The Empire in Africa (2006) Poster

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A defense of the indefensible
ijapa13 April 2006
I lived in Sierra Leone for over two years; leaving the country about 18 months prior to the conflict. I lived in the town where the rebels (the Revolutionary United Front or RUF) established it's base for the duration of the war. I'm well familiar with the political background to the war and followed the war in detail, albeit from abroad, through a wide range of sources (including personal contacts).

The film 'Empire in Africa' makes the point that all of the various armed factions involved in the conflict committed human rights abuses. This is absolutely correct. However, the large majority of human rights abuses, particularly those committed against civilians, were committed by the RUF and their allies, the Armed Forces Revoluntionary Council (AFRC). I recommend that interested persons read the online reports at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. To suggest that all factions were equally responsible for the atrocities committed against civilian Sierra Leonians, as the film does, is simply dishonest.

The film uses purchased footage of atrocities being committed out of context, suggesting that groups other than the RUF/AFRC were responsible. In one scene, an unarmed man is executed while the narrator discusses abuses committed by UN forces. However, the soundtrack from the original footage is audible in the background with the perpetrators clearly speaking Krio (the national language of Sierra Leone). The UN peace-keeping forces were drawn from other West African countries where Krio is not spoken.

The film depicts, through narration and interviews, the RUF as devoted to purging the country of foreign corporate interests and corrupt politicians in order that the proceeds of the country's mineral wealth benefit all Sierra Leonians. Make no mistake, the RUF was a criminal organization that sought to control the country for the sole purpose of enriching themselves and their own foreign benefactors (primarily Charles Taylor in Liberia). The truth is that there was very little foreign investment in Sierra Leone prior to the war. The country was simply too poor, too corrupt and too unstable to attract investment. The most lucrative sector of Sierra Leone's economy is diamonds. The diamond trade was (and still is) controlled by government parastatals, local chiefs and, primarily, by the Sierra Leonian-Lebonese business cartel. These were not corporate actors nor foreigners.

The film also examines the role of foreign peace-keeping forces in the country and argues that the conflict was exacerbated by international power politics. In fact, the 1990's were a period of utter indifference to the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa by Western nations. The West turned its back on Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The film pointedly blames Nigeria for interfering in the conflict. But, the truth is that Nigeria acted because no one else would. It was only through the actions of Nigeria and the UN that this "low intensity Rwanda" was stopped.

I could go on like this for several more pages, but I'll spare you. In short, please do not subject yourself to scenes of graphic brutality and confusing political analysis just to give the apologists for one of the most brutal regimes in the history of the world a chance to make their case!
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Empire in Africa is Rebel Propaganda. Do not be misled.
rw_intheUSA16 January 2007
I worked in Sierra Leone. The filmmaker presents a dishonest view, defending the RUF rebels and blaming just about everyone but the RUF. I agree with ijapa's review based on my experience.

Some specific inaccuracies:

President Valentine Strasser, who accidentally came to power in a coup in 1992, made the decision to hold elections in 1996. At the last minute, Strasser decided to retain power, was deposed, and the elections carried out by the Sierra Leone cabinet under General Bio. The UN did not impose them. The UN is represented as an evil outside force throughout the film.

The elections were judged fair by observers. The RUF tried to prevent them and did not participate. Their campaign of terror against voters by cutting off voters' hands and feet made the elections much more difficult and costly because many voters were refugees.

The rebel leader Foday Sankoh was put in the cabinet by the Lome Accords in which the Clinton administration, burned by the Somalia experience (Black Hawk Down), was willing to agree to anything that it thought would stop the rebels without US troops. The decision in no way validated Sankoh as a legitimate leader as proposed in the film. In fact he used the position to further the war and was eventually arrested. After he was arrested, his detailed records of 2000 diamonds he was attempting to illegally sell in Antwerp were discovered. He died in prison of old age awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, at 65 well beyond the average life expectancy of Sierra Leonians.

Nigeria has a strong friendly relationship with Sierra Leone because many Nigerians attended Fourah Bay College in Freetown. Nigeria is the strongest member of ECOMOG, the West African NATO. It was appropriate for ECOMOG to intervene in Sierra Leone as requested by the Sierra Leone government.

Nigeria's soldiers are among the most professional in Africa. Did ECOMOG kill civilians in the RUF attack on Freetown, the capital, in the rebels' "operation no living thing" attack? Probably, but not on the scale proposed by the rebel spokesman. Keep in mind that many rebels were easily identifiable by their RUF tattoos.

There is no mention of Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord and finally president. Taylor created the RUF as we know it, extending his Liberian tactics of total terror and child soldiers to Sierra Leone. Taylor financed the rebels and provided weapons in exchange for Sierra Leone diamonds mined by the RUF. The RUF diamonds were used by Al Qaeda to hide assets in advance of the Nairobi US Embassy bombing and 9/11. For details check the Washington Post.

Taylor was arrested in the US for embezzlement but escaped from jail. Soon after he underwent guerrilla training under Muammar Qaddafi in Liberia as did Sankoh in the mid 1980's. He is now awaiting trial in at the International Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity for his role with the RUF.

The filmmaker uses footage from the film "Cry Freetown". That filmmaker's website does not support the statements advanced by "Empire in Africa". There is a first person account on the website of the capture of a small boy shown in the film.

Should you see the film?

It contains many statements, including in the narration, which are not true. The average viewer without country knowledge will have difficulty determining what is true and what is not. It is in no way balanced and does not add to an understanding of what happened.

The film contains numerous shots of corpses, body parts and on camera killing. For that reason it is unrated in the US. The gore adds nothing to understanding what happened.

Do I recommend it? No.
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Horrific but necessary viewing.
andrewvictory21 August 2006
Just saw this film at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over the past couple of days.I found the film to be very hard viewing due to the atrocities that are shown which seemed to be indiscriminate of gender or age. I personally have never been shown footage like that before for general viewing. I do agree as "Ijapa in the states" has stated that you are given an impression by the film that the RUF are responsible for the majority of the atrocities that happened in Sierra Leone.Having never lived there I would never be able to comment on this. I do however think that it is a documentary that the public should be made aware of at least as I knew very little regarding the problems that Sierra Leone have and think that this should be very much to the director and everyone involved's credit.
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Absolute Propaganda
Amonaghan039 December 2012
I followed the situation in west Africa throughout the mid to late 90's and into the early 2000's. This film is an absolute tragedy of propaganda and revisionist history on the part of the RUF. The film consistently paints the UN and Ecowas in a negative light in contradiction to what is being shown on the screen. RUF commanders repeatedly contradict themselves sometimes denying the atrocities committed in their lust for mineral wealth out right. Charles Taylor is not once mentioned in the film. It's been categorically proved that a large part of the rebel activity was funded, planned and supported logistically by Taylor's government in a bid to siphon mineral exports from the country illegally. The film also makes no mention of the final British intervention that ended the war in May 2000. As someone who has followed the situation closely for some time it's unthinkable why this film was made.

Like most pieces of propaganda this movie weaves a convincing narrative filled with statements and images designed to elicit a knee jerk moral reaction. Unfortunately anyone without an understanding of the situation will probably be drawn in to the lies.
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context missing
chuck-52621 December 2013
First a disclaimer: I have no independent source of information about Sierra Leone and can offer no judgments on the accuracy/inaccuracy of this film. All I have are some generic background/stereotypes about African nations and about international interventions.

This film does present some lessons about "nation building" in general that I feel have been under-emphasized for too long, suggesting some overdue behavior changes of the "international community".

Most important is that "men with guns" _no_matter_what_side_they're_on_ are always very hard on civilians. Troop discipline (it seems especially troops from poorer countries) is guaranteed to break down at least occasionally, and atrocities against civilians will result. Infrastructure will be destroyed, something that economically developing countries can ill afford. Mexico is a current example where what began as an apparently laudable effort to diminish corruption has resulted in intolerably high levels of violence, and where eventually it was the "good guys" (the federal troops) who were committing many of the civilian atrocities. It may (and here's what I feel the "international community" needs to learn) be better in the long run for a country to have a low level of violence but the "wrong" government, than a higher level of violence even though it eventually results in the "right" government being in power.

Another important point is that "democracy" shouldn't trump everything else. "Democratically elected" governments can be authoritarian, highly corrupt, or illegitimate, as well as incompetent. Governments that came to power -and stayed in power- in ways that aren't fully understood or sanctioned by the west sometimes do all the right things. Take Singapore for example: it has a very high level of economic development (in fact it's sometimes called a "middle power") and a very low level of violence. Yet the country was essentially controlled by one man -Lee Kuan Yew- for a quarter of a century (1965 to 1990). Why does the west care so much about the trappings of "democracy" in third world countries?

Yet another point is that regional forces (some but not all economic) can so consume the inside of a particular country that trying to stop the tide purely from inside the borders of one country simply isn't possible. The larger regional forces need to be dealt with in some way. As noted by several other reviewers, the situation in Liberia with Charles Taylor spilled over into Sierra Leone. It didn't work to deal with the issue as purely a Sierra Leoneian one. Too much money and motivation was coming across the borders. The Liberian situation needed to be at least completely insulated (better solved altogether) before a solution in Sierra Leone was realistically possible.

Lastly, to call a military force a "peacekeeping" force is just dangerously fooling ourselves. Military forces, no matter what their provenance or charter, always result in higher levels of violence. Typically when other nations send in a "peacekeeping" force, they've had to choose between democracy but with violence, and significantly less violence but no democracy. That choice isn't so obvious or simple as the word "peacekeeping" makes it seem.

Undeniably western journalistic coverage tended to be overly superficial anyway, and undeniably most western journalists were easily and thoroughly manipulated. Undeniably this film had far more "access" and far more opportunity to do deep reporting than was typical. So then I was quite disappointed that this film didn't seem to me to make its case all that well. The coverage is deeply disturbing (it may occasion hushed conversations and flashbacks and even nightmares). It seemed to me the lessons listed above were portrayed very clearly. But as far as any larger meaning, I simply didn't "get it" from watching the film.

What was the economic state of Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war, and just how much did its GDP change by the end? Just how much economic inequality was there compared to other African nations, third world nations outside Africa, and first world nations? Did economic inequality grow or shrink during the civil war? What exactly were the original demands of the RUF (just saying "economic independence" without any specifics is far too vague)? Specifically which natural resources were being exploited at the beginning of the civil war, and which contracts/concessions were egregiously unfair? What was the context of the history of Sierra Leone, at least back to the beginning of colonialism? If the year by year level of violence in Sierra Leone and in Liberia were plotted on the same chart, what relation between them would be suggested? What are the principal tribes and tribal boundaries in Sierra Leone? How did tribal frictions contribute to governments, coups, and the RUF?

I was also confused by some of the material that was presented. For example, the signing of a peace accord was shown once early in the film and again a second time late in the film. Did that event happen near the beginning of the civil war or near the end of the civil war? Why couldn't a time-line graphic be shown at least briefly? Also, some of the presentation felt incomplete. At one point an agreement resulted in a power sharing government with several RUF ministers. At a later point all of those RUF ministers are in jail. This was significant, something dramatically contrary to the terms of the peace accord. So there must have been some sort of explanation. Maybe it was BS. But I'll never know, because it wasn't presented at all.

The bottom line for me is that despite the great access and much deeper digging than typical western journalists, I felt I didn't learn anything.
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Penetrating examination of international role in Sierra Leone's civil war
cle-of-e28 January 2006
"The Empire in Africa" is a courageous examination of a tragic and complex topic, the civil war in Sierra Leone, its propaganda-driven portrayal in the international media, the global commercial interests at stake, the regional and international contribution to the continued violence and the effects on the civilian population of war and poverty in a country that is extremely wealthy in natural resources. (See, I said it was complex.) The events, the various parties and issues could easily have become hopelessly confused to a viewer --so much of the film's success is that its many interviews with people from all sides and a remarkable collection of footage from various sources, is edited so that it that manages to tell the story in a clear way. It is guaranteed to arouse the viewer's indignation at the role of the rest of the world (including other African countries as well as Western states such as the UK, France and the USA, exercising political and economic influence through bilateral relations and through the United Nations) in prolonging the war in this small country. It is also an indictment of the international news media for accepting the easy answers and official stories and not digging deeper for the truth.

Warning: The film has some very gory images; however I don't feel it was gratuitous but necessary to tell the truth of a story that has been much misrepresented. Some of the most disturbing footage was of violence by regional troops aligned with the government, which Director/Producer Phillipe Diaz revealed (during the Q & A after the screening at Slamdance Film Festival) had been given to him by a Sierra Leonian government official who wanted the truth revealed, although it clearly meant he had to flee his country forever. M. Diaz, who has faced a good deal of pressure not to show this film, and who himself cannot return to Sierra Leone or to Nigeria, had to disguise the true focus of the film he was making from the authorities as long as possible, finally handing over a set of 'dummy' tapes and smuggling the real ones out of the country.
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Western Democracy and Free Markets at work.
CoolClones25 June 2007
There are many negative comments about the facts of this film. I watched it and I decided that what has transpired in Sierra Leone is almost typical the every wealthy former Colony.

The price of Independence for many countries in what we mockingly call "The Third World" has been corruption and tyranny. These nations may have their Independence, but the Colonial power's organisations have retained all of the rights to the most valuable property which they initially stole from the people.

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's position of power reminds me somewhat of General Pinoche in Chile, The Shah in Iran, Marcos in the Phillipines and Saddam Hussein as leaders kept in power to serve foreign business interests.

The History of the last 200 years has told us that when poverty reaches a certain level, worker's Revolutions occur using Marxist ideologies to fuel the uprising. In the 80's these movements, such as the Sardinistas, where labelled as Communists and systematically reviled and suppressed by the Free Market Economies. Tyrants where kept in power to protect foreign businesses from Nationalisation.

Now in the face of uprising, all that can be agreed on is to hold Elections. If the Revolutionary party wins the election, the International Community will simply not recognise the government and label them a "Terrorist Organisation" (eg Hamas).

Free elections are pointless exercises.

I point to the 1953 Iranian coup d'état to illustrate my point. Here, a Democratically Elected government was removed from power by a US/UK backed coup when they revealed plans to nationalise the Iranian Oil Company (Better known as BP). The International Community then endorsed a Dictatorship which was in turn crushed in 1979 by a Shia Muslim Revolution.

This is a very familiar old story told in Africa instead of South America or The Middle East.
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True footage of Sierra Leone's civil war that depicts the harrowing struggle involving both its internal and external conflict with the international community.
daniel-sarkissian26 March 2006
This is an excellent documentary that successfully educates the audience on the details and depth of the crisis in Sierra Leone in 1991. The film presents various opposing sides of the conflict through interviews, commentary, and visual events captured on-camera. Although it contains extremely graphic depictions of violence and is not suitable for everyone, the candid nature of the film achieves its goal of jarring its viewers both physically and emotionally. After watching the film with a few close friends, days later we were still making comments to one another and having less-than-welcoming flashbacks of the images we witnessed. For those passionate about history and the struggle of Africa, this documentary is shocking and eye-opening.
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