LURD, UN Sanctions and Elections 2003

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 15, 2002

Last year, we had a chance to interview some of the most prominent voices in the Liberian political body, among others Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Cllr. Charles Brumskine and Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. To each one of them, we raised the two most important issues of the time: how to deal with the LURD issue and the impendent UN sanctions. The responses, with a few variations in their formulation, were almost identical:

1. Regarding the sanctions, they all were in agreement that there was need for the international community to put pressure on the Taylor government but did not think that sanctions were the best possible way to resolve Liberia’s postwar problems. They said in general that although the sanctions were formulated to only target the government and a few businessmen dealing with Taylor, the effects would somehow “trickle” down to the common people. Sheikh Kafumba said that sanctions were like a red flag for business people and that the lack of interaction between even the few government people who travel abroad and investors could harm the economy in the long run. A year has gone by since then and the United Nations are about to review the sanctions. There are calls from some political leaders to campaign for a renewal of the sanctions.

2. Regarding LURD, all of our interviewees agree that there was imperative need to engage the dissidents in a dialogue to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict. They believed that not only could Liberia sustain another war but they were also skeptical as to an eventual success of the LURD rebellion which lacked everything that makes an armed group succeed: lack of national appeal, fuzzy political agenda, lack of political direction and lack of funding.

There are a number of questions that need to be raised in trying to chart a course for the next 11 months.

a. How effective have the sanctions been in curtailing Taylor’s actions, in the areas of governance, accountability and human rights?

b. Is the Taylor government anywhere near collapse either as the result of the sanctions or through actions of the armed dissidents of LURD?

c. What has the political civilian opposition accomplished in terms of unity of purpose, financing, pushing for electoral reforms to pose a serious threat to a continuous Taylor government?

d. How effective would the United Nations and the US be in “imposing” a level playing field for the holding of free and fair elections? Would they intervene financially to ensure the effectiveness of the elections?

e. How effective has the opposition been in formulating a common agenda, building a financial and political structure and engaging the international community?

f. Who, of the government or the opposition and the Liberian civil society in general, would ultimately benefit from a continuous state of sanctions and a war from LURD?

The responses to these questions would not determine the road to take they are raised to ask a different type of questions. What hurts Taylor and his government does not necessarily help Liberia.

Sanctions are the modern versions of blockade, used in the past. Long ago, many cities were fortified and when a foreign force wanted to take them over, they would blockade all entrances and exits to the city-state, stopping the flow of food from the countryside. After a long period of time, either the inhabitants of the city revolted and took control of the city or the leader simply surrendered, after seeing many of the city people die from starvation. In modern times, blockade is replaced with sanctions. Imposing sanctions on Liberia was aimed at weakening the Taylor government. Did it work? Rather than people revolting, they are submitted to more tyranny. Human rights violations have multiplied. The few voices of dissent have been all silenced, exiled or co-opted into submission.

Modern history also teaches that sanctions rarely lead to a change of regime. For a dictator, it may actually be a welcome happening. Countries that have been submitted to sanctions have had the longest reigning leaders in recent history. In Libya, Kaddafi has been leader since 1968. The regime in Iran, since Ayatollah Khomeiny in 1979 is still in existence. North Korea has had the same government since the end of the Korean War. A few dozen miles from the shores of the United States, Fidel Castro has been in power since 1959. If US sanctions could not lead to the overthrow of the Cuban regime, what could it achieve in Liberia? It took the US direct intervention to unseat the generals in Haiti. It took Nyerere’s army to send Idi Amin into exile and the British had to force RUF out of job.

The other issue is of course LURD. Where is LURD going? Does Liberia want another war? How effective has LURD been since the beginning of its war in 1999? For the past three years, the dissident armed group has “traveled” from Voinjama to Gbarnga and Kakata, according to the government but never made a dent against the Taylor machine. Joe Wylie, the military advisor to LURD said that they would take the time they need to unseat Taylor but they would not relent. After hints at dialogue with the civil opposition and the government, the movement has fallen into a sort of military and PR fiasco. There seems to be no “head no tail” in what they are doing. As a colleague puts it, if LURD really want Taylor, they know where to find him. It can be safe to say that LURD, like the sanctions could be hurting Taylor but does not help peace and reconciliation in Liberia.

There are only 11 months to elections and there is no sign that anything tangible would come up. The sanctions are an easy exit for the international community to abandon Liberia to its self-destructive plunge that keeps getting worse. Once a country is under sanctions, it becomes easy to cut off cooperation and other forms of engagement that are more demanding then just policing. Rather than the billions of dollars promised for the reconstruction process, the international community gets away with putting in place a small group of “sanctions monitors” who would make sure that they keep receiving checks months after months, ensuring that the sanctions are kept in place. Sanctions monitors have vested interests in maintaining sanctions: they get paid. This all happened because the NPFL government squandered the enormous goodwill that was there for the reconstruction.

The Taylor government is the prime culprit in all of this, and in the same vein, the ultimate beneficiary. Liberia contradictions are very deep and go back 150 years. It would take time to correct time and more than a simple regime change. The process could have started in 1997. The country took the wrong turn. How to bring it back to a new starting point?

LURD and the UN sanctions cannot be the solutions, because they shut the door to any real peaceful change. It is unfortunate that they have both offered the Taylor administration reasons to stall changes. The most effective sanctions against a Liberian government, and specifically against President Taylor was to not be accorded a reception at the White House. Whatever sanctions came after that, made no really difference to the leader of the NPFL. Being honored at the White House was something so dear to Taylor that one of his first and completed projects was to ensure the reconstruction of the Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC.

Liberians can and must find a way to bring about change without recurring to violence (LURD) or relying on the actions of the international community (UN sanctions). If change does not come through a homegrown peaceful solution, it would perpetuate dependency and chaos.

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