The sense of lives ruined for no purpose is pervasive in Liberia, a country colonised by freed US slaves, cultivated as a strategic anti-Communist American interest in Africa and largely ignored by the West during a post-Cold War decade in which its name became a byword for brutality. I first had a glimpse of Monrovia’s ruined infrastructure, along with the wretched refugee camps near the border with Sierra Leone, in 1998. At the time Sierra Leone was caught in an internal conflict of its own with which the huge troubles of Liberia and the surrounding region are closely linked. When I returned to the country recently, after the announcement of a short-lived ceasefire in the latest civil war, I talked about my earlier visit to a Liberian woman in the queue at Immigration. ‘It’s still the same,’ she said.
In 1998, Liberia had just emerged from another devastating civil conflict, in which the current President, Charles Taylor, played a leading role. A former Government minister who fell out with the military regime of Samuel Doe, Taylor managed to escape from a Massachusetts jail in 1985: he was being held pending extradition on embezzlement charges. He launched his bid for power on Christmas Eve 1989, when a small band of his fighters entered Liberia from the east intending to end Doe’s rule as it had begun, in 1980, by armed overthrow. Doe’s own military coup had involved the execution of 13 former Cabinet ministers on a Monrovia beach and concluded the 133-year hegemony of Liberians of US descent. Doe had little to offer, however, beyond human rights abuses and corruption. In 1985, he rigged the election intended to legitimise his rule. Taylor was not the only one gunning for him. The rebellion soon split and the President was cornered in the capital in 1990 by fighters loyal to a different rebel commander, Prince Johnson. The video of Doe’s torture before he died, compiled by Johnson and his men, is available across West Africa, a notorious symbol of the depravity of Liberia’s conflict.
Six years of factional war followed, and with them the familiar images of soldiers dressed in women’s wigs, or carrying Mickey Mouse bags, which stood in grotesque technicolour contrast to the atrocities they were committing. In Mark Huband’s The Liberian Civil War (1998), the author describes his growing disillusionment with all the rebel leaders, including Taylor, who spoke of his uprising as a grassroots response to the shame Liberians had felt in the face of the Doe regime. Several hundred thousand people are thought to have died as Taylor’s group and the other factions fought for control after Doe’s death. Outside Africa, the war was barely noticed.
Taylor established himself as the most powerful of the competing warlords and won an election in 1997: people voted for the clique they thought was most likely to bring peace. At the time of my visit the following year, Monrovia was calm and plastered with stickers urging people to help rebuild the country, but in 1999 a new rebel group emerged in the north: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd). What Taylor had once seen in Doe Lurd now saw in Taylor: a regime which thrived on violence and corruption and which would have to be removed by force. The insurgents gained ground gradually over the following years and arrived on the outskirts of Monrovia two months ago. Since then they have made several advances on the capital, a ceasefire agreed in Ghana has collapsed and many hundreds of people are thought to have died.
As the US talks of rebuilding nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, the war in Liberia and its neighbouring states looks increasingly like a paradigm of what happens when lawlessness, mass poverty and social injustice go unaddressed. A United Nations report published in May described what is now a nihilistic conflict unfolding in Liberia and the surrounding region, involving armed youths moving freely between four countries. The document is an implicit criticism of those in the international community who for years have concentrated on excoriating President Taylor and given the impression that removing one man from power could in itself solve a region’s problems. In a sub-Saharan echo of debates over the Middle East, Western powers – and the US and Britain in particular – are accused by many observers of advocating regime change without giving much thought to what follows.