| Goodbye Taylor, hello peace
On August 4, a contingent of the International Peace Keeping Force sponsored by the 16-member Economic Commission of West African States arrived at the airport of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. More would come in the next few days. George W. Bush had also announced that American soldiers would be sent to Liberia to strengthen the forces sent by ECOWAS so that peace can be restored and political stability brought back to the troubled west African state. The arrival of the ECOWAS forces and the decision taken by Bush must have been a source of great relief to all parties who had worked hard to make the Liberian warring groups — the government of Liberia headed by Charles Taylor, and two rival groups, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia — sign an agreement on ceasefire and cessation of hostilities on June 17, 2003 at Akosombo in Ghana. According to the understanding, a full peace agreement would come up in 30 days though all parties agreed that Charles Taylor, president of Liberia since 1997, would step down and the interim government which would run Liberia after Taylor, would have nobody from Taylor’s cabinet.
In addition to the three warring groups, the agreement was signed by Abusalami Abubakar, former head of state of Nigeria who worked as the mediator, and representatives from ECOWAS, secretary general of the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and the International Contact Group on Liberia — all of whom had been putting in their effort to bring peace in Liberia. Africa’s two most influential leaders — Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, presidents of Nigeria and South Africa respectively, attended the peace talks which began on June 4.
But, as feared, things went haywire in Liberia soon after. All the parties involved in the war reneged on their pledges. Taylor made statements which ran counter to what he had promised at Akosombo. Both LURD and MODEL renewed hostilities, apparently jockeying for positions which would give them better bargaining power at the negotiating table. African leaders who had hoped to see a peaceful Liberia did not know how to control the situation. Britain and France joined them in urging the United States of America to step in. American marines visited the Liberian coast but only to protect American property and help evacuate foreigners. The ECOWAS troops thus meant a lot to all hoping to see an end to the misery Liberia had been subjected to since 1980, when Samuel Kanyon Doe, Master Sergeant of the Liberian armed forces and 16 of his colleagues killed President Toltert and captured power.
Founded in 1822 by the US government and the American Colonization Society as a haven for freed American slaves, Liberia became an independent republic in 1847 with a constitution drafted at Harvard and a flag that resembled that of the US. The handful of American-Liberians, as the imported freed-men-of-colour were referred to, who controlled the country had excellent relations with the US. American companies and financial institutions had a stranglehold over the Liberian economy. In the Cold War era, Liberia was one of America’s closest allies. It was feared that the coming to power of Doe, a country boy with no historical tie with America, would mean withdrawal of American support from Liberia. But that did not happen. Doe continued to be a close ally of the US and successive American presidents had no hesitation in pampering him with huge subsidies and all other kinds of help during the ten years he was in power.
Unfortunately for Doe, friendship with the White House did not endear him to the people of Liberia. He, like most military rulers, presided over a reign of terror for a decade and the Liberians hated it. Ironically, it was Taylor, an estranged friend of Doe, who took upon himself the task of removing him from power. With help from Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Charles Taylor equipped an army, mainly drawn from people of his own country. They wore a political badge and called themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia and began their march to Monorvia in December 1989.
In September 1990, Doe was overthrown and killed. But his death did not bring peace. Taylor’s ambition brought in its trail half a dozen parties and factions which competed and killed each other in their attempts to capture Monrovia. Taylor, however, emerged as the strongest warlord in the harrowing civil war that bled Liberia for seven years. At last through ECOWAS initiatives, UN support and what used to be the Organization of African Unity, the warring parties agreed to a ceasefire. In the 1997 elections, Liberians voted Taylor to power because they were sure that if Taylor did not win, blood would flow again.
Liberians proved to be wrong. Instead of trying to rebuild the infrastructure which was totally destroyed by the long-drawn civil war, restore basic amenities and put the economy back on an even keel, Taylor repeated what Doe did for ten years. To make things worse, he began to work hard to extend his sphere of influence to the neighbouring countries. He sponsored Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader whose Revolutionary United Front controlled the diamond mining areas of southeastern Sierra Leone for years. Sankoh’s wealth and brutal methods of operation made him strong enough to challenge the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
Taylor sent his boys across Liberia’s northern borders to trouble Lansana Conteh, president of Guinea. Even the usually calm country of Ivory Coast was not spared. Taylor sent three of his notorious lieutenants there that caused bloodshed and anxiety for President Laurent Gbagbo. Sierra Leonean diamond and Liberian timber made Taylor rich and enabled him to preside over a reign of terror at home and send mischievous expeditions abroad. The UN security council imposed sanctions on Liberia but that did not deter Taylor.
Taylor’s activities made him an international pariah and ruined Liberia. Liberia’s per capita income, one of the highest in Africa in the Seventies, declined considerably. In 2001, Liberia ranked 174th out of 175 countries in the UN development index. There were 430 doctors, 8,000 nurses and other types of paramedics; now the country has 80 doctors and less than 1,800 health workers. The 13-year-old misrule and civil war killed over 2000,000 people and sent another 3000,000 into exile. More than 80 per cent of Liberia’s population live below the poverty line of less than a dollar a day while about 20 per cent are living in absolute poverty (that is, less than 50 cents a day). Ninety per cent of Liberia’s workforce is unemployed. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, called Liberia a “humanitarian tragedy”.
It is against this backdrop of mounting grievances against Taylor that LURD launched its rebellion three years ago and MODEL began its operations last year. LURD is suspected to have the support of Lansana Conteh of Guinea, and Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast is believed to be a major sponsor of MODEL — expected responses from the two leaders of neighbouring countries to Taylor’s dirty games. Between them, two rebel groups hold two-thirds of Liberia and are in a position to threaten the capital. To make things worse, a UN-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone has indicted Taylor for war crimes. Taylor is now Africa’s Milosevic.
A large contingent of soldiers working under the UN banner, helped by about 2,000 British troops, brought peace to Sierra Leone. The legitimate government of Ahmed Tejjan Kabbah now controls the whole of Sierra Leone and the exiles are coming back to their respective homes. A similar job has been done by 2,500 French troops in Ivory Coast. The British role in Sierra Leone and the French role in Ivory Coast have, for obvious reasons, prompted many to suggest that the US with the support of ECOWAS should emulate Britain and France and do in Liberia what the European powers have done in their former colonies. After all, it was the US which was responsible for the creation of Liberia.
Which is probably why US planes hovered in the air while Taylor said goodbye to Liberia and left for Nigeria on August 11. But even after his departure, can strife-torn Liberia elect a stable and effective government to take the country back to peace'