Global Policy Forum

Liberia’s U-Turn on


By Matthew Tostevin

January 15, 2001

Liberia's announcement that it would not in future support Sierra Leone's rebels had regional diplomats and politicians reaching for large pinches of salt on Monday. If it was true, they said it might convince the RUF rebels they cannot continue fighting and must negotiate seriously to end one of Africa's most brutal wars, also slowing the spread of a conflict that has been gaining regional momentum.

On the other hand, it might be just a way of avoiding the threat of U.N. sanctions and another promise to be broken, like so many on all sides in both Sierra Leone's nearly one decade of war and Liberian President Charles Taylor's own road to power. "It would be nice. It would be helpful," said one senior Western diplomat in West Africa. "I think there's a lot of pressure on him, but really we just have to wait and see. It's not the first time these kinds of promises have been made and it wouldn't be the first time they were broken."

Although Liberia has only ever admitted links to, and not support for the Revolutionary United Front, the Foreign Ministry said at the weekend Liberia would not in future back the RUF rebels and called on them to lay down their weapons. The apparent U-turn followed accusations in a U.N. report last month that Liberia was helping sell RUF diamonds in exchange for guns, prolonging a war marked by horrific atrocities against civilians.

Pressure has been building from both Britain and the United States for sanctions against Liberia — possibly an embargo on Liberian diamond exports, an air ban and further restrictions on arms sales.

"We have to take President Taylor by what he says, we take him by his word and will wait and see," Sierra Leone President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's spokesman Septimus Kai Kai told Reuters.

"If you go by what the U.N. report says about Liberian support for the rebels, then if that support stops, it could go a long way to cutting off arms for the rebels and ending this terrible war."

One sign of how serious Liberia is could be the fate of notoriously hard-line rebel commander Sam Bockarie, alias "General Mosquito," who the Foreign Ministry said would no longer be welcome in Liberia — like other RUF personnel.

Whether he was still in Monrovia on Monday was unclear, but last week he said he was leaving anyway to "go home and be with my people where I can be more useful to their cause."

Perhaps more ominously he spoke of resolving the leadership crisis within the RUF, which has recently been more conciliatory after signing a new truce in November to try to patch up a 1999 peace deal that collapsed in fighting last May.

Rebel leader Foday Sankoh is in jail in Freetown awaiting trial for alleged atrocities. He began his war in 1991 from territory held by Taylor — himself then a rebel leader.

The world's biggest U.N. peacekeeping force is deployed to Sierra Leone, where it has a lot at stake after embarrassment last year when rebels took hundreds of peacekeepers hostage.

Britain also has hundreds of troops in its former colony to train the army and help build confidence in the United Nations.

"It is hard to believe that after over 10 years, Liberia is just going to say goodbye to the RUF. I think pressure for sanctions will continue until it was clear that was the case," said a diplomat from one country which favors sanctions.

In addition to the sanctions threat, Liberia faces growing security problems with an insurgency near its northern border.

What was once known as the "Triangle of Death," a remote forest area at the junction of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, is steadily expanding into a polygon of uncertain dimensions.

Although Liberia and the RUF have been accused by Guinea of spreading the war there, regional security sources say it was also clear that Liberian dissidents with the help of Sierra Leone's allies had been preparing an attack on Liberia.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Guinea and Liberia since September and tens of thousands of refugees forced to flee their camps. Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea warned at the weekend that Liberia expected new attacks from Guinea.

A West African intervention force of 1,600 has been approved to patrol the border area, but few believe it would be able to cut off all the winding smugglers' trails or watch the old hunters' camps where dissidents can lay up in the rainforest.

Liberia's relations with its politically turbulent eastern neighbor Ivory Coast are also strained after new Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo accused former military ruler Robert Guei of recruiting Liberian mercenaries. A Liberian was among 31 people held over a failed coup attempt in Abidjan this month.

"The interrelationship between the countries in this region is very close and relative peace in Sierra Leone, if the RUF stops fighting, would mean relative peace in Liberia and might lead to some positive things for everyone in the region," said Kai Kai.

More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia


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