From 1945, when Germany was divided into East and West, until 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War power dynamic defined international relations. The term “Third World” was coined by economist Alfred Sauvy to refer to those countries in South Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Oceania that were unaligned with either the Communist Soviet bloc or the Capitalist NATO bloc during the Cold War.

From 1990 until 2001 there was a period of uncertainty in the field of international relations. Two of the most cited theories came from Francis Fukuyama, who argued that the end of the Soviet Union marked the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” and from Samuel Huntington, who argued that a clash of civilizations would define new sources of global conflict. (With a new policy of sustained war against the non-nation, AfPak, and with the global financial system huffing and puffing on the ropes, it seems that Fukuyama was perhaps over-exuberant.)

It is through this filter that the importance of the first Liberian civil war in 1989 (just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall) comes into crisp focus from an international perspective. Liberia had long been an important West African ally to the United States. The colony was founded by freed slaves from the US in the mid-19th century. Those freed slaves settled in the capital Monrovia, which they named after US President James Monroe, and their children and grandchildren became the elites of the country.

Stephen Ellis, Desmond Tutu professor in the faculty of social sciences at the Free University Amsterdam, argues that the freed slave colonizers of Liberia never intended to adopt a policy of manifest destiny to spread their political influence beyond Monrovia until the Europeans came knocking at their borders during the late-19th century scramble for Africa. With France and Great Britain closing in, Monrovia’s political elites, having coalesced their power in the True Whig Party, realized that they needed to extend their influence over all 14 major ethnic groups and the hundreds of clans which make up each major group. A large patronage network was established with clan leaders and tribal chiefs. Foreign rubber and mining companies (most famously, Firestone) created jobs and taxable revenue that ensured the continued one-party rule by the True Whigs over the next 100 years, during which time Liberia would prove to be a strategic West African ally for the U.S. and home to a major CIA base.

Then came the 1980 coup, the fall of the True Whigs, and the fall of Americo-Liberian political dominance. In a certain sense, Liberia has always been two separate countries; first, metropolitan Monrovia and it locus of power and trade and, second, the vast expanse of mineral-rich land spreading out to the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. But in 1989 those two provinces of the imagination became political realities, when loosely connected bands of rebel fighters began recruiting child soldiers from around greater Liberia and the political elite in Monrovia sought protection first from the United States and then a Nigerian-led deployment of ECOMOG. This was the first major conflict in the new post-Cold War era.

If it had been 1987 rather than 1989 there is little doubt that the United States would have stepped in to protect the dictatorial Samuel Doe. But, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was a new world ripe for new policy. A ship of US Marines was seen on the horizon of Liberia’s emerald sea, but they were there solely to evacuate US citizens. A few months later Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the first Gulf War began, and Liberia disappeared from American newspapers and attention.

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Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy is divided in two parts: 1.) ‘Chronicle’ and 2.) ‘Inquiry’. But I would label the two parts differently. Part one, in my mind, examines the role that Liberian, West African, and international political structures played in the lead-up to the first civil war. The second half of the book, in the form of of religious ethnography, examines how a breakdown in Liberia’s spiritual institutions led to the 14-year conflict.

In the West we are used to thinking about conflict in terms of political actors, but Ellis argues convincingly that Liberia’s social structures are maintained as much by religious institutions, like Poro, as political institutions like the True Whig Party. His main thesis: that Liberia’s civil war was the result of a spiritual crisis at least as much as it was a political crisis. And, furthermore, that without addressing the breakdown in authority of Liberia’s spiritual leaders, social and political peace will never take hold.

The argument made sense to me intellectually, but I only understood it as reality yesterday morning as I wandered into a Catholic church in Cambridge, Massachusetts and watched the hundred or so gathered set their moral compass to the liturgy as interpreted by the presiding priest. What would happen, I wondered, if this church – and every other church in the United States – were to evaporate overnight? All the synagogues, gold-topped orthodox churches, Muslim mosques, exclusive Mormon temples, colossal suburban mega-churches – all gone in an instant. Would social order still hold, or would we see a breakdown in society?

My hypothesis is that the United States would in fact hold together. After all, this is a country (the only one) founded on the idea of secularism. But would Mexico continue to function as a single country without Catholicism? Would Iraq have even the remotest chances of surviving as a single nation without Islam? I am doubtful. In both countries religion serves as an adhesive (however weak) that unites extremely diverse populations with little interest in national unity for the sake of nationalism.

Similarly, Ellis argues convincingly that religious institutions in Liberia – like Poro and other initiation societies – were responsible for minimizing conflict among the Gio, Grebo, Krahn, Mandigo, and the country’s other major ethnic groups. This doesn’t mean that warfare didn’t take place – it did, and frequently. But the loss of life and social impact was practically inconsequential when compared to the aftermath of Liberia’s two civil wars for national dominance from 1989 – 2003.

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Other than seeking to include the role of spiritual institutions to a serious analysis of the Liberian Civil War (and African conflicts in general), it’s clear that Ellis sought to challenge what he saw as sloppy journalism and shallow analysis during the fighting. Many western journalists – having arrived without any background in Liberian history – went wild portraying the fighting as anti-modernist savagery on LSD. They were – as journalists so often do – looking for quotes to fill their own explanatory narratives rather than seeking historical context for an extraordinarily complex conflict. Washington Post correspondent Keith Richburg wrote:

It’s a war with a general named Mosquito, a war where soldiers get high on dope and paint their fingernails bright red before heading off to battle. It’s a war where combatants don women’s wigs, pantyhose, even Donald Duck haloween masks before committing some of the world’s most unspeakable atrocities against their enemies. It’s the only war that hosts a unit of soldiers who strip off their clothes before going into battle and calls itself ‘the Butt Naked Brigade’. It’s a war where young child soldiers carry teddy bears and plastic baby dolls in one hand and AK-47s in the other. It’s a war where fighters smear their faces with makeup and mud in the belief that ‘juju’, West African magic, will protect them from the enemy’s bullets.

This is all true. But what Richburg failed to do was explain in sober terms why these seemingly savage and bizarre actions were taking place; how they fit in along a much longer timeline of West African history before American or European colonizers ever arrived. Ellis provides that exact analysis. At times it is dense, and at times difficult to follow, but for anyone arriving in Monrovia with a desire to understand the thick web of social complexities that led to one of the world’s most gruesome civil wars, The Mask of Anarchy is required reading.

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In 1920 a young Nigerian schoolboy met a new classmate, a student from Liberia who told his new friend of a country ruled by and for Black men. The Nigerian schoolboy, named Nnamdi Azikiwe, was so impressed by Liberia that he wrote a letter to the Liberian government 10 years later seeking employment as a diplomat, and in 1934 he published a book on Liberian foreign policy. Three decades later he became the first president of independent Nigeria and a leader for nationalist movements throughout West Africa.

Liberia had long been a beacon on the hill for Black Nationalists all around the world, an example of successful and autonomous Black governance. Throughout much of the mid-20th century Liberia had one of the highest economic growth rates in Africa and the world. But Liberia’s economic success depended on its social exclusion and its relationship with the foreign companies operating the rubber plantations and mines. In the 1970’s a number of factors led to the corrosion of the True Whig Party’s political authority. Revolutionary fervor was spreading around West African universities, commodity prices fell, Nigeria gained power as oil prices rose, and Liberia’s iron ore reserves became depleted.

Meanwhile, the forces of globalization led to a breakdown in the social and religious institutions that had governed most Liberian ethnic groups for centuries. With a breakdown in federal political power as well as grassroots social infrastructure, Liberia was ripe for chaos.

The implications of Ellis’ analysis are fairly straightforward – when measuring the possibility of severe conflict on a national level, it is important to consider the status of social and religious institutions. Today Liberia is a country with strong leadership and strong support from the international community. But it is also a country that was terrorized by angry teenagers for over a decade. Unless they, and the generations to come, are integrated into some sort of moral and spiritual infrastructure there is little chance that peace will last long enough for multi-party democracy to take root for the first time in the country’s history.

And now, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the Daily Show:

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