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Customer Review

on 5 August 1998
In the midst of my research on timber Liberia, I was told that the only person who really knew what was going on in West Africa was William Reno, assistant professor at the University of Florida. When I called him to ask for information, he told me about the book that he published just this year. I tracked it down in the library, and was very relieved (after much fruitless searching) to find a readable and informative explanation of the politics of so called "weak states", along with four case studies on West African Nations. Reno's book provided by far the most comprehensive and readable explanation of the modus operendi of this region.
The first two chapters, entitled "The Distinctive Political Logic of Weak States" and "Africa's Weakest States After the Cold War", outline useful background information on the unique political systems in place in sub-saharan Africa. Reno does an excellent job of balancing his political theory with hist! orical examples. The next four chapters, which subsequantly cover Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and DRC (formerly Zaire), provide detailed analyses of the economic and political situations in these countries. Reno places the factions, the foreign business partners and the conflicting European vs. African interests in a solid context. On Liberia he writes, "The way we think about Liberia is strongly influenced by images of chaos and random violence.... In fact, war in Liberia has followed a clear logic. Warlord pursuit of commerce has been the critical variable in conflicts there. Stongmen have used commerce to consolidate their political power within a coalition of interest among themselves, businesspeople, and local fighters"(p.79).
Reno has combined information gleaned from his travels, dozens of interviews, and unique primary documents to provide a cohesive picture of the West African political system, a challenge of sorts to the conventional World Bank wisdom! that would have all "weak states" conform to its! idea of economic viability. He places in context the confusing behavior of rulers of weak states, with their tendency to avoid bureaucratic efficiency and free market enterprise, to the chagrin of first world observers. Reno writes, "Rulers who face threatening internal behavior intentionally cripple the arms of the state, which weakens the agencies that outsiders prescribe as the best means to mobilize resources to alleviate pressure form the international economy, such as debts, balance-of-payments imbalances, and instruments to enhance state revenues"(p.19). The behavior is necessary, he writes, in order to keep local strongmen in check. The conclusion that he draws from this may cause one to ponder; "The joining of political struggle and accumulation-- even as a violent Kalashnikov lifestyle of protection rackets, forced labor, and fencing of stolen goods-- is as much a candidate for a Weberian capitalist style of life as is a Protestant ethic or a Japane! se way of doing business"(p.30).
Rather than criticising from afar, Reno writes from the vantage of a frist hand observer. His ideas are provocative and well stated, valid for both the ignorant student (myself) and the seasoned researcher.
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