Archive for June, 2012

Recent weeks in Grand Gedeh following the cross-border attack to Ivory Coast have been interesting. After the arrival of the “Joint security” consisting of the Armed Forces of Liberia, the armed Emergency Response Unit (ERU) of the Liberian National Police and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the city was transformed into an armed camp overnight. While not a new phenomenon, the white United Nations choppers landing to and rising from the airport only enhanced the mood that something was happening.

A police officer stationed in Zwedru spoke his mind about the new forces sent from Monrovia: he was concerned about the possibility of these forces harassing local citizens, which could lead to serious problems due to reasons found in the recent history of the country. Everybody in Zwedru remembers how the security forces of the now imprisoned former President Charles Taylor harassed people in Southeastern Liberia.

On the second day following the arrival of the joint security there was already the sound of wings of history to be heard: the new security was referred to as Taylor’s Anti-Terrorism Unit by people calling the local community radio to complain about harassments.

Despite the fact that the government gave an allowance of $300 per month (with rumors as well as hopes that the amount will be raised to $400 on July) to the new forces, they seem to have gone on to find new ways of making money. The Immigration officers have probably never checked so many cars and passenger documents and the police began to direct traffic by the market, and while doing so fining bikers for rather random traffic violations. Even the recent law that requires bikers to wear a helmet suddenly began to be enforced with previously unseen enthusiasm.

A bigger problem, however, was not the newly rich and seemingly always drunken officers on the streets of Zwedru, but the ERU: with limited options to make money in the city reports began to trickle that they have been engaged in harassment of both Ivorian refugees as well as local citizens outside Zwedru. For instance, a band of Liberian and Ivorian hunters armed with single barrel guns were arrested as they were selling bush meat by the Monrovia highway. Local elders tried to negotiate by vouching for the hunters, arguing that the gun permit was in order and providing a compensation of LD 4,000. The official response was accepting the money but still carrying the arrested hunters to jail. This is only one of several instances of the new security business in Grand Gedeh.

While some of the accusations against ERU are likely exaggerated (such as the one that claimed that it had robbed a commercial vehicle on Monrovia highway), there is a real concern about the powers that the security forces currently employ in Grand Gedeh. As the police officer, previously mentioned, reminded: harassment by state security was the main reason for the revolution against Taylor in Grand Gedeh. This means that in the end it matters little whether the joint security actually commit all the violations or not. More important is that what the people in Grand Gedeh feel and believe to be true. While some violations have been officially admitted, officials have been quick to note that “they are not systematic”. For the time being this is the case.

There was also discussion about a curfew, but it seems that this never became official. Shedding light on the relationship between official and unofficial business in Liberia, at least some policemen began enforcing the curfew, which some citizen took as a fact while others did not. Speaking about the curfew the main response has been disbelief: does the government believe Zwedru has become a frontline?

But yet the presence of the security forces and the few checks and balances placed on their behavior are only some problems facing the southeastern region, the county and its citizens. What has also taken place is the use of insecurity as an economic opportunity for local politicians. These opportunities ultimately arise from the government announcement to close the gold camps situated close to the Ivorian border, and where a recent Human Rights Watch report claims Liberians are financing and fighting the conflict in Ivory Coast, where the situation may be erupting into a civil war.

The government announcement of closing the camps and the government’s curious silence concerning its implementation has created considerable insecurity that directly affects the lives and futures of several thousands of people in Grand Gedeh. For anyone visiting the camps for a longer time the terminology soon becomes misleading: not all the gold camps are simply for miners, but they are more accurately towns as they are not only inhibited by the young men working on the gold fields, but in many cases also their families.

Some camp elders also bring out an important point, together with a veiled threat: many of the miners are former combatants, who are currently busy with mining in the camps. Forcing them to leave the camps would materialize in thousands of homeless and jobless people loitering around in the county capital – a prospect that worries many even in Zwedru. More importantly, the lure of a mission in Ivory Coast might become too alluring for some of the miners made unemployed by the implementation of the government decision.

The exploiting of this uncertainty is carried up on every level, beginning from local leaders upwards. Considering that vast sums of money are involved in gold business the amounts of money discussed are not small. It also seems clear that these transactions are not done with any (official) sanction from the government. Whether they will help to affect the situation is equally uncertain. If the government does not act swiftly and begin to provide real security both inside the camps and especially between them and the border areas, local political entrepreneurs can continue to make offers that are very, very difficult to refuse. The situation in Grand Gedeh at the moment seems to be a good example of how conflict can cause problems for the majority, while at the same time providing new opportunities for the minority.

This is the third guest post by Ilmari Käihkö. He is currently residing in Grand Gedeh conducting research for our project on mid-level commanders and their roles in post-war Liberia

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Following the attack from Liberian soil to Ivory Coast that resulted in the deaths of seven peacekeepers from Niger working under the United Nations flag as well as a number of Ivorian civilians and military an update is in order. While my previous post explained the general situation, the targeting of UN peacekeepers requires some further explanation.

I got the news about the attack immediately from my supervisor in Sweden, who had learned about it from the Swedish television on the morning after it had been executed. During the day I must have asked around 50 people about their reactions and thoughts concerning the incident. Not one was aware that it had even taken place. Only on the second day information had begun to trickle down to Zwedru, mainly from the Ivory Coast.

I cannot say that that any of the reactions to the attacks were particularly strong. Most Liberians seemed to care little, while some even cynically claimed that the United Nations probably paid some Liberians to attack their own forces in order to further some business interest. Most were simply uninterested, possibly because of the multitude of unverified rumors that float around all the time. Others, of course, knew that there was something on the make, but probably had no exact specifics concerning this particular attack.

Reactions from some Ivorian refugees were different, however. At this point it can be in order to state my own position concerning an attack on UN peacekeepers. As a former peacekeeper I cannot justify an attack against the UN in any way. This said, apart from justifying the act I do believe that we must understand why it happened.

The first refugee I told about the attack answered with a single word: “bon” – “good”. Puzzled, I demanded an explanation to his positive reaction to events I consider to be bad. According to him the UN collaborated with the current President Ouattara in removing President Gbagbo from power to the extent that “UN and Ouattara are one”. Attack on the UN can therefore be seen as a way of opposing the government of Ouattara, and from the perspective of a Gbagbo supporter therefore furthering their political goals.

It should be also noted that this refugee is not an inherently a bad person even if he supports killers of UN forces. After sensing my bafflement he proceeded to explain that his whole family, including small children, was killed during the Ivorian crisis by forces loyal to Ouattara. After such an experience any chance to get payback is more than understandable. At the same time, it does lead into a vicious circle of violence that can be difficult to break out from. Already there are reports that the attack has driven thousands of people from their homes near the border. The refugee situation in Liberia may well be the first to be affected.

Finally, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future. There are no indications that these attacks are the last ones. Rather the opposite is true. As Gbagbo’s trial begins the number of attacks may even increase. In the case of a sentence the situation will likely deteriorate. Gbagbo’s supporters hope for a quick trial and acquittal, and not the six-year wait that the followers of Charles Taylor had to bear from 2006 onwards until his recent conviction. The announcement of the Liberian government to deploy the Armed Forces of Liberia to the border is also worrying, considering that no-one seems to have much trust in the military.

Another aspect of the conflict that I did not discuss in the previous posting is an ethnic one. As with the Liberian civil crisis, even the conflict in Ivory Coast is seen as an ethnic one by many in Grand Gedeh. In this case it extends to the Krahn and Gio on the Ivorian side of the border (i.e. the Guere and Yacouba). The Krahn in Liberia also claim that they cannot freely enter the neighboring Nimba County in fear of harassment by the Gio, whereas there are many Gio living freely in Grand Gedeh. While there are no signs that this dimension of the conflict is spreading to Liberia, it can be good to keep in mind that even this dimension is real to the people here. In any case, something is definitely brewing in Eastern Liberia and Western Ivory Coast.

Ilmari Käihkö is a doctoral student at Uppsala University currently doing fieldwork in Eastern Liberia.

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The Ivorian refugees in Grand Gedeh are a common sight both in the county capital as well as the many surrounding villages. Even more importantly, the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia is porous and poorly patrolled by the Liberian authorities. Both Ivorians and Liberians cross at will, just as they have for a long time. This is especially the case with the Krahn, the most predominant ethnic group in Grand Gedeh, who are spread evenly across the border (in the Ivory Coast they are called Guere).

There are about 69,000 Ivorian refugees in Liberia, most of them in Grand Gedeh. Additionally an uncounted number of Liberians returned to Liberia following the Ivorian crisis and the influx of “northerners”, often erroneously nicknamed “Burkinabe”, supporters of President Alassane Ouattara to the western parts of Ivory Coast. These refugees and exiles are now sitting around in camps, villages and the county capital Zwedru, many of them spending their days loitering or sleeping. Their mood is one of depression and frustration – not many have high expectations of returning back home anytime soon, if ever.

An important date for all these Ivorians and Liberians is the forthcoming announcement on the 18th of June whether the International Criminal Court case against President Laurent Gbagbo is to proceed. According to the prosecution Gbagbo is responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people in the post-election violence in 2010. Most of my informants have another view and keep repeating that “Gbagbo is a good man”, whereas Ouattara has not only wrecked the Ivorian economy in a single year but is additionally increasingly disliked by the same rebels that brought him to power. True or not, it is easy to see that many of the refugees have enjoyed good years under Gbagbo thanks to their political connections. These same connections make them unwelcome across the border as long as Ouattara is in power.

What is however undeniable is the violence in Ivory Coast. According to the ICC most violence was committed by the supporters of Gbagbo, but the people on the Liberian side of the border naturally only tell of the violence committed by the opposing side. Many have shown me a video called “Yopougon” (an area of Abidjan particularly affected by the unrest) where the alleged supporters of Ouattara can be seen throwing living humans into a pyre. But this violence continues ever still. One elder in a village counted that there are five young Liberian men that have been killed in Ivory Coast as spies, the last one, Junior Gaye, in April. The total number of victims this year only might be anything from a dozen to ten times more. This means that violence is continuing beyond headlines. The United Nations facilitated a meeting between Liberian and Ivorian authorities including elders from the Liberian towns close to the border last Saturday, but from the information I’ve received the meeting ended without result. Liberian government now says that no Liberian should cross the border to Ivory Coast because of insecurity.

Historical precedents cause some alarm, however. One of the most common reasons for fighting in Liberia has been simply returning home. As one former fighter expressed himself, the only way he could cross back to Liberia from Ivory Coast was with a gun. The same goes for just about all factions opposing Charles Taylor’s government.

The case might not be entirely different for the Ivorians and Liberians from Ivory Coast who supported Gbagbo. As one Liberian returnee explained, if Gbagbo is sentenced they have no other course than to take to arms if they are to return home. And the chances of Gbagbo being set free and made president are slim. Reports indicate that some cross-border violence has already taken place. Something might be stirring in the east, as well as the west.

Ilmari Käihkö is currently based in Grand Gedeh. He is doing fieldwork within our Mid-level commander project and for a PhD thesis at Uppsala University.

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50 years.

Charles Taylor will spend the rest of his life in prison (unless someone decides to assist his escape again :)) for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone. As a comparison Issa Sesay, one of the senior commanders of RUF, was sentenced by the same court to 52 years. Most commentators have raised words of optimism saying that the trial will send signals to other warlords that they will eventually be dealt with if they don’t “behave”. Maybe so, but I doubt. Anyone who decides to lead armed incursions or make military coups is quite aware of the stakes and prepared to take the risks. After all it is a prerequisite that they gamble rather offensive with their own life by leading such endeavors. However what may be the outcome is that a set of future military leaders (and some currently in power) must think twice with whom they form alliances and be aware that it should rather not be someone who is on bad footing with the mighty West.

Two short observations to be made: firstly, I guess we will see some shifts in political alliances on the Liberian arena. They may not happen overnight, and they may not be directly visible to all observers – after all Liberian politics by and large happens behind the scenes. And secondly, I hope that Charles Taylor will spend some of his time in jail writing, or narrating to others, his proper version of the Liberian civil war. What else should he do with all his time?

Gerhard Anders has also written some closing remarks on the Taylor saga:


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