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17 May 2019

Angry young men?

A new research project will explore Sierra Leone’s new US-inspired gang culture


Image: Kieran Mitton 2018, Sierra Leone.

In 2016 Kieran Mitton began to explore the post-war emergence of gangs in Sierra Leone inspired by US hip-hop and gang culture. “These groups of young men were quoting Tupac, wearing gang colours, and fighting over fixed territories – this was new for Sierra Leone, and distinct from the ex-combatant groups I’d worked with before,” he says. This new generation is the first growing up in the wake of the 1990s civil war, whose extreme violence Dr Mitton has previously researched.

Working with Professor Ibrahim Abdullah of the University of Sierra Leone (who has also been researching the nascent gang scene) Dr Mitton has now won funding from the British Academy to get to the heart of this new phenomenon. They will go into gang territory and spend time with the gangs and affected communities. They hope that their recommendations could help steer the country’s authorities away from a potentially misguided hard-line approach to the problem.

After experiencing a decade-long bloody civil war that only ended in 2002 Sierra Leone is familiar with the problem of ex-combatants, young men with violent histories, adapting to civilian life. But this new generation of gangsters in its capital Freetown and elsewhere, is a phenomenon the authorities have yet to get to grips with. They are the new ‘cultural villain’ of the country, increasingly visible in urban life and are viewed as a growing threat to post-conflict civil order and peace. But until now no sustained academic research has been conducted into this phenomenon.

“We will take a deep life story approach to interviewing the gangsters. The key questions will include asking why they joined the gang? What they like or dislike about it, and what might make them leave? We’ll also speak to parents, teachers, to the police and others, to get a rounded perspective on how best to deal with the issue,” says Mitton.

Most of the fieldwork will be conducted by Professor Abdullah, supported by Dr Mitton with two shorter field visits (the first this June). While the challenges of conducting research in gang-areas involves extensive ethical clearance and risk assessments, communities have been very receptive to the research. “Gang members are generally eager to talk as they feel they don’t have a voice. As a researcher, if you’re honest about your intentions and have the gang’s trust, they won’t mess with you. In many cities around the world the main risk is the police coming in with a small army and getting caught in the crossfire,” he adds.

In addition to Sierra Leone, Mitton has recently conducted fieldwork with gangs in Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro. His previous book Rebels In A Rotten State explored the extreme violence of the Sierra Leonean civil war. He interviewed ex-combatants to get to a deeper explanation of atrocities, drawing on psychological and social psychological approaches, moving beyond simple explanations of madness or drug use. Deploying concepts like shame and disgust help shed light on the actions of young men which can be otherwise hard to comprehend.

This research, lasting 18 months in total, will result in a policy workshop in Freetown and a policy report explaining the issue and advising how best to mitigate rising gang-violence and youth marginalisation. This will be the only robust study to date of the new gang problem in Sierra Leone. Despite the civil war having ended, there is a strong sense that a new generation is still facing the same challenges.

 “It all comes back to the core issues of inequality and marginalisation. Like all people, young men in Sierra Leone need ways to live lives with dignity. I hope this research will provide insights into why young men become involved in gangs, which we can use to make a case to the government and police. This is a problem they can’t arrest their way out of.”

Life in between: youth street gangs and marginality in contemporary Sierra Leone is funded by the British Academy’s programme ‘The Humanities and Social Sciences: Tackling the UK’s International Challenges.’ Projects supported under this programme aim to shed light on our understanding of the UK’s international challenges – past, present and future – and to further cross-learning between academic, policy, practitioner and public communities on issues that are topical, under-explored or necessitate reframing.