Two young men in "Pentagon" in Freetown, who "play the game". Photo: Mats Utas

Playing the game in gangland

Street gangs around the world share similar traits. This is the starting point of a new book, where NAI researcher Mats Utas has written a chapter on former rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone.

I felt that I knew the setting and the actors to the extent that I could almost guess what would happen on the next page. This is how Mats Utas describes his experience when reading the well-known American gang researcher Sudhir Venkatesh’s book Gang leader for a day, about the street gang Black Kings in Chicago. On his part Mats Utas had spent almost every day from 2004 to 2006 on a street corner known as “Pentagon” in a rough district in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown.

“The Pentagon guys were a group who spent their days and nights on this street corner. They made their living mainly by washing cars but also from selling marijuana, fencing stolen items, and engaging in various forms of petty theft. Most of them had participated in the civil war and out of these the majority had belonged to the militia West Side Boys.”

West Side Boys, or West Side Niggaz as they preferred to call themselves, had borrowed their name from a song by American rapper Tupac Shakur. Tupac’s lyrics about a violent and extremely insecure existence had appealed to militia groups in many African countries. Armed groups in Sierra Leone for example used Tupac-shirts as part of their uniform.

For income and security

The book Global Gangs – Street Violence Across the World (University of Minnesota Press) features essays that investigate gangs spanning across nations, from Brazil to Indonesia, China to Kenya, and from El Salvador to Russia.

“Gangs appear in voids in the state structure. Their function is to make it possible for people to make an income, but surprisingly often also to provide security. In Chicago the state void appears in a limited area, in Freetown informal organisations dominate the whole city. Where the state is seen as corrupt and illegitimate, where police do no protect citizens, the gangs take over.

Mats Utas’ chapter is called “Playing the Game”: Gang-Militia Logics in War-Torn Sierra Leone.

“’The Game’ is an important part of gang philosophy in Freetown and stands in relation to ‘The System’, which is made up by the state in a broad sense. Ordinary human beings must play the game in order to survive and climb the social ladder. The individual is considered to have the right to use the tools deemed necessary, including criminal acts, in order to survive.

"Okay to break the law"

“Gang rhetoric differentiates between “survival crime”, aimed at securing basic needs, and the crimes of the elite, corruption, which is fuelled by greed. It is considered to be okay for ordinary people to break the law since the system was not fair in the first place.”

“Many of the street youths talk about being stuck in a miserable existence, and that the game is about one being able to break free. But after following these individuals it is clear that many of actually do manage to move up the social ladder, to get away from the street and get an ordinary job. One guy for example had started his car repair shop after ten years as mechanic’s assistant.

The daily life of the Pentagon gang is also portrayed in an ongoing photo exhibition at Fredens Hus in Uppsala, Sweden. Under the title Survival and street-life in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mats Utas is exhibiting his own photos from Pentagon taken 2004 and 2006. The exhibition runs until 31 December.          

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