Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
June 24, 2002
For the past few weeks, Liberia seemed moving closer to peace just to bounce back into violence and get stranded again in what has been the lot of Liberians for the past two decades: violence and uncertainty.
At one point, after “taking and losing” Gbarnga, LURD proclaimed that it was now going to listen to the calls from the Secretary General of the UN, ECOWAS, Liberians and others who want the country to give a chance to peace. This was welcome by many as a sign of things cooling down. At the same time, while on his PR visit to the United States under the guise of medical treatment, the Minister of Information of the Taylor government said they were ready for peace and open to dialogue, provided the LURD "terrorists" put down their guns and embrace political dialogue. Many political leaders also welcomed the moves by the two belligerents, hoping that the stage was finally set for a return to some kind of end to the military conflict.
In the midst of all of this, ECOWAS sent a military delegation to Monrovia to hold discuss with Taylor. This was an assessment mission, to determine if the situation in Liberia warranted a security intervention from the international community and the scope it would take. Not surprisingly, the government of Charles Taylor was quick to reject any military intervention, hiding behind the illusion of “sovereignty” and claiming that there was a peace process, a so-called Rabat initiative that was underway and called on ECOWAS to put its weight behind that process.
The fact is that there is no Rabat initiative. There was a meeting in Rabat, to which Conteh participated after being “begged” by both the Americans who are investing heavily in the military in Guinea and by the King of Morocco, whose father was a very close friend of Conte and finally the French, who want to keep a certain influence in the region and protect their timber interest in Liberia. Conte was reluctant in going to Rabat and the King had to even send a jet to pick him up to counter his last argument - that is, his presidential jet was in no condition to fly. While in Rabat, Conte hardly opened his mouth except to say that Guinea never attacked anyone but would defend itself against any invasion, wherever it comes from. Concerning LURD, Conte used the same argument Houphouet Boigny used when the NPFL was using the Ivorian border areas to attack Liberia.
According to Conte, Guinea is not harboring any armed dissidents. He said that there are more than 150,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea and many of them live in the border area. They go in and out as they please, because Guinea is bound by the ECOWAS and Mano River Union protocols on the free movement of people and goods. Guinea is ensuring that no refugee is harmed in any way while in Guinea and by the same token ensures that no refugee engages in illegal activity while in Guinea, including carrying out armed attacks against any neighboring country. Conte said he was aware of the instable situation in Liberia and was therefore re-enforcing security on its borders to make sure that there is no spillover of Liberian military activities into Guinea as it happened two years ago. Conte was very reluctant to have a one on one meeting with Charles Taylor until the King offered to serve personally as interpreter between the two. The meeting lasted 37 minutes and Conte repeated exactly what he said in plenary meeting. Conte may go again to Rabat and will repeat the same things he said earlier. Both he and Taylor remember what he said in Dakar in 1992: “Taylor is like a cancer. Until he is extracted and destroyed, he would destroy the entire region.”
If back in Rabat, Conte would certainly repeat that according to an article of the United Nations Charter, a country under attack has the right to pursue the enemy up to 51 kilometers beyond its borders. Furthermore, Conte thinks he should be thanked for the humanitarian service he is providing to Liberia by offering shelter to 150,000 people. As he said, if the Liberians can get their acts together, the refugees will return home and Guinea would be the happiest. Whatever happens in Guinea, as long as Taylor is president, Guinea would make sure that there is a buffer zone between Guinea and Liberia. It is no accident when he was offered American military aid his first priority was to train 900 men and women in border patrol and management.
The refusal of Taylor to accept an ECOWAS peace force must be linked to the electoral process. During his interview with The Perspective, the Minister of Information hinted at a certain kind of schedule. He said the peace process could advance in such a way that there would be no need for a state of emergency by August or September, adding “that would leave us at least one year for preparing for the election.” Taylor, in announcing the lifting on the ban on Star Radio, said the station could start operating by October. If the government reconciliation conference were to take place in July, it would drag on for a few weeks. Preparing reports, getting printed and submitted to government with recommendations could take up to October.
October timetable becomes the beginning of the electoral process. It would also signal the time the government would allow “free movement” of people and accepts a certain non-lethal military or security monitoring presence of ECOWAS. The electoral process would be held under the same exact conditions as 1997, amidst uncertainties, with ½ of the country population displaced or in refugee camps, sneaking into the country to vote and going back to their refugee camps in Guinea or Cote d'Ivoire or Sierra Leone to “wait and see”. Under these conditions, elections would be held again like in 1997 under proportional representation and the NPP will "win" again, with a full control of the legislature.
LURD also refused any military intervention by ECOWAS unless that intervention takes them into account. It takes the process back to 1993. LURD would not want to just be discarded and disarmed like a group of “small time bandits”. They want to be reckoned with as a “liberation movement” that has territories under its control, something they always claimed they were not doing. Now, they are faced with the most difficult aspect of war. War is primarily a public relations venture. One can win a war on the ground and lose it in the public opinion. LURD may have the potential to cause damage wherever and whenever its wants in the country as shown through its mobility, but the warring faction still has to create a real admitted and open following among Liberians. Two weeks after they claimed their intention of a peaceful settlement, LURD leaders came back to say that they were launching a relentless pursuit of Taylor in Monrovia and would not stop until they arrest him. Their claim has created no jubilation or panic among Liberians, either at home or in exile. Looking at their flip-flop, one can conclude that LURD would accept to sit and talk with Taylor if given a share of the Liberian pie. That's what ULIMO, CRC-NPFL, INPFL, LPC, LDF did. Nothing new is happening here. Killing and causing mayhem are the easiest part of war. Anyone familiar with Liberia’s recent history knows that it takes only a gunshot to create pandemonium anywhere. Two kids with Ak-47s could create panic in Monrovia, but turning that into a political gain is another story.
The Taylor government is controlling the agenda for peace and war. The greatest problem Taylor faces now is the possibility of an indictment by the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, something that is becoming more and more plausible as things unfold. The travel ban and the sanctions can always be worked out somehow. The presence of the Information Minister in the White House, holding talks with Dr. Frazer, the director of NSC-Africa was not an accident. One does not enter the NSC by chance, your name, birth date and purpose of your meeting with even a janitor has to be submitted in advance and approved before you enter the White House. If the Taylor government, with the help of all international election makers who are ready to “monitor” any type of elections could mange to stage some kind of “free and fair” elections in 2003, it could win. Sanctions may be dropped and travel ban lifted.
LURD and Taylor would make peace when Taylor is ready to dish-out some non-essential parts of his government. Taylor would then allow “free movement” of political leaders in the country for electioneering, but there would hardly be any voters anywhere in the country besides the strong holds of NPP. As any politician, Taylor would cling to power by any means necessary and with the possibility of indictment in Sierra Leone the only protection he has is being elected again and again and again.
Taylor is under no obligation to make it easy for anyone to beat him at the polls. The political opposition would have to be imaginative to counter his money and capacity at going at any length to stay in control. Meanwhile, a subtle but real voters’ registration is going on in Liberia. The first lady is working hard at it, distributing rice and used clothes, taking down names and location of recipients in the process, blaming their misery on “LURD terrorists and their supporters in the United states.” In the same breadth, she blames the opposition for calling for sanctions on the people of Liberia, therefore making it impossible for the government of her husband to provide basic services.
The opposition has started a dialogue towards confidence building but it could also create a deadlock where the only solution forward would be the removal of Taylor. The opposition is not divided as to the final objective, not even on the means of getting there but its members have very different expectations. Some are more or less sure of capable of defeating Taylor in fair and open elections. Many have no chance but want to be part of any political bargaining and make a case for particular interest groups. There is a third group with no constituency but their friends and families who just want to be recognized as having run. This diversity would play in the hands of the government, especially when some hardliners in the opposition could blackmail others against any form of dialogue with Taylor.
The truth is that Taylor cannot win an open and fair elections and anything that helps to avoid that possibility is welcome, including instability, sanctions, travel ban and war. The worst scenario for Taylor would be a real reconciliation and the presence of all prominent opposition leaders in Monrovia, with the background of an international security force guaranteeing freedom of speech and movement. This, he would never allow, because as he said to some confidantes not too long ago, he is not "stupid like Samuel Doe was."
The pieces of the puzzle are all here. Liberia is running out of time but Taylor is making gains, somewhere. As long as the King of Morocco, a darling of both France and the US and good friend to both Taylor and Conte is playing the peacemaker, nobody should discount the King of Gbarnga. This is why Taylor wants ECOWAS to become part of Rabat initiative. It would all buy him time and with the world political focus switching by the minute...