Global Policy Forum

West Africa States Try to Head Off

April 10, 2001

West African leaders will hold an emergency summit Wednesday to try to head off a spreading regional conflict that has already pulled in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. It was not immediately clear whether they would be joined in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, by the shadowy dissident groups also involved in the power struggle over the diamond-rich corner of some of the world's poorest countries.

"I ... will be prepared to talk to the dissidents. But it should not be construed as an attempt to negotiate with them as regards power sharing," said Liberian President Charles Taylor as he prepared to leave for the summit.

Heads of state of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, will discuss the plan they agreed to in December for a 1,700-strong force to keep the peace in the border region. Logistic problems have so far stopped deployment of the force, which many regional politicians say in private would in any case be too small to patrol the forested region effectively.

Facing heavy fighting against rebels it says crossed from Guinea, Liberia over the weekend began mobilizing thousands of fighters from the 1990s civil war, which gave the region its first taste of savage guerrilla conflict. Former warlord Taylor is blamed by Guinea for a 7-month-old insurgency that has cost at least 1,000 lives and caught up hundreds of thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans in what the U.N. calls the world's worst refugee crisis.

"There needs to be a regional response. Until they find mechanisms to stop the insecurity throughout the region it will be hard to help the refugees," said U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Fatoumata Kaba in Conakry.

Liberia sanctions on agenda

The Abuja meeting will also discuss the U.N. sanctions that Liberia faces from May unless it proves it has stopped trading "conflict diamonds" to support Sierra Leone's rebels in a 10-year war that the U.N.'s biggest peacekeeping operation is trying to end. "What you call the West African problem is what I would call the Charles Taylor problem," said one diplomat from an English-speaking country. "It is not hard to see who is at the root of all this." Taylor, elected president in 1997, has won greater sympathy from many of the former French colonies in the 15-nation ECOWAS -- with the exception of Guinea. Some helped lobby successfully on Liberia's behalf for a two-month delay to the U.N. sanctions.

Official sources in Conakry said Guinea's President Lansana Conte would not be in Abuja. Conte last month rejected any possibility of talks with Taylor over the fighting. Key to any new deal to resolve the crisis or finally send the border force into action will be the attitude of regional giant Nigeria, which provided the muscle for forces that intervened in Liberian and Sierra Leonean wars. The civilian government that replaced military rulers in 1999 has come under intense domestic pressure to end costly foreign missions.

Also on the agenda in Abuja will be political turmoil in Guinea Bissau and in Ivory Coast, which has been dogged by instability since its first coup in 1999. Both countries border the conflict region but their troubles are not directly linked. The West African Security Council of ECOWAS defense ministers and army chiefs was to meet in Abuja on Tuesday ahead of the summit.

More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia
More Information on Diamonds in Conflict


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