Charles Taylor's Fatal Sierra Leone Dance
By Tom Kamara
Oct 27, 2000

Despite all the wrangling and denials, Liberia's role in Sierra Leone horrors is being established. And gradually, world political actors troubled by Sierra Leone's unending terror have come to accept the bare truth that peace in that sad country lies in Liberia, nowhere else. United Nations Ambassadors who recently toured West Africa, with justified "caution and realism" over Charles Taylor's new promises of peace, have concluded that the former warlord holds the keys to ending the bloodbath that has consumed the former British colony for over a decade.

"The perception is very strong in the region that the flow of arms and diamonds is coming through Liberia," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said, adding the usual and redundant phrase of Taylor's denial. "There is no need to be a part of the instability in Sierra Leone because it would lead to your instability," the ambassador told the warlord turned president.

But in a new strategy of buying time and cementing his grip on the RUF rebels as a buffer Army and for personal protection and diamonds, the Liberian president has opted for a policy of deceptive appeasement by promising the UN ambassadors the surrender of diamond areas to UN force. The puzzle is why the sudden change of heart.

Perhaps we can search for answers in the change of command of the UN force after the departure of its outspoken and uncompromising Indian commander Maj. Gen. Vijay Jetley, who, among others, accused Liberia and Nigeria of manipulating the Force for their own interests, along with his allegations that key Nigerian officers and politicians charged with handling the crisis are aligned with the rebels for diamonds.

Now out of sight, his job has been awarded to Kenya's Gen. Daniel Opande who, prior to his appointment, met Taylor on a "private visit" behind closed doors, according to Monrovia sources. Opande's significance in the unfolding West African drama is linked to his image and record in Liberia where served as UN Observer force commander. At one point in meetings with Interim President Amos Sawyer, Gen. Opande actually advocated a surrender of power to Taylor outside elections. He believed Taylor had to be given a chance. Not easy to forget one who campaigns for one to be president even after gruesome horror stories are tied to his name, Taylor has understandably preserved links between him and Opende. Now, the two men are back in action and dealing with the same problem---how to defuse a gangster army and deprive it power. In Liberia, the problem was solved by giving such an Army the chance, forget about how. With the same actors back in business full swing, should we expect a similar solution?

Memories of the Kenyan in devastated Liberia then seeing every uniformed African soldier as a messiah for redemption are still fresh. Gen. Opande was well liked within the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) with its endless supply of prostitutes to service "friends." He mingled freely with the rebel officials and commanders, now politicians and Army officers in charge of RUF operations. He was more of a ceremonial soldier--- neatly dressed and finding the bars and the few foreign restaurants more appealing places than high-risk military adventures left for underpaid Nigerian officers. Rebel commanders in Taylor's self-proclaimed capital of Gbanga, which Opande visited very frequently, and elsewhere, who called him "oilipantie," admired him, and he too, perhaps, may have viewed them as reasonable men of purpose despite their horrific atrocities and the fear they instilled in society. Once in power, the NPFL command (now the Liberian Army) and political leadership honored the Kenyan for his "great" services to humanity, their humanity. Could one conclude, then, that Taylor, with his past close ties to fellow African Opande, ties he found impossible to establish with the Indian commander, has now rediscovered a man with whom he can do business in troubled Sierra Leone?

Most effective ECOMOG commanders during the Liberian war were those who kept their distance from the scheming warlord by pursuing their professional campaigns outside his reach. The saviors of Monrovia, Gen. Joshua Dongonyaro and Gen. Olurin, never established private ties with Taylor during their military campaigns. Those commanders and politicians with close ties to the cunning warlord soon found themselves his servants, and there were plenty of Sierra Leone's diamonds, as now, to go around in making envoys understand the Liberian's sanity of war and plunder. Commanders and politicians loyal to Taylor during the Liberian campaign succeeded in concealing reality because the world was not watching. There are too many eyes watching Sierra Leone, and as we have seen, London's binoculars can be devastating exposing cheap Generals on the take.

Moreover, the saying that genius is knowing when to stop is coming to pass on the Liberian. The British ambassador Greenstock, when asked how firm was Taylor's promise of his RUF peacefully turning over diamond areas to the UN force, answered cynically, "He made that suggestion as firmly as he denied he was dealing in diamonds and arms with the rebels." According reports, the ambassador added that Taylor was now appearing to explore "what the cost is going to be of ending all this and moving to a situation where Sierra Leone and Liberia start to co-operate with each other".

His view, reports say, is that Taylor is at an end in exploiting the vacuum in Sierra Leone. Greenstock believes Taylor's apparent change of heart would provide Liberia with greater stability and a better chance of receiving international help in ending its own civil war and aid for its economy. True, but sadly, development and peace- oriented men see stability as indispensable variable for success, not individuals who survive on anarchy.

"If you like, it is the judgment of the poacher that, if he becomes a gamekeeper, he might do better than if he remains a poacher. And that is the calculation that we observed President Taylor beginning to make," Sir Greenstock noted.

But the sad fact in West Africa's revolving tragedy is the tendency of many men of integrity to reach such conclusions upon direct encounters with the man so accustomed to instability and lies over a decade. The drive to believe Taylor is understandable because honorable men, in encounters with others, take promises very seriously, as if they were making them. But the Liberian President, who sees no dishonor in disputing his signatures witnessed by presidents and prime ministers, is far from an honorable man. He is a man easy at making promises because in his ruthless and dishonorable career, he finds it convenient breaking them. He has been promising a "positive" role in Sierra Leone since he was crown president by the Nigerians, and sees no contractions in hosting RUF rebels in Monrovia, which remains their base of political-military operations and of diamond transactions. There is even an "RUF village" in Monrovia, and key RUF commanders have become Taylor's "security advisors." The litany of links, which he conveniently and consistently denies, is just too long. It is one of those puzzles in which Charles Taylor who denies ties with the RUF and diamond theft, has now decided that the rebels will surrender the diamond fiefdoms. Yet he denies owning the RUF. Yet, he is believed!

In their report following discussions in West Africa, the ambassadors said the prevailing view is that "the rebels are divided into several groups. Many people felt a significant portion of the rank and file of the rebels would be willing to disarm, but were not allowed to do so by their commanders, who often used brutal methods, including execution, to prevent fighters, including children, from leaving."

But this notion of a division within the rebel movement has been around for some time, just as the erroneous belief that Foday Sankoh's arrest would help in ending the terror. This would have perhaps been the case had the RUF not being controlled from Monrovia by its "Chairman Taylor," as its former commander Sam Bockarie, now in Taylor''s service, refers to the Liberian president.

However, the ambassadors further observed that "sustained and effective military instrument, with the capability to extend its reach throughout the country", could lead to disarmament.

"To meet these challenges, the UN mission must be strengthened in terms of numbers, effectiveness and capability," the report said. An indisputable truth, but it is doubtful whether Gen. Opande, with his links to the Liberian establishment, is the man to use such an effective military force against rebels supplied, trained and harboured by his friends in Monrovia. His role in Liberia was wooing rebel leaders into bounds of friendship that served their interests. It will not be different in troubled Sierra Leone needing an honest, firm and forthright military officer.

Whatever the merits of a non-military end of Sierra Leone's nightmare, it remains a sad wish. The British have better understood their former colony's troubles. They are intensifying the training of Sierra Leone's Army and not relying on corrupt and compromising African "Buffalo soldiers" to end that country's nightmare. Relying on Taylor's promises is beginning to accept surrender to the RUF. Taylor had long promised he would make Sierra Leone, for its diamonds and his security, an appendage. It is that promise that should be taken seriously. Beware the African soldier.