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  • Liberia: An Update
  • Dave Peterson (bio)

In the April 1996 issue of the Journal of Democracy, I wrote with guarded hopefulness about the prospects for peace and democracy in the troubled West African nation of Liberia. At the time I was writing (mid-March), a “relative calm” had indeed returned to the country, and “democracy, stability, and economic development [were] not out of the question.” That calm was shattered on April 6, however, when horrific factional strife erupted in the capital of Monrovia. At that time, Charles Taylor, a warlord responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Liberian civilians, had nearly achieved his longtime ambition of gaining the presidency. Had free and fair elections been held, he probably would have been the winner.

Taylor could still win—if not with votes, then with arms. Yet the results of the most recent fighting—which as of early June seems to have died down at last—suggest that Taylor has perhaps overreached himself. After six years of civil war, Taylor entered Monrovia last September as a triumphant wolf in sheep’s clothing. Under the terms of an agreement signed in Abuja, Nigeria, Taylor joined a collective presidency known as the Council of State, along with two other rival warlords and three civilian representatives.

Unwilling to wait for democratic elections later this year, Taylor instead made a grab for power. He started the latest round of phantasmagoric violence by moving against one of the weakest-seeming of his fellow warlords, Roosevelt Johnson. Johnson, however, proved tougher to crush than Taylor might have imagined—in fact, Johnson and his followers from the Krahn ethnic group showed themselves to be better trained and motivated than Taylor’s young, if more numerous and better- armed, irregulars—but the chaos that engulfed Monrovia suited another apparent objective of Taylor’s, which was to destroy the challenge to his power represented by Liberia’s civil society.

In the days preceding the violence, Taylor, who had dominated the Council of State, had found his authoritarian instincts repeatedly frustrated by Monrovia’s scrappy independent press, churches, human rights organizations, women’s organizations, lawyers, civilian politicians, and others. He had even compiled a hit list of troublesome opponents. Indeed, in the course of the mayhem, most independent media institutions were burned or looted, many individuals were hunted down, and the offices of the UN and of various nongovernmental organizations [End Page 154] were attacked. Many of the places targeted were located far from the actual conflict between Taylor’s and Johnson’s fighters, a clear sign that the depredations were planned.

As Amos Sawyer, Liberia’s former interim civilian president, said in the New York Times on April 26, “What started out as a transitional government has been taken over by the big three warlords, and they have decided they are going to crush whatever civilian opposition they can. Whatever they had not succeeded in bullying out of existence or shutting down through rigged courts they have just crushed, and for Liberia, that represents a tremendous setback.”

Many lessons can be drawn from Liberia’s woes. As I warned in my previous article, “international neglect of Liberia [will] more than likely make for a self-fulfilling prophecy of chaos, ruin, death, and despair.” In addition, Liberia has demonstrated that, if those who have the guns are not willing to relinquish some of their power, all bets are off—no matter how dynamic the civil society, no matter how effective the international agencies, and no matter how clear the popular will. The same story has been repeated throughout Africa recently—from Rwanda and Burundi to Somalia, Nigeria, Zaire, Niger, the Central African Republic, and many other countries. If corrupt militaries and marauding armed factions cannot be brought under control, democrats and civilians in general will suffer.

“This is a contest between good and evil,” contends Samuel Kofi Woods, director of Liberia’s Justice and Peace Commission, a leading human rights organization. “The forces of evil are represented by the warring factions—all of them. The voice of good, decency and civilization needs to be strengthened. We will go back to challenge the factions so they will not succeed, to...

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pp. 154-156
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