International Community Should Not Recognize Rebel-led Government in Liberia

By Gabriel Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 12, 2003

There has been widespread fear of mass death and destruction since rebels seeking to violently remove Liberian leader CharlesTaylor from power attacked Monrovia, the Liberian capital of more than one million mostly war-weary inhabitants. Monrovia could turn into a bloodbath as government and rebel forces battle for control of the already ruined city, where factions in Liberia’s brutal civil war fought several times in an attempt to seize power.

Alarmed that escalating clashes between the government and rebel forces in Liberia have severely impacted the already desperate people living in and around Monrovia, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has called on the parties to take all necessary measures to ensure that civilians are not targeted and are spared the effects of war.

Secretary General Annan has reminded parties to the conflict that perpetrators of humanitarian and human rights law violations, which have been far too common in Liberia, will be held accountable for their acts. Gravely concerned at the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Liberia, the UN security Council has urged all combatants in the strongest terms to end hostilities immediately and agree to a ceasefire.

While Taylor was in Ghana for the June 4 opening of peace talks to end Liberia’s renewed bloodshed, an arrest warrant was issued by the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone for his alleged support of rebel groups there. The Ghanaian government did not act upon the warrant, and the fugitive Liberian leader was allowed to rush back home. The internationally-sponsored peace talks, taking place under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have been in dasarray since Taylor’s return to Liberia.

The United States and others, including Liberian individuals and groups, have called for Taylor’s resignation, to allow for the setting up of an interim government that would stabilize the country and create the enabling conditions for the holding of free and fair democratic elections within a specified time period. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently described Taylor as a "destructive force," and international figures like the UN refugee agency head Ruud Lubber have called on him to go.

Emboldened by Taylor’s indictment, rebels calling themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), which have been waging an insurgency since 1999 to overthrow the brutal Liberian dictator, decided to launch an assault on the capital to eject him and seize power.

As the rebels launch their assault on the city, the UN, ECOWAS, and the international community in general should take a firmed position not to recognize any government that takes power by force of arms in Liberia. The international community must be prepared to impose stringent sanctions, including a military blockade, against any unlawful regime in Liberia, similar to the UN-ECOWAS actions against the Sierra Leonean military junta, which deposed a democratic government in 1997 but was driven from power the following year due to UN-backed military actions and rigid enforcement of other sanction measures.

The UN and ECOWAS must take lessons from their actions in Sierra Leone, which eventually ended 10 years of brutal civil war that caused the lives of an estimated 50,000 people and left the country almost completely ruined. Leaders of the defunt Sierra Leone military regime and rebels are among those indicted for war crimes along with Taylor, who was allegedly involved in gun running and diamond smuggling with them.

We welcome Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call for an end to violence in Liberia, as well as reminding parties to the conflict that perpetrators of humanitarian and human rights law violations, which have been far too common in Liberia, will be held accountable for their acts.

It must be made absolutely clear to the so-called LURD leader Sekou Damante Conneh and his principal collaborators, and also leaders of the other armed factions in the conflict, that they will be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. We can only hope that recent developments in the West African sub-region would serve as a lesson to the likes of Damante Conneh, who could end up like fellow mass murderers Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koromah, who have been indicted for war crimes for their roles in Sierra Leone’s civil war.

There can be no question that leaders of LURD, as well as the yet unknown leaders of the other newly organized faction self-styled MODEL, are regarded to be nothing but a bunch of criminals. According to a recent Amnesty International report, atrocities by Liberian government troops and LURD rebels against the population, including executions, rape, torture and abduction of children in the ongoing war have intensified. This is an indication that none of Liberia’s past and present rebel leaders are better than Taylor. The hands of all of them are stained with the blood of innocent people. Most of those leading the factions seeking to overthrow Taylor were involved in the country’s seven-year civil war, which cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people and left the country almost completely destroyed. In the fullness of time, those murderers and plunderers masquerading as liberators will be brought to book for their crimes just as Taylor is today an indicted war criminal.

We appeal to the UN and the international community not to allow leaders of the warring factions to head a new interim government. We cannot continue to reward criminals or murderers with state power as have been the case in Liberia. Slaughtering innocent people should not be an incentive to acquire political power and wealth.

It should also be noted that selections to the proposed interim leadership should not be focused on the current cast of national political leaders, most of who have miserably failed Liberia and its people and plunged the country into a seemngly unending state of bloodshed, destruction and destitution. From watching the cast of characters who have paraded the national stage as leaders since 1980 to present, they have mostly turned out to be nothing but a bunch of corrupt, incompetent, and power hungry opportunists who gained prominence by projecting themselves as champions of democracy seeking the interest of the Liberian people.

Most of Liberia’s current generation of political leaders lack the integrity and leadership qualities to bring about lasting peace and sustainable progress because they are so compromised and polarizing that allowing them to assume leadership of the interim government would prove to be detrimental to the wellbeing of the Liberian people. If they want to lead the country, let them do so through a democratic process. The rebels must also transform their factions into political parties to seek a popular mandate to govern through election.

In order to avoid the pitfalls of the past, it is imperative that experience, integrity, democratic commitment and respect for human rights should serve as the criteria for selections on the proposed interim government. There is a need to encourage the emergence of a new breed of national leaders who are not tainted by the bloody contest for power amongst the current generation of political leaders, which have wreaked hovic on Liberia and its people.

Liberia’s descent into anarchy underscores the point that the selection of people to serve in government through a constitutional and democratic process hold the key to lasting peace and progress. Through the democratic process, those aspiring for public office can be scrutinized and endorsed or rejected by the constituents on the basis of the candidates’ qualifications, integrity, and proven commitment to best serve their commonwealth.

Given the point just made, one could be hard pressed to ask, for example, what do we know about Damante Conneh, leader of the notorious LURD, who could possibly become the next Liberian leader if his rebels take control of Monrovia? Who is he, and where does he come from? While attending a media fundraiser last month in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area, a few Liberians chatting together about the escalating fighting approached me inquiring whether I knew anything about Conneh’s background, which I don’t. Another person quickly said Conneh is a Guinean Mandingo who was a petit trader or used car dealer in Liberia, now married to a daughter of Guinean President Lansanah Conteh. The person said Conneh was using his family connections with the Guinean leader to arm the LURD criminal gang to wage war in Liberia. The UN and other international organizations have acknowledged the Guinean government’s backing of the LURD. Whether information that Conneh is a non-Liberia is true or not, it is causing outraged amongst Liberians, many of whom are expressing disgust apparently on the basis of his background as known thus far.

With war and its attending calamities threatening our very existence as a people and nation, Liberians are challenged to end the scourge of war by adapting a new way of thinking and approach in tackling the problems that affect our collective wellbeing. Despite years of war, no group or section involved in the conflict has emerged strong enough to subdue the others. But we keep fighting insteading of promoting avenues by which to come together to address our collective problems through peaceful means.

Equally so, dictatorship will never be successfully entrenched in Liberia. Those who are consumed by the desire for power and absolute control over the affairs of Liberia should learn from the lessons of Taylor, the flamboyant warlord-turned President of Liberia, the billionaire despotic leader, who has been reduced to nothing more than a cornered rat after he thought he could use Liberia like his private farm. We could see a repeat of history in Liberia, whereTaylor might possibly end up dead like Samuel Doe if the rebels are allowed to march into Monrovia. Like Doe, Taylor’s refusal to relinquish power would not only endanger the lives of Monrovia’s one million inhabitants, but he himself could get killed or captured in the process.

Given the outlook of things, Taylor only has a little window of opportunity left to prevent a bloody warfare. He could take advantage of the opportunities provided by the peace talks in Ghana to secure a deal that would enable him to relinquish power in a peaceful manner.

ECOWAS and the international community should ensure that the ongoing talks lay the framework for a ceasefire, deployment of an international stabilization force, the demobilization of all combatants, and the establishment of an interim government to create the enabling conditions for peace and security and the holding of national elections.

The current crisis in Liberia presents an opportunity to end the cycle of violence in the war-ravished country. Even if Taylor were captured or killed, that would centainly not be the end of the war if there is no negotiated settlement. As U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "We must learn to live together or we will ultimately destroy each other."

About the Author: Journalist Gabriel Williams is author of the book, Liberia: the Heart of Darkness, which provides descriptive accounts of Liberia’s civil war and its destabilizing effects in West Africa.