The Liberian Conflict and the birth of ECOMOG(1)
By E.K.Bensah Jr
Last week, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted of providing moral support, weapons and operational help to Liberian-backed, drug-crazed rebels in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 2002, in exchange for blood diamonds. The following piece, by no means an exhaustive analysis, is a commentary I wrote back in 2000 when I was just completing university. Written then as a reminder of “African Solutions to African problems”, it serves not only as a timely reminder of the Liberian Conflict, but also of ECOWAS’ baptism of fire in pursuit of sub-regional peace and justice.
The story of the Liberian civil war appears to be very similar to that of many African countries – protracted, chaotic and violent. It was protracted because each time any attempt was made to resolve the crisis, warring factions in the conflict would make sure refusing to comply extended it. It was chaotic for the same reason; finally, it was violent given the death toll, and the extent of the killings each time ECOMOG clamped down hard on the warring factions.
Nevertheless, the role of ECOMOG in Liberia remains a moot point. This is because there has long been a perception in the West that Africa is a Dark Continent characterized by such violence and chaos that prospects of resolving its problems will not only remain constantly abortive, but will yield foregone conclusions that are effectively chronic failures. Therefore, any efforts for Africa to resolve its own problems may be unfairly judged as potential failures.
However, one useful way to best evaluate this outlook is through the Cold War period when, according to Stanley Meisler , “most people found Africa on their minds when the newly independent Congo erupted in 1960.” The catalyst for this had come from the West African State of Ghana, when, in 1957, it made African headline news as the first (West) African country to declare independence from its European colonizer. Consequently, this sparked the decolonization process to such an extent that by the end of the seventies, most African countries had kicked out their colonialist predecessor.
Most importantly, however, for Africa was how the relatively young United Nations could now help it maintain the peace and stability it so needed. The date 1960 is actually important here, for it is from this point onwards that one sees the United Nations ready and willing to throw a lifeline to a potentially violent situation in Congo through the then secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold and his deployment of almost 20,000 troops under the auspices of the Security Council. It would be in this same year that the man who had been one of the co-architects of peacekeeping, along with former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, would (unfortunately) meet his untimely death on his way to broker a fragile peace in the Congo. Despite his death, the spirit with which Hammarskjold worked towards peace has much lived on today in the form of peacekeeping.
In fact, peacekeeping is a very problematic reality these days, therefore, it is important to make the distinction between traditional inter-position of UN forces and peace enforcement. The latter has appeared to be consistently anathema to many of the peacekeeping operations that have been established since UNEF I was set up in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Today, peacekeeping operations around the world have been deemed by cynics as, at best, inefficient and, at worst, failures. This is not without reason, for implicit in peacekeeping is the idea that there is a peace to keep. However, UN peacekeeping operations have consistently demonstrated that they are powerless in the face of the people whom they seek to protect. Armed with only light weapons, and heavily predicating their raison d’être by a mandate.
Moreover, it begs the question of whether peace enforcement is not a better method in the long run. This is why, in my opinion, the case of Liberia is an interesting point of departure to assess this issue. In this paper, I hope to cover the background of the civil war that erupted in the West African State, and briefly describe the warring parties and factions in this conflict. I will eschew writing a direct history of the conflict since, in my opinion, it goes beyond the scope of this paper.
Most noteworthy, however, will be my attempt to demonstrate and offer an insight into how ECOWAS’ force, ECOMOG, was able, despite its controversial nature, to bring the conflict in Liberia to some type of resolution through the unique and flexible way it shifted from peacekeeper to peace enforcer, as well as outline the various peace accords that brought closure to the conflict. Could it for all its flaws be a putative tool of conflict resolution in the West African region?
WHEN PEACEKEEPING TURNS TO PEACE ENFORCEMENT
They say nature abhors a vacuum. In some parts of Africa, military leaders have seemed all too ready to fill it with their cronies. And what better places to do so than in government. Liberia is a case in point. According to Barry Stein, author of “A Liberian War: A Modern Humanitarian Crisis (URL), “much of Liberia’s turmoil can be traced back to the state’s origins.” . In 1822 a small group of emancipated slaves settled in what is now Monrovia. The movement was sponsored by the American Colonization Society and financed in part by the administration of President James Monroe – same president who declared the (in)famous Monroe Doctrine stating Latin America was the US’s area of influence.
Stein goes on to argue that this idea of Monroe’s was so as to enable freed slaves to settle in Africa (Stein); consequently, “the settlers also imposed forms of government similar to those of the US” . In 1847, they would break ties and proclaim Liberia an independent state”. In fact, whereas all the other countries in the Western sub-region had been colonized by Europeans, Liberia stands as the exception. Consequently, it felt rebuffed when it asked the US for help and was duly snubbed upon; “there was an expectation that the US would intervene in what has often been described as its unofficial colony. But the US initially showed little concern for what it considered would be a brief disruption.” (Online, Ero, Comfort. ECOWAS and the subregional Peacekeeping…) Ero maintains in her essay that the US “government stated that the resolution of this civil war is a Liberian responsibility of a solution to Liberia’s current difficulties will be viable if it is worked (out) by Liberians themselves and has broad internal support” . Actually, the only response that came was “use of 200 US marines to rescue at least 300 US nationals on 5 August 1990 .
Small wonder, then that faced with the prospect of no US assistance in a colony that once belonged to them, the US would be promptly replaced by ECOWAS and its peacekeeping force, ECOMOG. However, this ultimately begs the question of why ECOWAS was actually embroiled in the conflict, and why it felt the need to resolve the Liberian conflict at all?
[Emmanuel wrote this article in 2000. You can read it here: http://un_org.tripod.com/liberia]
In 2009, in his capacity as a “Do More Talk Less Ambassador” of the 42nd Generation—an NGO that promotes and discusses Pan-Africanism–Emmanuel gave a series of lectures on the role of ECOWAS and the AU in facilitating a Pan-African identity. Emmanuel owns “Critiquing Regionalism” (http://www.critiquing-regionalism.org). Established in 2004 as an initiative to respond to the dearth of knowledge on global regional integration initiatives worldwide, this non-profit blog features regional integration initiatives on MERCOSUR/EU/Africa/Asia and many others. You can reach him on email@example.com / Mobile: 0268.687.653.