In This Review

The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War
The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War
By Stephen Ellis
New York University Press, 1999, 365 pp.

The first half of this outstanding study of Liberia's civil war (1989-97) reviews the conflict's political, economic, military, and international features, drawing on a comprehensive array of sources. The second half is a fascinating and profound exploration of what Ellis sees as Liberians' deep spiritual anarchy, manifested during the war in extreme brutality, incidents of cannibalism, and the fighters' bizarre sartorial affectations. These things tend to boggle Western minds, as did the overwhelming support among Liberian voters for the unprincipled warlord Charles Taylor in the country's 1997 presidential election. But Ellis' persuasive analysis of Liberian religious ideology and culture does more than make sense of these strange phenomena. It offers rare insight into the way political, physical, and spiritual power can be linked and legitimized in the popular imagination -- and how each can run amok in the absence of durable institutional checks and balances. A model of lucid writing, thorough research, and penetrating interpretation, this is one of the best books on Africa in recent years.