Global Policy Forum

Unreliable Allies

May 31, 2000

The beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone is likely to suffer another serious setback – this time at the hands of a new ally. On May 30, the Liberian government announced that it would dispatch troops to Sierra Leone as part of a larger relief force, sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The mission is to retake the country's diamond mines from rebels. The trouble is that Liberia, a beneficiary of this diamond trade, has long supported the rebels.


The crisis in Sierra Leone took an unusual twist on May 30 when the Liberian government agreed to send 450 troops to join a force being raised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The new force of 3,000 soldiers will augment the 13,000 troops of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), which nearly lost control of the country. The West African force is to retake the country's diamond mines, depriving the main rebel force of its key source of income.

Liberia, however, may prove to be an unreliable ally. On one hand, Monrovia wants to maintain its prominent role as third party mediator in this conflict. It has received international commendation for helping secure the release of almost 500 U.N. peacekeepers, held hostage by the rebels. On the other hand, Liberia receives a significant share of profits from the illegal diamond trade run by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – the force Monrovia's troops are supposed to help oppose. In fact, Liberia serves as the major transit route for diamonds the RUF uses to fund its war effort.

By contributing to the ECOWAS force, Liberia will undermine the credibility and, more importantly, the effectiveness of both ECOWAS and UNAMSIL forces. Monrovia's motivation is rooted in self-interest, retaining a stake in its neighbor's mineral wealth. With its own troops on the ground, Liberia can gain some measure of control over the rebels, while exploiting the situation. The thorny issue of command and control over the ECOWAS force has yet to be settled.

At the beginning of the nine-year civil war in Sierra Leone, the government of President Charles Taylor formed an alliance with rebel forces in order to overthrow the government in Freetown. The alliance allowed the rebels to use Liberia as an alternate transit route for diamonds; in exchange, Liberia reportedly supplied the rebels with arms and equipment. Liberia's diamond exports have surged.

The Diamonds High Council (HRD), a Belgium-based trade group, has condemned Liberia's involvement in the export of the RUF's diamonds. In 1998, for example, Sierra Leone officially reported the export of just 8,500 carats of diamonds; the council records 770,000 carats over the same period. From 1994 to 1998, Liberia – which can mine no more than an estimated 150,000 carats yearly – shipped 31 million carats abroad. With comparatively few mines, Liberia exported $298 million worth of diamonds last year. Sierra Leone reported just $31 million in exports, according to a May 22 report by Inter Press Service.

Since diamonds are the rebels' main source of income, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for the seizure of all diamond mines as a necessary precursor to ending the civil war. The additional deployment of 3,000 ECOWAS troops is aimed at accomplishing this. Although the troops won't significantly shift the balance of forces, the Nigerian-led contingent is meant to act as a force multiplier, increasing UNAMSIL's chances of gaining control of the country.

But seizing the mines won't be easy. The latest rebel offensive – launched just days after the previous Nigerian-led ECOMOG force withdrew – was reportedly sparked when U.N. forces tried to seize control of mines in the eastern part of the country.

Despite Taylor's calls for an end to the war and the disarmament of all groups, Liberia probably privately prefers that the mines remain in rebel hands. Instead of aiding UNAMSIL's chances, the Liberian force will likely act as a spoiler, possibly allowing rebels to break through battle lines and wander freely in areas of responsibility. Once there, the Liberians may make another calculation. They may realize that simply taking control of the mines is not such a bad idea, either.

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