Nation-Razing in Liberia
In the early 1820's, anti-slavery societies helped hundreds of freed U.S. slaves to resettle in coastal Africa, where they founded Liberia, a republic based on that of the United States.
Even though indigenous people comprise 95% of the country's current population, descendants of those former slaves have ruled the country for the most part, maintaining strong ties to the United States.
As a result, both Liberians and the international community are calling on the United States to prop up the tenuous June 17 ceasefire agreement between rebel forces and the government of President Charles Taylor to end three years of civil war.
The main target of the rebel fighters is Taylor himself, a U.S.-educated, Libyan-trained former warlord, and Baptist preacher. A leader in an earlier civil war which led to free elections in 1996 and his presidential victory, Taylor has since alienated many indigenous groups, along with the political opposition.
Continuing a long-time history of capitalizing on West African conflicts, he has engaged in banned arms- and diamond-running with the region's rebel movements. In Sierra Leone, he supported groups which killed tens of thousands and maimed thousands more with machetes in a 10-year campaign over diamond fields and ethnic supremacy.
As part of the ceasefire, Taylor agreed to relinquish office within thirty days, and allow a transitional government to take over. His subsequent refusal to step down is inciting more violence on both sides.
Last week, three days of rocket and mortar fire in the crowded capital of Monrovia killed at least 200 civilians and left more than a thousand wounded. Many of the dead had fled from fighting in the countryside. Angry crowds laid the bloody corpses of women and children in front of the United States embassy on Thursday, blaming the U.S. for failing to help end the fighting.
The United Nations, and a number of countries, including Britain, France, and Liberia's West African neighbors, have stepped up efforts to persuade the United States to lead an international peacekeeping force. As United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Security Council on Saturday, "The consequences of allowing the situation to spiral out of control are too terrible to contemplate."
The ceasefire is not only essential to ending the carnage in Liberia, but to stabilizing the entire troubled area that includes Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. Besides Taylor's involvement in the devastation of Sierra Leone, Liberian fighters reportedly joined insurgents in the September 2002 uprising in the Ivory Coast.
Already ravaged by the previous seven year civil war, Liberia's social and economic structure will have to be reconstructed from the ground up after the end of the current conflict. Stability for Liberia, and hence the region, is years away.
Liberia's problems are worsened by HIV/AIDS. About 10% of the population is infected. In 2001, approximately 125,000 Liberians died from the disease. Between violence, poverty, and disease, the life expectancy there is just 52 years, compared to the 63 year life expectancy of Senegal, to the northwest.
While the US State Department reportedly finds Liberia's problems a cause for concern, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference earlier this week that the US had "no vital interests" in Africa.