The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities

Peer Reviewed


"Monrovia Under Siege ." November 3, 2012 via Daniel Hoffman.

What opportunities are available to young men in West African urban warscapes, and how do the nomos of these postconflict spaces subvert the functioning norms of cities? In the August issue of Cultural Anthropology, Danny Hoffman, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, draws on his fieldwork in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Monrovia, Liberia to explore new urban forms and capitalist production, disrupting images of postmodern African cities as negative space. Instead of focusing on what has been destroyed, "The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities" analyzes ad hoc modes of production in postconflict cities that aren’t entirely postconflict. By detailing how labor is organized from remnants of violence, Hoffman shows how war and peace are not easily distinguishable, and how Freetown and Monrovia may not be much different from other postcolonial cities.

Examining the Brooksfield Hotel in Freetown and Duala neighborhood of Monrovia, Hoffman describes how human bodies are assembled, organized, and then redeployed for resource extraction, combat in neighboring regions, or humanitarian services. Far from negative, these cities are marked by an excessive production "that leaves no space or time for the modernist project of fixed city spaces, services, institutions, or relations. In its place is an infrastructure of people predicated on continuous strategic, and often violent, movement." It is the city’s "capacity for violence" that provides its economic and governing structures; the barracks have become the nomos of West Africa’s postmodernity. Survival depends on exchangeability, flexible bodies, and the speed of movement in this violent economy; the logic of the barracks, Hoffman argues, may be the one fixed character of this region.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published several essays on militarization, the military, and resistance. See, for example Linda Green’s "Fear as a Way of Life" (1994); Lesley Gill’s "Creating Citizens, Making Men: The Military and Masculinity in Bolivia" (1997); and Donald S. Moore’s "Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands" (1998).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a range of essays cities and urbanity. See, for example, Michael Dear’s "The Premature Demise of Postmodern Urbanism" (1994); Emanuela Guano "Spectacles of Modernity: Transnational Imagination and Local Hegemonies in Neoliberal Buenos Aires" (2002); Benjamin Chesluk’s "Visible Signs of a City Out of Control: Community Policing in New York City" (2004); and William Cunningham Bissell’s "Engaging Colonial Nostalgia" (2005).

About the Author

Daniel Hoffman

Related Links

The Ministry of National Defense, The Republic of Liberia, Official website

Charles Taylor - Global Policy Forum, Summary and timeline of events from the Global Policy Forum website

The Liberian Observer, An independent Liberian newspaper founded in 1981

"Monrovia Under Siege" - by Carolyn Cole (2004), Pulitzer Prize winning photographs from Monrovia

USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives - Liberia Field Report (January-March 2007), Overview of Liberia's transition and projects to assist that transition

International Center for Transitional Justice - Liberia, Overview of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and ICTJ's work in Monrovia


Training Liberia's Future Army - news report

Inside Story - Charles Taylor, Part 1 (06/03/07)

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