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Vol 56 No 16

Published 6th August 2015

Obituary: Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015

Stephen Ellis, Editor of Africa Confidential from 1986 to 1991, died on 29 July 2015. AC was just one chapter in Stephen’s distinguished career as one of the most prolific and respected Africanists of his generation. His love affair with Africa started early in his life. At 18, he went to live in Douala, Cameroon, to work as a volunteer secondary school teacher. He then went to St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, and took a degree in modern history, which he followed with a doctoral thesis on the history of Madagascar. While researching for the doctorate, he lectured at the University of Madagascar in 1979 and 1980.

Stephen then left academia to work first with Amnesty International in London, focusing on Africa, and then as editor of AC for five years. In 1997-98, he was a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

The Criminalisation of the State in Africa, which he authored jointly with Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou in 1999, set the tone for critical coverage of African governance that challenged conventional views. He also published The Mask of Anarchy: the destruction of Liberia and the religious dimension of an African civil war, published by Christopher Hurst that year.

Stephen’s sanguine treatment of the appalling excesses of Charles Taylor and his followers, including cannibalism, saw him excoriated for supposed racism and may have cost him a book prize but he was completely vindicated on the world stage when Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called him as an expert witness in 2008. He had also courted controversy in 2005 when outlining concepts of trusteeship for ‘failed states’ and again when describing the African National Congress’s intimate relationship with the South African Communist Party in his most recent book, Comrades in Exile, in 2013, in which he documented Nelson Mandela’s membership of the SACP and again incurred a storm of opprobrium. His intellectual honesty and rigour made him widely honoured. While still a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, he was in 2008 appointed Desmond Tutu Professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.


Also read:

In remembrance of Stephen Ellis, by Gillian Lusk, Associate Editor, Africa Confidential

Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015 An obituary by Lansana Gberie



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