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Liberia: The Prospects for Peace - Update December 1994 - September 1996

Publisher WRITENET
Author Richard Carver
Publication Date 1 October 1996
Cite as WRITENET, Liberia: The Prospects for Peace - Update December 1994 - September 1996, 1 October 1996, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The August 1995 Abuja Agreement was the thirteenth peace accord since Liberia's civil war began in December 1989. The last seven years have offered Liberians more than their fair share of false dawns. The Abuja Agreement has brought nothing remotely resembling peace; indeed, the disintegration of the country has accelerated since it was signed. Yet this agreement still provides the framework for the peace process, even though its timetable for disarmament and the creation of democratic structures has been dramatically revised. Elections are now scheduled for May 1997.[1]

Successive peace agreements have all foundered for essentially the same reasons: the refusal of the rival armed factions to disarm; the proliferation of factions which are not party to the agreement; the weakness of the civilian constituency; foreign interference in favour of the different factions; and a vested economic interest on the part of the faction leaders in the anarchic status quo. There has been no fundamental change in this set of circumstances between the Akosombo and Accra Accords of 1994 and the present, which means that it is not difficult to predict continued conflict. On the other hand, certain elements of the situation have changed, in particular the alliances between the different factions and between the faction leaders and their foreign backers. Whether these shifting alliances are sufficient to bring about lasting and fundamental change is one of the principal subjects of this paper.

The present war began on 24 December 1989 when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, launched an incursion into Nimba County, in the East of Liberia, from neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.[2] But the origins of the conflict can be traced deep into Liberian history. In April 1980 Sergeant Samuel Doe and a group of non-commissioned army officers seized power, overturning nearly a century and a half of rule by the Americo-Liberian oligarchy - descendants of the freed American slaves who settled the "Grain Coast" and launched the independent Republic of Liberia in 1847. The oligarchy's tight and largely undisputed hold on power was exercized at the expense of the severe economic underdevelopment and effective disenfranchisement of the indigenous majority. Thus, the 1980 coup d'état won immediate favour both from the majority of the population and from left-wing intellectuals. However, it rapidly became apparent that the new regime, like its predecessor, was autocratic, corrupt and capricious. Worse, it rested upon the suppression of opposition, whether real or imagined, with the most lurid and brutal violence. The evisceration of deposed President William Tolbert in April 1980 set the tone for what was to follow. A similar fate awaited Thomas Quiwonkpa, who attempted to stage a counter-coup after blatantly rigged general elections in 1985.

The result was that the NPFL insurgency of 1989 was also greeted with immediate popular enthusiasm, especially among the Gio and Mano people of Nimba - Quiwonkpa's home county. The NPFL followed a trend dangerously exploited by Doe since 1980 in its explicit mobilization of ethnic allegiances - not hitherto a determining factor in Liberian politics. The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), dominated by Doe's Krahn people, visited terrible repression on the Gios and Manos, acting as an effective recruiting sergeant for the NPFL. For its part, the NPFL began an indiscriminate slaughter of Krahns, Mandingos and anyone else presumed to be government supporters.

The NPFL advanced rapidly towards Monrovia, provoking a frenzy of looting and ethnic violence. In response, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a multinational peacekeeping force to Liberia, known as the Economic Community Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) - a misnomer since there was no cease-fire to monitor. Dominated by Nigeria, whose military rulers had close links with President Doe, ECOMOG's first objective, which it successfully accomplished, was to secure Monrovia against the NPFL advance. However, in the course of this operation Doe was inadvertently handed over to the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), a breakaway rebel faction, and tortured to death.

For two years there was an uneasy peace. Monrovia was under the authority of a civilian interim government, militarily protected by ECOMOG, while the rest of the country was under effective NPFL control. Meanwhile, ECOWAS-sponsored negotiations came up with a series of peace agreements. These broke down, essentially because of the refusal of the NPFL to disarm and due to the emergence of a new armed faction, backed by Sierra Leone, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO). In October 1992, the NPFL launched a new assault on Monrovia, after months of progressive breakdowns in the cease-fire. ECOMOG, now in open alliance with the AFL and ULIMO, launched a counter-attack and recaptured a number of key towns held by the NPFL. This drove Charles Taylor back to the negotiating table, the outcome being the July 1993 Cotonou Accord. An important difference with previous agreements was that now it was agreed that the NPFL would become part of the transitional government.[3]

However, the Cotonou cease-fire broke down almost as soon as it was signed. There was renewed fighting between the NPFL and ULIMO, while a new Krahn-dominated militia, the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), emerged in the south-east of the country where it was immediately at odds with the NPFL. Through 1994 there was further fragmentation. The war in neighbouring Sierra Leone spilled over into the west of Liberia, the NPFL having supported the formation of the opposition Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. Latent divisions within ULIMO became open, with fighting between a mainly Krahn faction led by General Roosevelt Johnson and a mainly Mandingo faction under Alhaji G.V. Kromah. Then the NPFL began to fragment, with a number of its ministers in the transitional government challenging Charles Taylor's authority. ULIMO moved to back the anti-Taylor faction and the NPFL lost control of its "capital", Gbarnga.

In September 1994 the special representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations made an ill-judged attempt to relaunch the peace process at Akosombo in Ghana. The new agreement, signed by Charles Taylor, Alhaji Kromah and General Hezekiah Bowen of the AFL, was roundly condemned by civilian politicians, churches and civic groups, as well as by other factions and by ECOMOG, who regarded it as a partition of the country between the warlords. In December 1994, new inclusive peace talks in Accra resulted in an agreement which brought the various factions excluded from the Akosombo accord back into the peace process. A cease- fire was due to come into effect on 28 December 1994.


The Accra cease-fire lasted little more than a month, a period marked by wrangling over the composition of the interim Council of State. In February 1995 fighting resumed between the NPFL and the LPC.[4] In April 62 people, most of them women and children, died in a massacre at Yosi near Buchanan. This was in an area controlled by the NPFL, but contested by the LPC.[5] Survivors said that the NPFL was responsible for the killings, and that the bodies of the dead had been used for cannibalism.[6]

Later the same month, members of the ULIMO-Kromah (ULIMO-K) faction attacked a camp of refugees from Sierra Leone in Gwaula District of Grand Cape Mount County. At least one person was killed and three houses were burned down in the camp, which was occupied by more than 2,000 refugees.[7] ECOMOG dismantled roadblocks mounted by ULIMO-K and declared a number of areas of Montserrado County to be safe havens for people and relief supplies.[8] However, ULIMO-K fighters attacked a similar safe haven created by ECOMOG in Tubmanburg, Bomi County. Their target was the Tbibo barracks occupied by fighters of the rival ULIMO-Johnson (ULIMO-J) faction.[9]

In May 1995 a new round of peace talks opened in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.[10] After three months of at times ill-tempered wrangling, yet another accord was signed. Government power passed to a six-member Council of State, composed of three leaders of the military factions and three neutral figures. The faction leaders on the Council were Charles Taylor, Alhaji Kromah and George Boley of the LPC. It was chaired by the professor of literature, Wilton Sankawulo. Presidential elections were due to take place within a year. The commander of the AFL, General Bowen, was not a council member but, unlike the Akosombo agreement, the new accord recognized the AFL as the constitutional army of Liberia. General Johnson of ULIMO-J was given a ministerial post and the right to nominate the director of the Central Bank. A cease-fire came into force on 26 August 1995.[11]

Less than three weeks later fighting had broken out in Lofa County between the two ULIMO factions.[12] This was followed by clashes between the NPFL and ULIMO-K near Gbarnga and the massacre of some 100 people by NPFL fighters at Tapeta in Nimba County.[13] This conflict was brought to an end by a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kromah on 30 October. However, the conflict between the two ULIMO factions continued.[14] This also affected the deployment of ECOMOG troops to oversee the demobilization process. On 28 December 1995 ULIMO-J fighters attacked ECOMOG in Tubmanburg, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 78. There were also heavy casualties among the civilian population.[15]

There followed a rapid deterioration in the security situation, first in Tubmanburg, the headquarters of ULIMO, but later spreading to Monrovia. Internal dissension within ULIMO-J led to the removal of General Johnson as leader and his replacement with General William Karyee. The faction agreed, nevertheless, that General Johnson should keep his Cabinet post.[16] However, the Council of State decided to suspend him and asked ECOMOG to search his residence for weapons. As the search was in progress, ULIMO-J abducted a UN military observer and two other foreign nationals, threatening to kill them if Johnson was harmed. They were released, but the NPFL moved against ULIMO-J positions in Kakata and Bong Mines. Fighting between rival groups within ULIMO-J spread to Monrovia, while there was renewed fighting between the NPFL and LPC in the south-east.[17]

On 23 March 1996 the transitional government issued a warrant for General Johnson's arrest for murder. He refused to hand himself over. On 6 April police, backed by the NPFL and ULIMO- K fighters, attempted to arrest him. They were attacked by ULIMO-J fighters, who were supported by the AFL and LPC. This was the trigger for the worst breakdown of security in Monrovia since 1990. ECOMOG completely lost control over events for a while and rival factions looted indiscriminately. Much of the fighting was random and ill-disciplined, but came to focus on the army barracks at the Barclay Training Centre, which was besieged by the NPFL and ULIMO-K. At the same time fighting continued in Tubmanburg between the two ULIMO factions, and the NPFL moved to dislodge the LPC from Buchanan. In the midst of all this confusion General Johnson slipped out of the country.[18]

On 7 May 1996, ECOWAS Foreign Ministers met in Accra to try to set the peace process back on course.[19] The immediate outcome was a cease-fire in Monrovia on 26 May 1996, although fighting continued between the two ULIMO factions in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount and between the NPFL and LPC in the south-east. ECOWAS heads of state held a summit in Abuja in late July and again on 17 August. The outcome was a five-stage timetable beginning with a cease-fire on 31 August and leading up to elections on 30 May 1997 with the installation of an elected government on 15 June. Ruth Perry, a former senator, was designated chairperson of the Council of State, making her Africa's first woman head of government.[20]


The bare statistics of displacement reveal the devastating impact of the war on Liberia. Out of a pre-war population of 2.8 million, some 750,000 are now refugees in other West African countries. In addition, at least 1.2 million are displaced within Liberia's borders.[21] (By way of comparison, at a peak there were 1.7 million refugees from Mozambique and about 4 million internally displaced - but the country's population was nearly six times as large as Liberia's.[22]22) At least 150,000 people have been killed.[23]

It is a truism that modern war has an unprecedented impact on the civilian population, but by any standards the Liberian conflict has been unusually predatory. Describing Liberia and Sierra Leone, Amnesty International commented: "Conflicts in both countries are no longer wars with a front line between rebels and government soldiers. The offensive is against defenceless civilians in towns and villages throughout the countryside who are being deliberately killed."[24] Similarly, accounts of the "fighting" in Monrovia indicate that firing of weapons was usually more directed at facilitating looting than inflicting damage on the "enemy".[25]

The anarchic political system and the inability to gain access to certain parts of the country has led to the existence of large pockets of the population beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies.[26] This problem was exacerbated with the April-May 1996 fighting in Monrovia, when a number of agencies were forced to evacuate the country altogether. One feature of the Liberian war has been the way in which the aid agencies (and the UN military observer mission, as well as ECOMOG itself) have been targets of the various armed factions.[27] The theft of vehicles, in particular, has reached such a scale that it has become a central topic of negotiation in recent multilateral meetings in Accra and Abuja.[28]

This picture should be qualified by the observation that, despite the scale of the disruption, a substantial segment of the population has managed to survive by its own efforts. The alliance between the NPFL and ULIMO-K has had the effect of bringing peace - or at least the absence of fighting - to Nimba County.[29]

In six weeks of fighting in April and May 1996, more than half of Monrovia's population of 1.3 million was displaced and 3,000 people died.[30] The effect of fighting in Monrovia was particularly severe because it had hitherto been regarded as a safe haven and already hosted hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country. One result was to force some displaced people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, departing by sea. In the most celebrated case, the Bulk Challenger, a cargo ship, left Monrovia with 2,000 refugees but remained on the high seas for more than a week when other countries in the region refused to let it dock. Finally Ghana allowed it to put ashore.[31] More fortunate were the 2,300 expatriates evacuated from the city by the government of the United States.[32]

Conventional economic activity in Liberia has been all but destroyed by the war. The Liberian shipping register, a major foreign exchange earner, has collapsed and large foreign investors, such as the Firestone rubber company have withdrawn.[33] As in 1990, looting during the 1996 Monrovia fighting has virtually wiped out the operations of many businesses and of government itself. Prices of essential commodities, including rice, the staple food, have multiplied. Gasoline costs 20 times the pre-April 1996 price and the parallel exchange rate of the Liberian dollar against the US dollar increased by 75 per cent during the Monrovia fighting.[34] On the other hand, petty trading and the informal economy is an important survival strategy for many Liberians and a vital source of commodities. On a larger scale, lucrative economic activities such as logging and mining of iron ore have continued throughout the war under the control of the various armed factions.[35]

One of the most disastrous long-term effects of the war has been its mobilization of children. In 1994 it was estimated that 20 per cent of fighters were under 18, 10 per cent under 15.[36] In addition, a majority of children have witnessed killing, torture or rape and many suffer serious psychological disturbance as a result.[37]


Each new Liberian peace agreement is greeted by outpourings of optimism, even if these sound increasingly jaded. Yet most of the 13 agreements since 1990 differ from each other only in detail. A realistic assessment of the prospects for peace must rest upon an evaluation of the persistence or the resolution of the factors which have led to conflict. Analysing the failure of previous peace accords up to 1994, the previous WRITENET paper identified a number of factors which cast doubt on the prospects for permanent peace:

•           new factions had emerged, such as the LPC after the Cotonou agreement, which were not signatories to the accord;

•           the major factions were themselves split with violent internal disputes;

•           the Nigerian-led ECOMOG was seen by some factions, notably the NPFL, as a party to the conflict rather than a neutral peacekeeper;

•           the leaders of the various armed factions had an overwhelming political and military interest in maintaining the uncertain status quo rather than ceding power to an accountable civilian administration;

•           Liberian society and politics, which prior to 1980 was marked by an absence of clear ethnic division and rivalry, had become so sharply divided and brutalized by 14 years of gross human rights violations and war, that the prospects of a return to "normal" life appear to be receding.[38]

In the subsequent two years Liberia has not enjoyed peace. In this section and the next, we will assess how far these underlying factors have been modified.

4.1 A Shift in International Alliances

The optimism surrounding the August 1995 Abuja agreement was largely premised upon the assumption that there had been a shift in international alignments in relation to Liberia. An extremely important dimension of the conflict had been the backing provided by governments in the region to different warlords. Hence, Côte d'Ivoire had provided rear bases for the NPFL and President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had substantial investments in Liberia, was believed to be Charles Taylor's business partner. There was general support among francophone governments in the region for the NPFL (notably from Burkina Faso) as well as from France itself. The exception was Guinea, never inclined to follow the French line, which supported the Alhaji Kromah faction of ULIMO. The government of Sierra Leone backed ULIMO-J, while the NPFL was aligned with the Sierra Leonean rebel RUF. Nigeria had long-standing links with President Doe's government. After his death the Nigerian-led ECOMOG operated in an informal alliance with the various Krahn-dominated factions: AFL, LPC and ULIMO-J.[39]

However, from 1994 onwards, these alliances began to unravel, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, a number of governments became concerned that the Liberian conflict could destabilize the entire region, as it had already done in Sierra Leone. This factor was most visible in how Côte d'Ivoire cooled its previously enthusiastic support for the NPFL. For several years significant Ivorian interests benefited from the chaos in Liberia, for example by the export of timber and iron ore from NPFL-controlled "Greater Liberia" and the import of arms destined for Charles Taylor's fighters.[40] By 1994, however, Houphouët-Boigny was dead, to be replaced by Henri Konan-Bedié. Attacks on Liberian refugees in Côte d'Ivoire were on the rise and - of greater political significance - there were Ivorian civilian casualties. For example, in June 1995 there was a cross-border incident near Guiglo in which 32 people died, 10 of them Ivorians.[41] In February 1996, five people were killed in a Liberian attack - four of them Ivorians and one Burkinabé.[42] President Konan-Bedié was concerned both about further spreading of Liberian violence into Côte d'Ivoire and about the emergence of home-grown ethnic conflict among groups which corresponded very closely to Liberian counterparts. This danger was particularly marked in the aftermath of the October 1995 presidential election in Côte d'Ivoire. President Konan-Bedié had used a legal device to prevent his main rival, Alassane Ouattara, from standing, causing considerable resentment among the latter's Mandingo supporters in the north of the country.[43]

In the west, the February 1996 elections in Sierra Leone, accompanied by a cease-fire between the government and RUF rebels, has halted that country's slide into anarchy. There is thus a genuine concern on the part of the new government not to stimulate further conflict in Liberia - or at least to prevent it from once more spilling across the border.[44]

For Nigeria - as for junior partners in ECOMOG such as Ghana - the massive costs of ECOMOG have perhaps begun to outweigh any economic benefits. However, Nigeria still gains massive political kudos from its role in Liberia. There is no doubt that this was an important protection against greater international censure and sanctions after the execution of Ken Saro- Wiwa and eight other minority rights activists in November 1995.[45] The Nigerian military government is aware that if ECOMOG were to withdraw, the United Nations would be faced with an impossible choice between despatching a multinational force to keep the peace or leaving Liberia to the mercies of the warlords. Nigeria is unlikely to throw away one of its strongest cards by pulling out of Liberia. Instead its efforts are directed towards securing greater international funding for ECOMOG, while periodically threatening to withdraw.

For several years Nigerian policy in Liberia was driven by loyalty to President Doe and the various Krahn factions, combined with an irrational hostility to Charles Taylor.[46] Since mid- 1995 this policy has been turned on its head. Charles Taylor visited Abuja in the run-up to the August 1995 agreement, seeking a deal with Nigeria's rulers.[47] The precise substance of any agreement is not known, but it is clear that Taylor now acts with Nigerian backing - neutralizing the impact of Côte d'Ivoire's withdrawal of support. During the April 1996 fighting in Monrovia it was clear that the NPFL could count on the indulgence of the Nigerian ECOMOG contingent.[48]

4.2 A Shift in Domestic Alliances

Charles Taylor's search for new international allies has been matched by his shift in domestic alignment. In 1994 he was weakened by the defection of a number of NPFL members of the transitional government and appeared to be trying to retrieve his position by coming to an understanding with his old enemies in the AFL.[49] In the event, he soldered a new alliance with a different enemy, the Alhaji Kromah faction of ULIMO - an organization originally launched to counter the NPFL. This alliance reached fruition with their joint attacks on ULIMO-J in April 1996, but dates back to their Memorandum of Understanding in October 1995.[50]


5.1 The Persistence of the Warlord System

In some respects the shift in domestic alliances is not a new factor. Although the Doe presidency saw the ethnicization of Liberian politics, it is equally clear that there are no abiding alliances, ethnic or otherwise, between the different armed factions - merely political and economic ambition. The fact that Charles Taylor's NPFL, which once massacred Mandingos, should find itself in alliance with a Mandingo-led organization does not represent a fundamental shift in Liberian politics. One historian has commented on how ethnic labels are used by politicians to mobilize support:

Once small groups of fighters, identifying themselves by ethnic labels, had begun to fight, and their activities had been reported in the media or by word of mouth, it easily led to more generalized suspicion of one group towards another. All of Liberia's current ethnic feuds started at the top and spread downwards. To a great extent all have been manufactured by people hungry for power, using violence as a means of political recruitment. Victims of militia violence from various parts of Liberia, interviewed in July 1994, reported that war bands in fact were generally composed of people speaking various Liberian languages. This supports the view that the ethnic labels generally attached to the various militias are ideological representations used by politicians as a means of creating constituencies. They then acquire a certain political substance over course of time.[51]

It is noteworthy that most of the leaders of current armed factions were Ministers or senior officials of the Doe government, where the mobilization of ethnicity in support of kleptocracy was refined as an art: Charles Taylor, George Boley, Alhaji Kromah and General Bowen. Charles Taylor himself is an Americo-Liberian - not even a member of the ethnic groups whose interests he claims to champion.[52]

These warlords continue to benefit from a breakdown in law and order and the existence of a predatory economy. Perhaps an even greater problem is the fact that tens of thousands of fighters have also become accustomed to surviving by looting - whether from the civilian population or from aid agencies. Ellis describes the system of raiding and recruitment of slave labour by these armed bands as "probably akin to the mode of warfare practised in the days of the slave trade".[53] It is significant that Tubmanburg has become the focus of clashes between ULIMO-J and ECOMOG, because the area is the diamond centre of the country. Factions have mined the gems illicitly throughout the war.[54] The Washington Post published a letter from a former deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Monrovia in which he wrote that there was little to choose between the different factions:

The warlords continue to be able to profit from timber, diamonds, gold, looting and shakedowns. So long as they can profit from the status quo, they have little motivation to move the peace process forward.

He also noted that "some unscrupulous foreign business interests (including Americans)" have armed the factions "in search for restoring the bottom line on the profit-and-loss sheet".[55]

5.2 Underrepresentation of Civil Society

The 1993 Cotonou agreement differed from its predecessors in giving seats to the warlords on the Liberia National Transitional Government (LNTG), a formula continued with the Council of State established under the Abuja agreement. The argument in favour of such an approach is that it gives the faction leaders a stake in the transitional process; the argument against is that it rewards the warlords' violence and effectively carves up the country between them. Whatever the merits of these arguments, it is indisputable that the domination of the transitional arrangements by the faction leaders has marginalized civilian politicians and the institutions of civil society. Thus the chairman of the LNTG, David Kpomakpor, and the first chairman of the Council of State, Wilton Sankawulo, both proved to be ineffectual.

Yet the institutions of civil society are surprisingly vigorous, at least in Monrovia, considering the extent of the social breakdown of the last 16 years.[56] In 1994 the national conference provided a focus for popular opposition to the Akosombo agreement.[57] The Roman Catholic church in particular has been effective in documenting human rights abuse (through its Justice and Peace Commission) and in denouncing the role of the warlords (through Archbishop Michael Francis).[58] During the April 1996 fighting in Monrovia, Archbishop Francis narrowly escaped with his life and NPFL forces specifically attacked church property.[59]

Despite the fact that any hope for Liberia's future must lie in these non-military, non-partisan institutions, they remain peripheral to the peace process.

5.3 The Failure of Disarmament

Disarmament of the factions has been the hurdle which none of the 13 peace agreements have succeeded in clearing. The ECOWAS summits of July and August 1996 have established a series of inducements and sanctions in the hope of securing the active participation of the faction leaders in the disarmament process.[60] The problems are well described by David Kpomakpor who, as former LNTG chairman, can be assumed to know what he is talking about:

[The factions] don't trust each other. No one wants to start giving up his arms first. This is where the problem lies. Whether you bring them to Monrovia and make them members of the council of state and you give them the confidence that they need to disarm is a problem...

When the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) took office, people thought they would disarm. It never happened. Later NPFL split into two, with the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). Then came the LNTG, and disarmament did not take place. And now, people are saying that again they should set up a new government before disarmament. In the absence of disarmament, I don't care how many governments you set up, you are going to get the same problem.[61]

There is an argument in favour of proceeding with elections before disarmament is completed (as happened in practice in Mozambique). In Sierra Leone, it was considered important to press ahead with elections despite the continuing rebel war. The elections proved an effective means of mobilizing civilian dissatisfaction with the armed conflict and bringing about a cease-fire.[62] In Liberia, however, the situation is much more complex, since there are many more armed factions and the process of breakdown has advanced much further. It is hard to imagine how fair elections can be held without prior disarmament.[63] And it is almost impossible to imagine how such disarmament can be achieved.

5.4 The Dual Role of ECOMOG: Peacekeeper and Partisan Force

The shift in Nigerian support from the Krahn alliance to Charles Taylor does nothing to clear up the ambiguity surrounding the role of ECOMOG. Since they were first deployed in 1990 the Nigerian troops have been criticized for open partisanship, human rights abuses and looting.[64] At the same time, paradoxically, they have been the only guarantors of the remnants of democracy and civil society in the Monrovia area.[65]

In the crisis leading up to the April 1996 fighting, ECOMOG gave a green light to the NPFL in its attacks on ULIMO-J and then stepped aside to allow the NPFL and ULIMO-K the run of the streets of Monrovia.[66] A US State Department spokesperson made an explicit attack on ECOMOG in May 1996:

The ECOMOG troops have been heavily involved since the day they arrived in ripping off Liberians, in looting goods, in dealing in contraband. This reached extraordinarily high levels and the West African governments ought to police ECOMOG better. These people are supposedly there to keep the peace.... they didn't keep the peace very well, they didn't keep it at all. They didn't acquit themselves very well when the factions started fighting and they have been engaged in personal profiteering, pirating.[67]

Yet, as Africa Confidential observed, "things might have been even worse without Ecomog", who succeeded in protecting the country's telecommunications, power, water and banking organizations. Also, while the Nigerian troops were facilitating the NPFL's attack, the Guinean contingent rescued the leading NPFL defectors in the government, Tom Woewiyu, Samuel Dokie and Lavelli Supuwood, saving them from death at the hands of Charles Taylor's troops.[68]

5.5 Reluctance of International Community to Commit Resources

For all its weaknesses, ECOMOG is the force chosen by the international community for Liberia since Western countries are unprepared to commit their own troops, except, as with the US operation in April 1996, when their own nationals are at risk. Yet there is also a reluctance to pledge resources to ECOMOG.[69] The annual budget of the UN observer operation in Liberia is equivalent to five days' UN peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia.[70] An international contact group on Liberia was established in response to the April 1996 crisis. Strengthening ECOMOG was one of three priorities it identified, along with restoring security in Monrovia and encouraging the factions to return to the Abuja peace process.[71] Undoubtedly one of the reasons why individual ECOMOG soldiers are involved in looting is their own lack of resources; yet their indiscipline reinforces the reluctance of donor governments to support them.[72]

While a crisis such as that in April-May 1996 has the immediate effect of alerting the international community to a humanitarian disaster, in the longer term the evident lack of commitment to the peace process on the part of the faction leaders discourages donors. Persistent insecurity and the massive theft of vehicles and relief goods is a serious disincentive.[73]


The obituaries for the nation state in Africa have been premature. It became a cliché of both academic and journalistic commentary that "tribe" or "ethnicity" was a far more powerful identity for most Africans than the nation state, which consisted of little more than lines drawn on a map at the Berlin Conference in 1884. Yet the nation state has been surprisingly persistent: Africa survived the Biafra and Katanga secessionist movements in the 1960s. In the 1990s the states which have collapsed most completely have been either mono-ethnic (Somalia) or with a long history of national identity (Rwanda). Multi-ethnic states such as Nigeria, Zaire, Kenya and Mozambique have seen conflict but have remained intact, apparently against the odds. Liberia falls into the same category.

One explanation for this is probably that "ethnicity", which was once regarded as primordial, can now be seen to be just as much of an "imagined community" as the nation.[74] Indeed, contemporary notions of ethnicity date from around the same time as the nation state in Africa, since most African languages were codified by European missionaries who used them to identify "tribal" affiliation.[75] Neither national nor ethnic identity is more valid than the other - they are simply different. In Liberia at least, ethnicity is an extremely fluid category - less a permanent identity than a means of mobilizing in competition for scarce resources.

Even so, it is striking that none of the warlords has attempted to break away from the Liberian state - not even Charles Taylor, during the period when he controlled most of the country's territory and economic life. His ambition, like that of the other warlords, is to be President of Liberia - not president of the Gios and Manos or any other ethnic constituency.[76] The implication of this is that while Liberia will continue to implode, it is unlikely to fragment. Also, for as long as the cease-fire holds in Sierra Leone, the fighting is unlikely to spill beyond Liberia's borders (although refugees will presumably continue to flee). The governments of Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire are terrified by the implications of the Liberian conflict for their own internal security and are belatedly taking action to secure their own territory.

However, none of this offers much cause for optimism. The preconditions for a successful peace process can be summarized as threefold:

•           a binding agreement for the rapid disarmament of factions before elections.

•           control of the transition by civilian representatives, not warlords.

•           sufficient and appropriate support by governments from the region and other parts of the world and agencies to allow the first two conditions to be fulfilled.

None of these conditions is currently in place. In August 1996 ECOWAS threatened to apply sanctions to faction leaders who failed to abide by the disarmament timetable. Yet it remains to be seen what effect these threats will have, or whether they will be implemented even-handedly. Peace is not yet at hand.


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Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1991.

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"Liberia: Between Repression and Slaughter". The Atlantic. December 1992.

Carver, Richard.

Liberia: What Hope for Peace?. WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR. October 1994 (UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases).

Carver, Richard.

Nigeria: On the Brink of Civil War?. WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR. February 1996 (UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases).

Conciliation Resources.

Accord: The Liberian Peace Process 1990-1996. London, 1996.

Ellis, Stephen.

"Liberia 1989-1994: A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence". African Affairs. Vol. 94 (1995). Pp. 165-197.

Human Rights Watch.

Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia. New York, September 1994.

Independent [London].

"Children Hacked to Death". 19 April 1995.

International Committee of the Red Cross.

"Now Back in Liberia, ICRC Calls for Fundamental Reappraisal". Geneva, 22 April 1996 (press release).

International Human Rights Internship Program and Swedish NGO Foundation for Human Rights.

The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington and Stockholm, 1994.

Inter Press Service.

"Liberia: U.S. "Moderately Encouraged" by Fall in Violence". 9 January 1995 (Greennet).

Inter Press Service.

"West Africa-Liberia: Another Peace Attempt". 16 May 1995 (Greennet).

Inter Press Service.

"Africa-Human Rights: Concern for Liberia and Sierra Leone". 23 May 1995 (Greennet).

Inter Press Service.

"Liberia-Politics: More Trouble Ahead". 4 January 1996 (Greennet).

Inter Press Service.

"Liberia-Politics: Dying for Diamonds". 18 January 1996 (Greennet).

Mail and Guardian.

31 May 1996 (Greennet).

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

"Ecomog Declares Certain Areas of Montserrado County Safe". 6 May 1995. Quoting Radio ELBC [Monrovia]. 4 May 1995.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

"Ecomog Reports Clash with Ulimo Fighters, Warns Factions". 20 May 1995. Quoting Radio ELBC [Monrovia]. 18 May 1995.


22 August 1995 (Greennet).


3 October 1995 (Greennet).


6 October 1995 (Greennet).


15 January 1996 (Greennet).


21 February 1996 (Greennet).


4 March 1996 (Greennet).


24 May 1996 (Greennet).

Save the Children Fund UK.

Emergency Up Sesay, Max Ahmadu."Bringing Peace to Liberia" in Conciliation Resources. Accord: The Liberian Peace Process 1990-1996. London, 1996.

United Nations. Security Council.

Fourteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia. S/1995/1042. 18 December 1995.

United Nations. Security Council.

Seventeenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia. S/1996/362. 21 May 1996.

United Nations. Security Council.

Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia. S/1996/684. 22 August 1996.

United States Committee for Refugees.

No Place Like Home: Mozambican Refugees Begin Africa's Largest Repatriation. Washington, December 1993.

United States Department of State.

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 - Liberia. Washington: GPO, March 1996.

Vail, Leroy (ed).

The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. Berkeley and London: University of California and James Currey, 1989.

Voice of America.

14 September 1995 (Greennet).

Voice of America.

7 March 1996 (Greennet).

Voice of America.

9 April 1996 (Greennet).

World Food Programme.

"WFP Begins Emergency Airlift in Liberia". WFP/1031. 25 March 1996 (press release).

West Africa [London].

"Liberia: The Abidjan Factor". 8 March 1993.

West Africa [London].

"Peace or Mirage?". 9 January 1995.

West Africa [London].

"New Dangers Emerge". 13 February 1995.

West Africa [London].

"Renewed Fighting". 20 February 1995.

West Africa [London].

"Massacre in Yosi". 24 April 1995.

West Africa [London].

"Breaking the Ice". 12 June 1995.

West Africa [London].

"End of Civil War?". 28 August 1995.

West Africa [London].

"Uneasy Road to Peace". 28 August 1995.

Woods II, Samuel Kofi.

"Civic Initiatives in the Peace Process" in Conciliation Resources. Accord: The Liberian Peace Process 1990-1996. London, 1996.


The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.


[1] United Nations, Security Council, Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/684, 22 August 1996

[2] The remainder of this section summarizes Richard Carver, Liberia: What Hope for Peace? (WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR, October 1994) (UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases)

[3] Full texts of all the main peace accords, with commentary, are reprinted in Conciliation Resources, Accord: The Liberian Peace Process 1990-1996, (London, 1996).

[4] West Africa [London], "Renewed Fighting", 20 February 1995

[5] Independent [London], "Children Hacked to Death", 19 April 1995

[6] United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 - Liberia (Washington: GPO, March 1996)

[7] West Africa [London], "Massacre in Yosi", 24 April 1995

[8] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Ecomog Declares Certain Areas of Montserrado County Safe", 6 May 1995, quoting Radio ELBC [Monrovia], 4 May 1995

[9] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Ecomog Reports Clash with Ulimo Fighters, Warns Factions", 20 May 1995, quoting Radio ELBC, [Monrovia], 18 May 1995

[10] Inter Press Service, "West Africa-Liberia: Another Peace Attempt", 16 May 1995 (Greennet)

[11] Reuters, 22 August 1995 (Greennet); West Africa [London], "End of Civil War?", 28 August 1995

[12] Voice of America, 14 September 1995 (Greennet)

[13] Reuters, 3 October and 6 October 1995 (Greennet)

[14] United Nations, Security Council, Fourteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1995/1042, 18 December 1995

[15] Inter Press Service, "Liberia-Politics: More Trouble Ahead", 4 January 1996 (Greennet)

[16] Reuters, 4 March 1996 (Greennet)

[17] Voice of America, 7 March 1996 (Greennet)

[18] Africa Confidential [London], "Liberia: Out of Control", 10 May 1996

[19] United Nations, Security Council, Seventeenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/362, 21 May 1996

[20] United Nations, Security Council, Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/684, 22 August 1996

[21] Ibid.

[22] United States Committee for Refugees, No Place Like Home: Mozambican Refugees Begin Africa's Largest Repatriation, (Washington, December 1993)

[23] Save the Children Fund (UK), Emergency Up

[24] Inter Press Service, "Africa-Human Rights: Concern for Liberia and Sierra Leone", 23 May 1995 (Greennet)

[25] United Nations, Security Council, Seventeenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/362, 21 May 1996

[26] See, for example, Reuters, 15 January 1996 (Greennet), on the problems of access to the 120,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, especially in Lofa and Cape Mount Counties. See also World Food Programme, "WFP begins emergency airlift in Liberia", WFP/1031, 25 March 1996 (press release)

[27] See, for example, International Committee of the Red Cross, "Now Back in Liberia, ICRC Calls for Fundamental Reappraisal", Geneva, 22 April 1996 (press release)

[28] United Nations, Security Council, Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/684, 22 August 1996

[29] Mail and Guardian, 31 May 1996 (Greennet)

[30] United Nations, Security Council, Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/684, 22 August 1996

[31] United Nations, Security Council, Seventeenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/362, 21 May 1996

[32] Voice of America, 9 April 1996 (Greennet)

[33] Carver, Liberia: What Hope for Peace?

[34] United Nations, Security Council, Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/684, 22 August 1996

[35] Bill Berkeley, "Liberia: Between Repression and Slaughter", The Atlantic (December 1992)

[36] Africa Report [New York], "The Child Soldiers", July-August 1994

[37] Human Rights Watch, Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia, (New York, September 1994)

[38] Carver, Liberia: What Hope for Peace?

[39] Ibid.

[40] See Ibid. and West Africa [London], "Liberia: The Abidjan Factor", 8 March 1993

[41] Agence France Presse, 20 June 1995 (Nexis)

[42] Reuters, 21 February 1996 (Greennet)

[43] Stephen Ellis, Fellow and former Director, Afrika-studiecentrum, Leiden. Telephone interview, 27 September 1996

[44] All Africa Press Service, 20 May 1996 (Greennet)

[45] Richard Carver, Nigeria: On the Brink of Civil War?, March 1996 (UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases, July 1996)

[46] Africa Report [New York], "Liberia: Targeting Taylor", July-August 1993

[47] Africa Confidential [London], "Taylor's Nine Lives", 9 June 1995; West Africa [London], "Breaking the Ice", 12 June 1995

[48] Africa Confidential [London], "Liberia: Out of Control", 10 May 1996

[49] West Africa [London], "Peace or Mirage?", 9 January 1995

[50] United Nations, Security Council, Fourteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1995/1042, 18 December 1995

[51] Stephen Ellis, "Liberia 1989-1994: A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence", African Affairs, 94 (1995), pp. 165-197

[52] Berkeley

[53] Ellis, "Liberia 1989-1994"

[54] Inter Press Service, "Liberia-Politics: Dying for Diamonds", 18 January 1996 (Greennet)

[55] Inter Press Service, "Liberia: U.S. 'Moderately Encouraged' by Fall in Violence", 9 January 1995 (Greennet)

[56] Samuel Kofi Woods II, "Civic Initiatives in the Peace Process" in Conciliation Resources, pp. 27-32

[57] West Africa [London], "A Surprise 'Coup'", 19 September 1994

[58] Woods, "Civic Initiatives"

[59] Africa Confidential [London], "Liberia: Out of Control", 10 May 1996

[60] United Nations, Security Council, Eighteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/684, 22 August 1996

[61] West Africa [London], "Uneasy Road to Peace", 28 August 1995

[62] All Africa Press Service, 20 May 1996 (Greennet)

[63] West Africa [London], "New Dangers Emerge", 13 February 1995

[64] See, for example, Africa Watch, Liberia: Waging War to Keep the Peace: The ECOMOG Intervention and Human Rights (New York, June 1993)

[65] International Human Rights Internship Program and Swedish NGO Foundation for Human Rights, The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington and Stockholm, 1994)

[66] Africa Confidential [London], "Liberia: Out of Control", 10 May 1996

[67] Nicholas Burns, quoted by Reuters, 24 May 1996 (Greennet)

[68] Africa Confidential [London], "Liberia: Out of Control", 10 May 1996

[69] Africa Faith and Justice Network, Not Enough Money for Peace in Liberia, 8 November 1995 (Greennet)

[70] Max Ahmadu Sesay, "Bringing Peace to Liberia" in Conciliation Resources, p. 79.

[71] United Nations, Security Council, Seventeenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, S/1996/362, 21 May 1996

[72] Ibid.

[73] Africa Faith and Justice Network

[74] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 1991)

[75] See, for example, Leroy Vail (ed), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (London: James Currey, 1989)

[76] Ellis, "Liberia 1989-1994"

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