From Freedom to Fear: Liberia's Troubled History
In order to understand Liberia's role in the international conflict diamond crisis, its current instability, and America's role in helping the country now, it's necessary first to review the country's history.
In the Beginning
Coup, Chaos, and Civil War
The new military government ran Liberia into the ground. Despite massive U.S. aid, the country's economy took a nose dive. U.S. companies backed out of Liberia, taking with them jobs and money that the nation's people desperately needed. Several attempts were made at overthrowing the Doe regime, but were brutally crushed. This culminated in the civil war that began in 1989 and continued for seven bloody years of on and off fighting. Starting in that year, the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, made increasing gains and rose in strength and notoriety.
The Doe government came to a dramatic end when in 1990, Samuel Doe himself was captured and executed by the rebels. In the ensuing chaos, the NPFL, the strongest of the rebel factions, battled several other groups for supremacy in Monrovia and the countryside. A peace keeping force of West African troops attempted to bring about a cease fire, and in 1993, a fragile peace was drawn up by the rebel groups. This peace lasted just as long as the groups were at the bargaining table, and the fighting resumed. A true peace agreement was signed in 1995, but again was a mere intermission in the fighting. When the hiatus ended, the fighting raged more intensely than ever, this time in Monrovia itself. Finally, West African peacekeepers were able to disarm the rebels, and beginning in late 1996, a more viable peace began. In the first fair elections held in more than 16 years, the leader of the NPFL, Charles Taylor, won in a landslide.
Liberia's neighbor to the northwest, Sierra Leone, was engulfed in its own domestic struggle for nearly ten years. Atrocities on an unimaginable scale were committed in the battles to control the country's diamond deposits. Fortunately the world took notice and the United Nations placed a diamond embargo on Sierra Leone. As it was then impossible to sell diamonds directly from Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone-based rebel group Revolutionary United Front began to channel the diamonds through Liberia, with the blessing of Charles Taylor, who had been aiding and abetting the RUF all through the 1990s. The RUF was the dark end of the spectrum of humanity, committing genocide, rape, and brutal maimings - the oldest crimes, in new, bloodier forms. As soon as Charles Taylor began facilitating them, he too became a war criminal.
The illegal diamond trade grew as the civil war continued and despite Liberia's relatively small diamond reserves, its exports of diamonds expanded. By means of a world wide network, diamonds went from Sierra Leone to Liberia, then to Lebanon, Belgium and the Netherlands. Weapons found their way from ex-Soviet and eastern block countries, China, and the Balkans, through Liberia and into Sierra Leone to fuel the civil war. Charles Taylor even allowed RUF forces into some border regions of Liberia to re-arm and rest before continuing the campaigns of terror.
The world responded to Liberia's role in the bloodshed that was taking place in Sierra Leone. In March 2001, a unanimous United Nations Security Council vote placed diamonds and weapons embargos on Liberia, to try to curb the guns for diamonds trade. However the Sierra Leone civil war continued until January 2002, when it was ended by international peacekeepers.
Not surprisingly, the people and government of Sierra Leone wanted Charles Taylor's head. For 10 years, both as a rebel leader and president, he had ravaged Sierra Leone, stealing its diamonds and supporting the murderous and hated RUF. Accordingly, Taylor was indicted for war crimes on June 4, 2003 by a UN-backed, Sierra Leone court.
Despite sanctions, pressure by the international community, and Taylor's indictment by the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, Liberia continues to be a main junction of conflict diamonds and the weapons they fund for all of West Africa. With the Sierra Leone civil war over, the weapons are now filtering out to Liberia's other neighbors, some of which have been experiencing civil wars as well.
A more frightening facet of Liberia's connection to the illegal diamond trade is the alleged link to the al Qaeda terrorist network. Experts believe terrorists have been able to convert $200 million of their funds into safe, transportable diamonds. Charles Taylor and the rest of the corrupt Liberian government are suspected of helping them to do so safely and easily inside of Liberia. It is not known how many diamonds al Qaeda now possesses, or whether any have been sold to raise money for terrorism.
The Crisis of 2003
Charles Taylor accepted a Nigerian offer of asylum and on August 11, 2003, he finally stepped down from power. Once Taylor had stepped down, LURD signed an accord in which they agreed to leave the port and on August 18 LURD, MODEL, and the post Taylor government signed a peace treaty in Ghana which officially brought the fighting to an end. West African peacekeepers began landing in August to cautiously assess the complex circumstances of post-Taylor Liberia. West African forces, mostly Nigerians, occupied the port and began assuring that food shipments reached the people. American warships, carrying several thousand Marines, were positioned off shore. With Taylor's exit, one of the major conditions laid out by the Bush administration for American involvement was met. Thus, on August 14, a force of 200 American Marines came ashore to assure the safe travel of food shipments to the people of Monrovia. U.S. military officials say that this not a peacekeeping force, but a short term reactionary team to aid the West African troops establish control in the war torn capital. Many Liberians are praying for the day that the Americans step in with a full scale deployment to bring real security, but as of yet, it is unclear when or if they will do so.
The Road Ahead
by Bill Donahue