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Vol 56 No 16

Published 6th August 2015

Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015

An obituary by Lansana Gberie

Stephen Ellis’s 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's first book, which partly grew out of his thesis, was a sympathetic and insightful study of a brutally suppressed revolt in colonial Madagascar in the late 1890s. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 1985 as Rising of the Red Shawls. He subsequently published several books on other parts of Africa, all of them on the post-colonial period and all of them having a strikingly different tone from the Madagascar book.

Stephen then left academia to work first with Amnesty International in London, focusing on Africa, and then as Editor of Africa Confidential for five years. In 1997-98, he was a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In these positions, he fully confronted the depredations and betrayed promises of the post-colonial state and liberation movements in Africa. Yet rather than despair, he energetically took on the challenge of understanding the problem without condescension or affectation, using his training as an historian and his skills as a journalist to examine African crises with acuity and consistently dispassionate and rigorous reasonableness. The results were invariably praised and condemned in almost equal measure.

The Criminalisation of the State in Africa, which he published jointly with Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou in 1999, set the new tone. It brings together a number of sharply observed and polemical essays, which one reviewer at the time impatiently dismissed as ‘long on sweeping assertions and short on corroborating data.’ Anyone reading the book now is likely to find its main conclusion – that several African countries were run by shadowy forces with links to organised crime – modest.

That same year, Stephen published The Mask of Anarchy: the destruction of Liberia and the religious dimension of an African civil war, published by Christopher Hurst. It followed extensive research which he had undertaken in Liberia for Amnesty International in 1994, documenting the atrocities of the civil war there. It was an unusual book. In lucid and well-documented prose, the first part provided an unmatched narrative of the course of the war, as well as a description of its many colourful characters.

In the second, defining, part, Stephen tried to understand the atrocities in the country by focusing not on political or socio-economic factors but on ‘spiritual’ forces – what he described as ‘developments in the realm of… religious imagination.’ He argued that a weak externally imposed state, spearheaded by former American slaves, had to make important accommodations with indigenous secret societies or sodalities in a process of ‘mutual assimilation’.

This worked well through the 19th and 20th centuries, until the political crisis that began in the late 1970s up to the civil wars of the 1990s subverted not just the formal constitution but also the ‘spiritual constitution’ of secret societies, and of Islam and Christianity, in which the state was anchored. The result was the nihilism of the civil war, including apparently pointless massacres, ghoulishly attired child soldiers inflicting terror on defenceless villagers and ritual cannibalism. Factional leaders such as Charles Taylor cynically partook on a perversion of this last atrocity to gain legitimacy and broad support in the now corrupted Liberian society.

Though the book continues to be widely praised as the standard text on the Liberian civil war, critics at the time picked on this discussion of ritual cannibalism to charge the Stephen Ellis with having a malicious attitude towards Africa. When the book’s allegation that Taylor had indulged in cannibalism was repeated in The Times newspaper, Taylor, then President of Liberia, sued in London but withdrew the case when a judge ordered him to deposit £175,000 as security for the defendants' costs should he lose the case. This was after the judge had rejected Taylor’s submission attempting to bar the evidence of several human rights groups, including Liberian activists, who had volunteered to testify.

The hysterical reaction to the book might help to explain why, though the African Studies Association of the United States shortlisted it for the Herskovits Award in 2000, it didn't win. However, many Liberians who went through the depredations saw great value in Stephen's research. He was invited by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to give expert testimony.

Earlier, Stephen was an expert witness at the opening of the trial of former President Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone at the Hague in January 2008. Open testimony by prominent Liberians before the Commission and the Special Court, including by Taylor's former Vice-President, Moses Blah, supported Stephen's account in graphic detail. His many critics remained silent in the face of this emphatic vindication.

In 2004, Stephen Ellis had collaborated with his partner, Gerrie ter Haar, who is now an Emeritus Professor of Religion and Development, to publish ‘Worlds of power: Religious thought and political practice in Africa’, which expanded on his theory about the important role of spiritualism in African affairs.

Far more controversially, Stephen used Liberia as a prime example of a ‘failed state’ which needed to be brought under a new form of ‘trusteeship’ in an article for Foreign Affairs in 2005. Entitled ‘How to Rebuild Africa,’ the article argued that the current United Nations' approach to the battered country, which merely provided a secure environment while leaving the entire machinery of the state in local hands, was bound to fail. It would not lead to rebuilding Liberia and the country would collapse into another round of war once the UN peacekeepers withdrew.

‘Intrusive outside meddling often smacks of colonialism and is thus a bitter pill for African nationalists to swallow. But sometimes there is simply no alternative,’ Stephen argued. ‘No one is advocating a return to the UN's old trusteeship system.’ Under the new arrangement, he suggested, ‘locals would remain full partners’ in an arrangement of ‘multilateral joint ventures in which certain countries and institutions share control over key operations.’ The trusteeship should avoid taking over all aspects of the public administration since to ‘ensure that Liberia starts to govern itself effectively, foreign administrators should concentrate on securing the boundaries of the political field while allowing new local arrangements to emerge. This can best be accomplished by taking control of the main sources of revenue and ensuring that money is then passed on to the Liberian Treasury on agreed terms.’

The suggestion outraged many African scholars and politicians, some of whom described Stephen Ellis as a neo-colonial agent advocating the re-colonisation of Africa. In fact, an arrangement similar to what he proposed, the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Programme or GEMAP, was signed between the National Transitional Government of Liberia and the International Contact Group for Liberia in September 2005, the month that the article was published. It was perfunctorily implemented, however, and was shortly after phased out. No one can currently claim that twelve years after the UN deployed one of its largest peacekeeping missions – costing billions of dollars – Liberia can stand on its own in peace. The UN Secretary General observed in a report published in April that national reconciliation efforts, a key guarantor of long term stability, have throughout not been pursued by the Liberian government, ‘while concerns about corruption, impunity, nepotism and cronyism went largely unheeded.’

However, the controversies over Liberia and crime in Africa looked like mere dress rehearsals after Stephen published External Mission: the ANC in exile, 1960-1990 in 2013. Here he tackled one of the world’s most iconic struggles, the African National Congress’s anti-apartheid struggle, and one of its most venerated leaders, Nelson Mandela. He had already documented in Africa Confidential, via an ANC defector who brought him first-hand testimony, how ANC dissidents in the Umkhonto we Sizwe training camps in Tanzania and Angola had been detained without trial and interrogated. Some were tortured and murdered.

The opprobrium which the ANC and the wider anti-apartheid movement heaped on Stephen for those revelations was no deterrent. The book on the ANC in exile, in painfully exhaustive detail, exposed other dark aspects of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid. They included some of what was already known from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: instances of brutality within the party and the corruption of its exiled leadership.

The book showed that this corruption was more widespread than suspected and it included the exiled leadership’s involvement in drug-trafficking: smuggling the Indian-manufactured sedative Mandrax (Methaqualone) to South Africa and Botswana was a lucrative favourite in the 1970s. Car theft and diamond smuggling was another.

Key ANC officials, including a one-time representative in London, were easily recruited by the apartheid authorities. The most explosive findings related to the ANC’s relationship to the South African Communist Party, which was white-dominated. Stephen's research revealed that key ANC figures, including Mandela, joined the SACP: they hoped to benefit from its important international network, including China and Soviet Union, for the ANC’s planned armed struggle. In fact, the book suggests that the mighty ANC was effectively a front for the numerically small but more ideologically cohesive SACP at the critical point when the ANC decided to launch an armed struggle in the early 1960s.

This sparked a great deal of outrage and accusation of sloppiness within South Africa, though Stephen received critical support from the historian Paul Trewhela, a former SACP member who was a political prisoner in 1964-67. The controversy played out in the New York Review of Books in June and August 2013, with Bill Keller, the former New York Times South African bureau chief and by now Executive Editor, energetically defending Mandela and the ANC. He conceded Stephen's point that Mandela had indeed (briefly) joined the SACP but he argued that Mandela was a pragmatist who ‘was not a Communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practised, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he held.’

The issue is by no means settled but the debate is now poorer after the loss of Professor Stephen Ellis’s singular voice. He was undoubtedly the most productive and accomplished Africanist of his generation, and the fact that his work could generate debate in Africa, Europe and the United States at the same time is a testament to its value. His legacy seems assured.


Lansana Gberie is the author of A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Hurst, London, 2005)


Also read:

Obituary: Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015

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


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