Into Liberia's Tragedy

By Dr. George Ayittey

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 11, 2003

Wracked by interminable and innumerable crises - from brutal civil wars, famine, the AIDS epidemic, political instability and vapid corruption - Africa can use a little more international attention and care. Doubtless, President Bush's trip to Africa July 7-12 would shine a needed spotlight on Africa. As he leaves for Africa, there have been increasing calls for American intervention in Liberia, a country established in 1847 by freed American slaves.

The country, ruled by a brutish warlord turned-president, Charles Taylor, has been wracked by a savage civil war since 1998 that has uprooted more than half of its 3.5 million people. The war has destroyed basic infrastructure, creating a massive humanitarian crisis. Monrovia, the capital, has no running water, nor electricity. Health care is virtually non-existent. Mr. Taylor and his associates have plundered not only Liberia's timber and diamond resources but have also sponsored rebel movements to destabilize other countries in the West-African region: Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast.

He has been indicted by the United Nations Tribunal in Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity. At peace talks with rebel leaders, Mr. Taylor accepted a deal that would see his departure from office. But, once in Monrovia, he reneged before the ink on the agreement was dry, prompting fresh battles by rebel soldiers to take the city. Fleeing the flare-up in fighting, thousands of refugees encamped at the American embassy, pleading for American intervention.

Pointing to a "historical link"' between Liberia and America, African leaders and human rights activists have echoed this call for intervention to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Further, they point out, the French sent about 3,000 para-troopers into Ivory Coast, a former colony, to maintain peace. Likewise, Britain sent 700 soldiers to keep the peace in neighboring Sierra Leone, a former British colony.

Under such intense pressure, the Pentagon has dispatched a military team to Liberia to study the situation before the insertion of American troops. While a humanitarian crisis exists in Liberia, it would be a grievous mistake - from the African perspective - to insert American troops into Liberia.

First, it smacks of de facto recolonization. Second, it constitutes a band-aid solution when Africa needs long-term, enduring solutions. Third, the crisis in Liberia needs an "African solution."' Fourth, and more importantly, American intervention in Liberia "internationalizes"' the situation, which allows African leaders to dodge their responsibility of solving Africa's problems. Time and again when a crisis erupts in some African country, African leaders do little or nothing to avert or resolve it. When it explodes, they then beseech the international community to take action, without making any concerted effort on their own.

Every puny African crisis now unleashes a cascade of mournful pleas by African leaders to the international community for resolution. If the assistance is slow in coming, a barrage of accusations is fired. If the international community declines to intervene in a horrifying African crisis situation, then another volley of bitter accusations is fired. In fact, at the July 2000 Organization of African Unity Summit in Lome, Togo, African leaders demanded compensation from the West for failure to intervene and stop the 1994 Rwanda genocide - as if they themselves did anything to halt the slaughter. In the past two months, such pleas have been made for the crises in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Congo, and now Liberia. Would a plea for intervention in Zimbabwe be next? Of what value are Africa's militaries if they can't do battle with even child soldiers - some as young as 10 years old - toting AK-47s, pillaging and terrorizing innocent civilians?

Back in the late 1970s, Field Marshal Idi Amin was not only terrorizing his own people but his neighbors as well - just as Mr. Taylor of Liberia has left a far more heinous trail of devastation across the West-African region. In November 1978 the late President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania sent an invading force into Uganda to kick Mr. Amin out of office. Why haven't West African leaders or the Economic Community of West African States cobbled together an invading force into Liberia to kick Mr. Taylor out of office?

America should resist inserting American troops into Liberia and should only provide logistical support - such as military transport - to a West-African "interpositional force"' to resolve the humanitarian crisis, take care of the Taylor problem, and establish an interim government.

In the long run, African leaders must be weaned of their dependency on the international community and craft their own "African solutions"' to Africa's woes. Incessant appeals to the international community and badgering deprecate the dignity and pride of the African people.

International good will is not inexhaustible, and there is only so much America can do to help Africa. The international community cannot take Africa seriously if its own leaders aren't serious about solving Africa's problems.

About the Author: Dr. George Ayittey is a Professor of Economics at the American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation. His new book, "Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Development," will be published this Fall.