ICG Crisis Brief front page...
  Newsletter of the International Crisis Group Issue 1, May 1997     

by Charles Radcliffe

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Bosnia: peace effort falters
A Statement by the International Crisis Group

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Saving Lives from disaster
an obituary of Nicholas Hinton
by William Shawcross

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Chaos in Central Africa
by David Shearer

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Liberia: railroading peace
by Victor Tanner

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Hope and fear in Sierra Leone
by Charles Radcliffe

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Charles Radcliffe

Production Assistant:
Simon Sheehan

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed in Crisisbrief are the personal opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the International Crisis Group.


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Liberia: Railroading Peace

by Victor Tanner in Monrovia

Liberia is hurtling, for better or for worse, towards May 30th and its first elections in twelve years. The fear is that, despite official international optimism around the current peace process, more conflict awaits this war-torn nation.

Violence in Liberia
Anarchy on the streets of Monrovia, May 1996
A year after the cataclysmic violence of April and May 1996, a visitor to Monrovia will notice many encouraging signs. The Nigerian-led peace process is on schedule and enjoys widespread international support. The security situation is calm. The West African peace-keeping force ECOMOG has secured Monrovia and deployed throughout most of the country. Monrovia's markets are bustling with activity. There are no guns to be seen, and no shooting to be heard. The more intrepid up-country traveler no longer encounters skull-adorned road-blocks and hostile child-combatants. Aid agencies are initiating programs up-country. And the national soccer side, led by A.C. Milan star striker George Weah, beat Egypt one-nil in a World-Cup qualifier in Cairo last month. Could things in Liberia be looking up?

Unfortunately, behind the optimism dark doubts linger on. A closer look, and the euphoria fades. The four-page accord signed in the Nigerian capital Abuja in August 1996 remains a weak document, with an unrealistic timetable and few specifics. The main warlords show little real commitment to the peace process. They continue to harvest the timber, rubber and diamonds that have fuelled their greed and the war for the past seven years. Political power-sharing remains an unlikely proposition.

Western diplomats credit the recent demobilisation process for the improvement in security. But despite the strong symbolism and a last-minute surge in the numbers of weapons collected, it was in many regards a hollow exercise. The short time-frame did not allow aid agencies to plan adequate reintegration programs. There were allegations that ECOMOG had doctored numbers while the UN watched on. Even the most optimistic observers agree that the factions' command-and-control structures remain intact. Reebok-sporting "boys" still swagger in the beer-shops and "buy-your-own-back" markets of Monrovia and other towns.

ECOMOG's new-found muscle does not withstand close scrutiny. Yes, there are about 2,500 more troops than six months ago. But, with no close air support or real capability to project reinforcements at short notice, their ability to command the terrain or even defend themselves in remote areas is limited. And we are far from the 18,000 troops requested at Abuja. Nigerian control is stronger then ever. While the current Force Commander, Nigerian Major-General Malu, projects the image of a no-nonsense soldier, corruption and deals with the factions remain a reality.

So why the apparent security? The answer is that the factions are determined to keep the fighters out of mischief, at least until the elections. Recent incidents indicate that their ability to do so may be waning. This is the ominous back-drop to Liberia's forthcoming elections.

The May 30 elections form the linchpin of Abuja II, crowning Liberia's transition from warlordism to civilian democracy. Unfortunately, here too, serious problems exist. In a society mauled by seven years of war, it takes time to prepare for an election, time which Abuja II does not allow. At the beginning of April, less than two months before the ballot, the electoral commission had just been sworn in, and voter registration and education had yet to start.

More worrying perhaps, is the fact that one of the main contenders is Liberia's premier warlord, Charles Taylor. He alone has the financial resources and political organisation to wage an effective campaign. He controls Liberia's only nation-wide radio-station.

Taylor's opposition is unimpressive. ULIMO-K's Alhajji Kromah was humiliated by ECOMOG's unceremonious discovery of an arms cache at his house in March. The Alliance of civilian parties, under-resourced and riven by internal dissent, elected in its primary the unimpressive Cletus Wortorsen. There are rumours of independent candidacies.

The prospects are grim. There is little chance that the outcome will be fair. And even if the elections were perfect, the basic conundrum remains: either Taylor wins or he loses. If he wins, conflict will soon erupt anew between him and the Krahn, the ethnic group of former president Samuel Doe. And If he loses, he is unlikely to accept defeat gracefully.

Where does the international community stand? The US, shunning its historical responsibilities, seems only too happy to endorse the long sought-after "African solution to an African problem". The Europeans and the UN, equally anxious to find an end-any end-to the festering conflict, also back the Nigerian plan. This plan is essential to railroading "peace", however perfunctory, through to the election-date. There can be some merit to that, if it creates a momentum that breaks the cycle of violence and the power of the faction-leaders. But too many questions remain wide open. Are the Nigerians serious about peace in Liberia? Have they cut a deal with Taylor, blessing him with an unrealistically early election date? If so, what will post-election Liberia look like? The answer to this last question will depend to a large extent on whether Liberia's Western friends stand fast in support in those rocky months after the ballot, or whether they take advantage of the first unrest to jump ship, swapping their false optimism for equally false despair.

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