Monday, May 16, 2005

Instability breeds instability

Instability breeds instability. That's one of the core principles of conflict prevention. Better to prevent a mess than have to clean it up. This is why I oppose militarism. That's why, unlike many on the left, I'm not a big fan even of 'humanitarian interventionism' (an uninvited military operation for purported humanitarian reasons) except in the most extreme cases.

West Africa is a case study in this concept. First, there was a brutal civil war in Liberia. Warlord (and now indicted war criminal) Charles Taylor conquered the entire country, except for the capital Monrovia. West African peacekeepers were sent to protect Monrovia from Taylor's forces. Eventually, Taylor took power anyways, following "free" elections where he promised to take the country back to war if he lost. A few years later, the conflict spilled over into neighboring Sierra Leone. There, Foday Sankoh, a Taylor comrade, led a rebel group which quickly became infamous for some of the most sickening, gratituitous atrocities the 'modern' world has seen. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Taylor himself was ousted by another rebel group only two years ago.

Both Sierra Leone and Liberia spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s at war. As a result, there are hundreds of thousands of young people who have known nothing but war and chaos their entire lives. There are tens of thousands of young men who, as mere boys, were forcibly recruited, drugged and commanded to kill. Many were ordered to kill, mutilate or rape their own family members. These tactics were not accidental; they were a conscious effort on the part of rebels to turn the social structure upside down, to force child soldiers to sever all ties with their previous life.

These boys and young men have seen such brutality, much of which they themselves inflicted or were forced to inflict. They are not easy to reintegrate into normal society. Close knit West African villages may not be eager to welcome with open arms people who did such horrible things. Yet these boys and young men are also victims. Many were abducted. Many were drugged before being compelled to commit atrocities.

These countries have all these young men, former soldiers. They have post-traumatic stress syndrome or other mental and emotional problems. They are detested by their former communities. They have known nothing but war. They are used to being in positions of authority, used to getting what they want, when they want, by merely snapping their fingers and flashing their Kalashnakov. And worst of all, they have become desensitized to violence. Combine this with the fact that they have no jobs and they have no skills (because they were at war, rather than in school or learning a trade), no prospects.

This is not a good mixture.

They are a prime recruiting target for troublemakers.

The Liberia conflict spilled over into Sierra Leone, then back to Liberia and then crossed the border into Côte d'Ivoire. Each of those conflicts had their own specific grievances involved but they were made all the more devastating by a large pool of potential recruits. Recruits who had already become detached from and desensitized to the norms of regular society.

Not surprisingly, the human trafficking industry has gotten involved.

Authorities are investigating a Liberian suspected of recruiting child-soldiers to fight in Cote d’Ivoire amid warnings that more and more young ex-combatants are resorting to work as hired guns in West African trouble spots, says Human Rights Watch, according to IRIN.

The report, based on interviews with ex-combatants from more than a decade of West African wars, described the mercenaries as “roving warriors”, or an “insurgent diaspora”, who will continue to fuel regional conflict unless the issue of providing an alternative livelihood is addressed.

Furthermore, it's been reported that Young veterans of West Africa's wars are being recruited to fight new conflicts across the region, according to a report by [HRW]. The New York-based group says poverty is forcing thousands of young men and boys to become mercenaries.

The report warns war will continue to be seen as an economic opportunity unless alternatives are provided... It says many of the migrant fighters began their military careers as child soldiers, abducted to fight in wars, and many are guilty of war crimes and atrocities... Economic hardship and the failure of disarmament efforts have led the men to fight for money and looting opportunities in fresh conflicts further afield, the report says. A veteran of several wars in West Africa said he fought to support his parents. "The commanders said we could pay ourselves, which meant looting," he told Human Rights Watch.

Instability breeds instability.

This is why the International Crisis Group is warning that the worst may be yet to come in the Côte d'Ivoire conflict.

The Ivorian disaster has been exacerbated by political considerations: notably fanatical xenophobia whipped up by the government, its partisans and the hate media in the commercial capital Abidjan.

The ICG notes that: The protagonists of the Ivorian crisis are adept at pleasing diplomats by giving the impression they are cooperating under the peace process framework. However, this has nearly always meant one step forward, two steps back. The explosion of violence that follows a period of relative calm has become more serious each time. Not many more cycles will be needed before the dynamic morphs into qualitatively worse violence, probably including large-scale ethnic cleansing.

It carries an ominous warning for Côte d'Ivoire's neighbors: That would be a tragedy for more than Côte d'Ivoire: Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso would likely be drawn into a regional conflict. The greatest damage could be done to Liberia's fragile peace process, which is meant to culminate in presidential and legislative elections just four days before Côte d'Ivoire's scheduled presidential vote.

Fortunately, there is a fair amount of international attention on Côte d'Ivoire. The UN and African Union need to keep pressure on the parties to the conflict, especially the Ivorian government, to keep to their promises.

Other related articles and links:
-Children at War: the Lost Generation, The Globalist.

-Rebels With a Cause, but No Training, IRIN.

-How Dangerous are the Loyalist Militias, IRIN.

-War Child, 'Helping Innocent Victims of War'


At 7:59 AM, Blogger Black River Eagle said...

I know some young men who are former combatants and victims of the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. They are right here in Europe with me and I speak with them regularly.

They are trying to make a better future for themsleves in finding work and attempting to live a life without resorting to crime etc., but the society and the government here in Germany openly rejects and marginalizes these young men. Some are involved in low-level crime such as drug dealing and God knows what but they attempt to hide it from me out of respect. That's the reality despite what the (German) media and Foreign Ministry etc. is trying to sell to the world.

One of my friends from Sierra Leone, Ibrahim, has just returned from a visit to Freetown and other parts of the country where he spent time with his family and sought opportunities for setting up a small business in his home.

He confirms much of what you write in this (excellent) piece and what the ICG and IRIN News reports. The government and the local officials including police, politicians, businesspeople and so forth are corrupt from top-to-bottom. Young people are being recruited as well as seeking employment in militias and gangs out of desperation, frustration, and because they know little else except abuse and killing.

Ibrahim would agree with you on what you write except this:

Ibrahim told me in his most passionate words to date that his country needs not only serious financial and development help from the outside but more importantly it needs to be rid of the militias and the corrupt politicians and public officials. He repeated over and over that Sierra Leone needs FORCE to be free. Professional foreign troops combined with international pressure is what he means by FORCE.

I listen closely to that kid who grew up in those illegal forced-labour diamond fields and brutal wars of Sierra Leone and managed to escape it all somehow to grew into a young man.

Sorry about the long-winded comment. Thanks for this article.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Brian said...

Dear Eagle,
Thanks for your comments. Perhaps I should clarify my remarks. What I mean by humanitarian interventionism is an uninvited, aggressive military operation for purported humanitarian reasons. I support it in the most extreme cases; I think the world (ie: the major powers) should've permitted the existing UN force in Rwanda to intervene in 1994. You can't get much more extreme than genocide. I oppose it in less extreme cases. I opposed the Iraq invasion (which some still try to pass off as a humanitarian gesture). I would oppose an invasion of Zimbabwe or even Equatorial Guinea, despite the fact that their dictators badly need to be "retired."

I remember that a huge UN force had trouble in Sierra Leone but once a small (fewer than 1000 troops) contigent of British soldiers arrive, the country was stabilized immediately after decade of mess. However, it's important to note that the British force was INVITED by the elected government of Tejan Kabbah.

By contrast, the ECOMOG force that basically prevented Monrovia's capture from Charles Taylor in 1990 was uninvited. Now, I loathe Charles Taylor more than any living beast on the face of the Earth. However, it's worth noting that ECOMOG's arrival in Monrovia hardly stabilized the country. In fact, it prolonged the war for about 7 years; had ECOMOG not arrived, Taylor would conquered the whole country in 1990. Instead, what happened? 7 more years of brutal chaos and countless lives lost. And the despicable Taylor STILL became dictator.

I was in Guinea during the worst of the Liberian civil war. I met many refugees from there. It was not pretty, as you can imagine. Many of them hated Taylor but their primary concern was ending the madness, even if it meant accomodating Taylor. That's why Taylor was able to blackmail his way to winning "democratic" elections in 1997; he made it clear that if he lost, he'd take the country back to war.

So I'm very wary of aggressive force, except in the worst cases. Sierra Leone, by contrast, has invited foreign stabilizing troops in so it's a different question.

"importantly it needs to be rid of the militias and the corrupt politicians and public officials."

I totally agree. However, getting rid of the militias is a bit more straight-forward than getting rid of corrupt politicians.

Thanks again for your comments.


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