Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Doreen Lwanga responds to a review of Blood Diamonds by Del Hornbuckle and contextualises the role of the RUF in the Sierra Leone civil war.

Del Hornbuckle’s recent review of Blood Diamond, “Blood Diamond…TIA (This is Africa)” in Pambazuka News 287 (2007-01-17)() offered me an inside look at the film without having to give my money to Hollywood. My reason for boycotting Hollywood movies on Africa was due to their deliberate refusal to get the story right and preferring sensational exaggerations and faces of miserable and chaotic Africa in need of a “white humanitarian”. The last Hollywood movie on Africa I watched was “Black Hawk Dawn”, expecting to see the gallant Somalis taking down the US military invaders. Instead, I was bombarded by pictures of Somalis handing roses to US marine saviours on the streets of Mogadishu. What part of Mogadishu was that? Ironically, many on the African continent anxiously await such movies (including the acclaimed Last King of Scotland) even when they depict Africans as brutal and bloodthirsty cannibals.

Back to Blood Diamonds. Although I learned a lot from Ms Hornbuckle’s film review, I was not convinced by the equation drawn (seemingly from the film), that is, the RUF war was about child soldiers and blood diamonds. It is easy for Hollywood to accuse the RUF of accelerating the war through illegal diamond mining and using child soldiers without putting all the facts together. For one, why was a movie based on events that occurred in Sierra Leone shot in Mozambique, a country in Southern Africa with no regional context? Remember that the Sierra Leone civil war involved regional players in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria. This reductionism of the Sierra Leone conflict to a “RUF problem” of greed, violence and conflict reminds me of Robert Kaplan’s thesis entitled “The Coming Anarchy” published in The Atlantic Monthly of February 1994. Kaplan claimed that scarcity of resources, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease in Africa where rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet. His essay was so influential that the US State Department faxed copies to all of its Embassies around Africa, undoubtedly shaping its Africa policy.

Fortunately for us, whose attention to context and historical understanding of events does not wither away, along came Paul Richards’ 1996 book ‘Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth & Resources in Sierra Leone’. Richards dedicated this book to critiquing the New Barbarism thesis espoused by the likes of Kaplan. He analysed the Sierra Leone civil war as deeply rooted in the troubled history of resource exploitation, involving slave trade, timber, ivory, and valuable mineral resource exploitation. Through dedicated scholarship and long-term residence in Sierra Leone, Richards conducted interviews with child soldiers, ex-combatants, youth, diamond traders, RUF members, government forces, village leaders and residents in mining areas and other regions with RUF incursions in Sierra Leone. Thus, he successfully contextualises the RUF struggle as a revolt against the patrimonial rule of Sierra Leone and marginalization of ordinary people rather than one driven by greedy and trigger happy illiterate people.

It is also true that RUF cut off people’s limbs but not necessarily as alleged by Ms Hornbuckle that, “the less desirables, one-by-one, have limbs chopped off when they’re not useful as child soldiers or mine workers.” RUF cut off limbs to stop people from going into fields for the harvest and to stop hands from voting in the elections of February 1996 (Richards, op cit. xx). However, RUF also had a disciplined and non-materialistic way of life, which involved sharing looted food and medical supplies to all recruits and punishing anyone who looted for personal wealth. According to Richards, RUF was a group of “excluded educated elites”, a product of intellectual anger making rhetorical point deeply rooted in the troubled history of resource extraction (pp. 25-27).

The RUF war in Sierra Leone included several professionals and school dropouts who joined as a protest against the socio-economic marginalization and corruption of the ruling government in the distribution of national resources. Schoolteachers who joined the RUF sought to avenge against the ruling government’s failure to pay their salaries while school-going youngsters in the diamond districts of eastern and southern Sierra Leone saw no future with schools broken down long before the RUF arrived (Richards, Chapter Four). Even conscripts terrorized in the process of capture, later discovered that RUF political analysis addressed their sense of exclusion and the rebels often treated them generously (Richards, p. xix; 53). Richards tells of girls who had never owned decent shoes, being offered a choice of shoes and dresses by the rebels. Others had a chance to resume their education, and received a good basic training in the arts of bush warfare (pp. 28-29).

Since I didn’t see the film myself, I am relying on Ms Hornbuckle’s account that leaves out the political economy context in which RUF incursion took place in Sierra Leone. That is, the patrimonial state benefited from blood diamonds and distributed national resources to political constituencies, thus accelerating social marginalisation, fuelling social grievances and the emergence of the RUF guerrilla movement. For instance, in exchange for security, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) granted huge mining concessions in Kono district to the South African private security company, Executive Outcomes (p.17). The RUF joined the control of some mineral deposits and diamond resources as a means of obtaining basic subsistence and military equipment. Whereas the patrimonial government collected revenue for personal consumption from trade in diamonds with licensed dealers (mainly Lebanese), the RUF as an outlawed non-state entity could not legally trade in its diamonds. The act of criminalizing the activities of ordinary diamond traders in resource-rich communities denies them an income for school fees and family survival. Previously, communities in resource-rich areas of Eastern Congo, DRC have spoken out against international sanctions and boycott campaigns that criminalize their non-licensed batter trade in their minerals. This is perhaps what President Nelson Mandela meant to re-echo.

No doubt that the atrocities committed by the RUF undermined their campaign. They failed to take their protest to the central government in Freetown and mostly hurt those people sharing similar grievances against the ruling government – the rural population. However, the usual story Hollywood enjoys telling about Africa is a decontextualised one involving the evil (RUF represented by Captain Poison), the disposable (Solomon Vandy) and the saviour (a white journalist Maddy Bowen). Paul Richards book is a must read for everyone because it excels in giving a human face to rebels and guerrilla fighters, as members of a frustrated society, something continuously diminishing with our fascination with the growing global terrorism outlook.

* Doreen Lwanga is an Africa Scholar, Researcher and Activist working in the areas of African security, Pan-Africanism and Higher education in Africa. In 1993, Robert Kaplan, a US journalist wrote a book on the Balkan conflict and later expended his argument to African events in Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sierra Leone in an influential essay in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1994. This essay was a reading for my graduate class in the US on Humanitarian Assistance. Paul Richards also sought to challenge the “Resource Curse” thesis advanced by World Bank economist Paul Colliers and others. Paul Richards (1996): Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth & Resources in Sierra Leone. Oxford: James Currey

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at