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Stephen Ellis 1953-2015: A tribute from Tim Kelsall and African Affairs

Sunday 2 August 2015

It’s with great sadness that I learned, on Wednesday, of the death of my friend and colleague, Stephen Ellis.

Stephen and I worked together as co-editors of the journal African Affairs between 2003 and 2007. It was an exciting time to be an editor, with the revolution in online publishing, an increasingly competitive journals market, and the growing importance of academic citations indices. Although a historian himself, Stephen strongly believed that African Affairs ought not to be competing for the same kind of articles as African history journals, that it should focus on what it did best—political science and sophisticated reportage. In this way, he helped give the journal a more contemporary flavour, and laid the foundation for its subsequent rapid rise in impact. He also wanted to raise its profile beyond its traditional constituency of the Royal African Society and UK academia, and was instrumental in encouraging more Africa-based authors, Americans, non-academics, and continental Europeans to write for the journal. As an example, Stephen’s brilliant translation of Jean-Francois Bayart’s ‘Africa in the world: A history of extraversion’ remains one of African Affairs’ best ever cited articles. Thanks partly to these efforts and to a dedicated team at OUP, the journal went from financial strength to strength, a factor that helped underpin a transformation in the staffing and profile of the Royal African Society itself.

It was a great privilege for me to be able to work with Stephen in this period. I was a young academic just beginning my career, while Stephen was an established scholar at the height of his powers. To his great credit, he treated me from the beginning as an absolute equal, without a trace of condescension or suggestion of hierarchy. Every week we discussed the submissions, the reviews of already submitted papers, and decided how to respond to authors. I was always inspired in these exchanges by Stephen’s encyclopaedic knowledge, consummate professionalism, and also the kindness and consideration he showed to authors. Even when undertaking an extremely demanding role at the International Crisis Group, he continued to do more than his fair share for the journal, an indication of how much it meant to him.

In addition to being a dedicated editor, Stephen was a prolific author in his own right, publishing extensively on several African countries. Widely admired, his work was also often provocative and occasionally misunderstood. For example, some readers felt his work on cannibalism in the Liberian civil conflict stigmatised Africa and Africans; but to me, it was a serious attempt to make sense of, and thus to humanise, an otherwise confounding social practice. I also remember attending a CODESRIA conference with Stephen in Maputo in 2005, where, to his bemusement, a keynote speaker singled him out as the spearhead of a movement to recolonize Africa!

I do not wish to dwell, however, on the details of the controversies his work has sparked. I prefer instead to mention three areas where I think he will have a lasting impact. First, in his contention that knowing Africa’s history is important to understanding its present. Stated this way the point seems obvious, but it is surprising how many political scientists and in particular policy-makers lose sight of this, and few scholars have made the argument so eloquently as Stephen. Second, the related and passionately held belief that more historians should work on the history of contemporary Africa, something that I think we are now beginning to see. And finally, his work with his partner Gerrie ter Haar, which emphasises the deeply religious worldview of many Africans and discusses how this manifests itself in multiple spheres of modern life, including politics.

Stephen was an extraordinarily talented person, enjoying, among other things, a terrific memory, facility for foreign languages, and lapidary writing style. It was perhaps surprising, then, how approachable and down to earth he was: he was self-confident without ever being arrogant. He was also great fun to spend time with, and could probably have published more than one volume on Africa based on his amusing anecdotes alone.

This week African studies has lost in Stephen Ellis one of its most valuable contributors. It gives me some comfort, however, to know that although Stephen has been taken from us, his influence, through his writings and the people he worked with, will live on.

TK                                                                                                       31 July 2015

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