What chance for a country plundered by its biased, drug-dealing peace-keepers?

In the third of our series, Philippa Atkinson hears a grim tale

"Every car or moveable object gone" has long been the Liberian epithet for the West African peace-keeping force, Ecomog.

First deployed in August 1990 to restore order in the capital, Monrovia, Ecomog has been accused both of taking sides and of taking part in looting. Many observers feel the Nigerian domination of the force has been the decisive factor in its failure to carry out its mission. As one Liberian said: "Would you ask the Nigerian military to mount a peace-keeping operation in your country?"

When the civil war reached Monrovia in July 1990, the reaction of most foreigners was to get out as quickly as possible. The United States, in spite of its cultural and commercial ties with Liberia, was reluctant to commit its own troops, and encouraged the efforts of Ecowas, the economic grouping of West African states, to find a regional solution. The US also provided political support, military intelligence, and funding for Ecomog. The Organisation of African Unity and the UN have praised the regional effort, and the force has been seen as a model for African attempts to resolve its own problems.

But Ecomog was compromised from the start by Nigerian leadership. Nigeria, which has provided all the generals and up to two-thirds of the troops, has always been opposed to Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Fearing that Ivory Coast's support for the NPFL was an attempt to further francophone interests in the region, Nigeria saw control of Ecomog as a chance to impose its own agenda in Liberia.

Ecomog began to operate covertly against the NPFL in 1991, through its assistance to the rival Ulimo movement in western Liberia. Its neutral status was finally abandoned in November 1992, when it openly allied itself with the new factions in an all-out attack on the NPFL. All the new factions - Ulimo, AFL and LPC - have been associated with Ecomog, and all have been responsible for appalling atrocities. Charles Taylor has consistently refused to disarm to Ecomog, calling for a small UN force to monitor the process. "It is not possible for us to disarm to anyone who is ... shooting at us," he said.

Evidence of the dubious business activities of Ecomog was exposed in 1995, when the US State Department's annual human rights report accused the force of "systematic looting", even of "entire buildings for scrap to be sold abroad". An informant suggested also that one reason Ecomog sealed the Liberian borders in late-1992 was to gain control of the lucrative arms and drugs trade along the coast. According to an EU official in Monrovia, the commercial interests of the Nigerians and their lack of respect for humanitarian operations have created "such a generalised distrust of Ecomog that the war will never be over until they leave".

The Cotonou agreement of July 1993 recognised some of the ambiguities of the force, but failed to address them. A small UN observer force was assembled in late-1993, but has so far played no role in the conflict. Without such controls, Nigerian interests in Liberia continue to provide a lucrative source of income for soldiers on the ground and the junta back home.

Ecomog has been conspicuous by its absence in the latest fighting in Monrovia. This may be due to reluctance to oppose its former allies, the AFL and Ulimo, or perhaps the peace-keepers are just too scared.

Peace-keeping is a difficult and dangerous job at the best of times. But if the peace-keepers themselves cannot maintain an integrity and neutrality, it is doomed to failure.

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