Knocking on Conte's Closed Doors

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective

April 23, 2001

With Liberia's anarchy unending, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has joined the chorus for Mano River Union heads to meet to sign another meaningless peace agreement. "The recent escalation of fighting in Lofa County in northern Liberia, which has caused the displacement of several thousand civilians, underscores the need to address the underlying causes of this growing instability," Annan said. According to his spokesman Fred Eckhard, the UN chief is backing ECOWAS in their call for Presidents Lansana Conte and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and Charles Taylor "to meet without delay and devise ways to resolve the crisis peacefully." It is difficult fathoming any "peaceful means" that would address Taylor's morbid fear of imagined enemies at his door, prime among them Guinea's Lansana Conte.

The Nigerians and their ECOWAS' like-minded comrades have done all and everything to get the taciturn Guinean President to join them in seeing Liberia's unstable tyrant Charles Taylor as changed man who now desires peace for the sub-region. From Obasanjo to Mali's clearly pro-Liberian operative, Alpha Omar Konare, Taylor has unsuccessfully lobbied to open Conte's doors for talks. But Conte has had many talks with the Liberian ruler, and finally decided that talks with Taylor, a man he now contemptuously refers to as a "rogue" and an "international criminal", serve no purpose. Not even a half million-dollars alleged bribe (as reported by the Paris-based Jeune Afrique) from Taylor's controller in Tripoli, Col. Khadafi, would change Gen. Conte's mind to open his doors for Taylor, a star who now features regularly on Guinea television as the destroyer of the Guinean nation and West Africa.

Changed conditions require changed tactics, and increasingly, the man who pinned ECOWAS down in Liberia for seven years in a bloody contest for power, many times demanding that he wanted UN troops and not Africans, has now become ECOWAS' loudest spokesman. "I don't see how, how, and may I say how any external body can have more interest in saving us from destroying ourselves more than ourselves. ECOWAS can do the job", Taylor declared in The Gambia. And yes, ECOWAS "can do the job", as it did in Liberia by implanting intractable thieves and murderers like him as president and thus extending the region's destruction.

In this frantic search for men to influence Conte in opening his doors for Taylor's entry, Gambia's Yahya Jammeh has become the latest person asked to help in opening Conte's doors. An ECOMOG soldier who became president through a coup after his Liberian tour of service, Taylor recently asked Jammeh to intervene in convincing Conte to sit and talk, talk, and talk about the talks.

But while Gambia may be a likely peacemaker, it, too, has been accusing Taylor of training its dissidents to overthrow "strongman" Jammeh's regime. Even the cunning, Taylor admitted that indeed there are Gambians in his regime, but that they have all "naturalized" as Liberian citizens. However, the problem is not that there are "naturalized Gambian-Liberians", but dissident Gambians, soldiers of fortune in the highest echelon of Taylor's political-military establishment, and there are many examples.

The current Liberian ambassador to Libya, Yang Sabateh, known in Liberia as Yanks Smythe, is a Gambian who fought for Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). In October 1996, another Gambian who served as Taylor's Aide Camp was shot while defending the warlord against rival rebels of the Liberian Peace Council at the Executive Mansion. Another Gambian General, Domingo Ramos, was killed in April 1996 while fighting for the NPFL against the Krahns. Many other Gambians, such as Kukoi Samba Sanyang, alias Dr. Manning, left long after convincing themselves that Taylor's "African" revolution was not what they expected.

The Independent of The Gambia observed recently that: "Gambians are serving as personal bodyguards to President Charles Taylor, using nomme de guerre instead of their real names. Sources also noted that Gambians represent a significant number of the 'sophisticated intelligence network' in Liberia and that they were being 'rewarded' for having fought alongside Charles Taylor during the Liberian civil war. They reportedly took an oath to help Charles Taylor assume the presidency of Liberia, after he allegedly promised to help them to topple the government of The Gambia".

So while Taylor may be asking Jammeh to save him from Conte, ties between the Liberian and Gambian dissidents go deeper. But just why is Taylor now anxious to meet and talk to his "big brother Conte"? There are several factors.

The Liberian ruler has lost the military option in turning Guinea into another Sierra Leone. Folly played a great role in convincing Taylor he could walk over Guinea as he did over Sierra Leone. So he grossly overestimated the military capacity of his Guinean trained dissidents and his loyal RUF rebels occupying the Guinean-Sierra Leonean borders in toppling the Conte Government. Reports indicate that Guinean forces have virtually wiped RUF rebels from their border with Sierra Leone, and this explains why the rebels have asked the UN to deploy along their Guinean flanks of Kambia, and other areas. Understandably, their request is similar to that of the Germans in 1945 who preferred British and American troops to occupy their areas and not the feared Russians. Liberian rebels who encountered Guinea troops during their peacekeeping roles in the country can testify that of all the contingents, Guineans, referred to as "Mon Ami," were the most feared. RUF rebels have similarly come to that conclusion, with reports that Guinean commandos have infiltrated hideouts, captured and administered their (rebels) own doses of medicines - amputating their limbs. Left with a shattered fighting force of drugged children, the Liberian merchant of war has no option but to sit and talk, talk about the talks to seize another opportunity for the same objective.

The illusions of victory for a man who has vowed that within 10 years the region will be under destabilizing control is over, replaced by fear of the inevitable - defeat. During the initial Liberian-RUF-Guinean dissidents' successful attacks this year which led to their destruction and occupation of some key Guinea towns, an exuberant and confident Taylor warned: "If Conte thinks he can destabilize Liberia, he should know that a baby that says the mother can't sleep it cannot sleep." He further predicted that in a war with Liberia, "Guinea would lose. I know he that is down fears no fall. I think Guinea has much to lose in a conflict with Liberia than Liberia has to lose. We have had a war already, and Guineans do not need a war, neither do we. We have had to work and use resources to expel these insurgents, backed and trained by Guinea, from Liberia territory".

"The insurgents" referred to are ethnic Krahns and Mandingoes, his main antagonists during the war who have sought refuge in Conakry for over a decade, deciding that the only means of returning home is with a gun in hand as a passport and security guarantee. On the other hand, Taylor instructed Conte to look inwards for his political solution by freeing the opposition leader Alpha Conde, known to have established strong ties with Taylor. Ahmed Toure, the late President Toure's son, was also spotted many times in Liberia with reports that he was overseeing training of Guinean dissidents.

Taylor's confidence and invincibility mounted, with his Defense Minister Daniel Chea, vowing to "chase the dissidents out" since "enough time have been given dissident collaborators (Guinea) to clear their backyard of dissident activities." Nevertheless, Taylor sought a "face to face" meeting with Conte, but warned that, Liberia "reserves the right to protect its territorial integrity and will exhaust all means " to do so.

But the military equation quickly began to change. Liberian dissidents renewed their attacks from the Sierra Leone-Guinean border. RUF rebels began to feel the pinch, complaining of the intensification of attacks against their positions. In released press statements, they claimed the alleged attacks were "carried out by elements of the pro-government Civil Defence Force -- particularly by the Kono-based Donso militia and the Kamajors -- with backing from the Guinean military and Liberian militiamen... The government must desist if they are involved. And if they are not involved, obviously (they must) to do whatever they can to lessen tensions and move to a peace mode, and continue with what are measures clearly ongoing to improve the peace and security situation. The fact remains that (fighting) is ongoing and it must stop."

Hence Taylor's obsession for a meeting with Conte is understandable but only with one objective: expel Mandingoes and Krahns, or any one opposed to him and living within Guinea's borders. This is what OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim describes as Taylor's "legitimate concerns", carefully omitting neighbours' "legitimate or proven fears," which encompass the fact that hundreds of their dissidents are operating under Taylor's direction and protection. But however other West African leaders may see this demand as just, it contains many human rights pitfalls. Mandingoes form one of the main ethnic groupings in Guinea. The Liberian Mandingoes, like other ethnic groups common to the two countries, share familial ties with those in Guinea. From policies adopted since his election, the only move that would satisfy Taylor is the extinction of the Mandingoes and the Krahns to remove his imagined threat. Apart from its diamonds, it is the same logic influencing his intervention in Sierra Leone. He claims Liberians (Krahns) form 30 percent of the new Sierra Leone Army and therefore wants it dismantled and their British trainers driven out.

A possible solution is the creation of Krahn-Mandingo mini-states within Taylor-backed states like Nigeria, Mali, etc. However, willing Nigeria and other ECOWAS states may want to see ethnic cleansing as an appeasement for their candidate, such a move will only deepen the unfinished issues left by the Liberian war, which include respect for minorities and victimized ethnic groups, along with elevation of human rights to the national agenda. When ECOWAS decided to administer their dose of democracy in Liberia, human rights considerations were ignored. The plight of ethnic groups that fought for survival against the NPFL was totally ignored in the stampede to crown a man that had subjected them to ethnic pogroms for over a decade. One year after his election, his son led ruthless security forces to gun down over 300 Krahns in Monrovia, according to the US State Department. Other estimates of the number of Krahns killed, many women and children, put the figure twice as high. Over 18,000 Krahns fled the country for neighbouring countries. Between 1998 and 1999, Mandingoes who had returned to Lofa, Nimba and Bong Counties fell in Hell. Feared rebels, now judges and policemen and women, swiftly seized their homes and instituted regimes of intimidation. Students at the University vainly protested a series of massacres and torture of Mandingoes. With nowhere to run, many fled back into Guinea in search of illusive refuge. Thus to meet Taylor's demand of his "national security" and address his "legitimate concerns", Mandingoes and Krahns, etc., must be totally expelled from Liberian territory. Perhaps if Mali, Nigeria or Ghana could agree to accept all Liberian Mandingoes and Krahns since they share no common borders with Taylor, Guinea and Sierra Leone would be spared the terror. "Peace" as defined by West African rulers would descend on the Mano River Union states.

For years, the Guineans have exercised restraint, having endless meetings with Taylor, some arranged by his friends in the Clinton administration, friends like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But as their villages, towns and economic centers began to disappear a la Sierra Leone, their adrenalin for vengeance rose as they issued warnings that many in ECOWAS, not surprisingly, simply ignored:

"These rebels who have already destroyed their country, seem to want to try their luck in Guinea", said an editorial in one of the papers. "As the saying goes, one who burns his own house, does not care about his neighbour's home... It would seem that Guinea is now confronted with a double threat. Our people have always assumed their fraternal responsibilities by welcoming, feeding and accommodating thousands of refugees for almost 11 years now. It is clear that the Guinean blood, which these traitors are continuing to shed, will not deter our people from carrying out their fundamental mission, which they have always done with great faith and serenity... This warning should indeed be taken very seriously because, as the saying goes, one who does not fear thunder, cannot be impressed by a small fire. Guinea has the right to chase these armed bandits and shall pursue them to their stronghold. Guineans will keep their spirit of great fighters..."

In ECOWAS' strategy of "peacebuilding", silence was adopted against Taylor as "envoys" descended on Conakry to convince Conte that his salvation laid in talking with Taylor. Reports say Conte told a visiting Obasanjo how disappointed he was in Nigeria, a country on whose side Guinea, with its meager resources and unsupported by donors as in the cases of Ghana, Senegal, etc., stood during the Liberian campaign when Nigeria was a declared and hated pariah condemned by the West. At the time, Obasanjo was languishing in prison as his jailer, Abacha, was dealing Liberia's future. Reports further say that the Guinean leader told Obasanjo that under no condition would he sit with Taylor for further discussions. That is over, he reportedly emphasized as Obasanjo listened in helplessness, unable to counter the Guinea's claims of regional betrayal against a very unstable and destructive individual. Conte's allegations gained credence when Obasanjo returned home singing the songs of no sanctions against Taylor and no alternative in handling his fellow Baptist's destructive regional campaign. Thus Obasanjo knew that unlike Kabbah, there was nothing he could do to lure Conte into attending the recent Abuja ECOWAS' conference aimed at saving Taylor. Sources further say that Mali's Konare, an unabashed Taylor backer, was subjected to the same lecture, with Conte reminding him of the ludicrous nature of "peace missions" when he spends "10 hours" conniving with Taylor while spending barely an hour in Conakry on "peace talks".

More attempts at sending other West African leaders to knock at Conte's doors, such as Ghana's John Kuffour, reportedly failed when Guinea recollected Ghana's ties to Taylor. Unconfirmed reports say Taylor's security apparatus is made of Ghanaian Army officers opposed to former President Rawlings and loyal to the current regime in Accra.

Signals of Guineans frustration and feeling of regional betrayal were now clearer. And historically, Guineans have always stood alone within a partisan region, breaking from now Taylor-friendly colonial master France with a 95% no vote against continued links with Paris after independence, and defeating the Portuguese organized and led invasion in the 1970s. But except within ECOWAS, the consensus is that the regional anarchy is rooted in Taylor's mentality and lust for mayhem. In one of its many editorials on the regional mess, The New York Times notes that, "The primary source of instability throughout the region is President Charles Taylor of Liberia. He helped create the Sierra Leone rebel front in 1991 as a means of destabilizing that country and exploiting its diamond."

Senator Russ Feingold (D - WI), says Taylor is simply "manipulating the situation in West Africa for personal gain, at the expense of his own Liberian people, the people of Sierra Leone, and now the people of Guinea I believe that Liberian President Charles Taylor is a war criminal," he stated flatly. Senator Feingold placed the Liberian regime of Charles Taylor "at the heart" of a "deeply disturbing trend" emerging in West Africa, by which "violent regimes hold entire civilian populations hostage in order to win concessions...."

"When you take arms and come into the country, kill people and destroy lives and properties, there has to be some punishment", says Taylor. Guinea and Sierra Leone are demanding just that in the imposition of comprehensive sanctions.

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