There is a poignant moment in Howard French's excellent book, A Continent for the Taking: the Tragedy and Hope of Africa (2004) that, in its intensity and suspense, has the quality to stay forever in one's mind. French, a former New York Times West African Bureau chief, encounters the murderous Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in Monrovia. Amidst the general distress, Taylor, "impeccably coiffed, manicured and groomed," is "dressed in a finely tailored two-piece African-style suit," and exuded of "haughty self-contentment." He is seated "in a high-backed rattan chair reminiscent of the one of the famous pictures of Black Panther leader Huey Newton," and he is holding, for good measure, "an elaborately carved wooden scepter." It is a triumphant Taylor-this is after the 1996 Abuja Accord which would finally pave his way to becoming President of Liberia---and, for all intents and purposes, the warlord must look presidential.
Taylor is holding a press conference, and French takes his chance. "Isn't it outrageous," he asks Taylor, who had just described his predatory insurgency as 'God's war.' "Isn't it outrageous for someone who has drugged small boys, given them arms and trained them to kill to call this God's war? How dare you call the destruction of your country in this manner and the killing of two hundred thousand people God's war?" Ever wily and articulate, Taylor did not miss a beat. "I just believe in the destiny of man being controlled by God, and wars, whether man-made or what, are directed by a force," he said. "And so when I say it is God's war, God has his own way of restoring the land, and he will restore it after the war."
This statement was made in 1996. A year later, after rigged elections, Taylor became President. Seven years later, however, God has still not restored much in Liberia. A visitor to the country is immediately struck by its decrepitude. The Roberts International Airport is a ramshackle outfit looking very much like a makeshift trading outpost. One of its terminal buildings was burnt down during the early phases of the war, in early 1990, and has not been rebuilt. And developments that should be hopeful are marred by the country's unique complications.
A large UN force, 15,000 strong, has now been deployed throughout the country, and is desperately trying to disarm the demented combatants who ravaged the country for over a decade. The disarmament should have been easy: many of the Liberian militias have gone through such a process before, some of them twice (ahead of the 1997 elections, and during Sierra Leone disarmament process, in which some of current Liberian fighters were active). But nearly a year after the UN mission in the country, UNMIL, deployed, officials still do not have an accurate estimate of combatants to be disarmed. Before the start of disarmament in December last year, UNMIL had a 'working figure' of 38,000 combatants to be disarmed. The first attempted demobilization that month quickly turned into chaos, after the militias, desperate for the cash incentive to hand in their weapons (an initial $150 per combatant to be followed by another $150 several months later) before Christmas, stormed Monrovia, the capital. At least 8 people were killed in the ensuing violence. In the event, the UN paid 12,000 soldiers but received only 8,000 weapons.
Disarmament restarted in April this year, with the setting up of 4 cantonment sites where the various militias would hand in weapons. At that point, the UN estimated that 45,000 combatants would be disarmed. By mid-July, however, the UN had already taken weapons from 54,000, and there were more turning up each day. A UN official I spoke to in Monrovia in July calmly explained how, after a 2-hour long meeting with "48 Generals", he was still unable to tell how many militias remained to be disarmed. Forty-eight Generals? 'Yes, they are rebel generals, bush generals, and they are jealous of their ranks!' He was not facetious, this bright, diligent bureaucrat; he was deadpan. And that, in a way, sums up the pathos of the Liberian situation: the corrosive audacity of its militias, the sense of entitlement, of a people steeped into neurosis.
At the start of the disarmament in April, I traveled with one of the UN teams to Gbarnga, once the headquarters of Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militias. Formerly a fairly prosperous town, with abandoned gas stations and bullet-riddled villas to show for it, Gbarnga is now, after years of fighting, a sullen outpost, its residents sucked into a brooding, almost hermetical mode. A very long line of militias had already been formed by 10:00 am, waiting at the cantonment site to hand in old AK 47 rifles and collect their money. At first glance, there was nothing in their stupefying, red-eyed vacancies to indicate the vicious murderers they have been. Things were proceeding smoothly until, suddenly, a scrawny militia with bandama around the head jumped ahead of the queue, raised his old rifle and started shouting abuses at the UN officers. 'Jacques Klein is a mother-fucker, you are all sâ€¦t! Give us our money now or we'll go to Sierra Leone, to Guinea, to Ivory Coast, and start fighting all over again. We'll goâ€¦'
Liberia is obviously a highly traumatized country, but outbursts like this still have the capacity to unsettle. Founded by ex-American slaves in the nineteenth century, and misused as a client state by successive US governments during the Cold War---only to brutally abandon it when the awful dictatorship they had been bankrolling imploded with disastrous humanitarian consequences---Liberia confronts the international community with undaunted challenges. The country's politics have always found expression either as brutal hysteria or bathos: anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Fortunately, the UN mission in the country appears to be finally gaining traction. It began on a false footing. The American marines who landed as back-up to Nigerian troops on pre-UN deployment immediately after Charles Taylor was forced to relinquish power in September last year quietly melted away even before the mission would get underway. Their main gripe, it was reported, was that there were too many mosquitoes in the country (all of them were no doubt quickly sent to Iraq---the real reason for their Liberian withdrawal). The new head of the UN mission, Jacques Klein, is an abrasive ex-American soldier who distinguished himself in the Balkans as a UN official but who had little knowledge of West Africa, and even less, interest to learn. On arrival in Liberia, Klein is said to have suggested separating the Muslims from the Christians to avoid 'ethnic cleansing'---a Quizotic mindset from the Balkans. His relationship with the UN force commander, the highly respected Kenyan General Daniel Opande---who oversaw the disarmament process in Sierra Leone---was bad to the point of hostility. The two men simply were not on speaking terms. Morale among the UN staff, cowered by Klein's often boorish behavior, was very low. The Liberian press, ever vociferous and often more vocal than reasoning, was uniformly hostile to the mission.
Things have much improved now, and there is real hope that the country, Africa's first republic, will make the transition from interminable, low-level criminal warfare to real peace. A successful disarmament, of course, will be the key to this. This is why greater effort should be made to vet ex-combatants submitting themselves to the process. But beyond a successful disarmament is the challenge of reintegrating the ex-combatants in a society impoverished and degraded by war. A promised American reintegration package, worth millions of dollars and said to be aimed at providing employment for 10,000 ex-combatants, has still not arrived. Inundating the country, on the other hand, are hundreds of North American Baptist missionaries holding conferences and seminars almost monthly. More churches have been rebuilt or renovated than schools, and there is still no electricity or running water in the country.
There is also the dismal fragmentation of the political class. General and presidential elections are set for October this year, and already 19 aspirants have emerged as possible presidential contestants---this in a nation of slightly more than 3 million people, more than half of them displaced by warfare. 'Liberian politics,' Graham Greene once wrote, 'were like a crap game played with loaded dice.' Greene was writing in the 1930s, and then the legendary corruption of Liberia's politics had set rules that were universally acknowledged. Today, that tidy, antique corruption has a quaintness that can only be imagined. The country's fiercely competitive diversity has foreclosed that. The stakes are much higher now. And judging by the occasional rowdiness of the ex-combatants, it is hard to say whether they, hired guns of one sociopathic entrepreneur or another in the past, will not make themselves available to some disgruntled politician-turn-warlord. And there is that wild card Charles Taylor, who should be turned over to the UN-mandated Special Court for Sierra Leone if only to make the atmosphere look less foggy.
The International Community, in short, needs to continue to actively engage in the region. Among the UN staff in Liberia today, the talk is that Guinea is the next flashpoint, and some opportunistic staffers are already learning French for a future posting to Guinea. Peacekeeping in West Africa, in other words, is becoming a growth industry. This should not be allowed to happen.