An international peace-keeping force will start operations soon in war-ravaged Liberia, where the President is under pressure to step down.
A STRONG indication that the Bush administration may soon send a peace-keeping force to the West African state of Liberia came after a small team of military experts from the United States landed in Monrovia, the capital, on July 7. The 20-member team is in Liberia officially to check on the humanitarian situation in the country. But Liberians regard its arrival as the precursor to the dispatch of a full-fledged peace-keeping mission.
A British peace-keeping force had played a key role in stabilising the situation in neigbouring Sierra Leone, a former British colony. Early this year, France intervened militarily in Ivory Coast, another of Liberia's neighbours, when the civil war in that country threatened to get out of hand. The U.S.' image will be further dented in the African continent if the Bush administration does not respond to the urgent appeals of the international community to send peace-keepers to Liberia.
The Bush administration's unilateralism in Iraq and elsewhere has not gone down well in Africa. Many governments on the continent feel that the Bush administration's policies smack of racism.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional grouping of West African States, has already pledged to send 3,000 troops to join a peace-keeping force in Liberia. U.S. officials have said that they hope to send between 500 and 2,000 troops to help stabilise the situation in Liberia. U.S. forces are already overstretched, with 230,000 of them bogged down in Iraq and another 10,000 in Afghanistan. Bush administration officials have been emphasising that any decision to send troops to Liberia would be based solely on the humanitarian and military situation on the ground and the chances for a lasting peace. A senior official was quoted as saying that the deployment of U.S. troops "will not be because of what Belgium or Luxembourg or France thinks about the United States". Washington evidently does not want to give the impression that it has been pressured into sending its troops to Liberia by the international community.
President George W. Bush, who is on a highly publicised visit to the African continent, said in the first week of July that Liberian President Charles Taylor must resign immediately and leave the country. His statement came at a time when rebel forces were besieging the capital. After intense pressure from Bush and diplomatic prodding by neighbouring countries such as Nigeria, Taylor finally announced that he was prepared to step down and leave the country. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made a hurried visit to Monrovia in the first week of July and successfully persuaded the Liberian President to take political asylum in his country.
Taylor, however, insisted that he would leave Monrovia only after the arrival of international peace-keepers. He said that his presence at the helm of the government was necessary to prevent Liberia's descent into chaos and anarchy.
In all likelihood, a small number of U.S. peace-keepers are expected to arrive in Monrovia soon. There have been demonstrations daily in the Liberian capital demanding immediate U.S. military intervention. Liberia was a country founded by freed slaves from America more than a century and a half ago. Ties between the two countries have always been exceptionally close. Liberia was a key ally of the U.S. during the Cold War days. Firestone, the U.S. company, had a huge rubber plantation, the biggest in the world, a virtual state within a state, in Liberia.
TROUBLE started in Liberia in 1980 when Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe staged a bloody coup, wiping out the Americo-Liberian aristocracy, which until then ruled the roost. The Americo-Liberians (descendants of the American slaves who returned to Liberia), who today constitute only around 5 per cent of the population, no longer have a monopoly over power. Taylor, though belonging to this group, had broad-based support, cutting across ethnic groups. By the late 1980s many rebel groups had begun fighting to overthrow the rapacious regime of Doe, who was supported by the Kahn ethnic group.
Full-scale civil war erupted in 1989, when Charles Taylor entered Liberia with a rebel force. Doe was assassinated in 1990 in Monrovia, after he was captured by a rebel group. Taylor's forces, despite being in control of major parts of the country by the early 1990s, had to bide their time. Initially Taylor portrayed himself as a radical leader in the mould of other African leaders who fought against colonialism. Among his initial supporters were Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.
Liberia is rich in minerals and natural resources. Taylor exploited the mining and logging resources to finance his war. By the 1990s he emerged as the most powerful warlord in the country. It was only the intervention of the ECOWAS forces, comprising mainly of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean soldiers that prevented Taylor from capturing Monrovia, after the fall of Doe. An election in 1997, which was considered to have been relatively free and fair, gave Taylor more than 70 per cent of the vote, providing him with the required legitimacy. The simmering civil war in Sierra Leone gave Taylor additional opportunities to expand his influence and rake in illegal revenues, mainly through the smuggling of diamonds.
The long-running civil war has claimed more than 200,000 lives out of a population of three million. It has displaced more than 1.5 million people, and the majority of the internal refugees have congregated in Monrovia. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in the second week of July that it had been struggling to cope with the refugee influx triggered by the recent fighting between the government and rebel forces. In the past one month alone the rebels have made two attempts to oust Taylor's forces.
The two rebel factions, known by their acronyms LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia), control most of the countryside. While LURD is backed by Guinea, MODEL is supported by the government in Ivory Coast. Both the governments have scores to settle with Taylor, who supported rebel movements in most of the neighbouring countries. In Guinea, rebels backed by Taylor had made significant gains in the late 1990s.
The government in Conakry now has the upper hand and is openly helping guerillas of LURD with arms and money. Taylor had meddled in the civil war in Ivory Coast by propping up a faction that owed its loyalty to General Robert Guei, a former Ivorian President, whose assassination last year triggered a civil war. However, it was Taylor's machinations in Sierra Leone that resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian tragedies in the region. Since the early 1990s, Taylor had close ties with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Sierra Leonean rebel group led by Foday Sankoh. Taylor had helped the RUF to take control of the rich diamond mines. The RUF then proceeded to recruit fighters, many of them children, and went on a killing spree. More than 200,000 Sierra Leoneans died in the civil war that followed.
A special court set up in Sierra Leone with the help of the U.N. has charged Taylor with crimes against humanity for his role in the brutal civil war. Taylor had to cut short an official visit to Ghana in June after the court issued its 17-count indictment. However, it is unlikely that Taylor will face a war crimes tribunal anytime soon. Obasanjo, during his recent visit to Monrovia said that Nigeria would not "be harassed by any organisation, or by any country, for showing this humanitarian gesture. This has been interpreted as an assurance to the Liberian President that he would remain undisturbed and be free to lead a retired life in exile in Nigeria.