Refugees and West Africa's Triangle of Xenophobia
By Tom Kamara
Sept 11, 2000

Omens of rising xenophobia with dire humanitarian implications, a byproduct of Liberia's Charles Taylor's love affair with war and destabilization at home, Sierra Leone, and now Guinea are frightening in the wake of cross border attacks on Guinea which have sparked violent raids on Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees in that country. Calls for vendetta are flaring, with swift demands for justice against the "bandits." President Lansana Conte' has ordered general mobilization to chase the attackers in "their stronghold." His orders were swift and decisive.

"I am giving orders that we bring together all foreigners... so that we know what they are doing... and that we search and arrest suspects. They should go home. We know that there are rebels among the refugees."

On the line with some exiles in Conakry following the orders, screams for help could be heard as mobs banged on their doors. President Conte's orders are buttressed by the general mood against foreigners resulting from the raids, which have killed 80 Guineans. Says an editorial in the state-owned paper:

"It is clear that the Guinean blood, which these traitors are continuing to shed, will not deter our people from carrying out their fundamental mission, which they have always done with great faith and serenity. This experience will more than ever strengthen our sense of unity, and Guineans, who are great fighters, have not said their last word. This warning should indeed be taken very seriously because, as the saying goes, one who does not fear thunder, cannot be impressed by a small fire. Guinea has the right to chase these armed bandits and shall pursue them to their stronghold. Our brothers in Massadou cannot die in vain. More than ever, we shall support our army, which remains a regional force. Guineans will keep their spirit of great fighters. This is a lasting tradition in a nation, which can use the carrot and the stick approach, according to the circumstances".

The immediate victims of the xenophobia sparked by the raids into Guinea blamed on Liberia's President Charles Taylor, his RUF allies, and partner in war and destabilization Burkina Faso, are over 125,000 of Liberian and 330,000 Sierra Leonean refugees. President Conte' has ordered these refugees to be placed in camps. He also called on the international community to ensure the refugees' departure from his country because, he added, they do not want peace. Conte' said he has intelligence reports of arms airlifted from Burkina Faso into Liberia for the attacks, the same allegations consistently made against Burkina Faso in the Liberian and Sierra Leone wars. For years, Guinea has been claiming that Liberia was training Guinean dissidents to destabilize Guinea. On the other hand, Taylor has made no secrets of his contempt for President Conte' whom he once referred to in secret as a "Cola-chewing ass" to be handled. Prior to the raids, Taylor warned Conte' to learn from Sierra Leone, where he now admits sending his rebels in 1991 to spark the war which the RUF has sustained.

Nevertheless, Guinea's expulsion of Liberians is one of Taylor's objectives because, according to sources, he has been intensely lobbying with the Guinean authorities to expel his opponents. A list of wanted men and women was allegedly sent, but the Guineans are said to have ignored the requests. Many Liberian political exiles would rather disappear in Guinea than return home where they face imminent elimination.

The attacks came as no surprise based on fingers pointed at Conakry for all Liberia's recent troubles. Weeks before the incursions, the Liberian Government announced it would chase its dissidents currently fighting in the north of the country to overthrow Taylor into their hideouts, which it claimed were in Guinea. Taylor also warned Conte "not to play rebel business with meI am the first major rebel in West Africa..." During West African heads of state meeting in Abuja this year, Taylor similarly warned regional leaders against imprisoning RUF leader Foday Sankoh, insisting that a rebel leader such as Sankoh must be allowed to operate in a "natural environment" for the sake of his men's loyalty. In confidential circles, the former warlord has indicated his desire to retake Liberian territory from Guinea, which he claims was seized from Liberia by the French colonialists. He has made similar unpublished territorial claims against La Cote D'Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

Although the RUF has denied links to the attacks, the fact that they came immediately following Taylor's threats, along with the close ties between the RUF and Liberia, pose questions. Moreover, the RUF threatened to attack Guinea in 1999 during a similar standoff between Liberia and Guinea. There are indications that Taylor may have simply given the signal for the RUF, along with Guinean dissidents and their Liberian comrades, to cross into Guinea and begin business as was the case in 1991 when the NPFL sparked the current Sierra Leone war. His defense minister, accusing Guinea of backing Liberian dissidents, had previously announced the internationalization of the Liberian conflict so that ECOWAS and the international community "can fix it".

Until Taylor's violent entry into Liberian politics, Conakry looked beyond Monrovia's fluid politics and individual regimes in its cordial relations with Liberia. Apart from welcoming ever-increasing numbers of Liberian refugees, it has been home to many prominent Liberians, including former chair of slain President Samuel Doe's political party Kekura Kpoto who now heads the Liberian Senate as a member of Taylor's party. Some members of late Presidents Tolbert's and Doe's families, targeted for elimination at home, have been living in Guinea for over a decade at the expense of the Guinean Government. Guinea has also been a caring neighbour (unlike La Cote D'Ivoire which provided territory and other support for Taylor's war), dispatching troops in 1979 to quell a riot that threatened President William Tolbert who was assassinated the following year by Samuel Doe. Guinea was also the only francophone country with troops in Liberia from the beginning to the end of the Liberian war without outside financial help given to countries like Ghana, Senegal, Uganda, Tanzania, etc.

Similar or even stronger ties existed between Conakry and Freetown prior to the RUF factor. Late Sierra Leone President Siaka Stevens retreated to Conakry in 1967 after a controversial election, which led to a military coup and his subsequent installation as President. Other leaders under siege in Freetown have during the ongoing war used Conakry as an escape route. Along with strong economic links, the two countries share dominant ethnic groups such as the Fulas, Mandingos, and the Sosous.

But Guineans are known for their solidarity against foreigners. For instance, in 1992, a European narrowly escaped death from the hands of mobs when he was accused of using his dogs for sex on Guinean women he allegedly paid. Many refugees have suffered similar fates in Conakry in conflicts with locals, and the President's orders to roundup all Sierra Leoneans and Liberians could be seen as a carte blanche for pogroms against the now hated foreigners. On the other hand, Taylor is well known for destabilization strategies, and with his millions earned mainly from Sierra Leone diamonds to finance such operations for larger dividends, the Guineans are taking no chances.

Liberia has announced plans to evacuate its citizens, a Herculean undertaking in view of hundreds of thousands of Liberians scattered around Guinea and Monrovia's chaotic nature. But many consider the announcement from a Government known for its PR bravados as empty rhetoric. In any case, many of the refugees in Guinea are Mandingos and Krahns, two tribes targeted for elimination in Liberia unlikely to return no matter the harassment endured in Guinea. Similar evacuation announcement was made this year during an army mutiny in La Cote D'Ivoire, but it was ridiculed because the very Liberians to have been evacuated, predominantly Krahns, had escaped from the Government's circle of abuses with no intention of returning as long as the regime of ethnic witch-hunt persists.

But indications of mushrooming xenophobia in the sub-region have been around before the cross border raids. Liberian soldiers recently burnt down border camps holding thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees in a continued spree of executions, harassment, arrests and imprisonment since Taylor became President. In La Cote D'Ivoire, Burkinabe immigrants have come under increasing attacks from locals. For years, The Gambian authorities have maintained straight regimes against encouraging Liberian refugees into the country. Ghanaian authorities have maintained a sort of tacit tolerance for Liberian refugees, but have now asked that they regularize their papers for possible Ghanaian citizenship, which means losing UN refugee benefits in a society with little economic opportunities and that frowns upon employment of foreigners. Before the raids, UN officials were asking Liberians in Guinea to integrate since donor money for their upkeep had run out. Schools for Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugee children were to be shutdown in the face of no funding. Senegal's President Wade has warned of the influx of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees into his country and their role in the Cassamance rebellion. Ten years after La Cote D'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Libya lit the flames of the Liberian war, the ominous signs are that the flames will continue to spread.

What is prevailing in the sub-region is no doubt the result of the doctrine of "African solutions to African problems". To knowingly surrender power to individuals known for their capacity for destabilization is to give rise to what is now engulfing the region. Soon, Liberian fires of destabilization will claim other areas. This is the "African solution to African problems".

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