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Book: War, Politics and Justice in West Africa by Lansana Gberie

Review by Peter Penfold (former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone

August 27, 2015 By Peter Penfold

Before trying to resolve a conflict, one must first try to understand it. One must investigate its origins, study the context and background in which the conflict is taking place, and get into the mind-set of the individuals involved. If one adopts this approach, one soon realises that no two conflicts are the same and therefore there is no one blue-print for resolving every conflict. This may all sound blindingly obvious but sadly and all-too-often, attempts are made to resolve conflicts without following these simple rules, especially by outsiders who are not directly involved.

To assist us in this cause it is vital to have a catalogue of well-written and well-researched material of past and present conflicts. I therefore applaud the Sierra Leone Writers Series for publishing this collection of articles and book reviews written by Lans Gberie over the period 2002 to 2014. ‘War, Politics and Justice in West Africa’ is, an informed snapshot of events in West Africa and in particular of the conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia, unsurpassed.

As he says in his introduction, the defining issue in Dr. Gberie’s adult life was the rebel war in Sierra Leone and Liberia. He is well placed to write about these events. Others have done so; but by combining his journalistic and academic backgrounds he is able to both report vividly and analyse meaningfully. Few others have ventured into the field of conflict to meet the protagonists and also spend endless hours studying the reams of documentation deriving from it. Few others have interviewed Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and Joshua Blahyi (aka General Butt Naked) in Liberia and studied in detail the voluminous reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the Sierra Leone Special Court.

Several of the articles are merely Dr. Gberie’s reviews of what others have written, or filmed, but by bringing them all together in one publication the book provides a useful routemap to guide those wanting to learn more about events in West Africa.

But one is also able to discern what Dr. Gberie himself feels. Thomas Sankara, the late lamented leader of Burkino Faso, had noted that the ultimate challenge facing Africa was ‘a just peace, dignity and genuine independence’ and one can discern these threads running through Dr. Gberie’s writings.

Sierra Leone is of particular interest to me having served as British High Commissioner during the latter stages of the conflict. Lans Gberie’s book, ‘A Dirty War in West Africa’ remains, in my view, the best account of the RUF’s war. I would like to think that if it had been available earlier, it might have prevented some of the mistakes made in trying to resolve that conflict and its aftermath, especially with reference to the antics of the Sierra Leone Special Court – the war crimes court set up to try those most responsible for the terrible atrocities in the Sierra Leone rebel war. Dr. Gberie’s own views probably come across more clearly in the articles he has written about this expensive piece of international judicial machinery than in much of his other writings.
Like me, he condemns the indictment of Chief Sam Hinga Norman and his two fellow CDF members, Moinina Fofana and Alieu Kondewa. Indeed he dedicates this book to them, a dedication I warmly applaud.

Supporters of the Sierra Leone Special Court cite the indictment and conviction of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, as evidence of the success of the Court but the indictment and subsequent death in detention of Sam Hinga Norman remains a stain on the legacy of the Court and by its actions, the Court has made it more difficult to resolve conflicts peacefully elsewhere in Africa. Who else will come forward to fight for peace and democracy if they find themselves indicted as war criminals? Tellingly Gberie quotes Justice Thompson, the dissenting Sierra Leonean judge of the Court, who expressed ‘serious doubts whether a tribunal should hold liable persons who volunteered to take up arms and risk their lives and those of their families to prevent anarchy and tyranny from taking a firm hold in their society.’ It is interesting to note how in recent times Western countries who have engaged in conflicts have actively supported ‘civil militias’!

In his writings Dr. Gberie often focuses upon the individuals involved which adds flesh and colour to the stories told. In my experience nondescript officials sitting in their bureaucratic offices in Western capitals often find it difficult to accept the power and influence that individuals can have on situations and events in Africa. The role of Sam Hinga Norman has already been commented upon. I much enjoyed Gberie’s profile of Desmond Luke, another unsung hero of Sierra Leone whom I much admire.

This collection of articles is brought right up to date with a couple of articles about the latest scourge to affect Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – Ebola. There are some interesting parallels between the present Ebola crisis and the earlier conflicts, not least how meaningless national borders can be sometimes. On the topic of borders, I much enjoyed the account of Dr. Gberie’s road trip from Accra to Lagos via Togo and Benin, which will bring a smile to all those who attempt to drive across from one African country to another!
Dr. Gberie’s writings are immensely readable. He draws heavily upon other writers. Robert Kaplan’s defining article, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, clearly had a big impact on him and there is no doubt that two of his favourite authors are Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens. But as a modern observer and analyst he sets his own standard to which others should aspire.
Readers of this book will be better informed and thus better placed to offer their own opinions on war, politics and justice in Africa.

Chief Komrabai Peter Penfold is a former UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone. He is the author of Atrocities, Diamonds and Diplomacy – the inside story of the conflict in Sierra Leone.

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