In This Review

A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone
A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone
By Lansan Gberie
Indiana University Press, 2005, 224 pp

Gberie, a journalist and longtime observer of Sierra Leone's politics, has written an evenhanded and perceptive account of the country's tragic civil war during the 1990s. Much of his story focuses on the rebel leader Foday Sankoh, a small-time political entrepreneur who emerged from radical student politics, went through military training in Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, and went on to lead the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in one of the most vicious and pointless civil wars of the twentieth century. Gberie aptly compares Sankoh to a character in a Dostoyevsky novel. Despite its thin veneer of left-wing rhetoric, the RUF was motivated by the substantial profits available from control of the illicit diamond trade and by a nihilistic cruelty that led it to rape, maim, and kill a large number of the civilians that crossed its path in the Sierra Leonean countryside. Notwithstanding his evident lack of organizational abilities, Sankoh held tenuous sway over the RUF thanks to a combination of personal charisma and a ruthlessness that led him to kill off potential rivals. Gberie's analysis is consistently readable, and he does a fine job of disentangling the complexities of the civil war, the international peacekeeping efforts, and the reemergence of reasonably stable constitutional rule under President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in the early years of the twenty-first century. The book ends there, and it unfortunately provides little insight into the long-term impact of the decade of civil conflict on Sierra Leone.