A Dirty War in West Africa

Published on 7th February 2006

PUBLISHERS: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., London, UK, 2005
PRICE: £16.50
PAGES: 224
REVIEWER: Kofi Akosah-Sarpong 

From his co-authoring of the groundbreaking The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security (2000) to his stint as a Senior Research Fellow at the Accra, Ghana-based Kofi Annan International peacekeeping Training Centre, Lansana Gberie is internationally popular for having consistently covered, mostly investigated, and powerfully analysed the civil war that consumed Sierra Leone for ten years. In this new study Gberie reflects unwaveringly, with high detachment, about the decade-long civil war that destroyed his country. Having read the book, and reflected on it, and the fact that I covered the Sierra Leone civil war as a journalist for the now defunct London, UK-based “West Africa” magazine and lived in the country for almost seven years, I agree with Gberie that his “aim is to produce a historically accurate account of the war, to lay bare its true character, and thereby dispel a lot of the mystifications which have come to surround such conflicts in Africa.”

Known globally for his gifted critical mind and his courageous journalism (he was briefly detained in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso while researching the Burkinabe factor in the Sierra Leone civil war), Gberie’s handling of the Sierra Leone civil war in this new study calls for nothing more than a brutal analysis and skilled narrative of the subject. And he does this beautifully, with immense sketches here and there,  matched by his profound experiences and insights gained from his years of covering his country’s civil war and its impact on the West African sub-region. Throughout the book, Gberie demonstrates his superb writing and analytical skills, his training as a military historian, and his years as a professional journalist.

Despite her small population of around 3 million and relatively small size, world class human and natural resources such as diamonds and education system, which, if well managed, should have seen this beautiful country grow as a middle-level income state like Singapore, Sierra Leone, settled by freed slaves by the British colonialist in 1787, became independent in 1961. From there on her weaknesses dogged her superb strengths, seeing this former “Athens of West Africa” passing through all kinds of leaders, political systems, development paradigms and elites, who, like most African elites, do not understand their country, and in the process blew the country into pieces. One could infer throughout Gberie’s analysis that since the birth of Sierra Leone till today the recurring problem overshadowing the country’s development process has been trust. From the “ordinary men whose motivations, as well as the conditions that made it possible for them to play out their terrible fantasies,” Gberie thunders in the opening, to the confused elites, who have shaky grasp of the cultural forces wheeling Sierra Leone, trust, a key element in nation building or the development process, was nowhere to be found, leading to the criminalization of Sierra Leone, and later her eventual implosion.

No doubt, BBC’s Mark Doyle, in a review of Gberie, says, “Mr Gberie's analysis centres on the criminalisation of the state, funded largely by diamonds, which began under long-time leader Siaka Stevens, in power from 1968 to 1985… This, Mr Gberie says, meant the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had a relatively easy task in mounting its insurgency because there was little resistance from rotten state structures - including the army, which not only failed to stop the RUF but partly ended up joining them.” Forget about the fact that the Sierra Leone civil war was said to be a spill-over from the Liberia civil war: the rot was disturbingly so much that any group, short of the Foday Sankoh-led RUF, which started the civil war in 1991, and which was itself later engulfed in the country’s criminalisation, via illicit diamond mining, smuggling, and amputations, could just have lit a match, throw it into the country, and set Sierra Leone on fire. No doubt, despite the RUF’s high-sounding slogans to “overthrow Sierra Leone’s ‘corrupt’ rulers,” “liberate’ the country’s derelict peasantry and the dispossessed, and institute ‘genuine democracy,” for ten years during the civil war Sierra Leone became a deadly play ground for illicit “diamonds, mercenaries, international racketeers and the Liberian/Burkinabe connection.”

Despite the incomprehensible Sierra Leone civil war, is its brutal conflicts peculiar to Sierra Leone or Africa? Gberie says, “No,” and makes it known that what happened in Sierra Leone “is culturally neutral. It is not specific to ‘cultures,’ ‘races,’ or ‘tribes.” In this sense, Gberie, drawing more seriously from himself, other observers and academics, further debunks the famed American journalist, Robert Kaplan’s 1994 article, The Coming Anarchy, in The Atlantic Monthly that described such violence in Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa as “anarchic’ criminal violence, and its extreme brutality as a throwback to an ancient, deeply primitive past.” Gberie buttresses this by drawing heavily from international cases and experts to demonstrate that what happened in the Sierra Leone civil war is no different, humanly and culturally, from what happened in Columbia, known as La Violencia between 1948 and 1958, the Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in 1937, the American atrocities against the Vietnamese, the Cuban revolutionaries against the Fulgencio Batista, and the Amilcal Cabral’s guerrillas against the violent Portuguese colonial army in Guinea Bissau.  

Despite such human and cultural neutrality of the Sierra Leone civil war, the United Nations, made of some of the countries that have gone through similar violent wars, peacekeepers that came to Sierra Leone to stop the conflict arrived in Freetown with an unrealistic mind. It revealed the schism between the concept of ‘peacekeepers’ and ‘peace builder.’ The reality on the ground in Sierra Leone taught the UN Security Council to move from its “more conventional past” and deal with situations as they are on the ground – thus juggling peacekeeping with peace-building as the British Army did in stabilising the wobbly peace with the United Nations.

Gberie says the UN “learned the hard lessons from the Sierra Leone experience” and this changed the concept of peacekeeping internationally. Still, to tranquilize the disturbed Sierra Leonean soul a healing process saw the United Nations Special Court for Crime Against Humanity and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established. These are not only aimed at stopping Sierra Leone’s long-running culture of impunity but also growing the value of trust in the country’s development process. Once again, Gberie is a must read.


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