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Afro-modernism: an assessment – a study of the occult in the Sierra Leone conflict – Paul Richards

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 42-67]

This article formed the basis for the LUCAS 2009-10 Annual Lecture given by the author at the University of Leeds, May 2010.


Afro-modernism is a term proposed to cover the part played by occult forces in contemporary African society (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999). Occult derives from Latin occultus, meaning hidden. This corresponds well with African usage. Everyday events are deemed to be shaped by hidden forces, and special techniques are required to manipulate them. The African occult is seen by some

as a relic of the past. The designation ‘Afro-modernism’ makes clear that the occult is an important aspect of colonial and contemporary politics and society. A focus on Afro-modernism is an inescapable aspect of the study of social and political change within both colonial and post-colonial Africa. Here, I will follow Mary Douglas in interpreting recourse to the occult as a product of a specific social and political set of circumstances – disruption of the balance of power between elders and youth in conditions of state weakness (Douglas 2004). I will illustrate this claim with a study of the war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002). Afro-modernism, I argue, does not provide a route towards an open society. It adds to fractiousness and conflict, and thus requires an antidote.

Debating Afro-modernism

Ranger (2007) offers a valuable review of recent Africanist literature on Afro-modernism. Assessing material ranging from witch finding in colonial Ashanti (Olsen 2002) to the role of the occult in contemporary politics (Geschiere 1997) he notes a degree of one-sidedness in these accounts. What happened to the socially progressive aspects of religion in Africa, he wonders. This provoked a response from Ter Haar and Ellis (2009). They quarrel with Ranger’s use of the word occult, and accuse him of dividing African religion into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a way that distorts the significance of spiritual power. For many Africans religion is the means to harness spiritual forces, whether for good or ill. In fact, they define religion as the pursuit of spiritual power.

However, this imposes a Weberian interpretative perspective on the topic. Ter Haar and Ellis reject explanation in terms of social and organisational factors underpinning religious epiphenomena, as suggested by Durkheim (1912). Durkheim is dismissed in a footnote (p. 405) for proposing the idea that religion binds people (more correctly, he argues that ritual action creates belief). But at the same time it is not very clear what Ter Haar and Ellis claim. They insist that occult forces are important because they are widely believed in Africa, but on the other hand, the title of their paper asserts “the occult does not exist”. Seemingly, this only adds to the widespread muddle about whether occult force can be held responsible for crimes committed in its name (cf. Caplan 2010).

A more sharply targeted critique of Afro-modernism is offered in a book (seemingly) not about Africa at all. In Jacob’s Tears (2004) Mary Douglas debates the beliefs of a priestly group of editors of the first five books of the Bible. She explores their innovative approach to peace-making in a post-colonial Middle Eastern setting (5th century BCE) violently divided by occult-based patrimonialism and ethnic nationalism rooted in certain knowledge of the one true god.

According to Douglas, the priests in question belonged to an intellectual sodality spread across the provinces of Judah and Samaria. Patrimonialism, with its emphasis on ancestors and the occult, threatened reversion to a world dominated by a multiplicity of competing spirit forces, but sectarian monotheism backed a national exclusivity that threatened to isolate the priestly innovators from affines within the wider region. Caught between tribalism and the occult the priests advanced a new creed, drawing elements from an earlier iconoclastic youth revolt. A new set of teachings emerged, based not on an ontology of spirit forces but on responsibility for the cult. In a number of ways – as I suggest below – this strikingly anticipates the civic religion Durkheim predicted would be the basis for social cohesion under an organic division of labour (Durkheim 1964 [1893]).

Douglas was among the most distinguished Africanist anthropologists of her generation. She had studied the Lele of Kasai in the colonial period, and was long prevented from returning by the postcolonial chaos that engulfed the Congo. She used to joke about being an anthropologist on vacation in the Bible. The truth was that she was exiled from Africa by the circumstances of Congo’s long-running civil war. African parallels appear frequently as her book unfolds. See, for example, her footnoted comment on p. 193: “This is what I found on returning to Zaire in 1987: in the general disarray of trying to live in a cash economy without any cash income, and trying to live rationally in an arbitrary world, the balance between old and young men had tilted further towards the old. Fear was rife, trust was absent. The young feared the sorcery of the old and the old were accused, tortured and killed for sorcery.” Jacob’s Tears is about the Pentateuch, but could as easily be about modern Africa.

The patriarch’s tears were shed for the fratricidal strife dominating a region of quarrelsome extended families and weak central authority. Ancestral appeals, via the occult, were means to bypass authoritative control of collective resources. Furious denunciations of neighbours for atrocities served to bond groups in collective terror. It should occasion no surprise that at the crux of her argument a citation to Peter Geschiere’s important work on the Afro-modern occult appears, slipped in among references to eminent scholars of ancient Hebrew literature.[1] We may be forgiven for wondering what these eminent Biblical scholars make of the bullet proof hunting jackets that then suddenly appear on p. 181 (“…ancestors incite their descendants to fight invaders and promise to protect them, even from European bullets as in Central Africa”). But we can be in no real doubt that Douglas views her sociological analysis of the redaction of the Bible as being highly relevant to an understanding of the Afro-modern condition (cf. Douglas 1987). If the priests editing Leviticus were intent on ending fractious arguments about the nature of spirit forces by putting everybody back to work in a cult of spiritual cleansing then we can be sure that Douglas also thought this might be a solution for Africa.

Her view of the occult is bleak. Patrimonialism cannot lead to peace, because it is not conducive to an integrated view of social responsibility. Instead, it encourages exceptionalism and free-riding. The furious denunciations – the charges and counter-charges of betrayal and devilry – provide only pretexts for revenge. But the ethnic nationalism of the modernisers, based on a monotheism that silences the multiplicity of ancestral voices, is no answer either. The claim to know the mind of God invariably leads to tyranny and abuse. (Indeed, in modern Africa, as in Europe, it has led both to inter-state war and to genocide.) An enlarged notion of community is required.

The radical priests took another tack. Appealing to ancient precedent they shaped a new aniconic faith. No one could presume to know the mind of God. But that did not mean that the deity was distant and could be safely ignored. God was close by – indeed, a power in the community’s midst. How was this hazardous force to be addressed? If no one could presume to understand or manage the power of God, what mattered for social cohesion and community protection was ritual cleansing to fend off divine wrath. All members of the community had to avoid pollution. True worship inhered in the responsibility of every individual to care for the cult.

This brings Douglas back to Durkheim. It is not belief that causes action but action that causes belief. Arguments about the idea of deity are beside the point. It is the cult that brings about wider social cohesion. The priestly work of intra-communal enlargement – the reconciliation of which her sub-title speaks – is a phenomenology of cult activism.

In the body of the paper below I apply Douglas’ critique of Afro-modernism to the case of the eleven-year civil war (1991-2002) in the former British West African colony of Sierra Leone. This was indeed a fratricidal struggle that resulted in large-scale recourse to occult ancestral forces, with grave consequences for community cohesion. The route out of conflict (I will suggest) was significantly dependent on a phenomenology of ritual action associated (in this case) with post-war reconstruction, represented as a cult of work. But I also note that Douglas’ argument is in some sense incomplete. She fails to specify linkage with other neo-Durkheimian phenomenologies of ritual action (cf. Bellah 2005, Collins 2004, Goffman 1967, Perri 6 2007), nor do these (in turn) fully explain in cognitive terms how ‘care for the cult’ can bring about social cohesion. While Douglas was writing Jacob’s Tears she was also exploring some of the latest developments in biological anthropology and cognitive science. She did not live to integrate her knowledge of these developments into her writing.[2] I end my presentation with a concluding comment to the effect that we should now explore the possible grounding of a phenomenology of ritual action in the embodied simulation of the human mirror neuron system.

The Sierra Leone war – an overview

The 11-year insurgency of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is often counted an instance of New War. The term applies to wars involving non-state actors, owing little to anti-colonialism or Cold War proxy struggle. Ignored internationally at the outset, the conflict in Sierra Leone later impinged on UK consciousness through the ‘Arms to Africa’ scandal of 1997-8. This was a private security company plan to assist the government party to the conflict, encouraged from within the UK Foreign Office in defiance of Labour government policy for a negotiated settlement, and in breach of international law (Legg & Ibbs 1998). British interest was focused a second time when Tony Blair committed UK troops to bolster a tenuous peace in May 2000.

The Sierra Leone war still has no agreed scholarly interpretation (Abdullah 1997, Gberie 2007, Keen 2006, Peters 2006, Richards 1996). In part this reflects the one-sidedness of the available sources. The policy of successive regimes in Sierra Leone was to manage the crisis through denying the RUF any publicity. Attempting a ‘bush war’ in a country with near non-existent telecommunications the movement faced enormous logistical problems in communicating its political message. It also seriously lacked intellectual capacity. Only a minority of the Libyan supported student activists who aimed at rebellion against the dictatorial Siaka Stevens in the 1970s and ’80s joined the RUF in the bush (Abdullah 1997, Richards 2005). Following the destruction of RUF base camps in 1996 (see below) a small intellectual group within the RUF ceased to have influence over the movement (Peters 2006) and violence became largely survival-oriented.

The RUF campaign was complicated by its alliance with Charles Taylor, the rebel leader in neighbouring Liberia, frustrated in his plans to take Monrovia, the capital, by Nigerian peacekeeping forces, supplied through the Sierra Leone national airport at Lungi. Taylor placed his own people alongside the RUF, aiming to achieve rapid overthrow of the government of Joseph Saidu Momoh. Liberian atrocities alienated local supporters of the RUF insurgency.

Rural civilians harmed by the RUF and its ally were subsequently mobilised by the Sierra Leone People’s Party, a regime brought to national power through a wartime election in 1996 from which the RUF was excluded. With South African mercenary help, the SLPP government greatly expanded local civil defence forces at the expense of an army still largely loyal to the Momoh regime. In a massive surge of patrimonialism, elders sponsored youths to seek initiation to fight against the RUF. This was the context for the large-scale introduction into the war of occult forces.

At first a rationalist youth movement opposed to superstition, the RUF now responded in kind, seeking its own access to occult forces, resulting in many atrocities in the course of its experimentation (Richards 2007). It is this element of competition over the occult that qualifies the war in Sierra Leone as an Afro-modern conflict.

The end of the war involved two moves. First, 400 members of the RUF political class, preparing to launch a political party under the terms of the controversial Lome peace agreement of July 1999, were detained without trial in Freetown, immediately prior to the British military intervention, on May 7th and 8th 2000 (Richards & Vincent 2007). This summarily ended attempts to negotiate an end to the war, but did nothing to stand down cadres in the bush. Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji of Nigeria, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy to Sierra Leone, subsequently devised an agreement with war-weary RUF fighters, signed in Abuja in November 2000, based on an offer of demobilisation, skills-training and reintegration (Olonisakin 2008). The RUF had long been interested in opportunities for its members to gain societal recognition through education. The skills training offer sent an inherently Durkheimian message that integration could be achieved through devotion to work. The cadres seized their chance. Ambassador Adeniji had, in effect, devised a successful cult based on a phenomenology of action.

Mapping the Sierra Leone conflict

Post-war data sources allow a new analysis of the Sierra Leone conflict. One of the most valuable of these sources – a report entitled Conflict Mapping in Sierra Leone: violations of international humanitarian law from 1991 to 2002 (Smith, Gambette & Longley [2004]), commissioned by the agency No Peace Without Justice – was created in support of the opening of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2004. The report (henceforth NPWJ) digests 401 eye-witness accounts covering 5500 separate incidents of violence committed by all parties to the war (the RUF, the government army, various civil defence groups, two groups of Liberian special forces and the Guinean and Nigerian peace keeping missions).

A veritable Domesday Book of the war, NPWJ surpasses in scope the evidence concerning the war accruing from the Special Court.[3] The Special Court considered only crimes committed during the second half of the war (from November 30th 1996) and thus ignored important factors in the first half of the conflict, including allegations of summary executions of RUF ‘collaborators’ by government troops (Richards 1996) and the part played by South African mercenaries in undermining a ceasefire agreement (22nd April 1996) signed between the government and the RUF (Hooper 2003). NPWJ fully reflects the first of these factors but is largely silent on the second.

NPWJ offers a substantial chapter on each of the 12 districts of Sierra Leone and on Freetown and its suburbs (the Western Area). Below, I focus on analysing data from four of these chapters – covering three Liberian border provinces (Kailahun, Kenema and Pujehun) and Kono (the main diamond mining area). My method was to establish patterns by tabulating incidents, based on type of violence (killing, rape, abduction, etc.), and the motivation ascribed to each incident (e.g. looting, indoctrination, internal factional struggle, etc.), noting both the alleged identity of perpetrators and the sequencing of events.

I also looked for apparent shifts in field level violence consequent upon major external events, up to the collapse of the Abidjan peace agreement (signed on November 30th 1996). These events include the entry of ULIMO (a Liberian faction armed by the Government of Sierra Leone) from June 1991, the NPRC coup in April 1992, the unilateral cease fire by the NPRC in December 1993, the introduction of the South African private security company Executive Outcomes from mid-1995, the emergence of a national civil defence force from mid 1996, and cease fire breaches during the later part of 1996, culminating in the destruction of the RUF HQ camp (The Zogoda) in October 1996, a matter of weeks before the signing of the Abidjan peace treaty.

I noted all points at which occult forces were invoked by informants of NPWJ, culminating in the mass initiation of civil defence fighters in mid-1996. In addition, I also noted any activity by the RUF that might plausibly be assigned to the category ‘political’ (e.g. programmatic speeches by leaders, or attempts to establish RUF administrative functions). Identifying temporal rhythms in the pattern of events allows some conclusions to be drawn about the build up to specific atrocities, and the extent to which ritual drivers were involved. This in turn allows some conclusions about the points at which invocations of the occult are most likely to appear. Further detail will be presented elsewhere. Here I offer only a brief summary of some of the main findings.

Events in Kailahun: the abolition of prayer

NPWJ makes apparent that a major challenge in understanding the pattern of events in the early phase of the war is to disentangle two sets of rebel actors with distinct agenda. The leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh (a former corporal in the Sierra Leone armed forces), was an ally of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor. Both enjoyed the patronage of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Sankoh trained in Gaddafi’s ‘world revolutionary’ training centre in Benghazi, and later served as one of the guerrilla strategists of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the Liberian rebel group eventually led by Taylor. In Liberia, Sankoh prepared a small force of ‘Vanguards’ (NPWJ claims 230) to assist the overthrow of the APC government in Sierra Leone. These were mainly young Sierra Leonean political exiles living in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.

At first, the leadership of the RUF was collectivist, with Sankoh its spokesman. Sankoh subsequently became the charismatic figurehead of an armed sect. His organisational grip over the movement was more in doubt. In part, this was because Taylor attached a force of his own NPFL fighters (mainly Gio-speakers from Nimba County) to the infant RUF. Taylor’s concern was the rapid overthrow of the APC regime, since ECOMOG, the largely Nigerian peace-keeping force preventing him from seizing power in Monrovia, used the Sierra Leone national airport at Lungi as its main supply point. NPFL fighters used extreme violence among rural people with whom they had no social ties to sweep away any resistance to their intended rapid advance on Freetown. The RUF were anxious – by contrast – to convince local people of their political programme, and to build secure support for a longer-term take-over of the Sierra Leone countryside. In the end the two movements came to blows, and the NPFL element withdrew (or was driven out). NPWJ makes clear that these Gio fighters were seen as an alien element from the outset.

Informants distance the NPFL elements from the RUF in various ways. In particular, they report that they spoke no Krio (the national lingua franca), and villagers were beaten or shot when they failed to understand their commands. In Kailahun the RUF struggled to break free of NPFL control and run its own campaign. This culminated in attempts to found an early bush camp without the knowledge of NPFL fighters in order to train young RUF recruits. Several informants for NPWJ claim that NPFL atrocities amounted to sacrifice. These are the first appearances of allusions to ritual and the occult in accounts of the war.

The NPWJ chapter on Kailahun reports that the NPFL needed sacrifice because its fighters were cannibals. They drank the blood and ate the flesh of victims. It is reported that large ‘country’ cooking pots appeared in the local open-sided court houses (a significant juxtaposition) in preparation for these cannibal feasts.

The Africanist literature has long pondered what (if any) truth lies in such horrific imaginings. A recent debate over BBC reporting of ‘child ritual murder’ in Uganda has found several Africanist anthropologists arguing that alleged occult atrocities are mainly imaginary, and warning against the real danger of lynch mobs pursuing the alleged perpetrators (Caplan 2010). Whereas forensics often chips away at the more lurid of the occult claims associated with war, some may be true. George Orwell, reflecting on his experience of the Spanish civil war, remarked “that the same horror stories come up in war after war…evidently they are fantasies, but war provides an opportunity for putting them into practice” (Orwell 1943). But even if we remain sceptical about NPFL cannibals, the social basis for these allegations seems clear – NPFL troops were seen as an alien element, with no real place in the Sierra Leone conflict.

The cascade of regime-changing events the NPFL sought to trigger was rejected by local people. This is reflected in NPWJ by the perceived absurdity of NPFL ritual violence. Informants report that NPFL massacres were based on the randomisation of punishment across a group – decimation, in fact (“RUF/NPFL forces made another human sacrifice…one out of every ten people was killed in a ritual sacrifice”, NPWJ, p. 264).

It is interesting to see how in the Kailahun reports the RUF is credited with a more meaningful engagement in local social process. The cadres quickly raised their green flag (perhaps as much a tribute to Libyan influence as evidence – as President Momoh apparently thought – that Sankoh was a loyalist of the banned Sierra Leone Peoples Party). They then regularly held meetings with villagers to explain their aims. The movement may have dismissed chiefs, and sometimes killed them, but it quickly appointed its own town commanders and town mothers from among the local population. Informants also note promises made to end enslavement, to redistribute wealth and to provide free education. This last aim was not just empty words, but manifest in a specific plan to re-educate the young people as the revolution spread. One informant in NPWJ notes that a G5 officer (evidencing the movement’s internal structure) was in charge of “opening new training bases as their territory gains progressed” (p. 258).

The movement also opened People’s Courts (as called for in the Libyan Green Book). RUF laws covered property and tax, but also exhibited a strong concern with the ritual order of daily life – e.g. people were reportedly forbidden to pray on pain of torture and death. Time (and the re-ordering of time) was of extreme importance to the movement. NPWJ several times records that the cadres promised various communities that they would return by a certain date, and always did. Individuals who had failed to carry out specific instructions were severely punished and perhaps even killed. One elderly Fula kola trader in Barrie Chiefdom, reminiscing about the movement, added that this concern for timing was meticulous even to the promised hour (“if they said they would come at 11.00, but were in the vicinity early, they would wait until the appointed time”). He vehemently denied the RUF were “a rabble”. Their organisation was unprecedented in rural Sierra Leone. “But they had no use for money”, he added. “Often they would collect it and dump it in a hole in the ground.” (PR, field notes, Saahun, Barrie, November 2009).

Acceptance of this new Green Book world among impoverished rural people with simple needs and few expectations might well have grown in time but for the killing of chiefs. Kailahun District has a long history of feuding between some of its ruling families. Some chiefs were backward looking and unpopular with youth. The RUF may have been courting these disgruntled youth elements by seizing and killing these tyrannical chiefs. But at the same time, chiefs were patrons to many poorer families in rural society. The choice of phrase in a passage describing the killing of the Paramount Chief of Mandu Chiefdom at Mobai on 13th April 1991 (the first such incident) seems carefully chosen in this regard. NPWJ records that the event “caused the civilians to lose confidence in the revolution” (p. 255), implying they might have been more inclined to accept it otherwise.

If Libyan Green Book populism inspired some early ‘rationalistic’ organisational interventions there is also some evidence (from the Kailahun chapter in NPWJ) that the RUF began to accommodate to local institutions. In Peje Bongre chiefdom (p. 264) RUF cadres attempted to use the Poro masquerade society to get rid of the NPFL. The Liberian fighters were not members of Poro. The plan was for the Poro mask to appear and for the NPFL fighters to be seized. When the masquerade is abroad non-members are obliged to hide. This would lead to NPFL fighters being expelled. The plan leaked out, and the Liberians massacred up to 100 civilians. The testimony in NPWJ adds a comment, stereotypical for a community in which secret knowledge underpinning ritual order is strongly gendered; the plot failed because a woman gave away a Poro secret.

Events in Pujehun: a dance of despair

The RUF invasion of Sierra Leone came across the Liberian border at two points north and south of the Gola Forest – Kailahun and Pujehun Districts. Sankoh visited Zimmi (the main town of Makepele chiefdom, immediately south of a point where the Kenema road cuts through the Gola East reserve) on 9th April, called a meeting with civilians and stated that “the RUF were peacemakers, coming to free the people from slavery” (p. 484). The political aspects of the RUF, while present in the NPWJ account, are not so strongly marked as in Kailahun District. This is perhaps because the rebels were more quickly opposed by government troops than in the more inaccessible northern zone, and civilian groups quickly became caught between the two sides.

At Fairo, in Soro Gbema chiefdom, “civilians were gathered in the court barrie [and told]… that they should not be afraid, as [the RUF] had come to redeem the civilians from the APC regime” (p. 485). The rebels went from “village to village, to get people to join their movement, but when they realised that few young people were joining them, they forced whole villages…to give some of their inhabitants for training” (pp. 485-6). The RUF then nominated “a former candidate in the 1982 elections to be the chairman of their war council in the chiefdom”. This re-ignited an old quarrel (the Ndogbowusoi ‘war’ of the 1980s). NPWJ claims that some then saw this “as an opportunity to take revenge” and “nominated some of their children to join the RUF/NPFL forces” (p. 486).

Children were widely reported as abducted by the movement. A large number of children were seized in Pujehun town because the mothers were attending a periodic market. In other cases, recruitment took on a more mysterious aspect. In May 1991 the RUF opened a large training base at Gobaru, 2 miles from Massam “where a lot of school-going children were conscripted” (p. 492). The occult makes an early appearance in this account, lending it a sinister, Pied-piper aspect, in that “a herbalist and fortune teller performed rituals during training that were believed to make members invulnerable”, with a footnote adding that “it is reported that the belief in the powers of this person attracted many school children and other youths who decided to join the movement” (p. 492).

In May 1991 the Sierra Leone government began arming an anti-Taylor Liberian militia force, ULIMO, that determined to fight its way back towards Monrovia through Pujehun District. It engaged the RUF in the south as the rainy-season began. NPWJ records testimony that seems rich with implications of an RUF advance about to falter, and civilians driven back and forth between two hostile forces. A RUF commander is reported to have arrived in Benjanie, and “stating that he was a good dancer, ordered the civilians to dance”. “Everybody was obliged to attend the dance…that dance itself was organised so that the men were to lead…followed by the drummers and then by women at the end together with the UF/NPFL…when the dance started the men at the front realised that the women at the back were being raped by the RUF…The dance continued for four nights until the RUF left town” (p. 493).

On or around 14th July 1991 ULIMO forces and some Sierra Leonean army soldiers dislodged the RUF from Pujehun town. ULIMO then killed a civilian who had offered accommodation to an RUF commander stranded in the bush, and tied up young people they accused of being rebel collaborators, two of whom died. “Molestation of civilian was at its highest peak during this time” (p. 494). In the process of screening civilians the army and its ULIMO allies killed a lot of young men “accused of being RUF members, without much investigation”. ULIMO and army forces shot one RUF straggler in re-taking Sahn-Malen on 18th July 1991, but then killed 47 men and children “accused of having been trained by RUF/NPFL forces” (p. 494).

By 1992, NPWJ reports that in re-occupied areas government troops committed atrocities against those it suspected of involvement with the RUF (including “those who had been forced to join”). These included “amputations of hands and ears, the plucking out of eyes, the putting of people in a bag and then setting the bag on fire, taking them to the river and drowning them and shooting and killing them” (p. 498). This is perhaps the earliest definite report of the practice of amputation, later widely imputed to the RUF, but perhaps equally practised by the army and civil defence forces.

The RUF was not slow to respond. It killed people it accused of being spies on grounds that they had originated from government-controlled areas. Those who failed to cooperate with its cadres were also killed. Randomised massacre (based on killing every 10th person in line) is mentioned in the south for the first time, perhaps a sign that the movement’s political credibility was judged to be at an end.

Defeated in a battle on the 3rd of August 1991 the RUF retreated to Saama, across the Moa, apparently assuaging its losses in its mistreatment of civilians. The idiom of dance is again invoked. “In one incident, all the inhabitants were told to undress [and] form two lines – one for men and one for women – and dance until nightfall…women were later raped, and those who refused to have sexual intercourse were killed” (p. 495). It is as if dance was a medium through which the movement, staring defeat in the face, sought to recover its stalled momentum. Durkheim refers to a frenzied ritual of mourning as a “piacular rite”. It is a form of ritual energisation that fends off despair when the social fabric is rent by unexpected loss (Richards 2007).

Events in Kono: seeing through a glass, darkly

Kono District is the most diamond-rich part of Sierra Leone. Diamonds are widely supposed to be a main motivation for the RUF. NPWJ is especially enlightening for what it does not say about events in Kono. The RUF began to encroach on Kono District from Kailahun in 1991, and during part of 1992 controlled a large part of the district. Throughout this period there is not a single report in NPWJ about the RUF engaging in diamond mining. As in Pujehun District, all early reports of diamond mining refer to the Sierra Leone army or its associate (the Nigerian peace keepers).

Unlike other areas the army was soon in attendance in Kono. Clearly, Freetown was worried about the loss of revenues the fall of Kono to the RUF would imply. In their first forays against the RUF in Gandorhun in June 1991 soldiers are reported to have ‘necklaced’ civilians they thought might be collaborating with the rebel movement (i.e. the suspects were killed by setting fire to rubber tyres and rags around their necks). NPWJ reports that “this served as a signal for the population that they should not cooperate with the RUF in any way”. (p. 333)

The RUF, for its part, persisted with its political programme. As late as the end of 1992 the RUF was still continuing to elaborate its political programme in Kono district. An RUF commander arrived in Kainkordu (Soa chiefdom) on 8th December 1992, inviting people to join the movement and celebrate their new government, whereupon “he mounted green pieces of material on top of a high pole as a symbol that this was now RUF-controlled territory, and appointed men and women as the new authorities of the chiefdom” (p. 338).

In 1993 the RUF came under severe pressure in Kailahun District. By the end of the year it was close to outright defeat. At this point, Capt. Valentine Strasser, the Chairman of the military regime that had displaced the APC government in the coup of April 1992, made a crucial mistake. Confident of victory, he declared a unilateral ceasefire. The Christmas holiday was approaching, and many front-line troops – thinking the war was over – abandoned their posts. With the pressure suddenly eased, the RUF slipped out of its redoubts in northern Kailahun and ‘took to the hills’ (regrouping in forest reserves across the country). It was from this network of forest camps that it planned and launched a Phase Two of the war (RUF/SL 1995). This was a campaign of pinprick raids across all parts of the country largely fuelled by ambushes on army supplies.

The RUF thought it had negotiated a power-sharing deal with the new regime in 1992, but encouraged by the international community, Chairman Strasser decided to press ahead with his campaign to defeat the rebels. NPWJ reports that the RUF amputated both arms of a prominent farmer in Sukudu, in Kono District. Those who maimed him tied a letter round his neck addressed to Strasser, telling him that the RUF was “still in control” (p. 340).

A factor in Kono was the early emergence of ‘hunter’ civil defence. The Kono people had an ambiguous relationship with Siaka Stevens and the APC regime. Stevens had run the diamond fields with a mixture of co-opted chiefs and thuggish violence (Reno 1995). The rise of the ‘hunter’ militia, from as early as 1991, can be seen as an expression of early Kono resistance to both government forces and the RUF. The army was assisted by the Kono Donso at several points, but the militia was never trusted. The Strasser regime preferred to make use of a different ‘hunter militia’, the Tamaboro from Koinadugu District.

NPWJ reports a major outbreak of the occult at this crucial juncture. The government was never able to decide whether the Kono people were in league with the RUF. It assumed its enemy had similar motives to its own (to control the country’s diamond wealth). Perhaps the Kono chiefs had already done a deal with the RUF to shake off Freetown control of the diamonds? In March 1993,

2000 civilians were assembled at the court barrie in Tombodu, to be screened by Tamaboro ‘hunters’. The proceedings were headed “by a woman dressed in traditional hunter attire”. She then proceeded to conduct “the screening through her mirror, which allegedly allowed her to assess whether a person was a genuine civilian or a rebel…those who were identified as rebels were either killed or sent to Pademba Road Prison in Freetown” (p. 340).

Events in Kenema: initiation as an antidote to fear

From 1994 the RUF guerilla campaign was waged from its secure forest bases. Spread from the Liberian border to within striking distance of Freetown these were cohesive social and military units. Camp inmates accepted that they had no exit options. Many internalised the RUF message and identity. Their raids were a scourge on the surrounding countryside. They prevented refugees from returning home and were economically disruptive in regions with extensive alluvial diamond mining (e.g. Simbaru and Lower Bambara chiefdoms in Kenema District).

As NPWJ makes clear, local civil defence initiatives were found in all regions of the conflict from early in the war. These drew upon the existing sodalities – either the male Poro Society, in which it is a duty of junior initiates to take part in the defence of their communities, or guilds of professional hunters. To track dangerous animals the hunter invests heavily in medicines to confer invisibility. Warriors in the pre-colonial period invested in comparable medicines to confer equivalent magical powers, including protection from bullets, as Douglas (2004: p. 193) notes (see above). From 1995 it became increasingly common for civil defence volunteers to seek the services of practitioners renowned for having revived this esoteric knowledge of bullet-proofing.

The arrival of a group of special forces from South Africa working for the private security firm Executive Outcomes (EO) changed the civil defence dynamic, and with it the strategic balance of the war. EO operatives were practitioners of a specific counter-insurgency doctrine that, through its effectiveness in dirty wars in Mozambique and Angola, had prolonged the life of the apartheid regime in South Africa (Hooper 2003). The company drew on former South African army special operations specialists to help end the rebel threat in Angola. From mid-1995 it offered its services to the government of Sierra Leone.

The doctrine in question traces from Operation Favour in Rhodesia – “the idea of a local black militia which would enable the rural population to defend themselves [sic] against insurgent attacks” (Cilliers 1985, p. 203). In Sierra Leone EO set about helping to forge the various local volunteer civil defence groups into a force capable of sustained pressure on strategic targets, such as RUF forest bases. The plan took off in early 1996, after the election of an SLPP-dominated coalition civilian government in February. The deputy minister of defence, retired army Capt. Samuel Hinga Norman, became coordinator between the government, EO, and the new civil defence forces.

Volunteers presented themselves in increasingly large numbers, especially from the IDP camps in Bo and Kenema. Many received basic training, and were sent back to their home chiefdoms, armed only with a cutlass or shotgun, and a certificate of initiation guaranteeing their protection against bullets, provided they maintained the rules of the society. Their job was to secure the terrain against infiltration. Others received modern weapons training and were formed into specialist units, working alongside hand-picked loyalist army officers. Semi-automatic rifles were acquired from various sources including the Israeli business partner of a Belgian diamond dealer.

The first civil defence units graduated in mid-1996.[4] In Kenema District a campaign in September-October, linking together various chiefdom civil defence units in the Upper Waanje Defence Committee, dislodged RUF forest camps from Niawa, Langrama and Small Bo chiefdoms. CDF units, in a two-pronged operation, then worked towards the RUF HQ camp (the Zogoda) at Bandawor in the south Kambui hills. Army special forces and a Nigerian howitzer battery, commanded by the South Africans (Hooper 2003), provided assistance. EO also flew air support (Hooper 2003).

The operation to capture the Zogoda was militarily successful, though a clear breach of the general cease-fire intended to foster the Abidjan peace negotiations, which Hooper (2003) makes no attempt to hide. Sankoh and the RUF War Council were absent, in Abdijan when the Zogoda was sacked, and never went back to the bush. There was no contingency plan to contain the scattered and leaderless RUF. In consequence, the war continued, complicated by EO’s departure under the provisions of the Abidjan treaty. This opened the door to a sidelined army seizing power in a coup in May 1997, whereupon it invited the RUF to take part in a power sharing regime.

NPWJ reports that “captured RUF forces were taken to the [army] Brigade HQ in Kenema”. NPWJ adds, editorially (in a footnote), that “the fate of these prisoners is not known” (p. 315). At the time it was stated by CDF interviewees that “our brothers have been so long in the bush they are shy to come to town”, from which it was understood that many had, in fact, been killed (Richards et al 1997). The RUF – as a rationalistic movement that had once tried to ban prayer – was caught on the hop by a determined enemy rendered fearless through its occult protections.

Shearer (1997) defends the cease-fire breaches against the RUF camps as necessary to compel the RUF to sign the Abidjan peace accord. More probably it determined an increase in RUF violence and atrocity from 1997. When, in 1994, the RUF split into forest camps, inter-camp communication proved tenuous and very risky. In enclave isolation, the different camps developed different cultures. These differences proved significant in the aftermath of the CDF attacks on the camps.

The headquarters camp at Bandawor in the South Kambui Hills was the base for Foday Sankoh, the War Council and a group of 17 international hostages for a period in 1995-6. It was regulated by Green Book values. The Green Book offers a simple populist creed based on ‘common sense’ ideas of fair play. Justice was dispensed by a people’s court. The camp ran schools and a free medical service, staffed by professionals among the movement’s sympathisers or abductees, using looted supplies. It was also a centre for RUF political instruction, based on an ideology training group working from a small collection of radical texts, including the Green Book, the autobiography of Kim Il Sung, and some Sandanista pamphlets. Everyday life was regulated by the repeated singing of the RUF anthem, a rousing marching song demanding accountability for Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth. It was a disciplined environment, tightly controlled by Sankoh and the War Council.

By ‘taking out’ Bandawor the CDF and its South African advisers disabled that part of RUF system most susceptible to political negotiation. Other camps were less well-regulated or stable environments. Generically termed ‘jo [or zo] bush’, and commanded by Vanguards without ideological training, these other camps were apparently much rougher places, especially for female captives (Coulter 2009).[5] Some of them were located in diamond districts, where commanders engaged in diamond dealing, and forced local civilians to mine for the movement. The subsequent isolation of the War Council in Cote d’Ivoire meant that there were few if any constraints exercised by the movement’s political and civil leadership over these other camps.

According to NPWJ this process of differentiation was already under way even as the CDF was forming. The following account relates to the “jo bush” in Simbaru Chiefdom in about 1995. The RUF used this camp as a permanent base from which to attack the diamond-rich surrounding areas.

Civilians who had been captured were taken to the camp, where they were subjected to physical and mental violence. One example of this was called “Gunproof society”… Captives were first forced to dig deep pits and to collect over 150 different kinds of leaves from the bush, where they had been escorted for this purpose. Captives were then obliged to lie down in the pit, where they were covered with the sticks and boiled leaves they had collected, which were then set alight for the captives to be smoked. After this, civilians were forced to wash themselves with the water in which the leaves had been boiled. They were then covered with brunt oil on their whole body and forced to sit for hours under the sun. Following this, RUF members shot them to prove they were “gunproof”, as a result of which many people died. (p. 307).

This seems to suggest that the RUF lacked access to (or did not trust) local initiators, and yet felt under compulsion to match the already evident occult power of the various hunter forces. The result was a dangerously experimental approach to esoteric knowledge. This is not the only report of civilians being sacrificed in what appears a frenzied struggle to reverse a power vacuum within the movement (Richards 2007). Durkheim terms any such action intended to reverse a sense of irreplaceable bereavement or social failure the piacular rite. From 1997 piacular rites apparently became a feature of the RUF response to the failure of the Abidjan peace process. The resulting horrific patterns of repeated atrocity resulted in the movement’s international stigmatisation, and ended any further prospects for peace negotiations.

There is no doubt that 1996 can be considered a climax for the Afro-modern occult in the war in Sierra Leone. Although the civil defence forces are sometimes pictured as ‘traditional’ there never was any such force of hunters in Sierra Leonean history. The Waanje Defence League and other militia units were the outcome of contemporary agency, triggered when villagers found themselves caught between two sides at an earlier stage of the conflict. The key importance of the occult was to strengthen the will. This enabled the civil defence forces to obtain their objectives through unshakeable courage. But unfortunately the will also drove the war into a blind alley of revenge killing. It was at this point that a different approach, questioning the claims of Afro-modernism, was required. I handle this topic in a two-part discussion.

Discussion – an Afro-modern conflict?

The war in Sierra Leone fits the framework offered by Mary Douglas in Jacob’s Tears in three major respects – it was a fratricidal conflict in a weak state; re-empowerment of elders led to a resurgence of the occult, and the war ended when cult dynamics changed.

A fratricidal dispute

The RUF began as a classic youth rebellion. It is clear the movement at the outset wanted a fresh start. It attacked chiefs and imposed its own rulers. It applied youth-oriented Green Book standards of justice and economics. It had no time for the occult, and even attempted to abolish prayer. But Sankoh, who rose from being the movement’s spokesman to its undisputed leader, came from the old patrimonial and quarrelsome class. An SLPP loyalist, he had been jailed in c. 1970 for an attempted coup against Siaka Steven’s APC. He shared a jail cell in Pademba Road prison with a co-conspirator, Capt. Samuel Hinga Norman, Sankoh’s nemesis as leader of the CDF. Norman expressed the view, in a conversation in 1996, that Sankoh had been soured by his ill-treatment in jail to a point where he was prepared to risk wrecking his country.

When the war started the regime claimed to know nothing about Sankoh or the RUF. It laid the blame for the incursion solely on Taylor. Cross-border attacks were thus nothing more than an overspill from the Liberian war. Peace-loving Sierra Leoneans could not be at war among themselves, it was stated. Momoh’s advisor, Dr Abdul Karim Turay, later told me something different. He knew Sankoh well (they were both from Magburaka). In fact, Sankoh had visited him in Freetown only weeks before the rebellion started. Knowing the man and his background Momoh considered that Sankoh’s aim might be to restore the banned SLPP.

At the end of the war, an undefeated RUF was strongly centred on two towns in the north of the country – Makeni and Magburaka. Sankoh’s own brother was Paramount Chief in Magburaka. To the immediate south, his forces were embattled against two exceptionally strong CDF militia groups, in Bonkolenken, and Valunia, Norman’s home chiefdom. Bonkolenken and Valunia share boundaries with Sankoh’s home. Nowhere, is the intimate, inter-familial aspect of the Sierra Leone civil war more apparent. As a weak regime and an army riddled with patronage and corruption slid towards collapse, fratricidal feuding came to the fore.

Re-empowerment of elders

Chiefs chartered diviners who ‘knew’ how to protect fighters against bullets, and sponsored rural youth in their chiefdoms for initiation into the CDF. The courage of these fighters turned the war against the RUF, but no plan was in place to stand down the Sierra Leoneans in the RUF. The South Africans seemed to assume they could be wiped out (Hooper 2003). With no surrender options, the RUF fighters hung on to Sankoh’s assurances that victory or peace would eventually be won. The two sides hurled appalling accusations at each other, cannibalism not excluded. Some of the worst accusations became fact, as Orwell observes.

Meanwhile the British government was enrolled on the side of gerontocracy. At the Edinburgh Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in 1997, with Rupert Bowen of MI6 and the British ambassador, Peter Penfold, in attendance, the SLPP government in exile made reinstatement of Paramount Chiefs a priority for its 100-day post-restoration plan. Penfold claims to have been the first British official to recognise the importance of restoring the chiefs.[6] A substantial scheme to build houses for chiefs and to re-open local courts was funded by DfID.

Faced with the need for rapid restoration of civilian governance in the countryside after the war, donor policy advisers turned a blind eye to the pre-war defects of chiefly rule. In so doing they also ignored the extent to which the system was inseparable from the upsurge of occult practices in the war. Young people were compelled to offer ‘community service’ to build the houses for chiefsfunded by British aid. One young man remarked to me that this was the price the country’s youth had to pay for its failed rebellion against gerontocracy. The elders were back in charge. Traffic with the world of the ancestors was intense.

The war is ended through attending to a cult of work

Peace did not follow from this triumph of the occult. The South Africans were dismissed as part of the Abidjan peace agreement and the army supplanted the elected government Feuds and rivalries undermined the CDF from within. The Arms to Africa scheme – a plan to shore up the CDF in the absence of the South Africans – was nipped in the bud. Sankoh was pardoned from a death sentence to head the Lome peace negotiations, but his movement in the field now no longer had any intellectual leadership or ideological direction. It had begun to dabble in the esoteric, seeking to match the CDF, and at great cost of civilian lives. A new approach was needed.

What Douglas argues in Jacob’s Tears is that the priestly editors of the Pentateuch saw (and persuaded others to see) the deity dwelling among them as so powerfully dangerous a force that every member of the community had now to become engaged in the service of the cult. The new cult was a cult of purity. It demanded cleansing from any misdemeanours among members that might trigger the anger and power of God to rain down on the community.

When the young war front soldiers swept to power in 1992 in Sierra Leone they instituted ‘general cleaning Saturdays’. Every member of the community had to do their bit in cleaning compounds and local streets. The grime and filth associated with decades of corruption and misrule were to be removed by collective action. People offered their Saturdays as a sacrifice to the regime. The move was welcomed by many ordinary people. It was especially popular because everyone – the elite included – had to take part. The cult was the locality where people lived. The community was remade through the active service of all in caring for the cult.

The Secretary General’s Special Envoy, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji of Nigeria, took a similar approach to the standing down of the embattled factions in the war (Olonisakin 2008). The Abuja peace process was built on the idea that de-escalation would result from combatants being offered the chance to acquire a skill through which they could show their value to the community at large. Skills training was offered in exchange for the gun. The success of the scheme, in a war of apparently hopeless anarchy, surprised many. Allowed to choose the livelihoods skills that would best suit their needs for social reintegration, CDF and RUF cadres soon discovered that they had much in common. Within a remarkably short space of time bitter enemies were bonded by shared interests (Bright 2001). In effect, combatants from opposed sides discovered they had been fighting for the same things – jobs, family, land, social respect.

Discussion – challenging Afro-modernism

After the war, the UN sought to strengthen the peace process through a major investment in transitional justice (The Special Court for Sierra Leone). Kelsall (2009) argues that the court failed properly to challenge the Afro-modern occult. The prosecution, Kelsall notes, may have doubted the special powers conferred by the CDF’s chief initiator, Allieu Kondewa, but found itself in a dilemma. If Kondewa’s powers were fake then he could not be guilty of the war crimes the prosecution alleged. It thus allowed defence witnesses both to offer rationalistic explanations and to hint at mysteries unknown to science.

Called in evidence for the defence, Vice-President Joe Demby, a medical doctor by profession, claimed under cross-examination that although psychology was a factor “medicinal herbs are doing wonderful things which medical science cannot do” (Kelsall 2009, p. 131). Lt.-General Walker, a British army officer, agreed with prosecuting counsel that initiation might be useful in Iraq: “I did at the time ask if we could borrow this technique”, adding that “it made them very brave. I watched them do things which I think British soldiers might not have done” (Kelsall 2009, p. 132). “The sad consequence” of allowing the defence to have it both ways, Kelsall notes, was that “a crucial question for international justice remained unresolved, namely how to assess credibly the responsibility of military actors who have as a significant source of their authority imputed supernatural powers” (Kelsall 2009, p. 145).

A more successful challenge to Afro-modernism was mounted by the fighters themselves. As Durkheimian theory predicts, belief in the occult declined as opportunities to enter a future shaped by an organic division of labour grew. Successfully demobilised through a youth educational programme in 1996, a donso volunteer, veteran of battles against the RUF in Kono District in 1991-3, reported that he was now sceptical about his bullet-proof jacket (Peters and Richards 1998). He went on to express an understanding of what made his enemies fight. Favouritism implicit in a patrimonial system had undermined his own chances of obtaining an education:

What are the reasons this war started and continues?
Well, according to my own view, because when the rebels caught some of our brothers and sisters they took them along with them and told them the reason why they are fighting. Because of the past government, the APC government, the way the government maltreated people. No freedom of speech. When you emphasise on your rights, they take you to court or jail you. And the same bad thing with education. Most of the rebels are students, the majority are students.

How do you know?
They write on paper that they drop. After an attack, they write a message and drop it. These are the reasons why they are fighting, they say. The government doesn’t give any encouragement to people to get land or to go to school. When you come from poor families, but with talent to be educated, there is no financial support. The government…are only bothered about themselves… But for you as a low man, when you come to … that official in that place, he will not give you any assistance. Because he doesn’t know you. This made the war to come.

The ‘motor’ for much of this scepticism was the struggle by ex-combatants to get the government and international community to make good on demobilisation promises. Possibly, this was a more conclusive way of ending occult atrocity than international transitional justice.

Many CDF volunteers were denied entry to the UN demobilisation scheme because a fighter was required to present a modern weapon. Only around 20% had such weapons (Table 1). Most had fought with knives and shot-guns. These fighters could never understand why, having put their lives on the line, they were excluded from demobilisation benefits. They were enraged when a market emerged for the guns collected up by rogue commanders, for sale to youths who had never been near the war, but who had patrons with money to buy the gun on their behalf. This turned many against the one ‘weapon’ they had acquired during the war – occult initiation. At a meeting in northern Kamajei Chiefdom in 2003 to discuss problems with the demobilisation process, CDF fighters heaped piles of such certificates on the table in front of me, angrily asserting they were so much worthless paper.

In Kenema District the secretary of the CDF commander was a highly educated young man (a graduate engineer). He battled the government through a careful, quantitative approach. Table 1 contains the data he compiled for all 17 chiefdoms in Kenema District, in which the size of each CDF force, the number of those killed and wounded in battle, and the weapons they carried, are meticulously listed. These data allow Afro-modern claims made for initiation to be assessed statistically. Fig. 1 compares the chances of a CDF member having a semi-automatic gun and of being killed in battle. Numbers of guns and death rate are not significantly correlated with the size of the CDF force. What is significant is the almost perfect straight line relationship between having a gun and being killed. To some, this will suggest only that guns are dangerous. In fact, it hits against the very basis of occult belief.

Chief Norman, in his defence before the Special Court, cited Deuteronomy 23, vv. 9-11 to support his contention that that CDF fighters were bound by laws of war laid down by God. “No immunised initiate fighter”, he claimed, “will be covered if they go against those traditional rules. So many of [sic.] hunters never returned, who went against that truth, those rules. You receive your punishment in the battlefield.” (cited in Kelsall 2009, p. 137). Set against this assertion, Fig. 1 is equivalent to Galton’s statistical tests for the efficacy of prayer. It is clear from the very high association between having a type of gun and risk of death in battle that the occult mechanism does not work. We cannot reasonably assume that only sinners were given the better class of gun. If breaking a taboo caused the protection to fail then the relationship between having a type of gun and death in battle would be no more than random. Data carefully compiled by the CDF in the war’s aftermath support the sceptical conclusion that the occult is no protection against an AK47.


I offer two concluding sets of thought – one about Afro-modernism and war, and the other about care for the cult as a mechanism for peace.


  1. Afro-modernism in Sierra Leone: without doubt, Afro-modernism changed the outcome of the war in Sierra Leone. Civil defence was a victory for occult means of strengthening political will. This allowed rural communities to protect themselves and reassert agency. But as Douglas avows, the occult is inherently fractious. Other groups appealed to ancestral voices, and began to explore their use. NPWJ provides evidence, for example, that the RUF had begun to experiment with esoteric bullet-proofing techniques. At least some of the extraordinary and shocking outpouring of rebel violence associated with the second half of the war seems to have been deliberate ‘sacrifice’ of civilians intended to strengthen its fighters’ will (Richards 2007). A cycle of escalating horror was ended only by timely introduction of plans for demobilisation (a ritual process of which Durkheim would surely have approved). Through framing their problems in terms of the division of labour, belligerents saw parallels in what had brought them to fight, and thereafter found both voice and peaceful exit options.
  2. Care for the cult: Durkheim centred his study of religion on the cult: “it is always the cult that is efficacious … we must act, and … repeat the necessary acts as often as is necessary to renew their effects” (Durkheim [1912] 1995: 420). But why is the cult efficacious? For a hundred years or so it seemed as if Durkheimian theory rested on a baseless assertion that action caused belief. The elementary form of religion was grounded in a mysterious phenomenology – sub-cognitive ritualism, to use a term proposed by Randall Collins (2004). Even Mary Douglas’ brilliant if guarded critique of Afro-modernism fails to point to why her suggested alternative might work. Recent discovery of the human mirror neuron system suggests that a phenomenology of ritual action may be empirically well-grounded (Gallese et al. 2004). The mirror neuron system provides pathways that allow humans not only to anticipate actions in others but also to attain awareness of their emotional states. Brain scan data show alignments between those who experience action or emotion and those who observe. It is not necessary to suppose that these mirrored patterns have been processed as ideas or thoughts. It is sufficient only, as Durkheim supposed, that “we must act” and that we act with others. An aniconic religion is not a contradiction in terms – a faith without belief. It is a possibility implicit in the sense of emotional alignment that comes from acting together. Embodied simulation (Gallese 2005) makes it not unreasonable to propose that an antidote to Afro-modern terror is care for the cult.
CHIEFDOM No. of CDF Disabled Killed in action Child Combatants Shot-gun Semi-automatic RPG, LMG, Mortar
K/ Leppiama 569 6 26(5%) 0 34 120 (21%) 3
Tunkia 812 2 83 (10%) 63 103 178 (22%) 8
Koya 397 10 40 (10%) 3 33 49 (12%) 1
Dama 1543 34 76 (5%) 64 105 224 (15%) 9
Nomo 263 2 20 (8%) 1 28 40 (15%) 2
L. Bambara 1562 15 175 (11%) 30 172 550 (35%) 13
Niawa Lokoma 1002 6 26 (3%) 6 13 40 (4%) 1
Malegohun 483 29 42 (9%) 26 68 71 (15%) 2
Wandor 1503 1 26 (2%) 43 102 81 (5%) 6
Simbaru 1149 9 33 (3%) 143 51 99 (9%) 0
Nongowa 1894 27 158 (8%) 44 203 410 (22%) 17
Langurama 201 3 13 (6%) 2 1 19 (9%) 0
Golama Mende 1893 34 86 (5%) 122 51 222 (12%) 7
Gaura 458 19 49 (11%) 14 50 80 (17%) 3
Dodo 686 6 36 (5%) 8 130 130 (19%) 3
Small Bo 2076 8 56 (3%) 66 125 146 (7%) 3
TOTAL 16491 211 945 (6%) 652 (4%) 1269 (8%) 2459 (15%) 79

Table 1: Civil Defence Forces of Sierra Leone, summary of nominal roll and arms statistics, Kenema District (compiled by Ishmael Koroma)


Figure 1: Correlation between CDF member having a semi-automatic gun and being killed in battle

Paul Richards is Professor of Anthropology and head of the Technology and Agrarian Development Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His particular interests are in agro-technologies in extreme circumstances, food security and humanitarianism, and social reintegration of refugees and ex-combatants.


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[1] Peter Geschiere, 1995, Sorcellerie at Politique en Afrique: la Viande des Autres, Paris: Editions Karthala.

[2] More correctly, I should say ‘any account currently known to me’. Her biographer and literary executor, Richard Fardon, is currently editing a substantial collection of her unpublished papers.

[3] Even so, it suffers some built-in biases. Conflict Mapping Reporters [CMRs, n.=136] collected data from 401 local key persons [KPs], aged 19-82, in 146 chiefdoms (2-3 KPs per chiefdom). KPs were selected (by CMRs) for “the widest possible overview of the conflict in their area” and for having been “present in their chiefdom for much of the conflict” (NPWJ, p. 14). In the event, most KPs were male farmers with “some position of authority during the conflict such as Town or Section Chief”. Many had also been members of a fighting faction, “most commonly the Civil Defence Forces” (NPWJ p. 15). To correct this bias towards male elders loyal to the government the study also included c. 25 women, c. 25 members of [other?] fighting factions, and c. 40 rebel ex-fighters or rebel captive labourers. Other limitations are that three chiefdoms are missing. The most important of these is Bonkolenken Chiefdom, adjacent to Camp Gofor (an important RUF base in the Kangari Hills) and scene of fierce fighting.

[4] For an account of the CDF written from material collected at the time (i.e. 1996) see Muana (1997)

[5] Coulter’s study is based on evidence relating to northern Sierra Leone. The camps at Gofor in the Kangari Hills, overlooking Bonkolenken, Valunia, and Tane chiefdoms, and in the Malal Hills, in Malal-Mara chiefdom, were among the bases to which her informants were assigned. These camps appear to have offered much less ideological training than Bandawor in Koya chiefdom in the south.

[6] He made this claim at a workshop on Sierra Leone organised by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2001.

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