A Dirty War in West Africa


Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, “A Dirty War in West Africa” is about? What is it trying to communicate?

Gberie: The book is about the very brutal, nihilistic conflict that ravaged the small West African state of Sierra Leone for a decade, beginning in 1991. When I started writing it I had the idea of simply recounting what I saw and heard and experienced as a journalist writing about the war in the 1990s. I didn’t have grand theories or ideas; I simply had my notes and very vivid memories. I wanted to tell a story…But then I was writing my MA thesis on the war. So I had to grapple with a lot of misconceptions about the war. There was in particular Robert Kaplan’s highly influential article, ‘The Coming Anarchy,’ which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1994. The article, one of those breezy and impressionistic accounts favoured by some Western journalists with a taste for lofty pronouncements, depicted the war as an anarchic – rather than political – meltdown due to environmental problems, unchecked population growth, the spread of disease and crime, and, in his words, ‘the rise of tribal or regional domains.’ I was a journalist based in Sierra Leone when this article appeared, and I didn’t see any of these things that Kaplan was describing. Yet this foolish article was faxed by the Clinton administration to all of its embassies around the world as a warning about so-called ‘failed states’!

A number of scholars quickly challenged Kaplan’s views. Paul Richards, a British anthropologist who has worked for a long time on Sierra Leone, wrote a book-length essay disputing Kaplan, and some Sierra Leonean scholars also wrote dismissing Kaplan’s highly damaging views. I am thinking about people like the historian Ibrahim Abdullah, Yusuf Bangura, Ismail Rashid, Patrick Muana, and a few others. I was greatly influenced by their views, and I communicated with them extensively while writing my MA thesis on the war. That was finished in 1997-98.

After that I got involved with Partnership Africa Canada, an Ottawa-based group which was doing work around natural resource predation and violent conflict in Africa. I worked with a team – including Ian Smillie and Ralph Hazleton – doing a study of the Sierra Leone war which focused on the role of diamonds in the conflict. That study, published as ‘The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security’ (2000) became one of the most influential documents about the war; it was extremely well-publicised, and was adopted as a policy document by many organisations and governments.

I thought then that it was time to put all of my findings, my reflections, and my journalism into one consolidated document. The present book is the result.

As I note in the preface, the book combines journalistic reportage and historical analysis. It does not pretend to be an aloof academic work. I wanted to write for a general readership: simply, accessibly, and without polemics. Tell a factual, unsentimental account about the travails of a country blighted by misgovernment, the cruelties of the international capitalist system, and demented geopolitics…

ZNet: Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Gberie: The book, as I said, is really more or less a personal account. It is written largely from my notes taken in the course of many years. Of course I also relied on the work of others. Some academics and journalists and non-academic researchers have written, over the past few years, quite incisively about the war. One has to acknowlegde their contribution, and this I do in the text. But I’ll be appalled if this book is read as an academic text; it is not and it is not meant to be. I hope it’ll be seen as some kind of elevated journalism, the reflections of one man who saw some of the horrors associated with the war, who relied on his instincts in understanding them, but who also relied on the insights of others.

Quite a lot of passion but also restraint went into writing the book. One has to be affected by some of the outrages and violations – the hacking off of hands, the burning down of villages, towns and parts of the capital city, the murder of thousands of people and the associated injustices of it – one has to be affected by these, and this comes out in the text. But I aimed very much at comprehension, not just the recounting of horrors and the condemning the perpetrators as ‘evil’. I do no such thing. The commitment was to understand, and to explain in an intelligent, reasonable way what happened in Sierra Leone during the wars years.

ZNet: What are your hopes for “A Dirty War in West Africa”? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success?

Gberie: The book is aimed at Sierra Leoneans generally, and all those people who have an interest in Africa, and those who make decisions that profoundly affect Africans. When you read through the book, you’ll see how apparently playful or irresponsible decisions sometimes have extremely profound impacts. Millions of human lives are at stake. People who fantasise about revolutions, about regime change etc, should reflect very carefully on how their fantasies will eventually play out. The fate of nations and human beings cannot be abstract; they are real. And any action aimed at that fate will have real impacts on lives and whole societies. That is one way to look at it.

There is, of course, the issue of misgovernment by successive leaders of Sierra Leone. There was that long reign by the despotic and very corrupt All Peoples Congress (APC) party, and then the depredations of the military regimes which succeeded it. So good governance is a very real issue, in more ways than one. The absence of it made the country so vulnerable, unprepared; the country atrophied in the face of assaults by a petty army armed sent into country be foreign interests. I am thinking of the machinations of Liberia’s Charles Taylor and various arms dealers and diamond merchants. When you study the war carefully, you’ll realise that the whole threat of the so-called Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel army which spearheaded the war, could have been easily contained by a reasonably functioning state with a decent police force. The country was in the throes of collapse when the RUF invaded in 1991; and mercenary though the RUF undoubtedly was, it was able to recruit support among the country’s disenchanted youth population, sometimes quite easily. What people forget is that it is very easy to provide causes for poor people. The opportunity for loot quite easily become a political cause: it could look like taking aim at the corrupt elite.

I note in the book that Sierra Leone’s rulers have no alternative but to build up an effective bureaucratic state that functions at the social level – provides jobs, social services, that is responsive to the needs of its populace, avoid extravagant corruption etc. The war should be seen as a hard lesson for the negation of this basic requirement, this compact between citizens and the state.

But there are wider lessons. The war was undoubtedly funded to a large extent, particularly in its mid to final stages, by proceeds from the illicit trade in diamonds, of which the country abounds. It was as a result of our work at Partnership Africa Canada (and the work of others, including Global Witness, the UN, some major governments, the UK, Canada and South Africa in particular) that the Kimberley Process was initiated to control the flow of diamonds into the international market. The Kimberley Process was an important step forward. Now, as a direct spin-off from it, some NGOs and the diamond industry itself have started a Development Diamond Intiative (DDI), which aims at making the conditions of work of diamond miners and mining communities in Africa decent and more rewarding. It is outrageous that while the global rough diamond trade is worth about $7 billion a year (this translates to nearly $70 billion when the diamonds are made into jewelry), the average diamond digger in Africa subsist on less than a dollar a day. This has to change – if poverty is to be reduced, and if the nihilism that we saw exhibited in Sierra Leone is to be avoided in similar situations.

Justin Podur: What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

Gberie: I would be happy if the book actually gets read in Africa, especially in Sierra Leone. I highlighted a number of lessons to be learnt: regarding governance, resource management, the business of war and peace, the sacrifices of ordinary people, the efforts at local civil defence. I was particularly fascinated by the work of the Civil Defence Force, especially the Kamajors. These are ordinary men and women who, abandoned by a failing state and a criminal army, mobilised to defend their villages and towns. They are the true heroes of the war. It is unfortunate that their spiritual leader, so to speak, Hinga Norman, is in detention of a rather very misguided foreign-imposed judicial system, the UN-Sierra Leone Special Court. It is an outrage, really.

I also note the role of foreign intervention forces, from the West African ECOMOG to the UN and the British forces. A lot of lessons to be learnt from these as well.

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