Africa Today 49.2 (2002) 157-159
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Stephen Ellis has written a dense and fascinating book, perhaps an obligatory read for anyone desiring to understand the basic events leading to the current Liberian situation, or to comprehend more clearly their complexities. The book's primary focus is the particularly barbarous culture of political violence in Liberia from 1990 to 1997, with attention necessarily paid to the years following the Doe coup and other historical factors. While the broad, yet detailed, exploration is thought-provoking, Ellis ultimately falls short of producing convincing evidence to support his presumptive perspective: that spiritual, cultural, or religious meanings motivate or at least significantly underlie Liberians' behavior—and in particular, their more "atrocious" behaviors of recent years.
The story of Liberia's descent into political turmoil unfolds through an unusual narrative structure: Ellis explains crucial layers of the country's recent history, sometimes telling a tale more than once, from more than one perspective. The first section presents the Liberian story mainly in a political-economy context, and the second section describes a series of linked sagas relating to Liberians' cultural experiences from a more sociological point of view. The strongest parts of this book's detailed exegesis are the sections focusing on the development and entrenchment of factions, along with a running theme highlighting the roles—manipulative or unwitting—played by key external actors in the intensification of this factionalism. In these aspects in particular, the importance of Ellis's book extends beyond Liberia, and offers a cautionary tale of increasingly unbordered conflicts across the continent.
Implications for the future of other unsettled areas in Africa are not encouraging. "Business and Diplomacy" is an especially disturbing chapter: As formal institutions and organizations that had been thriving began to disintegrate under the political, economic, and social stresses following the 1980 coup, domestic and international interests scrambled for political advantage and control over resources. The exacerbation of unchecked competition through the activities of, for instance, ECOMOG officers, drug traffickers, and other "international business and political syndicates" (p. 164) seems to have destabilized most legal market transactions. Further, as Liberia's turmoil became endemic, it increasingly leaked disruption into neighboring and other West African populations.
The many instances of unprofessional behavior in Liberia by members of multilateral "peacekeeping" forces should give pause to international policy-makers who advocate continued or increased reliance on military units acting under these kinds of constraints in violently unstable situations. International market forces, internal factions willing or desperate to exploit them, limited and fragile expectations of a country's existing political system for contract enforcement or conflict resolution, and [End Page 157] regional actors poised to inject themselves into neighbors' affairs to extract their own political or economic advantage are germane conditions, not only to Liberia, but in a great many other areas. Ellis has clearly and profoundly illustrated consequences in Liberia flowing from this dangerously attractive set of incentives. African and international decision-makers would do well to consider the lesson seriously indeed.
These strengths of Ellis's work, however, do not obscure a major difficulty with his presentation of the religious dimension of Liberia's situation. Ellis states quite early his conviction that it is "the case that what people believe is a motive for their conduct at least as important as the actual sequence of events" (p. 13). He further asserts that beliefs are not based only on information, but are rooted more deeply in a community's or a society's character, and that he works from an assumption that expressions of religious belief correlate quite highly with sincere religious feeling. Without disputing the ideas expressed in these statements, it is nonetheless essential to note that this foundation for much of his explanatory text in Part II runs into predictable problems, since the empirical or objective question of the true beliefs and character...