The Curse of Mercenaries
By Tom Kamara
December 19, 2000
When the respected Muslim cleric Sheik Kafumba Konneh, in a startling show of courage, recently demanded the expulsion of mercenaries from Liberia, he was not only battling with a dangerous Liberian problem, but a West African dilemma with larger implications for a continent already on its knees before unstoppable wars of fortune. In a striking note, Sheik Konneh said perceptions link the current waves of raids into neighboring Guinea, which have left over 1000 killed and about 94,000 refugees and residents fleeing (some towards Mali), to the Sierra Leone war in which Liberia is heavily implicated.
Although President Taylor repeatedly denies stealing Sierra Leone's diamonds, just what is the attraction for the global fortune-crazy mercenaries in a beggar country with less than 25 doctors, no electricity, nor water and reliable communication and over 85% unemployment remains a baffling question, that is if one accepts Mr. Taylor's innocence in Sierra Leone's plunder and horrors, along with the stupefying notion that pathetic Liberia is one of the cornerstones of Libya's hallucinating "United States of Africa" needing mercenaries to create.
"The Liberian people are dying" President Taylor
cried for international help in France, where he was undergoing
special medical checkup even as reports of dozens of women and
children dying in parts of his country for lack of basic medical
facilities poured. Liberia's largest hospital, JFK, was recently
closed down and its patients (including the wounded soldiers who
fought for Mr. Taylor in the Lofa war) evicted due to neglect
on the part of the Taylor government. So why would thousands of
mercenaries, men and women whose morals end where money begins,
be storming pre-colonial age Liberia?
Speaking for civic groups and political parties, and ignoring the frightening political environment in which disappearances, summary executions, politically inspired vigilante attacks have become common, the Sheik warned that mercenaries pose dangers to Liberia's security, and that the government should "completely and unconditionally disassociate itself" from the RUF. But Sheik Konneh may as well have added that the roaming mercenaries pose a greater danger to regional security, now that the region has become Hell for its helpless millions and refugees at the mercy of increasingly less altruistic donors.
In indirect reference to Liberia's military tentacles in Sierra Leone and now Guinea, the civic groups said if Liberia needs the services of foreign security advisors, it should enter into bilateral or international agreements, ensuring that the security of other states is not threatened. They observed that, "military intervention is not the favoured reconciliatory solution," in dealing with regional crisis. In simple words, what one hears from these groups "on the ground" is that there are foreign military advisors roaming Liberia and exporting terror over its borders.
Moreover, the groups decried Liberia's links to the RUF, pointing out that this relationship, condemned by the global community, has isolated the country and brought "disrepute to our sacred heritageall that the government and our forebears have assiduously laboured to preserve." But in sympathy with President Taylor, expelling the RUF, his second tier Army, is depriving him the means to export terror across borders while security himself. He has become the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost for regional rebels and mercenaries, warning Guinea that, "I am the first major rebel on West Africa Let (President) Conte not play rebel business with me" It is this "Trinity" of destabilization and theft that regional leaders, ever zealous in parading pariahs and thieves as "Excellencies" in pursuit of self-interest, have glossed over but must now face its devastating consequences as economic development gave way to perpetual emergency relief and therefore political instability.
But the comforting aspect of life in today's uncomfortable and ruined Liberia is that although praise mongers of doom proliferate, there are still many men of courage and integrity carrying the flame of truth no matter the material temptation to embrace lies for personal benefits.
The truth is that mercenaries have been the bedrock of Taylor's
rise to power and are now indispensable in sustaining it. Without
them, he is finished, a spent force, a mirage withering before
the smallest blow since his power is despised because it is imposed
by the gun.
As Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore would admit years later, Burkinabe mercenaries, won the war for Taylor and are now amongst the hundreds of mercenaries helping him to sustain his bloodstained presidency. Guinean, Ivorian, Gambian, and Sierra Leonean mercenaries, given Liberian names as covers, beefed up Taylor's Army, with Foday Sankoh and Sam Bokarie as among the best known ones now followed by Guinean candidates. Disgruntled Ghanaian military officers, (one named Major Solie Mamah) served within the presidency coordinating "operations." Liberian mercenaries allegedly unsuccessfully tried to keep Ivory Coast's Robert Guei in power. Many remain in Ivorian jails facing allegations that they indiscriminately shot down protesting civilians in Abidjan.
The long avoided truth, anathema in discussions in the politics of convenience within the region, is that Taylor's presidency has simply provided a platform and an African safe haven for underworld operatives from all parts of the world. Members of Apartheid South Africa's notorious "Defense Forces", South American death squad figures, hundreds of African rebel organizers and volunteers roam Liberia under Taylor's firm protection. RUF rebels, now governors of northern Lofa County, a staging post for their Sierra Leone and Guinea raids, have their own "RUF Village" in Monrovia. Members of an RUF delegation at the recent ceasefire talk in Nigeria who lost out in the power struggle simply stayed "home" in Monrovia after rival group threatened to execute them if they entered Sierra Leone. Reports say the RUF's 1999 offensive, which left over 6000 dead in Freetown alone, was led and coordinated by Monrovia-based South African and other mercenaries on hire with diamonds.
What does not bother many neighboring states is Liberia's position as a conduit for the criminalization of the entire region. New heights of this deceit in admitting this fact came when ECOWAS, (the 15member regional organization) meeting Saturday in Mali to discuss border incursions, refused to identify those responsible for regional destabilization and thus sought non-solutions. Mali, now receiving refugees, abstained during UN vote on conflict diamonds because Liberia and Burkina, "fellow African brothers", were named. When the spreading fires reach Mali, one of the world's poorest countries with about 3m of its citizens in Cote D'Ivoire now facing pressure to go home, there may be no time to vote, perhaps only to count the dead. There are just many mercenaries willing to ignite the fires of African sorrow for fast personal wealth.
In September, a Ukrainian named Leonard Minin, known for diamond laundering in Liberia and one of Taylor's big time "businessmen", was arrested in Italy for possession of cocaine and jailed for two years. According to Africa Confidential, large quantities of diamonds and cocaine were found in his hotel room after prostitutes tipped the Police for refusing to pay them. Says Africa Confidential: "Minin, it seems, is a true internationalist. Born in Odessa (in 1947) he has his official residence in Monrovia but likes to live in Te Aviv, Israel. Liberia under President Charles Taylor is viewed as the world centre for laundering "conflict diamonds" from Sierra Leone, Angola and even Cong Kinshasa threatened. The paper added that:
"When the Italian authorities learned who they were dealing with, the intelligence services rapidly became involved and Minin's trial was held in camera, officially so that he could have a quick trial. The story, it seems, may not be over yet."
In 1998, a Dutch daily, Het Parool, carried a story of a drug ring operating between Monrovia, Europe and the US. It linked several Dutchmen, including Gus Kouwenhoven who has lived in Liberia for over 2 decades and served many corrupt regimes as a "businessman". Presidential Advisor Emmanuel Shaw, wanted in South Africa on fraud charges, and Taylor himself, are among many officials the paper named in the syndicate. The President's Press Secretary and confidante, Reginald Goodridge, linked these men to similar crimes in an article he published in June 1991 when he served as a propagandist for the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
Last year, a Polish paper reported that Henry Williamson, then Liberian Ambassador in Poland, was being investigated by Polish authorities for his involvement in underworld activities. Consequently, "the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted by closing the embassy down and squashing its accreditation." Furthermore, UN and American officials have concluded that with the environment unsuitable for conventional investors, criminal figures have taken over Liberia's economy, and within this, mercenaries are needed to protect their holdings while plundering Sierra Leone's diamonds. Thus Liberia has become a hot incubator for underworld activities.
But the hypocrisy among West African rulers is shown in their preference for endless and useless discussions over simplicities such as their alleged determination to curtail the spread of small arms within the region than accepting the fact that the roots of region's decay are buried in Liberia. Without a corridor for operations, without large shipments of arms coming through Liberian ports, without the diamonds to pay for these and more importantly the services of mercenaries at home in Liberia, it is difficult to see how the RUF, (rag-tag illiterate boys unable to read signs not to mention maps) would develop its military muscle power now devastating Guinea, the only French-speaking neighbor active in Liberia and Sierra Leone peacekeeping using its meager resources.
And with all the concrete evidence that Liberia has become one big military camp for regional destabilization, Nigeria is toying with the idea of creating a jungle battalion with the impossible task of ensuring peace across the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
But Liberia is no longer a Liberian problem. This sad state which once saw itself as bastardized reflection of America since it was settled by freed American states, has become a West African problem. Sierra Leone and now Guinea have proved that. For some, perhaps such evidence is not enough. More states will have to crumble before facing the truth that Liberia has become a mercenary base of operations, the sword at the heart of regional stability needed for reconstruction. "Give me 10 years and I will control this region", Taylor has promised. With his endless supply of diamonds attracting mercenaries, that promise may be fulfilled.
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