Public authority and its demons: The Sherbro leopard murders in Sierra Leone

Paul Richards*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Demonization is a widespread aspect of political discourse. We are familiar with the demonization of Brussels bureaucrats as a tool for pursuing the British exit from the European Union, and we take stories about the compulsory straightening of bananas with a pinch of salt, however frustrating it might be that some disaffected voters choose to accept these canards as true. But somehow, stories about the demonic in Africa have been accorded much greater ontological respect, not only by colonial powers keen to boost their own legitimacy through claims to a civilizing mission, but also by anthropologists anxious to understand their informants' imaginative concerns, perhaps without fully appreciating the political craft or guile with which these discourses are invested. In seeking to void the charge of delusion, an empathetic reading of demonization risks missing the strategic significance of mythic interventions intended to extract political advantage. This article examines an instance of mythic creativity in the politics of late nineteenth-century interior Sierra Leone as an example of the stagecraft sometimes implicit in African public authority. The case is that of the human leopard, an avatar of commercially compromised chieftaincy. The article asks whether the alleged activities of these leopards were the straight bananas of a certain form of anti-colonial political resistance. In a concluding discussion, some consequences for understanding current forms and practices of local public authority are inferred.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)226-248
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2021


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