Historical consciousness, conflict and integration in the Upper Guinea coastal and forest region (Guinea and Liberia)

The project focuses on the significance of historical imagination in shaping distinguishable, opposed ethnic groups’ perception and ways of relating to each other, peacefully and violently, in contemporary Guinea and Liberia. Social scientists usually disavow culturalist explanations of causes of war and conflict that refers, for example, to ancient ethnic hatreds or traditional belligerent behaviour. In the Guinea/Liberia border area local peoples’ memories of past interplay among co-existing ethnic groups appear, however, to have influenced recent incidents of armed conflict. Yet it may be difficult to determine whether local wars and ethnic conflict are caused mainly by hostile inter-ethnic perceptions and culture clash, struggle for land, resource scarcity, greed, or result from war waged at a larger national or regional scale. Instead of focusing on the causes of war in a narrow sense, the project aims at investigating the way people in war-affected communities justify and try to come to terms with war and killings through reference to the past both as lived experience and as knowledge transmitted by others. This approach not only concerns history as an object of local reflexivity but furthermore puts emphasis on history as part of an ongoing social experience and social practice.

Based on fieldwork, the project includes cases relating to the conflict between Mandingos and co-existing ethnic groups in southeastern Guinea and northwestern Liberia. A comparison of local recollections of the past points to a significant difference in scale and agency as far as people’s self-perception is concerned. ‘Forest people’, on the one hand, tend to stress autochthony in small-scale settlements; i.e., their status as firstcomers and landowners. ‘Mandingos’, on the other hand, stress their tradition for political leadership, their economic role in the history of the Liberian nation state and their role as propagators of Islam. The project lend special attention to the situation of the ‘Mandingo’, a historically marginalised yet economically and politically powerful ‘ethnic’ group in Liberia and the sub-region more generally. In this specific context the Mandingo are often referred to as ‘strangers from Guinea’.

Victimization, autochthony and citizenship, power and nation-building constitute recurrent, interrelated themes in post-war Manding historical memory. Recently collected historical narratives suggest, first, the presence of a collective (re)interpretation of the place of marginalised Mandingos in a reshuffled Liberian political culture on the background of the experience of political marginalisation, genocide, loss of property and exile. Second, these narratives constitute a charter for claims to civic (citizenship, voting, elected offices, etc.) and economic (land ownership, jobs) rights. Third, the moral value of heroic memories of the past serves as a means to recreate communal life and inform local conflict resolution, but risk at the same time to sustain future conflict.

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