A solution for Liberia?

Submitted by Anon on 18 August, 2003 - 7:02

By Matt Cooper

The international pressure that led to the departure of President Charles Taylor and the arrival of a small West African peace-keeping force, with limited US support, has led some sections of the left to denounce an "imperialist intervention".

Yet what other immediate hope of relief from dreadful suffering do the people of Liberia have. Indeed these efforts to inject some stability into the region could be criticised on the grounds of being too late and too half-hearted.

Maybe 250,000 people have died in the civil wars that have racked Liberia since 1989 - one in 14 of the population. Much greater numbers have been forced to flee their homes and face poverty and hunger. Liberian civil society has been atomised, its economy wrecked, its working class dispersed. The only stability that any current force from within Liberia, or the surrounding states could create, is that of the graveyard.

Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, and in the 1970s had a relatively healthy economy by West African standards. But Liberia's ethnic tensions have never been far below the surface, primarily between the descendants of American slaves and the indigenous population, ethnic groups who also inhabit neighbouring Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Cote d'Ivoire.

Samuel Doe seized power in a coup of enlisted low ranking soldiers in 1980. His regime initially had popular support but increasingly became a vicious dictatorship based on one ethnic group. When Charles Taylor started an insurgent movement against Doe in 1989 it set the pattern for what we see now - an ill disciplined force, which uses child soldiers, which rapes, loots and indulges in violence against other ethnic groups.

Taylor's forces captured Doe in 1990 and tortured him to death. Taylor consolidated his power as the most powerful warlord through the continuing civil war of the 1990s. Under international pressure an election was held in 1997, which Taylor won amongst credible allegations of vote rigging and intimidation. Taylor began to dismantle what was left of the regular army and replace it with irregular forces loyal only to him. He exported his gangster-state techniques to rebel movements in neighbouring states: Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.

Since the late 90s over 70 rebel groups have emerged in Liberia. By far the most important is LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. It is largely based on the Muslim Mandingo ethnic group and is bankrolled by the Mandingo-dominated Guinean state. The group's Vice Chairman is Chayee Doe, the brother of the dead dictator. Its military methods are a carbon copy of Taylor's: child soldiers, looting, rape and ethnic slaughter.

It is hardly surprising that under these circumstances the people of Liberia look to the US to come to their aid. The West African states, especially Nigeria, helped Taylor into power. However, blanket condemnations of intervention are not the answer. In Socialist Worker (9 August) Charlie Kimber in opposing all intervention found only room for criticisms, often spurious, of the US's role in Liberia. He found no room to analyse local forces either as a cause of, or solution to, the conflict. In fact, despite Bush's recent mission to Africa, the US's attitude has been one of indifference. By implication Kimber's solution is for the US to leave alone.This is anti-imperialism without the working class and it is nonsense.

Of course socialists should look beyond immediate stabilisation and the USA is not going to provide the long term solution. There is a powerful working class in Cote d'Ivoire, but the trade unions have often been at the forefront of calling for international intervention in the region and, as yet, have not been a vehicle for the creation of a working class solution for the region. A rebuilt Liberia too could have a powerful working class. It is with these forces, not the USA or ECOWAS (the organisation of West African States), that hope for the future lies.

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