SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 77, September 2003

Conflict in Liberia & West Africa

PEOPLE IN Liberia are emerging from years of hell. They have been caught in the middle of armed conflict between rebel and government militias – both sides relying on drug-crazed child combatants. Around 2,000 have been killed in June and July (up to 200,000 since the late 1980s). Four out of five people have had to abandon their land and homes. People in the capital, Monrovia, survived on snails, frogs, dogs, leaves and seeds. Aid workers, cut off by the fighting from the city’s cemeteries, buried victims on the beach.

In June, 14 years into the civil war, the biggest rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), launched a major offensive, splitting Monrovia in two. Militias loyal to President Charles Taylor held half the city. Besieged, on 2 August, Taylor agreed to resign. On 4 August, Nigerian peacekeepers arrived. And on 11 August, Taylor handed over the presidency to his deputy, Moses Blah. After failing to negotiate immunity from prosecution for war crimes, Taylor fled to Nigeria where the government has furnished him with a three-house luxury retreat.

A power-sharing deal is being brokered in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. The idea is that Blah will continue as president until an interim government – drawn from opposition parties, Lurd and the other main rebel force, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model) – is set up in October. Gyude Bryant, leader of the small Liberian Action Party, should then take over until elections in October 2005. Fighting, however, continues outside the capital. A Financial Times editorial summed up the instability: ‘There is also some question as to how far Mr Taylor’s militia forces – which have taken the place of a national army – will maintain their loyalty to a successor government. Mr Blah cannot be anything more than a stop-gap. His administration has lost what legitimacy it had – and most of its power.’ (12 August)

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas – made up of 15 states) has sent a military force, led by the Nigerian army. It is expected to number 3,000, with Ghana, Senegal and Mali each sending 250 troops. The US promised $10m towards the operation, and has positioned three warships off the coast near Monrovia.

Anger has been directed against the US. On 21 July, Monrovians dumped dead bodies outside the fortified US embassy. A few days later, dozens of people in wheelchairs demonstrated for food. Insult was heaped on the injury when US soldiers were seen leaving the embassy and filmed minutes later returning with cases of beer. Such is the level of desperation, however, that there were reportedly widespread demands for US intervention. Evidently, some illusions exist that the US will use its power to bring about peace. That can soon turn to anger against US inaction.

George W Bush’s hesitancy in committing troops on the ground reflects unease and division within the US administration. Commanders fear military overstretch. Their memory of the debacle in Somalia in 1993 is bitter: a bungled military intervention, ignominious retreat and 18 troops dead. They are still smarting from that blow against the superpower’s prestige.

The timing of the latest upheavals in Liberia was bad for Bush. He was conducting a whistle-stop tour of five African states: trying to deliver a message of US capitalist ‘compassion’. Money was promised to fight Aids and trade deals were proffered. It was an attempt to reinforce US power and prestige on a world stage – without using weapons of mass destruction, this time.

Yet it exposed the falsehood behind the claim that the US is the defender of the ‘free’, ‘democratic’ world. When Samuel Doe, a sergeant, seized power in Liberia in 1980, his regime received millions of dollars of US aid, despite clear evidence of violence and corruption. Liberia was a communications centre for the US in the cold war rivalry between the two superpowers, the US and Soviet Union. The vicious nature of the regime was therefore conveniently overlooked. With the collapse of the Stalinist system in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, however, it lost much of its strategic importance.

When faced with a humanitarian disaster in a state it now considers unimportant, the US looked the other way. But US imperialism can also be undermined if it is perceived as being indifferent to the plight of tens of thousands of civilians, in this case, caught up in a bloody civil war. So, precariously balanced, Bush tried to sound concerned while doing the strictest minimum.

Nonetheless, the Bush regime’s zeal in prosecuting its ‘war on terror’ and increasingly aggressive approaches by mining, agricultural and pharmaceutical multinationals (among others) have raised the continent’s economic and strategic importance once again. Oil is centre stage. New reserves have been discovered in the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa. The US wants to increase its oil imports from Africa from 15% of its needs today to 25% over the next ten years, shifting the balance away from the volatile Middle East.

But West Africa’s volatility is set to continue, too. The last time regional armed forces (then Ecomog, again under Nigerian leadership) were involved in Liberia was in 1995/96. They armed ethnically-based rebels against Taylor, plunging the whole country into war. Kenneth L Cain, a UN human rights officer in Liberia at the time, observed that troops prioritised guarding diamond mines and timber, rather than people. The UN reported Ecomog forces looting, drug dealing on a massive scale, and forcing young girls to trade sex for food. (New York Times, 8 August)

Ecomog and the UN eventually helped organise the elections in which Taylor terrorised people into voting him president in 1997. It was hailed as a success for the ‘international community’, a ‘peacekeeping victory’. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, conflicts rumbled on between and within West African states, with tangled webs of outside involvement. The US armed Guinea against Taylor. Guinea armed and trained the anti-Taylor Liberian rebels, Lurd. Lurd recruited Sierra Leonean militiamen. Meanwhile, Ivory Coast backed Model.

In Sierra Leone in 2000 British and UN forces managed to impose a ceasefire, again highly-praised by capitalist commentators. Today, peace hangs by a fragile thread held by UN troops. The Economist commented on the capital, Freetown: ‘But the boom is driven largely by the presence of 17,500 UN peacekeepers, the largest such operation ever. If they leave, as scheduled next year, the boom could end, and Sierra Leone’s security will be left in the hands of the army… A coup attempt in January was put down, but its leader, a former army chief, escaped. In private, British officers charged with training the Sierra Leonean army are less optimistic than when they began, three years ago.’ (5 July)

An army mutiny in September 2002 exploded into civil war in Ivory Coast. Rebels from the north, reportedly backed by Burkina Faso, were pitted against the government based in the south. Three thousand French troops stopped them marching on the capital, Abidjan. A ceasefire was declared in January and a national unity government formed. But the country is split in half, with French and West African troops keeping the two sides apart. The war continues on the western border with Liberia. The government says that 3,000 people have been killed in this latest conflict. Over a million people have fled their homes. Expatriates, mainly French, contributing roughly half the country’s taxes, have left in droves. If the economy collapses it would devastate Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, which all depend on remittances from migrant workers in Ivory Coast.

It is the political machinations of the former colonial powers, exploitation by profit-hungry multinationals, and complicity by corrupt leaders, which are responsible for West Africa’s instability. The capitalist system opens up vast wealth inequalities, mass unemployment and impoverishment, raising brutalised youth with no future. These lie at the base of the desperation, devastation and violence we are witnessing today.

Manny Thain

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