"When Elephants Fight": Hapless Liberians Caught in a Triangle of International Diplomatic Intrigue

William E. Allen, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 25, 2003

As the world waits for the United States Government, the United Nations and West African heads of state to resolve conflicting differences over sending troops to Liberia, the innocent Liberian, never party to either the actual war or the ongoing triangle of international diplomatic fiasco is indeed the true victim. The saying, "when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers," became alarmingly clear when I tried to assure my nervous teenage niece in Monrovia on Wednesday via a cellular phone that the peacekeepers might still arrive. In a tense, unsettled voice, she mumbled, "Uncle Big Boy, I am afraid;" she and others remain at the mercy of ruthless killers of government and rebel fighters.

For the past month, Liberians have been led to believe that peacekeepers, consisting of soldiers of West African nations (ECOWAS), supported by UN forces and reinforced by a contingent of United States fighters would intervene to maintain the fragile peace that occasionally prevailed in war-torn Monrovia. Although past experience has many Liberians uneasy about a second involvement of ECOWAS in the conflict, nevertheless, they were euphoric. The presence of the Americans, the people that Liberians seem to inexplicably admire, could definitely check the excess of the African peacekeepers. Moreover, who would dare challenge the might of the strongest army on the face of the earth! Liberians were further ecstatic when President George Bush of the United States sent the assessment team to Monrovia. The major news networks in the US showed Liberians dancing as they rapturously followed the Americans around like flies behind the African bovine. My family, including the teenage Naomi, joined the celebration in their neighborhood chanting "The Americans Are Coming!" Today, joy has turned to fear as the Americans once again evacuate their citizens while rockets fall indiscriminately. Meanwhile, President Bush reassures Liberians that he is "monitoring the situation," as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expresses grave concern and ECOWAS leaders promise that the troops will arrive "next week." Some Liberians, out of frustration and bitter disappointment, have unloaded another mound of dead bodies at the gate of the US Embassy in Monrovia; others are asking why the Americans always let them down. The following is my non-pidgin version, which I explained to Naomi, for why the peacekeepers have not shown up.

Differences in priorities in Washington, New York and Ghana intermingled with political considerations have kept American troops along with the other peacekeepers, away from Liberia. In Washington, the Bush administration is uneasy about sending American soldiers for a number of reasons. First, the specter of Somalis dragging American dead soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 is a reminder to Mr. Bush that the unfortunate incident could be repeated in Liberia. In spite of Liberians’ adoration for Americans, reported by CNN and Fox news teams in Monrovia, and the apparent welcome by all the warring factions, the president remains hesitant to commit US troops. Second, sending soldiers to Liberia during this political season might hurt Mr. Bush’s reelection bid since he openly criticized then President Bill Clinton for using the army for nation-building around the world. In fact, Democratic presidential aspirants are already accusing Mr. Bush of overspending to rebuild Iraq (estimated at 3.9 billion monthly). In addition, the president is acutely aware that should the US take the leading role it is being urged to do in the Liberian peacekeeping mission, he might be saddled with another bill; even his faithful conservative base is getting nervous with the growing federal budget deficit. Finally, Mr. Bush is piqued that the very UN, particularly France, which embarrassed him with its opposition to regime change in Iraq, is now pestering him to get rid of Liberia’s notorious, indicated president, Charles Taylor. So, although President Bush assured Liberians and the entire world at every stop during his African safari that he was committed to send the troops, the political reality back in Washington might prevent him from doing that. My guess is he will continue to "monitor the situation" until ECOWAS and the UN accept a relatively minor role for the Americans.

For its part, the UN is haunted by the 1994 mass killing in Rwanda, which critics claimed it failed to prevent. From his headquarters in New York, Kofi Annan, like the international humanitarian organizations, is convinced that unless peacekeepers are dispatched immediately, Liberia may implode and unleash a massive catastrophe. But the UN does not have the resources to foot the bill for the peacekeeping mission. And as the Bush administration and Republicans are wont to point out, the UN has a poor record of peacekeeping. Even with the declared support of the European Union, the UN still needs American money and muscle in Liberia. Until something dramatic happens (e.g., the capture of Saddam Hussein or a public apology from the recalcitrant French), the US is not likely to see eye to eye with the UN on the Liberian crisis. For example, following the much anticipated meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Annan last week on the Liberian crisis, the president told reporters that the US is still "monitoring the situation."

In my view, ECOWAS heads of state-with specific reference to President John Kufuor of Ghana and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria-(who are the last side of the triangle of intrigue) present the most conspicuous and bedeviling obstacle to deploying the peacekeepers in Liberia. Both men have undermined their positions as fair brokers in the ongoing negotiations in Ghana, by their obvious show of support for the disreputable and sadistic Charles Taylor. Under the guise of "African culture," (appropriately "African crooked political culture") the two men have failed to publicly condemn this pariah. It does not help matters when rumors in West African capitals claimed that Taylor shared some of his blood-diamond money with Kufuor and Obasanjo. Sadly, these men have the fate of Liberia in their discredited hands. Their unsavory role in the Taylor debacle has alienated the few good West African leaders and some in the European Union. As a result, it is strongly believed that an African leader has promised to contribute to the peacekeeping force only if the Americans are solidly on board.

Meantime, in Washington, New York and Ghana the maneuvering goes on as the political elephants look to extract concessions before sending the peacekeepers. Bush continues to "monitor the situation"; Annan is gravely distressed; ECOWAS is deploying peacekeepers "next week." In the end, however, those who suffer are the unfortunate Liberians like Naomi, the grass under the stomping feet of the elephants. In her faint, frightened voice, Naomi whispered that the household food had run out.

And although they have some money, there was no food to buy.

About the Author: Dr. William E. Allen teaches US and World History at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, Georgia.