The Liberian War: A Modern Humanitarian Crisis Essay, Research Paper
The Liberian War: A Modern Humanitarian Crisis
Professor Barry Stein
It is my intention in this paper to provide a historical background to the Liberian war, its historical origins, the factions involved, the refugee and displaced populations created by it across the region, and the regional and international communities reaction to it. Using the Liberian situation as a reference point I intend to then conclude with a relevant discussion of the topic of weak and failed states, modern refugee crises in and around them, and some of the tactics and policies adopted by the international community over the last 10 years in response.
The Liberian political-social dilemma and war embodies much of what has become characteristic of today’s weak state humanitarian crises. A country with a conflictual formation and history, having experienced a great deal of political and institutional instability, and having historical ethnic cleavages, the state of Liberia erupted in 1989 into war. As a result almost any trace of civil organization and authority has ceased to exist. The war has numerous actors and factions, persecutions and murders based on ethnic identity alone, killing and brutality directed upon civilian populations, and it has been protracted seemingly without any end.
In response to these kinds of conflicts new procedures and trends have arisen among the governmental and international actors within the world community. In Liberia the intervention force called the ECOWAS -Cease Fire Monitoring Group(ECOMOG), is one such example. The Peace keeping force, made of soldiers of members of the Economic Community of West African States, intervened in 1990 to monitor the cease fire between warring factions. From the very beginning the neutrality of the force was questioned by leaders of the various warring factions. The troops were engaged by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Liberia(NPFL) immediately upon arrival. The leaders of ECOMOG soon realized how difficult a neutral military intervention is. It is difficult for a force to maintain neutrality after getting involved in the fighting. This is something ECOMOG has done and often in an offensive position. Originally labeled as a “Cease Fire Monitoring” group it became apparent that “it would have to establish a cease fire by force before it could begin to monitor it”(Wippman 166).
The intervention of ECOMOG forces also sparks debate about the principle of sovereignty even in a country where no authority seems to exist. Charles Taylor claimed from the start that the armed intervention was illegal and members of ECOWAS such as Cote d’ivour and Senegal were opposed to the intervention as an overstepping of the body’s(ECOWAS) bounds( Adisa 220). There were also claims that the ECOMOG intervention violated the OAU’s noninterference rule. In the terms of charters and mandates of organizations such as the UN, The OAU and ECOWAS, armed intervention and the legality of it is not always clear. Wars such as Liberia have challenged actors within the international community to debate the principles of sovereignty and the conditions necessary for armed intervention to take place.
As shown in Somalia, Bosnia and Liberia, there are further complications aside from issues of legality in regards to outside forces intervening in regional conflicts. It is questionable as to how much they can do to protect the civilians and slow the war. Even if they can continue to be seen as neutral, the war could continue indefinitely requiring foreign governments to put troops in harms way for long lengths of time. ECOMOG forces have been in Liberia for almost five years now and although some progress has been made, the warring parties continue to fight. When ECOWAS and ECOMOG came close to negotiating a peace settlement in 1990, the result was only a political stalemate which gave another faction, the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy(ULIMO), a chance to organize itself and start a military offensive. It is still to be seen if a successful procedure for armed intervention can be found. For those that debate the issues of intervention as an option in regional conflicts David Wippman(160) writes that the ECOWAS intervention illustrates one obvious point: “it is easier to get in than to get out.”
The Liberian war is also an example of a non-classical refugee situation. The actors are not governments or states, most often they are incompetent teenagers on drugs wielding Ak-47s. Those fleeing do not fit the criteria laid out by the 1951 convention on refugees and the following protocol. Although the more liberal definition of the Organization of African States does apply; the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR) is still governed by its own mandate.
Over 1 million of those uprooted in 1993, more than the total number of Liberian refugees in other countries, were internally displaced(U.S. Committee 58). They were not seeking asylum in another country because of a well founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Most fit the “the victim” category described by Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo(269). These are people simply fleeing violence, that threatens their lives very abruptly. Their plight is not planned or organized, it is sudden. They may awake one day to hear soldiers three houses down killing or torturing someone so they flee in any way possible. The Liberian war has created scattered bands of refugees and displaced persons across the entire region. It gets very confusing sometimes. There are Liberians in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Cote d’ivoire and Sierra Leone. There are internally displaced within Sierra Leone, Sierra Leoneans in Liberia, and Liberians that were refugees in Sierra Leone but have crossed back over and are now internally displaced within Liberia.
From the standpoint of those organizations trying to assist these populations the nature of the refugee populations created by the Liberian war creates many challenges. As in many recent refugee crises around the world, there arises the question of mandates and just how far they extend. The UNHCR has continually had to extend the outreach of its mandate. In Liberia they have had to distribute aid to internally displaced people and also make sure that they are protected. With so many factions holding different parts of the country it makes it difficult to distribute relief in a uniform fashion. ICRC and UNHCR workers have been denied entrance many times into areas such as the Nimba region in Northern Liberia(In Liberia A2, A3). Because of this many vulnerable populations are not reached. The nature of the war also makes it difficult for these organizations to work simply for the reason of safety. ICRC delegates, have been both killed and wounded within Liberia. The ICRC UNHCR, along with many other NGO’s, have had to cease operations numerous times within Liberia because it was no longer safe for their workers to operate(ICRC Returns 1).
Safe areas such as churches have been attacked by factions seeking reprisals against a target ethnic group and large numbers of people including assistance workers have been killed(Liberia: willful slaughter. 3). Little repatriation has been allowed to occur throughout the war and refugee populations have not significantly decreased throughout the 6 years. In correlation with the protracted conflict in Liberia, the international organizations such as UNHCR and the ICRC find themselves in a protracted relief situation in dangerous conditions.
The Liberian war illustrates the challenges that the international community, the actors in the region, and the human populations face in the wake of a weak-state conflict. It is a tremendous challenge for international aid organizations and governments to react to, it is difficult for other states to intervene militarily and the extreme brutality imposed on the local populations puts increasing pressure on the international community to do both these things
Prelude To War
Much of Liberia’s turmoil can be traced back to the state’s origins. In 1822 a small group of emancipated slaves settled in what is now Monrovia. The movement was sponsored by the American Colonization Society and financed in part by the administration of President James Monroe(Liebenow 12). The idea was to settle freed slaves in Africa. The motives of the AMC and its the resettlement movement were varied. Some saw resettlement as a mechanism for ridding Northern and Southern cities of a class they did not think could be successfully integrated into the American “Melting Pot”(13). Others such as southern planters feared that a high number of freed blacks would create a symbolic threat to the institution of slavery(13). There were also religious leaders wanting to use Liberia as a beachhead to spread Christianity(14).
The lieutenant representing the American Colonization Society, John Stockton, reportedly forced the local King at gunpoint into selling the land for Monrovia for approximately $300 dollars worth of beads, tobacco, mirrors, food and rum(Beyan 66). Much as a result of this coercion, Monrovia was created in 1822. Those former slaves that settled Monrovia became known as the Americo-Liberians. Tensions grew between the new settlers and the local populations as the settlers continued to take more land and at the same time forced members of the local population into positions of field hands.
The settlers also imposed forms of government similar to those of the United States(Liebenow 16). In the beginning the settlers were under the rule of white governors appointed by the ACS; but in 1847 they broke ties with the ACS and proclaimed Liberia an independent state(16).
The new Liberians sought to adopt many of the symbols of government of the United States. They established a Republican form of government with executive, judicial and legislative branches similar to those of the United States. They also adopted an American flag and currencies resembling those of the United States(Beyan 95). Surprisingly the settlers adopted many of the attitudes from the U.S. that had helped to enslave them. As written by David Wippman(160), “The Americo Liberians also recreated the social hierarchy they had experienced in the anti-bellum South, but with themselves as the socially dominant, landowning class.” He continues: ” They considered the indigenous population primitive and uncivilized and treated it as little more than an abundant source of forced labor.”
Despite the fact that they only constituted 5% of the population, for the next 130 years the Americo-Liberians controlled the country’s economic, political and social life. The indigenous Africans were regarded as second class citizens and most lived in the interior regions largely unexplored until the 1900’s( Sesay 30, 31). During the 1920’s the Liberian government raised funds by providing “contract laborers” to plantation owners in Spanish-held islands off the coast of Africa(Liebenow 47, 48, 49). These laborers were usually forced members of the indigenous population. In 1930 the league of nations found the Liberian government guilty of promoting a form of slavery(56). A League report in 1931, described Liberia as a “Republic of 12,000 citizens with 1,000,000 subjects”(Wippman 161).
In 1944 President William V.S. Tubman took office and implemented a “Unification Policy,” that was aimed at integrating the indigenous population into the Liberia’s economic and political life (Liebenow 60). Tubman’s “Open Door” policy opened up much of Liberia’s interior to the development of business and industry. This gave rise to the Firestone rubber industry and plant in the Nimba region of Liberia. Under Tubman’s policies the indigenous people’s situation was improved but the dominance of the Americo-Liberians was not diminished(Liebenow 70).
Tubman held office until his death in 1971 and was succeeded by William R. Tolbert. Tolbert’s tenure was characterized by corruption and unrest. Organized opposition also began to rise during the Tolbert years. There were riots in 1979 over the government’s decision to raise the price of rice of rice by over 50% (Leibenow 170). The average monthly income at the time was $80 dollars and the price increase put the price of a bag of rice at around $30 dollars(170). Many farmers perceived the price increase as disadvantageous to themselves and advantageous to President Tolbert and his agriculture industry(Ruiz 6).
The demonstrations became violent when a crowd of some 10,000 unemployed migrants from the interior began looting stores and rice ware-houses (Ruiz 4). During the police response, more than 40 people were reportedly killed and 500 injured(4). Tolbert’s leadership became so alarmed that it called upon president Sekou Toure to dispatch Guinean troops to restore order( Liebenow 172). The situation became such that many observers were concerned that “any group of determined protesters could… have stormed the Executive Mansion and brought about the fall of the Tolbert regime”(172).
Shortly after the rice riots Tolbert was overthrown in a coup lead my Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Doe and a unit of the Liberian National Guard forced their way into the government mansion tied Tolbert and most of his government ministers to telephone poles in the capital, murdered them and dumped them in mass graves(186). Thirteen other cabinet ministers were tried and executed on television. Upon taking power Doe suspended the constitution and imposed martial law. The new president had promised to combat corruption and to redistribute wealth among the country’s sixteen recognized ethnic groups(Ruiz 4).
A member of the Krahn tribe, Doe elevated members of his own ethnicity to high positions in the government and more importantly in the military(Liebenow 168). The military and the police under the Doe regime were known for their flagrant human rights abuses(Sesay 45). There were reports of looting, arson, arbitrary arrests, and rapes. He vowed to return the country to civilian rule, lifted the ban on political activities and scheduled elections for the following year( Ruiz 4) . The elections took place on October 15, 1985 . When the first election results showed that Doe would lose heavily, Doe’s supporters changed the established vote counting process and substituted their own. The elections were criticized by outside observers as having been rigged and a month after the elections there was a failed coup attempt(Liebenow 293, 294). The U.S. surprisingly validated the election results and supported Doe with substantial amounts of aid-money throughout the 1980’s.
Inter-ethnic tensions among Liberia’s indigenous populations exploded in the wake of the coup attempt. The leader of the attempted coup was a member of the Gio, living in the Nimba county. Krahn soldiers rounded up hundreds of Gios and Manos, tortured them and then dumped their bodies into mass graves near the beach in Monrovia(Sensay 46). The seeds of the war had been planted. It was no surprise that the International Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights reported in 1986 that “Liberia is rife with talk of revenge ” and predicted correctly that “The possibility of massive reprisals against the Krahn if President Doe is violently removed from power is conceded by all sides”(Ruiz 5).
Outbreak Of War
In December of 1989 Charles Taylor invaded Nimba County with a few hundred men. Their force had been trained and backed by Libya. Taylor who served in Doe’s government had fled to the U.S. after being accused of embezzlement. He evaded authorities when extradition agreements had been arranged and then disappeared for some time until he ended up in Libya(Sesay 47). Taylor and his group called themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia(NPFL). The Armed Forces of Liberia(AFL) retaliated against Gio and Mano elements of the civilian population in Nimba county. Hundreds of Gio and Mano civilians were massacred and the outrage of those that survived encouraged them to join forces with Charles Taylor(Ruiz 5 ). This created the climate for much of the ethnic conflict and massacres that followed in the war.
In response to the AFL actions, members of the Krahn and Mandingo tribes were attacked by the NPFL. The Krahn were attacked because of their affiliation with Doe and the military and the Mandingo were attacked because of their perceived alliance with the government. Thus the ethnic based civil war had begun.
Taylor’s small scale incursion quickly spread to countrywide inter-ethnic war. Taylor’s recruits, often young boys in their teens, had taken control of Nimba county within one month(French 1,2). The fighting spread rapidly as Taylor gained new recruits. He quickly gained control of county after county and by March 1990, 120,000 refugees had fled to the countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote-d’ivour(Noble A4).
By July 1990 Taylor’s forces reached the capital of Monrovia and demanded the resignation of president Doe.
The Liberian war was characterized from the very beginning by extreme brutality against civilian populations. In many cases civilians have been targeted and massacred by the different military factions. Their were reports of physical abuse, rape, mutilations, people forced to eat their own body parts, elderly being burned alive in their huts and unborn babies being ripped out of mother’s stomach’s with bayonets(Ruiz 5). As the war raged on in the early month many civilians either fled to Sierra Leone or sought refuge in churches and other buildings. These too became targets.
On July 30, 1990, AFL soldiers entered St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which was a designated Red Cross shelter with approximately 2000 people of Gio and Mano dissent. The soldiers opened fire on the civilians killing 200 to 300 people(Willful Slaughter 3). Many of the survivors fled to the former U.S. Agency for International Development compound. AFL soldiers later stormed the compound, captured more than 350 people, and reportedly shot them on a nearby beach(Aderiye 115). The war has been characterized by numerous such slaughters killing Liberians, foreigners and aid-workers. The military leaders have been mostly responsible for generating ethnic attacks and reprisals. Amnesty International and Africa Watch reported in 1991 that General Doe had ordered a shoot to kill policy against anyone engaged in “suspicious activities”(Noble A9). Many times this has translated into anyone suspicious of belonging to the wrong ethnic group. Rebel forces have also often gone on killing sprees into Krahn territories attacking and killing unarmed civilians. High civilian losses and victimization have come to be typical of weak state or ethnic wars. Liberia proves this well. The conservative death toll in 1994 placed the number killed in the war at an estimated 150,000(French 2 ).
By the end of July 1990, Charles Taylor’s force had fought its way into the capital. There was also a splinter faction, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), lead by a break away Taylor lieutenant, Prince Johnson. With 500 fighters, Johnson had successfully taken over a section of Monrovia by the end of July(Liberians A2). The situation in the capital became desperate. President Doe was holed up in his government mansion protected by only a few hundred troops. Throughout July and August there were major battles within the capital. AFL, NPFL and INPFL troops were said to brutalize the local population. There were reports of rebels dressed in bizarre wigs and costumes indiscriminately killing anyone suspected of being a Doe supporter(Liberians A3). Prince Johnson was photographed personally executing civilians, including a Liberian Red Cross worker who was handcuffed to a French relief worker(Ruiz 7).
With the UN and U.S. not committing to any intervention the Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS) were pressured to act. Thousands of Liberians had fled to different member states such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’ivour, and hundreds of nationals from ECOWAS states, were trapped without food, water, shelter or medicine. In August of 1990 foreign nationals from ECOWAS states and abroad were refused permission to leave Charles Taylor held territory(Rebel A3). ECOWAS, consisting of 13 member states, has traditionally had differences in levels of political and economic development and also between many of the francophone and anglophone states. Under a 1978 protocol member states that can not resolve an intra-community dispute peacefully are to submit such disputes to the ECOWAS heads of state for resolution(Wippman 166). The protocol only dealt with aggression between or among signatory states and did not address aggression coming from within. Under the protocol member states were to provide military assistance in the case of external aggression.
Upon meeting for a conference on the Liberian war in Freetown, in early August 1990, the attending heads of state called for all of the parties to obey an immediate cease fire and announced that an ECOWAS cease firing monitoring group(ECOMOG) would be established in Liberia “for the purpose of keeping the peace, restoring law and order and ensuring that the cease-fire is respected”(Wippman 167). It was not exactly clear how the force was supposed to monitor a cease fire that did not exist. This meant that they would have to enforce a cease fire therefore getting involved in the fighting. There were criticisms of the intervention by members within ECOWAS such as Mali, Togo and Burkina Faso which criticized the intervention as violation of a sovereign countries affairs(Adisa 217). There were also criticisms from members of the warring factions such as Charles Taylor. For the most part the international community including the Organization of African States (OAU) has cautiously approved the force. ECOMOG was the second half of what was to be a two part effort in Liberia. Through diplomatic means the members of the ECOWAS would push for a peace settlement in the Liberian war and ECOMOG would then supervise and maintain a cease fire(Akabogu 83, 84, 85). The force was to originally avoid military engagements. Leaders had hoped that the mere presence of the Ecomog contingent would force Charles Taylor to agree to a peace fire and the ECOMOG force would then be able to keep its peace-keeping role.
Upon arrival the ECOMOG forces were attacked by Charles Taylor’s forces and saw quickly that it would be difficult not to get in involved in the fighting. On his way to a meeting scheduled at ECOMOG headquarters, Charles Doe was capture and killed by Prince Johnson’s troops(Liberia’s A2). Despite Doe’s death no one faction was able to claim power and the fighting continued.
Within one month ECOMOG had developed into an offensive force. In October 1990, ECOMOG forces started an offensive campaign to push Charles Taylor’s NPFL out of the Monrovia( Barret 34 ). Often fighting side by side with INFPL and AFL forces, ECOMOG was able to push Taylor’s forces out of Monrovia by the end of October. ECOMOG secured the capital, freed thousands of civilians and foreign nationals trapped within Liberia and made it safe once again for relief agencies to begin their work in Monrovia. In November of 1990 an interim government was established and a former University professor, Amos Sawyer was installed as interim president(French 2).
With the ECOMOG intervention and the establishment of an interim government the war did not come to a stop. From 1990 on ECOWAS has tried to bring about cease-fire arrangements failing many times with Charles Taylor refusing to participate. The Conotou agreements of 1992 and Accra agreement of 1995 both collapsed with new outbreaks of fighting. Amidst ECOWAS’s attempts for a peace settlement through negotiations with the warring factions the conflict widened and new militias sprouted up adding to the complications.
The war expanded in 1991 into Sierra Leone, further adding to the instability of the region. NPFL forces joined forces with Sierra Leone dissidents and invaded the country in March. The invasion was seen as a retaliation by Taylor for Sierra Leone’s support for ECOMOG. From 1991 on it is difficult to track the actors in the Liberian war. ECOMOG has had continued skirmishes with the NPFL and other factions, there have been 29 failed cease fires, and it is very difficult to track the number of small militias roaming the country.
Although ECOMOG has succeeded to a great extent in protecting and allowing humanitarian assistance to the civilian population it has still had no great success in stopping the root of Liberia’s turmoil, the war itself. Because of questions over ECOMOG’s neutrality, the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia was created in 1992. Its function is to supervise the negotiation of a cease-fire and disarmament of all sides.
In December of 1994, a cease fire was agreed upon by the warring factions. Upon success of the cease fire, plans were made by UNOMIL and UNHCR for the disarmament of the warring factions and the repatriation of refugees. Except for low level skirmishes, the cease fire held through the early months of the year. In early April of 1995, there were reports of fighting between new factions in five different counties. The fighting has created a new influx of refugees to the ECOWAS areas(United Nations 1995: 7). In addition to the new fighting, the governments of Tanzania and Uganda have announced the withdrawal of their troops from ECOMOG forces. Nigeria also announced a downsizing of their forces in late 1994(French 1).
With the recent resurgence of conflict and continued movement of refugees and displaced as a result of it, it is hard to judge where the Liberian peace process stands. After almost five years of efforts by the regional and world diplomatic communities, the fighting in Liberia continues. The United Nations reports that the peace keeping operation is economically burdened and funds have had to be borrowed to sustain it. The total assessment of contributions to all peace keeping operations as of March 28, 1995 was $1,663 million(United Nations 1995: 3). With continued fighting, economic and political constraints and new military factions, it is questionable as to how long the commitment will remain. There is a chance that the actors involved may act as the U.N. did in Somalia; unwilling to continue peace keeping operations and leaving the warring factions to fight it out amongst themselves.
Civilian Movements, Tragedy and The International and Local Response
As a result of the war 85% of Liberia’s citizens have become refugees or displaced persons within their own country(Update 2) . Their situation has been one of hardship and difficulty. Often becoming a deliberate target of the war, these people have faced massacres from the beginning of the war and there are still reports of targeted killing of civilians by military factions. Many of the refugees or displaced persons caused by the Liberian war have not been able to reach assistance offered by the international community. This has occurred either because they have not been able to reach the safe or aid distribution areas because of fighting or detention or the relief agencies have not been allowed or could not get to vulnerable groups because of violence or refusal of passage by military authorities.
The refugee situation in Liberia has also been of a continous nature. Because of the continued reconfiguration of actors and territories in the war the refugee situation has not been able to reach a leveling off. In 1993 the IFRC estimated that the total number of refugees and displaced person caused by the Liberian civil war was 2,050,000(Update 1). At different times repatriations have occurred but it is questionable as to whether they were successful because many of these people are suspected as having to flee again because of renewed fighting. In 1994 some 775,000 Liberians refugees had fled their country and an estimated 1,000,000 were said to be internally displaced(Liberia 2). In addition to the Liberian refugees and displaced, there were also 260,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, 100,000 in Liberia and an estimated 400,000 displaced(U.S. Committee 65). Country breakdowns are as follows:
Liberia: 100,000 Sierra Leoneans refugees
Sierra Leone: 16,000 Liberian Refugees
Cote d’ivoire: 360,000 Liberian Refugees
Guinea: 375,000 Liberian refugees
200,000 Sierra Leonean refugees
Ghana: 20,000 Liberian refugees
Nigeria: 4,000 Liberian refugees
UNHCR reported that about 50,000 Liberian refugees repatriated in 1993, 1994 but it is estimated that most of these refugees have fled because of renewed fighting late in 1994(U.S. Committee 58).
There are a number of different organizations that have worked at assisting the refugee and displaced populations in the various countries affected by the war. Both the UNHCR and either the ICRC or the IFRC has been working in each country affected by the war. The local Red Cross Societies have also been very active in aiding and assisting refugees and displaced. Some of the other organizations working in the region are UNICEF, The World Food Program, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, Reli