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Marines landing in Monrovia
Will the "peace deal" bring peace to Liberia?

By Lee Sustar | August 22, 2003 | Page 4

OUST ONE warlord, replace him with another, and call it "peace." That's the plan for Liberia following the departure of former President Charles Taylor into exile in nearby Nigeria after a ceremony attended by key African heads of state.

Certainly, hungry and impoverished Liberians are joyful at the hope of an end to the horrific fighting that has taken 200,000 lives over the last decade and turned one-third of the country's population of 3 million into refugees. But if the past is any indication, the settlement--brokered by Liberia's West African neighbors--won't end the dynamics that have resulted in continual war since 1990, even if U.S. troops intervene directly. Under the agreement, Taylor handed over power to his vice president, Moses Blah, who will remain in office until October, when an interim government will take over.

The main rebel group, Liberians for Unification, Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), stopped fighting when Taylor departed. But LURD officials immediately demanded control of key ministries--including finance, commerce, foreign affairs and maritime affairs, which sells registrations to shipping line owners.

If LURD leader Sekou Conneh thinks that he can get away with these demands, it's because several other Liberians have made the transition from military strongman to political leader over the last 23 years. The pattern began with the 1980 overthrow of the Americo-Liberians--the descendants of U.S. freed slaves who ruled Liberia from its founding in 1847--in a 1980 coup led by Master Sgt. Samuel Doe.

Doe, a member of the Khran ethnic group, made alliances with the Mandingo peoples against the old elite, but other ethnic groups suffered repression. Nevertheless, the U.S. government, having propped up the Americo-Liberians for more than 150 years, embraced the iron-fisted Doe as a Cold War ally in Africa--until he himself was deposed in a coup in 1990.

Taylor ultimately filled the vacuum, manipulating the grievances of the Mano and Gio people under Doe's regime to build support for his National Patriotic Front of Liberia during the ensuing civil war. By playing off rival factions and controlling the lucrative diamond trade, Taylor was elected president in 1997.

Leaders of West African countries and the U.S. blessed the result, apparently believing that Taylor could bring stability to the region. But Taylor's sponsorship of rebellions in neighboring countries, especially Sierra Leone, led his regional rivals in turn to back the rebel opposition in Liberia.

Falling prices for the resource-rich region's main raw material exports led to an economic crisis, while the end of the Cold War scrambled old alliances. Ethnic rivalries provided a convenient vehicle for power grabs by imperialist outsiders, warlords, nationalist politicians and various states over the last decade.

For example, the former French colony of Guinea received some $3 million in U.S. military aid in 2002, signaling its shift into Washington's orbit. Guinea, in turn, supports the LURD, based mainly among the Mandigo peoples, many of whom are Muslim.

Today, LURD warlord Conneh is attempting to repeat Taylor's success. But ethnic rivalries in his camp earlier this year led to the creation of a breakaway group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), a heavily Khran group backed by the neighboring country of Ivory Coast.

Meanwhile, Taylor will doubtless try to intervene in Liberian politics from exile, using his substantial business and political connections in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. He hopes to avoid the fate of his late ally, Foday Sankoh, the Sierra Leone rebel whose troops were known for hacking the limbs off their victims. In a peace deal in the late 1990s, Sankoh became minister in charge of the diamond trade--but was ultimately arrested for a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal, and died awaiting trial.

That same court has indicted Taylor. Whether or not he is ever put on trial, it is already certain that many others who committed war crimes in Liberia will now be anointed as peacemakers. In the 1990s, for example, ECOMOG peacekeepers, mainly from Nigeria, operated in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, where they were denounced by groups such as Human Rights Watch for looting, corruption, torture, summary executions and worse.

The idea that these same forces can bring "peace" to Liberia is a farce. And U.S. troops will have no greater success in imposing "peace" at gunpoint in Liberia than they have had in Iraq.

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