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Henrik Vigh


Vigh 2003
Vigh, Henrik. 2003. Navigating terrains of war: youth and soldiering in Guinea Bissau. Bandim Heatlh Project, Division of Epidemiology, Statens Serum Institut. Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.
  In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content

In this book anthropologist Henrik Vigh aims to shed light on the motives of young men who were recruited as Aguentas, a militia, in support of President João Bernardo 'Nino' Vieira during the eleven-month war following a military uprising in Guinea-Bissau in June 1998. His work rests on sixteen months of fieldwork in Bissau from January 2000 to November 2003.

In the first part of the book the theoretical approach and setting are outlined. Vigh argues that 'entering the military in Bissau is most often a willed choice rather than a forced decision' (pp. 12–13). To understand such a choice he embraces the social navigation approach, increasingly applied by scholars concerned with the agency of social groups in vulnerable positions. Vigh dismisses the 'neo-barbarianism' and 'greed' theories that seek to explain civil wars in West Africa. This was a war with regional and global connections. Troops from Senegal and Guinea-Conakry entered Bissau supporting the government, and the former colonial powers Portugal and France were also involved – the former sympathetic to the Junta Militar, the latter directly involved on the governmental side.

In the second part internal circumstances are examined. Vigh traces the history of the country and the events that anticipated the war, as well as the background of the Aguentas and the situation of youth in Bissau in general. The ethnic factor is also considered. Most Aguentas belong to the same ethnic group as president Nino. However, ethno-politics in Guinea-Bissau is about patrimonialism, not hatred. Vigh convincingly argues that there were no martyrs, no ideologies and no enemies. Soldiers exchange greetings and invite each other to meals across the frontline. Basically, the Aguentas were fighting for a possibility, in the future, to live up to the cultural standard of a respected, normal male. Their immediate economic gain was meagre, maybe one sack of rice, and the Aguentas were conscious of their position at the bottom of the military pecking order.

The third part attempts to shed light on practical survival in Bissau through social navigation. Migration is the most desirable option, but also the least likely to be realized. Patrimonial relations is another, but during the economic decline such possibilities have gradually eroded. The third alternative, expressed in the Guinean Creole word dubriagem, embraces the meaning of social navigation and implies looking for a life through tactical rather than strategic action.

In the fourth part, the ideologies of the Aguentas are examined. Vigh describes vividly how, informally gathered in 'the parliament of the poor', the Aguentas discuss 'politics, music, football and, not the least, societal change' (p. 147) as they 'flirt, fight, laugh and complain' (p. 148). The ideologies of the twentieth century have substituted each other. Social Darwinism was the foundation of the civilizing mission of colonialism, while Negritude offered an alternative interpretation of history. Both Cabralian Marxism and capitalism fostered belief in progress, something that for the young men is dead. The young men blame the troubles of their country on bad genes. According to Vigh, there has been 'a return to an almost social Darwinist understanding' (p. 191) and 'internalization of societal dysfunctionality, via a process of racialization' (p. 204).

The last part of the book illuminates the post-war reintegration of the young men who lost the war. Despite their misdeeds during the war, the Aguentas were not prosecuted over atrocities, though verbal abuse was common. Why? An important contributory factor was that the Junta Militar, the winner of the war, made it clear that it would not tolerate retaliatory persecutions. In addition the Aguentas were classified as children by the general population, and thus not considered to be accountable for their doings. Finally, Vigh maintains that the population in general considers violence to be the inherent nature of Guineans, and thus they accept what happened. In contrast, according to my experience, many Guineans consider themselves as far too peaceful, citing their...

Jónína Einarsdóttir

From: Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute 

Volume 78, Number 2, 2008 
pp. 319-320 | 10.1353/afr.0.0011

Published by Berghahn Books: Navigating Terrains of War
Last revised 6 October 2015