Rebels and Intellectuals in Sierra Leone's Civil War

By Richards, Paul | African Studies Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Rebels and Intellectuals in Sierra Leone's Civil War

Richards, Paul, African Studies Review

REBELS AND INTELLECTUALS IN SIERRA LEONE'S CIVIL WAR Ibrahim Abdullah, ed. Between Democracy and Terror The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar: CODESRIA, 2004. Distributed by African Books Collective Ltd., Unit 13 Kings Meadow, Ferry Hinksey Rd., Oxford OX2 ODP, UK. ? + 263 pp. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliogaphy. $25.00. Paper.

THE PUBLISHER CLAIMS that this is "the first serious study to engage with the Sierra Leone civil war." It is indeed a serious study, mainly of the war's political context and events in the capital. But information about the actual fighting is limited to a chapter on peacekeeping operations and four interviews in the last chapter by Abdullah and Ismail Rashid on the subject of child soldiers. One of these interviews is especially valuable in confirming that the government army was carrying out atrocities, including amputations, against rebel captives in 1993, well before the wave of amputations perpetrated by the Revolutionary United Front from 1996. The authors do not comment on this evidence, but it has long been my argument that army atrocities helped "enclave" the RUF and determine its mentality as an armed sect.

The first part of the book reprints three articles by Abdullah, Rashid, and Yusuf Bangura, originally published in Africa Development in 1997. The RUF claimed to have been inspired by radical student debates in the 1970s and 1980s. As former activists, they are anxious in these articles to distance themselves from that claim. Abdullah and Bangura, in particular, seek to confront my 1996 book on the war, Fighting for the Rainforest (James Currey), in which I argue that student radicalism was a factor in the rise of the RUF. My book, however, focuses on prospects for peace; the intention was not to blame former radicals but to find a basis for engagement with an increasingly unstable and dangerous movement. Bangura seeks to deflect my specific purpose by discrediting my work as a whole, twisting arguments out of context and holding them up to ridicule as self-evidently simple-minded, speculative, or just plain ludicrous. He claims, for example, that I proposed to use a local witchcraft discourse (on so-called cannibalism) as a tool for conflict resolution. What I actually argued was that it would be wrong to use these local beliefs as evidence of barbarism, as asserted by the politically influential American journalist Robert Kaplan, suggesting instead that they be viewed as "weapons of the weak" speaking to youth vulnerability in a "big man" culture still influenced by the legacy of slavery and slave raiding. Thus my claim was that a correct understanding of "cannibalism" would assist in the search for peace. Bangura's greatest disdain is reserved for my suggestion that a group of "Green Book" ideologues was still active in the RUF. I believed constructive engagement with this group would help end the fighting. History has now judged between us. A group of this kind did operate within the RUF, and its influence was high during the period covered by my book. The background of its membership, what they taught, and even their training materials are now known (see, in particular, the forthcoming Ph.D. thesis of Krijn Peters).

In reprinting outdated arguments, Bangura and Abdullah renew their personal attack. Bangura alleges in a new footnote that although my 1996 book has gone through several reprints, "I have refused to engage with or even acknowledge the works of Sierra Leonean scholars critical of [my] scholarship" (40). This is simply untrue. Bangura fails to specify any major recent relevant article in which I fail to cite his and/or Abdullah's work. There have indeed been several reprints of my 1996 book, but Bangura appears to have missed the only one (in 1998) in which my publisher allowed me to add material and in which I address, inter alia, his criticism concerning RUF intellectuals. I did for a period (1998-99) agree to a request from Sierra Leone not to argue with Abdullah or Bangura, since any specific evidence I brought forth might jeopardize the people whose existence they sought to deny. …

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