The 2015 film Beasts of No Nation, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is the story of how a child-soldier named Agu, actor Abraham Attah, becomes a part of a rebel, West African militant group led by ‘Commandant’, played by Idris Elba. It showed how a mostly ungoverned, resource-lacking portion of West Africa became home to several violent militant groups. Groups who roam the land in search of resources, regardless of how many innocent women and children they might have to kill on their way to acquiring them. It relays a pretty detail-less story of how an area with limited economic options and even less government control became a neo-slave experience for those least apt to fend for themselves. In short, the lack of a governing body to enforce any type of political economy can lead to contemporary forms of slavery by failing to enforce the labor rights of individuals, which is what happens to Agu and several others in Beasts of No Nation.
Agu, the child soldier featured in the film, is separated from his family by war when his village is attacked by a militia. He takes cover in the forest, where he is then discovered by ‘Commandant’, and his band of youth-soldiers. With the areas’ lack of resources, several active militant groups, and no available familial or governmental protection, Agu is essentially forced to join ‘Commandant’ or risks being killed on the spot. The political economy in this area of West Africa, or lack thereof, creates a vacuum where anyone who cannot defend themselves or sustain their own livelihood is vulnerable to attacks by others desperate for survival. ‘Commandant’, as the adult male of the group, uses leadership skills and a lack of available resources to rally children to his aide, which allows him to remain the intellectual and physical superior. He becomes a pseudo-father for these kids who lack reasonable or rational alternatives, making him a de-facto slave master. Only when the camp runs out of food, water, minerals (to sell) and ammunition – when he loses the ability to offer them more than destitution – do they abandon him.
The film is very fitting for a modern day slave experience. While Agu is not forced to work because of any debt owed or government doctrine pre-defining his role in society, he is trapped in circumstances that make his compliance nearly essential to his vitality. This reality is not singular to Agu, either. Any man, woman, or child without adequate means to defend themselves was attacked by various mercenary groups throughout the film. Women were virtually forced to do the bidding of any armed man in their presence and children became cogs in the same system. In a state with no government protection of its citizens, any unarmed person was at the mercy of those who were equipped for battle. Those who had ammunition or financial resources were in charge of those who lacked them, because without their protection one would be doomed by malnourishment or violence.
This slavery differed from that in the Americas, which those in the United States are more familiar with, because it had zero ties to race. Africans were enslaving those of their own country, village, and presumably even family. Commandant’s son was one of those in his militia and he referred to Agu and the others as his children. This slavery was economically focused. The group did the bidding of ‘Commandant’ to gain access to his leadership and resources. Similar to a gang, the group gave a shield of a protection to each individual by providing a system for defense against other groups. One also risked being attacked by the group, if exiled or if one chose to abandon the militia. The environment of West Africa also created a true survival-of-the-fittest scenario, where those less physically developed (or lacking guns) were either killed or joined various mercenary groups.
While most of the people in the film were poor, and their land destroyed, class was a clear dividing line between the two groups. Men with power rationed off just enough resources to give themselves security, without actually paying anyone enough to grant them economic freedom. Their focus was on recruiting whatever available males could be convinced to join them and killing all detractors, which eliminated competition on both fronts. Once those males became benefactors of their leader, which were results of time served and accomplishment in battle, they had little reason to leave, so long as resources remained prevalent enough for survival. It would have been unwise to cause rebellion within a group because at best you lose members to intra-group strife or at worst you are killed for insubordination. Regardless, all plausible scenarios increase your likelihood of death without much improvement on your chance of survival. This left many women and children trapped as complicit violators of war crimes, easily relatable to slavery. While they were not enslaved by law, like most of the examined historical cases, the lack of law enforcement allowed the group heads to act as governing rulers of small groups; the equivalent of a slave-master.
In summation, the lack of a political economy in a rebellion-stricken area of West Africa left those with resources to determine the fate of those in-need. Once it reached a situation where there were fewer resources than people willing to share them, those with means became the leaders of those without. When left with a kill or be killed option, rational decision-making more aligns with basic survival skills, allowing the weakest to have their minimal capabilities exploited. Agu could not fend for himself or choose which group to join. Commandant’s group became his, not out of rational choice or free will, but because that is who chose adoption over execution. He was at the mercy of ‘Commandant’, and Agu’s actions were therefore an extension of his master’s will, not his own. This is how a government without control can see its economy seized by greedy individuals looking out for only themselves, forcing others to give up their freedoms in order to survive.
This essay came in a class I took in the fall of 2016, which showed how slavery still persisted domestically and abroad. For a story I find touching on domestic slavery, click here.