Keeping the Peace: Liberia

Ten years ago, I would have sounded crazy should I have predicted that Liberia would become a functioning democracy by 2007, and that Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord turned president, would be in jail awaiting prosecution for war crimes. And rightly so — in 1997, Liberia was a singularly dismal place on earth. Taylor had just been elected president after leading a bloody insurgency characterized by the recruitment of child soldiers, wide-spread rape and mutilation. Taylor’s popular support, however, was less from admiration than fear. Prior to the election, throngs on the street chanted, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’m going to vote for him!” Better to vote him president than have him lose the election and turn his wrath against the people.

For the previous eight years, the civil war in Liberia had claimed the lives of 150,000 people and displaced 850,000 to neighboring countries. The illegal trade of diamonds and other natural resources abundant in Liberia fueled the civil war, and helped fund Taylor’s regime. In 1999 a new round of fighting erupted when a rebel movement backed by Guinea took hold in northern Liberia. In early 2003, separate rebel movement from the south emerged. By the summer, the rebels had gained considerable strength and were threatening Monrovia, Liberia’s densely populated capital.

So began a series of events that eventually led to Taylor’s ouster. The United States diverted a ship carrying 1,500 marines heading toward the Persian Gulf and stationed it just outside of Monrovia. And just as the Marines were arriving to Liberia’s shore, a United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone issued an arrest warrant for Taylor, whose forces are alleged to have committed crimes against humanity during the neighboring country’s own civil war. Then, on August 1, the Security Council authorized a multinational force for Liberia. With a detachment of marines just off shore — and Nigerian troops en route to Monrovia — President Bush joined regional leaders and called for Taylor to leave Liberia. On August 11, following a second suggestion from President Bush that Taylor exit Liberia, he fled to exile in Nigeria.

After terrorizing West Africa for over a decade, Taylor was finally dislodged from power. His successor entered into a peace agreement with the rebels that established a transitional government and paved the way for free elections. By the end of the summer, the Nigerian-led multinational force became an official UN peacekeeping operation to assist in the implementation of the peace agreement and deny spoilers an opportunity to plunge Liberia back into chaos. Years of sanctions left the economy in ruins and rampant corruption meant that state services and infrastructure were virtually non-existent. The newly formed United Nations Assistance Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) provided security guarantees that let the United Nations and other international agencies embark on a series of humanitarian and infrastructure building projects throughout the country.

In 2006, Liberians elected lead Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state. Soon after winning election (to well deserved international fanfare) Sirleaf formally requested Taylor’s extradition from Nigeria to face the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Today, Taylor is in a jailhouse in The Hague awaiting his trial. Liberia, meanwhile, is steadily moving forward. The 15,000 strong UNMIL (which includes the UN’s first all female police unit) is overseeing the disarmament and demobilization of former fighters, and helping UN and international agencies restore basic services to the Liberian people. Key to Liberia’s progress is opening its abundant natural resources up to international trade. To that end, in May 2007, the Security Council lifted sanctions on the Liberian diamond trade, which for most of the country’s history had been a source of misery, rather than prosperity for the Liberian people.

Despite Liberia’s significant accomplishments post-Taylor, the state is still fragile. Over 250,000 people were killed in the conflicts. Considering that the population of Liberia is only slightly over 3 million that is a staggering percentage of the population. State infrastructure remains in ruins and Liberians continue to depend on the United Nations and other international agencies continue to deliver key services. Still, considering Liberia’s significant progress from where it was just 10 years ago, it is clear that the country is on a hopeful path.