Tackling Liberia: The Eye of the Regional Storm
Tackling Liberia: The Eye of the Regional Storm
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Liberia: Reconciliation and Reform
Liberia: Reconciliation and Reform
Report / Africa 5 minutes

Tackling Liberia: The Eye of the Regional Storm

There is a critical need for further international action to end the civil war in Liberia – and to halt the spread of chaos beyond its borders that has both inflamed the Côte d'Ivoire crisis and threatens wider military conflict and humanitarian disaster in much of West Africa.

Executive Summary

There is a critical need for further international action to end the civil war in Liberia – and to halt the spread of chaos beyond its borders that has both inflamed the Côte d’Ivoire crisis and threatens wider military conflict and humanitarian disaster in much of West Africa. The key mechanism in this respect is the International Contact Group on Liberia (hereafter Contact Group), established in September 2002. And the central players within that body, whose cooperation is essential if effective action is to be taken, are its three permanent members of the Security Council: the U.S., UK and France.

Liberia’s conflict has continued to spread and consume its neighbours. The Mano River Union war that originally encompassed Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has now expanded east to Côte d’Ivoire. A small area in the western part of that country has been dragged into Liberia’s struggle, much as was Sierra Leone a few years earlier. The Liberian contenders are using the Ivorian crisis, which broke out on 19 September 2002, as a proxy battleground. All indications are that no one is in control of the situation on the Côte d’Ivoire-Liberia border.

Both sides of the Ivorian crisis have used Liberian fighters in their struggle. President Taylor increasingly employs rebel troops in western Côte d’Ivoire, which he treats as a second front against the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) insurgency that threatens his rule. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo is paying and arming just about anyone to balance Taylor’s support for his foes. His largesse enabled the formation of a new LURD faction, which calls itself the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). It is advancing against Taylor at the same time as it challenges, for primacy in the rebellion, both the LURD leadership based in Guinea and its military wing fighting on Liberian soil.

Western Côte d’Ivoire has become a magnet for mercenaries of many nationalities. The failure of the international community to devise a regional disarmament program has given the hard-line Sierra Leone fighters who fled to Liberia another chance to sell their skills. While international attention is focused on Iraq, a regional humanitarian crisis is raging throughout Liberia and western Côte d’Ivoire. Neither the Ivorian government nor rebel groups have allowed the UN or other donors access to assist the tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons who are trapped by two brutal conflicts. The international community must act before Liberia’s conflict spreads to other West African countries. Sanctions and containment policies have not stopped Charles Taylor from supporting rebellions beyond Liberia’s borders. Whether he has grand regional designs or simply cannot control his ill-disciplined forces, he remains a regional security problem.

Neither Taylor nor the LURD is interested in peace, except on each’s own terms, and both have stalled on proposed peace talks. The recent appearance on the scene of LURD-MODEL has further muddied the prospects for peace. Liberia is scheduled to elect a new president on 14 October 2003. If President Taylor goes ahead with elections that are deemed unfair, they will perpetuate the status quo. ICG has consistently recommended increased international pressure for a ceasefire; insistence that Taylor step down once his term is over so that an internationally assisted and perhaps administered interim government can be established; and postponement of the October elections until conditions can be established for an open campaign unhindered by violence and intimidation.

The Contact Group has been unable to produce a ceasefire. Its diplomatic pressure has, however, pushed Taylor to admit that conditions for free and fair elections do not currently exist in Liberia; to agree to an (unspecified) delay of the ballot; and probably also to a joint assessment mission of the UN, EU and the regional mission ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to determine what would be needed to create the appropriate conditions. Before elections could take place, a ceasefire with the LURD (including LURD-MODEL) would surely be required, as well as a transition period during which human rights were respected and the opposition was able to campaign freely. Ideally this would be backed by a UN peacekeeping force on the ground during the transition period and the elections. However, the prospect of Taylor stepping aside to allow genuinely free and fair elections is still remote. The Contact Group, with a strong lead from the U.S. and prior Security Council backing, must make clear to Taylor, LURD and LURD-MODEL that if a commitment to achieve these conditions is not demonstrated by the middle of the year, substantially more serious measures will be taken.

There are two critical and interlinked elements for a successful resolution of Liberia’s crisis: the conflict must be recognised as a wider regional one and addressed on that basis, and there must be effective coordination among the key external players, namely the U.S., the UK, France, the UN, the EU and ECOWAS. While two permanent members of the Security Council, the UK and France, play prominent roles in the closely connected peace processes in Sierra Leone and the Côte d’Ivoire respectively, no one has taken the lead on Liberia. The missing link is the United States. It has historical ties to Liberia, and most Liberians argue that no peace process is sustainable without its involvement. It must be encouraged to work more actively – and in close partnership with the UK and France, who are already deeply engaged in related aspects of the regional problem – to preserve the effective UNAMSIL mission in Sierra Leone and establish a similarly comprehensive peace process for Liberia that would ensure neither LURD, LURD-MODEL, nor Taylor’s political and military barons fill the vacuum if he is forced from power.

The U.S., UK and France, working through the Contact Group, should also devise a strategy to prevent Taylor’s assets from being used by his henchmen to continue the war. It should be made clear to the government, LURD and LURD-MODEL that war crimes will be pursued either at home or through an international tribunal – but also indicated that cooperation on the peace process could earn them credit.

West Africa now bears most of the traits of Central Africa, which has been devastated by a regional war. To address the regional dimension, ECOWAS and the wider international community must deal with the growing tendency of leaders in West Africa to sponsor rebellions abroad to protect their positions at home. Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire have all employed rebel groups either to get rid of their domestic enemies or to remove neighbouring leaders they do not like. The mandate of the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia, which will be reviewed in May 2003 along with the sanctions on Liberia, should be expanded to cover the entire region, and Guinea’s President Lansana Conté, President Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso in particular must be warned of sanctions – and their own potential exposure to war crimes prosecution – if they continue to undermine peace in Liberia.

Freetown/Brussels, 30 April 2003

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