West Africa peacemakers take offensive as impartiality remains in doubt


Mark Huband in Monrovia

The Guardian, 29 May 1993


TANKS, artillery and fresh troops are massing 30 miles north of the Liberian capital Monrovia in preparation for a concerted push by West African forces on the headquarters of the Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor.

Drawn from six nations, the 11,000-strong force, known as Ecomog, is the only example in the world of a regionally-based peacekeeping force sent to a country within that region to oversee the resolution to a conflict – in this case the civil war which broke out in Liberia in December 1989.

Since its arrival in Liberia in September 1990 the Nigerian-dominated force has twice transformed its role from peacekeeping to peace-enforcement. Since fresh fighting last October when Mr Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) attempted to seize Monrovia, there has been no peace to keep. Consequently the West African troops are preparing to attack Mr Taylor’s headquarters at Gbarnga, to force him either to the negotiating table or out of the country.

Ecomog’s original mandate was to step between the warring sides. With great bravery, troops landed in Monrovia in 1990 and convinced them to stop shooting by walking across battlefields in order to intervene.

Ecomog’s arrival was generally welcomed by two of the factions then in the city, but it deprived Mr Taylor of the presidency that he had long expected would fall into his hands.

This sequence of events created the environment in which more than two years of negotiations have taken place, involving all the factions as well as regional presidents deeply worried by the region-wide instability the Liberian conflict has created.

Ecomog’s problem has been to prove its Impartiality. While the desire to end the conflict originally lay behind the despatch of troops, the disastrous regional effects of the war have turned Mr Taylor into a pariah. But West African presidents, including those whose countries he has deliberately destabilised, as in the case of Sierra Leone, are still expected to deal with him impartially.

Twice during the 1980s the Ghanaian authorities arrested and detained Mr Taylor while he was planning his invasion with Liberian dissidents in the Ghanaian capital. During the same period, the Nigerian military government of General Ibrahim Babangida built up strong ties with the now deposed Liberian government of Samuel Doe, and was the only government to send it arms in the early months of the war

These incidents, among others, have allowed Mr Taylor to discredit these countries’ claims of impartiality in their dealings with him. Simultaneously, he has been able to play off national rivalries between regional states so as to undermine peace initiatives.

Ivory Coast, which was strongly anti-Doe and supported the NPFL by allowing arms to be shipped to the rebels during 1990, initially refused to support Ecomog because it was suspicious of Nigeria’s dominant role. Recent Ivorian support for an economic blockade of Mr Taylor’s territory stems from the continued destabilising presence of 250,000 Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast.

Now Ecomog’s mandate is to oversee the disarmament and encampment of all factions in accordance with a peace accord signed in the Ivory Coast capital Yamoussoukro in 1991. In Monrovia Ecomog protects a non-elected interim government whose institutions embody the technical aspects of the Yamoussoukro agreement, including the planning of elections.

The United Nations Security Council reiterated in March its support for the Yamoussoukro accord and commended Ecomog’s role. But despite being a signatory to the accord, Mr Taylor has refused to disarm, on the grounds that another faction which emerged after the accord was signed is intent on annihilating the NPFL.

Mr Taylor’s intransigence has now forced Ecomog on to the offensive. He has exasperated all regional leaders by reneging on the accord upon which they have staked much of their reputation and which they see as creating peace but which he sees as a block to the presidency.

Ecomog has exposed the complications involved in establishing regional peacekeeping initiatives. Mr Taylor has held his country and the region hostage because Ecomog, from its inception, has not been able to play a strictly neutral role. The determination that it should succeed in creating regional stability has turned it into Mr Taylor’s enemy. But no alternative to Ecomog was offered when Liberians were slaughtering each other in 1990:

“I’m not sure how UN troops would have reacted if they had arrived under a hail of bullets. Also, the ability of Liberians to talk one day and shout at each other the next is something the UN would not have been able to cope with,” said Liberia’s interim president, Amos Sawyer.

Now, negotiations being blocked, military might is all Ecomog has left. But unless fresh fighting forces Mr Taylor to flee or negotiate it is likely to be a push towards a more bloody stalemate in which to varying degrees neighbouring states will suffer along with Liberia.


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