United Nations Intervention: An Opportunity for Peace in Liberia

(A presentation at SIPA on October 21, 2003 by Tiawan S. Gongloe)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 5, 2003

Since the Liberian civil war started on December 24, 1989, there have been several efforts made by Liberians and the international community to find lasting peace. These efforts have largely led to periodic cessation of hostilities but not peace. The first initiative to bring peace to Liberia was led by the Interfaith Mediation Committee of Liberia, a group comprising of Muslim and Christian leaders of Liberia. The Economic Community of West African States led the second initiative. ECOWAS and the International Contact Group led the third initiative again on Liberia. This third initiative has now been taken over by the United Nations under UN Security Council Resolution 1509. Under Resolution 1509, a peacekeeping force of 15,000 soldiers, 1115 international police and 260 military observers will be deployed in Liberia. The force has the mandate to disarm combatants of the three warring factions: Government of Liberia (GOL) Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). The UN will also train a new security force for Liberia. The UN now has close to one third of the expected 15,000 soldiers in Monrovia.

The initial UN troops made largely of the soldiers sent to Liberia by ECOWAS to ensure and monitor a ceasefire among the belligerents have secured Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia and are beginning to move out to the interior gradually. Many Liberians believe that the intervention of the United Nations might bring peace to Liberia, finally. While many Liberians are optimistic that peace is finally in sight and will definitely come, there are other Liberians who based on their past experiences are rather cautiously optimistic. For those Liberians who are cautiously optimistic, they believe that peace is indeed insight but can only come if the international community and the Liberian people make good use of the opportunity for peace provided by the current intervention of the United Nations in Liberia. Based o what I know about the Liberian conflict and past attempts at resolving same, I am on the side of those Liberians who are cautiously optimistic. I believe that the UN will succeed in bringing lasting peace if it tries to get a full appreciation of the nature of the conflict in other words to understand what is at stick that keeps fueling violence in Liberia. The UN must also take into consideration what was overlooked under the ECOWAS Plan. I want to provide some information on these issues and then conclude by suggestions on how the opportunity provided by the intervention of the UN in Liberia can be fully exploited for lasting peace in Liberia and countries neighboring Liberia.

Nature of the Conflict

The Liberian conflict is rooted in the violation of human rights, particularly the right to participate in public service and to have equal access to opportunities provided by the state. The violation of these rights led to the violations of other rights such as the rights to freedom of speech and the press, rights to freely associate and rights to due process. These violations of human rights emanated from the lack of democracy in the governance of Liberia since its independence on July 26, 1847. In 1847 when resettled African free slaves from the United States and free born American blacks declared Liberia an independent Negro Republic in Africa, the native tribes of Liberia were not included in the process. None of them was a signatory to the declaration of independence. From that period, onwards the natives and descendents of the native tribes were excluded from participating in governance of Liberia. Several decades following the independence of Liberia, a few natives were given opportunities to participate in the process of governance but not as a matter of right. Those natives that benefited from such opportunities did so based on the patronage of members of the ruling elite. Native Liberians did not even have a right to vote until 1946.Between 1950 and 1980 agents of change including some members of the ruling elite and educated natives seriously challenged the exclusion of the natives from participation in the governance and the general lack of democracy in Liberia. Political repression in Liberia was born during this period and the President during that period was President William VS Tubman. He planted the seed of brutal treatment of political opponents in Liberia. Tubman killed his opponents, arbitrarily jailed and subjected them to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The 27-year rule of Tubman created bitterness, largely of the natives and made violent reaction of the oppressed possible.

Tubman died and his vice president William R. Tolbert succeeded him. Tolbert attempted to reform the system of governance by allowing some degree of freedom of expression, press and association and opening up his administration for greater participation by the natives. However, his attempt to control the process of change proved counterproductive and unfortunately unleashed bitterness created by Tubman against him. On April 12, 1980, a group of non-commissioned officers led by master sergeant Samuel Doe violently overthrew the Government of William R. Tolbert by killing him and thirteen members of his government.

The military coup of 1980 while seen by the masses of the native population of Liberia as a positive development was as setback to the movement for democratic change that began in the 1950s. The radical intellectuals that were at the head of the change movement were overtaken by the military coup. Many of them were co-opted into the military government and by association unfortunately became part of a crudely brutal regime- a regime that violated every idea around which they advocated for change. The right to free association and free expression, the right to own property and the right to life were among the first rights that were violated. These rights were banned by military decrees.

Because of the repressive rule of Samuel Doe, there were attempts by other soldiers to remove him from power. Each time a plan or an attempt overthrow Doe was uncovered or crushed, many soldiers were executed. Those who survived went into exile. The most known of these attempts was that led by Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, a close friend of Samuel Doe who was believed to have played an active part in the coup that overthrew Tolbert. He had gone into exile in 1983 and returned to Liberia on November 12, 1985 following an election in which Jackson Doe (a Gio just as Quiwonkpa from Nimba County) was believed to have won but was believed to have been rigged by Doe, the incumbent president. This crushing of this coup caused a large number of Gios and Manos to be killed or arbitrarily detained as well as large number forced into exile. Before that period, Charles Taylor, had run into exile to avoid being investigated for embezzlement for the period 1980 to 1984 when he served as head the General Services Agency, the procurement arm of the Liberian Government.

Following the 1985 coup attempt Samuel Doe gave greater control of over the security of the state to members of the krahn tribe, his ethnic group. This was the situation when Taylor backed by exiled Gio and Mano tribesmen under the banner of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia attacked the Doe Government form neighboring Cote d’Ivoire. Taylor’s interest was to violently remove Doe from power and take his place and the bitterness of the Gios and Mano exiles made them the best recruits for this venture. As the war progressed, more and more Krahns were recruited on Doe’s side and more and more Gios and Manos were recruited on Taylor’s side. In addition, Mandingoes unfairly exposed by and politicized by the Doe Government through Alhaji Kromah, then a key confident of Doe, were forced by that situation to joined on the side of Samuel Doe while the remaining tribes joined Taylor.

Not long after the December 24. 1989 attack by the NPFL, it split into two: the National Patriotic Front of Liberia(NPFL) led by Charles Taylor and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia(INPFL) led by Prince Yedue Johnson. As the war lasted other groups opposed to NPFL emerged. They included United Liberation movement for Democracy( ULIMO) Liberia Peace council and another splinter group of the NPFL called the NPFL-CRC led by the Late Samuel Dokie, Laveli Supuwood and Tom Wowoyue. ULIMO like the NPFL split into two with one led by Alhaji Kromah (ULIMO-K) and the other led by Roosevelt Johnson (ULIMO-J).

On July 19, 1997 general and presidential elections were held following a partial disarmament(although ECOMOG declared that disarmament was complete and the war was over) of the combating forces. Taylor the man who started the war won the presidential election. In November of the same year, Samuel Dokie, a key opposition figure was killed along with his wife and two other family members by members of Taylor’s security forces. Other opponents of Taylor, particularly former combatants of warring factions opposed to the NPFL became afraid. The killing of the Dokies caused some Liberians to go into exile and for others not to return from exile. In September 1998, Taylor ordered his security forces to killed Roosevelt Johnson and his supporters on grounds that they were planning to overthrow his government and assassinate him. Johnson escaped but hundreds of people living on Camp Johnson Road, where he lived in Monrovia, were killed. Many of the people who survived the Camp Johnson Road massacre went into exile. A large portion of the exiles created by the Taylor regime came from the Mandingo and Krahn ethnic groups. This in part explains why members of LURD and MODEL are largely from the two ethnic groups.

Although, there had been earlier attempts by some Liberian refugees in Guinea to wage war against the Taylor government, LURD came into existence after Taylor led an attack on Guinea in the year 2000 with the combined forces of the Revolutionary United Forces(RUF) of Sierra Leone, Guinean Dissidents and Liberian militias. The Liberian exiles who volunteered their military services for the Guinean army later constituted themselves into a fighting group which they named LURD.
When the Guineans pushed Taylor’s forces out of Guinea, LURD kept on the fight by taking and controlling Lofa County near the Guinean border. As long as LURD fought Taylor, Guinea remained safe from attack by Taylor.It is within this context that Guinea’s denial of support for LURD is Laughable. How else could have LURD existed without Guinean support?
MODEL on the other hand is an off-shoot of LURD. It too Like Lurd came into being after Taylor supported a rebel attack on the Ivorian Government from Liberia in 2002. Liberian exiles in Ivory Coast who had earlier volunteered to fight on the side of the Ivorien Government constituted themselves into a rebel group and named themselves MODEL once they entered Liberia.
Like forces of the Liberian government, the two rebel groups have been involved in massive abuse of human rights and war crimes. From all reports of their encounters the various fighting forces have killed and harmed more civilians than they have done to their opponents.

This is a, rather, brief background to the, now, 14 year old civil war that begun in Liberia on December 24, 1989.

What then is the nature of the Liberian civil conflict? Is it a tribal war? The Liberian civil war is not a tribal conflict as it has been erroneously portrayed some observers. It is a war fought for political power by a few men, who unfairly exploit grievances of members of some Liberian tribes for the selfish reasons of seeking and maintaining political power. The Liberian civil did not begin with one tribe moving from one village and attacking another tribe in another village, or by tribes of one region attacking tribes of another region. The Liberian civil war is merely a contest amongst groups of criminal minded Liberians who see the control of state power as an avenue mass theft against the people of Liberia. The Liberian civil war must not be perceived as in defense of any group interest such as tribe, land, religion or ideology.

What lessons must be learned from the nature and background of the Liberian civil war?
First, the long exclusion of the native tribes of Liberia form participation in the governance of Liberia brought about a change movement in Liberia beginning in the 1950s. In 1980, the movement for change in Liberia was voided by a military coup on April 12, 1980. The 1980 coup did not only overthrow the ruling political class of Liberia it also overthrew the opposition political class of Liberia. Consequently, since 1980 the political direction of Liberia has been controlled by the violent political class of Liberia. In the process of violent control of state power, successive regimes since 1980 have repeated the mistakes of the past that made Liberian people to welcome their intervention. Lack of democracy and violation of human rights have been at the root of the fall of every Liberian regime in the past and have been the reasons for military intervention in Liberian politics.

The UN and Chance for Peace

Against this background, what must the UN do that ECOWAS did not do for peace in Liberia? First, I believe that the UN should complete the process of disarmament within the shortest time following their deployment, as a matter of priority. It would have been better to insist on the voluntary disarmament of the factions before allowing their nominees to take their seats. This not having taken place it would be in the interest of peace that the factions disarm to the UN upon the deployment of its troops. Second, the training of a new security force should begin not long after disarmament and far ahead of the electoral process. Third, the UN must make it clear to the warring parties by its action that UN is in control of the peace process and not the factions. Fourth, the UN must come out with a code of conduct for the warring parties as to how they should conduct themselves among civilians before their dissolution. In the past, members of warring factions had no respect for civilians, as they were not made to account for their actions. Impunity must be felt by the ordinary Liberian population to be a behavior of the past. Fifth, national census should be held before any election is conducted in Liberia. Sixth, before presidential elections, local and legislative elections should be held. The UN should take seriously allegations of corruption against officials of government and constructively engaged the government with the view of creating confidence in public service. Seventh, the UN should assist the transitional government in reorganizing the Liberian civil service to ensure honesty and efficiency in the delivery of public service Eighth, Liberian political parties and civil society groups must watchful of the peace process, speaking out when necessary and making quiet suggestions when appropriate. Ninth, the transitional government should organize a national conference for charting the future course of Liberia before the ensuing elections. Last but certainly not the least, it is important that the UN embarks upon a major investigation of allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the various factions against innocent civilians and for recruiting and arming children.

I believe that the key objective of current peace process in Liberia should be the ending of the era of political violence in Liberia and the restoration of the political class of Liberia. It is with the restoration of the political class of Liberia that lasting peace will come to Liberia and the Liberian nation will recover form being a failed state. However, if the UN relies on the goodwill of the warring factions for peace (something lacking in Liberia every violent group since 1980) and does not remain proactive in the search for peace in Liberia, lasting peace will remain illusive in Liberia. If also the UN believes that there should be no accountability and that bygones should be bygones then impunity will be strengthened what may appear as peace at the end of the current UN mission in Liberia might be just a break from future upsurge of violence. I have no doubt that everything will be done by Liberians and the international community to ensure that this time around, there would be genuine peace in Liberia.
I will stop here for question and answers.


* Presentations similar to this were made by the same speaker at the Fordham Law School in New York, NY on September 22, 2003 and at the Greater Boston Legal Services in Boston, MA on October 16,2003 with greater emphasis on bringing to justice Charles Taylor and other perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Liberia over the last 14 years.