Liberia - Behind the warring factions: imperialist plunder and regional rivalries

Sep/Oct 2003

The civil war in Liberia has been and remains one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars. Not only has it plagued Liberia itself for almost two decades. It has also engulfed neighbouring Sierra Leone for a whole decade and seriously threatened the political stability of a string of other West African countries. Above all, it has caused, directly or indirectly, the death of hundreds of thousands (some estimates put this figure at 8% of Liberia's 2.4m population, not counting the casualties in Sierra- Leone). Tens of thousands have been atrociously maimed by the warring factions. And several million children, women and men have been reduced to harrowing destitution, as refugees, either in their own countries or in neighbouring countries.

Today, Western governments claim that this vicious war is coming to an end thanks to their efforts, following the departure of Liberia's president-dictator Charles Taylor.

Towards the end of the civil war?

On 11th August, in a last-ditch attempt to save his regime from total collapse, Taylor handed in his resignation and fled to a luxurious exile in the Nigerian resort of Calabar. One week later, Taylor's ruling gang and the two other main armed factions signed an agreement in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. The warlords agreed to an immediate cease fire and to hand over their weapons as soon as practicable (although the way this is to be achieved has been left open). The agreement also provided for the setting up of a transitional government made up of a dubious assortment of "representatives of civil society" (meaning former ministers in past dictatorships and other corrupted politicians) together with "civilian representatives" of the three warring factions. This transitional government is supposed to prepare the ground for "democratic" elections by 2005.

Washington and London seized upon these developments to boast of their "decisive" role in "restoring peace and democracy" in Liberia, thanks to the pressure they have exercised on Taylor, particularly the economic sanctions imposed on his regime by the United Nations and the presence of 2,000 US Marines off the coast of the Liberian capital Monrovia.

But will Taylor's departure and the Accra agreement really mark the end of Liberia's civil war? Or, will these developments mark just another stage in the war? No-one can be sure about this, least of all the imperialist witch-doctors, whose criminal manoeuvring and plundering in the region are partly responsible for this war.

After all, it was not so long ago - almost exactly six years ago, on 2nd August 1997 - that the US State Department issued the same kind of self-congratulatory statements. At the time, the cause for Washington's self-satisfaction was the swearing in of the same Charles Taylor as Liberia's new president, after winning a blatantly fraudulent election. But as Taylor's gang was the only one among the warring factions which appeared capable of holding on to power for any length of time, US officials had no qualms in describing cynically his election as "reasonably democratic by African standards" and giving him their backing. In 1997, the agreement leading to this "democratic" process had been signed in Abuja instead of Accra, but its substance and participants were more or less the same. And yet, within less than a year, fighting had resumed in the capital, before spreading to one county after another.

If nothing else, this exposes the Western governments' hypocrisy. Having given their backing to Taylor in 1997, despite his well- established record as a warlord, the imperialist powers turned against him later on when they decided that he was proving too big for his boots. Taylor became the public enemy number one, who had to be brought to justice, and a "legitimate" target for "regime change." For good measure, US Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, denounced his alleged "links with al-Qaeda through the diamond trade", in order to fit the US symbolic intervention into the framework of the "war on terrorism." But now that Taylor has fled the country (although his cronies are still there), one can only wonder what kind of warlord the Western governments are going to push into power!

As to the civil war itself, in what way is today's situation any better than it was in 1997? Because of the 150 US marines who carried out an 11-day stunt at Roberts International airport, 50 miles away from Monrovia, just long enough to be filmed next to Bush's officials, before returning safely to their ships off Liberia's coasts while the fighting was raging in Monrovia? Or because of the 3,500-strong ECOMOG contingent, the "peacekeeping" force sent by the Economic Organisation of West African State (ECOWAS), whose tasks seem to be confined to protecting the same airport and a few official buildings in Monrovia? But, in 1997 too, ECOMOG was there and in much larger numbers, except that rather than being part of the solution it became part of the problem, by acting as yet another armed gang in the civil war.

For the time being, in any case, the civil war is still far from being over. As this journal goes to press, the cease fire only exists on paper. In an obvious attempt to consolidate their respective territories and strengthen their hands in the negotiations, the anti- Taylor militias are pushing towards the capital, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives in front of them. Very little is known about what is happening outside the capital's surroundings. Nevertheless there have been reports of fierce battles in the mining region of Nimba county. Numerous villages have been burnt to the ground since the Accra agreement. This is a diamond-rich area - and diamonds have always been at the top of the militias' agenda!

Above all, today's reality is that no matter how vicious Taylor may have been - and there is certainly nothing to choose between him and his rivals in this respect - he would not have been able to carry out his murderous policy against the population without the catastrophic impoverishment of West Africa caused by the past and present looting of the region by Western capital, nor without the on-going rivalries between the imperialist powers over the region's natural wealth and those of their regional allies. These have been the main factors behind the civil war in West Africa over the past two decades and they remain so.

A frontline between colonial empires

West Africa is notable by the large number of states which compose it, the extraordinary shapes of their borders and their geographical and social absurdity, particularly along the coast. These borders are the scars left by the slave trade, when all European powers were competing for a piece of the coast in order to have their share of this inhuman bounty.

Subsequently, the borders of each one of these colonial plots along the coast were extended towards the interior on the basis of the relationship of forces between the colonial powers and the location of the natural resources which they targeted. Needless to say, these borders were the subject of constant manoeuvres and intrigues, if not armed clashes, between the colonial powers. In the process, entire populations found themselves divided between two, three or more colonies, without any regard for their aspirations.

Among the West African countries, Liberia shares with its neighbour, Sierra Leone, a common historical feature. Both were originally colonised by black settlers under the auspices of so- called "philanthropic schemes" motivated by the fears of their promoters that the growth of the black population in the US and in Britain might get out of hand. Needless to say, these schemes won the support of the states of these countries, which saw this experience as a commendable way of acquiring colonies on the cheap. So, Liberia's capital, Monrovia, was built in 1822, under the auspices of the American Colonisation Society, by a contingent of freed American slaves.

It was only in the second half of the 19th century that these British and American outposts expanded to take their present shape under the pressure of their colonial masters who wanted to contain the progress of France's occupation of the region. In both countries, therefore, a small elite of Western-educated black privileged (the rich families of Liberia sent their children to the best American universities), took control over a local African population with whom it had absolutely nothing in common, except perhaps skin colour, and towards whom they behaved as ruthlessly as European colonial rulers did across the rest of colonial Africa.

While Sierra Leone was administered by local institutions directly controlled by London until its independence in 1961, Liberia became formally independent in 1847 - although on the basis of a constitution written by a Harvard professor. But independent or not, both countries have remained effectively in the backyard of their colonial masters.

Up until World War I, Liberia remained merely an American outpost in Africa. But with the rise of the price of rubber on the world market, in 1926 the US tyre manufacturer Firestone leased 1.3m acres of Liberia's land for 99 years at 6 cents per acre. But in return, Firestone forced the Liberian government to take a $5m loan in order to build road and port facilities for the future rubber plantations and took control of the collection of all government income as a guarantee for the repayment of this loan.

During World War II, Liberia became the only American naval and air base in Africa while US industry was able to import rubber from the Firestone plantations at a cost ten times lower than from South America. Then, from 1944 onwards, Liberia adopted the dollar as its official currency thereby becoming an ideal tax haven for anyone wishing to do business discreetly in dollars - a role that it has retained during most of the civil war of the past two decades. It was also during this period, in 1947, that Liberia launched its "open registry" for shipping, which allows the registration of virtually any commercial ship without the burden of expensive taxes and "bothersome" regulations. Significantly, this registry was and remains administered by a US company based in Virginia! And the civil war has not even interrupted this - although Liberia has slipped into second place behind Panama, its registered tonnage is still the world's second largest, far ahead of countries such as the US or Britain!

In the early 1950s, huge resources of rich iron ore were discovered in Liberia - all the more attractive for the world's iron giants as the cost of labour in Liberia was (and is) minimal. The first two mines, in the north of the country, were opened by US companies. Then, in the 1960s, a US-Swedish-French consortium began exploiting a larger mine on the flanks of Mount Nimba, on the Liberian border with Guinea. Since then, even larger stocks of ore have been discovered by a French company on the Guinean side of Mount Nimba. But its exploitation has been postponed for lack of willing investors, due to the closure of the only railway line which could have taken the ore to the sea on the Liberian coast, because of the civil war. Needless to say, in addition to French companies, there are many other potential bidders for this potential wealth waiting on the sidelines - among them the British- Australian giant RTZ.

On paper, colonial rule finally disappeared from West Africa when the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde became independent, in 1975. But most of the region's countries were left in a state of extreme underdevelopment. Today's Liberia, for instance, has only two railway lines, both built to serve its iron mines, and less than 500 miles of tarred road. This underdevelopment left the region totally dependent on the world market, and particularly on large imperialist companies buying its raw materials and agricultural products.

At the same time, the past inter-colonial rivalries have been replaced by the rivalries between Western companies seeking to increase their share of the loot. And behind them, of course, are their imperialist states, always on the lookout to promote the interests of their respective capitalists. Predictably, the former main colonial states, Britain and France, remain the most prominent among the imperialist rivals in the region, with the US pursuing its own interests behind them, in its capacity as the world's dominant power.

The collapse of the post-colonial set up

In true Western "democratic" tradition when it comes to poor countries, Liberia was run by what amounted to a single-party regime for more than a century - up until 1980. From beginning to end, the True Whig Party, as this party was called, was a corrupt machinery, which remained exactly as it was when it had been set up in the 19th century, ruling over the small elite of Americo-Liberians by means of patronage and over the rest of the population with a whip in hand.

In the hinterland, army squadrons helped paramount chiefs appointed for life by the president to collect taxes, administer justice and maintain order. They were also responsible for recruiting forced labour from the rural population, on the basis of an arbitrary quota system, whether to carry goods across their territories or to provide the Firestone plantations with casual labour. There were many local rebellions against this enslavement - with the most important in 1910, 1914 and 1930 - in which thousands of people were massacred and their villages burnt down.

Nevertheless, this ruthless and corrupted regime was warmly praised in Washington, especially after World War II, when Monrovia became home to the CIA's headquarters for Africa for the duration of the Cold War, complete with a radio-listening station (and later a satellite-tracking station) and a Voice of America transmitter, not to mention, of course, the military facilities made available to the US army. In Washington, the True Whig Party regime became the African bulwark against "communism" or, more accurately, against the rising tide of African and pan-African nationalism.

By the early 1970s, however, the newly-elected True Whig Party president, William Tolbert, was faced with the emergence of a vocal "progressive" opposition calling for political reforms. It came, in particular, from among the youth of the privileged layers, who found it increasingly difficult to find proper jobs, due to the dilapidated state of the economy. This led Tolbert to make symbolic nationalist gestures in order to divert attention from the real problems. It was probably Tolbert's refusal, in 1979, to allow the US to set up bunkering facilities in Liberia for their new Rapid Deployment Force, which led the CIA to withdraw its backing for Tolbert and seek actively someone to replace him, should he be overthrown as a result of the rising discontent in the country. And such a replacement was indeed found, in the person of Sergeant Samuel Doe, one of the leaders of a military coup which overthrew Tolbert, in April 1980.

This military coup opened a decade of increasingly bloody dictatorship. Initially, however, Doe was careful to tame the past "progressive" opposition to Tolbert's regime by co- opting many of its figures into his own administration and giving them a stake in it. This was how a young Americo-Liberian by the name of Charles Taylor, who had made a name for himself in students politics among Liberians studying in the US, was appointed to a government procurement office. However, the involvement of the past critics of the True Whig Party's corruption in Doe's regime, changed nothing with regard to the corrupt methods of the ruling circles. The only difference was that many of these critics learnt to use their new status to their own advantage - like Taylor himself, who was soon forced to flee to the US after having allegedly embezzled $900,000.

Doe's first move was to eliminate, one after the other, all potential rivals from the army circles which had carried out the 1980 coup. Having consolidated his power in this way, he proceeded to legitimise it by organising a presidential election in 1985, which he won by a surprisingly low 50.9% of the vote, despite the blatantly rigged ballot which, against all evidence, was described in Washington as "genuine progress towards democracy." But then Doe was a precious man for the US administration, being a reliable ally for the CIA and the Pentagon as well as one of the very few African heads of state willing to maintain openly friendly relations with Israel. For the White House, his commitment to US imperialism was well worth the reward of the largest amount of US aid per inhabitant in sub- Saharan Africa, which was provided to his regime throughout the decade.

The US financial and military aid was not wasted on Doe. In a country where, so far, the army had only played a very limited role, he proceeded to turn it into the main body of the state machinery. Only, for the first time in Liberia, he proceeded to do it by replacing the old system of social patronage with one based on ethnicity, allocating senior posts in the army and government machinery to members of his own native regional grouping - a subsection of the southern Krahn ethnic group. Later on, in 1986, Doe extended his system of patronage to the Mandingo, a Muslim group from the North. The main advantage of the Mandingo, from Doe's point of view, was their weakness as potential challengers to his rule. Having settled in the country relatively recently, usually as small traders and shopkeepers, the Mandingo were scattered across the country without any territory of their own and did not have deep roots among the population, which often still considered them as "foreigners" - to the extent that the official recognition of the Mandingo as a specific Liberian ethnic group led to riots in Northern Liberia.

Doe's system of patronage based on ethnicity, which potentially set the Krahns up as rivals of the Mandingo for the control of the state and ostracised all other ethnic groups, was to have bloody consequences in the coming civil war.

The making of a warlord

The first bullets of Liberia's civil war were fired in 1983, when supporters of Thomas Quiwonkpa, a former leading figure in the 1980 coup who had just been sidelined by Doe, crossed into Liberia through the border with Ivory Coast and carried out a series of armed raids against the iron mining areas of Nimba county. Immediately the fighting took on an ethnic edge, with the insurgents seeking to mobilise the support of the local Gio population (Quiwonkpa's own ethnic group) against Doe by calling for a war against the Krahn's takeover of the country. This resulted in some horrible massacres and in subsequent years such slaughter was to become the rule.

Following the failure of his first coup attempt, Quiwonkpa tried again in 1985, this time in Monrovia itself, by infiltrating the capital and taking over the radio station to announce Doe's overthrow by a National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Quiwonkpa had probably hoped that the capital's population, tired of Doe's brutality, and a section of the army would rally to his call. Instead, having been tipped off by the CIA, Doe was prepared for the coup which was swiftly crushed. In the following days, in a demonstration of what opponents to his rule should expect, Doe had Quiwonkpa's mutilated body paraded in the streets of the capital.

But not all of Quiwonkpa's supporters had perished in these failed attempts. While the border with Ivory Coast in Nimba county remained the scene of sporadic but on-going armed clashes, some of Quiwonkpa's former associates proceeded to look for help abroad to overthrow Doe's regime. Among them was Charles Taylor who, after a spell in the US, embarked on a tour of African and European capitals in search for funds, weapons, supporters and political recognition. And he met with some success, since by mid-1989, he relaunched Quiwonkpa's NPFL, by which time it was already by far the largest of the three armed opposition groups to Doe's regime.

At that point, Taylor's NPFL posed as a pan-African grouping seeking to overthrow Doe's "US puppet dictatorship" with the help of all of Africa's "freedom fighters." In its ranks were former guerillas from the Gambia, Ghana, Nigerian Biafra, etc.. Already it had formed a close alliance with a group of Sierra Leonese expatriates, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh. According to Taylor's fiery demagogy, the NPFL was out to reshape the face of the whole of English- speaking West Africa, starting with Liberia.

Behind all this radical rhetoric, however, other interests were at work. Of course, there was Taylor's "Libyan connection", which has been used again and again by the West to portray him as a Gadaffi puppet. And many clues point to the fact that Taylor did indeed get weapons and funding from Libya. But for all the West's accusations against Gadaffi as a "mastermind of terrorism", he was and remains only small fry in African politics.

Much more decisive for Taylor was the logistical, military and financial aid he received from Ivory Coast, then under president Houphouet-Boigny, and Burkina-Faso, under Houphouet-Boigny's ally, Blaise Compaoré. Both states were close auxiliaries of France's imperialist policy in Africa and there can be no doubt whatsoever that their support for Taylor was explicitly cleared by Paris, if not actually dictated by French strategists. To that extent, just as Doe was a pawn in US imperialist policy in Africa, Taylor was a pawn in France's imperialist strategy in West Africa.

In December 1989, Taylor's NPFL launched its first armed raids from bases located in Ivory Coast into Nimba county with the help of a contingent of Burkinabé soldiers provided by Compaoré. Taylor himself told journalists on the BBC World Service that his men had already began to infiltrate Monrovia. This was probably merely boasting but it attracted a terrifying reaction from Doe. In the capital, hundreds of people were targeted by death squadrons under suspicion of sympathising with the rebels. Many more were rounded up and summarily executed, due to being simply Gio or Mano, the two dominant ethnic groups in Eastern Liberia that Taylor had chosen to use as a lever against Doe's regime. Meanwhile, in Nimba county, Doe's army went on the rampage against Gio and Mano villages, in an attempt to force them to flee, thereby creating a deadly vacuum around the NPFL fighters who were dependent on the assistance of the population for their survival.

However, six months after the NPFL had launched its offensive, it took over Buchanan, the country's second town and commercial port. Two months later, in July 1990, Doe's territory was reduced to a small pocket of land surrounding Monrovia. The progress of the NPFL had been marked all along by bloody purges of Krahn and Mandingo designed to force the population into taking sides in what the NPFL commanders claimed was a fight for their ethnic rights. On their way, the NPFL forces had increased their numbers considerably by recruiting villagers more or less forcibly into their ranks. Once they reached Monrovia, a bloody battle started. For over a month, there were systematic looting and thousands of blind killings by both sides. By September Doe's regime had fallen and Doe himself was dead, summarily executed by the NPFL.

It is worth noting in passing that, at the time, there was not a peep of protest from the UN security council about the ethnic bloodshed unleashed by Doe's dictatorship. But then, were not US advisers "assisting" Doe's troops, both in Monrovia and in Nimba county? And wasn't this a good enough guarantee that everything was done by the book of "international law"?

US backing, therefore, did not save Doe's regime, if only because Washington had no intention of committing the considerable resources which would have been necessary to take control of such unchartered territory as Liberia, in which there were hardly any roads and which was mostly covered with a thick jungle and, what is more, against the will of its population. So the 2,000 marines sent by Washington confined themselves to airlifting to safety the western residents from the main towns, without ever risking direct contact with the fighters themselves. After all, the Cold War was over and so was the radical nationalist wave in Africa. The US leaders had no imperative reasons to provide an embarrassing dictator like Doe, who was no longer capable of ensuring the stability of his regime, with a lifeline. So, Doe's regime was left to its own devices - i.e. it was left to crumble.

ECOMOG's "peacekeeping" escalates the war

However, given Taylor's links with French imperialism, Washington and London were determined to make things as difficult as possible for him, for fear of losing ground to their main imperialist rival in the region. And so were a number of regional states, outside those which were backing Taylor, which feared that Taylor's example might inspire similar attempts against themselves.

So London and Washington resorted to asking for the assistance of their regional client states. The Nigerian leader Babangida was convinced to promote a large-scale military "peacekeeping" force called ECOMOG to be organised within the framework of ECOWAS - the first military intervention by this organisation which went beyond a passive monitoring of events. Most of the French-speaking members of ECOWAS opposed the proposal, but given the weight of Nigeria in the organisation and the support of the English-speaking countries it was nevertheless adopted and warmly welcomed by the US and British governments. Never mind the fact that expecting Babangida - a bloody, corrupt dictator and consummate expert in playing the ethnic card - to carry out the task of stopping the ethnic bloodshed in Liberia and restoring democracy, was like asking a vulture to behave like a dove! But then, of course, the mission of ECOMOG had nothing to do with the interests of the Liberian population anyway.

On 25 August 1990, a 3,000-strong contingent of ECOMOG landed in Monrovia. It was Nigerian-dominated and placed under Nigerian command. Its brief was initially to protect the capital where an interim government was appointed with politicians from the pre-Doe era, in order to represent the "legal" authority of Liberia in future negotiations with the NPFL.

Taylor, in the meantime, was consolidating his hold on the country. Firestone and the US iron mining companies passed agreements with him allowing them to resume their exports. Another agreement was passed with French companies for the export of the Mount Nimba iron ore, allegedly under the direct supervision of Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, one of the French president's son who had developed a close relationship with Taylor. For three years, under this agreement, large tonnages of ore were shipped regularly from Buchanan to the French port of Dunkirk. Likewise for hardwood, with the resumption of logging in the NPFL-controlled south, using the port of San Pedro, in Ivory Coast, for export towards Europe and particularly France. All this activity, together with diamond production in eastern and northern Liberia, produced taxes and incomes. The proceeds were kept in accounts located in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, and used to buy weapons for the NPFL.

Meanwhile, however, new forces were emerging in the relative lull of the war. In mid-1991, in the north of Liberia, a new armed organisation emerged, calling itself the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or Ulimo in short. It was formed by two of Doe's former ministers seeking to regroup former elements of Doe's regime and, particularly, of his army, and claimed to represent the ethnic interests of the Krahn and Mandingo. As soon as it was formed Ulimo benefited from large shipments of weapons from both Sierra-Leone and Guinea (a former French colony, which had distanced itself from France) and.. from ECOMOG, whose officers saw no harm in making a little profit on the side, all the more willingly as Ulimo was helping the Sierra Leonese government to fight the RUF rebellion along the country's border with Liberia.

But Sierra Leone's border area being diamond-rich, rivalries soon emerged within the ranks of Ulimo and between their Sierra Leonese and Guinean military mentors, who also had particular interests to defend. A split occurred more or less along ethnic lines, between the so-called Ulimo-K which brought together the Mandingo elements supported by Guinea, and Ulimo-J which brought together the Krahn elements supported by Sierra Leone. So now, there were three armed factions, plus the remnants of Doe's army in Monrovia.

In 1992, in response to an NPFL offensive towards Monrovia decided by Taylor in the hope of accelerating the negotiations and strengthening his bargaining hand, ECOMOG switched from its alleged "peace keeping" role to an aggressive one. Using its airborne striking power, the Nigerian high-command subjected the suburbs of the capital to heavy bombardments, killing thousands of civilians. Then ECOMOG moved down south and took Buchanan, using napalm against the countryside in order to decimate the NPFL units, but also destroying countless villages in the process. For the following four years or so, the local commanders of ECOMOG proceeded to line their pockets by taxing the population and looting whatever wealth they could. ECOMOG's "private business" became so corrupt and pervasive that, in 1994, Washington moved to convince ECOWAS to contract out all military transport activities to a private US company closely associated with the Pentagon, in an attempt to stop the commanders from using military vehicles for their own private business.

With such profitable activities, the ECOMOG commanders and their superiors at home, who also took their share of the loot, were in no hurry for an agreement to be reached. When one was nevertheless reached in Cotonou, the capital of Benin, in July 1993, they did their utmost to make it unworkable, by resorting to a long series of provocations, but above all by prompting the emergence of a new ethnic-based war-gang and arming it - the ironically named Liberian Peace Council, which began to attack NPFL positions in the south of the country shortly after the Cotonou agreement. It must be said that Taylor himself used the same method against Ulimo-K in the north of the country. So by August 1995, when the final Abuja agreement was signed in Nigeria, there were no fewer than seven warring factions at the negotiating table, each one of them claiming their share of the future Liberia!

Finally, after another year of fighting in which the ECOMOG commanders tried again to torpedo the Abuja agreement, an election campaign got underway and Taylor was returned as president with 75% of the votes in July 1997. The heavily rigged ballot was unanimously endorsed by western leaders in whose view Taylor had at least proved his capacity to last, and to remain the strongest of Liberia's warlords. But these seven years of civil war had only served to bring about the result that London and Washington had initially wanted to prevent, and at what cost for the population!

A western-induced civil war

History, it is often said, repeats itself as a farce. In the case of Liberia it was as a farce and as a tragedy at the same time. In the 1980s, Doe had managed to hold on to power for almost four years when he was faced with a first, limited, armed challenge. But in the case of Taylor, the lull lasted only just about one year. The fighting resumed in the capital, in September 1998, between the NPFL forces, now integrated into the state's army, and the Ulimo-J faction. In the north, it went on until the end of the following year, this time with members of the Ulimo-K faction, who were finally defeated despite receiving large consignments of British-made weapons.

By that time, however, a new militia had emerged with bases in Sierra-Leone and Guinea, formed by ex-members of the old Ulimo- K Mandingo-dominated faction. It called itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Its "military adviser" was a former general in Doe's army operating from the USA. Its president was a businessman who had family ties with the Guinean president, Lasane Conté. And the new organisation had formed an alliance with the Kamajors, the armed gangs of the Sierra Leone's pro-British president Tejan Kabbah.

In mid-2000, armed units of the LURD crossed the border from bases in Guinea in the north to carry out raids against Taylor's forces. When Monrovia organised counter-raids across the border, several units of ECOMOG stationed in Sierra-Leone were sent to patrol the border on the Guinean side and stop any incursion by Liberian troops, although their mandate did not extend to stopping LURD forces, since this would have been "interfering with internal Liberian affairs"! And, of course, later, ECOMOG put up no obstacle to the occupation of the north of Liberia by LURD's troops. Four months later, LURD repeated the same operation, this time in Nimba county, thereby taking control of Liberia's main iron mining area. One year later LURD controlled 30% of Liberia and by February 2003, 50%.

By that time, however, a new armed faction had emerged. The Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), a Krahn-based organisation which had been set up by former members of Ulimo- J, with the backing of factions in Ivory Coast which were opposed to today's president Gbagbo. It soon proceeded to occupy Buchanan and the south and east of the country alongside the border with Ivory Coast.

By June 2003, LURD and MODEL had finally reached the suburbs of Monrovia and, although they were not in control everywhere, by far, Taylor's state apparatus had virtually collapsed. The fact that Taylor's regime was defeated so easily by the two armed factions is all the more striking as, according to most estimates, they involve at most 3,000 soldiers, compared with 30,000 shared between the NPFL and the two branches of Ulimo in 1994. If anything this is an indication of the decomposition of Taylor's state machine since 1997.

Apart from the corruption of Taylor's regime, other factors played a decisive role in this decomposition, in particular the UN-imposed sanctions. The country's economic infrastructure had been almost completely destroyed during the 1990s, when all factions, including ECOMOG, dismantled every existing industrial facility to sell them as scrap iron. But even if Taylor had wanted to rebuild this infrastructure, he would have been prevented from doing so. Indeed, under the pretext that the fighting had not stopped, economic sanctions continued to be applied against Liberia after 1997, including not just weapons, but everything except basic necessities. A confidential report produced by an ECOWAS military mission to Liberia in June 2002 highlighted the consequences: "With UN's slap of sanctions on Taylor's government, it is getting weaker and weaker each passing day to live up to its responsibilities of protecting the state and citizens and providing for their basic welfare needs." So, for instance, at the end of last year, state employees were still owed between 7 and 14 months-worth of wages.

Besides, the anti-Taylor forces benefited from western aid. As the same report noted, comparing the fighting capacity on both sides: "The LURD seems to be better armed and enjoying discreet support from the Kamajors, USA and Britain (..) The training of Kamajors by British troops in Sierra-Leone, during its crisis, coupled with the discovery o ammunitions with British inscriptions suggest Britain provides tacit support to LURD."

Behind the diplomatic language, it appears clearly that while the ground for this second phase of the civil war was potentially paved by the first phase, the fact that it developed at all owes much to the active role played behind the scene by Britain and the US, regardless of the added ethnic massacres and suffering it imposed on the population.

A permanent threat

For the US and British leaders, Taylor was always a legitimate target simply because he had come to power without their agreement - but even more so when, once in power, he failed to stop providing his military assistance to the RUF rebellion in Sierra Leone against the British-sponsored regime of president Kabbah.

The civil war in Sierra-Leone claimed 50,000 victims over the decade beginning in 1991 and reduced most of the country to rubble, while the warring factions were fighting for the control of the diamond-rich regions. The origins of this war were basically identical to those in Liberia - the explosion of the political powder keg left by the colonial era. In that sense the two wars developed in parallel, but they fed one another, with the alliance between Taylor and the RUF on one side and that of the LURD with the Kamajors on the other.

But London's covert manoeuvres did as much to inflame the civil war in Sierra Leone as Taylor's support for the RUF did. What is more, London's man in Sierra Leone, president Kabbah, is already preparing the ground for the emergence of a new period of instability, and possibly of civil war, by forcing his rivals into exile - like Koroma, the leader of the country's third largest party and former leader of a military coup in 1997, who just fled the country to avoid being arrested. Kabbah's attempt at restoring the pre- war political status quo to protect the regional interests of British capital can only result in yet another explosive situation.

Political instability, however, has not been confined to Liberia and Sierra-Leone. The crisis which has developed in Ivory Coast over the past year, with the emergence of armed factions vying for power and using the ethnic card, was not a consequence of the civil war in Liberia, although some of these factions seem to have links with some of the Liberian factions. But once again, it reflected the crisis of the political set-up left by the colonial era. Indeed, it was the crisis of succession opened by the death of the country's first post-colonial leader, Houphouet-Boigny, in 1993, which finally degenerated into armed and ethnic conflict.

No country in West Africa is protected from the threat of such an explosion, and therefore of civil war. All the more so because in all these countries, the populations have been sliding increasingly into poverty over the past decades. And the despair caused by poverty is the most effective fuel that aspiring politicians, dictators and warlords can find to inflame ethnic hatred.

In addition to this general background, the civil war in Liberia, and to a lesser extent that in Sierra-Leone, have added a factor of instability for the region as a whole. Because these wars have lasted so long, they have generated large numbers of displaced refugees across the region, themselves often former fighters, who are reduced to the worst possible destitution and can easily become the prey of recruiting warlords. Former fighters from the Liberian civil war have indeed been involved in the emergence of armed factions in the Gambia, Ghana and Ivory Coast, in particular.

But one of the main factors in the length of these civil wars has been the constant manoeuvres of the western powers, under the cover of "humanitarian intervention" or whatever other virtuous pretexts, directly or by proxy, to preserve their grip over countries that they still consider as part of their backyard. All this to ensure that the big companies in the City and in Wall Street, RTZ, Unilever, BP-Texaco, Republic Steel, etc.., are able to continue their looting of the African continent, while its population is sliding inexorably year after year into utter destitution.

This is why it would be madness to put any hope in the West's allegedly "benevolent" attempts to bring peace in Liberia. Indeed, there will be no peace for Africa without ending the imperialists looting of the continent and the poverty it generates.

12 September 2003