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Liberian Ex-Rebel Campaigns for Rights of Former Combatants

  • Joe Bavier

In the sixth in a series of reports on some of the more than 20 presidential candidates running in next week's polls in Liberia, VOA profiles former rebel leader Sekou Conneh. Mr. Conneh's presidential bid, though it has little chance of succeeding, is drawing attention to the plight of former fighters.

In 1997, after more than a half-decade of fighting had already ravaged Liberia, Charles Taylor was overwhelmingly voted in as president, following an election campaign of threats and intimidation.

Now, eight years later, another former rebel leader is contesting the country's first post-war polls, scheduled for next week.

But the former head of the rebel movement known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, Sekou Conneh says he has nothing in common with the man he helped send into exile two years ago.

"Sekou Damate Conneh is a true liberator. So, we are not warlords. We are liberators," he said. "And our struggle will continue, because this country needs to be developed. We want sincere leaders in this country."

The former tax collector and used car salesman, who launched his war against Mr. Taylor from Guinea, spoke to VOA earlier this year at the house in Monrovia that serves as the headquarters for his Progressive Democratic Party. He explained why he entered the race.

"Mostly its former fighters from MODEL, former GOL, LURD being asking me, being petitioning me, being recommending that I should be then next president. Because they do not want to be vulnerable in this country," he said.

In the two years since President Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria, ending 14 years of on-and-off fighting, more than 100,000 former fighters, including thousands of child soldiers, have been disarmed.

But reinserting these men and women into society has proven problematic. Mr. Conneh says Liberia's future stability depends on addressing the needs of ex-combatants.

"We do not want any insecurity problems," he said. "Somebody who comes into the presidency, who has not been to this country in over 10, 20 years, do not even know how to talk to fighters, do not even know how to approach the issue of fighters. And they come to head this government. You know there will be problems here every day."

A Dakar-based regional expert from the research organization the International Crisis Group, Mike McGovern, says Mr. Conneh's positions, though interpreted by some as veiled threats of violence, involve very real issues that need to be addressed.

"The claim that if you do not take care of these ex-combatants that its going to come back and haunt you later is absolutely true," he said. "It is accurate. It has been proven by, among other things, the failed DDR process from 1997, which contributed to leaving reservoirs of young men ready to fight, who then joined whether it was LURD, or MODEL, or the GOL forces for the second Liberian civil war."

Liberia's economy is currently in ruins. Unemployment stands at around 85 percent. Earlier this year, the International Crisis Group published a report stating that the country would be ripe for yet another armed conflict if efforts to improve its situation were not made quickly.

Despite claiming support from former fighters, Mr. McGovern says Mr. Conneh's political following is extremely limited.

"Commanders and the various political affiliates of rebel groups, they seem to have progressively lost touch with the rank and file of ex-combatants over the last two years," he said. "So, it is not clear to me that either Mr. Conneh or any of the other former heads of the rebel movements have very close links with the majority of the ex-combatants."

A split within his own rebel movement, LURD, has limited support even further, with many of his former fighters choosing to rally behind his estranged wife, Aisha Conneh. She is a supporter of rival candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and experts say Mr. Conneh has no real chance of winning next week's election.

The fact that Mr. Conneh is such a long shot for victory is a positive sign, says expatriate social commentator George Fahnbulleh. He says he hopes warlords will soon have no place in Liberian politics.

"Based on the rules that we set for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Mr. Conneh is allowed to run," he said. "Our responsibility is to educate our people, so that they understand that what we went through with Charles Taylor was a direct consequence of them not correctly exercising their ballot."

Voters in Liberia are currently scheduled to go to the polls October 11. They will be voting in the first round of a presidential election, as well as choosing members to a new parliament. Liberia has been ruled by a transitional government, since the end of the civil war in 2003.

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