'Why didn't you save us five years' suffering?'

In the second of our series, Philippa Atkinson examines the effects of outside interference

When Graham Greene visited Liberia in 1934, he was confused by the seemingly impenetrable political scene. "It will be seen," he wrote, "that Liberian politics are complicated." The last six years of civil war in this small sub-tropical country have certainly been complicated. The five different factions, three transitional governments and 13 peace agreements have made it, for many, too complicated even to try to understand.

But the causes matter, because Liberia's descent into chaos is not accidental. The collapse into economic warfare and factional fighting for political control can at least partly be attributed to the hostility of the US and Nigeria to Charles Taylor.

It started on Christmas Eve 1989, when Charles Taylor entered Liberia in the last of the many attempts to end the autocratic rule of President Samuel Doe. In just six months, Taylor's forces, swelled by support from those targeted by Doe's brutal regime, had reached Monrovia, with the national army, the AFL, staging a strategic retreat. The war lasted only 10 months, and the ceasefire - negotiated in November 1990 - held for two years between Taylor's NPFL and Ecomog, the West African peacekeeping force.

Taylor controlled all of Liberia outside Monrovia, and, in the capital, an interim government ruled, with security provided by Ecomog. The country was divided, and a political stalemate precluded any early hopes of disarmament.

During this time, Taylor built up both a viable economy in Greater Liberia and popular support. The war had been marked by horrific violence, with groups associated with Doe's government being subject to summary and mass executions. But by early 1991 the violence was under control, and no new refugee flows occurred during this period.

The economy was supported by exports of rubber and logs from the main port of Buchanan. Taylor studied economics in the US and this education was perhaps reflected in his policies, which called on foreign concessions to pay wages in US dollars and taxes in kind. One company was asked to provide passenger buses for the Gbarnga-Kakata route, while the largest logging company in Buchanan provided electricity for the city.

The importance of Taylor's policies and the stability of his rule in Greater Liberia have only been recognised in retrospect. At the time, the US government, worried about Taylor's links with Libya, allied itself with the Nigerian component of Ecomog and its attempts to weaken Taylor's control.

Neither country was willing to let Taylor take over - the Nigerians because the then President Babangida had been a close associate and relative of Doe. While diplomatic and aid officials in Liberia now discuss Taylor's charisma, his consistency and his economics degree, back then the talk was of the atrocities committed by his fighters, his cocaine habit and his megalomania.

Ecomog is widely acknowledged to have conducted a covert campaign against Taylor during the ceasefire, through its support and funding of Ulimo, a new rebel army set up among Krahn and Mandingo refugees. These groups, leading political and business players under Doe, had been forced to flee for their lives in 1990, but, having amassed both contacts and wealth regrouped in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

By mid-1992 Ulimo were, with the help of Ecomog, driving Taylor's NPFL out of the diamond-rich areas of western Liberia. Refugees fleeing this area to Monrovia reported seeing Ulimo troops wearing Ecomog uniforms. Western Liberia has been controlled ever since by Ulimo and Ecomog, and the latest problems in Monrovia were partly sparked by in- fighting in January between Ecomog and Ulimo-J (the Krahn faction) over diamond mines near Tubmanberg.

During 1992, Ecomog was deployed around the country in accordance with the first peace agreement, the Yamoussoukro Accords. But Taylor refused to disarm to a non-neutral force, calling continuously for a small UN presence. In November 1992, he finally attacked Monrovia. "Operation Octopus" was strongly resisted by Ecomog, which bombed civilian areas to repel the NPFL attacks. Ecomog formed an open coalition with Ulimo and rearmed the AFL. Its actions, including direct attacks on an aid warehouse and convoy, were given the full backing of the UN Security Council in March 1993, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali praised the regional approach to conflict resolution.

The proliferation of warlords has made it much harder to resolve the conflict. Taylor's hands are not clean, and his motives may not be pure, but he alone has demonstrated a capability of creating some order. As one Liberian put it: "Why didn't you guys just let Taylor take over from the start - let him take what he's gonna get anyway, and save us five years of suffering."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor