The Mask of Anarchy

The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War

November 2007 9781850654179 384pp
Temporarily out of stock


Liberia has been one of Africa’s most violent trouble spots. During the 1990s thousands of teenage fighters laid siege to the capital and the world took notice. Since then Liberia has been through devastating civil upheaval. What began as a civil conflict has spread to other West African nations as well.

Stephen Ellis traces the history of the civil war that has blighted Liberia in recent years and looks at the political, ethnic and cultural roots of a conflict that led to the 1997-2003 presidency of Charles Taylor — now indicted as a war criminal. He focuses on the role religion and rituals have played in shaping and intensifying this brutal war. In this edition Ellis describes how many of the same problems still exist, providing a challenge that international policymakers will ignore at their peril.


‘Outstanding. … A fascinating and profound exploration of what Ellis sees as Liberians’ deep spiritual anarchy, manifested during the war in extreme brutality, incidents of cannibalism, and the fighters’ bizarre sartorial affectations. … Ellis’s persuasive analysis of Liberian religious ideology and culture does more than make sense of these strange phenomena. It offers rare insight into the way political, physical, and spiritual power can be linked and legitimized in the popular imagination. … A model of lucid writing, thorough research, and penetrating interpretation, this is one of the best books on Africa in recent years.’ — Foreign Affairs

The Mask of Anarchy is exemplary in its detail, lucidity and courageous directness.’ — Africa

‘No one interested in the continent can afford to miss this book.’ — Sunday Telegraph

‘Cogently argued and supported by a wealth of observation.’ — Times Literary Supplement


Stephen Ellis was Desmond Tutu Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the VU University, Amsterdamand a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden. He wrote groundbreaking books on the ANC, the Liberian Civil War, religion and politics in Africa, and the history of Madagascar.  

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