Determined U.N. faces steep challenge in pacifying Liberia

Lessons learned in Sierra Leone may help effort

Fellows Fall 2003

By Jessie Deeter

June 04, 2009

Monrovia, Liberia -- "Small General" was having a bad day. His soldiers lacked the discipline to hold a straight line, and he had just had his burgundy general's beret ripped off his head by a man who dropped from the sky in a U.N. helicopter.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande, the U.N. force commander, had come to personally carry the message to this ragtag remnant of former Liberian President Charles Taylor's army that violence against civilians would be punished severely in post-war Liberia.

"I told you, don't harass people on this road," the 60-year-old Opande growled as he hovered over Small General (real name: Samuel Banwan), chastising him for the theft and rape his young men and boys in flip-flops and tattered T-shirts had committed since Opande's last visit two weeks before.

Small General sunk his chin to his chest as his eyes flitted to the troops who witnessed his demotion to the ranks. His militia, a fragment of Taylor's army, was disarmed on Opande's orders.

But tens of thousands more former soldiers and members of Liberia's two rebel factions -- Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the smaller Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) -- are still armed and dangerous.

The United Nations' capacity to enforce the peace agreement signed in August in Liberia is being tested in this vulnerable period of early peacekeeping. Four months into the mission, only about 8,200 of the planned 15, 000 U.N. troops are on the ground.

With an estimated 45,000 still-armed rebels and government soldiers, U.N. forces are significantly outnumbered. The world body desperately needs its mission in Liberia to be a success or else face a resumption of a civil war that has ruined this country.

"We are anxious to see more troops in Liberia so that the momentum will continue,'' Foreign Minister Thomas Nimely-Yaya said. "The U.N. needs to deploy as soon as they can.''

Jacques Klein, the U.N. Special Representative to Liberia, is convinced that "enormous firepower" is the way to ensure success.

The no-nonsense, cigar-smoking American has pressed the international community to create what will be the largest peacekeeping mission in the world and has achieved a Chapter 7 U.N. mandate, which authorizes troops to shoot to kill, if necessary.

The willingness to use force was tested in early December when militiamen attacked a U.N. patrol in Monrovia and shot Beninese Maj. Antoine Guy Adjaho in the leg. U.N. troops returned fire and shot three of the assailants to death, according to Opande and Klein. It was the first time U.N. forces had shot to kill since the beginning of the mission here.

Klein wants to avoid a repeat of the fiasco in neighboring Sierra Leone, which suffered its own decade-long civil war. In 1999, when the U.N. mission there was created, Sierra Leone was allotted only 6,000 peacekeepers. The danger of being spread too thin became apparent when Revolutionary United Front rebels took 500 U.N. soldiers hostage in May 2000.

After that embarrassment, the Security Council issued a stronger mandate that gave U.N. troops the authority to "respond robustly to any hostile action or threat of imminent and direct use of force." Nearly a year later, the U.N. force in Sierra Leone was raised to 17,500 peacekeepers.

"In Sierra Leone ... they went in too light, (with) too few people," Klein said. "They had to keep ratcheting up and ratcheting up."

Disarmament in Liberia got off to a clunky start in early December, when more than 9,000 combatants showed up at Camp Schieffelin, a site 35 miles east of Monrovia that was designed to process 1,000 soldiers. Lacking the troops and the full amount of money promised to each militiaman in exchange for their guns, peacekeepers scrambled to provide the food, sanitation and staff to process thousands of angry young men with guns.

Losing patience, some former militiamen took the guns they had planned to turn in and started a riot in Monrovia that lasted four days and left at least nine people dead. The disarmament program was delayed until January.

Opande is a Kenyan who came to Liberia from Sierra Leone, where he was sent in 2000. He's hoping Liberia's troublemakers will get the message more quickly than did their neighbors in Sierra Leone.

"One lesson I learned from Sierra Leone in dealing with volatile situations is to engage the parties, their leadership, commanders and combatants in dialogue at every opportunity," Opande said.

But when dialogue falters, his modus operandi is to patrol with a helicopter and a big stick made of wood and topped with metal that he uses to whack recalcitrant rebels into line.

When he dropped in on a group of Taylor's former military recently, looking for their leader, the soldiers ran out of the jungle to greet his helicopter, waving their guns high in the air and yelling, "We want peace!"

Opande sat down in a circle of rickety wooden chairs set up by the fighters and listened as they complained of infractions of the peace treaty by rival MODEL rebel forces. They were tired of fighting. They wanted food and supplies. Opande listened and assured them that both would come. He took a wounded man and his wife on his helicopter to transport them to a hospital. The militiamen settled down.

But the situation remains unstable. After 14 years of civil war, nearly 1 in 5 Liberians has been uprooted because of security threats; most lack access to clean water; and more than 80 percent are unemployed. Continuing U.N. sanctions limit access to the country's rich diamond and timber resources. And the transitional government in Monrovia is a tenuous amalgam, including representatives of Taylor's former government and rival rebel groups who were killing each other just a few months ago.

"Liberia is considered to be a failed state," said Stephen Ellis, director of International Crisis Group Africa program. "When the U.N. went in there, they hadn't really grasped the size of the problem."

Even now, only the capital is under U.N. control, and humanitarian aid is threatened by armed rebel forces, troops and militias. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Liberia works to bring aid to the thousands of Liberians stranded without food. Ahunna Eziakonwa, OCHA's head, said that because of attacks on food caravans, she had had to request armed U.N. escorts to reach outlying provinces.

"We've had people tell us not to give them food or the rebels will take it," she said. "We've taken away the war, but not the weapons."

Klein said that the situation would remain precarious until spring, when he hopes to have all of his troops on the ground.

"There will be the occasional fool who, as Darwin put it, is stupid and doesn't want to live much longer,'' Klein said. "But you really want to minimize violence because we're here to protect and defend the Liberian people. We're not here to kill them."