End of a civil war

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Liberians welcome the accord signalling an end to the civil war, but there are factors that can dash their hopes that peace this time has come to stay.

THE agreement signed between the Liberian government and the two rebel groups on August 11 to form an interim government was welcome news for the embattled people of Liberia, who have not experienced peace for the past 14 years. The deal came a week after Charles Taylor's resignation from the presidency and exit from the country. His resignation was a major demand of the rebel groupings as well as the United States. President George W. Bush had stated that U.S. peace-keepers would be deployed in Liberia only after Taylor left the country. Taylor had argued that a hasty departure by him would result in a power vacuum, which in turn would exacerbate the chaos. A team of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Foreign Ministers had to visit Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to arm-twist Taylor to go into exile.

After Taylor's reluctant exit, the two rebel groups, the Liberians United for Liberation and Democracy (LURD) and the smaller Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), began stonewalling the demands to disarm. In fact, MODEL fighters, in a bid to occupy territory to increase their bargaining power at the negotiating table, had started moving towards Monrovia's international airport. The LURD held on to Monrovia's port for some days. Rebel forces occupy four-fifths of the country.

THE latest accord, which was signed in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, calls for an immediate end to the fighting and the formation of a transitional government in October. The present government is led by Moses Blah, who was Vice-President under Taylor. The Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the proposed interim government will be non-controversial personalities who are not identified with either of the rebel groups or the ruling party. They will also be non-combatants. The agreement also calls for disarming by all the armed groups and the establishment of a new army in which all groups will be represented. General elections are proposed to be held in 2005.

"Ministers and top officials should ideally be technocrats," the agreement states. The talks were, apparently, on the verge of a breakdown, with LURD demanding the post of Vice-President in an interim government. It was the threat by the ECOWAS facilitators to withdraw from the negotiations that finally made the LURD leadership give up on its demands. The Nigerian government played a vital behind-the-scenes role during the month-long talks in Accra. Former Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar, the chief mediator, expressed the hope that it would be the last agreement to be signed by the warring groups and that Liberia "would never again be caught in a spiral of violence". ECOWAS General Secretary Mohammed ibn Chambas expressed the view that peace had finally returned to Liberia, after Taylor's departure.

Under the terms of the Accra accord, the United Nations will deploy a stabilisation force, in conjunction with ECOWAS. More than 700 ECOMOG peace-keepers (from West African states) are already in Monrovia. Meanwhile, George Bush announced, even before the Accra accord was signed, that the 200 American peace-keepers in Liberia would be pulled out by October 1, "after limited humanitarian aid reaches the country". The U.S. also dispatched three warships with more than 2,000 soldiers aboard, which have been sailing up and down the Liberian coast. Bush, speaking to an American radio station, said that U.N. troops had been earmarked to replace U.S. peace-keepers.

MANY Liberians had expected the U.S. to come to their country with more soldiers and humanitarian aid, given the historic ties that have existed between the two countries. Many Liberians expected the U.S. to play a role similar to that of France and the United Kingdom in West Africa. It was the intervention of French troops in Ivory Coast and British troops in Sierra Leone that brought a decisive end to the civil wars in the two countries. To express their anger at the Bush administration's indifference some people of Monrovia lined up bodies of civilians killed during the fighting in July in front of the U.S. embassy.

Liberia was a virtual a U.S. colony until the 1950s. During the Second World War, Liberia provided much of the rubber needed for the U.S. war effort after Japan had captured the rubber plantations in South-East Asia. Even during the Cold War, Liberia was the hub of U.S. intelligence activity in the region and was used to destabilise progressive regimes in the continent. The Liberian economy in those days was propped up by U.S. financial aid to a great extent. The U.S. dollar is still legal tender in Liberia.

The Bush administration's reluctance to get involved in Liberia has given African leaders the responsibility of restoring peace in the country. Taylor's resignation was witnessed by Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and John Kufuor of Ghana and Prime Minister Kofi Sama of Togo. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo did not attend the ceremony, but had visited Monrovia earlier to persuade Taylor to relinquish power. However, the decision to give political sanctuary to Taylor has come in for some domestic criticism in Nigeria. During the last peace-keeping intervention by a Nigerian-led ECOMOG force in Liberia in the 1990s, many Nigerian soldiers were killed by rebel forces led by Taylor. Nigerian civilians were also caught in the crossfire. Two prominent Nigerian mediamen who were covering the civil war at that time were also killed, allegedly by fighters loyal to Taylor.

There is also the tricky question of war crimes charges against Taylor by a U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone. Taylor, before relinquishing power, had demanded immunity from prosecution, Obasanjo has indicated that Taylor would not be forced to leave his sanctuary in the Nigerian port city of Calabar to appear before the tribunal on charges relating to war crimes. Bush has been insisting that Taylor be brought before an international war crimes tribunal. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently warned that international law had a "long arm".

Taylor, however, remains unrepentant. In his farewell speech, he told Liberians that he was made the "sacrificial lamb" to end what he called a U.S.-backed war against his government. He has also ominously warned that "god willing", he would return to his homeland.

MANY African countries, including South Africa, have offered to send peace-keepers to Liberia. Mbeki said in Monrovia that it was time Africans stopped killing each other. Nigeria and South Africa have taken bold initiatives to bring peace to other troubled states like Congo and Burundi, currently wracked by civil wars. If past experience is anything to go by, restoring peace in Liberia is not going to be an easy task. The last ECOMOG intervention was bloody and long. The peace-keepers could also not prevent the ultimate rise to power of Charles Taylor. The small ECOMOG force currently deployed in Liberia is enjoying a honeymoon of sorts with the Liberian people. During their intervention in the 1990s, they became too closely identified with one Liberian rebel faction or the other. The ECOMOG forces were also accused of aggrandisement and human rights violations by the Liberian people whom they had come to protect.

This time around, the U.N., encouraged by the Bush administration, wants troops from Europe and Asia to help ECOMOG in its peace-keeping activities. There is also a suggestion to subject Liberia to some form of U.N. trusteeship. This concept is rarely applied in international relations, especially to countries that are deemed ungovernable or incapable of self-rule. African leaders may find the idea of "trusteeship" unpalatable, bringing as it does memories of colonialism. In this context, the agreement in Accra among the various Liberian factions is a welcome development. Technocrats will now be running the country until elections are held in three years' time.

The ECOMOG and U.N. relief agencies can now go about distributing desperately needed food, clothing and medicines. The U.S. has promised to bankroll a massive humanitarian relief effort. The port in Monrovia has now been secured by the ECOMOG forces after the withdrawal of LURD fighters. However, the port city of Buchanan continues to be in the hands of MODEL forces. As many as 235,000 people out of a population of 3.3 million perished in Liberia in the past decade. More than 2,000 people died in the last two months alone. Some were killed in the fighting and mindless shelling of Monrovia. Others died of hunger and starvation.

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