The UN and Liberian Rebels: Myth and Reality Behind the Numbers

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 26, 2004

In a recent article titled “Liberia’s Legendary 50,000 Rebels…” on the New Democrat website, Tom Kamara raised an issue that has a serious impact on the disarmament process. He writes that the United Nations is finding it hard to locate the tens of thousands of armed men the rebel groups claimed to have in their armies. General Opande may never find more than a few thousands men and women to be disarmed. To date, no warring faction, - the NPFL, MODEL, and LURD – has produced a single list of fishers in their command. They could claim that these are lose armies where people go and come as they wish…

As Mr. Kamara pointed out in his article, it does not take many armed men and women to turn a village of unarmed civilians upside down. In the past many years, pandemonium broke in the city of Monrovia on numerous occasions at the sound of a single gunshot. A child with an AK-47 could send the whole city running. In this context, a warring faction could claim any number of fighters with no one in Liberia raising a voice, because one gunman is one too many.

The exaggeration of the number of combatants started back in 1991, and it was a logic extension of Taylor’s propaganda. More than anyone else, Taylor understood that wars are won more by words than bullets. For example, during his ill-fated attack on Monrovia in October 1992, he was on the radio claiming to be distributing food in downtown Monrovia, while ECOMOG was chasing his troops beyond Harbel.

The first time anyone heard of the tens of thousands of NPFL fighters was in 1991, during the Yamoussoukro II meeting. While the Committee of Nine was meeting behind close-doors, delegates were walking around in the compound of Houphouet palace. I found myself in the company of BBC stringer Ofeibia Christ-Acton and Tom Woewiyu, at the time “minister” of defense of the NPFL. We were talking about the time it would take to disarm the NPFL before elections. Woewiyu said that they were ready to fight if ECOMOG attempted to disarm them forcefully. He added that he commanded an army of some 35,000 men.

The same evening, in her dispatch on BBC Focus on Africa, Ofeibia mentioned that one of the trickiest things in the peace process was the issue of disarming and rehabilitating some 40,000 rebels in NPFL armies. This was BBC; the world bought the number and Taylor himself believed it. It was also during the same meeting that the number of 70,000 dead and 500,000 refugees were put on paper. Nobody had verified these numbers but they kept being multiplied through the logic of statistics… Côte d’Ivoire was receiving money for each refugee…

A year later, the NPFL launched an attack on Monrovia. Rather than the 40,000 well-trained men the NPFL was boasting of having, Taylor sent waves of ill trained and drugged child soldiers abducted from their families under false pretenses on ECOMOG lines around Monrovia. The Senegalese contingent that had to repel the first attacks had to be repatriated. According to their commander, Colonel Mountaga Diallo, many of the soldiers were distraught and demoralized because they had to kill children to defend themselves.

The Octopus attack on Monrovia unveiled another myth, this time in the AFL. When General Bowen was asked to assemble the 12,000 men and women supposedly in uniform and for whom he was receiving salaries and food rations from the Interim Government, he could hardly come up with 2,000 soldiers. A few months later, in Cotonou, the newest faction, ULIMO who had joined the fight, wanted to claim “benefits” for its army of 15,000 men and women. By the time the peace talks moved to Accra and later to Akassombo, the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) claimed that it had 7,500 combatants while the Lofa Defense Force (LDF) and the break-away faction of Woewiyu and Sam Dokie told every one they had close to 5,000 well-trained men. Put together, the numbers are close to the 50,000 fighters now accepted by all but verified by nobody.

Hostage-takers have interest in being seen as powerful as imaginable. The false strength of the gunmen – from Samuel Doe to today-warring factions – is what keeps them in power. By 1997, most warring factions had all but melted away. Except the NPFL that ultimately took over the army and other para-military institutions in the country, all other factions were “dismantled” in a matter of weeks.

Last week, according to reports from the UN, only half of those gunmen disarmed brought in weapons. Where is the logic in disarming someone who has no weapon? Does that mean any young person of military age could show up at disarmament site and claim to be a combatant, receive a handful of banknotes and show up at another site the next day for more money until the end of the exercise? At this rate, every able-body man and woman could earn enough cash to start a small business, something that could help the economy if the Central Bank had any control on the circulation of money in and out of the country.

The failure of UNMIL to involve community leaders, especially in the rural areas could make the disarmament process a very long one. With the great population movement caused by the war that has uprooted almost 70 percent of rural communities, very few population centers are left standing. In those towns and villages, people know who the fighters are and how many they are. This could have helped the disarmament process.

What Tom Kamara terms as the “number game” could become the last resort for warring factions to hold on to power in the absence of real “fighters.” Very soon, young men and women from refugee camps in Guinea, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire could start to show up at disarmament sites to be “demobilized.” This could go on for ages.

As we wrote earlier, disarmament is a process and has little to do with the physical removal of the guns from the fighters. Once the command structure of the factions is dismantled and once every community is put under the security control of UNMIL and the civil administration of the transitional government, once Chairman Bryant is able to move freely from Lofa to Maryland and from the Sierra Leone border to Nimba county, the UN should declare the disarmament complete and embark on the electoral process. After 25 years of military rule, there would always be guns somewhere in the country. There has to be a cut-off day from whence all gunmen would be treated as … armed bandits and put under arrest. That may be the only way out of the number game.