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Shelly Dick and Wiebe Boer

The Spirits Are Angry

Liberia's secret cults in the service of 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, 256 pp.; $36.50

In 1989, a civil war broke out in Liberia, Africa's oldest republic. The ensuing conflict can be described in two very dissimilar ways, depending on which aspects of the war are highlighted. One perspective emphasizes that the war was launched by Christianized, American-educated, and Libyan-trained military commanders who quickly broke into numerous factions. Although the ultimate goal of each party was to secure the presidency of the country, the short-term goal was to take advantage of available resources by selling diamonds, iron ore, rubber, timber, and other products to world markets. In short, it was a typical late-twentieth-century "small war" influenced by numerous international players with rational men battling each other for resource control and access to the globalized world economy.

By contrast, the war could be de scribed in a completely different way. Ragtag armies of insurgents launched a civil war that quickly evolved into conflict between ethnic-based factions. The militants dressed in bizarre attire and protected themselves with various charms. Their leaders used all sorts of means—including alleged human sacrifice and cannibalism, which functioned as symbols of spiritual power—in order to capture political power over the nation's people. To foreign observers, all the characteristics of "Darkest Africa" seemed to have returned to re claim a country that historically thought of it self as more American than African.

These two accounts do in fact describe the same war. The Liberian Civil War launched by the Charles Taylor-led National Patriotic Liberation Front (NPLF) in December 1989 plunged Liberia into a decade-long conflict, which became increasingly difficult to comprehend as the contending factions proliferated. To further complicate matters, many observers believe that ...

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