulet.

53While risks are indeed taken, at the same time strategies to reduce them and to “tame fate” (Macamo 2008) are implemented The rebels in Côte d’Ivoire, as traditional hunters or fighters used material and immaterial means to reduce the deadly risks and to enhance their luck ; for instance with medicine, a practice common in Africa in general (e.g. for West Africa Signer 2004). Many a rebel used to wash himself with a special mixture, practiced sexual abstinence, wore gris-gris16 and/or prayed.

54Camara’s story of how he was recruited and why he stayed stands for the many factors and motives that were at stake (Jackson 2005 : 64, Engels 2009 : 154-205, Chelpi-den Hamer 2011). Comparable to the Mano River wars in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, we can conclude that for western Côte d’Ivoire at least “to fight was not so much to take on the enemy as to take up labour, to work. One might do so at the behest of a patron or under duress, and one might do so as part of a political project and with a real sense of grievance. These are not mutually exclusive.” (Hoffman 2011 : 41) What Camara says about his demobilisation further supports this. From his account, we can infer that he waited for an opportunity to leave the rebellion in a decent way and according to his own liking and life project.

Summary and discussion: of risk avoidance and opportunity-seeking

  • 17  Some men who joined the rebellion got rich, either by looting banks at the beginning or by imposin (...)

55War contexts expose people to severe insecurities, but they also offer new opportunities (Lubkemann 2008: 22). The case-studies examined here are exemplary for people who first, lost their livelihoods due to the outbreak of the war, and then managed to get by and to acquire new sources of income17. Even if their cases are unique, their strategies stand for the predicament of many people in and beyond conflict-settings.

56With the onset of war, Paul and Camara entered a vital conjuncture in which they had to rethink, weigh their options and decide – sometimes under constraints that reduced their scope of action to mere tactics. This is where the life trajectories of Paul and Camara took different paths : Paul stayed away from the armed fighters, tried his luck in politics and in associations, and relied on his parental solidarity networks. In contrast, Camara joined the rebel movement to secure his life in times of war as a fighter. Despite their different directions out of the vital conjuncture, their general orientations were not so different after all : e.g. seeking a patron or commander for protection. Looking at the strategies employed for getting by and handling risks and insecurities, some seem to reflect the cultural context, for example, the Big-Man-strategy or relying on the solidarity of the family network. As has been observed in other societies, too, Paul and Camara employed a combination of strategies using both materialist and immaterialist means to deal with risks (Boholm 2003 : 164-166, Casimir 2008 : 30). Diversification of income opportunities is another move that is considered particularly promising in volatile, unstable contexts. Rather than specialise, it seems safer to have more than one iron in the fire : “Under extreme uncertainty, when all the rules are changing, what works is not the best strategy but the most flexible one – the one that [...] keeps every alternative open as long as possible, and that permits the actor to [...] take advantage of whatever opportunities arise”(Johnson-Hanks 2005 : 377).

57To describe their economic condition and struggle for income, both used the term «  débrouiller  », to get by, make do or hustle, which is called «  le Système D  » (système de la débrouille) in Congo-Kinshasa and “dubriagem” in Guinea-Bisseau (Vigh 2006). These expressions in urban languages throughout West and Central Africa refer to economic activities or modes of fending for oneself that are characterised by small casual jobs and an unstable situation that constantly requires seeking new opportunities (De Villers et al. 2000, Jackson 2010).

58Perhaps more interestingly, both stories show that risks are not always avoided. For instance, Camara embraced risks by joining the rebellion and by going into combat. Paul did not completely avoid risks and confrontations either. Backed up by the neighbourhood and UN contacts, he challenged the rebels concerning the levy of taxes in order to better his circumstances and to get back part of the life he wanted. Hence, I argue that it is important to note that people do not do everything to avoid risks ; they also consciously take risks to achieve their life projects. We may conclude that people strive to reduce and avoid risks on the one hand, but that they are also prepared to take risks to grasp opportunities in pursuit of their life projects.

  • 18  As a short illustration, the only insurance company I am aware of at my study’s site in Côte d’Ivo (...)
  • 19  Alpes (2011: 225) comes to the same conclusion in the context of migration.

59People everywhere probably strive to navigate their lives around risks and obstacles ; social scientists’ literature has dealt with that extensively (Jackson 2005, Vigh 2006, Christiansen et al. 2006, Makhulu et al. 2010). At the time of this writing, I think that the milieus examined here are less concerned with the risks often cited in relation to risk societies (Beck 1992)18, even though they are exposed to most of them, as well (Beck 2008). Other risks and insecurities – some of which have been explored here – are, more directly, vital to people’s social realities and seem to preoccupy them more. Furthermore, people’s attitudes towards the inherent insecurity of the future vary, too. Risk avoidance does not seem to be the major concern for the actors examined. It appears they do not firstly consider any and all possible risks, but rather look out for judicious opportunities (Johnson-Hanks 2005) whose value may supersede any associated risks. The obsession with “risks” is inherent in preserving what one already has. This is why in affluent societies (or rather milieus) people are anxious to elaborate techniques to reduce and avoid risks, hence “risk culture” (Adam et al. 2000 : 5). By contrast, in places under constraining circumstances where the gap between aspirations and chances is so great (Jackson 2005 : xix) the principal concern is to seek opportunities first19. Opportunity-seeking infers an attitude towards striving to obtain, rather than avoiding something. In both hemispheres of this planet social actors employ risk-avoidance and opportunity-seeking strategies. It is a question of time, context and personal preferences as to what is more salient to us at any given moment.

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2 In this war-related context, I use the notion of insecurity to refer to threatening conditions inflicted on actors mainly from outside, in the sense it is used by De Bruijn and Van Dijk (1995).

3  Johnson-Hanks’ understanding of opportunity has no leanings towards (neo)liberalism. Her conception is further explained below. The term “opportunity” is widely used in anthropological literature exploring youthful agency in the context of war, e.g.: Utas 2005: 216, Boas and Hatloy 2008: 37, Honwana 2006: 61, McGovern 2010: 74.

4  Mouvement pour la Justice et la Paix (MJP) and the Mouvement Populaire Ivoirien du Grand Ouest (MPIGO).

5  Drawing on Ortner’s concept of the pursuit of “(cultural) projects”, I use the term life project to refer to culturally-meaningful personal long-term goals (Ortner 2006: 142-153).

6  For studies on women in the no-war-no-peace continuum see Utas (2005) and Kaufmann (2011).

7  Robert Guéï had served as Army Chief of Staff in the 1990s and was the interim Head of State during the transition year after the bloodless coup in December 1999. Many people from Man had high hopes that Guéï would keep the presidency. But the 2000 elections brought Laurent Gbagbo to power.

8  By 2010, Laurent Gbagbo had managed to win back parts of the electorate of the autochthonous populations (Bouquet 2011: 158, 162).

9  In more abstract terms, “vital conjunctures are socially structured zones of possibility that emerge around specific periods of potential transformation in a life or lives. They are temporary configurations of possible change, critical durations of uncertainty and potentiality.” (Johnson-Hanks 2006: 22).

10  See Utas 2012 on the subject and use of the term Big Man in armed conflicts.

11  In the context here, he or she is somebody who has access to strategic positions and funds, and is able to provide job opportunities and protection.

12  Most of the following information is from an interview that I was able to record and from which I will use direct quotes. The quotes are in a vernacular variety of French spoken in Côte d’Ivoire.

13  Do you see how man needs to do good to man!?

14  Some men hid in the bush over long periods in order to avoid being recruited; they relied on women members of the families to get food (see also Kaufmann 2011).

15  Whereas strategic decisions are formed from a relatively comfortable position, in which actors have a range of alternatives, tactical agency means decisions made under more constraining circumstances (De Certeau, 1984). Often the remaining options are reduced to choosing the lesser of two evils.

16  Local French term, similar to an amulet.

17  Some men who joined the rebellion got rich, either by looting banks at the beginning or by imposing taxes during their rule. Camara, however, is a low-rank to mid-rank foot soldier. Due to his regular job as a porter, he received more than those who only received a daily meal in the camps or those who can only work at roadblocks every fortnight. After a visit to his room at one of the camps and the family compound, I rate his income as low to average in the rebellion.

18  As a short illustration, the only insurance company I am aware of at my study’s site in Côte d’Ivoire is a car insurer.

19  Alpes (2011: 225) comes to the same conclusion in the context of migration.

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Katharina Heitz Tokpa, « Risks and Opportunities », Journal des africanistes, 84-1 | 2014, 20-39.

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Katharina Heitz Tokpa, « Risks and Opportunities », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 84-1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2014, consulté le 19 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Katharina Heitz Tokpa

Dr., Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Freiburg, Germany

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