Why Big Men matter

New book - 'African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks'

The Nordic Africa Institute launches a new book in the Africa Now series, titled African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks. Editor Mats Utas answers three questions about the topics of the book.

What is a Big Man?
In areas where the state does not have much influence Big Men get more power. When ordinary people get sick or can´t pay the school fee and the state does not provide any help, they seek help from Big Men.

Big Men can be businessmen or they can be state officials. Often they combine these roles. Big Men exist in all societies, but they only grow important when the normal state-structures are weak.

When we study Big Men and Informal Networks, we try to go beyond the normal discussion about patron-client systems in Africa which often tend to be explained as “traditionally African”. We argue otherwise in this book. When other local systems are strong and well-functioned Big Men have less power. Only in weak systems and states have Big Men a lot to say.

The book describes that military structures often maintain also after end of war. Which role plays these structures today?
Structures of command are necessary in the state military as well in rebel armies. A number of chapters in the book show that military structures are well-suited for business transactions and not only by using force and violence. In areas in the eastern Congo have different armies, militias and rebel forces taken shapes like enterprises.

Politicians acknowledge the importance of Big Men and military networks, and often use them in campaigns. One of the chapters shows how that was done during and after the last election in Sierra Leone. Later this year, Sierra Leone holds elections again and one big question is how the ex-soldiers will behave.

Is there a risk that military networks will pick up the arms again?
Although the networks are a potential threat, they are by nature neutral. A network can be mobilized to construct a road as well as to create a new war. It is important to understand that economic and political power-elites, the Big Men, decide how the military networks are to be used.

Most of the postconflict-countries have failed to break the order of command within this kind of informal structures. Big Men have too much to gain from the structures to be willing to dismantle them.

However, it is important to point out that informal networks, of former soldiers as well as of other people, is something normal when other institutions are weak and that the networks not necessarily are something evil. It´s what is available for ordinary people. Big Men fill in when the state doesn´t deliver.

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