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Review of L'ONU dans la crise en Sierra Leone / Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone / Civil War, Civil Peace


By Dr Andreu Solà-Martín and Tom Woodhouse

L'ONU dans la crise en Sierra Leone : Les méandres d'une négociation. Jean-Marc Châtaigner. CEAN - Karthala, 2005, 198pp. ISBN 2-84586-619-4 £12.95
Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone. David Keen. International Peace Academy, New York; James Curry, Oxford, 2005. 340pp. ISBN 0-85255-883-X (pb.) £16.95
Civil War, Civil Peace. eds. Helen Yanacopulos and Joseph Hanlon. Open University in association with James Currey, Oxford, 2006. 332pp. ISBN 0-85255-895-3, £22.00

L’ONU dans la crise en Sierra Leone explores in some detail the UN intervention and the prominent role played by the Security Council members alongside the ECOWAS states in the Sierra Leonean peace process. Jean-Marc Châtaigner outlines the rationale behind the decisions which led to establishing a UN peacekeeping operation in this war shattered West African state.

The first part of the book consists of a conflict literature review which summarises well-known scholarly views on the socio-economic and regional root causes of conflict in Sierra Leone. It also describes briefly key issues related to the involvement of regional actors such us Nigeria and Liberia in the civil war. The second part looks at the role played by the UN Security Council since the UN Secretary General accepted to undertake good offices in 1994, up to the signature of the Lomé peace agreement in 1999. This analyses West African dynamics in relation to ECOMOG intervention and the discussions in the council around the case of a major international involvement in the conflict on humanitarian grounds which started to materialise with the deployment of an observer mission (UNOMSIL).

The third part explores in detail the role of the Council while facing the problems arising from the implementation of the peace accord, the withdrawal of ECOMOG and the deployment of a fully fledged UN peacekeeping operation under a peace enforcement mandate in 1999 (UNAMSIL). Jean-Marc Châtaigner also describes the deliberations within the Security Council in relation to core elements of the peace process such us the establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone or the sanctions regime which was approved in order to prevent Liberia from providing assistance to the rebel group (RUF).

The book clearly contributes to our understanding of the dynamics within the Security Council, exploring how influential member states have shaped the UN agenda in Sierra Leone. Inevitably the approach reflects mainly French views and perspectives. Jean-Marc Châtaigner argues strongly in favour of multilateralism and shows how the commitment of the international community to peace has successfully managed to bring stability in Sierra Leone by involving all parties in the negotiation process. The book concludes that more attention needs to be paid to addressing the root causes of conflict within Security Council meetings. Nevertheless, Jean-Marc Châtaigner’s analysis focuses more on top down diplomatic approaches and thus some perspective on the extent to which locally based peace efforts have also paved the way for the UN intervention is largely missing.

Sierra Leone and its civil war has been a high profile concern of the international community, attracting the deployment of one of the largest UN peacekeeping missions in an effort to resolve the conflict and support the peace process. Yet, surprisingly perhaps, the conflict is still largely under-researched, poorly understood and not well covered in the academic literature. Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone, by David Keen, is an effort, and a successful one, to fill the gap. Keen’s book sets out to examine the causes and functions of the civil war that in the course of the 1990s saw up to two thirds of the population displaced and more than 50,000 people killed. The analysis is important for at least two reasons: firstly in the case of Sierra Leone a better understanding of the ‘causes and functions’ of the war is crucial if the conflict is not to reappear in the next few years as the international community pulls back, exposing the danger of the re-ignition of still unresolved underlying or root causes. Secondly, the case study of Sierra Leone is used skilfully by Keen to reflect on the greed versus grievance debate that has dominated civil war analysis in the past five years or so, especially in relation to African conflicts.

The book deepens our understanding of the new wars, or wars of the third kind, that have challenged and perplexed the international community since the early 1990s, but in reality these non-Clausewitzian civil wars have been a feature of the statistics of deadly quarrels for a longer period. Keen challenges the ‘coming anarchy’ and ‘chaos and collapse’ discourse applied to many, indeed even all of these conflicts, because he wants to develop a more closely observed understanding that moves beyond labelling and generalising to listening to the people who have been swept up in the conflict and its violence. Hence the ‘conflict and collusion’ terminology of the title: in other words, collaboration between government forces and militias in Sierra Leone was functional in the conflict in terms of profiteering, legitimising suppression of opponents, and postponing elections. Out of such collusion a war economy and a political economy of conflict sustains itself. So much we know from other studies. However the most insightful part of Keen’s analysis is not on the collusion aspects, but on moving beyond the greed/grievance dichotomy.

Understanding the ‘functions’ of the conflict at a deeper level enables analysis to move beyond both the labelling of conflict causes to the actions of ‘a generation of teenage psychopaths’ on the one hand (the anarchy ‘school’), or the actions of profiteering warlords on the other (the greed school). Both explanations have elements of veracity. Neither provides full explanations that point to the transformative ways forward that motivate Keen’s book. He rightly points to the influence of the ‘greed’ analysis on explaining civil war dynamics, but also from his conclusions on Sierra Leone emphasises the serious limitations of economic calculations: ‘it is almost as if economics is trying to abolish politics, sociology and anthropology and to declare: no more listening required! If we follow this approach, we may be left with a lot of numbers and very little real understanding of conflicts’. (p. 291).

The experience of grievance, shame, humiliation, injustice and exclusion, even if these are expressed in extreme and violent responses, as they were in Sierra Leone, requires understanding and (much more difficult) not only understanding, but appropriate responses by local and international communities which address the drivers of conflict (lack of education, unemployment, lack of justice). Keen’s insightful conclusion offers some direction here on what the post conflict peacebuilding challenges to be addressed are if the conflict is not to relapse into violence when the UN and international presence is scaled down.

Civil War, Civil Peace
is hard to categorise, presented as it is as a cross between a ‘how to’ handbook and a textbook that tries to summarise research on, and explanations for, civil war causation on the one hand, and the case for constructive intervention on the other. The key thesis or argument which provides coherence to the book as a whole (twelve chapters and seven different contributors) is that intervention in civil wars is justified and necessary in two ways: firstly as long as interveners understand the causes of conflict: and secondly as long as they contribute in an informed way to a conflict sensitive process of development which has durable peacebuilding as its objective. The book is co-published by the Open University and is perhaps intended to support students on OU courses related to conflict resolution and peacebuilding, though it also addresses those interested more broadly in the challenges facing the international community in intervening in war torn societies. Throughout, the content and analysis is helpfully illustrated with charts, boxes and diagrams which makes the argument and analysis accessible and jargon free. Each chapter is also concluded with a well chosen a guide to further reading. The issues covered are comprehensive with the first seven chapters, (five of these written by co-editor Joseph Hanlon), essentially covering the causes and dynamics of civil wars, ranging from definitions, the roles of interveners, weak states, the greed and grievance debate, and various explanations of root causes. The second part of the book, from chapter 8 onwards, then looks at the appropriate developmental-peacebuilding response. Alan Thomas in chapter 8 defines development as a process of indigenous conflict sensitive peacebuilding. The power dimension of this is tackled in two chapters, both by Judy El-Bushra, on power and the transformation of power relations, looking at gender dimensions and the inclusion of marginalised groups in new post-conflict social and political institutions. The final two chapters, by Jonathan Goodhand, make the case for intervention for peacebuilding through a ‘working on’ war approach which draws on both conflict sensitive methodologies and on the transformative perspectives of conflict prevention and conflict resolution norms and practices.

The book certainly succeeds in presenting a jargon free account of the current ‘state of the art’ of peacebuilding, and the material is presented in a clear and direct way. It would certainly help those already in the field and engaged in peacebuilding and development to refresh their understanding of assumptions, strategies and techniques underlying their work. It would also help to explain the nature of peacebuilding to a new generation of potential activists. It succeeds admirably in summarising and synthesising recent academic research and making it available to project workers and practitioners. While it does carry some of the theory (for example alternative concepts of power from Habermas and Foucault), the book shies away from engaging with aspects of contested concepts which are preoccupying researchers currently. For example questions about the politics and ideology of peacekeeping and peacebuilding as a means of globalising the values of western hegemons in conflict areas, and of imposing what some observers have called a liberal market economy prescription to resolve conflict, are not systematically explored. Nevertheless the contributors to this volume commit themselves to the idea that peacebuilding is authentic and justified as long as it is carefully designed and directed to work with people in conflict areas to design post-conflict institutions that are inclusive, just and relevant to the needs of the communities concerned. This is indeed a good guiding principle, but it does raise difficult questions about, for example, how this is achieved in different contexts and in particular in different cultural settings. For example, does the approach to and understanding of peacebuilding vary in different regions (SE Asia compared with the Balkans: or the Middle East compared with South America). It would be unreasonable to expect a collection such as this to resolve such questions, and the next stage of research in the field of peacebuilding will no doubt help clarify such questions. For the moment this collection does an excellent job in defining what we know about peacebuilding, and lays the basis for a common understanding of how to further advance effective practice.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 96-100]

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