War in Liberia Threatens to Destabilize Region

Child combattants, Sierra Leone
Soldiers in West Africa's war (Photo: AFP).

More than 100,000 people have been displaced along the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia since the beginning of this year, when fighting between the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and troops of President Charles Taylor intensified. Now the situation along the border is becoming increasingly volatile, as troops loyal to Taylor make more frequent forays into Sierra Leonean territory in search—army spokesmen say—of LURD rebels and deserters from the Liberian army. As the fighting has worsened, it has become more difficult for aid agencies to reach refugees in the affected area. According to Monrovia’s independent daily The Inquirer, which had placed a journalist behind rebel lines, there are “more than 200,000 people living in deplorable conditions and hiding in the forests” of Lofa County.

Even by Liberia’s grim standards, the past few months have been particularly bad. On July 19, the New York-based Human Rights Watch sent a nine-page letter to the United Nations Security Council accusing Taylor’s troops of committing “scores of war crimes and other serious abuses against the civilians” near the border of Sierra Leone between April and June 2002. The letter detailed cases in which members of the Liberian army and pro-government militias had recruited child combatants, “executed numerous civilians, shot and beaten to death males of all ages for resisting conscription, carried out widespread rape of women and girls as young as 12, subjected hundreds of civilians to forced labor,” and prevented hundreds of refugees from fleeing to neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Most of the victims were from the Gbandi ethnic group, which the Taylor government indiscriminately accuses, along with Mandingos and Krahns, of supporting rebel incursions.

Liberia’s 1989-1997 civil war left Liberia a lawless battle zone and destroyed its economy. All the warring parties—including Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the United Liberian Movement for Democracy in Liberia, and a host of other, smaller militias—armed children, drugged them, and encouraged them to kill, rape, torture, and pillage indiscriminately. More than 200,000 people were killed. More than half of Liberia’s 2.6 million people were left homeless. The United Nations estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 children had participated in the conflict. Taylor’s NPFL emerged as the most tenaciously cruel, the best-funded, and the least scrupulous militia in a war of militias backed by foreign sponsors. Throughout the 1990s, he reneged on a series of peace deals brokered by regional international agencies and continued his ruthless military campaign. Civilian casualties mounted. In July 1997, Taylor, who has described himself as “War itself,” terrorized the population into electing him president.

Within a year, Taylor had ousted West African peacekeepers, freeing his militia’s hands in the border region with Sierra Leone. It only took until January 1999 for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a brutal Sierra Leonean rebel group trained and supplied by Taylor, to enter Freetown by force, destroying much of the city and committing widespread attrocities against the civilian population. When U.N. peacekeepers arrived in Sierra Leone and the tide turned against the RUF, their leader Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie and at least 200 of his henchmen took refuge in Liberia. There Taylor began arming them with the proceeds of the illegal diamond trade, and there the RUF’s ranks swelled with Liberian mercenaries who exported Liberia’s tradition of raping and maiming civilians as a military tactic.

By February 2000, various groups of Liberian dissidents had joined forces in Sierra Leone to form Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), an armed insurgency group. Throughout 2000 and 2001, LURD forces launched a series of offensives into Liberian territory. They succeeded in decimating the RUF, but in the process destroyed much of what was left of the border region between Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Deji Popoola, U.N. Population Fund Representative for Liberia, says the civil war “is bleeding the country dry.” Current estimates put the unemployment rate at between 80-85 percent. In this diamond-rich country, more than 76 percent of Liberians subsist on less than US$1 a day.

Edwin Tettah, an associate professor of economics at the University of Liberia in Monrovia, doesn’t mince words when speaking of his home country: “The state of the Liberian economy is appalling.” Iron mining operations, which formerly provided the country with its largest source of foreign capital, have been shut down. The U.S.-owned Firestone Plantation Company, which once operated the world's largest rubber facility in Liberia, currently operates only three of its 45 divisions. As foreign capital has fled the war-torn region, it has left the government with almost no legal revenue.

Liberia’s primary legal source of foreign currency, Tettah says, is the roughly US$2 million a month Liberians receive from relatives in the United States. Liberia’s second-most-lucrative source of foreign income is the US$13 million a year it earns in royalties from ships flying the Liberian flag. Faced with practically no revenue, Tettah says the government has too often resorted to ''unbudgeted, ad hoc, and sporadic spending,'' and warns that ''this could lead to a complete economic collapse.'' Moreover, since the government owes its employees between seven and 14 months in salary, the temptation to skim from state coffers or to indulge illegal trafficking is too strong for many to resist. In Monrovia, where residents enjoy a far better life than elsewhere in Liberia, despite the fact that the city has almost no electricity or running water, ''two-thirds of the population ekes out a living from trade… and gardening,'' Tettah said.

Moreover, civilians and combatants fleeing into Sierra Leone say there are signs the AFL may be losing its battle against the LURD rebels. Refugees have spoken of attacks on the villages of Bong Mines, Clay, Gbanga, Attington, and Tobmansburg. International aid agencies visiting these villages have found them almost deserted. And while the government recaptured Tobmansburg on July 20, television images from the “liberated” village showed it to be completely destroyed and deserted.

Faced with such a grim situation, Taylor’s friends and allies are deserting him. His wife is reportedly seeking refuge in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast. Deserters from the AFL have been slipping across the Sierra Leonean border, seeking refuge from retribution. General Mohamed Tarawallie, alias Monami, a senior commander in the AFL, recently defected to Sierra Leone, seeking asylum. And army radio reports intercepted in the provincial capital of Kenema, Sierra Leone have spoken of large numbers of AFL fighters surrendering their weapons to the Sierra Leonean army and the police forces of Sierra Leone’s Kailahun and Pujehun districts.

Reports indicate that Taylor still relies on his old client Sam Bockarie to lead his Anti-Terrorist Unit, despite his insistance that Bockarie left the country in February 2001.

But Liberians who have fled into Sierra Leone say the ATU is sustaining serious casualties at the hands of the advancing rebels. And there is evidence that as the AFL, the ATU, and their affiliated paramilitaries become more desperate, they become more rash and more dangerous to Liberia’s neighbors. On July 27, United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone spokesperson Margaret Novicki confirmed that the Armed Forces of Liberia had abducted 18 Sierra Leoneans from the border village of Kokoru. The news followed earlier reports that another 26 people, including an unconfirmed number of children, had been abducted from the same village.

The next day, talk radio stations around Freetown were flooded with calls demanding that the government do something about the rash of abductions.

However understandable, this is dangerous talk. Sierra Leone’s own civil war, which only ended in January 2002, claimed roughly 50,000 lives and left uncounted others mutilated, raped, tortured, robbed, or homeless. And though some 17,000 U.N. troops—the largest U.N. force deployed anywhere in the world—maintain an uneasy calm in Sierra Leone today, and last May’s democratic elections confirmed the tenuous mandate President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah had won by force of arms in the civil war, the country remains dangerously unstable. Liberian army incursions into Sierra Leonean territory could easily prove the match that ignites the volatile situation within the country.

Many are calling for peace. Taylor used the occasion of the 155th anniversary of Liberia’s independence, which fell on July 26, to shift the blame onto LURD, calling on them to lay down their arms and voice their grievances through the political process. Two days later, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, an official with the opposition Liberian People’s Party, said he had received a letter from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner urging the government and the rebels to reach a cease-fire for humanitarian reasons, and to avoid destabilizing the region. Kansteiner’s calls for calm, in turn, followed similar pleas from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

But when Liberian troops cross unmolested into Sierra Leonean territory and kidnap civilians, many fear that it will take more than calls for peace to keep the region from slipping further into anarchy.

Koroma is a journalist for Freetown’s independent daily, the Standard Times Press. Portions of this article previously appeared in the Standard Times.