Liberia' s women acting for peace: collective action in a war-affected country

Type Journal Article - Movers and shakers: Social movements in Africa
Title Liberia' s women acting for peace: collective action in a war-affected country
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2009
Page numbers 114-137
This volume is the outcome of a workshop and conference held in Leiden on
23-24 October 2008 and features the papers that were presented then, but were
revised prior to publication. There were lively and highly focused discussions in
the workshop on the first day of the proceedings and this introduction draws
heavily on those debates and insights from all the participants.
It is appropriate to begin with an explanation of the thinking behind this project
and to list some of the tentative conclusions that can be drawn. We began
this venture with an open mind as to whether it concerned social movements as
global phenomena that, in the present case, happen to be situated on the African
continent or whether, on the other hand, we are dealing with social phenomena
of a sort unique to Africa and which are therefore difficult to analyze in a comparative
perspective. At the outset, we were unsure of the degree to which the
theoretical work that has been done on social movements in general would be
relevant to the study of African societies. We deliberately avoided beginning
with a definition of a social movement drawn from the existing literature, which
is largely based on studies of Europe, North America and Latin America, because
that would risk excluding movements in Africa that might take a different
form. We kept in mind the possibility that some social movements in Africa
might be largely driven by outside stimuli in the form of inducements from aid
donors. However, we also had to realize that if African movements are seen
from the outset as sui generis, then not only does comparison with movements
elsewhere become difficult, it also risks perpetuating the view that everything
that occurs in Africa has its own special rationale, dictated by a context so radically
different as to stand beyond global comparison. It would be better, we
thought, first to assemble studies of at least some movements in Africa that
2 Ellis & Van Kessel
could conceivably be described as social movements and only then to compare
them with the existing literature.
To make this task possible, the first two chapters in this volume attempt a
summary of the extensive literature that already exists on the subject of social
movements. The first of these, by Jacquelien van Stekelenberg and Bert Klandermans,
presents an overview of the development of social movement theory
over several decades. They describe how early writers on the issue tended to
view public protest as arising from impatience with more orthodox forms of
interaction. When people took to the streets, this was stated or implied to be a
sign of an irrational element inherent in mass action. Over time, this classic
paradigm became increasingly unsatisfactory and was supplemented or replaced
by analyses of the structure of social movements by writers who emphasized its
political element. Social constructionist theories posed a series of questions
about how individuals and groups perceive and interpret socio-political conditions,
focusing on the cognitive, affective and ideational roots of contention.
These theories tend to view social movements not only as a rational form of
response but even as a necessary element of democracy. Many social movement
theorists are themselves activists or former activists and they tend to emphasize
the rational element in protest action. Some of the authors in the present volume
have also played an activist role in the movement they describe, or in other
social movements. Africa is quite familiar with the phenomenon of the scholaractivist,
as is illustrated in the examples of Mahmood Mamdani, Jacques Delpechin
and many others from all parts of the continent. In this respect at least,
Africa fits quite well into the global landscape of social movements. Most recently,
analysts have tended to observe the changing forms and goals of social
movements in the light of globalization and the rise of information technology,
which have created new possibilities for networking far beyond local neighbourhoods
or even the national context.
A second theoretical chapter has been contributed by Adam Habib and Paul
Opoku-Mensah and deals with the literature on contemporary social movements
in South Africa and in Africa more generally, questioning how data from Africa
relate to the debates that have emerged in the global academy. Habib notes that
two assertions have been widely made in the literature on social movements:
first, that the fulcrum of social struggles for a human development agenda has
shifted from the arena of production to that of consumption, and second, that
struggles concerning identity are replacing ones overtly oriented towards material
issues, especially in post-industrial societies. Habib feels that a more
nuanced interpretation is required, as assertions such as these are not fully satisfactory
when applied to the evidence from Africa. It is true that social struggles,
especially in South Africa, have expanded into the arena of consumption –
perhaps unsurprisingly as South Africa, with Africa’s largest economy by far, in
Introduction 3
some ways resembles the ‘developed’ countries of Europe and North America
more closely than other parts of Africa do. However, not only have movements
concerned with relations of production continued but they remain crucial to the
sustainability of struggles concerning consumption. While identity movements
and struggles are increasing, material issues are as relevant to these struggles as
they were to earlier social movements. Habib argues that social movements are
vital in many democratizing societies in providing the substantive uncertainty
that is necessary to create accountability among political elites to their marginalized
citizens, thereby advancing a more sustainable human-oriented development
agenda. In effect, he maintains that social movements are vital for a
functioning democracy, particularly in states with only one dominant party. But
it does not necessarily follow that social movements themselves are inherently
After these general introductions to the literature, eight case studies are presented.
These cover a wide – but not necessarily representative – range of social
movements in Africa. They include the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia,
Islamic social movements in southwest Nigeria, the legacy of liberation movements
in South Africa, Catholic social movements in Malawi, the anti-slavery
movement in Mauritania, the global campaign against blood diamonds, and
women’s movements in Liberia. There are also the so-called ‘campus cults’ in
Nigeria that have emerged from the efforts by military governments to disrupt
the student movement. These campus cults can thus be considered, quite literally,
as an ‘anti-social’ movement.
We began this project, then, unwilling to apply a definition of social movements
that is drawn from a literature strongly influenced by North Atlantic and
Latin American data, and yet wanting to study a range of movements in Africa
to see whether it was possible to discern any common threads among them. We
decided that it was best to adopt a pragmatic approach that, at least at the start,
was open-minded. In other words, we would bear in mind some of the provisional
conclusions drawn from the literature on social movements and make use
of the instruments of social movement theory, while remaining open to the
possibility that not all aspects of the relevant African phenomena would necessarily
fit into these theories.
Clearly certain questions of a universal nature can be asked about movements
all over the world, and some crucial questions can usefully be posed
regardless of geographical setting. For a long time, scholars have explored
questions such as why people rebel or, perhaps more importantly, why they do
not rebel.
In view of the diversity of the movements discussed in this volume, we
asked our contributors to address the following issues:
4 Ellis & Van Kessel
• What are the historical origins of the social movement being analyzed?
• How does it mobilize support? Who are the people likely to participate?
• In what ways does the social movement under scrutiny frame its message?
• How does it relate to other social movements?
• Is it still in existence? Has it ceased to exist? If so, how and why?
In the discussions that ensued during the workshop and conference in Leiden,
participants heartily endorsed our approach of not starting with an orthodox
theory and subsequently examining the extent to which African cases fitted it. It
became apparent that many movements in Africa that could be called social
movements inasmuch as they are rooted in social networks rather than in state
policy and insofar as they are concerned with broad social issues, are of a rather
hybrid nature when considered with reference to conventional social-science
categories. They often display social, political and religious characteristics that
overlap one another.

Related studies