HISTORY MAY 10, 2011
by Krijn Peters
Cambridge University Press, 288 pp., $94.25
THE MAN WITH NO HANDS often sits outside St. Mary’s supermarket in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. He sits near the polio cases and the other less noticeable beggars. The Lebanese-run store, stocked with tinned foods and six-month old copies of The Economist, caters to the NGO workers, diplomats, miners, diamond-runners, and private security contractors who make up the foreign community in a country—nine years after the end of its devastating civil war—still deemed too frightening for tourists. The amputee outside, with safety pins fastening his neat bandages, is a legacy of the war too, one of thousands of Sierra Leoneans who had his limbs severed by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and fighters from other factions. Krijn Peters’s book is the latest in a series of attempts to answer the question of how—and indeed why—the beggar at St. Mary’s got his stumps.
It is indisputable that Sierra Leone’s civil war was thoroughly wretched. The conflict began in March 1991, when a small cadre of fighters entered from neighboring Liberia. It finally ended eleven years later, after a deployment of British troops stiffened a floundering UN peacekeeping mission. Statistics are often suspect in West Africa, but that decade of strife in Sierra Leone is generally thought to have left some fifty thousand people dead. The war’s brutality—much of it directed at the civilian population—was shocking too. The outpouring of aggression in which thousands of Sierra Leoneans lost their hands to an axe or machete (known locally by the piratical term “cutlass”) had an almost Burgessian quality. (The war still feels recent in Sierra Leone: the UN-backed Special Court—cast to try those most responsible for atrocities—still stands behind double bales of razor wire in Freetown, its work unfinished.)
Yet even while the fighting was ongoing in Sierra Leone, another battle was breaking out elsewhere: the war over the meaning of the war. An elongated bout of internecine conflict in a small country far away has generated an academic industry as various writers have advanced theories to explain why Sierra Leone tore itself asunder with such fury. The point of departure for the debate was Robert Kaplan’s article ‘The Coming Anarchy,’ which appeared in The Atlantic in 1994. It characterized the war as a kind of intrinsic, unfathomable African mayhem, with Sierra Leone “beyond salvage.” A year after the Clinton administration got its fingers burned in Mogadishu, the piece attracted much attention. The Department of State even faxed a copy to every American embassy in the world. Subsequently a succession of other writers vigorously disputed Kaplan’s ideas, variously claiming that the atrocities committed by the Revolutionary United Front reflected the ‘lumpen’ or urban-criminal character of its members, or that the brutality of the war was far from mindless but instead a reflection of harsh economic realities, notably the attraction of Sierra Leone’s fabled diamond deposits.
Peters’s book is the latest skirmish in this dispute. In essence, it seeks to rehabilitate the RUF, claiming that the movement reflected a “rural crisis expressed in terms of unresolved tensions between landowners and marginalized rural youth:” disenfranchised young people failed by their government, oppressed by both their fathers and the legacy of domestic slavery. In Peters’s reading, the violence that the RUF would go on to perpetrate was a departure from an initially legitimate rebellion.
The Revolutionary United Front is an audacious target for revisionist rehabilitation. It is an organization regularly accused of lacking ideology, forcibly conscripting children and plying them with a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, and abducting thousands of women into sexual bondage. Yet Peters’s case is in general plausible, notably because his analysis is rooted in interviews with ex-RUF fighters. The author points out that while forcible conscription did take place, others disenchanted with their grim lives and lack of economic opportunities enlisted in the RUF of their own accord. “I joined the rebels purposely because of the difficulties we were having,” reports one of Peters’s sources, who was twenty-three when she was interviewed in 2001. “We were suffering too much. The RUF was encouraging us to help them in their fight so that later we could enjoy a proper life.”
Yet while Peters’s collection of first hand testimony is admirable, his text also falls victim to the other bifurcation apparent in writing about the conflict in Sierra Leone. This one has more to do with literary matters. Sierra Leone spawned a glut of gung-ho ‘boys’ own’ accounts of the British military intervention in 2000, books thick with acronyms and picture captions that insist on listing the caliber of weapons depicted. And it also provoked much dryly academic work, full of technical jargon and theoretical bunk. There are some exceptions—such as Ishmael Beah’s child soldier recollection A Long Way Gone and Aminatta Forna’s multilayered memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water; but generally the literary treatment of the war has been divided between bang-bang banality and footnoted technicality.
Peters’s work falls firmly in the later camp. This book has the scent of an unreconstructed PhD thesis; there is more jargon than narrative. To be fair, the author is an academic, writing an academic book for academic consumption, and attempting to rebuff previous strands of an already established scholarly debate. But the stylistic failure, which is far from confined to Peters’s work, is serious. Pages of footnotes referring to obscure journals cannot do justice to Sierra Leone’s horror. The conflict was tragic in a simple sense, but also in a Shakespearean way: a movement rose up against an utterly venal and corrupt regime, yet despite the nobility of their cause the attempted revolution descended into orgiastic violence. Such a story is better told by a sweeping work of narrative history, or in a broad slice of realist historical fiction. Its immeasurable pathos is buried and betrayed by the tepid furies of Africanist academic revisionism.
Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone.