West African talks at the White House: The Ghost of Charles Taylor

By Abdoulaye D. Dukule

The Perspective
July 5, 2001

As the presidents of Mali, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria met with Mr. George W. Bush to discuss the future of the sub-region and tackle issues such as democratization, regional integration and security, the name of one man might have and should have come up over and over again. Either mentioned by name or referred to indirectly, the President of our beloved country was certainly perceived as the key to the accomplishment of at least two of the objectives of the talks. If every country carries out its own democratization process, sub-regional security and integration on the other hand call for a collective effort.

The West African sub-region has been one of the most stable on the continent. With the creation of ECOWAS - covering 16 states - the CEAO (Communaute Economique de l'Afrique de l'Ouest) covering the French speaking countries, and the Mano River Union, the sub-region has long been working at integration. Trade, free movement of people and integration were the most important tasks ahead of the groupings, which were not mutually exclusive.

However, efforts towards sub-regional integration have been thwarted by the decade long wars in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. For the past ten years, since the ECOWAS summit in Banjul, the Gambia, in 1990, which first took up the issue of the Liberian war and recommended the creation of a peace-keeping force, security became the major concern in the sub-region. The Liberian war cost billions of dollars to the sub-region and the international community, both in peace-keeping and humanitarian problems. At ECOWAS meetings, development and integration issues were put on the back burner, because without security, there no development. The Liberian war drained the political and economic potentials of the sub-region and will continue to do so as long as key players have not come to term with the fact that Mr. Taylor has to be made accountable for his actions.

If sub-regional efforts at integration and development are to succeed and if the countries are to focus on issues other than security and peacekeeping, Mr. Taylor must be stopped in his destabilization ventures in the sub-region. Mr. Taylor may not have been present at the various White House meetings last week but there is no doubt that his ghost lurked in every corner and his name brought up in every conversation about peace, stability and security. One hopes that the Presidents of Nigeria, Ghana and Mali have clearly intimated to their American host that the threat to regional stability and peace has a name and a face well known to America. One would also dare hope that solutions to the erratic behavior of that man were discussed.

How far does America want to go with this new approach? If talking to a set of countries considered to be "real gems" is a start, the next act must consist of dealing with those who have made it a duty to create havoc in the region. From Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, to Jonas Savimbi in Angola and Charles Taylor in Liberia, the issue is the same: there has to be an end to political banditry. Every aspect of human development in Africa will be stalled as long as those who are bent on enriching themselves and destabilizing other countries are not stopped. These men do not operate in a vacuum. They have linkages and work as in a murderous syndicate. The fact that Charles Taylor and Jonas Savimbi both used Abidjan in the past as their hubs is no accident. Are the lives and wellbeing of people of entire regions and countries less important than the greed of a few men?

Africa has many crucial battles to fight, the least of which are Aids (the new old scare), debt (the ever spiraling web of dependency) and for political stability. To win any of these battles and move ahead with human development and ensure a minimal level of decency for the people, a solution must be found to the security issues. ECOWAS cannot implement its major policies of free movement of people and integration if certain leaders make it their duty to destabilize their neighbors. If a war were to break out in Cote d'Ivoire, a country with some five million immigrants from the sub-region, the cost will be much higher than the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia combined.

The United States can help Africa in many ways. The first and most important way to help is to adopt a consistent engagement policy and a follow-up on issues, from one administration to another. In the past, once an administration was gone, a totally new approach was brought in place by a new set of bureaucrats emerging at the State Department or at the NSA. The fact that President Bush is following in the footsteps of Mr. Clinton is a positive one. It must however go further and engage the continent totally, not only by dealing with success stories like Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and Senegal but also by sending a clear and strong message to regimes such as the ones causing problems for everyone in the region. The United States can also allay the fears of other countries that it can stand by its friends, through hard times by helping to bring a solution to the problems in the Mano River Union. That, simply, because to many in Africa and to Liberians themselves, Liberia and its problems are American problems in Africa. Also, because many, in African political circles believe that American policy in Africa over the four decades has been very undependable.

[Editor's note: Abdoulaye Dukule is former Counselor of Information and Culture, Embassy of Liberia, Washington, DC]

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