U.S. officials say as armed conflict spreads in West Africa, the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor continues to be a destabilizing factor in the region. A recent conference held in Washington examined the prospects for peace in Liberia and the current government's responsibility for continuing conflicts in West Africa.
After a devastating seven year civil war, forces under the command of Charles Taylor took control of the Liberian government in 1996. A year later Mr. Taylor won the presidential election and three-quarters of the seats in the country's legislature.
U.S. officials say the elections were administratively free and transparent, but were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation since many voters believed Mr. Taylor's forces would have resumed fighting if he had lost.
At a recent forum sponsored by the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, William Mark Bellamy, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, was strongly critical of the Liberian government.
Mr. Bellamy says Mr. Taylor's government has broken down the normal structures of society and ruined the economy, turning Liberia into a failed state. "This is a regime whose attributes more closely resemble often times those of a gang than of a government," he says. "This is a leader whose behavior is more closely akin to that of a gang leader than that of a president."
Mr. Bellamy says President Taylor's government is responsible for recent armed conflicts in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. He says the instability of the region has now encouraged the current fighting between rebel and government forces in Ivory Coast. "Though Liberia may be a failed state, that has not prevented it from being an important predatory actor in the region, a predatory state. Liberia remains a continuing source of conflict and instability in the region," says Mr. Bellamy. "In fact this is a regime that thrives on conditions of lawlessness and governmental breakdown, not only in Liberia itself but in neighboring states."
Liberia, with a population of more than three-million people, is a very poor country with a 70-percent unemployment rate and an average per-capita income of less than $200 per year. A U.S. State Department human rights report issued earlier this year says Liberian security forces commit many extra-judicial killings, and regularly use torture. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a presidential candidate in the 1997 Liberia general elections where she came in second in a field of 13. She remains the leader of the opposition Unity Party. Ms. Sirleaf says most of the country has no electricity or running water, many schools are closed and few people have access to high quality medical care. "Both economic and social infrastructure have so deteriorated that they are non-functional and the process of disinstitutionalization has reached such a level that it has insured that the one big man rule is all that governs the entire country," says Ms. Sirleaf. "This one man rule is built upon a dual system of patronage and intimidation."
Amos Sawyer was president of the Interim Government of Liberia from 1990 to 1994, at a time when hostilities engulfed the entire country and most institutions of civil society had collapsed. Mr. Sawyer describes Liberia as the "eye of a hurricane," a source of conflict and what he calls a bridge to conflict in West Africa.
Mr. Sawyer says presidential elections scheduled for next year will not help the country any more than the 1997 ballot that first elected Mr. Taylor. "With elections of 2003 as the kickoff once again we are looking at elections to take us out of war. I would like to say to you that my sense is that we may very well be planning to make another false start."
Mr. Taylor's government is currently fighting an insurgency led by an armed group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Mr. Taylor charges that Islamic mercenaries from the group are currently involved in the fighting in Ivory Coast. Analysts say as conflict spreads in west Africa, so does the growth of terrorist networks and international criminal organizations in the region.
Mr. Sawyer, the former interim-president, says only the removal of President Taylor will allow Liberia to make progress and be a stabilizing influence in the region. "I think when you have a situation where Liberia has become an explosive device in the sub-region. The fuse of that device needs to be removed as we try to dismantle that explosive device," he says. "I think that should be a major task of Liberians and the international community at this point."
A press release from the Liberian embassy in Washington criticized the U.S. Institute of Peace for not inviting any current government officials to participate in the forum on instability in West Africa. The statement says the Liberian government is open to dialog and asks the international community to support the preparations leading to Liberian elections in 2003.