Wednesday, June 18, 2003

A cease fire to the Liberian civil war was signed yesterday. The most notable condition was the agreement that the current dictator, indicted war criminal Charles Taylor, not take place in the transitional government that will organize elections. The announcement was greeted with mass scenes of "popular joy", according to Le Monde as well as the BBC.

When I read yesterday that Taylor would step down, I nearly choked on the potato chips I was eating. It is, of course, fantastic news to hear that one of the world's most despicable dictators is going to resign. The truly fabulous news will occur when the man most responsible for the instability of an entire sub-reigon of a continent, actually steps down. Taylor's thuggish history requires one to be highly guarded to anything he actually says. The phrase "actions speak louder than words" was coined precisely because of scum like Taylor.

What also remains to be seen is Taylor's future. He was recently indicted by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, as a result of his active sponsorship of that country's sickeningly brutal rebel group (from which he profited personally by getting a cut of the illicit blood diamond trafficking). He is also widely believed to be behind the most hardline faction in Ivory Coast's war, which is now in cease-fire. None of Liberia's neighbors have been spared by Taylor's expansionist meddling for profit.

It is important that he face trial and end up behind bars for the rest of his life. He did not simply destroy his own country, he destroyed an entire region. And it's an ongoing destruction that will outlast Taylor’s sordid regime. Taylor's faction practically invented the insidious concept of child soldiers as a policy. Sure, young soldiers have used in other conflicts. But never before had child soldiers been used with such SYSTEMATIC planning. Never before had they been a PRIMARY aspect upon which warfare depended. Never before had so many children been forcibly conscripted at such a young age; many child soldiers in Liberia hadn't even reached their 10th birthday. Warlords loved these SBUs (Small Boys Units) because young children soimetimes think they're invincible and are easily intimidated by those older than they. And when the boys showed reticence, they were drugged. I was reading an article in The Guardian where one boy spoke of how when he was afraid, his superiors cut his arm with a razor blade and smeared cocaine onto the wound, into the bloodstream, to make him “mad enough to fight or to chop people's limbs off.” This is evil Taylor conceived, and he exported it to other countries.

Now, there are large hordes of armed young men and boys who've known nothing but war throughout their lives. When one country signs a peace accord, they move on to another. This is the most important and most tragic legacy of not-yet-convicted war criminal Charles Taylor. This is why Charles Taylor's resignation and indictment will not solve the problem. But you have to start somewhere. You have to at least stop the hemoragghing before healing can begin.

Taylor was "elected" president in six years ago based on intimidation, coercion and threats. Le Monde recalled his 1997 campaign slogan: "I killed your mother. I killed your father. Vote for me so there will be peace." Now, hopefully all of West Africa can be rid of him so there is the slightest chance for peace.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Not my usual understated title, eh? Nor is it the usual understated entry, when it comes to one of the most despicible human beings on the planet.

Liberian rebels groups (LURD is the primary one and MODEL) are on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia. Their only stated revindication is the removal of the head of state, indicted war criminal Charles Taylor. A cease-fire has been agreed between the parties while peace talks take place in Accra, Ghana. The peace talks are complicated by Taylor's indictment; the warlord has indicated he will not leave office voluntarily unless the indictment is lifted.

I really don't know how LURD would govern Liberia. As I said, their only stated ambition is the removal of indicted war criminal Taylor. Little is know about the groups, although LURD is widely believed to be sponsored by neighboring Guinea. There is little love lost between Taylor and Guinea's leader Gen. Lansana Conté. Conté backed one of Taylor's rivlas in the first Liberian civil war in the 1990s. Taylor is assumed to have been behind the cross-border attacks into southern Guinea in late 2000 that cost dozens of lives and much material damage. With Sierra Leone devastated and Ivory Coast on the brink, Guinea is the only one of Liberia's neighbors that has not been at least partly destroyed by Taylor-backed forces.

LURD has no real political program other than removing Taylor. If it has a focal leader, he is hardly known. But I wonder if that's a good thing. If West Africa, rebel factions tend to form around charasmatic leaders, whose goal is little more than self-enrichment. Perhaps LURD's lack of a strong personality means that it will be more disciplined about governance.

But especially in West Africa, it's hard to be optimistic about any "regime change" that results from a civil war. Unfortunately, such conflicts are basically a circle of hell from which it is almost impossible to exit. Sometimes the the circle's spinning pauses for a breather, but it's never really broken. Once their civil wars started, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been in and out (mostly in) of civil war intermittently. What such conflict does is create large groups of people who don't know how a civil society is supposed to function. Especially children. The child soldier phenomenon is well-documented. The opening of that pandora's box is what have condemned Liberia and Sierra Leone to instability for the foreseable future.

The use of child soldiers is especially demonic because it's self-perpetuating. It creates a culture of war. Thousands of young Liberian and Sierra Leonian males have grown up knowing nothing but war. They are used to having adults cower to them because they hold Kalashnakovs. Often, they were forced to rape or kill relatives and burn down their own village FOR THE SOLE PUPORSE of shredding the pre-existing social order, essentially forcing the boys to sever all links with their previous lives. Repairing this incomprehensible damage is infinitely more difficult than signing a peace treaty and divying up ministries.

This is why it's so important for the nascent Ivory Coast conflict to be stopped in its tracks. This is why it's even more important to prevent this Dantean nightmare from spreading into Guinea.

This commerce in chaos is doubtless the most demonic aspect of Charles Taylor's reign. But since he was chummy with Col. Gadaffhi and reportedly had links to al-Qaeda, no one should be surprised at the depth of his malovolence.

I am not confident that the LURD will run Liberia substantially better than indicted war criminal Charles Taylor. At best, LURD may stop the bleeding and stabilize the country a tiny bit. At worst, at least LURD will only destroy Liberia rather than taking the entire West African sub-region with it. How tragic that things have descended that far. How tragic that, thanks to Charles Taylor, a group that might limit its destruction to its own country is seen as the lesser of two evils. Charles Taylor is one of the most sickening individuals living today. He is one of the men who's directly or indirectly responsible for destroying more lives than nearly anyone else on the planet. Saddam would envious of some of things Taylor's men (mostly boys, actually) have done. In condemning this slime, I apologize only for not using stronger language.

Although some insist that Taylor should be arrested and put on trial before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, I am open to an alternative for him and his buddy Foday Sankoh (whose troops were responsible for the infamous process of hacking of hands and arms of their victims). I say, release them. Release Taylor and Sankoh into the central market areas of Monrovia and Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone) respectively. Release them into the markets ALONE AND UNARMED. Then take bets on how long they survive. I put the over/under at 5 minutes.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

If you heard me singing Ode to Joy this morning, it was because I read of that Charles Taylor was indicted by the UN-backed War Crimes Court for Sierra Leone. Who is Charles Taylor? Taylor is a war criminal and former warlord who’s become dictator of West African state of Liberia. It is a good day for humanity, though not as great as the days when he is arrested and put on trial.

Liberia is known by many as the country settled by freed US slaves. These Americo-Liberians, as they are known, promptly set up a system to ensure their social superiority over the “indigenous” folk. This apartheid like system held until 1980, when a group of “indigenous” military officers led by the sadistic Samuel Doe led a coup to oust the civilian government. One of Doe’s top civil servants was Charles Taylor, until the two fell out and Taylor fled to the US. He was arrested, pending extradition to Liberia for embezzlement, but he managed to escape from a Massachussetts jail and eventually found his way to Libya.

In Libya, he made friends with the ever honorable Col. Gadhaffi and a Sierra Leonian exile named Foday Sankoh. Having failed in his ambition to become the Arab world’s next Nasser and in international isolation for his alleged role in various terrorist attacks, Gadhaffi turned his eyes toward gaining influence in sub-Saharan Africa through bribes, generous donations and military excursions; sadly, he has succeeded quite well in spreading his influence.

Doe terrorized and mismanaged the country throughout the 80s and Liberians didn’t think it could get any worse. Of course, it did. On Christmas Day 1989, Taylor invaded Liberia from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire (I believe he was related by marriage to the Ivorian President Felix Houphoeut-Boigny). He was on the verge of capturing the capital Monrovia when a Nigerian-led West African “peacekeeping” force intervened and pushed Taylor’s forces back. A World War I style “active stalemate” took hold for the next several years, with several other armed factions throwing their hat into the ring. But during this period, some of the most horrific war crimes imaginable were perpetrated, with most of them attributed to Taylor’s NPFL forces. Beheadings, cannibalism, burning people alive, forcing drugged-up young soldiers to rape their female relatives. Even on a continent where terrible violence is far too common, Africans were shocked at the appalling brutality of Liberia’s civil war.

This nightmare was mimicked in neighboring Sierra Leone, particularly by the RUF group led by Taylor’s old chum Foday Sankoh. It is widely accepted that Taylor actively funded and armed the RUF, who not only adopted the same atrocities of Taylor’s NPFL, but made amputation of arms and hands (the gender and age of the victims were irrelevant) its most macabre signature.

In 1997, under pressure, Taylor and the other warlords accepted to hold elections organized by a provisional government. Since Taylor’s forces remained in military control of much of the control, they bullied, threatened and harassed their way to a ballot box “victory.” Upon his anointment as “democratic” leader, he was acted like any other third-rate dictator, arresting human rights activists, muzzling what little there is of a free press, etc. But he has done much worse.

Not content with destroying Liberia, Taylor has set his mind on destabilizing the entire West African region. None of his neighbors has been left untouched by Taylor’s vileness. In addition to supporting the RUF in Sierra Leone, he is also seen as the godfather of the MPIGO, the most intransigent of the rebel groups in Cote d’Ivoire. He is also thought to be behind the cross-border attacks into Guinea in late 2000/early 2001 attributed to a mysterious Guinean rebel group that no one had heard of before nor since.

But perhaps the most damaging long-term effects wrought by Taylor and his proteges is the destruction of social cohesion. That he had young, drugged-up troops rape their mothers, chop off the hands of their grandfathers and burn down their villages was not an accident. It was a quite intentional act whose goal was two-fold. First was to shred the existing social order; iconclasm to an unimaginable degree. The other was to ensure loyalty to the warring faction by provoking the youngster’s rupture with his family and friends. It was sinister beyond belief. Liberian and Sierra Leonian societies now are trying to pick up the pieces from what Taylor and his ilk wrought. Needless to say, it is an mind-boggingly difficult and complex task.

The other effect is that thousands of young males have spent their whole lives knowing nothing other than war. They do not know how a regular society functions. They are used to demanding respect by the barrel of a Kalashnakov. As a result, they are used to getting anything they want when they want. They have no education, no skills other than inflicting violence on others.

There are thousands of these young males in Liberia and Sierra Leone. They can not be demobilized because they have no prospects of anything otherwise. Everything they’ve ever gotten in life was linked to their having a weapon. They are thus loathe to give up that weapon. Taylor knows that these young males can not be demobilized so when he assumed power, he sent them to Sierra Leone. This was a double bonus for Taylor. It helped his old friend Sankoh (and gave him a share of the diamond trade Sankoh’s forces controlled) while simulateneously getting rid of this unstable and rest part of his population. With the bored, restless, armed males gone, Taylor could successfully cower those that remained. When peace came to Sierra Leone, those restless, armed males were bored again and thus a potential threat, so Taylor sent them to Cote d’Ivoire to proceed destroying that country.

There is now a rebellion in Liberia, led by a group whose acronym is LURD, which controls about 60 percent of the country. Given that Taylor has destabilized his other two neighbors, no wonder the Guinean head of state, Gen. Lansana Conte, despises him and allegedly supports the LURD.

Due to this military pressure, Taylor was forced into peace talks with the LURD in Accra, Ghana. Apparently the indictment against Taylor was sealed by the Court several months ago but made public only today. This was quite shrewd since it puts pressure on the Ghanaian government to arrest the despot and hand him over. Taylor doesn’t get out much any more, since the imposition of a UN travel ban on him and his government (although he’s been to Paris, which isn’t surprising given France’s historic relations with African dictators).

Yet, it remains to be seen if Taylor will actually be arrested in Accra. No serving head of state has ever been arrested on war crimes’ charges and the Ghanaian government is surely not excited about setting such a precedent. It also complicates the peace talks.

But ultimately, I think this indictment is a groundbreaking event. It sends a message to the most vile scum of the planet: there is no such thing as diplomatic immunity for the most horrific crimes. While the world will probably never reach a time when ALL the worst butchers are put in the dock, it is certainly a glimmer of hope to know that justice is possible for some of those who belong in hell.

THE G-8 VS THE O-190+
The leaders of the G-8 (world’s seven richest countries plus Russia) held a recent summit in Evian, France. There was a large exclusion zone around Evian, forcing protesters to hold court in nearby Geneva, Switzerland. As is the case with most of these summits, nothing much productive happened. In Geneva, progressive protesters protested diverses causes; idiotic anarchists (aka: self-indulgent twits) went around smashing windows of anything they felt like. The leaders themselves met in their fortress smiling and holding photo ops. The story that most interested the news media was the meeting between Presidents Bush and Chirac, their first since their spat over the Iraq conquest. The two held a photo op session where each mouthed noble platitudes while the other held a smile that was about as natural as the meat in a Subway sandwich.

On to issues that actually affect people’s lives. Invited African leaders said they wanted not more aid, but for the west to slash or end agricultural subsidies thus instituting actual free and fair trade between the two for the first time in centuries. European leaders said they were willing to do this but that the Americans weren’t. Pres. Bush said he was willing to do this but Europe wasn’t. The result, shockingly, was that nothing happened. Commerce (and capital) between the west and Africa remains mostly a one way street.

But I guess the most flabbergasting fact is that the G8 countries (USA, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Russia) represent HALF of the world’s wealth. That means that half of the entire world’s wealth is held by only 8 countries. And the other half of that wealth is split among the other 190-something countries (call them the O-190+). Whether you think that’s injust or whether you think it’s “too bad but the way things are”, it’s absolutely astonishing to contemplate.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Togo went to the polls on Sunday to vote on whether to extend the 36-year rule of Gen. Gnassingbé Éyadéma, Africa's longest serving leader. Éyadema's victory seemed pre-ordained with the exclusion of main opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, whose father was the first president of the country and was allegedly assassinated either directly by Éyadema or on his orders. Yet, Olympio’s Union of the Forces for Change (UFC) party still decided to run a candidate, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, against Africa’s longest serving leader.

According to the opposition newspaper Le Togolais, Akitani and the UFC have claimed victory, despite the 35% that the official partial results have credited him with (against 59% for Éyadema). The UFC alleges massive fraud and vote rigging on the part of the regime. This after Éyadema forced through constitutional changes abolishing the two-term presidential limit. A strong man rigging the constitution and stuffing the ballot boxes, the opposition claiming fraud, sadly this is not unusual in Africa.

What intrigues me, however, is the apparent strategy being followed by the UFC. It is using the non-state media to create the impression in people’s minds that it actually won the election (which may well indeed be true). For example, a CTR press release (the CTR is an umbrella opposition group) thanked the Togolese people for “having fired the despot Étienne Gnassingbé Éyadema” while guarding against “any unseemly triumphalism” and encouraging “all Togolese democrats to put aside their personal quarrels to support, without second thoughts, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, the democratically elected president of all the Togolese.” They added that this was done “despite maneuvers, crimes and frauds of an unlimited nature.” Akitani himself launched “a solemn appeal to the Togolese people, united against one man, to defend our victory.”

This seems in many ways similar to the strategy used by Marc Ravolomanana in Madagascar in 2002. Much like Akitani, Ravolomanana was up against a veteran military leader: Didier Ratsiraka who’d been in power since 1975. Madagascar’s capital was a bastion of opposition support, much like Togo’s Lomé. Ratsiraka, like Éyadema, had become a pariah of the international community. In Madagascar, the opposition used its support in the capital (of which Ravolomanana was mayor) to take control of government buildings and set up a de facto alternate government, to protest the official ruling that it did not receive the majority of the presidential vote. Eventually, it expanded its influence and become the de facto government in much of the country. Once Ratsiraka’s forces collapsed, that status was officialized when the Ravolomanana government was recognized by the international community. It will be interesting to see if Togo’s opposition opts for a similar strategy.

There are a few important differences. Éyadema has tried to counter his pariah status by acting as a mediator in many West African crises. This has bought him some goodwill among neighboring leaders. Furthermore, Éyadema has used that instability in other West African countries as an example as to why he should remain in power: he represents stability and the opposition represents chaos… a classic dictator’s ploy.

Éyadema has also proven even more ruthless than Ratsiraka over the years in cracking down on opposition. Already, two leaders of the UFC have been arrested by the police. Some 70% of the Togolese army come from the same region as Éyadema and the military’s loyalty is not thought to be suspect. And the millionaire Ravolomanana was the charismatic natural leader of the Malagasy opposition. Akitani is the second choice of his own party and it remains to be seen if he’ll be taken seriously as his own man or as be perceived a puppet of Olympio. But if Togolese are as sick of Éyadema’s oppression, mismanagement and corruption as many believe, then it may not matter.

No matter what happens, interesting days are sure to follow in one of West Africa’s smallest countries.