Testimony by John Prendergast before House International Relations Committee Africa Subcommittee
I would like to begin by thanking the Committee for offering me the opportunity to testify and present the work of the International Crisis Group in Sierra Leone and the broader Mano River region. Sierra Leone was one of ICG's first projects; recently we have expanded our project to include a focus on the broader regional issues, because we believe there is no prospect for lasting security in Sierra Leone until the conflict that began within Liberia, and has touched several other states of the region, is resolved. As this testimony was written, Sierra Leoneans were going to the polls to choose a new President and parliament. My oral testimony will offer an update on what we know about the election's results and implications.
I. Overall outlook for Sierra Leone Today there is no active fighting in Sierra Leone, but the country has yet to win the peace. This realization must shape the next phase of any international strategy toward Sierra Leone and the broader region. The international community needs to use the immediate period after the elections to drive hard at consolidating the peace process, for Sierra Leone's future still hangs in the balance. The international community tends to see elections as an exit strategy, but Sierra Leone remains vulnerable.
Eleven years after the fighting in Sierra Leone began, the country's fundamental problems remain largely unchanged: first, the self-perpetuating cast of political characters that led the country to war and prolonged human suffering; second, the status quo of corrupt and weak one-party government; third, the unfinished regional conflict.
The international community has invested time, effort, and approximately $2 billion in an expensive, but ultimately successful, peacekeeping mission. It was this investment that made this week's presidential and parliamentary elections possible. However, the difficult task of rebuilding and changing the political landscape must start now, or that money will have been largely wasted as Sierra Leone will remain a permanent breeding ground for war, chaos and illegal commercial activity.
II. The Internal Climate Sierra Leone has made important progress in the run-up to the elections and the elections themselves.
First, the UN's disarmament program was declared successfully completed on 17 January 2002. A total of 72,490 combatants completed the disarmament program, including 24,352 RUF and 37,377 CDF forces. (Of those disarmed officially, 6,845 were children.) While there remain suspicions of hidden arms caches, UNAMSIL is satisfied that the majority of the weapons, especially heavy weaponry, have been forfeited during this process. A special UN investigative team recently submitted a review of the DDR process to the UN Security Council arguing that disarmament had been successful. The RUF has been disrupted. Many rank and file soldiers have broken with the RUF Party (RUF-P) leadership over issues of broken promises, unpaid allowances, and allegations of corruption among senior commanders. There are, however, concerns that some former soldiers have not disbanded or returned home but remain concentrated in former RUF strongholds, and there are reports that the RUF chain of command still exists in salient areas like Makeni and Magburaka in the north. Other RUF fighters opted out of the peace process and chose to join RUF commander, Sam Bockarie, in fighting Charles Taylor's war against the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) dissident group. Nevertheless, the lack of weapons and the increasing fragmentation of the RUF, including numerous reports of ex-RUF shifting allegiance to the two main political parties in Sierra Leone (the Sierra Leone People Party - SLPP - and the All Peoples Congress - APC) give the international community and Sierra Leoneans confidence that the RUF poses little threat to stability and peace in the near future.
The government, for its part, has fully extended its authority across the country, although uncertainty remains about the army's continued loyalty and the capacity of the police to fulfill its role of tackling internal security. The police are lagging behind the pace of army reform - in large part because of limited financial assistance.
The International Military Advisory Training Team, led by the British, has reported positive developments in restructuring the army, though they admit that border security is a continuing challenge. The true test will come when UNAMSIL begins to draw down its forces and the newly constituted Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) are required to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the international forces.
Currently, the army is not capable of performing such a task. The UN Security Council plans to review the peacekeeping mission's size, and Secretary General Kofi Annan is expected to make his recommendation on the future of UNAMSIL in September. While UNAMSIL does not need to maintain its present size of 17,500, any future rationalization of the peacekeeping force must ensure that UNAMSIL troops are strategically restructured to patrol key salient regions of Sierra Leone, particularly the eastern districts of Kailahun and Kono, as well as the southern border near Zimmi. The first round of national elections for President and parliament was held on May 14. The preparation and conduct of the elections was relatively free of unpleasant incidents and violence, with only occasional incidents of low-level violence. Indeed, the many political parties and rallies, and the wide extent of public engagement in the elections, were encouraging signs of the widespread commitment to peace.
One major exception to this picture was the questions raised about the impartiality of the National Election Commission - questions supported by ample evidence, such as underage voters being added in SLPP strongholds and the attempt by the National Electoral Commission to disqualify the vice presidential candidate of the APC party.
III. Major Challenges
The newly elected government, backed by its supporters in the international community, faces four key challenges: improving governance and fighting corruption; promoting justice and reconciliation; finalizing disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants; and coping with the regional problem. The government has 6 months between now and the start of the dry season - when conflict could resume - in which to show signs of change and deliver progress.
Let me begin with the corruption that permeates all levels of government and society, was at the core of the problems leading up to the start of the war more than ten years ago, and remains largely unaddressed. This problem is very difficult, but the U.S. and the international community should not underestimate or throw away the leverage they have.
Indeed the international community has assisted the government in implementing a series of controls on corruption through the development of systems of accountability. For example, accounting systems for salaries and budgets has reduced the number of "ghost" employees and decreased the opportunities for padding budgets and diverting funds.
Britain and the European Union have played a major role in the establishment of accountability mechanisms for the Ministry of Finance.
These accounting procedures and computer programs make it easier to account for the inflow and outflow of funds, and more difficult to divert funds. But other measures are still needed, such as increasing the independence of the judiciary, removing the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) from under government control, and preventing it from becoming, as it increasingly has, a key instrument of Presidential authority rather than an impartial body.
In addition to untying the Anti-Corruption Commission from government control, ICG also strongly urges the U.S. and other donor governments to help foster change from within. Instead of walking away from Sierra Leone, donors must work with reformers, civil society groups and political parties that can act as catalysts for change in the capital and across the country.
Second, a key aspect of winning the peace involves fostering accountability and justice for wartime atrocities, and reconciliation among combatants and civilians. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Special Court provide the two main venues for healing these wounds. The international community, especially the United States, has pushed hard for the creation of the Special Court. There is less confident support among Sierra Leoneans. Some fear that the use of the Special Court will provoke violent responses by former combatants.
Others would prefer to move on and forget about the past while using the money allocated to the Special Court for more basic purposes, such as food, housing, and medical needs.
Regardless, it is clear that the Special Court will be in operation by the start of the fall. David Crane has been appointed as Special Prosecutor, and funding is available for the first year of operation (funds have been pledged but not yet delivered for the second and third years of operation). The Court is mandated to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities; given time and budget constraints on its mandate, the number of indictments is unlikely to surpass two dozen. Most of those are likely to be RUF leaders, yet most Sierra Leoneans believe that the perpetrators go beyond the RUF leadership and include some key politicians close to the SLPP governing party.
If the Court focuses on only the top 24 perpetrators, then the TRC becomes the only other venue for reconciliation (although there is some thought that street justice may also be the option of choice for some).
The TRC is in the start-up phase now and is scheduled to begin hearings in late summer. The main tension between these two institutions is the primacy the Special Court has over the TRC, and therefore the open access of the Court to all proceedings (and therefore information) of the TRC. There is some concern that this distribution of power will weaken the TRC by deterring individuals from testifying.
There are also important concerns that the government is working to bias the TRC, using its veto over the choice of Commissioners to ensure a biased selection that favors its attempts to control the truth. The international community has very little leverage over the selection of candidates for the TRC. The choice of a few Commissioners with a known and strong bias for the SLPP government over other more impartial nominees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the appointment of a strong SLPP sympathizer to the post of Executive Secretary, suggests a clear strategy to bias the Commission. Although the TRC has a confidentiality clause, the presence of pro-SLPP supporters on the Commissioner is likely to deter anyone from coming forward to speak against members of the SLPP. UNAMSIL and civil society have also strongly protested legislation which gives Sierra Leone's attorney general the ability to defer or stop TRC proceedings.
The two institutions of accountability, the Special Court and Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are distinct but seek the same common goals of ensuring accountability in Sierra Leone, assisting in bringing sustainable peace and helping to build a culture of respect for human rights. Both institutions have the capacity to contribute dramatically to the stability and longevity of peace, justice and democracy in Sierra Leone. However, their poor designs could reduce the level of support of civil society and the legal community, especially if both institutions are seen as politically-motivated forums for targeting potential political rivals and challengers and blocking the indictment of key government officials for their role in the war.
The burden will fall on Special Prosecutor David Crane, and by extension on the United States which pressed for his appointment, to ensure that government biases do not undermine the running of the Court and by extension the TRC. Sierra Leone's government will present Crane with tough choices and significant attempts at interference.
Even with these potential glitches, the Special Court remains an effective tool for addressing not just national but regional instability. One element of that is the possibility, left open by the Court's mandate, of indicting Liberian President Charles Taylor for his role in sparking Sierra Leone's atrocities. This possibility, if pursued, could significantly increase the leverage that the international community has over Taylor.
c) DDR Issues
The successful demobilization and reintegration of former combatants poses a challenging task for the Sierra Leonean government and international community. While the former combatants turned in their weapons, they have not yet dispersed and returned to their home communities. This is true of both the RUF and the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), although it is impossible to disperse the CDFs given the fact that most of them fought in their own communities. RUF soldiers remain concentrated in their former strongholds, due to a fear of returning to their home communities and a preference for remaining among friends while there remains the promise of assistance from the RUF party.
Demobilization is needed to break the RUF chain of command, to discourage any thoughts of regrouping for violence, and to encourage the reintegration of these former combatants as productive members of society. The reintegration programme is designed to provide six months of training and a living stipend to former combatants who are actively involved in a training program. But rising concern over the viability of the reintegration fund has already led to clashes. Unless the program receives funding from the international community soon, the fund is likely to be bankrupt by August of this year. This would leave roughly two thirds of those who disarmed without the possibility of completing reintegration training. Many ex-combatants will then see no alternative but to join any of the forces fighting in Liberia's conflict. Already, the government faces a steep challenge in handling the large number of disgruntled, unemployed, former combatants currently in the streets of large towns - and crime rates are reported to be rising.
d) Regional Instability
In a very real sense, the war that inflicted such gruesome casualties on Sierra Leone's citizens has not ended - both because the corrupt one-party rule that spurred discontent inside Sierra Leone has been largely restored, and because the regional instability that sparked the fighting has not been dealt with. Peace in Sierra Leone cannot be secured without an end to the civil war in Liberia and its regional implications - and it is to that topic that I would like to turn for the remainder of my statement.
Liberian President Charles Taylor continues, with Libyan support, to push a grand scheme of political change in West Africa, which involves intertwined objectives of achieving a Greater Liberia and asset stripping of the vast natural resource base of the region. For the last 10 years (since his assistance for the RUF's first incursion into Sierra Leone), he has been the key figure in the attempted destabilization of Guinea and Sierra Leone. As long as Charles Taylor remains in power, the entire region will remain unstable. He and his rogue commercial and military allies feed on instability, leaving unaddressed the root causes of regional decay - endemic poverty, the lack of economic opportunity, and a history of parasitic governance.
The threat of Liberia's conflict spilling back into Sierra Leone in the future is real. The armies of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have largely remained confined to their national territories. But a number of former RUF fighters, who opted out of the disarmament process, are now fighting with President Charles Taylor's forces in Liberia - effectively forming his Foreign Legion. The involvement of CDF fighters in the war is another cause for concern.
Numerous reports indicate that some CDF forces have moved into Liberia to join one side or the other in the ongoing conflict. The impetus for this move is money, and the related lack of employment and earning opportunities in Sierra Leone. The flow of ex-combatants back and forth across the Sierra Leone-Liberian border, often with weapons acquired in Liberia, threatens the stability of the border region. Already there are reports of Liberian government forces, among others, conducting raids in Sierra Leone to obtain basic foodstuffs and other goods. The flow of refugees from Liberia into Sierra Leone has also been a strain on the country's already meager resources.
The remarkable intervention of the international community to end the war in Sierra Leone has helped shift the front line of what is a regional conflict away from the capitals of that country and Guinea to within striking distance of Liberia's capital, Monrovia. Liberia's internal situation has been the dynamic that has provided fuel for the broader war, and no peace in the region will be viable until it - and Taylor's agenda - are dealt with more forcefully.
That situation has returned to the spotlight as a result of the recent gains made by the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). As this testimony was being written, the LURD has reportedly advanced as close as 25 kilometers from Monrovia. This would be consistent with the LURD's stated objective of moving on the capital before the rainy season begins in June. The key unknown variable is the degree of support the LURD may enjoy inside Monrovia, whether from within the Armed Forces of Liberia army or from the former Black Berets, forces from the interim government of 1990-1994. Any threat from within the capital will surely elicit a dire response from Taylor in the form of arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings of those suspected of support for the LURD.
While relatively little is known about the LURD, ICG believes that it is a serious military force capable of challenging President Taylor's control over much of Liberia. It has received material support from Guinea and from Sierra Leone militias; it is also benefiting from the calculated indifference from Great Britain and the U.S. - all increasingly wary of Taylor's adventurism. However, the LURD is also an organization in flux, without a defined political program or unified leadership, and riven with internal splits. It is a loose coalition of anti-Taylor forces, drawing on a variety of politicians, militia factions, and refugees. Some of them may be interested in treading the democratic path, but for now they, like Charles Taylor, seem only interested in power that comes from the barrel of a gun.
For all these reasons, it is clear that the LURD does not represent any kind of promising alternative to Taylor's rule. That alternative will have to be found within Liberian civil society and opposition groups. The extension of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council on the government of President Charles Taylor on May 7, 2002 is a welcome sign that the international community recognizes that Sierra Leone's peace remains tenuous as long as Taylor continues to provide support to the RUF. But the United States will have to make a more comprehensive and conscious regional effort if peace there is to be secured. At the moment, Taylor is working hard to use the existing Mano River Union diplomatic efforts as a framework to demonstrate his commitment to peace, ease LURD pressure, build support for sanctions on Guinea, and buy himself time to launch a counter-offensive. But no process, however illusory, should be allowed to divert attention from the immediate cause of violent conflict in West Africa: Charles Taylor and his commercially-driven regional agenda.
The recent extension of the state of emergency gives Taylor added measure to round up suspected LURD supporters in Monrovia and also undermine the possibilities of holding elections in April 2003, although elections can be held as late as October 2003. The Liberian-driven regional conflict feeds on a region-wide phenomenon of bad governance. Guinea's undemocratic and corrupt leadership, combined with uncertain preparations for presidential succession, is a slowly ticking time bomb. Cote d'Ivoire is also destabilized by governance problems and competition over support for Taylor or various LURD factions. In particular, we believe that the United States should take a hard look at its support for Guinea in this context, and insist that its government take serious and verifiable steps towards democratization, or else risk the end of that assistance. Guinea's serious internal problems need to begin to be addressed, or else it too will inevitably become an element of further regional instability. The U.S. should also press Guinea on the behavior of LURD forces, and to lean on LURD leaders when serious negotiations begin in Liberia.
However, President Conte and Guinea are not the primary cause of the crisis in the region; Charles Taylor is. The conflict in Liberia and instability in the broader region can only end with a new, externally sponsored peace process that includes all the major stakeholders - governments, civil society as well as armed opposition - and achieves a genuinely free and fair election in which the Liberian people have a real choice of who governs them.
IV. What Should the U.S. Be Doing?
I would like to conclude my statement by offering concrete recommendations for the U.S. role in the Mano River region - and for Congressional oversight of that role.
First, in Sierra Leone itself:
- The international community must assure the sustainability of the peace that has been so expensively achieved. UNAMSIL's mandate should remain robust and focused on the strategic and at-risk points of the country, but the increased stability of the country and the improved capacity of the army and police should allow UNAMSIL to downsize over the next year. However, any assessment of UNAMSIL's reduction-in-force must take into account the increased instability in Liberia and its implications for Sierra Leone.
- Together with other donors, the United States should make a serious commitment to support both anti-corruption campaigns and the development of civil society and political organizations that help in the investigation of corrupt practices - and offer Sierra Leoneans an alternative to one-party rule.
- With the prosecutor of the Special Court, David Crane, being an American citizen, the United States must play a leadership role in making sure that the Court is successful - and not undermined by government politicking.
- The United States must do its part to provide funding that meets expectations and fulfills commitments for the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants - particularly focusing on training and employment programs that are an investment in peace and economic prosperity.
Second, the United States has an important role to play in tackling the regional challenges. The U.S. does not have the luxury of ending its involvement in the region. The regional conflict has not ended, and the threat of future instability, casualties, and chaos - with all the opportunities for diamond-smuggling, money-laundering, and other criminal and terrorist activity that implies - is very real. The United States must take the lead through diplomatic initiatives, pressure on the Taylor government, and support for civil society, in encouraging the development of responsible alternatives to Taylor's regime in Liberia.
Both pressure and 'principled' engagement will be necessary to obtain a negotiated solution that ends Liberia's conflict and secures fundamental reforms.
This would involve U.S. leadership in a dual track internationally supported peace effort , which would have as its starting point a new and serious peace process aimed at resolving Liberia's civil war. In the context of that effort, a parallel international diplomatic engagement is needed to deal with regional cross-border security by building upon the Mano River Union initiative in this regard. The two issues are deeply intertwined. Liberian opposition forces throughout the region believe the only way they can return to Liberia is through the barrel of the gun, and have found regional support. Similarly, disaffected, impoverished or opportunistic elements from throughout the region, particularly Sierra Leone, have found Charles Taylor to be a generous godfather, supporting dissident units to destabilize neighboring countries. The internal Liberian conflict must be dealt with as the major contagion in West Africa, while the disputes between neighboring countries must be addressed in order to reduce cross-border support for rebel movements.
Specifically, the Bush administration should:
- Lead efforts to form a "Contact Group" which would also include the U.K., France, Nigeria, and others to help create a new and serious peace process for Liberia, backed by more intensive international involvement and pressure. The aim would be to create consensus among key external stakeholders before constructing an internal process involving Liberian stakeholders. Success will depend on whether this group of external actors can unify behind a common approach. Harmonizing France's considerable influence in the region with the objectives of other European states, the U.S., and Nigeria will be key.
- Pressure the LURD, its sponsor Guinea and the Liberian government to convene substantive peace negotiations which involve civil society and opposition, and to negotiate a cessation of hostilities in that context.
- Demand that the Liberian government implement a program of comprehensive institutional reform, including security sector reform and re-establishment of rule of law to pave the way for free and fair elections. Support should be provided if real, erifiable steps are taken in this regard.
- Use the time before the end of Taylor's term to fund and help develop independent Liberian civil society and media institutions, and offer support and protection to independent political voices. Ultimately, such support should be aimed at creating a coordinated effort by donors to support the development of a non-violent "third force" in Liberian politics. This effort would aim to support the return to and/or participation in the Liberian polity by key opposition and civil society leaders, in the context of serious international monitoring of their safety and security. This will be a long-term process. Unless we address the underpinning of the violence in Liberia, the region potentially faces further fighting and more atrocities which will continue the cycle of death and destruction, while Charles Taylor and his associates - Liberian, regional and beyond - profit from this misery and instability.