Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 6, 2006

The Empire in Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 8:52 pm

Philippe Diaz’s documentary “The Empire in Africa” opens in NYC, Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin theaters this Friday. It is not to be missed. Focused on the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone, it is the perfect rejoinder to those who believe that the West has some kind of obligation to provide law and order through a “humanitarian” military intervention of the sort that NY Timesman Nicholas Kristof contributor calls for in Darfur or that Harvard professor Samantha Powers called for in Rwanda. Using interviews with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group widely portrayed as the Sierra Leone equivalent of the Janjaweed in Darfur, as well as supporters of military intervention against it, Diaz uncovers a rescue mission much more about rescuing diamond mining profits than lives.

“The Empire in Africa” makes no attempt to prettify the RUF, opening with a ghastly display of Sierra Leoneans who have had hands or legs chopped off by the rebels. We eventually learn that these acts were carried out as a reprisal against villagers who were implicated in government-sponsored murders against the group. Although the film does not make the specific connection with Iraq, the violence in Sierra Leone seems to have had the same kind of spiraling, out-of-control, vendetta-like quality seen in Iraq today but without the religious sectarian split. The RUF appears to be like many armed African resistance groups that begin with progressive goals but somehow get derailed in the process. While by no means as retrograde as the Khmer Rouge, the RUF gives the overall impression of a force that has allowed the gun and the machete to prevail over politics. That being said, interviews with at least one militant in the film reveals them to be bent on ridding Sierra Leone of imperialist predators and making the country’s riches, diamonds in particular, a basis for a more just economic development path.

As the violence deepened in Sierra Leone, the UN “came to the rescue”, just as the expensive full-page savedarfur.org ads in the NY Times call for now. Using Western funding from aboveground and clandestine sources, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President with a clear mandate to stop the killing. A long-time employee of the UN, he had the enthusiastic support of the US, Great Britain and France who understand how to manipulate the international body to their own devices. He also had support from ECOMOG, an armed force made up of contingents from a number of African nations, with Nigeria supplying most of the muscle. In other words, Sierra Leone was a model for what is called for in Darfur. As those who urge “humanitarian” intervention in Darfur keep telling us, an effective fighting force made up UN and or African nations is all that is needed to save innocent lives. Nobody should have any such illusions after watching “The Empire in Africa”.

As Diaz’s footage makes clear, ECOMOG soldiers were as brutal as the RUF that they had been called into save the Sierra Leoneans from, if not more so. The camera reveals them to be total thugs, shooting people on the spot and mercilessly beating those that they do not kill. Why anybody would expect anything different from Nigerian soldiers is the mystery of all times. With its bloody suppression of the Ogoni people, they had plenty of experience in terrorizing a civilian population before coming into Sierra Leone. As for the British and their other “civilized” partners, their record in Africa going back to the late 1800s has been undiminished cruelty in the pursuit of profits. Asking Western Europeans, Americans and Nigerians to act selflessly on behalf of some kind of rescue mission is like asking Al Capone to look after your life savings.

With the support of the UN and the West, Kabbah was able to suppress the RUF and guarantee continued access to the country’s diamonds by outside interests.

Philippe Diaz came to Sierra Leone in 1991 with a commitment to getting beneath the official version of what was happening there. On the film’s website, he states:

The government had made it clear to us that we should not interview the rebels because our safety couldn’t be assured and as one minister put it, “they are so illiterate anyway, they wouldn’t be able to talk to you.” It took us a long time to establish a connection to the rebels, not because we didn’t know where to find them – they were officially in town – but because they had decided to not give any interviews to foreign journalists that “had manipulated the truth” for many years. It took us almost a month to convince them that we were not here to demonize them but to tell the truth. Once they believed us, they were all willing to tell their side of the story… and were perfectly able to do so. For “illiterate” people, I must say some of them were the most knowledgeable people I had met in the country with an analysis of world politics that was much more developed than that of some of the current ministers we had met. Our safety was never in jeopardy in their campground, even if we didn’t feel too at ease being surrounded by young soldiers, some teenagers, armed with AK-47.

It took a tremendous amount of courage for Diaz to make such a film. Not only does he deserve credit for debunking myths that have circulated about the “humanitarian rescue” in Sierra Leone, he has made a compelling film that ranks with some of the finest I have seen about the problems of war in Third World countries.

This is a film that will stick with you long after you have seen it. It is not only must viewing for political activists, but for anybody trying to understand the problems of war and peace in a continent that has become an obsession for liberals with a missionary complex. Africans indeed deserve better and Philippe Diaz has made a powerful contribution toward that end with “The Empire in Africa”.

Film website and scheduling information



  1. “The RUF appears to be like many armed African resistance groups that begin with progressive goals but somehow get derailed in the process.”

    That word “progressive” again! Somehow I imagine the ghost of Henry Wallace (or was it Earl Browder?) hovering over your laptop. “Progressive” is a vague and misleading concept, borrowed from LaFollette, et al. to Americanize what used to be called “fellow traveling.”

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — December 8, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

  2. Any good books you would recommend on Sierra Leone?

    Comment by Adam Johannes — December 8, 2006 @ 7:27 pm

  3. Actually, the current issue of Workers Action, a British socialist publication has an article that is very relevant. Since they use frames, I can’t give you the exact URL but here are Bob Wood’s instructions as posted to Marxmai:

    The full article can be accessed at: http://www.workersaction.org.uk/

    Click on current issue, and then ‘Civil War in Sierra Leone’.

    Here it is:

    Number 30 – August 2006

    Workers ACTION
    Assessing the civil war in Sierra Leone

    Bob Wood reviews three recent books

    David Keen, Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone, James Currey, Oxford 2005

    Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa: the RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, Hurst and Co, London 2005

    Ibrahim Abdullah, Between Democracy and Terror: the Sierra Leone Civil War, Codesria, Dakar 2004

    The last UN soldiers left Sierra Leone at the end of December last year, leaving behind some UK forces still training the Sierra Leone army. The largest-ever deployment of UN peacekeepers (and the British Army under separate command) had successfully restored democracy after a protracted civil war that started in 1991, and defeated a vicious rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), or so the story ran. No account of the war was complete without a reference to the RUF’s trademark – the hacking off of limbs. As ever, the reality is rather more complicated.

    Keen commences his account by noting two key events in the war: the ‘unholy alliance’ formed between the army and the rebels in 1997, and the 1999 invasion of Freetown, in which 6,000 people were killed. He notes that although the RUF was involved, the invasion was largely the work of the Sierra Leone army, even though ‘many find it easy and politically convenient (or both) to blame the country’s plight on the evil of a few rebels . . .’. But, he asks, how could between 100 and 300 rebels invading from Liberia in 1991 create the subsequent mayhem in which two-thirds of the population were displaced and 50,000 killed in a decade of war? Adjectives like ‘evil’ and ‘inhuman’ subvert our understanding of the violence, and it remains ‘incomprehensible’. To try and understand is not necessarily to justify.


    Comment by louisproyect — December 8, 2006 @ 7:34 pm

  4. The RUF’s ‘progressive’ ideology can not be considered anything more than a veneer… and not one that held up for more than a few minutes. I have been to the north of the country. There is almost no region that was not burnt by the RUF. Some villages were burned three times over.

    Yes, the story is more complicated. Yes, an unpaid, untrained military spiraled into activity almost as degenerate as the military in some areas of the country.

    You can find an eloquent spokesperson (of a fashion) for almost anything. Their rhetoric may even be something that they are trying to convince themselves of.

    The idea of limbs being hacked off as ‘reprisals’ is lunacy. Have you heard the stories or met any of the people to whom this occurred? Young mothers, teens, business owners… anyone that an (often drugged)RUF soldier encountered who rubbed them the wrong way, stood in their path, possessed something of value… was at risk.

    Is the ‘west’ full of pure motives in any of it’s interventions? No. But ‘regulation’ of a valuable natural resource is impossible during times of chaos. I believe that the desire for unmitigated ‘access’ and ‘control’ over great stores of wealth by a few individuals or entities is what drove this horrific war. If there is ANY hope of a ‘regulated’ industry, from which the country of SL derive benefit, it would have to evolve during a time of stability.

    You can ‘call on the table’ all of the complicating factors that you want: false economies created by NGOs, current lack of ‘transparency’ or ‘political will’ in the country’s governance, the greed and sense of entitlement of the ‘west’ (or, for that matter, China)… but any effort to legitimize the ‘motive’ of the RUF is a reflection of one having bought into an incredible delusion.

    Comment by emily — December 9, 2006 @ 10:16 am

  5. I saw a preview of “Blood Diamonds”. It told the story with a Casablanca/Indiana Jones story thrown in. I enjoyed it.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — December 9, 2006 @ 9:25 pm

  6. Thank you, emily, for some sanity. Sanitizing the RUF and the vile things they did is despicible. I spent considerable time in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and time with the child soldiers whose lives were torn from them, and the amputees etc. Using a drunken killer like mike Lamin as a viable spokesperson for anything is really beyond the pale. I saw him in the bush. Not a pretty picture. Talk about buying into an incredible delusion. This is beyond sick and sad. You have lost all sense of shame, decency, compassion and moral reason.

    Comment by Douglas Farah — December 14, 2006 @ 7:45 pm

  7. I think that Emily might want to do some soul-searching after being endorsed by Mr. Farah. He is a rightwing nut who has stated on his blog that Hizbollah is expanding into Venezuela. This is the sort of thing that Claire Sterling used to “excel” in long before Judith Miller disgraced herself.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 14, 2006 @ 7:59 pm

  8. it doesn’t make any sense to me because it’s all WRONG

    Comment by belinda stacey navarro — January 5, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  9. […] “The Empire in Africa“, the film does not attempt to analyze the civil war in Sierra Leone.  It instead approaches […]

    Pingback by Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 14, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

  10. […] I also strongly urge you to watch Diaz’s “The Empire in Africa”, which is available from Netflix. This movie is about the civil war in Sierra Leone and, unlike most documentaries about suffering in Africa, indicts the imperialists and the UN. Here’s an excerpt from my review: […]

    Pingback by The End of Poverty? « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 26, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

  11. […] Don Don makes a good companion piece to Philippe Diaz’s The Empire in Africa,  a penetrating analysis of how British and American money interests, particularly in the diamond […]

    Pingback by War Don Don « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 26, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: