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Testifying about ‘Uncivilized Events’: Problematic Representations of Africa in the Trial against Charles Taylor


The article presents an anthropological analysis of witness testimony about ritual murder, cannibalism, and secret societies in the trial against Charles Taylor in The Hague. In the first part, a comprehensive in-depth analysis of the testimony of one prosecution witness serves as a case study to illustrate the difficulties of assessing the veracity of witness statements on alleged atrocities linked to African religious and spiritual beliefs. The second part contextualizes the testimony heard in the trial against Charles Taylor by drawing on historical sources and the academic literature on West Africa. The analysis reveals striking parallels between the prosecution narrative and colonial representations of Africa as a mysterious and savage place.

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1 Crane, D., ‘Dancing with the Devil: Prosecuting West Africa's Warlords: Building Initial Prosecuting Strategy for an International Tribunal after Third World Armed Conflicts’, (2005) 37 CaseWRJIL 1, at 3.

2 J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1999), 4.

3 M. Mamadani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996).

4 V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (1988).

5 A. Mbembe, On the Postcolony (2001); E. Said, Orientalism (1978).

6 A. de Waal, ‘Moreno Ocampo's Coup de Theatre’, entry posted on 29 July 2008, SSRC Blog ‘Making Sense of Sudan’, available online at

7 Mamadani, M., ‘The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency’, (2007) 29 London Review of Books 5.

8 Cf. W. Reno, Warlord Politics and African States (1999).

9 D. Crane, ‘Handing Over Charles Taylor: It's Time’, Jurist: Legal News and Research, available online at

10 Cf. R. Burns, A Theory of the Trial (2001).

11 Ibid., at 221.

12 N. A. Combs, Fact-Finding without Facts: The Uncertain Evidentiary Foundations of International Criminal Convictions (2010).

13 H. Mulisch, De Zaak 40/61: Een Reportage (1962), 66–7 (author's translation).

14 Crane, supra note 1.

15 Cf. Côté, L., ‘Reflections on the Exercise of Prosecutorial Discretion in International Criminal Law’, (2005) 3 JICJ 162; Jallow, H. B., ‘Prosecutorial Discretion and International Criminal Justice’, (2005) 3 JICJ 145; Rodman, K. A., ‘Is Peace in the Interests of Justice? The Case for Broad Prosecutorial Discretion at the ICC’, (2009) 22 LJIL 99.

16 See The Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor, Prosecution's Second Amended Indictment, 29 May 2007, SCSL-03-01-PT-263 (hereafter, Taylor Indictment).

17 Prosecutor v. Issa Hasan Sesay, Morris Kallon, Augustine Gbao, Transcript 5 July 2004, SCSL-04-15-T, at 19.

18 Ibid., at 20.

19 Ibid., at 20.

20 Ibid., at 21.

21 Ibid., at 20.

22 Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor, Transcript, SCSL-2003-01-PT, 1-90 (hereafter, Taylor Trial Transcript).

23 See S. Rapp, ‘The UN's Special International Criminal Courts Are Now Exceeding Expectations’, lecture held on 11 November 2008 at Columbia Law School, available online at; and ‘Money Troubles at Trial of First African Leader to Face a War Crimes Court’, The Times, 22 April 2008, available online at

24 Art. 1(1), Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

25 For an excellent summary of the prosecution case, see J. Easterday, The Trial of Charles Taylor Part I: Prosecuting ‘Persons who Bear the Greatest Responsibility’, June 2010, at 40–3.

26 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 6018.

27 Combs, supra note 12.

28 T. Kelsall, Culture under Cross-Examination: International Justice and the Special Court for Sierra Leone (2009).

29 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 6044.

30 Ibid., at 5968, 6080.

31 Ibid., at 6024.

32 Ibid., at 6082.

33 Combs, supra note 12, at 21–44.

34 Kelsall, supra note 28, at 171–224.

35 Combs, supra note 12, at 14–15.

36 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5944.

37 Ibid., at 5943–5.

38 In his account of the TRC hearings in Monrovia, Gberie notes that Milton Blahyi, a former militia commander who claimed that he had performed countless acts of magical cannibalism and killed thousands of people, ‘behaved less like a contrite sinner than a hero seeking a national platform’, Gberie, L., ‘Briefing: Truth and Justice on Trial in Liberia’, (2008) 107 African Affairs 1, at 4. See also the testimony of an important insider witness in the trial against three leaders of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), a pro-government militia, Prosecutor v. Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana, Allieu Kondewa, Transcript 10 March 2005, SCSL-04-14-T, at 46, 48–9, 54–5, 81.

39 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5949.

40 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5946–7.

41 Ibid., at 5878–9.

42 Cf. ibid., at 5965–6.

43 Ibid., at 5837.

44 Ibid., at 5837.

45 Marzah also testified about the use of human intestines and skulls at checkpoints, the killing of babies and pregnant women, several massacres of civilians, and the execution of civilians, peacekeepers, and enemy combatants in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, consistently claiming to have committed these crimes on Taylor's orders. Marzah was not the only witness before the Special Court for Sierra Leone who testified about cannibalism, ritual murder, and secret societies. In the trial against three leaders of the Civil Defence Force (CDF), a pro-government militia, one prosecution witness gave extensive testimony on ritual killings connected to initiation rituals (Prosecutor v. Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana, Allieu Kondewa, supra note 38, at 18, 21–2, 25–6, 56–9), but this is beyond the scope of the present analysis. The testimony of this particular witness is well described by Kelsall, supra note 28, at 124–7.

46 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5914–19.

47 Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor, SCSL-03-01-T-1101. Decision on Defence Motion to Exclude Evidence Falling outside the Scope of the Indictment and/or the Jurisdiction of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 6 October 2010.

48 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5916.

49 Ibid., at 6004–12.

50 Ibid., at 6011.

51 See R. Shaw, Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone (2002), 244.

52 Cf. S. Ellis, The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War (2007), 260; and M. Ferme, The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone (2001), 7–8.

53 Ellis, supra note 52, at 236–7.

54 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 6012.

55 Prosecutor against Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara, Santigie Borbor Kanu, Appeals Judgment, 22 February 2008, SCSL-2004-16-A-675-1, at 129; Prosecutor against Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana, Allieu Kondewa, Appeals Judgment, SCSL-04-14-A-829, 28 May 2008, at 199; Prosecutor against Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, Augustine Gbao, Judgment, SCSL-04-15-T-1234, 2 March 2009, at 171.

56 See Prosecutor against Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, Augustine Gbao, supra note 55, at 167.

57 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5928.

58 Ibid., at 5929.

59 Ibid., at 5930.

60 Ibid., at 5930.

61 Ibid., at 5931.

62 Ibid., at 6153.

63 Ibid., at 5931.

64 Ibid., at 5998.

65 Ibid., at 5995–7. See also Ellis, supra note 52, at 78–9.

66 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 5999–6000.

67 Ibid., at 6153–6.

68 Ibid., at 6156.

69 Ibid., at 6156.

70 On poro and sande in general, see B. L. Bellman, The Language of Secrecy: Symbols and Metaphors in Poro-Ritual (1984); Ellis, supra note 52, at 223–33; Ferme, supra note 52; K. Little, The Mende of Sierra Leone: A West African People in Transition (1967), 240–53; G. Schröder, Eine verborgene Dimension gesellschaftlicher Wirklichkeit: Anmerkungen zur Geschichte und heutigen Bedeutung der Geheimbünde Poro und Sande in Liberia (1988).

71 Ellis, supra note 52, at 251.

72 Taylor Indictment, supra note 16, at 1.

73 Ellis, supra note 52, at 251.

74 See ibid., at 225.

75 Cf. ibid., at 250–1.

76 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 24354.

77 Ibid., at 5850.

78 Fischer, E., ‘Masks in a Non-Poro Area: The Dan’, (1980) 1 Ethnologische Zeitschrift Zürich 80, at 82.

79 Ellis, supra note 52, at 226; Schröder, supra note 70, at 46–50.

80 Taylor Trial Transcript, supra note 22, at 24535.

81 Ibid., at 25251–4.

82 Ibid., at 25254.

83 Ibid., at 25256.

84 Ibid., at 25255.

85 Ibid., at 5893.

86 Ibid., at 40857.

87 Ibid., at 40863.

88 Ibid., at 6154

89 Ibid., at 42097.

90 Ibid., at 42095–6.

91 Ibid., at 42093.

92 Ibid., at 42097–8.

93 Ibid., at 6141–2. Payments to prosecution witnesses have been a recurrent theme in the trials before the Special Court for Sierra Leone; see Easterday, supra note 25, at 44–7.

94 G. Greene, Journey without Maps (2006/1936), 42.

95 See Shaw, supra note 51, at 227–30.

96 Cf. W. Arens, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1979).

97 K. J. Beatty, Human Leopards: An Account of the Trials of Human Leopards before the Special Commission Court: With a Note on Sierra Leone, Past and Present (1915).

98 Ibid., at 124–5.

99 Ibid., at 34–5, 42–3, 59–60, 80, 82.

100 Ibid., at 23.

101 Ibid., at 28, 37–8, 45.

102 See ibid., at ix.

103 Ibid., at 41.

104 Ibid., at 34, 36, 44, 62.

105 D. Pratten, The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria (2007), 6–7, 197, 200–1, 211, 216.

106 Beatty, supra note 97, at 33, 39–40, 43, 85.

107 See A. Abraham, Topics in Sierra Leone History: A Counter-Colonial Interpretation (1976), 120–30; Ferme, supra note 52, at 180–6; Pratten, supra note 105; Richards, P., ‘Chimpanzees, Diamonds and War: The Discourses of Global Environmental Change and Local Violence on the Liberia–Sierra Leone Border’, in Moore, H. (ed.), The Future of Anthropological Knowledge (1996), 139, at 143; Shaw, supra note 51, at 232–41.

108 The President of the Special Commission Court, W. Brandford Griffith, is worth quoting in this regard, Beatty, supra note 97, at viii: ‘In Mende-land the bush is not high, as a rule it is little more than scrub, nor is the vegetation exceptionally rank, but there is something about the Sierra Leone bush, and about the bush villages as well, which makes one's flesh creep. It may be the low hills with enclosed swampy valleys, or the association of the slave trade, or the knowledge that the country is alive with Human Leopards; but to my mind the chief factor in the uncanniness is the presence of numerous half-human chimpanzees with their maniacal shrieks and cries. The bush seemed to me pervaded with something supernatural, a spirit which was striving to bridge the animal and the human. Some of the weird spirit of their surroundings has, I think, entered into the people, and accounts for their weird customs.’

109 Pratten, supra note 105, at 10.

110 Ibid., at 17.

111 Crane, supra note 1, at 3.

112 M. H. Moran, Liberia: The Violence of Democracy (2006), 5–6; Richards, P., ‘New War: An Ethnographic Approach’, in Richards, P. (ed.), No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts (2005), 1; Shaw, R., ‘Robert Kaplan and “Juju Journalism” in Sierra Leone's Rebel War: The Primitivizing of an African Conflict’, in Meyer, B. and Pels, P. (eds.), Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment (2003), 81.

113 J.-F. Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (1993).

114 Ferme, supra note 52, at 180–6; Shaw, supra note 51, at 251–6.

115 For instance, in March 2010, newspapers in Monrovia reported the arrest of 10 people for ritual murder in Harper, in south-east Liberia: ‘10 Held for Ritual Murder in Harper’, Liberian Observer, 26 March 2010. See also ‘Nasty Business: A Spate of Ritual Killings Unnerves Liberia’, The Economist, 3 February 2011.

116 Ellis, supra note 52, at 249–59.

117 Ibid., at 253.

118 Cf. ibid., at 321. Ellis acknowledges the problem but concludes that local newspaper reports constitute ‘crucial sources for Liberian history’. Whilst this is undoubtedly the case, it is necessary to exercise extreme caution regarding the veracity of these reports.

119 The most comprehensive account of the Maryland Murders is provided by Fred P. M. van der Kraaij, a Dutch diplomat who lived in Harper during the 1970s. He suggests that the accused were actually victims of a power struggle within the True Whig Party (

120 Ellis, supra note 52, at 263–5.

121 Marzah testified before the TRC in Monrovia on 10 February 2009. Unfortunately, at the time of writing in March 2011, his testimony was not available.

122 Cf. Gberie, supra note 38, at 4.

123 Beatty, supra note 97, at 13.

* Dr, LL M, lecturer in African Studies, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh []. The article is based on a paper presented at the conference Common Civility: Criminal Law as a Cultural Hybrid, held at the T.M.C. Asser Institute, The Hague, 28–29 January 2011. I would like to thank the participants for their insightful and invaluable comments. For helpful suggestions at a later date, I am grateful to LJIL's reviewers.

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