Fear, Incursions and West Africa's
By Tom Kamara
Sept 6, 2000
Fears of West Africa gravitating towards the brink of more regional conflicts and chaos heightened this week with incursions into Guinea from Liberia and Sierra Leone. The incursions from Liberia left over 47 peasants dead and many homes destroyed, while the exact casualty figures from Sierra Leone invasion are yet unknown. BBC reports quoted a Guinean official as hinting that Liberia's President Charles Taylor, a known sponsor of the RUF, ordered the incursion from Sierra Leone, reportedly carried out by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In 1999, the RUF crossed into Liberia to help contain another rebellion against Taylor. Over 500 RUF fighters have reportedly signed a contract with Taylor for service against the dissidents, according to monitored radio broadcasts. Meanwhile, Taylor claims Guinea has recruited hundreds of Sierra Leone Kamajors to fight alongside Liberian dissidents, a highly unlikely possibility in view of Sierra Leone's past cooperation with Taylor in arresting Liberian dissidents.
Guinean radio vividly describes the Massadou attack:
"Houses and huts were burned and foodstuffs carried away. Several people were killed, declared missing, or seriously injured. This is the sad outcome of the rebel attack on the village of Massadou from 0700 to 0930 [local times] on 1st September. According to survivors, the assailants, who came from Liberian territory, armed with offensive weapons, committed crimes and made away with all that came their way. After the killings, they took some citizens hostage, using them to carry the goods stolen from the people. Until now the fate of these people, who are still being held by the rebels, is unknown. According to other explanations given by some survivors, three former refugees from the area led the rebels to attack the village. They are Vamoley Dokuley, Musa Yama, and one Digney - all citizens of Koussou and Kolelas - Liberian villages situated along our common border. The three men, who served as guides for the rebels, had all stayed in the attacked village for eight years and enjoyed the remarkable hospitality of the people of this village like all other refugees who flee war raging in their countries".
The ironic aspect of Liberian attacks and acrimonious words of words since 1997 is that Conakry was the only French-speaking country that contributed troops who remained in Liberia till the end of the seven-year conflict without the kind of largess provided by big powers and donors for Senegalese, Ghanaian troops, etc. Many Guinean soldiers were carried in body bags in defense of the Liberian civilian population against Taylor's and other rebel factions. Conakry has also served as host to fleeing Sierra Leonean President and his officials, not to mention Guinea troops still fighting against Liberian-sponsored RUF rebels.
Liberian Government's reactions to the killings have been contradicting as usual. The Ministry of Information said the attacks were carried out by Liberian dissidents of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) to lull Guinea into the fighting. On the other hand, one of the Government newspapers said it had evidence the Guineans massacred their own citizens as justification for their alleged plan to invade Liberia. These reactions however depict the psychological framework of Charles Taylor, seen as a continental leader by some African-Americans and others.
The developments nevertheless present a horrific scenario because, among many factors, Guinea is home of tens of thousands of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees, and the mention of refugees who allegedly led Taylor's rebels into the town for the massacre is a signal that the days of hospitality may be ending for many refugees with no where to go. With increasing signs of Taylor's imposed horrors spreading in Sierra Leone and Liberia spilling over into Guinea, a humanitarian nightmare awaiting international relief agencies carries unimaginable proportions.
Fears of the anarchy consuming Guinea could also develop into to a siege mentality as due to understood xenophobia. Over ten thousand Sierra Leonean refugees recently sought refuge in Guinea, and there were reports that they were thoroughly screened, with only young children and very old persons allowed entry. Already, there have been a series of clampdowns on suspected Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees accused of being rebels loyal to Taylor or the RUF. With reports of well-planned and financed Liberian infiltration, the clampdowns are not surprising. In 1999, the RUF attacked a number of Guinean border towns, killing scores of civilians and destroying homes. Taylor's forces similarly attacked a Guinean town, leaving many dead and looting their belongings. Escalating fears in Guinea of mounting Liberian infiltration, and the roles played by some refugees as in the case of the Massadou massacres, may subject many innocent refugees to reprisals from locals and Government security agencies as the incursions rocket. With Taylor's knack for infiltration widely known, refuting charges of infiltration into Guinea is difficult. In a recent speech warning Guinea, Taylor admitted sparking the Sierra Leone war by dispatching his rebels to attack, massacre of hundreds of people, and to loot the commercial town of Koindu in 1991.
This culture of mayhem now ingrained in Liberia, coupled with deep-rooted suspicions between Monrovia and Conakry, point to a military standoff in which a clash is almost inevitable. The Guineans see Taylor and his Monrovia regime as "war-mongers" who cannot be trusted. Countering allegations in 1999 of backing Liberian rebels, Conakry reminded Taylor that his failure to disarm his fighters and implement the Abuja Agreement that ended the war, particularly its provisions on the formulation and training of a professional Army, is the bedrock of the constant armed rebellions, not Guinea. And prior to departing Liberia after clashing with Taylor over the need to implement terms of the Agreement on national security, Nigeria's now Chief of Staff, then ECOMOG Commander Gen. Victor Malu, warned that Taylor's reneging on the provision to train a professional Army for post-war Liberia posed serious security problems in peace consolidation. Thus, the unease between Conakry and Monrovia means that one side must emerge triumphant as Taylor has in Sierra Leone.
The atmosphere between Monrovia and Conakry is fast becoming a scenario then prevailing between Uganda's Idi Amin and the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. Nyerere had to defy international norms and opinion to save Tanzanian from Uganda's spreading cancer of horrors and disintegration. Further implications of regional intervention in conflicts can also be seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where both Rwanda and Uganda are engaged with claims of protecting their national security.
The standoff between Liberia and Guinea has led to a couple of negotiations and ceremonial communiqués, some engineered by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But dialogue as confidence-building measure has failed to establish trust primarily because Taylor is known as a game player who honors no agreement once his objectives are not met. During negotiations to end the Liberian civil war, he was known to have signed witnessed Agreements, and later disputed his own signature.
Of the three countries that makeup the Mano River Union, a largely ceremonial umbrella organization founded with the dream of integrating their collapsing economies, Guinea remains the only safe haven free from rebel wars now engulfing Liberia and Sierra Leone, the other two members. Conté has transformed Conakry, now the opposite of its former self under the austere and authoritarian rule of Independence President Sekou Touré, with the slogan of economic liberalism. That Taylor and the late President Tourés son, Ahmed Touré, have formed an alliance with common interests depicts changing times in West Africa.
But other signs of trouble in Guinea are prevalent. Political tensions have been rising, demonstrated by the arrest and detention of opposition politician Alpha Konde', accused of aligning with Taylor to overthrow President Lansana Conté. Conté has succeeded in reversing the authoritarian policies of the late President Ahmed Sekou Touré.
President Taylor has never forgiven Guinea and Sierra Leone for participating in the West African intervention force ECOMOG. Moreover, Guinea was host to one of his bitter archrivals later turned ally, Alhaji Kromah of the rebel United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Ulimo); neither has he pardoned Sierra Leone for denying him a staging post for his rebellion. After succeeding in bringing Sierra Leone to its knees via the RUF, attention is now focused on Guinea. Paranoia of Guinea's laconic leader has been intensifying with constant allegations of Guinea backing Liberian dissidents. "Let Conté" not play rebel business with me. I am the first major rebel in West Africa: President has warned, adding that in case of war, "Guinea would lose."
Upon his presidential victory in 1997, Taylor decimated the ruling Krahns by launching raids on their strongholds in the capital, Monrovia, killing, according to the US State Department, as many as 300 of them, although other sources put the number of people killed far higher since families and friends were not allowed to bury their dead. The Mandingoes were the next targets. Many were tortured and killed on allegations of fomenting rebellion.
The incursions into Guinea, seen as desperate acts in face of the Government's inability to flush out the dissidents, are said to be geared at internationalizing the fighting by drawing in the Guineans for negotiations and a settlement (turning over the alleged dissidents) at a time when Taylor's army is in disarray. The Defense Minister has been suspended, placed under house arrest and was besieged by the feared Anti-Terrorist Unit. Top officers of non-NPFL background are facing investigation. Now, Taylor is heavily relying on his "Cobra Unit", members of his fanatically loyal Small Boys Unit who have grown into men with unwavering loyalty to a god figure. Amongst them is Eusebio Demmie, former commander of the Small Boys Unit now deputy commander of his bodyguard unit. Another is, Benjamin Yeantang, the commander of Government forces battling dissidents. Another is Dopoe Menkorzon, the Lofa Field Commander.
But mustering a force, and attracting large numbers of volunteers that won the war for Taylor in the 1990s, are becoming difficult undertakings for a man who boasts of commanding 60,000 men and with an electoral platform of building a 15,000-man Army, Air Force, and Navy. According to reports, many of the wounded soldiers flooding Monrovia hospitals are Creole-speaking boys from Sierra Leone and Burkinabes. Sources in Monrovia also talk of several uncanny methods being used to beef up a fighting force, including forcible night recruitments. A local paper quoted Yeantang, [credited for arresting the Dokies who were later executed] who admitted executing a soldier found guilty of shooting another soldier. "I killed this soldier for his colleagues to see that we are not joking with this war business; I killed him because he killed one of the friendly forces illegally." With the strong ties between the RUF and Taylor, it is most likely that "friendly force" was an RUF rebel.
The will to fight in the 1990s, whatever the fanfare of the galvanized hatred of a common archenemy, Samuel Doe, was propelled by a regime of sanctioned looting and the prospects for better life after victory of the rebellion's veterans. An edict passed on to fighters was that any house occupied (or a car seized) by a rebel was his, and this led to mass butchering of many house owners in a spree to "own" homes. Now, the scenes of battle, Lofa County and its headquarters Voinjama, are swallowed in grass, with roofless houses, burnt homes and offices and terrible poverty in this once booming agricultural and business setting, with its remains serving as reminders of the war's indelible footprints. There is nothing left to loot. Many once zealous fighters have been left in the cold in dividing the spoils of victory. The President and his clique of largely Americo-Liberian operatives live in luxury so conspicuous that University students recently issued a statement denouncing the "pomposity" and "arrogance" of flaunted wealth in the midst of poverty, a theme repeated by leading clerics and opinion leaders.
Morale amongst fighters, key for NPFL victory during 1989-1997 war, is now at all-time low. Officers, faced with disgruntled fighters, are reportedly squandering supplies and salaries. "If I die in combat, my brother, what will become of my family? When we started before, things were little better because our issue (money) used to come directly to us from the helicopter," one paper quoted a frontline soldier. The paper also reported suicide among the men due to frustration and the harsh conditions they must endure.
Whatever the allegations against Guinea for backing the dissidents, the Liberian situation bares close similarity to the Rwandan holocaust, where Tutsis fled Hutus' reprisals into refugee camps, gained military experience in Uganda and other neighboring states, only to return home fighting. Since the end of the Liberian war with Taylor's election, tens of thousands of refugees, mainly Krahns and Mandingoes, have been driven into refugee camps. It is these refugees multiplying in Sierra Leone and Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ghana, etc., who have now staged round two of the contest for power as a precondition for returning home.
Found all over West Africa, the Mandingoes, are similar to Rwanda's Banyamulenges who fled into Zaire's vast and unused lands, becoming prosperous farmers and businessmen, but denied citizenship. Although the Mandingoes are intrinsically Liberians, they are despised specifically in Nimba County where they became prosperous entrepreneurs and farmers. The Mandingoes are viewed as a Guinean ethnic group since they predominate in Guinea.
Liberia's problems is its own making. Living on the code of violence has made violence a viable political option both internally and externally. The question is to what extent its virus will spread in West Africa.
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