West Africa: Conflict in Mano River Region, 05/30/02

West Africa: Conflict in Mano River Region, 05/30/02

Status: OWest Africa: Conflict in Mano River RegionDate distributed (ymd): 020530Document reposted by Africa ActionAfrica Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for Africa at

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Region: West AfricaIssue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+ SUMMARY CONTENTS: This posting contains an interview on the situation in Sierra Leoneand the Mano River region, by's Charles Cobb, Jr., with John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group.Prendergast's testimony before the House International RelationsCommittee Africa Subcommittee, May 16, 2002, is available at: related interest: * On May 6, the UN Security Council extended sanctions on Liberia,including an arms embargo, a travel ban on officials, and a ban onimport of diamonds.See for theresolution and additional references, including the April report of thepanel of experts on compliance with sanctions.* A May television special on "Gunrunners" by the PublicBroadcasting System's Frontline World focused on the role of thesmall arms trade in the conflicts in the Mano River region, andprofiled a gallery of international arms dealers involved in thetrade. The special is available on-line at* International aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) toldthe UN Security Council on May 23 that the humanitarian needs ofcitizens in the Mano River Union were being neglected. See:* Additional resources from Global Witness on sanctions, naturalresources and conflict in West Africa, including background ontimber and shipping as well as diamonds:

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Cycle of Conflict in Mano River Threatens S.Leone Peace - Analysthttp://allAfrica.comINTERVIEWMay 24, 2002By Charles Cobb Jr.Washington, DC[reposted with permission from]In the Mano River region of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea,armed insurgency has moved from country to country for years, onecountry's conflict feeding on another's. Most recently, due tofighting between the Liberian government of Charles Taylor andinsurgents of the group, Liberians United for Reconciliation andDemocracy (LURD), tens of thousands of Liberian refugees havefled into Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.Ecowas has called for an immediate cease fire and severalLiberian opposition parties have echoed that call saying thatLiberians prefer "ballots not bullets" as a way of attainingstate power. But Taylor's government has rejected the call. Acease fire "will only give the terrorists the opportunity toregroup and attack Liberia," the BBC quoted Liberian InformationMinister Reginald Goodridge as saying. For its part, in a March14 letter that effectively rejected an Ecowas invitation toparticipate in a "peace dialogue" that would have includedTaylor, LURD's National Executive Council said "We want to movebeyond Taylor."Thus the region seems mired in continuing conflict. Although theelections just held in Sierra Leone have been hailed as a majormilestone on the road to regional as well as national peace, theescalating fighting in Liberia is provoking fears that aspillover effect might threaten not only Sierra Leone's hard wonand still fragile stability, but also contain seeds todestabilize much of West Africa."We have a plan for peace which begins with mediation," PresidentWade of Senegal told the Associated Press, "but (we) fear it maybe too late."AllAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. discussed the developing situationwith John Prendergast, formerly a special advisor on Africanconflict to the Clinton Administration and now co-director of theAfrica program at the International Crisis Group. Excerpts:CC: In Sierra Leone I suppose the recently held elections and theprocess leading up to the election itself could be characterizedas successful, both for the United Nations which has its largestpeacekeeping force there, and in the sense of moving from acondition of civil war to a politics in peacetime.

However,Sierra Leone sits in a larger regional context. In recenttestimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee onAfrica you made the point that the threat of Liberia's conflictspilling back into Sierra Leone in the future is "real." Wouldyou elaborate on that?JP: I think the dynamics for instability in West Africa emanatingfrom the very clear agenda of [Liberian President] Charles Taylorand some of his military and political and commercial alliesmeans that Liberia itself and its neighbors will forever besubject to the possibility of sustained destabilization.The grand scheme that Taylor is operating under is one which seesa "Greater Liberia" in effect - this simply means that theinfluence that Liberia has in the region and the links it has inthe region are preponderant, that the pliable regimes andbordering militias can ensure that policy objectives are met,whatever they might be.And secondly, deeply intertwined with that is the desire tomaintain control of as much of the natural resource base - theasset base in the entire region - as possible.

Of course it is a very rich region in minerals and Taylor hasclearly utilized the links that he has with Sierra Leonean andGuinean opposition groups to secure a wider access to thesenatural resources - wider than just in Liberia.So it is these intertwined objectives that end up leaving aconstant cycle of instability in the region. And of course theresponse from the neighbors is to do the exact same thing, whichis to arm Liberian opposition elements, of which there are many -both rank and file militia members as well as politicaldissidents who believe they have no way to come back to Liberiaexcept through the barrel of a gun.And that kind of cocktail of support and counter-support ofcross-border insurgencies has left countries in turmoil. Itbounces from country to country. For an extended period of timeSierra Leone bore the main brunt of this regional effort.Now Liberia looks like it's in for its own 15-minutes of infamyin terms of the fight by the LURD (Liberians United forReconciliation and Democracy) as it attempts to take Monrovia andwho know when Guinea will be next.So, it's an ongoing cycle and I think unless the regionalambitions emanating from Monrovia are dealt with, this kind of acycle of violence will continue.CC: The idea that Taylor has ambitions to control the naturalresources of the region won't surprise many, but you alsospecifically mentioned ambitions for a "greater" Liberia. Are wetalking about ambition for a Mano River nation that he - Taylor -would head? Do you think that's what is at play here?JP: This is where the ambitions of Taylor and [Libyan leader]Al-Gadaffi really coincide. Taylor got his start and his earlytraining in the Libyan school of insurgency.

It sounds like amovie but it's actually the case that he went and was one of theearly graduates of that elite school in Tripoli.>From the 1980s they both have shared this concept ofconfederation of states which would lead to wider Africanintegration. In Al-Gadaffi's case - I can't assess his motivation- the one thing he seems to be genuine about is this desire tohave a United States of Africa or Africa Union. This [Mano Riverregion] is just one of many regions he's tried to do it in.For Taylor this just seems to be a marriage of convenience andhis commercial ambitions can marry up to Al-Gadaffi's sort ofwider regional ambitions of confederation and he's able to milkAl-Gadaffi for a substantial amount of assistance and just talkthe talk with him as many people do with the Libyans.Taylor was able to do it effectively and sustain an assistancestream when everybody else was attempting to sanction or isolateTaylor in the madness of his policies.CC: Is this conflict, which is currently confined to Liberia,Sierra Leone and Guinea, likely to widen?JP: In Cote d'Ivoire there are elements in the military thatsupport Taylor and there are elements, particularly in thepolitical system, that are supportive of the LURD and want to tryto take Taylor out.

So any major activity on the military frontinside Liberia will have inevitable repercussions there in Coted'Ivoire.There are also these kinds of dynamics in Burkina Faso and GuineaBissau. There are actors in both of those countries who aresympathetic to one side or the other who at some point could bedrawn in further if the conflict intensifies inside Liberia.A scenario which is not completely out of the realm of thepossible is that the LURD actually takes Monrovia at some pointand drives Taylor to the border regions where he started whichwould lead him, along with his commercial backers, to intensifyand stir the pot in these other neighboring countries.

So, it is of great concern to the Ecowas states that this thingwhich is already affecting quite deleteriously three countries,could actually expand much further.CC: Can we take Taylor's rejection the other day of calls for acease fire as a signal that he feels he is being successful ingetting on top this situation, in pushing back the LURD?JP: I don't see why either side at this point - at this highintensity, with no serious negotiations process in sight, with noother way to secure their objectives aside from the militarycard, and no side having a clear advantage at this point yetstill believing they can win - I don't see why either side wouldagree to standing down the military option unless the stalematebecomes more of a hurting one.They are not thereyet. I don't expect from any side, any kind ofinterest in a cessation of hostilities at this point, although itcertainly should be pushed very, very hard by the regionalactors. But again, connected to a larger peace process.

This kind of highly unstable situation you've been describingwould seem to throw a huge question mark over Sierra Leone. Youhave some RUF forces now kind of acting as part of Taylor'smilitia - a praetorian guard, if you will. I noted that SierraLeone's President Kabbah, in addition to making himself Ministerof Defense, appointed some individuals from what some see as acorrupt old guard into his new government. All of this would seemto add up to a high degree of vulnerability for this "new" SierraLeone government.If there isn't early consolidation of the democratic process, andthere isn't a fair process of ensuring that the RUF politicalwing is as greatly accommodated as possible within the existingparameters of the system; and if there aren't clear benefits onthe reconstruction side that go across regions rather than beingfocused more on SLPP ruling party strongholds; these are going tobe early-warning indicators that will have an impact on RUFcalculations as to whether any of them can be drawn back intomilitary confrontation.That's the internal (to Sierra Leone) dynamic. The externaldynamic is, at what point might Taylor decide that the only wayto take the pressure off this conflict inside Liberia is toattack neighboring countries, to go after supply lines and areasof support on border regions in both Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Then, once again, you'd see the blow-back from Liberia's conflictin a more direct way.So there are internal and external factors driving the potentialfor conflict in Sierra Leone today that Kabbah has a great dealof control over. If he governs magnanimously in thispost-election period, and he is very, very fastidious in ensuringthat there isn't any support for LURD going to Liberia fromSierra Leone, then he can perhaps help consolidate his gains fromthe election.CC: And isn't there an external factor with regard to both SierraLeone and Guinea in the sense that the LURD gets a fair amount ofbacking from the Guinea government and to a lesser extent fromthe Sierra Leone government? Is there any inclination on the partof those two governments to reduce or eliminate their support forthis rebel movement that is pressuring Liberia?JP: The Guineans will claim, of course, that they responded tothe attacks on Guinea by Guinean dissidents supported by Taylor.And they will continue to claim that they are not providingassistance [to the rebels] although evidence appears quitesubstantially to the contrary.I think the LURD will press this to its logical conclusion andmake its run at Monrovia. And whatever elements in Guinea thatsupport that will continue to do so. The [international] pressurehasn't been ramped up very much on Guinea.It certainly could be ramped up for internal reasons - theinstability that will be wrought, over the long run, by therotting political system and non-democracy that exists in Guinea;but also I think the external issue of the whole cross-borderactivity into Liberia by the LURD.I think both need be need to be subject of conditions for Westernassistance. This is one where you have a real policy quandary forWestern governments, the U.S. first and foremost.

They have established this relationship with the Guinean militaryto support training - it's a very modest program compared to someof the things we do in Europe and other parts of the world - butfor Africa it's a rather substantial one.Although the objective is effectively border control andself-defense, certainly it's not inconceivable that some of thesetraining elements can be utilized in offensive as well asdefensive capacities and passed on in direct or indirect ways toLURD elements.So it's not failsafe in the sense that it is just aimed at andreceived by Guinean elements for defensive purposes only.On the other hand, the policy objective, in the larger sense, isto put pressure on Taylor to negotiate in good faith, mostlythrough sanctions - to undercut his policy of destabilization inthe region. So you have competing policy objectives: on the onehand, put pressure on Taylor, on the other hand the kind of humanrights human rights problems, the kind of support forcross-border insurgencies that nobody wants to see. So it's atough call, but more war in West Africa is not going to resolvethe existing war.Yes, we need more pressure on Taylor but there are unexhausted,non-military means to achieve that and that is principallytargeted sanctions on timber and the maritime sanctions thatwe've been calling for.

That's where we really ought to ramp upthe pressure.Having little bits of military assistance going to Guinea whichmay or may not translate into some support for the LURD is notgoing to really influence the military battlefield that much; itjust makes Western governments complicit with what may be veryextraordinary human rights violations in the coming months.A much better option right now would be to move forward finally -enforce the existing policies and expand the new ones, ratherthan trying this Mickey Mouse military strategy which reallydoesn't amount to much but makes it appear as if this is all aWestern-backed strategy of overthrowing Taylor which it is justnot substantial enough to be.CC: Is there something beyond sanctions that the U.S. should bedoing in this region? As I recall, in your testimony you talkedof the need for the U.S. to form a "contact group".JP: If you don't have increased pressure - whether it's militaryor sanctions - connected to a serious diplomatic initiative thenit's not going to mean anything because there won't be any way tochannel whatever compromises Taylor might be willing to makeunder pressure in to anything substantial or lasting.So what needs to be attached to the effort of ramping upsanctions, what needs to be attached to the effort at theincreasing isolation of Taylor, is beefing up diplomatic effortsaimed directly at Liberia.First and foremost to do that, the external nations have to gettheir act together and unify their position on what they envisionas the way forward. And that means the United States and the UKwith its major investments in Sierra Leone and the French as asort of basic trio in that contact group.And bring along the Nigerians and come up with a unified approachof how to deal with the internal Liberian situation and,concurrently, how to more aggressively to deal with the regionalinsurgencies that each are supporting against the other in theMano River area.This is not a massive, Middle East peace process we're callingfor.

This is something a small contact group of a few nationsthat have significant interests or potential leadership capacitycan do: get together on a fairly regular basis, plot strategy,operationalize that strategy by choosing a diplomat or one or twodiplomats to take the lead in undertaking a negotiation processand just taking some leadership on this thing.It doesn't cost that much. It doesn't involve a high investmentup front to try to do that. If we're just pushing the pressureelement and not having somewhere for the solution to be crafted,then it's only a half policy that can't succeed.

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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