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Liberia: Unravelling


The international community is often left to bemoan the fact that it lacks effective early warning tools for major humanitarian crises and conflicts. Yet, today in Liberia it is presented with almost a textbook case of all the major warning signs of a deteriorating situation across a range of political, military, economic and social fronts. The real question will be whether it can not only recognise these signs, but also muster the will to take effective action to prevent the situation from escalating into broader violence.

Liberia’s continuing, but somewhat sporadic, civil war – pitting government forces against rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) forces – is the most obvious manifestation of the current crisis. While the government has enjoyed some recent battlefield successes, recapturing Tubmanburg in mid-July 2002, for example, after the town had been held by the LURD since 11 May, rumours of LURD counteroffensives, including a potential assault on Monrovia itself, are dominant. While it does not appear at this time that the LURD has the military strength to take the capital, any attack on Monrovia would cause widespread panic, likely trigger broad movements of internally displaced people and drive undisciplined and poorly coordinated official government forces and associated militias to launch sharp reprisals against civilians it accuses of serving as rebel “collaborators”.

The sentiment in Monrovia is that civilians would be the biggest losers in any direct struggle for the capital, and President Taylor has made clear that he would not shy from a broader military conflagration – at times sounding almost as if he would relish the prospect. Liberians are not prepared for a return to war and have chosen to tolerate Taylor for the immediate future. As one senator within Taylor’s National Patriotic Party argues, “Liberians are tired of Charles Taylor, but the bullet is not a friend”.

This dangerous military equation has developed against a backdrop of a steadily eroding economic, political and social situation. The salaries of most government officials, including the military and militia groups, are at least six months in arrears. Both government forces and the LURD rebels have resorted to looting civilians and humanitarian aid to finance their operations in recent months. The government of President Taylor is quick to blame its myriad financial and military woes on the impact of international sanctions and an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council in May 2002. The economic situation remains quite grim, with high unemployment, more than 100,000 people already internally displaced by the fighting, 40,000 to 60,000 Liberians who have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees this year alone, rampant corruption and an understandable lack of international investor confidence. Many Liberians now believe they are entering a catastrophic humanitarian emergency phase reminiscent of the 1989-1996 civil war.

The pressure is also mounting on Sierra Leone, which is trying to rebuild following its eleven-year war, which ended with elections in May. Daily reports from the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) highlight the number of Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers now crossing into the country – some simply to loot, others as deserters. There are growing concerns that President Charles Taylor might use their presence in Sierra Leone as a pretext to raid border towns in order to ward of potential attacks from the LURD or other anti-Taylor forces. In June and July, senior UNAMSIL military personnel went to various Sierra Leonean border towns to monitor the impact of Liberia’s conflict.

The domestic political situation also remains quite convoluted as the country moves toward a presidential election currently scheduled for October 2003. Opposition to President Taylor is deeply divided. Opposition political parties have little presence in the outlying counties, and many opposition leaders remain regrettably committed to the sole goal of securing the presidency for themselves at any cost. “Everyone wants to be president” is the common cry of civilians frustrated at opposition groupings that lack any serious program to govern.

While opposition groups portray their ineffectiveness as entirely stemming from government intimidation, their own winner-take-all approach seems to vary little from that of the current government. President Taylor recently argued that Liberia’s political feuds are so entrenched that they “border on hatred”. Further, the failure of the LURD rebels to articulate any political platform beyond Taylor’s removal, and the general unwillingness of those opposition figures backing the LURD to step forward publicly, have left Liberians and the international community unclear as to whether the military alternative to Taylor would prove politically more attractive.

The international approach to Liberia has put considerable pressure on Taylor’s government, without establishing a clear roadmap toward either reforming, replacing or working with that government. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have pushed for isolating Taylor, largely in response to his role in backing the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group in Sierra Leone’s civil war and supporting rebel counter-incursions into Guinea during 2000. The Liberian government has frequently accused the U.S. and UK of supplying and training the LURD. However, Liberia has clearly been low on Washington’s list of foreign policy priorities, and internal Bush administration splits on Liberia policy have caused a general drift. The European Union has more broadly sought to engage with the Taylor government and establish benchmarks for progress, but this approach has also seen limited forward movement. In short, the international community’s awkward stance – working neither to engage nor to remove President Taylor – has produced a wounded government that is increasingly desperate, in the face of a steady civil war and a general population that remains braced for the worst.

This briefing argues that the international community will need to arrive at new clarity in dealing with Liberia and choose between the poles of engagement and isolation. The most promising approach, although one obviously deeply controversial and with its share of shortcomings, is reaching some accord directly with President Taylor that would achieve his graceful retirement at the end of his presidential term in October 2003 – and permanent departure from the political scene – in exchange for guarantees of his safety and protection against prosecution by the recently convened Special Court in Sierra Leone. Such a transition would also need to be supported by a general ceasefire with LURD and the introduction of a stabilisation force along the lines of the one currently operating in Sierra Leone.

Freetown/Brussels, 19 August 2002


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