By: James W. Harris
September 7, 2001
Just about four years ago, as rival factions in Sierra Leone's bitter civil war fought violently for the absolute control of State power, the United Nations (UN) Security Council imposed sanctions on the West African nation shortly following the coup, which toppled the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
Nearby, during the same period, its neighbor, Liberia, seem to have somewhat ended its own bloody civil war with the 'supposed' election of Mr. Charles Taylor on the National Patriotic Party (NPP) ticket. Ironically, it was the same Mr. Taylor that had earlier plunged the entire sub-region into chaos and anarchy as the result of his rebel activities against his former boss, the late Master-Sergeant Samuel K. Doe.
Yet today, these two countries seem to be going in the opposite direction as if they're playing the game of 'musical chairs'. While Sierra Leone pushes forward with its disarmament program with the help of the UN and Great Britain, it is sadly Liberia that is now found wanting - drifting back very rapidly into another brutal civil war. Thanks to the country's "poor leadership".
From all indications, it seems like the disarmament process in Sierra Leone is moving right on track despite periodic threats from the country's ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who have failed in their diabolic attempt to seize power by force.
While there may be several contributing factors to the overall success of the exercise so far, the direct involvement of the British government in Sierra Leone should be highly appreciated. And of course, the UN should also feel free to pat itself on the back for making the commitment (financial, materiel, etc.) to restore some sort of stability to that war-weary country, especially in light of the upcoming presidential and general elections there.
But I must say quickly and seriously that unless some kind of "monitoring" is put in place to ensure that no more arms are brought back into the region once they are collected, the whole disarmament effort could turn out to be nothing more than a "revolving door" for hardened international scavengers and shady arms dealers.
What is most troubling in this whole picture is the fact that Liberia, with the help of its "criminal friends", and in stubborn defiance of a UN arms embargo already slapped on it, "allegedly" continues to ferry arms within the sub-region.
In a rather damaging report this past August 6, Douglas Farah of the prestigious American newspaper, the Washington Post, vividly described how the region's arms pipeline works (at least for Liberian President Charles Taylor).
"This mountainous region in western Ivory Coast, where the string of regional conflicts began in 1989 when locally based rebels led by Charles Taylor invaded Liberia, has become a corridor through which weapons are being smuggled to support the government in the capital, Monrovia", Mr. Farah's report quoted intelligence and diplomats as saying.
But his report went much further than that by it specifically naming Mr. Sam Bockarie aka Commander Mosquito or Maskita, a naturally violent individual, as being the main facilitator of arms shipment to Liberia on behalf of his boss, Mr. Taylor.
Given his personal record of brutality wherever he has gone, it is very disturbing that "Commander Mosquito" continues to be actively involved with the present Taylor government in deliberately undercutting the UN arms embargo against Liberia.
In the same article, Mr. Farah also quoted a European intelligence official as saying that: "We have credible reports that Bockarie operates on both sides of the Liberia - Ivory Coast border, facilitating arms shipment, and has been in contact with [Robert] Guei [the ousted Ivorian military leader] in support of Taylor. The situation is of serious concern for the stability of West Africa." Why shouldn't it be!
There is no doubt in my mind that the personal involvement of "Maskita" in this kind of arrangement could see small arms right back into the "wicked" hands of their RUF allies, even as the UN struggles to collect them. In a related report that came out in 1999, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said: "Large scale trafficking in light weapons has been singled out as a major cause of the wars being waged in large parts of Africa." Apparently, that has not changed as the "ready" availability of arms have emboldened would-be rebel leaders that may want to seize power by force only to enrich themselves
With valuable time and a lot of resources already invested by the UN and others to finally try to stabilize the West African sub-region, it is highly unthinkable that they would again allow small arms to flow back "freely" into those areas without at least attempting to stop them from reaching their destinations.
But in order to curtail or at least control the flow of arms in and out of that region, the UN undoubtedly needs the help of countries, like, the United States (US) and Great Britain. The latter (Great Britain) has shown tremendous courage in dealing with the situation in Sierra Leone, albeit its colonial ties, while the US, for whatever reason, remains all but reluctant to act decisively to save the suffering people in that part of the world.
If it goes unchecked, the "free" flow of arms to that region could also endanger the lives of UN personnel that are currently stationed there to help keep the peace. Moreover, Mr. Taylor and the RUF just can't be trusted, as they have reneged from time to time on their promises.
Had it not been for US arrogance, an unprecedented agreement geared towards restricting the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons would have been reached at the last UN Small Arms Conference that was held this past July 9 20 in New York.
But owing loyalty to the National Rifle Association (NRA), a very powerful gun lobby in the US, which diligently supported the Republican ticket of current President George W. Bush, the American delegation to the arms conference strongly insisted on the right of its government to supply arms to what they called "non-state actors".
But argued a Nigerian delegate, Sola Ogunbanwu: "If you send arms to non-state actors, you are [in fact] sending them to rebels who are trying to overthrow governments." Obviously, many delegates, particularly from Africa, that attended the UN conference, shared this feeling.
In spite of this, the US could still play a major role in helping the UN and the West African sub-region as a whole, in restricting arms from reaching that area so as to immediately put an end to the "alleged" trafficking taking place there. One way to do that, would be for the US to assign a few of its reconnaissance aircrafts to cover that area and then pass on the necessary information collected to the UN authorities for speedy action.
Short of this bold step, the least that both the UN and US could do under prevailing circumstances is to carefully investigate or independently verify the latest news reports concerning Liberia's "alleged" arms smuggling in violation of the embargo put on it.
By so doing, they would be guaranteeing that once the UN accomplishes its designated mission in Sierra Leone, the country or region would be safe enough for the people there to put their "broken lives" back together. It would also ensure that the UN's money and time were not wasted there in vain. There lies the challenge!