Is it getting too late to salvage Liberia?

Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 29, 2003

"Whatever peacekeeping force that is coming to Liberia, should be there today because tomorrow may be too late. As we sit here and discuss a non-violent way to find a way out of the crisis, people at home are dying by numbers! Whatever anyone wants to do to help Liberia must be sped up," said Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Chairman of the Liberian Peoples Party (LPP), speaking to us from Ghana.

Events on the ground in Monrovia have overtaken negotiations for peaceful settlement that may be going on in Accra, Ghana, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States. This may be the saddest July 26th for Liberians both at home and abroad. For the first time in history, nobody felt right to celebrate the anniversary of the independence.

Rockets fell on churches and schools in downtown Monrovia where displaced people have taken refuge since the beginning of the second round of fighting between the rebel movement LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and government troops. Hundreds of people have been wounded and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. "There is no safe place in Monrovia today, one can be hit by a bullet or a bomb anywhere. There is no shelter," said a Monrovia resident reached by telephone.

In Monrovia, lack of food and water is starting to take its tool on people. Shops and markets are all shut down. "We came out on Friday, for the first time, after five days and you could never believe the number of people who died in their homes. Forget the shells and the bombs, we are talking about old people, babies, sick people who simply starved to death because there was no food and no water," said Tonieh Smallwood who lives on the Old Road, in Monrovia. "My neighbor's husband went out last night looking for food and water and we have not seen him or heard from him since. The children are crying as you can hear. My 4-year old daughter is crying because she lost hearing in both ears. There are more than twenty crammed in our little living room now."

In Accra, Ghana where peace talks are being held under the auspices of ECOWAS, everything is at a standstill. "How can anyone talk about signing a peace accord when you don't know how your family is living out there?" said another Liberian negotiator, adding, "My wife and children are all there and I have not been able to contact them for the past four days. I don't know if they lost their cell phone or maybe it was taken away from them… My whole life is back there and I am supposed to be sitting here, be amicable and work out a peace agreement with people who are killing our families! How can I do that?"

The situation with LURD, the major rebel group that has now entered Monrovia and has set camp at the Freeport is even more concerning. On Friday, the rebel movement sent out two statements, from two different spokesmen, almost simultaneously. While Kabineh Ja'neh was saying that the rebel group was observing a cease-fire and would remain on its position, Charles Benny, who was "fired" as LURD spokesman was saying that they would be on the offensive until "they force Taylor out." Last week, MODEL who had joined other groups on calling on LURD to stop its offensive on the city, went and took control of Buchanan.

Says Tiawon Gongloe, "it is like we are back to 1990. When Taylor was indiscriminately shelling Monrovia and Doe's soldiers were saying ‘No Doe No Monrovia. Now it is LURD trying to force Taylor out and Taylor people saying they have nothing to lose because they have already lost everything and in the meantime, thousands of innocent lives are lost. The worst part of it is that in 1990, everybody had left Monrovia but today, there are more than 1 million people in the city…"

A Liberian political leader and peace negotiator, who spoke to us under the condition of anonymity, says that the United States could end all this right now. The negotiator said: "It seems that we are negotiating here with the wrong people. The people here call for cease-fire and those on the ground keep fighting. If the US has been providing military logistics to Guinea and Guinea is somehow supporting LURD, they can stop this thing overnight. They can get President Conteh to pull the plug on LURD! Somebody is providing the shells and the bullets and we all know it comes from Guinea and the US can weights on Guinea to stop this. We all know that Taylor is on his way out and there is no turning back on that issue. And also we all know that we do not want LURD or any of the warring faction to be in the position the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) of Charles was in back in 1990."

When asked about the state of the negotiations, Dr. Joshua Iroha, former ambassador of Nigeria to Liberia 1990 – 1998 and now working with ECOWAS Chief negotiator in Accra General Abdulsalami Abubakar, said: "We have provided a draft document and we are awaiting the parties reaction." He sharply criticized the current fighting in Monrovia, saying, "This is an exercise in futility, because no arrangement other than what will be agreed here through negotiations will be accepted by ECOWAS. Those fighting must realize that they are committing serious human violations and crimes against humanity, they are inflecting hardship and pains on people whom they are claiming to protect. They will be made accountable for their actions."

These words were echoed by UN Koffi Anan who said that the rebels might be working to exclude themselves from taking part in the political future of Liberia.

Some Liberians are now calling for setting up a war crimes tribunal for Liberia, to review all the atrocities committed against innocent people over the past 14 years! Perhaps the sense of impunity that has characterized Liberian politics needs to be put to rest. "Every government or every so –called liberation movement commits the most heinous crimes, plunders our national resources and walks away free. Imagine that people who participated in massive killings in broad daylight just a few years ago are now parading in Accra, seeking to be president?" said a Liberian lawyer based in US, "these people belong in jail!".

Ambassador Iroha said, "It is disheartening. Some in Liberia now are under the illusion that they could fight their way out of this while others think they can stall the process by continuing the fight but this will soon be brought to an end." He added that the Nigerian troops are in the last stages of their preparations to be dispatched and they should be on their way to Monrovia by Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the weekend saw some of the heaviest shelling of the war. According to reports from Monrovia, at least 14 people died on Sunday morning when bombs dropped on two houses in the center of town.

The nightmare continues.