West Africa's Spiral of Conflicts

— Mark Brenner

IN JULY, 2003 George Bush set off on a five-day, five-country "tarmac tour" of Africa, a thinly veiled attempt to burnish his international reputation in the wake of his illegal and internationally unpopular invasion of Iraq.

But many specters haunted Bush amid the photo ops and safaris.  AIDS activists pressed him about his promises to unlock $15 billion from the U.S. treasury to fight the spread of HIV, and strikes over rising gas prices cast a shadow on Bush's tête-à-tête with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

But the biggest issue dogging the President during his African sojourn was the Liberian civil war, and questions about what role, if any, the United States was willing to play in resolving the conflict.  Within a month, Bush tipped his hand, heavy on symbolism and paper thin on specifics.

The Bush administration did not completely ignore the situation, but made it clear that Liberia would be no repeat of Somalia, and in mid-August positioned three warships—and close to 2500 Marines—off the coast of Liberia's capital Monrovia.  But the same commander in chief who challenged the Iraqi underground to "bring it on" got cold feet this time, refusing to let anyone set foot on dry land until a ceasefire had been reached and Liberian leader Charles Taylor had agreed to step down.

In the end fewer than 300 troops were actually deployed into Liberia, with most limited to securing deliveries of food and medical supplies during the day and returning to the safety of their ships every night.  The story made great press stateside, with vivid images of Liberians waving American flags and cheering the arrival of U.S. troops.  But even before dispatching the warships Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stressed that Liberia was not of national strategic interest, preempting any talk of the U.S. embarking on a new "humanitarian intervention" while he was minding the store.

Events since August have confirmed the Bush team's ambivalence towards real military involvement in Africa, and their crass exploitation of the Liberian conflict as a media bait-and-switch once the Iraq occupation started spinning out of control.  After its PR victory in the slow-news summer months, the administration quickly ducked any commitment to peacekeeping, and pulled out its forces less than eight weeks after they arrived.

We'll probably never find out whether the entire mission was a calculated attempt to curry favor with African-American voters in next year's election, or the first of many steps designed to solidify relations with oil-rich Nigeria (which provided the bulk of peacekeepers currently on the ground).

What is painfully clear, however, is that when attention momentarily focused on West Africa's festering conflict, Washington's elite analysts and talking heads had little to offer beyond spin and hype. Real questions, such as how Liberia's civil war sustained itself for more than a generation, or the role played by the U.S. in creating Liberia's chaos, went unanswered.

Other questions, such as how the Liberian conflict was related to the equally tragic civil wars in neighboring Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire, were never even asked.

Without pretending to have the answers to these questions, this article provides an overview of three ongoing civil wars in the West Africa.  After briefly reviewing the histories of each country and the conflicts themselves, I explore the linkages among the three civil wars, and examine the domestic and international forces which perpetuate the violence.

As we shall see, these conflicts are not an open and shut case of imperial aggression, nor do they reflect purely idiosyncratic internal politics.  Instead they demonstrate the toxic interaction of regional political forces, and unforeseen dynamics set in motion with the end of the Cold War.

Liberia from "Special Relation" to Chaos

Liberia's conflict grabbed U.S. headlines in part because of our "special relationship" with the tiny West African nation, a euphemism for the United States' only colonial foray on the continent.

In the 1820s the American Colonization Society, with its confusing blend of racism and social uplift, began promoting repatriation of slaves and free Blacks to Liberia.  Those who returned to Africa as part of the ACS scheme functioned as a de facto American colony until 1862, when Lincoln recognized them as a sovereign nation (Africa's first in the eyes of the West).

After "independence" the Americo-Liberians, as they were called, then extended the colonial lessons they learned from the U.S. experience to the interior of the country.  They remained a paper nation until the beginning of the 20th century, when large territorial concessions to the French and the British forced them to make inroads into the interior of the country.

With the outbreak of World War II, the United States increasingly looked to Liberia as a strategic commercial and military interest in the region, and Americo-Liberian elites were eager to embrace them. With their "open door policy" to foreign investment, and token political overtures to the indigenous population, the colonists ceded little political power while tightening their grip on the country's abundant natural resources.

During the first post-coup civilian election in 1985, candidates were required to pay a $150,000 deposit to appear on the ballot, major opposition parties were banned, and the university was closed.  Despite controlling the electoral process, Doe's own National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) appeared to be losing the vote, and emerged victorious only after transporting all ballots to Monrovia to be counted by a special commission, handpicked by Doe.

It was no surprise, then, when former PRC founder Thomas Quiwonkpa returned from exile in Côte d'Ivoire to lead a coup attempt one month after the election.  Despite initial reports of success, which led to celebration in the streets, Quiwonkpa's coup attempt was repulsed, he was killed, and the retribution that followed marked the first clear example of ethnic violence in the country.

Doe's Krahn ethnic group, much like the Americo-Liberians before them, represented no more than five percent of the population, but now had disproportionate control of every major institution of Liberian society.  Fearful of a backlash against them, Krahn-speaking soldiers began a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation and "disappearances" across other regions of the country, particularly those of Doe's presidential opponents.

Through all this the Reagan administration continued to send aid to Doe. By 1986, however, Congress began to ask questions, demanding that further assistance be contingent on honest elections and improvements in human rights.

The following year Doe was forced to invite in U.S. advisors to help him run the government.  This was a way to keep the money flowing, but the advisors had no control over the checks signed by Doe himself, and by 1988 the U.S. Congress pulled the plug. Doe was also abandoned by the World Bank and the IMF a year later, with the country a virtual economic basket case.

On Christmas Eve 1989 Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPLF) launched a coup attempt.  Prior to the invasion, Taylor had been operating in Côte d'Ivoire with the support of President Felix Houphouët-Boigny.  The Ivorian leader was eager to see Doe ousted from power, in part because his niece had been married to Doe's predecessor, William Tolbert.

With the help of U.S. military advisors, Doe's troops fought back, targeting villages and ethnic groups suspected of rebel support.  But Taylor and the NPLF managed to gain ground throughout the country during the first few months of fighting, most notably taking control of the port city of Buchanan.

By June of the following year Doe was holed up in the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, besieged by the NPLF and a breakaway faction of former Taylor supporters, the Independent Patriotic Liberation Front (IPLF).  Chaos and killing were commonplace in the capital, as food stocks dwindled and ethnic retribution escalated.

In August of 1990 the Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS) launched a peacekeeping mission to Liberia, but when the troops arrived in Monrovia they proved of little use. Doe was kidnapped and killed by IPLF forces, under the noses of ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) troops.  Following Doe's death, the country spiraled downward.

Charles Taylor began training and financing the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a group of rebels from Sierra Leone led by Foday Sankoh.  Starting in 1991 the RUF carried Liberia's war and instability into neighboring Sierra Leone, and the conflict regionalized.  In response, Sierra Leone's then-president Joseph Momoh began supporting a group of Doe loyalists fighting under the banner of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO).

Although they numbered more than 12,000 at their peak, ECOMOG peacekeepers were unable to quell the fighting between the three major Liberian factions, or to reverse the increasingly brutal tactics of the NPLF and their ally the RUF. By 1992 ECOMOG dropped all pretense and joined forces with ULIMO and other factions not aligned with Taylor in an all-out war against the NPLF.

Through a succession of ceasefires, Taylor used his control over timber and iron resources from Liberia, and "conflict diamonds" from Sierra Leone, to rearm and expand his campaign for control of the country.

By 1997 Taylor was in a position to win the ECOMOG-supervised national elections with seventy-five percent of the vote. His victory marked the end to a bloody chapter in the country's history, with more than 200,000 people killed during the eight-year civil war, and more than 850,000 displaced, either internally or into neighboring countries.  (For a sense of perspective, Liberia has a total population of approximately 3.2 million people.)

But Taylor's election did not signal a return of peace, instead opening a new chapter in the country's sad history.  After his electoral victory he immediately began purging the armed forces of ULIMO supporters and governing by terror and intimidation in the name of "national reconciliation."

Taylor also continued his open involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict, leading to UN sanctions on Liberian diamonds, an arms embargo and diplomatic travel ban. In the meantime, the various forces opposed to Taylor and his NPLF wasted little time regrouping, and in 1999 Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) launched a new civil war, with financial backing from Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Although the LURD fighters never numbered more than 5,000 they were successful in establishing control over the majority of the countryside.  Following the outbreak of civil war in Côte d'Ivoire, President Laurent Gbagbo also began supporting rebels in Liberia, backing the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), a LURD splinter.

This past summer, international attention once again turned to Liberia as both LURD and MODEL forces laid siege to Monrovia.  Under extreme political and military pressure, Charles Taylor agreed to an exile in Nigeria, and a national peace conference in September installed Gyude Bryant as the new president of a two- year transitional government.

The United Nations immediately took over peace-keeping operations from ECOMOG, and now maintains almost five thousand soldiers on the ground in Liberia.

Sierra Leone and the Diamond Curse

There are many similarities between the history of Sierra Leone and Liberia.  For example, freed slaves were some of the earliest settlers in Sierra Leone.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, after Britain outlawed slavery and began intercepting slave ships off the West African coast, more than 70,000 slaves were "recaptured" and resettled in Sierra Leone.

These Africans came from all parts of the western coast and formed the basis for one of Sierra Leone's now distinctive ethnic groups, the Krios (or Creoles).  Although considered settlers by the indigenous population, the Krios, unlike the Americo-Liberians, did not control the political or economic order in the colony.

While opposed to British rule, they nevertheless evolved into the trading and merchant class in the country's interior, provoking resentment and sometime violent retaliation from other ethnic groups.  Krios were also pitted against the indigenous population in the governance structures of British indirect rule.

While the Krios' power waned well before the Americo-Liberians, the indigenous forces that formed Sierra Leone's first post-independence government were no more hostile to foreign capital than the Liberian government of the "Firestone Republic" era. It was not until the death of its first post-independence president that Sierra Leone turned away from British influence, when Siaka Stevens, a former trade union leader, rose to power in 1967.

Head of the opposition All People's Congress (APC), Stevens was the former mayor of Freetown with strong support among the Krios population.  He was also a professed socialist, with strong ties to other African socialists such as Guinea's Sekou Touré.  Indeed, his first year as prime minster was spent in exile in neighboring Guinea, where he took refuge after senior army officials with ties to the former ruler staged a coup d'etat.

Within the year the coup was overturned by junior officers, and Stevens returned to power, which he held until the mid-1980s.  His time in office was marked by a repudiation of whatever socialist principles he once held, opting instead for one-party rule and consolidation of power under the banner of "national unity."

Under Stevens patronage flowed freely, and the black market became the only consistent source of food or other necessities.  This sparked ongoing resistance, whether from the military in the form of multiple coup attempts, or from the population in the form of student protests or food riots.

Stevens managed an orderly handoff of power in 1985 to his successor Major General Joseph Momoh, who immediately became enmeshed in complicated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over cutting public spending and government corruption.

Momoh was also faced with an economy teetering on the brink of collapse, with diamonds and gold as the only reliable source of income.  Faced with an empty treasury, soaring food prices and student riots, Momoh declared a state of economic emergency in 1987.

His early efforts, cajoling Sierra Leoneans into depositing their money in the banking system and imposing sharp penalties on black market diamond and foreign currency trading, met with limited success.  By 1989 he was forced to take more radical measures.  Under pressure from the Bretton Woods institutions, Sierra Leone devalued its currency, removed gasoline subsidies, and began to root out the `no-show' jobs on its public payroll.

As noted above, in 1991 a rebellion broke out along the eastern border with Liberia.  The rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh and backed by Liberia's Charles Taylor, promised to end one-party rule in the country.

There is much speculation that the conflict was at least in part fabricated, as a pretext for the country's leaders to circumvent the government monopoly on diamond exporting.  Anyway, any benefits that General Momoh and the other heads of the APC might have received from such a scheme were short lived, as Momoh was deposed in 1992 by a group of young officers returning from the frontlines to demand more resources for the war effort and back pay for the soldiers.

Led by 26-year-old Valentine Strasser, the soldiers quickly formed the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) and among other things canceled existing diamond export licenses.  Although hopes were high that Strasser, nicknamed "the Redeemer," could pull Sierra Leone back from the brink, the country staggered deeper into armed conflict and economic chaos under his leadership.

First, the civil war grew murkier as the RUF seized control of the diamond rich Kono region, prompting many soldiers to defect to the rebel cause and giving the RUF a steady source of financing for their struggle (the diamonds were exported through Liberia with the help of Charles Taylor's forces).

Speculation abounded that Strasser and the other leaders of the NPRC had simply taken over the diamond smuggling infrastructure of Momoh and the APC. Meanwhile, the NPRC began cracking down on its opposition within government controlled territory, and according to Amnesty International began posing as RUF rebels to commit "torture, ill treatment and arbitrary killings of unarmed civilians" in the hope of poisoning the population against the RUF.

For its part the RUF were doing plenty to alienate the population on their own, as they waged a brutal terror campaign in the Sierra Leone countryside.  After Strasser was deposed by other members of the NPRC and elections were organized in government-controlled territories, the RUF began hacking off the hands and feet of innocent civilians to deter participation.  Some say the amputation campaign was sparked by the government's PR slogan for the election, "The future is in your hands."

Nevertheless the 1996 elections took place and career United Nations bureaucrat Ahmad Kabbah emerged victorious.  Kabbah was sent into exile after a coup by government soldiers one year later, returning to power in 1998 under the protection of ECOMOG forces.  By 1999 both the RUF and the Kabbah government had signed the Lome peace agreement, stipulating a general amnesty for both rebels and government soldiers who committed atrocities during the civil war.

This agreement brought the RUF into the government, with Foday Sankoh as head of the Ministry of Strategic Resources (with control of the country's diamond licenses).  The agreement broke down within a year, and the RUF assault on Freetown in 2000 would have defeated the UN peacekeeping force had it not been for last minute British reinforcements.  But a greatly increased UN peacekeeping presence (upwards of 17,000 soldiers—its largest effort anywhere in the world) helped bring about a durable ceasefire in 2001.

With the capture and subsequent death of Foday Sankoh—who suffered a stroke and died while in custody—the return to violence appears increasingly unlikely.  Kabbah was re-elected in 2002 in a multi-party election, and has since taken steps such as establishing a truth and reconciliation committee and expanding the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration infrastructure.

Still, the decade long open conflict has left its toll on this country of five million.  At the time of the cease-fire more than 1.5 million people were internally displaced by the conflict, and close to 450,000 people had taken refuge in neighboring Guinea and Liberia.  As many as 200,000 people were killed during the conflict, and at least 45,000 individuals have registered as ex-combatants.

Côte d'Ivoire's End of Stability

Standing in sharp contrast to its western neighbors, Côte d'Ivoire long appeared a paragon of stability in a region of conflict.  Characterized by close relations with its former colonial master (France) and openness to foreign capital and technical expertise,

Côte d'Ivoire was an economic anchor for the entire region and a destination of choice for economic migrants from throughout West Africa.  Its post-independence leader Felix Houphouët-Boigny welcomed the foreign labor, and masterfully balanced the competing ethnic claims within his Partie Democratique de la Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI).

The president's death, however, set off a chain of events which has inexorably led the country to civil war. (The outbreak of civil war in Côte d'Ivoire is discussed in much more detail by this author in ATC 101, November-December 2002.)

September of last year marked the third and most serious manifestation of this conflict, as more than a thousand soldiers staged a coordinated uprising against the government of Laurent Gbagbo and his Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI).

Rumored to be trained and financed by Burkina Faso, the rebels rebuffed early efforts by government soldiers to reclaim rebel-held areas, leaving the country effectively divided in two. Within a month three rebel groups had emerged, controlling the North and West, while the government remained in control of the South.

A French force of nearly 5,000 soldiers was deployed as a peace-keeping buffer between the two sides, assisted by an ECOMOG detachment of 1,500.  In January, 2003 the French brokered a cease-fire among all the parties, and a power-sharing government was established over the next few months.

The unity government has remained on shaky ground ever since, with on-again, off-again participation by rebel forces.  Although the nationwide disarmament campaign, initially opposed by the rebels, began in early March a recent spate of violence in the economic capital of Abidjan threatens to re-ignite the conflict (see the update at the beginning of this article).

Adding to the uncertainty are the bands of pro-government armed youth who have provoked violent confrontations with French soldiers in Abidjan in recent months, coupled with the increasingly frequent attacks on civilians in the western part of the country.

This violence in the western part of the country is in no small part due to the large number of Liberian mercenaries fighting for both sides in that region.  Indeed, mercenaries from throughout the region, and as far away as South Africa, were deployed by the government at the onset of fighting.  With the peace agreement faltering since September of 2003, it appears unlikely that Gbagbo will honor his pledges to rid the government forces of any foreign fighters.

Although ethnic tensions have only increased with the outbreak of open civil war, thus far Côte d'Ivoire has not been witness to the large-scale atrocities that mark the other two conflicts in the region.  But even though the deaths total in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands, the conflict has left more than five percent of the population (over a million people) displaced.

What Explains These Conflicts?

Although a multitude of factors contributed to the violence that has swept through West Africa in the past decade, comparisons of the conflict in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire are nonetheless instructive.

In the first two cases, junior officers were the catalyst for overthrowing the post-independence regimes, but their ouster occurred against a backdrop of economic decline and egregious governmental excess.  In both Liberia and Sierra Leone popular support for the coups was widespread, but the young soldiers who assumed power were ill-equipped to run the country and too easily tempted by the kleptocratic governance of their predecessors.

While it is unclear which is cause and which effect, economic mismanagement and low levels of industrialization went hand in hand in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Without an industrial base, natural assets such as timber, iron, titanium and most importantly diamonds, became the main source of national wealth.

As both Charles Taylor in Liberia and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone demonstrated, control of these resources can lead to control of the country.  Foreign firms appeared quite willing to continue mining and logging operation in the midst of civil war, so long as adequate protection was provided for their operations.  The case can even be made in Liberia and Sierra Leone that the multinationals prefer the chaos, because it strengthens their bargaining power against both rebel and governmental forces, who are willing to sell more cheaply than they otherwise might in order to finance continued conflict.

By contrast, Côte d'Ivoire was not an economic basket case when a 1999 coup d'etat brought down its post-independence government.  Although low by international standards, its manufacturing base was well developed in comparison to the rest of the region, and economic growth had been strong for several years prior.

Indeed, Côte d'Ivoire revealed the much more volatile nature of ethnic politics, and the complex ways that ethnicity interacts with religion and geography.  After the death of the country's first post-independence president Felix Houphouët-Boigny, his ruling party split in two, largely along the overlapping ethnic, religious and geographic divisions in the country.

Faced with real political opposition for the first time in its history, the rump of Houphouët-Boigny's party began sowing the seeds of ethnic chauvinism and social division.  Attacks on immigrants became increasingly frequent, and when the president was deposed on Christmas Eve of 1999 the military junta pointed to the increasingly violent conflicts as a justification for their seizure of power.

But there are echoes of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflict in Côte d'Ivoire's experience.  Like Samuel Doe in Liberia, the leaders of the junta in Côte d'Ivoire tried to organize sham elections in 2000, banning major parties and using the state apparatus as a campaign platform.  But just as in Liberia the soldier-politicians in Côte d' Ivoire couldn't win without stuffing the ballot boxes and manipulating election results; in Côte d'Ivoire these attempts at vote-rigging led to popular riots and the immediate ouster of the junta.

Another point of comparison is the way in which internal dynamics in the armed forces—particularly among the enlisted ranks—catalyzed conflict.  In the case of Sierra Leone the non-payment of wages led Valentine Strasser and his small band of soldiers to overthrow the Momoh regime, while in Côte d'Ivoire it was a proposal to decommission soldiers enlisted during the military junta that provoked the coup.

Internal dynamics within the rebel forces also help explain the duration of conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia, in particular the splintering into competing but often overlapping factions.  This pattern often follows a stalemate between rebel forces and government soldiers, and can be understood as a way for key players with the rebel army to secure themselves a position of leadership in any future government.

The Question of Intervention

Given that foreign direct investment—overwhelmingly French—accounts for between forty and forty-five percent of total capital in Ivorian firms, it is also no surprise that France has been much more willing to intervene in the Ivoirian civil war than either the British or United States were in the case of Sierra Leone or Liberia.

Unlike mining and logging in Liberia or Sierra Leone, manufacturing and export agriculture in Côte d'Ivoire have been heavily disrupted by civil war, and both foreign and domestic economic elites have a clear preference for stability rather than chaos.

But that is not to dismiss out of hand the positive aspects of France's peacekeeping role in Côte d'Ivoire.  Unlike ECOMOG forces in Liberia, and the early UN and ECOMOG experience in Sierra Leone, French and ECOMOG soldiers have been able to effectively stop the fighting in Côte d'Ivoire.

If the transition to peace can be brokered, the Ivorian civil war will leave a legacy of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands, of deaths.  Reducing this trauma of war seems an important first step in any effort to rebuild society, and it is unclear that the violence could have been stopped in any of these situations without external intervention.

While there is cause for concern as to the ultimate aims of France, or the emerging regional military power Nigeria, these imperial ambitions do not gainsay the benefits of peace over war.


Mark Brenner works at the University of Massachusetts, and is a member of Solidarity.  He spent most of 1998 living and working in Côte d'Ivoire.  A future article will expand on the role of multinational corporations in the region's conflicts, as well as the role of external peacekeepers.


ATC 110, May-June 2004