Diamonds, War and State Collapse
in Liberia and Sierra Leone
By Tom Kamara
A crawling catastrophe, heightened by persistent rebel wars in West Africa, is the hemorrhage of state collapse spearheaded by Africa's new generation of decision-makers--drugged rebels and con artists now setting the agenda to ensure entrenched poverty while the rest of the world leaps ahead. Liberia, and now Sierra Leone are undergoing state disintegration with serious impact on long-term socioeconomic and political developments. In Marx's prophecy, the state (in these two countries, among the world poorest) is "withering away", not because of his prediction that highly developed socioeconomic and political conditions would make the state unnecessary, but because of banditry and anarchy imposed.
This process of the state withering into the abyss of terror and theft, despite the façade of a "democratically elected" government whose leaders wear Western suits with dangling chains, is being accelerated in Liberia, where traditional political structures have crumbled under the pressure of rebels now transformed through the barrel of the gun as state functionaries. The institution of traditional chieftaincy, then endowed with its own resilient law and order regimes, has been defaced, replaced by the unquestioned authority of the rebel commanders, the new authority figures.
The country's political subdivisions, known as "Counties", are now a reflection of their former self, administered by feared former rebel commanders with no roots in areas of their authority. Disgust and distrust for conventional civil authority has become almost institutionalized, as indicated by the recent arrest of a number of state officials, including a member of the House of Representatives belonging to Taylor's National Patriotic Party, on allegations of plotting to overthrow their own government. The group, which was arrested by former rebel commanders in Foya, Lofa County, during a development meeting, was transferred to Monrovia for further investigations.
Cultural institutions such as the Poro and the Sande have been bastardized beyond recognition, robbed of their substance as once authority entities which brought cohesion and security for many peasants and rural dwellers. To ensure that these institution fall within the President's psyche of lawlessness and disorder, Taylor recently ordered all cabinet ministers to join these societies even if the ministers harbour no beliefs in them. But as all ministers failing to attend a prayer service were dismissed and later rehired, anyone refusing to obey such orders not only loses his/her job, but also must flee the country to avoid other charges, as was the case with leader of the Senate and member of the president's party who escaped to the US following disagreements with President Taylor.
Nevertheless, this process of political decay did not just commence when Taylor became President. This avalanche of disintegration began with the war itself, and stories abound about how rural authority figures were beheaded by rebel commanders, many of them misfits who roamed around, now empowered by the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), the Liberia Peace Council (LPC) and the multiplicity of armed factions that emerged in the brutal contest for loot and influence. In this orgy of tearing down state and social structures, no one was spared once suspected. For example, in the border town of Foya, now a base of operations for Sierra Leone's ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a priest was executed, and his body dissected into several chunks. His ULIMO killers then packed the pieces in a wheelbarrow, according to eyewitnesses, forcing relatives and worshippers to buy the blood-dripping pieces of the priest's body.
In the Mandingo town of Bakedu in 1990, according to survivors, NPFL fighters ordered all the Imams, elders, women and children---the town's people--- to assemble in the town center. Happily and innocently, the people assembled, for they had valid reasons to be happy over the presence of NPFL rebels in their town. Prior to the war, Mr. Samuel Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia, dumped the winner of a paramount chieftaincy election and installed the loser, a favorite but unpopular crony of Mr. Doe's party, Paramount Chief of the chiefdom. So, placing logic on the saying that "the enemy of enemy is my friend", the town's people saw the NPFL as liberators. As far as they were concerned, they thought it was now the dawn of justice. The crooks, including the imposed chief, were now on the run. The future was now firmly theirs, or so they thought. To indicate their appreciation for this day of reckoning (as they imagined), they presented a couple of cows as presents for the "liberators." Suddenly, the commander ordered, "I don't want to see any Mandingo!" The forest-shielded town was immediately consumed by echoes of automatic gun sounds. Women, the old, the very old, children, stumbled on one another in search of safety which was nowhere. There was simply nowhere to run. When the sounds subsided, the town was littered with bodies. Those who attempted to cross the river into Guinea, mainly women, children and the old, drowned, washed by the river into the forest. That was the end of Bakedu, a prosperous town inhabited by Mandingoes and Lormas, as it used to be known. Now hatred and suspicion linger. There are no authority figures left. The rebels, winners of the 1997 elections, are now the new authority figures.
From the onset of the war, it was evident that the NPFL agenda, followed by other factions that emerged later, was to tear down state and social structures. The personality cult built by Taylor, with all authority - the right to life and death tied to him - was to replace these structures. To achieve military victory needed to ensure Taylor's presidency, the NPFL instituted a systematic policy of executing all suspected state authority figures. Chiefs, government officials, including civil servants, were particularly targeted for elimination. Anyone who looked prosperous was an enemy for that matter. Except those spared by Taylor's authority, those like Ernest Eastman and others now in his service, no one was spared. Doctors, teachers, nurses, administrators - all professionals guilty of serving the state - were executed once caught.
There were incentives for these slaughters somehow, incentives comparable to those given a Police officer who issues more violation tickets because there is a bonus at the end of the year. To show sympathy for innocent violators is to throw away the opportunity of a bonus. Thus, for Taylor's rebels, to kill a medical doctor would make the killer a doctor; executing engineers, ministers, etc., created job vacancies for the executioners. Not to kill meant there would be no vacancy once the state fell into the "Papeh's" (Taylor's lap). Even after Taylor was installed member of a State Council as a prelude to elections, his rebels, at the Executive Mansion, sang: "Anybody who nor want Taylor we will kill you like a dog." Yet, ECOWAS, the international community, including former President Jimmy Carter and many others, staunchly believed that under such a scenario, democracy would rise. But for men and women Fanon called the "Wretched of the Earth" now determined to seize the state for which they were executing its functionaries, the message was clear and rewarding. The more you kill real or suspected state officials, the faster the state becomes yours with all its attachments of wealth and power. This message provided the zeal for the slaughter. In retrospect, the promise was fulfilled, now that the new state functionaries are indeed wealthy, buying homes in America and Europe and shipping the latest model of cars. It is this scramble over wealth and influence that is causing "statelessness" in Africa because of the cycle of violence for wealth; today's state officials are tomorrow's target for the thousands of uneducated, unemployed youths, the material periphery of the state, who have been taught that wealth and power come through the barrel of the gun.
In this well-planned state disintegration, not even its economic institutions, which any rational person, (particularly one acclaimed to be a US trained economist as Taylor is,) would have preserved, were spared the orgy. In 1990 at the German-owned company of Bong Mines, the warlord assured the German management that the iron ore mining company would be preserved after Doe assured the Germans that to preserve their investment, government troops would be kept out. But the story would soon be different. The rebels began to "smell" Krahns and Mandingoes. Those employees arrested for being members of these two ethnic groups were pulled aside and shot selectively Nazi-style. The Germans, convinced that the worst was to come, left via Ivory Coast, then serving as a key base for Taylor's operations. The company, one of the main foreign exchange earning establishments, employing thousands of people for decades, disintegrated. The original town, which depended on the company for its growth and survival, has all but withered, along with schools, clinics, and shops, leaving thousands of unemployed people at the mercy of relief agencies. At the time, top NPFL officials, including the rebel "First Family", meaning Taylor's immediate relatives, loyalists, and concubines, initiated the looting of German homes, proud to takeover their personal belongings such as clothing. Bong Mines' lack of escape outlets led Taylor to move his rebel headquarters to Gbarnga which provided several escape routes into his bases in Ivory Coast. The same lunacy of wanton destruction was repeated elsewhere around the country, including at the sprawling Swedish-American iron ore mining company in Nimba (LAMCO) which also employed thousands of people and was a provider of several health and education facilities. It has disappeared.
Now, for a man who decorates walls with posters announcing to visitors that "Liberia is not a country of men but of laws", Taylor has ensured the continued withering of vital state structures as the courts. They simply don't exist in most parts of the country outside Monrovia. The ancient practice of trial by ordeal, (known in Liberia as Sassywood) with torture as its cardinal element of forcing confessions out of the accused, has replaced courts, a point made by the US Department of State in its 1998 Report on Human Rights Practices. Added to this, many lawyers have rejected state appointments outside Monrovia due to incessant attacks on state officials by rebel security men, coupled with poor benefits and the over bearing posture of the Executive in legal affairs. Judicial cases, particularly political ones, are conducted only to fulfill the "gospel", as is the case with a number of Krahn political leaders now in prison on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. They were imprisoned even before charges could cooked up. So was case of arrested Krahn officers after the September 18 Massacre of Krahns by government security in Monrovia. The accused men were executed instead of being tried, with the President announcing that they had attempted an escape during an imagined gun battle. A human rights activists charged with treason for criticizing the government escaped, convinced that the verdict of guilty based on the President's instructions was in the making. The President announced the questionable "escape" of the suspected executioners of Opposition politician Samuel Dokie and three members of his family even before the assassins could be named. Those members of the Presidential Body Guard force who went through a kangaroo trial were acquitted. No one was ever held responsible in this "country of laws and not of men". .
Such culture of crime, sold and accepted as a "respectable" form of politics in this West African sub region, is quickening the fading of state structures now difficult to replace. Once respected authority figures such as, schoolteachers, priests, town and village elders, the local fortuneteller, etc., are now only memories of the glorious past. The centuries old tradition of accepting the authority and wisdom of an elder's verdict, has been replaced with the "wisdom" and authority of armed and drugged rebels. And because many of the new "state officials" are unpaid, they must live off the population. The country's ministry of defense recently announced that many soldiers are abandoning posts to search for a daily living through other means, warning that "Government" must not blame the soldiers if they stepped up the harassment of civilians. Much of the country remains a no go area, and not even Taylor, with all his bravado, dares visit what used to be political sub divisions. Lofa County, once one of the country's main commercial strongholds and breadbaskets, remains isolated and insecure, with the bulk of the population living across the border into Guinea. Inhabitants must rely on dwindling supplies of such items as salt from Guinea, a difficult task since the Guinean border remains close based on Taylor's dictates and due to frequent information of an invasion from Liberia. There are virtually no "state" officials resident in the county, and the task of administering this vital agricultural entity is left with former rebels commanders who earned Taylor's admiration because of their ability to commit atrocities in his name during the war and now. Worried about this security vacuum which has led continuous migration, and concerned about the intense harassment of refugees in the area, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) suggested last year, and Taylor consented, that they deploy their own security force in Lofa County for the purpose of providing badly needed protection for continuously brutalized inhabitants.
In all reality, today's Liberia is at the same point it was when the League of Nations, angry at the terrible treatment meted against the indigenous population by the Americo-Liberian state, proposed to send in white district commissioners and other officials and to place the country under receivership.
Sierra Leone and Diamonds and Statelessness
Fundamental to this process of state collapse ignited, sustained and exported to Sierra Leone, is the economic dimensions tied around diamonds, again the incentives for the horrors perpetrated in the name of politics. Says The Guardian of London: "The worst disaster for Sierra Leone came when the neighboring state of Liberia was transformed from a symbolic one-party state into an essentially criminal polity".
Two years before Mr. Taylor was ordained President by Abacha's Nigeria, (1995) the warlord was handling $500 million worth of diamonds, according to the Canadian group Partnership Africa Canada. It is therefore not difficult to see why West African leaders, international operatives and mediators, and many Liberian politicians, refused to see the larger dangers in promoting and selling the warlord as the best hope for peace, not only in Liberia, but in the sub region. Only highly compromised individuals (and there are no shortages of such in Africa) could not have seen that a President Taylor meant the intensification of the war in Sierra Leone with larger regional implications.
"Support of the RUF was part of this strategy (of smuggling the diamonds and military protecting the mines). The diamond profits sustained both Mr. Taylor and the RUF, and the RUF kept much of the diamond area out of the government's control", The London Guardian reflects on those early years, the 1990s.
Sierra Leone's disintegration is perhaps the worst, since there are in effect two governments operating side by side. The rebels, backed by Taylor, control the nerve center of the country's economy, the diamond creeks and much of the rural areas where they have set up their own administrations and are engaged in looting of private coffee, cocoa farms, etc.. Johnny Paul Koroma, the coup leader who spent a lot of time with Taylor after his ouster by ECOMOG, now says peace in his country is inconceivable without President Kabbah reaching an agreement with President Taylor. "I don't know what he (Taylor) wants but the only way to move forward is for him and the president (Kabbah) to sit down and sort things out," he told the United Nations Integrated Information Network (IRIN). Are we witnessing the gradual evolution of Taylor as President of indeed "Greater Liberia", that is Sierra Leone as an appendage state of Liberia in the criminal orbit?
Most forms of state authority as instituted in Sierra Leone before and during the British colonial period, such as the respected and ingrained chieftaincy system, have withered away. To guarantee this, tactics of terror used in Liberia have been perfected in Sierra Leone. Says Mr. Koroma, who worked with the rebels in seizing the state but now presents himself as a decent alternative. "I think they (RUF) got their indoctrination from the Liberian war (in which the RUF participated in support of Taylor's NPFL faction)." He said in reference to the wave of amputations and killings that have left over 70,000 dead.
Outside Freetown, said one expert recently on the BBC, there is no state. Thus even after the end of the atrocities, the most challenging task in re-establishing state authority as Liberia has shown, is a respectable and humane security environment. This cannot be done simply buying new uniforms for rebels who demonstrated their ability to wage unmitigated terror. Such will heighten insecurity, as in the case of Liberia, and will lead to more state collapse. Furthermore, Liberia has shown that merely conducting an election as an easy way out of the conflict only breeds more instability, particularly when those responsible for social and economic decay are the ones left in charge of the state, determining its direction which, as we see in Liberia with implications for Sierra Leone, is geared towards cementing a criminal empire. Lets us listen to the Telegraph of London: "Liberia is now the hub of the diamonds-for-arms trade that is driving the Sierra Leonean civil war and has dragged British troops into the region. In a world of shadowy South African, Israeli and Ukrainian businessmen who pass through Monrovia, gems flow out of Sierra Leone through Liberia; eastern European weapons bought with the proceeds make the reverse journey.
"The diamonds are mined by children abducted by the RUF and driven across the rebel-controlled border into Liberia along rutted dirt tracks. Their first destination is the central town of Gbarnga, a Taylor stronghold where the president has a large farm and the base of his Anti-Terrorism Unit, the private army that grew out of the NPFL. The gems are then transported, often by helicopter, to Monrovia. Using executive jets loaned by his mentor, Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi, Mr. Taylor and his entourage ferry out suitcases of rough Sierra Leonean gems on presidential trips overseas. Middlemen deliver the stones to the traditional diamond capital of Antwerp in Belgium, and increasingly to Tel Aviv where they are cut, polished and sold.
"Although Liberian officials deny their involvement (in the plundering of Sierra Leone's economy) they are unable to explain the glaring discrepancies in industry figures - namely, that Liberia exports about 100 times more diamonds than experts believe its fields could produce. Mr. Taylor has made a fortune from his share of the profits, while his people grind out a living in one of the world's poorest countries. In the fashion of African tyrants, he has reportedly stashed funds in secret bank accounts and recently bought himself a European bolthole, an Italian villa. "You cannot just treat the man like that regardless of what he may have done", Taylor said in Monrovia recently.
"However, he rules over a desperately poor land. Monrovia is a shabby dirt-strewn city plunged into near-total darkness at night by 12-hour electricity cuts. "If you ever doubted this country was the heart of darkness, just wait for nightfall," joked one American voluntary worker." Despite their suffering, President Taylor sees it as his mission to inspire his people to greater things and his Big Brother-style sayings are plastered across the capital. "Think Big" he declares on the billboard outside his mansion THE CRISIS in Sierra Leone has thrown into sharp relief the role of President Charles Taylor of Liberia, a brutal but pragmatic power-broker who holds the key to peace.
"He has helped to organise the release of more than 130 United Nations peacekeepers held hostage by Sierra Leonean rebels. Yet Sierra Leone's chaos is largely Mr. Taylor's work. His takeover of Liberia is the model being followed by the rebels. It was Mr. Taylor who, when seeking to overthrow the then Liberian president, Samuel Doe, devised the brutal tactics of using drugged children as soldiers, terrorizing civilians, financing the war by exploiting diamonds and kidnapping peacekeepers.
"After seven years of civil war, the 52-year-old Boston-educated economics graduate was elected president in 1997. Liberia remains the main conduit for arms to Sierra Leone's rebels and for diamonds smuggled out of its rebel-held territories. Observers say there is growing evidence that the rebel field commander, Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, has split from Foday Sankoh and is working with Mr. Taylor.
"He was 'thinking big' when he helped Sankoh found the RUF - a move that gave him access to Sierra Leone's diamond wealth and an ally across the border. The two men became friends in the Eighties when they trained together at one of Col. Gaddafi's desert camps for African revolutionaries in Libya. Two years after launching his bloody NPFL insurrection in 1989, the RUF was set up under Liberian field commanders".
"Whatever real political content the RUF may once have had, and many would say it never had more than a fraudulent program, it is strong in Sierra Leone mainly because of the replication of evil technique that it brought with it from Liberia nine years ago.
This leads to other dimensions of the causalities of state crumbling pursued by criminals elevated to power with the blessings and backing of men regarded as global moral authorities, men like former US President Jimmy Carter. West Africa's ongoing decay can only be understood if one tries to understand the level of decay springing up due to the new element of crime as a political tool and the role, whether knowingly or through strange credulity, played by key men and women that have the world's ears in the transformation of the "Lost Continent". We must remember that it was Mr. Carter who, among others, deep in the Liberian crisis, sold Taylor as a reasonable, nationalistic "family man a man of God" who Liberians, in their stupidity and selfishness, failed to understand and therefore to appreciate. Those who failed to see the usefulness of Taylor as a political leader on a continent already saturated with criminals as presidents, in Mr. Carter's mind, were simply out of their mind. As far as he was concerned, he announced on the eve of Taylor's declared presidential victory, such things as the criminalization of politics, heightened human right abuses, were "inconceivable." But not only have such things become "conceivable", they have become part and parcel of life in West Africa and the implications, in terms of state and economic collapse, are just too ghastly to contemplate. Long after Mr. Carter, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Donald Payne, Herman Cohen, Ramsey Clark. etc., are gone, West Africa will be left with the devastating footprints of their salesmanship of con men they so successfully presented as nationalists.
In Liberia, (as in Sierra Leone) a country with not so enviable educational structures even before the war, an entire generation of young men and women remain illiterate. Those who were 10 years old at the beginning of the war are now 18 and illiterate. Many born since the cessation of hostilities have not seen a classroom. The University of Liberia, by conventional standards, cannot qualify as a high school as educational structures around the country crumble. Thus the "future leaders", (as Liberian youths consider themselves from early ages) will be liabilities not only to themselves, but also to society. Building or sustaining a state in which illiterates dominate in this millennium will pose a debilitating challenge, a challenge so monumental when one sees the entangling ropes of debts around the necks of many African states and notes the thieves who have been propelled to power by selfish men, are grossly incapable of understanding what lies ahead. Ivory Coast, the country which provided the foundations for the current wave of destabilization in West Africa by callously providing territory, logistics to Taylor, owes $14 billion. Angola, still suffering from Cold War policies, owes $12.2 billion. Criminalized Liberia owes over $3 billion. All in all, sub-Saharan African countries owe $200 billion, 3 times their national export, according to reports. Yet, the political landscape to even contemplate a solution is lacking, with criminals like Charles Taylor as heads of state.
A new scramble for Africa has just begun. But the competitors are not the colonialists this time. They are international and local criminals determined to plunder the continent regardless of the human cost.
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