Redistributed as a Service of the National Library for the Environment*
IB96025: Liberia: Current Issues and United States Policy
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade
September 26, 2000
Liberia, a small west African country, was established in 1847 by freed American slaves. In December 1989, Liberia plunged into civil war. Factional conflict raged for 7 years, despite a dozen peace agreements and the deployment of U.N. observers and the regional intervention force of the Economic Community of West African States. The conflict caused over 150,000 deaths, and over one-half of the population was internally displaced or fled the country. The conflict was notably vicious; the factions committed numerous atrocities and forcibly enlisted thousands of children as fighters. Throughout the conflict, Congress and successive administrations sought to ensure that adequate assistance reached Liberia and its refugees, thus maintaining a long-standing relationship with Liberia. The United States had been Liberia's leading pre-war trading partner and a major aid donor.
A durable peace process initiated in mid- 1996 resulted in the July 19, 1997 election as president of Liberia of former warlord Charles Taylor. As the new government began the tasks of reconstruction and reconciliation, Liberia appeared to have entered a period of normalcy. The murder of a prominent opposition leader and the government's temporary closure of a newspaper and two radio stations, however, raised doubts among many observers and prompted strong expressions of concern from the U. S. and the international community. Similar concerns were again raised in March 2000, after the Taylor government shut down two independent radio stations that had aired listener comments critical of the government.
On September 18, 1998, government security forces raided the compound of ethnic Krahn leader Roosevelt Johnson, killing scores--perhaps hundreds. Johnson and several supporters fled and sought refuge in the U.S. mission, which later arranged for Johnson's safe passage out of the country.
In January 1999, the United States and other countries accused Liberia of aiding rebels fighting the government of Sierra Leone, a charge Mr. Taylor denied. In Togo on July 7, President Taylor and other African leaders witnessed the signing of a peace accord between the government of Sierra Leone and the rebels.
In early 2000, as the Sierra Leone accord fell apart, Mr. Taylor was again widely accused by the international community, including the United States, of supporting Sierra Leone's rebel movement by trading arms and other resources for diamonds. In July 2000, in a resolution banning trade in "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone, the U.N. Security Council singled out the actions of Liberia in promoting this trade, thus fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone, and reasserted the currency of an earlier U.N. ban on arms exports to Liberia.
Twice in 1999 and again in July 2000, armed incursions by anti-Taylor forces into Liberia's Voinjama border area occurred. The first two attacks were defeated. Fighting in the third incident is on-going. Observers are divided on whether the conflict presents a serious threat to the Taylor regime or whether a minor threat is being used as a pretext for unknown military objectives on the part of the Taylor regime. The Guinean government has blamed several recent attacks on its territory on rebels sponsored by Liberia. It has attributed the attacks to the rebels it is fighting, claiming that they have retreated to Guinea.
Fighting that began on July 8, 2000, between Liberian government forces and a rebel group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) was on-going as of September 25. LURD's stated aim is to remove President Taylor from power. The Taylor government has accused Guinea of attempting to destabilize Liberia by allowing the rebels to operate from Guinean territory.
On the Guinean side of the border near Voinjama, the village of Massadou, and Macenta, a nearby town, were attacked on September 1 and 17, respectively, by unknown armed assailants. The Guinean government has blamed the attacks on armed opposition groups who it accuses Liberia and Burkina Faso of sponsoring, and has closed its border with Liberia. Thousands of local Guineans and refugees have reportedly fled to western Guinea, and the violence has heightened pre-existing tensions between the Guinean and Liberian governments. The former government has called for the expulsion of Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees from its territory. Both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Mano River Union (Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone) are undertaking efforts aimed at halting the conflict.
On July 5, in a resolution banning the export of "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone, the U.N. Security Council singled out the actions of Liberia in promoting this trade. Liberia was accused of exchanging arms and other resources for diamonds with the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group fighting the Sierra Leonean government diamonds--thus fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone. In its resolution, the Council also reasserted the currency of earlier U.N. sanctions barring arms exports to Liberia. On July 31 and August 1, Liberia, along with Burkina Faso, was again accused of supporting the RUF through illegal diamond trading during a U.N. hearing on the sanctions measure.
In 1822, with the assistance of American private philanthropic organizations, groups of freed slaves from the United States began to settle in coastal West Africa. In 1847, 25 years later, they declared their colony to be a free republic--the first on the African continent--and named it Liberia. Liberia modeled its constitution after that of the United States. For 133 years, Liberia remained independent and stable. But the political and economic domination by the Americo-Liberians (descendants of the former slaves) of the indigenous ethnic groups created ever-rising tensions. The former group, who constituted about 5% of the population, held jobs in the urban, modern economy, while about 80% of the latter group engaged in subsistence agriculture and had a lower standard of living.
Americo-Liberian rule came to an abrupt end in 1980, when 28-year old Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe staged a violent military coup, toppling the government of William Tolbert. Ethnic hostilities increased under President Doe; although indigenous Liberians ruled the country, the Krahn people, the small ethnic group to which Doe belonged, were the greatest beneficiaries of the takeover. The Doe government, which was notorious for human rights abuses, mistreated non-Krahn indigenous ethnic groups, as well as Americo-Liberians. On December 24, 1989, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, crossed into Liberia from Côte d'Ivoire, sparking seven years of civil war.
Beginning in November 1990, the factions that the civil war had spawned signed numerous cease-fires and demobilization agreements that focused on a transition to civilian rule, but none was effective until 1996. The factions refused to disarm, and scheduled elections were canceled because of continued fighting. Fighters looted homes, businesses, government offices, and international aid organizations throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Liberians fled their homes to escape the fighting, and during one particularly heavy period of conflict, as many as 20,000 sought refuge in the U.S. embassy's Greystone compound. The conflict caused over 150,000 deaths, and over one-half of the population was internally displaced or fled the country. The conflict was notably vicious; the factions committed numerous atrocities and forcibly enlisted thousands of children as fighters.
In late 1996, momentum toward a lasting peace increased. Despite continued violent incidents, factions began to turn over their weapons to the peacekeeping force of ECOWAS. ECOWAS had been present in Liberia since 1990 with the objectives of ending the conflict, monitoring cease-fire agreements, and working toward a peace settlement. In 1995 ECOWAS, in coordination with the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL), undertook a series of concerted diplomatic efforts to implement and extend earlier, abortive peace agreements signed by the factions. ECOWAS focused on building transitional governing institutions, continued disarmament and demobilization, mediation between the factions, and preparation for national elections. Its efforts were seen as being effective, in part, because they were backed by warnings to faction leaders that they would face personal sanctions and possible war criminal trials if they interfered with the peace building process.
Building on these efforts, ECOWAS, the United States, and other western donor states argued, during the first quarter of 1997, that national elections should proceed on May 30, 1997, as earlier scheduled. This election date was opposed by human rights groups, clergy, and many political parties. They argued for a later election date, contending that new weapons caches had been discovered, that disarmament had not progressed far enough, and that more time was needed for voter repatriation, registration, and education. These views were underpinned by delays in the seating of a new independent election commission. The delays caused the election to be postponed for a short period, to July 19, 1997.
Charles Taylor was among the first declared candidates for the presidency. He argued that the country needed a "strong leader." He was an early favorite in many rural areas, but he was less popular in Monrovia, where support was divided among the eleven other candidates. Defying an independent election commission ban on political activities, Mr. Taylor publicly launched his campaign in early May, before the other candidates. Multiple candidates, including three former warlords and several men who had served as cabinet ministers under the toppled Doe government, ran in the election. The main challenge to Mr. Taylor, however, was posed by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former United Nations executive.
Charles Taylor was proclaimed the winner, with 75.3% of the vote. By most accounts, the election--the country's first in 12 years--was peaceful, and voter registration and turnout rates were high. Between 700,000 and 750,000 Liberians registered to vote, a substantial figure, given that many people had fled the country or were displaced internally. Election day turnout was estimated at nearly 90%. Roughly 500 international observers were on hand, including 330 from the United Nations, groups from the European Union (EU) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and a team led by former President Jimmy Carter. Initially, candidate Johnson-Sirleaf complained of fraud and other irregularities, but international election monitors disagreed. Mr. Carter and spokesmen for EU, U.N., and OAU observers all characterized the vote as free, fair, and peaceful. Ms. Johnson- Sirleaf, who had termed the results "statistically impossible," later said she would present "a strong and constructive opposition."
Despite his well-known role in launching the civil war and fomenting bloodshed in Liberia over the preceding 7 years, Charles Taylor won by a substantial margin. Several possible reasons have been offered for this counter-intuitive outcome. First, Mr. Taylor, described as a charismatic figure, had a number of advantages in the race: he had the most money and controlled extensive media resources, including the country's only radio station. There were also reports that Taylor's campaign workers had enticed refugees to cross over from Ivory Coast to cast their votes for him in exchange for food and money, and transportation to polling stations was reportedly provided by vehicles owned by Mr. Taylor. Paradoxically, many Liberians believed that a vote for Mr. Taylor was a vote for peace and stability. Some feared that Mr. Taylor, as head of the largest armed faction, might continue to fight for power if he was not elected. Many also agreed with Mr. Taylor's claim that their country needed a "strong leader," particularly in light of the events in neighboring Sierra Leone--which had also suffered through a protracted civil war--where the elected president was deposed in May 1997 by a group of disaffected junior officers.
In light of his past conduct, however, the prospect of Charles Taylor as the elected leader of Liberia was disturbing to many Liberians and foreign observers. A Taylor presidency, some argued, might act as a disincentive to external assistance and investment. Some observers were also concerned over the possibility of renewed violence. Mr. Taylor had made many enemies during the conflict, and although a large number of fighters had been demobilized, the ECOWAS peacekeeping force, known as ECOMOG, continued to discover large arms caches well after the disarmament deadline.
President Taylor named a cabinet that included both family members and a former rival warlord. To get the nation's finances on track, his government announced that it would reintroduce the American dollar as the country's currency, submitted a stop-gap budget, and met with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the African Development Bank to develop a sound economic program, to which the European Union also pledged support. The new government sought support from diverse foreign governments. After his inauguration, President Taylor, who declined for security reasons to attend a U.N. meeting on Liberia in New York, began a round of official visits to neighboring states. He made several trips to Libya to meet with Muammar Gaddafi and later made an official visit to France. He also traveled to Taiwan, which has reportedly promised a $25 million grant to Liberia, and the city of Taipei donated 19 buses to Monrovia. Liberia has joined several other countries pressing for Taiwanese U.N. membership, an action that has prompted China to break relations with the Liberia.
Despite concerns about stability after the election, there were many signs of progress and normalcy in Liberia. In August 1997, a shipping embargo, begun by ECOMOG in 1993, was lifted, restoring an important source of revenue to the country. Seaports and airports reopened, providing communication and transportation links with the outside world. At the end of the month, UNOMIL personnel began to depart, but the U.N. maintained a presence in the country with the establishment, in December 1997, of the United Nations Peace-building Support Office in Liberia (UNOL). UNOL's purpose was to assist in the consolidation of peace, national recovery and reconstruction, and the creation of democratic structures.
In July 1999, the Liberian government launched a three-week conference intended to foster national unity. Attendees, who numbered more than one thousand, included the leadership of religious, political, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the diplomatic community. Representing the United States were Rev. Jesse Jackson, special envoy for the promotion of democracy and human rights, and Special Envoy to Liberia, Ambassador Howard Jeter.
The reintegration into society of former combatants, displaced people, and refugees has proven to be a daunting task. On three separate occasions in May 1998, former soldiers staged violent demonstrations, demanding back pay and pension benefits, an issue that had been complicated by the issuance of falsified demobilization certificates. Later, ex-soldiers briefly took hostage several dozen government officials, all members of Mr. Taylor's National Patriotic Party, to highlight their assertion that the government had disbursed only a fraction of a $3 million grant from Taiwan for demobilized troops. President Taylor responded by stating that his government was working on a program that would benefit all ex-combatants, regardless of their former affiliation, and that would include vocational training and rehabilitation for the disabled. Veterans, however, again demonstrated in August, 1999. Domestically displaced Liberians have also sought help; in April 1999, internal refugees demonstrated for government resettlement assistance.
In November 1999, Liberian political, business, and academic leaders held a 3-day meeting that focused on improving the economy. The forum, in preparation for a donor conference planned for early 2000, was attended by opposition politicians, who criticized the government's record on human rights and corruption. The meeting recommended the restructuring and reform of the Liberian civil service and security forces.
One prominent government critic, former presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has maintained that since the 1997 election, Liberian politics have been dominated by the Taylor regime, in part because the opposition lacks funds for organization. She has also stated that many opposition members and sympathizers have been hesitant to criticize Mr. Taylor for fear of jeopardizing their employment prospects. In a March 2000 interview, Johnson-Sirleaf also faulted the Taylor government for the slow pace of reforms, as well as "constant intimidation and denial of equal opportunity to opposition figures."
In early December 1999, an IMF assessment team visited the country. The International Finance Corporation, a World Bank institution, announced a $3.5 million loan to the Liberia Agricultural Company for rubber production, a move eventually expected to provide income to 2,000 Liberians. On December 6, Reuters reported that Freedom Gold, an American mining company chaired by evangelist Pat Robertson, would invest $10 million in Liberia. Liberia's reconstruction efforts received a setback, however, when the government failed to fulfill its election pledge to restore electricity completely in Monrovia by the end of 1999; most homes currently also lack running water.
The civil war claimed a high toll on non-combatants. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimated that 480,000 of Liberia's 2.1 million inhabitants became refugees, that 700,000 were internally displaced, and that over 150,000 people were killed during the civil war. By drastically reducing food production in rural areas and cutting off international trade, the civil war caused hunger and widespread malnutrition. It was not until ECOMOG occupied Monrovia in late August 1990 that foreign humanitarian assistance was able to reach the population. In 1994, the food situation in rural areas again deteriorated, as fighting forced farmers to leave their fields unharvested, and aid organizations abandoned many areas where their supplies were looted and other disruptions occurred. In 1996, fighting in Monrovia once more resulted in the theft and destruction of supplies and equipment of international relief organizations. Finally, countless human rights abuses and atrocities were committed against non-combatants, often along ethnic lines, and large numbers of children were used as fighters by most of the factions. Although large-scale fighting among the militia groups came to a halt in early 1997, widespread suffering continued. For months, relief organizations were discovering pockets of starving people. Thousands of non-combatant civilians emerged from the forests, where they fled to avoid being caught up in the factional violence, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished for lack of food and medicine. Thousands of children suffered from severe malnutrition; for many, the relief trucks that fanned out into the countryside arrived too late.
The suffering did not go unnoticed. In an April 1998 meeting in Paris, international donors agreed to resume aid to Liberia, and on June 9, several internationally noted musicians staged a concert in Modena, Italy for the children of Liberia. In September, Liberia was listed among countries qualifying for debt relief under the IMF/World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. Since the 1997 elections, Liberia has received tens of millions of dollars of bi- and multilateral assistance. In March 1999, the U.N. Development Program provided Liberia $3.4 million for housing construction and a credit program for small business borrowers. But Liberia is also highly indebted; the country is in arrears to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and U.N. to the tune of about $10 million. In March 2000, Reuters reported that Liberia is one of eight member debtor states sanctioned by the OAU; the governments of these countries may neither vote nor attend meetings until back dues are paid. For the same reason, Liberia does not have voting rights in the U.N. General Assembly.
USAID reports that conditions have improved somewhat. Approximately 280,000 refugees have re-entered the country, and some 75,000 internally displaced persons have returned to their homes. In addition, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization reported an overall improvement in the food situation. However, economic conditions remain grim; little of the demolished infrastructure has been rebuilt, public utilities (plumbing, sewage, and electricity) are absent, and education and health care are still woefully inadequate. The State Department's FY2000 Country Commercial Guide puts Liberia's unemployment at about 85%. Finally, many Liberians who fled the country are still reluctant to return, as many fear ethnically-based political violence and because, for some, conditions in foreign refugee camps remain preferable to those in Liberia.
Although some progress in economic affairs was being made, the security situation remained troubled. In October 1999, Liberia shut down its western border with Sierra Leone, troubled by civil conflict, after dispatching 1,000 troops to the area. The deployment brought a negative response from ECOMOG's commander, General Malu, who argued that the mobilization contravened the Abuja Accord. General Malu noted that his organization had been tasked with ensuring that Liberia's post-war national army was smaller and ethically inclusive, and he pronounced that process incomplete. Mr. Taylor countered that Liberia's constitution granted his government authority to raise an army to protect the country's borders. In late November, President Taylor asked ECOWAS to retain a diminished force of ECOMOG troops in Liberia beyond their February pull-out deadline but requested that General Malu replacement be a more politically-attuned commander. In December, ECOMOG began a phased withdrawal. Over 1,000 troops left, and after a visit that month by President Taylor to Nigeria, General Malu was replaced by Major General Timothy Shelpidi.
Although President Taylor signed the country's first human rights bill and named former foe Alhaji Kromah head of a national reconciliation commission, some critics contend that the government made few moves to identify and punish those guilty of war crimes. Several events also raised questions about President Taylor's commitment to human rights. In late 1997, authorities discovered in Gbarnga the remains of prominent opposition leader Samuel Dokie, who had been tortured and murdered, along with the bodies of his wife, sister-in-law, and a bodyguard. Dokie, a former Taylor ally, left the NPFL in 1994 and later became associated with Johnson-Sirleaf's Unity Party. Three members of the government Special Security Service were arrested in the case but were acquitted for lack of evidence in a February trial; four other suspects reportedly fled the country. In March, former warlord Roosevelt Johnson claimed that his bodyguards had thwarted attempts on his life.
Following these events, the government, without an immediate explanation, announced on January 6, 1998, that it was shutting down the independent newspaper Heritage, which had published articles critical of Liberia's relations with ECOMOG. The offices of the newspaper's printing contractor was also attacked, and the publisher was accused of supporting coup plotters. On January 7, the government closed Star Radio, a station that received support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and, on January 14, shut down Radio Monrovia, which carried the Voice of America. The broadcast ban on Radio Monrovia was lifted on January 17; the government attributed the Star Radio shutdown to a dispute with the station over a fine levied for the unauthorized transferral of frequencies. Many believe these incidents cast a shadow over Liberia's progress toward democracy. The United States and the European Union publicly condemned the Dokie murders and the manner in which the subsequent murder trial was conducted. In January, a coalition of diplomats in Monrovia issued a statement expressing concern over human rights violations.
Although the Taylor government claimed that it wanted ECOMOG to remain to ensure security, serious disputes occurred over the peacekeeping unit's post-conflict role. Former commander Malu voiced disappointment that ECOMOG's mandate to help restructure a Liberian army inclusive of members from all factions had been unable to proceed. Mr. Taylor apparently viewed ECOMOG as a source of training expertise, rather than of organizational advice. In February 1998, former faction leader and then-cabinet minister Roosevelt Johnson asserted that Mr. Taylor had been building an army comprised entirely of heavily armed former NPFL fighters. One month after Mr. Johnson made his charge, three of his bodyguards were allegedly detained and flogged by members of President Taylor's Special Security Service. In February 2000, Mr. Taylor announced that armed forces reforms would start in May and that the 15,000-strong force would be cut by half. In April 2000, he announced that Liberia's army would receive training assistance from South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria.
ECOMOG's role in combating the coup in Sierra Leone was another source of friction between it and President Taylor. When, in February 1998, junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma attempted to flee Sierra Leone, his helicopter was forced down in Liberia by ECOMOG aircraft. Mr. Taylor objected to the action, labeling it a violation of Liberian sovereignty. Shortly thereafter, an ECOMOG jet fighter made several low passes over Monrovia. Liberia recalled its ambassador to Nigeria, but Mr. Taylor reportedly consulted with Liberian leaders beyond his immediate circle of advisors and decided not to pursue the issue. In mid-March 1998, however, several Nigerian journalists and a defense official, en route home from Sierra Leone, were arrested in Monrovia on drug charges and were released only after ECOMOG intervened. In early May, ECOMOG announced that it had captured dozens of Liberians fighting on the rebel side in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor, however, disavowed any involvement by his government and called for all Liberian combatants in Sierra Leone to return home.
On September 18, 1998, in a replay of an April 1996 confrontation that had touched off weeks of violence in Monrovia, Liberian government forces sought to arrest ethnic Krahn leader Roosevelt Johnson in his guarded compound. A gunfight resulted, causing hundreds of Monrovians to flee their homes. Mr. Johnson fled to the American embassy, outside of which gun fighting again erupted. Mr. Johnson and his two sons slipped unbidden through the open embassy gate, while Liberian security people continued to fire at him, killing four Johnson supporters and wounding two U.S. embassy staff. Given the high level of violence exhibited by the government militiamen, U.S. diplomats refused to release Mr. Johnson into their custody, and a six-day standoff ensued. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was tasked with negotiating a settlement. On September 24, a Liberian government spokesman, though still demanding that Mr. Johnson be turned over to stand trial for multiple offenses (murder, rape, treason, and kidnaping), stated that Monrovia would not prevent the United States from flying Mr. Johnson out of the country. Mr. Johnson later claimed that hundreds of people were massacred during the weekend gun battle at his home; the Taylor government countered that "no more than 50 or 60" had died. Many aid workers left during the fighting, and thousands of ethnic Krahn fled to Côte d'Ivoire, reversing the prior flow of refugees back into Liberia. The United States closed its embassy after the incident and demanded an investigation of the shooting, an apology, and a security guarantee from the Taylor government. After an initial refusal, the Liberian government offered an official apology on November 14. The embassy was reopened.
During the raid on the Johnson compound, Liberian forces took into custody dozens of ethnic Krahn. In April, after the lengthy trial for treason of a total of 32 individuals, 13 people were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Washington and other foreign governments closely monitored the trial. In December, former faction leader Prince Johnson was added to the list of those guilty of treason, and he and several other faction leaders were tried in absentia. Reuters reported that U.S. Deputy Assistant of State for African Affairs Vicki Huddleston, in an early November visit to Monrovia, stated that "transition to democracy requires human rights, rule of law, and this is lacking in Liberia ... ."
On April 21, 1999, Voinjama, the capital of the northwestern Lofa County located near the northern border with Guinea, was attacked by unidentified gunmen. Before being driven out by government forces, the intruders, who characterized themselves to local residents as anti-Taylor, briefly detained several western diplomats and aid workers. The region in which the raid occurred traditionally has supported both ULIMO civil war factions. In August 1999, a similar armed incursion into the same area occurred. The raiders captured several Liberian towns and took nearly 100 hostages, including ten Europeans, before being routed by the Liberian army. The hostages were released unharmed. President Taylor sharply criticized the Guinean government for harboring the guerrillas, and President Conte of Guinea later turned over the group's leader to Monrovia. In February 2000, Guinea and Liberia reopened their borders.
A third armed incursion launched from neighboring Guinea into Liberia occurred on July 8, 2000, state-controlled KISS-FM radio reported. It began with an attack by unidentified forces on Korymah, a small border town near Voinjama. The Liberian government characterized the incursion as "purely diversionary with the aim of attacking Liberian territory from Sierra Leone" and, in a separate statement, asserted that the attack was the "direct result of the massive influx of arms into the sub-region by the British government, under the guise of arming the so-called Sierra Leonean government forces." The British Foreign Office rejected the Liberian claim and renewed its charge that Liberia was arming the RUF (see below). The Liberian government also stated that it had protested to the Guinean government over the incursion, and was in the process of conveying protests over the same issue to ECOWAS, the OAU, and the U.N.. On July 11, the government of Guinea rejected Liberian accusations that it had sponsored the incursion and had allowed its territory to be used as a rebel operational base. It noted that it had for the past decade harbored thousands of Liberian refugees on its territory and restated its commitment to regional peace and security arrangements as a signatory member of ECOWAS and the OAU.
The Liberian government countered the incursion by dispatching a battalion of troops to the area to engage and contain the attack, and issued a general mobilization call to "all militiamen" and called a tactical meeting of military and militia commanders. By July 10, 2000, the rebels had advanced; the fighting, described as "serious" by Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea, had expanded into Voinjama, which Liberian Information Minister Joe Mulbah described as "divided." The non-profit humanitarian organization Medicins Sans Frontieres suspended operation of five medical units located in Voinjama and nearby Kolahun due to the conflict. On July 19, a state of emergency in the conflict area was declared by President Taylor. Both sides have reported casualties and over 100 wounded soldiers have been reported as being hospitalized in Monrovia. At the outset of the fighting, the Taylor government requested the assistance of Guinean President Lansana Conte in opposing the rebels, from whom he reported new arms had been captured from "these insurgents out of Guinea," a development that he said also threatened the security of Guinea. Fighting, which has not been independently verified but has repeatedly been reported as serious, was reported to be on-going as of September 25. Both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Mano River Union (Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone) are undertaking efforts aimed at halting the conflict.
The attackers were identified by Liberian Defense Ministry spokesman Philibert Browne as members of two of the factions that had fought during the Liberian civil war, ULIMO-K and ULIMO-J. On July 12, however, the BBC broadcast an interview with a Captain Emmanuel V. Moore, who stated that he was in Voinjama and claimed responsibility for the incursion on behalf of a previously unknown group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), of which he claimed leadership. He said that Mr. Taylor had committed genocide against the Liberian people and asserted that his group aimed to remove Mr. Taylor from power. He claimed that his forces had been in "full control" of Voinjama since July 9, as well as the nearby towns and villages of "Kolahun, Zorzor, Nama, Salaye, Tenebu, Bakedu, and Belefanai." He also stated that members of his organization were located throughout Liberia and that they included officials within the Taylor government. LURD's assertions could not be independently confirmed, but in September, NGOs undertaking a humanitarian survey in eastern Lofa County refuted the LURD claim that it controls Zorzor.
Observers are divided over how to assess the Lofa County conflict. The Liberian military has been unable to dislodge the rebels after two and a half months of battles, and military leaders in Liberia have been temporarily placed under house arrest, reportedly for misleading the President about the fighting and their ability to oust the rebels. For these reasons, the fighting appears to present a serious threat to the Taylor government. The fighting, however, has not been independently verified, and the government and the rebels have voiced conflicting claims over the outcome of battles and the extent of territory controlled by each side. In addition, three student leaders were arrested in July for questioning the veracity of the reported rebel incursion, and their doubts were reportedly reflected in rumors circulating in Monrovia. Some observers have stated that although fighting may be on-going, it is less serious than has been reported by the Liberian government. They raise the possibility that Charles Taylor may be using the conflict as a pretext to lash out at his political opponents, whom he has accused of sponsoring the rebellion, or to mask military movements in a region that is located near the rear supply points of the RUF in Sierra Leone.
There also indications that military activities in the region may be linked to recent attacks on the Guinean side of the border near Voinjama, where the village of Massadou and Macenta, a nearby town, were attacked on September 1 and 17, 2000, respectively, by unknown armed assailants. The Guinean government has blamed the attacks on armed opposition groups, whom it accuses Liberia and Burkina Faso of sponsoring, and has closed its border with Liberia. Liberia has reportedly stated that the Guinean attacks were undertaken by the Lofa rebels it claims to have driven back into Guinea. The attacks have reportedly caused thousands of local residents to flee to western Guinea, and the violence has heightened pre-existing tensions between the Guinean and Liberian governments. The former government has called for the expulsion of Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees from its territory. Liberia has stated, however, that it will not reciprocate and will safeguard all persons resident in Liberia. Both ECOWAS and the Mano River Union (Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone) are undertaking efforts aimed at halting the conflict.
Observers assert that Charles Taylor is convinced that Liberian dissidents have been plotting with outside forces to overthrow him and that he has been increasingly obsessed with his personal security. The Washington Post has reported that three separate security forces are responsible for protecting President Taylor. Mr. Taylor's fears of being toppled may have been fed not only by the raids on Voinjama, but also by the April 1999 junta coup in Mali, during which the country's president was assassinated. He publicly urged diplomatic isolation of the new military government. On May 12, 1999, a radio station tied to the government reported that it had uncovered an anti-government plot. On December 27, 1999, after the coup in Abidjan, President Taylor dispatched troops to guard the border with Côte d'Ivoire. On August 12, 2000, a pro-Taylor newspaper reported that the Liberian government had become aware of an American plot to destabilize Liberia and assassinate Charles Taylor. U.S. Ambassador Bismarck Myrick refuted the allegation, calling it "false and baseless."
Analysts note that Mr. Taylor has blamed Liberia's dire economic straits on insufficient U.S. aid and that he has accused neighboring countries, in league with former rivals, of seeking to overthrow him. Many opposition politicians and clan chiefs have fled the country, although Mr. Taylor has publically urged them to return to Liberia. He has also exhibited autocratic, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, behavior. In May 1999, for instance, he summarily fired a large number of his cabinet ministers who failed to participate in 3 days of prayer and fasting, although most were reinstated the next day. He has, however, also been described by U.S. diplomats as well read and articulate.
President Taylor has voiced concern over media coverage of his government. On March 15, 2000, the Taylor government shut down two independent radio stations, accusing them of waging "cyber war" against the government. The stations, Radio Veritas, operated by the Catholic church, and Star Radio, funded in part by USAID and several European governments, had aired listener comments critical of the Taylor government. The closure was protested by the United States government, Amnesty International, and Liberian journalists. Radio Veritas was later allowed to resume broadcasting, provided it limit itself to religious programs, a restriction rejected by Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis (recipient of the 1999 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award). On July 20, 2000, the government ordered Star Radio, which had been off the air since the March closure, to dismantle its equipment.
In late 1998, international attention focused on Liberia's involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone. In the first years of the Liberian civil war, Mr. Taylor's NPFL had sought to control trade in diamonds and other resources in the Liberian-Sierra Leone border zone and to prevent his rivals from exploiting this trade. The NPFL also recruited fighters in Sierra Leone and assisted the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and other dissident armed groups, including rogue units of the Sierra Leone Army, in their fight against successive Sierra Leonean governments. Beginning in 1991, the Sierra Leone government had opposed the NPFL by supporting anti-Taylor Liberian armed factions and the actions of ECOMOG in countering the Liberian conflict. This historical tie between Mr. Taylor and the RUF is widely believed to have endured, with Liberia providing assistance, such as arms and logistical support, to the RUF in exchange for smuggled diamonds and possibly timber. These actions are said to have contributed significantly to preventing an end to the conflict in Sierra Leone.
On December 28, 1998, the U.S. State Department publicly condemned the reported Liberian-RUF relationship, and urged Liberia's government "to take all necessary steps to stop support for RUF activities emanating from its territory." In January 1999, State Department spokesman James Rubin was less circumspect, attributing rebel aid directly to the Liberian government. The following month, David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador-at-large for war crimes, threatened sanctions against governments supporting the rebels. And in a March House hearing on the situation in Sierra Leone, Susan Rice, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said that the United States had "clear evidence of Liberian involvement with the RUF," and was "prepared to consider punitive measures" against Mr. Taylor's government unless that support stopped was halted. In February, the Liberian Senate President Charles Brumskine called for an investigation of these charges; early in March he resigned, citing loss of party confidence.
President Taylor and his ministers have repeatedly denied any government involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict, arguing that the Liberian fighters in Sierra Leone are freelance mercenaries and that his government supports a peaceful resolution to the conflict. In Togo on July 7, 1999, President Taylor, along with the leaders of several other African nations, witnessed the signing of the Lome Accords, a peace agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the rebels. On October 5, the Liberia-Sierra Leone border was reopened. The following month, however, RUF field commander Sam Bockarie fled to Monrovia after forces loyal to him kidnaped and then released two western aid workers. The Liberian government stated that Bockarie would not be allowed to return to Sierra Leone until disarmament in Sierra Leone is completed.
In March and June 2000, however, the existence of intelligence held by western and regional governments that confirmed the RUF-Liberian ties was reported in the international press. Airplanes ferrying wounded fighters, field supplies and food, diamonds, and arms were reported to be flying regularly between core RUF areas in western Sierra Leone and Monrovia and other areas of Liberia. Radio traffic between RUF units, referring to Liberian logistical support, and between the RUF and Liberian officials, was also reportedly intercepted. In addition, Bockarie has publicly stated on the BBC that RUF troops are being trained in Liberia and that some of these troops are directly affiliated with President Taylor's Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU). All of these claims have been repeatedly and vociferously denied by the Liberian government, which publicly supports the Lome Accord.
President Taylor has also sought to demonstrate support for peace by playing a prominent role in negotiating the release of United Nations peacekeepers in Sierra Leone kidnaped by the RUF. In each of at least four separate incidents, the kidnaped hostages have been transported to and released in Liberia. Observers have questioned whether Mr. Taylor's consistent involvement and success in gaining the hostage releases are the hallmark of a skilled diplomat and heartfelt support for peace and the U.N. peacekeeping role in Sierra Leone or whether he is protecting a long-standing relationship with an armed ally with whom he shares mutual interests. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 12, the U.S. Representative to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, implied the latter view. He characterized Mr. Taylor's actions, in relation to events in Sierra Leone, as "irresponsible and conducive to disruption throughout the area," and stated that President Taylor "is part of the problem; he has not been part of the solution." In mid-July 2000, on a visit to West Africa, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering held talks with President Taylor, during which he firmly reiterated the U.S. position to Mr. Taylor.
Britain, which has sent troops and military trainers to assist the Sierra Leonean government against the RUF, has taken an especially direct stance on the issue of alleged Liberian assistance to the RUF in exchange for diamonds. It succeeded, in mid June 2000, in suspending approximately $ 50 million of EU aid to Liberia, against considerable opposition of other EU members. Britain also sought to pressure the World Bank and the United Nations to place conditions on assistance to Liberia as long as the claimed Liberian government support of the RUF continues. In response, the Liberian government again denied that it supports the RUF, stating that its border with Sierra Leone is porous and that it cannot control the actions of individual Liberians in Sierra Leone, who may be involved with the RUF. It said that it would protest British action to ECOWAS and to the OAU. Following the British move, President Taylor told reporters that he had intelligence that "international terrorists" might "use Liberia as a breeding ground for their actions only to spoil the good name of our government" and deployed units of the ATU to Mamba Point, a diplomatic enclave in Monrovia where the British, American, French and other missions are located. Mr. Taylor also ordered British nationals and NGOs, such as Save the Children, to stop work and restrict their travel in Liberia's western Lofa and Grand Cape Mount counties, which border Sierra Leone, due to "anti-British sentiments being harbored by some individuals" following the EU aid suspension. He also accused Britain of importing many tons of arms into Sierra Leone, with the object of destabilizing Liberia, a charge repeated again after the most recent attack on Voinjama.
On July 5, 2000, the U.N. Security Council, in response to the British, American, and Sierra Leone government concerns about the role diamonds have played in fueling the Sierra Leonean conflict, imposed an 18-month ban on trade in Sierra Leonean diamonds. The Resolution, S/RES/1306 (2000) specifically called on Liberia to cooperate in upholding the ban, which Council members noted had been widely reported as being a major transhipment point for RUF-mined "conflict diamonds." The Council also stressed the continuing currency of the April 1995 (SC/RES/985 ) arms embargo on Liberia. On July 31 and August 1, Liberia, along with Burkina Faso, was again accused of supporting the RUF through illegal diamond trading during a U.N. hearing on the sanctions measure.
U.S. involvement in Liberia grew in the 1960s and 1970s with the installation of two communications facilities to direct U.S. intelligence and diplomatic communications to and from Africa. Also, a powerful Voice of America relay was set up. In the mid-1970s, the United States built another military facility, the Omega navigational station, to guide naval ships and aircraft in the Atlantic Ocean. Even after the 1980 military coup, which effectively ended the Americo-Liberian grip on power, U.S. political and military engagement remained strong. The government of Master Sergeant Doe continued to receive support from Washington for much of the 1980s, and in return Doe supported U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations and other U.S. efforts in Africa.
In the late 1980s, with the end of the Cold War and the increase in human rights abuses under Doe, relations between Washington and Monrovia began to deteriorate. When the civil war began in December 1989, many Liberians were disappointed at the U.S. decision not to intervene. U.S. citizens were evacuated from Liberia and hopes for a U.S. peacekeeping force were dashed. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen said that although he supported limited intervention by the United States, the majority of an interagency task force on Liberia felt otherwise. The United States, however, stayed engaged diplomatically. Early in negotiations to end the conflict, Washington sought to involve the United Nations, albeit unsuccessfully, and later supported ECOMOG financially and diplomatically.
During the civil war, the United States continued to provide humanitarian aid to Liberia, and this assistance has continued during the post-conflict period (see Table 1, below). In strife-torn Monrovia in 1996, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) delivered water to Liberian refugees holed up in the Greystone compound and sought to bring food into the city by helicopter. USAID coordinated its relief efforts with multi-lateral government agencies and NGOs. In October 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made export credits available to Liberia, among other African countries. From FY1991 through FY2000, no military aid was provided to Liberia. The FY2001 Administration budget request to Congress contains a modest $75,000 International Military and Education Training program request for Liberia. There is no Peace Corps program in Liberia.
Liberia has continued to attract interest on Capitol Hill over the past decade. During a congressional hearing in May 1994, then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose outlined U.S. policy toward Liberia. He stated that the United States supported a negotiated settlement of the conflict that included total disarmament, repatriation of Liberian refugees, free and fair elections, respect for human rights, and improved fiscal management. Moose also testified that the United States was ready to consider assisting in the electoral process, repatriation of refugees and resettlement of displaced persons, and post-war recovery development assistance. He warned, however, that such aid would be considered only if Liberians settled their differences, disarm, and began preparing for elections.
On May 8, 1996, after fighting flared up in Monrovia, the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa held a hearing to review the situation in Liberia and Clinton Administration actions and proposals for dealing with the crisis. On May 16, 1996, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus urged the Clinton Administration to introduce a United Nations resolution to authorize the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force to restore and maintain order in Liberia. Reuters news agency reported that many Liberians had taken this notion a step further, requesting that their country be taken over by the U.N. as a "trust territory." Charles Taylor angrily rejected the proposal, which reportedly had little support among U.N. members.
The House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa in June 1997 held a hearing entitled: "The Liberian Election: A New Hope?" Witnesses included Howard Jeter, U.S. Special Envoy to Liberia, as well as NGO representatives. Mr. Jeter reviewed recent developments in Liberia, and described the growing U.S. political and financial support since mid-1996 for ECOMOG, as well as for ECOWAS' effort at ensuring "free, fair and credible elections in Liberia." Kevin George, President of Friends of Liberia, commented on the importance of elections in restoring stability to Liberia, described a program of action needed for post-war development, and stressed the need for reintegration of refugees and ex-combatants into society.
Since their country's civil war began, 12,000-15,000 Liberians have reportedly sought refuge to the United States. The Justice Department has renewed their temporary protective status several times. This special status was set to expire on September 28, 1999, but on September 27, 1999, President Clinton directed Attorney General Janet Reno to extend by one year the protective status (technically referred to as "deferred enforced departure"). Reno again ordered it extended it for one year on that date. A further extension is currently under consideration by the Clinton Administration. In March 1999, Senator Jack Reed and Representative Patrick Kennedy introduced legislation (S. 656 and H.R. 919) that would grant permanent resident status to these Liberian nationals, provided they met other regulatory criteria. In June 2000, 1,193 Liberians were registered as winners of visas to immigrate to the U.S. through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.
There are widely divergent views on whether the United States should provide Liberia with additional assistance and, if so, what type and how much. Some policymakers believe that the historically close relationship between the United States and Liberia obligates the United States to take special responsibility in answering Liberia's humanitarian and developmental needs. According to this view, Americans should not only provide relief when it is needed, but should help promote a democratic system and work to stop human rights abuses. They criticize the U.S. response to the Liberian conflict as inadequate, and compare it unfavorably to the United States intervention in Kosovo. Some in this camp believe it would not have been inappropriate for the United States to have sent in troops in 1996 to help restore order and protect noncombatants. They point to Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo as recent examples of successful humanitarian intervention, and ask why the same was not done for a country with historic U.S. ties.
Other policymakers, however, believe that current U.S. interests in Africa in general are peripheral, and that the United States therefore has no special responsibility toward Liberia in particular and should not become involved in the country's internal affairs. Although opponents of intervention may support humanitarian and developmental assistance, they argue that Liberia is no longer of major strategic importance for U.S. foreign policy interests and that direct U.S. military intervention has been out of the question. They emphasize the difficulties that may be encountered when outside powers intervene in civil conflicts, and note that, as a result of U.S. casualties in Somalia in 1993, there would likely have been scant support among the public or in Congress for humanitarian military intervention in Liberia.
During the 1996 conflict, U.S. policy toward Liberia favored non-intervention. The stated U.S. policy of not recognizing any future Liberian leader who came to power through violent means was intended to check the ambitions of the warlords. The Administration also was active in seeking continued cooperation from West African countries, many of whose leaders were weary of trying to solve the 8-year old crisis, as well as the international community. Since Mr. Taylor assumed the presidency, the U.S. government has been seeking to establish a dialogue with Liberia on key bilateral issues, particularly human rights and democratic strengthening. Liberia's poor human rights record and the Taylor government's reported support of the RUF, which has been repeatedly condemned by the United States, have tested those efforts. U.S. State Department officials have stated that the United States may take unspecified, punitive actions against the Liberian government if Liberian support for the RUF continues. President Taylor's actions have also been the subject of congressional calls for a hard-nosed, activist policy approach to counter President Taylor's reported intervention in Sierra Leone. In a May 12, 2000 editorial in the Washington Post, for instance, Senator Judd Gregg stated that "Taylor and his criminal gang must go; every feasible effort ought to be made [by the United States] to undermine his rule."
In a March 18, 1999 speech in Monrovia, U.S. chargé d'affaires Donald Petterson offered a candid assessment of the relationship between the two countries. Petterson characterized the change in relations between the two countries in the last two decades as "dramatic," given Liberia's much decreased importance to American strategic and commercial interests. He added that the U.S. government was troubled by repeated human rights violations in Liberia, particularly by state security services. Although U.S. aid has fallen considerably from its 1980s levels, the United States continues to provide tens of millions of dollars in assistance through the U.N. and non-governmental organizations.
On June 26, 1999, Britain and the United States shut down 10 of their embassies in Africa because "suspicious individuals were surveying the sites," according to the State Department. It was believe that these persons may have belonged to the network of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born Islamic extremist implicated in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in 1998. The U.S. embassy in Liberia reopened on June 29. Shortly thereafter, a newly formed Liberian anti-terrorist unit was deployed near the embassy, despite U.S. statements that the situation was secure. On August 25, 2000, the State Department issued a travel advisory for Liberia that focused particularly on the travel in northwest Liberia along the Sierra Leone/Liberia border, due to rebel activity in Sierra Leone; the warning remains in effect.
1. U.S. Assistance to Liberia, FY1990-FY2001
CSD=Child Survival and Diseases; DA=Development Assistance; ESF=Economic Support Fund; IMET=International Military Education and Training. For background on U.S. assistance to Africa, see CRS Issue Brief IB95052, Africa: U.S. Foreign Assistance Issues.
Note: All figures are actual appropriations, except requested appropriations for FY2001.
a. 1990 was the last year of funding for the Peace Corps program in Liberia, which received $1.897 million.
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