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Bush Comments Spark Debate on AFRICOM in Liberia

Recent comments by President Bush about Liberia as a possible host nation for headquarters of the U.S. military African command have ignited a debate in the West African nation itself. The Liberian government is expressing its support, but security analysts are wondering about such a command's usefulness. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Monrovia.

Just prior to his Africa trip, which will take him to the Liberian capital Thursday, President Bush said the United States would seriously consider Liberia as the headquarters for the new African command.

In an interview with VOA, Liberia's minister of national defense, Brownie Samukai reiterated his government's willingness to host the U.S. African command, known as AFRICOM.

"It is beneficial not only to the country to host it, but also to the entire continent, particularly, the West African region, where we have been a big center of conflict," he said. "So to have an assistance that can build up local capacities and improve infrastructure, and assisting interdiction on the high seas, where there is narco-trafficking, and that kind of stuff, we think that is very important. Liberia stands to support such an initiative. So the president [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] was very clear that she would be more than willing to make our nation of Liberia available for such an initiative."

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in 2006 following decades of war and poor governance, will meet with Mr. Bush Thursday.

Mr. Bush says AFRICOM is aimed at assisting African countries in strengthening capacities to deal with traffickers and terrorists. He said AFRICOM's main purpose is to promote peace, security and common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa. Since its creation last year, it has been headquartered in Germany.

The general in charge of the command, William Ward, said this week in London the U.S. command for Africa has often been misperceived by Africans as a plan to invade the continent.

Liberian Defense Minister Samukai says that has not been a problem in Liberia, and that his government has been trying to convince neighbors of the usefulness of AFRICOM.

"I think the entire continent, and particularly West Africa benefits, where the local capacities are improved, infrastructure assistance is provided, where there is maritime safety and security, all as a way of ensuring that there is peace and stability not only in Liberia but in the region and around the world, so we do not see it in a negative way," he added.

But a human rights activist in Monrovia, James Makor, says he does not know if it is even in the interest of Liberia to host AFRICOM headquarters. He says previous U.S. military assistance to Liberia did not help prevent civil wars.

"And from the past, they have had a lot of military installations here, but I do not know what were the benefits," he said. "So if AFRICOM will come here, at least let them create the awareness of some of the benefits we stand to gain, then everybody will be a bit happy and we will be willing to embrace it. But besides telling us or assuming that you will create stability, what are the other benefits? Because we can assume now that it will create stability, but you say there is confusion and you say it is internal, it is none of your business, and you sit out of it, things will go off here. What is the stability you have created in that case?"

Winston Tubman, a leading Liberian politician, lawyer and nephew of the former Liberian president William Tubman, remembers previous U.S. military help.

"During the Cold War, money was spent, but it was a defensive kind of thing," he said. "When the coup happened in 1980, they were building military barracks and doing various things to strengthen the military here and during that period the United States spent something like $500 million in Liberia in that short period. But that amount of money was more money they had spent in all of the previous history of the country. But it was not spent for development. It was spent to bring stability, to satisfy the army, to make sure that what led to the coup did not happen again."

But instead in 1989, Charles Taylor, who had escaped from a U.S. jail four years before, started a rebellion, which would eventually engulf the entire West Africa region in a cycle of brutal civil war.

Mr. Taylor, who became Liberia's president, is now on trial in The Hague on charges of war crimes in Sierra Leone. He says he is a victim of an international conspiracy against him.

Tubman, who served as the U.N. secretary-general special representative to war-torn Somalia from 2002 to 2005, says he has been interested by another idea recently talked about by U.S. officials, to help fund a large contingent of permanently mobile African peacekeepers.

"We do not always want to go around begging for people to send troops here. If, we, ourselves, are in a posture where we have troops already trained with such a mission in mind, then when the trouble comes, they will be quickly made available and they will be able to go to the trouble spots to contain things," he explained.

For the time being, U.S. officials say they are focusing on expanding AFRICOM, which is due to become fully operational by October, with a staff of about 1,300, 40 percent of whom will be civilians.