ECOWAS' New Liberia Gambles
By Tom Kamara
December 6, 2000
Signals of West African troops returning to Liberia are looming after their failed adventure in ensuring peace and regional stability following years of brutal conflict. President Charles Taylor, burdened with repeated incursions, now battling with his fourth insurgency since the 1997 Abacha elections, wants West African troops to police his porous borders with his uneasy neighbors. And in what seems an odd decision, Nigeria, the regional giant which said it spent about $10b dollars for its Liberian "democracy", has promised to return by stationing military patrols to separate Taylor from his neighbors after its unceremonious departure. This could be the lasting dagger plunged into the heart of Lagos as it battles with its own multiplying troubles. Now more than ever, let the Liberians solve their own problems. Returning to Liberia after its hailed democratization will be foolhardy, costlier and far more ghastly.
Without a careful and selfless look at the root causes of destabilization emanating from Monrovia, ECOWAS could find itself buttressing a regime while battling it in Sierra Leone via its RUF partners. But Lagos' prevailing logic is that regional destabilization can be halted by stationing referee troops in Liberian-Guinean jungles, when the reality avoided in dealing with the Liberian cancer of chaos is that as long as agents of destabilization are empowered, West Africa will continue to burn.
Whatever the existing love affair between Taylor and President Obasanjo, it cannot address Taylor's increasing phobia for which he is craving for a new ECOWAS intervention force. The British and the Canadians are currently training Sierra Leone's troops, with London vowing to transform Sierra Leone Army into "the finest Army in West Africa within five years". The Americans are said to be training Guinean troops. With a more vibrant political leadership in Freetown after Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the political chemistry in the sub region could see dramatic turns. These are Taylor's fears and Obasanjo can do little to erase them, short of stationing Nigerian battalions to protect a friend who sees enemies by the minute while confronting a collapsed economy he created. Monrovia's horrible nightmare is facing increasing incursions in the midst of mass disenchantment. If ECOWAS soldiers can return to arrest and execute large numbers of exiled refugees wanting to return home with an AK-47 in hand as their security guarantee, then fine. Taylor's wants a mercenary force under the cover of ECOMOG, not a peacekeeping force.
Despite its concealment under the convenient umbrella of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), Nigeria has dominated policies and decisions that have transformed Liberia into a launch pad for destabilization within the sub region. What is now marketed as ECOWAS' role in Liberia is a merely Nigerian affair. Guinea, the only Francophone state active in the Liberian crisis to the finish, has now contracted the Liberian war virus. Ghana, second to Nigeria in influence during the Liberian campaign, is preoccupied with its shaky political transition in which Taylor is alleged to be helping the opposition against Rawlings's party, thus explaining why the Liberian has avoided Accra on his many African tours since his election. The Ivory Coast, which backed Taylor's war and bid for power, is embroiled in continuing political crisis with threats of secession by disenfranchised northerners. Hence any ECOWAS reentry in Liberia will be a sole Nigerian undertaking, although Abuja itself has its own multiple political and economic problems.
In postwar Liberia, Nigeria's dominant role meant it would be key in the country's affairs. But such illusions soon faded under Taylor's authoritarian and arrogant postures. Reminded that a crucial portion of the Abuja Agreement that brought him to power was the establishment and training of a credible security force, Taylor told Gen. Victor Malu, then ECOMOG Field Commander and now Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army that, "No officer of any nation will share power with the president of the Republic of Liberia." Determined to manipulate the Nigerians or transform them into his private Army, as was the case during their last days in Liberia, Taylor said, "We are all presidents. There is no small and big president." A disappointed Gen. Malu, convinced that Taylor wanted his troops as an alternative Army, declared he had no intention of sharing his command with the new president.
Such rhetoric, in view of the volatile security situation after a horrible war, led US President Bill Clinton, the European Community, and key Liberian opinion leaders to campaign for maintaining ECOMOG troops. "The majority of the people do not have confidence in the security forces (meaning rebels in uniforms). They have confidence in ECOMOG," said Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis. But they were all wasting time. Taylor was now in charge, and he intended to implement his agenda of regional destabilization since ECOMOG's military presence in Liberia had worked against the full implementation of his schemes. In 1999, when ECOMG troops arrested fleeing members of ousted Sierra Leone ruthless military junta, an angry Taylor demanded they be turned over to his sovereign government. The junta leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, reported missing after his regime was overthrown, resurfaced in Monrovia where he was concealed for over a year. Many RUF operatives simply crossed back home in Liberia under Taylor's protection.
Before then, the Nigerians had suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the RUF. In despair, the ECOMOG Commander in Sierra Leone declared, "I therefore want to make it categorically [clear] that we will no longer watch this mischief by supposed leaders in view of the danger it poses to us and the whole sub region." Then Nigerian Foreign Minister, Ignatius Olisemeka, announced a never implemented Taylor containment policy: "We are fashioning a policy to contain him. We are fashioning to contain the countries from where they (RUF) get arms to kill innocent peacekeeping troops in Sierra Leone." A formal protest, outlining the "nefarious role being played by Liberia and some other countries," was presented, along with threats of taking Liberia to court for war reparations. President Obasanjo's reign has changed all that. Nigeria is playing a more accommodating role for Liberia within the region. The partnership between Monrovia and Abuja is stronger than ever before, buttressed by Taylor's frequent visits to consult "Big Brother" (his flattering reference to Obasanjo) while he subjects his immediate neighbors to horrors.
What is at stake now is that Nigeria, which rushed out of Liberia sighting the high, unaffordable costs of maintaining her troops and therefore capitulating under a makeshift election, should no longer contemplate returning to further muddle the already messy political waters. The Nigerians should remember that they are only wooed now because Taylor needs them to police his troubled presidency. Several examples indicate that Taylor is back to old tricks of survival through brutality. During the opening pages of the war, he insisted that because of Nigeria's alleged bias, which meant denying him the presidency, the peacekeeping troops should be balanced with the presence of Francophone troops. Washington conceded and underwrote the cost of arming and stationing professional Senegalese troops with Taylor's promise to disarm. His next move was to arrest and behead several of Senegalese soldiers stationed in the strategic border town of Vahun, then the RUF training post. The Senegalese withdrew. Then he demanded an "Expanded ECOMOG." Ugandans and Tanzanians were airlifted. They returned home in despair leaving behind infinite demands without peace until Taylor was crowned president only to commence new tactics of insecurity and regional destabilization.
Lagos must have known of Taylor's plans for regional chaos. For years, Taylor has been harboring many West African dissidents, among them Ghanaians, Guineans, Gambians, etc. Liberia was the agreed upon staging post for an all-West African uprising of con artists for the seizure of political power. Many of those dissidents who survived now live in Liberia at Taylor's service. A Ghanaian military officer, Major Solie Mama, has offices in the presidency and serves as a key military strategist perhaps coordinating and waiting for his own country's "revolution."
The latest victim in this his grand domino strategy of destabilization, Guinea Conakry, is battling to survive under waves of incursions led by rebels of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front under Taylor's command. Conakry says fighting repeated incursions has resulted into the diversion of much needed development funds for a country now hosting the largest number of refugees in Africa. For years, the Guineans have been pointing fingers at Taylor, accusing him of harboring dissidents to destabilize their country. Says the London-based Africa Confidential:
"Taylor and Conte are not friends. Liberia has been hosting the late President Sekou Toure's son, Ahmed, who wants to build a rebel movement to oust Conte. The respected Guinean opposition politician Alpha Conde is accused by Conte of plotting dangerously with TaylorConte fears that Taylor and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso will turn on Guinea after Sierra Leone."
These revelations came just about three months before the incursions from Guinea commenced. But the truth is that ECOWAS, and their military wing ECOMOG, knew of the domino destabilization plan during their Liberian campaign. ECOMOG's officials and officers were quite aware of the dozens of West African rebels under Taylor's command. The presence of Foday Sankoh, the detained RUF leader, was well known. Nevertheless, because of the politics of convenience and self-interests that is the norm in Africa, they chose to ignore these developments while crossing deals with a man who had promised to "keep them [Nigerians] busy in Sierra Leone" and after that Guinea. As a price of compromise, hundreds of Nigerian soldiers were butchered in 1999 by a man Lagos was later happy to sell as their "democratically elected" leader.
Liberia is a sovereign country. It has a sovereign leader. Let it solve its own problems. Nigeria should not make the same mistakes by returning to Liberia. We are now enjoying our Abacha Democracy. Leave us in peace.