African Solutions For African Problems?: National And International Responsibility For Conflict Resolution

By Samuel Wonwi Thompson

Delivered at Wilton Park Conference in Sussex, United Kingdom on
“Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Africa: Beyond the Peace Agreements”
July 26, 2004

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 31, 2004

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, all protocols observed. My gratitude goes to Wilton Park and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Africa Command, for giving me this opportunity to share ideas with some of the world’s best and most influential. I am very pleased and honored to participate in these discussions and to contribute, based on the Liberian experience, to the search for durable and sustainable peace, stability and development in Africa. My sincere hope, therefore, is that the conference will achieve its objectives.

As Liberia celebrates today its 157th year of existence as a nation-state, we send out a special “thank you” to the United States Government, the Nigerian Government, the British Government, the Ghanaian Government, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations family, and all those who are directly or indirectly contributing to peace in Liberia.

The focus of this conference is how African countries in conflict can move from peace agreements to reconciliation; to durable social reconstruction and development. In the darkest days of Liberia’s civil crisis, I sometimes wondered whether this was at all possible. One may ask, perhaps naively, why is it that several African countries are faced with one protracted and debilitating civil war after another? What is really responsible for the outgrowth and prolonging of crises in Africa? How can we prevent or amicably resolve our crises? Perhaps our answers to these questions can give us hope for some window of opportunity, to go permanently beyond the multiplicity of peace agreements as we seem to be doing in Liberia.

Africa today is part of a world that has been reduced to a global village due to technology, trade and investment flows. Consequently, a problem in one country or region may either become that of the whole village or at best, pose a serious moral dilemma. While the rest of the world records development and social progress, Africa for the most part lags way behind in a vicious cycle of war, poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption and bad governance. To me it is no coincidence that the most horrible and protracted civil crises occur in Africa which has the highest poverty levels. Invariably, this imbalance between Africa and the world leads to waves of refugees and illegal immigrants. It also fosters an illicit traffic in human beings, narcotic drugs, weapons and diamonds; the fluid and dangerous movement across national borders of non-state combatants; and creates havens for global terrorist and criminal networks within failed or failing states.

For me it is a glaring paradox that the most grinding and dehumanizing poverty exists in Africa in the midst of a spectacular convergence of natural resources and favorable weather. Within the context of our global village, this need not be so. Looking at the low GDP growth rates in many of the OECD and Euro zone countries and the deep seated structural constraints to further economic growth, one cannot help but feel that we may need to “think outside of the box” and refocus on Africa. This is because the continent has one of the greatest potential to stimulate world GDP growth and productivity, profit transfers and world employment. This can be achieved through viable global partnerships that help Africa to break the vicious cycle of poverty and conflict, to become a much larger market economy, and a more stable environment for world investment and trade.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that a more stable and prosperous Africa at this juncture in world history is vital to the promotion of world peace and socio-economic progress. Furthermore, our best chance to have a more stable and peaceful Africa, is to attack the vices of poverty, ignorance and bad governance. We can and must reduce poverty and ignorance by providing opportunities to economically empower the people of Africa; and by accelerated education and skills transfer. We can also address bad governance as discussed later. Thus a larger percentage of our people would enter the money economy and eventually, the middle class. This way, our citizens will have a greater stake in the socio-political stability of Africa, and will become less prey for emerging criminal, terrorist and other elements that threaten world peace.

The topic: “AFRICAN SOLUTIONS FOR AFRICAN PROBLEMS?: NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR CONFLICT RESOLUTION” is both a question and a statement. The question is whether there can be uniquely “African” solutions for African problems. My answer would be biased due to the fact that right now, Liberia’s problems are being solved, through a process involving a significant portion of the global village. From the level of progress made so far, we Liberians have a lot to be thankful for. It is therefore clear to me that, since we are part of the village, collaboration between local stakeholders and international partners is vital to finding lasting solutions to conflict in Africa.

As background, Liberia was considered as the most peaceful and stable country in Africa, until the April 12, 1979 Rice Riots, when the virus of violent political change infected us. That day, Liberians demonstrated against the proposed increase in the price of rice, the nation’s staple. In the aftermath of that bloody demonstration, scores of people lay dead and millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed.

Exactly a year and two days after that violent event, on April 14, 1980, the once peaceful and stable country had joined the ranks of the military dictatorships. The bloody coup d’etat finally destroyed what remained of the political foundation of the state after the Rice Riots. Since then, Liberia has not known peace and stability.

In 1985, following the massively rigged Presidential elections, the problem was worsened due to general voter frustration with the results. This created fertile ground for the November 12, 1985 invasion led by former Armed Forces General Quiwonkpa, and for the 1989 armed incursion of former President Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Since 1989, nearly 300,000 people have been killed and the country is destroyed. We had all hoped that at the end of the 1997 presidential and general elections, we would have been spared further turmoil and destruction. Unfortunately, the elected government failed to promote good governance and the rule of law. It also failed to craft and execute a vision for broad-based socio-economic development, and to constructively engage the international community, in order to improve the lives of the majority of Liberians.

Today, there are frantic efforts by Liberians and their international partners to end the period of warfare and restore sanity to the country. However, even as we disarm in Liberia, the peace is threatened by the refusal of Cote d’Ivoire rebels to disarm, cross border smuggling of arms and movements of Liberian combatants into that country and Guinea respectively.

Nevertheless, there are many more hopeful signs of success. Since the signing in August 2003 of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra, a National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) has been firmly put in place. There has been relative peace in Monrovia and spreading gradually to outlying areas since October 2003. We now have a force of 15,000 UNMIL soldiers on the ground, a nearly 2,000 international civilian police force and more than 500 international civilian staff. The disarmament program is a marked success. Some 56,800 combatants have been disarmed and demobilized so far.

In collaboration with the international community, several programs aimed at reintegrating ex-combatants into normal life are underway. One of the key priorities of the NTGL is to improve the welfare of ex-combatants and returnees to various communities. Another priority is to resettle all those who were dislocated as a result of the war. The repatriation and resettlement of refugees will commence in October. The next focus is to rebuild infrastructure and institutions destroyed during the 14-year war. It will not be possible to completely restore these institutions and facilities during the remaining 15-month life span of the NTGL, but there is a need to make a head start.

Finally, the NTGL has to supervise the holding of free and fair democratic elections in October 2005. Already, there are currently eighteen registered political parties and probably twice as many presidential aspirants waiting to enter the race. While I believe that this is healthy for the multi-party democratic culture Liberians so desire, there are real concerns about the level of confusion that the multiplicity of political parties and candidates may create among prospective voters.

Perhaps, considering our history of elections and their aftermaths since 1985, a more fundamental concern should be: the impact the October 2005 presidential and general election results will have on the future stability and growth of the country. A careful evaluation of the backgrounds and track records of the numerous “presidential hopefuls” will prove very useful. Many of the candidates that have declared so far are perceived by the electorate to have in one way or another contributed to anarchy in the country. It is generally felt that should any one of that group come to power, the political terrain will remain ripe for violent overthrow. Another group of candidates is viewed either as having benefited from the corrupt and exclusionary political culture of the past, or to have grossly exploited the masses even in private life.

The general sentiment is that the next leader of Liberia will be, a relatively unknown person with no links to the country’s past woes, who the people can trust to carry out a reconciliation and good governance agenda. I would add, someone who is sufficiently sensitive to the evolving geopolitical and economic dictates of our time, and how Liberia and its people can procure the maximum benefit possible within those parameters.

This having been said, however, it is not yet clear how effective a truly democratic process of leadership choice will be, among an impoverished and highly illiterate voter population. We remember only too well how the Taylor juggernaut came to power in 1997. This was achieved through outside and local support on the propaganda premise that he was “best” for the country, because he alone could ensure peace. The poor and highly illiterate masses were further swayed by heavy doses of rice, cash, booze and fanfare. As a result, today we have an even more impoverished and disillusioned electorate, due to continued political and economic exclusion, under the brutally repressive Taylor regime.

At this juncture, it is important to highlight that the Liberian crisis did not begin in 1979 as we may want to believe. Rather, it is as old as the country itself. The proposed rice price increase was simply the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The root causes of our conflict are not differences in class, tribe, religion or political ideology. Instead, they are crippling poverty, bad governance, corruption and the failure of succeeding leaderships to end the socio-economic and political exclusion of the vast majority of our people. Therefore, unless a serious attempt is made now to address these issues in a fundamental way at the end of a very expensive DDRR, repatriation and resettlement exercise, the seeds of future conflict would remain planted in Liberia.

Equally important to ensuring a durable peace in Liberia and the West African sub-region is our paying closer attention to the regional aspects of the peace process. This includes the evolving situation in the Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, with cross border movements of combatants and smuggling of arms from Liberia into those countries. We hope that the US$ 600 disparity between the DDRR packages offered to Liberian versus Ivorian combatants will encourage a timely start of disarmament in the Cote d’Ivoire. Otherwise, arms and non-state actors flowing into that country will contribute to another round of war. The risk of war in Guinea is equally high in view of that country’s declining economy, popular discontent with rising food prices and the overspill of conflict from Liberia and the Cote d’Ivoire.

In summary, what are the national and international responsibilities for conflict resolution in Africa? On the national level, I think they should include the following:

1. Africans must put into power transparent, accountable and visionary post-war leadership that can reconcile their internal political differences, and can be trusted to constructively engage the external actors to stabilize the environment.
2. Nationals must realize that elections by themselves are not a panacea for democracy or deep-seated problems. We must critically re-assess our history, traditions and institutions so that those which adversely affect the state be either dropped or re-engineered. For example, the imperial presidency or cult of the presidency is a corruption of the traditional chieftaincy culture which elevates the chief or leader above his subjects. It has led to dictatorship in many countries.
Another key reform might be the devolution of power by the decentralizing of civil administration. Administrators would be elected by the people rather than appointed by the central government.
3. Before elections, nationals must decide on remedies for wrongs committed during civil conflict and how far back to go in seeking truth, reconciliation and/or retribution to end the culture of impunity. Whenever these matters are not adequately addressed in the peace agreements, they must be made the subject of national dialogue.
4. Leaders and citizens must demonstrate a stronger commitment to grass root economic empowerment, broad-based development, the protection of human rights and the rule of law.
5. The leaders and people must promote nationalism and patriotism above parochial or tribal leanings; and
6. African states should, at minimum, contribute manpower to establish a standing multinational force, as a deterrent to insurgencies.

At the international level, the following actions are needed:

1. The world should sensitize African leaders about the danger to world peace of creating safe havens for insurgents against neighboring governments. Punitive actions should include prosecution for war crimes resulting from their support of insurgencies.
2. The international community should continue to send out a clear message that tyrants and brutal dictators will no longer be supported or tolerated.
3. There is need for a paradigm shift concerning the more positive role African countries can play as politically stable and expanding market economies, to foster world economic growth, peace and security.
4. There is a need to support peaceful democratic change through popular choice on a level playing field, by providing resources for voter education, media access of all candidates and capacity building of political institutions.
5. Funding for security sector reform should include the setting up of a standing multinational counter-insurgency force; and
6. Commit resources for grass root economic empowerment, infrastructural development, restoration of basic services, skills training and capacity building of state bureaucracies.

Ladies and gentlemen, collaboration between national and international actors to resolve conflict must be mutual and symbiotic. It must entail respect for the values and culture of the national actors. It must evolve from the aspiration of their people and must take into consideration their needs and major concerns. At the same time, the actors must be sensitive to the global context within which the conflict is being resolved, in terms of its contribution to world peace, economic growth and prosperity. It is only by these means that durable solutions will be found to Africa’s conflicts. I thank you.