Liberia's Mercenary Virus and Ivory Coast
By Tom Kamara
October 30, 2000
Now, what is becoming Liberia's most vital export --- mercenaries for destabilization ----are reported active in the Ivory Coast, the country whose blessings enabled Charles Taylor's rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to spark West Africa's ongoing disintegration. Reports say many Liberian mercenaries have been killed, injured or detained. The Liberian embassy in Abidjan is said to be compiling statistics of the dead and injured. Several Liberians, now engulfed in fear, have reportedly crossed the border back home. And as expected, the Liberian Government has supplied its usual dose of denials, using similar scripts it uses in Sierra Leone and Guinea. The question is, why would Liberia's name feature so prominently in every act of chaos and banditry within the region.
"The government of Liberia is unaware of any Liberians engaged in mercenary activities in Cote d'Ivoire. Liberia has no intention of sending any troops to Cote d'Ivoire," the Foreign Ministry said.
This could very well be true. The Government is "unaware," just as it may be "unaware" of Sierra Leone diamond thefts and Taylor's secret operations to keep the RUF going. There is hardly any "awareness" within the intimidated Government of training schemes for Guinean dissidents, which have been going for years. President Taylor, obsessed with covert schemes of wars and plots, which have sustained him for the past decade, is not likely to inform his sidelined, cosmetic Foreign Ministry or any other government agency of plots to supply mercenaries around the Continent for like-minded friends in need. Prior to launching his own war and becoming President, according to reports, including those of Dr. Stephen Ellis in his remarkable book "Mask of Anarchy," Taylor is alleged to have helped Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore butcher the charismatic, honest Thomas Sankara, thus establishing iron bond with the Burkina Faso strongman that continues today.
For years, Taylor's role in Ivorian politics has been a matter of speculation. But like all other allegations tied around them, the Liberians believe the more consistently you deny and hold on to the same scripts as good criminals do, the more likely you are believed. Keep your alibi tight! So they have simply denied, denied and denied.
The Ivory Coast is Taylor's indispensable historical springboard to power. Ties between him and ousted, exiled President Konan Bedie were particularly strong. Many reports said the two men were engaged in extensive business ventures. When Gen. Guei overthrew Bedie, speculations mounted that Taylor, highly uncomfortable with an unknown man in a country he considers his only escape route within a now hostile region outside Burkina Faso and Libya, was training dissidents to ensure Bedie's comeback. Taylor immediately condemned the Guei coup, stationing troops at the border, reportedly putting them on alert. He demanded the restoration of "democracy", a demand he later withdrew after Guei paid a one-day visit "to consult" him on politics. From then onward, bonds of friendship between the two men solidified. It became a case of permanent interests, not permanent friends. Noted Reuters following the General ouster and escape:
"Guei is a friend of Liberian President Charles Taylor and Liberia was the first country he visited after coming to power in a coup in December 1999. Guei's whereabouts are unknown. Some reports said he had fled to Liberia.Liberian mercenaries had been rumoured for some time to be among Guei's personal guard. Mobs attacked Liberians on Wednesday, ransacking their homes and businesses, after a rumour spread that Liberian mercenaries had fired on the protesters."
But Guei's increasing unpopularity and Ivorians determination to get him off their back, meant that the political dynamics would change. As in Guinea where Liberians (and Sierra Leoneans) became targets of reprisals following revelations that Liberian refugees had played key roles in sporadic raids that have left about 400 Guineans dead in the past months, angry Ivorians launched their own pogroms against Liberians. The Monrovia's Daily Times reported:
"Foreign Ministry sources hinted this paper that authorities at the Liberian Embassy near Abidjan are said to be compiling statistics to ascertain exactly how many Liberians have killed detained or injured.
"Our sources disclosed at the Executive Mansion yesterday that Liberians were being rounded up by disgruntled Ivorians, who are reported to have severely flogged them, while others receiving treatment at various medical centers there are said to have died from internal injuries sustained during the upheaval.
"Continuing, our sources said authorities at the Liberian embassy have informed the foreign Ministry in Monrovia about the situation facing Liberians, who are now said to be hiding out of fear, noting that the staff at the embassy has also fled to an unknown destination."
Stories of Taylor's new adventures in Ivory Coast have been circulating since Bedie's disgraceful departure. First, it was alleged that the assassins who attacked Gen. Guei's residence in a highly suspicious coup attempt were Liberians. According to sources, since Guei felt he could not trust his own soldiers to implement such covert operations implicating northern Army officers, he relied on the Liberians. Furthermore, communication between Guei and Taylor, sources in Abidjan say, were very regular. But to conceal his links with Taylor, sources say, a loyal publication recently carried a story linking Opposition politician Alassane Quattara with Taylor's alleged mercenaries. The story said Taylor had supplied mercenaries to help Ouattara's bid for power. On the other hand, in a more plausible account, unconfirmed reports claim Taylor supplied two helicopters, along with mercenaries, to Guei, and when asked by an astonished loyalist from where he was getting them when his own Army was strapped for equipment, the President, in extreme anger, refused to respond.
In addition, Taylor's chief of protocol, Moussa Cisse, handled the Taylor-Guei connection, reportedly tied around arms and other shipments, with key figures within Guei's now smashed junta, according to sources. "Cisse and others always made contacts at the highest level when they were in Abidjan", the source said. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that Taylor would have backed Quattara against Guei. The bulk of Taylor's fighters come from Guei's Yakuba tribe, known as Gios in Liberia. And then there is the question of like-mindedness and the variance of political culture and perceptions between the normal, conventional politician Ouattara on the one hand, and a man, Taylor, whom Gen. Guei praised for being a "good warrior." Taylor's most trusted friends in the region, such as Blasie Compaore and Foday Sankoh, are men who rose to prominence in blood. That he would feel comfortable with an individual like Ouattara as opposed to Guei in preserving his interests is unlikely.
Reports say an unspecified number of Liberian mercenaries were housed in Canal Hotel in Koumassi, a suburb in Abidjan. When the hotel was raided by angry crowds, the mercenaries were absent, most likely at the run or at the front defending Guei. Sources say that soldiers who fired into crowds of demonstrators were Liberians. One of the alleged mercenaries, holed up in the presidential palace, was arrested and burnt alive by the mob, according to reports.
The Ivory Coast was Taylor's bastion for military and political operations during the years of Houphouet Boigny and Konan Bedie. Without the Ivory Coast's tremendous military, territorial, logistical, diplomatic and economic backing sustained till the 1997 elections, Taylor's military, and therefore presidential victory, would have been highly questionable. Notes Dr. Stephen Ellis in the acclaimed "The Mask of Anarchy":
"Charles Taylor, who had become multi-millionaire within months of the war starting, dealt mostly with banks in Abidjan, particularly the Ecobank and Societe Generale (SGBCI) and Ouagadougou. He also controlled an account at Abidjan's Citibank
"By 1990 there was a booming trade in looted goods exported overland by NPFL fighters for sale in markets in Cote d'Ivoire, especially the town of Danane. One French- speaking reporter noted the number of people from all over West Africa who had flocked to join NPFL. She noted sprinkling of Ghanaians, Nigerians, Burkinabe, Senegalese, and in particular Ivorians from the areas which adjoin Nimba County and whose people speak related African languages. For them, the war was a business opportunity. The same reporter met a Gambian, one of the core group of Libyan trainees, who said his ambition was to fight in revolutionary wars. This man said he was a great admirer of Thomas Sankara, and claimed to have fought alongside of Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau. Whether or not the such self-proclaimed revolutionaries were motivated by the desire for loot as were their rank and file colleagues is a moot point."
Ivory Coast's corridor, a corridor denied Taylor by the Sierra Leoneans, provided convenient, regular passage for truckloads of arms, ammunitions destined for Taylor's rebel forces. The warlord's key relatives lived in plush homes in Abidjan, other cities under state protection as Ivorian politicians, and security men enriched themselves from Liberia's horrors. He maintains a mansion in Ouagadougou and now villas in Europe, with some of his children reportedly attending school in Europe, most likely Switzerland.
Thus Ivory Coast's insulation from wars consuming its neighbours has been no accident. Taylor insured that, assuring Ivorian political establishment that the flames of war he ignited in Sierra Leone and now Guinea for their participation in the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG--- thus depriving him his badly needed military victory for the presidency---would not touch La Cote d'Ivoire.
But in the closing years of the Liberian war, one of Taylor's rival rebel factions, the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), tested this assurance. LPC rebels, suspecting the NPFL of receiving continued military assistance from the Ivorians, attacked Ivorian border towns, inflicting both military and civilian casualties. The attacks, indicating how vulnerable Ivory Coast was, engendered new political thinking in Abidjan that questioned Taylor's continued usefulness as a dependable ally. Worried that his country would be engulfed in Liberian/Sierra Leonean style wars, Bedie invited LPC leader George Boley to Abidjan for discussions. According to inside LPC/NPFL sources, Taylor, suspicious and afraid that Boley would emerge as an independent player Bedie could side with against him, manipulated the invitation and flew with Boley to Abidjan, holding and swinging hands as "brothers." Upon arrival, Taylor personally introduced the unsuspecting Boley to a disappointed Bedie--- who had wanted on one to one meeting with Boley---leaving no doubts that he, Taylor, was still the man to deal with. And, of course, few thousands of dollars switched hands in insuring Taylor's preeminence in the scheme, LPC sources say. After discussions, the two warlords triumphantly returned to Monrovia in stronger camaraderie, castigating the media for not storming the city airstrip to greet them and report their discussions, since, they claimed, they were "presidents." A series of joint-radio press conferences threatening opponents were launched, with Taylor referring to himself as "God" and to Boley as "Jesus". Kromah, the obvious "Mohammad," then receiving backing from Guinea, was to join this "brotherhood" regardless of its ominous impact, now emerging, on Guinea. On radio, he derided "politicians" for sowing seeds of discord between him and "brother" Taylor, who, he said, regrettably "lost brothers" in the war just as he.
Nevertheless, this "brotherhood" soon narrowed to a Taylor-Kromah axis in 1996 when the two men sought to eliminate the Krahn Opposition---represented by Roosevelt Johnson---of which Boley was a cardinal part. Inside ULIMO-J (Johnson) claimed that in order to remove the Kran threat, Taylor dispatched Boley to bribe Johnson into leaving the city so that he and Kromah could consolidate their power base with the open endorsement of the Nigerian commanded Ecomog troops. Threatened by loyalists, Johnson reportedly turned down the bribe. Boley, for his part, left the city with his key confidantes while his fighters, to protect their lives, fought alongside other Krahn forces, thus denying Taylor and Kromah a military victory. In the end however, although "brother" Taylor emerged king out of the brotherhood, "brothers" Kromah and Boley remain exiles effectively banished from the kingdom of their "brother."
Now, with Liberian mercenaries active across the border in
Ivory Coast, ties between Liberia and Ivory Coast over the coming
months or years will be dependent on how strongly the new Ivorian
political establishment addresses Taylor's fanatical wishes of
helping to maintain his grip on power. Laurent Gbagbo (and Alassane
Outarra) is outside Taylor's orbit of influence and manipulation,
and he must watch closely as Gbagbo unveils his policies. His
fear and distrust of Guinea has led to the export of his virus
of war. Sierra Leone is burning because of its diamonds, but also
because of Taylor's desire to see a like-minded regime there that
will protect his interests. The choice for the Ivory Coast is