Liberia's Unfinished War
By Tom Kamara
April 28, 2001
"The harder they come, the harder they fallI am a tough guy. Y'all go sleep! I am not kidding", President Taylor frequently thunders, leaving little doubt that the flames of war he ignited in 1989 will keep burning as long as he is around.
And they have kept coming since 1999, barely two years after his enthronement, with reports of fighting now spreading from northern Lofa County to other areas. Latest reports say fighting is fierce around the strategic town of Zorzor, close to Taylor's wartime headquarters of Gbarnga now the location of his plush farm. Reports further say some of Taylor's key lieutenants have fled, and that insiders are urging him to follow. But sources add that Taylor has indicated he will return to the bush to protect his coveted presidency. Just which "bush" he will reenter is the question. Cote D'Ivoire, which provided him the necessary corridor for the transport of arms and mercenaries between 1989 and 1997 is a changed country governed by a different set of leaders unlikely to tolerate the Liberian warlord. Entering neighboring Guinea or Sierra Leone is suicidal, since they are declared enemy states wanting his head. One of Liberia's dailies reports that thousands of people are fleeing the fighting, and moving towards the capital Monrovia. Other reports say thousands of Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans are moving inward Sierra Leone. It may be that the "harder they come, the harder they fall". But they are coming, and many innocent people are falling with them. It is an unfinished war that glossed over many unfinished issues.
Is it said that Taylor is at his best when his grip on power is threatened, and he has shown that by convincing the cowed opposition to believe that their salvation now rests in his own salvation as he gets a dose of his own terrible medicine of war and destruction. "This government is not going to be changed by force of arms," declared Dr. Togbah Nah Tipoteh who just recently complained of threats of his life after he was listed as one of those backing the rebellion. A number of opposition figures, glad the government will pay their fares to New York, have promised to convince the UN against the imposition of sanctions. "All for one, one for all", Taylor told his cabinet recently.
Whatever the verdict rendered in 1997 in what the world called free and fair elections, the basis of settling Liberia's power struggle was acquiescing to one commanding the biggest gun and therefore monopolizing the ability to wage the greatest terror against never-ending opponents. Taylor's record before and during the war made it clear that he was the winner in this ECOWAS- endorsed criteria. Thus since his crowning, he has lived by the doctrine of, "he who commands the greatest force is supreme and right in determining the fate of the vanquished". With this mindset, he has sent war rivals with lesser force fleeing, and politicians with no force hiding or placing themselves at his service.
Not relying on the euphoric elections that he thought would have deprived him of the presidency, Taylor vowed he would resume the war if he lost the election, and that not even the "angels would save" the penniless elections commission (which used Nigerians tanks against election workers who demanding promised unpaid salaries) if the polls were postponed to delay his presidency. Backing threats with deeds, he simply concealed his weapons for the unfinished war, as the man heading the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG, the now dismissed Chief of Staff, Gen. Victor Malu of the Nigerian Army, proclaimed to the world that he had disarmed all forces. Of course, the only arms Malu discovered hidden during the last days of 1997 when Liberia's future was sealed belonged to rival warlord Alhaji Kromah. For Taylor, the man with the largest number of arms in the country from Libya and Burkina Faso, etc., not a single gun or bullet was discovered. That thousands of new and sophisticated weapons immediately surfaced in Liberia, a country under UN arms embargo since 1992, led some ECOMOG officers to wonder where the weapons were coming from. Even more, Liberia became a net supplier of weapons for regional rebels, mainly those of the RUF.
Now assured of the biggest gun and the overwhelming force, he accentuated and institutionalized military might on the plane of national and regional politics, indicating that the criteria set by ECOWAS and the international community during the war remained firmly in place: "you only count if you carry an AK-47 and command a rebel force". Political resistance without the gun was therefore futile. This meant that the war was far from over. Suggestions from US President Bill Clinton, the European Union, etc., that Liberia's stability would be ensured if ECOMOG troops were maintained for a number of years were rebuffed and rejected. Taylor swiftly sent the troops packing. "There is no small president and big president. We are all presidents", he declared in reference to the Nigerians who were reminding him of the terms of the Abuja Agreement on restructuring the country's security forces. But as security deteriorated, the rejected plea has become the solution. Taylor now wants ECOMOG back to man his borders with his self-declared enemy states of Guinea and Sierra Leone. He wants the UN presence at his airports. Indeed, there are small presidents, and PRESIDENTS.
As strong-armed politics became the norm, so did the exodus of tens of thousands of people. Expectations that elections meant civil liberties and therefore a mass return of refugees home fell on the rocks. By September 1998, even as hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on a national reconciliation conference chaired by pal the Rev. Jesse Jackson, signs of Hell were indisputable. The Krahns, assassinated President Samuel Doe's ethnic group, became the first targets. Over 300 of them, mostly women and children, were attacked by a force under the command of Taylor's son, Chuckie Taylor, born in the United States and therefore an American citizen. As Taylor had promised, "jungle justice" spread. "The executive branch continued to exert undue influence on the judiciary. For example, in response to an appeal of the 1999 treason convictions of 13 ethnic Krahn AFL members, the Government demanded in 1999 that their sentences be changed from 10 years' imprisonment to death. In December 10 years was added to their sentences for a total of 20 years' imprisonment", the State Department in its report for 2000 noted.
The Mandingos came next, and after them, critical journalists, human rights activists, then anybody and everybody else, including loyal disciples who would change their minds to question the regime's plunder, as in the case of the missing deputy minister of information Milton Teahjay. "There were credible reports that government forces as well as members of the Lorma ethnic group continued to harass, intimidate, and, on occasion, kill members of the Mandingo ethnic group in Lofa county", the US State Department said.
Those who thought the war was over, failed to read the handwriting on the wall. Operating on the theory that, "he who does not agree with me is an enemy", the witch-hunts intensified, forcing many defeated warlords still in the country to flee. The execution and mutilation of Samuel Dokie, a one-time Taylor ally turned foe, along with his wife and two family members was a warning that those who questioned Taylor's claim to the presidency during the war must flee or die gruesome deaths. Nearly all warlords and their lieutenants took to their heels.
His determination to continue the war was made clearer through a belligerent policy towards neighbors. Sierra Leone, with its weak social and political-security structures, became the easy target since many of its rebels fought along side Taylor with the promise that once Liberia fell, it would become a staging post for Sierra Leone's fall. As the country crumbled, Taylor insisted that there would be no peace in the former British colony if any government formed failed to surrender to, or share power with, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). His election added more muscles to the rebels, now that Liberian territory was at their disposal with their trainers recruited from South Africa's neo-Nazis, Ukrainians, and South American death squads in return for diamonds.
Guinea, which had tolerated a rival rebel group the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), was ripe for the taking, or at least so Taylor thought. With hundreds of thousands of frightened refugees clustered within its borders and refusing to return home, allegations against Guinea for backing Liberian dissidents became louder in preparation for an invasion. Reports that Guinean dissidents were freely roaming within Liberia and undergoing training were prevalent.
But from its independence, Guinea's foreign policy has largely been influenced by building ties with friendly neighbours. Isolated by the West because of its pro-Soviet socialist policies in the 50s and 60s, unfriendly neighbours were feared as bases that could be used by the numerous enemies of the Sekou Toure regime within West Africa. Thus in 1979, Guinea dispatched troops to save a friendly President William Tolbert from falling. By the beginning of the Sierra Leone war, Guinean troops were the first providing security for another friendly government of Joseph Momoh, and thereafter. But the sub regional political landscape altered by Taylor's rise would transform a country despised during the Cold War to a friendly, American backed regime against Liberia, one of the favorites in the Cold War. Taylor's horrific human rights record, his regional destabilization schemes, along with his ties to Libya, pushed Washington in Conakry's corner as Liberia yelled in surprising disbelief. American military assistance to Guinea, and not Liberia, an offshoot of American history, explained the level to which the warlord had disfigured regional alliances against himself. As he took monthly trips to Tripoli for consultations, he also tried to woo Washington, if not for anything but its money. Since Uncle Sam had given Samuel Doe the largest amount of money in sub Saharan Africa for its Cold War services, money that Taylor helped steal as Doe's flamboyant purchasing chief, he now believed he, too, deserved the purse, which he put at $3billion in reconstruction money.
When the money was not coming, he accused the Americans of "sabotage", which implied they had promised him the money if he waged the war and became president. American officials in Monrovia were frequently subjected to threats, insults and allegations of plots to overthrow his regime. Despite this overt antagonism, he employed scores of American PR teams, including former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, to convince the US he was their guy and therefore needed their money. The Black Congressional Caucus, packed with his sympathizers, saw him as the new continental hero. His cunning mind, which earned him the presidency and millions of looted dollars, told him success was in sight by playing Libya against Washington. He did not know, could not know, that the Cold War had ended.
Ties with Cote D'Ivoire, which along with Libya and Burkina Faso had ignited the flames of Liberia's destruction, became shaky after the overthrow of the Houphouet Boigny dynasty. Taylor swiftly linked up with the new Ivorian strongman, Gen. Robert Guei, a link made easier by the fact that the General is from an ethnic group that erected the pillars for Taylor's rise to power, the Gios (and Mano) the former known in Cote D'Ivoire as the Yakubas. With self-interest to preserve and having no permanent allies, Taylor and Guei became partners, with recent allegations from the Ivorian press that Liberian security recruits now protect the disgraced General. Although one Abidjan paper quoted Guei as saying only a phone call would place an Army at his disposal to seize power, Taylor has assured Laurent Gbagbo he wants "peaceful co-existence" with him. He had told Sierra Leone's Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and Guinea's Lansana Conte that several times.
However, to his credit, Taylor's policy of continued war was no hidden affair. He unveiled it during his campaign for the presidency when he released a plan that would transform the country into a military state. His political manifesto did not call for development and reconstruction or reconciliation. It called for the formation of a 15,000-man Army, Air Force, and Navy. Never mind that the economy, destroyed beyond recognition, could hardly afford a well-equipped city police force. In victory nevertheless, the warlord abandoned his lofty military plan and concentrated on building multiple and overlapping security structures, badly trained and under-equipped. His emphasis was on personal bodyguard unit, the feared and ruthless Antiterrorist Unit (ATU) first commanded by his son. The conventional Army, the Armed Forces of Liberia, which he could not wholly trust, was left in tartars, unpaid, and disarmed. His Defense Minister justified this by saying the ATU was to defend the President and therefore deserved the privileges and attention. The truth is that they were an indiscipline force taking the law into their hands as their master had instructed.
"Security forces continued to commit extrajudicial killings. Human rights organizations estimate the number of such killings to be have increased to several hundreds during the year. Many of the abuses were linked to ongoing violence in Lofa county between security forces and antigovernment dissidents who launched a series of crossborder incursions from Guinea. No perpetrators were arrested or convicted for any of these killings", said the US State Department in its 2000 human rights report.
As he built his military, he outlawed civil opposition, threatening any attempt to oppose his government with "people power" concept that worked in Cote D'Ivoire and elsewhere would be crushed. "We will go after you. People power is already here. We have the people." This left no option. It was time to return to the table and apply the rule that determined power during the war: "the bigger the gun, the louder the voice".