Turmoil in Liberia
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the continuing turmoil in Liberia. We begin with an update on the situation in Monrovia, narrated by Louise Bates of Associated Press Television News.
LOUISE BATES: Bodies covered in plastic, strewn outside the U.S. Embassy in Liberia a day after some of the bloodiest fighting yet. Enraged locals lined the bodies up outside the embassy, furious that American forces have not come to their rescue. And pleas for U.S. troops to intervene and quell the violence continue.
MAN: I am expecting George Bush to help us. We are dying. Our brothers, our sisters are dying.
LOUISE BATES: Taking advantage of the lull in fighting, desperate Liberians were scouting for food and water. And despite calls for a cease- fire from rebels, government and rebel fighters continued to trade machine gun and grenade fire in the port area. These pictures were shot during combat a few days ago. With neither side wearing uniform, it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other– a sign of the mounting sense of chaos here. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged Washington and West African states to commit troops to salvage the situation.
GWEN IFILL: For more on the situation in Liberia, we turn to two Africa watchers. George Ayittey is an economist at American University. He’s a native of Ghana and president of the Free Africa Foundation, a think tank that promotes economic and intellectual reform in Africa. And Salih Booker is the executive director of Africa Action, an organization that works for political, economic, and social change on the continent.
Salih Booker, every time we have talked about this story, we hear the words “desperation” and “chaos.” We hear people on the streets of Liberia saying, “where is the U.S.?” Should the U.S. Be going into Liberia right now?
SALIH BOOKER: I think the United States should already have intervened, particularly perhaps during President Bush’s recent trip to Africa. The current crisis in Liberia is the result of a previous betrayal of the United States of the people of that country. In 1990, the first President Bush faced a situation that was eerily similar to that now facing his son. Should the United States send in troops to stop a civil conflict, restore order, and allow the Liberians to reconstruct their democracy? The president’s father in 1990 had ships off the coast of Monrovia. They evacuated the Americans, they evacuated the Europeans, and they left the Liberians to their fate. I fear that’s exactly what’s happening once again.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Ayittey, does the U.S. Have a role here?
GEORGE AYITTEY: I think West African ECOWAS, which should be sending troops into Liberia and not the U.S. I think we all agree that there’s a great deal of suffering and horror in Liberia. But let’s not forget that Liberia is not the only country that is suffering. Since President Bush came back from Africa, we’ve had turmoil in Burundi. The civil war there is continuing. There’s still continuing turmoil in the Congo. The African nations… there’s been a coup there. We can’t ask the U.S. to send troops to all these countries. Leadership in Africa, what are they doing?
GWEN IFILL: I bounce that question right back to you, Mr. Booker. Why should it be up to the United States, when Africa is a huge continent with many other countries who could be taking the lead here?
SALIH BOOKER: Well, other countries are certainly prepared to contribute their fair share. In the past, of course, it has been West African countries and troops that have played the entire role of peacekeepers and peace enforcers in Liberia in the ’90s, when the U.S. refused, and in Sierra Leone as well. They created conditions to enable the U.N. then to play a role, as it played in Sierra Leone. But it’s an issue of international burden-sharing. The British, the French– they’re playing lead roles in peace operations in Sierra Leone and neighboring Ivory Coast. They also feel it’s appropriate for the United States to play this lead role. The U.S. Has a unique responsibility in the case of Liberia, not just because of the historic ties, but more recently because it helped create the conditions that have led to this cycle of violence.
GWEN IFILL: It’s not as if the United States is talking about not being involved at all. The president has said he would send a mission of limited time and duration, size and duration, if Charles Taylor, the president, leaves. Charles Taylor has said he would welcome such a mission and take exile in Nigeria, but only after the mission arrives. There’s a circular argument going on here. What do you make of that?
GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, Charles Taylor is simply playing for time. I agree with Mr. Booker that the French have sent 8,000 paratroopers into Ivory Coast, and the British have also sent troops into Sierra Leone. The U.S., Of course, can provide logistical support, but what’s going on is just bandage solutions, which we don’t need in Africa. We need long-term solutions, because a lot of Africans are simply fed up with all these civil wars going on on their continent. Let’s not forget that back in 1978, we had Idi Amin in Uganda, who was terrorizing not only his people but other countries. The former president of Tanzania sent an invading force into Uganda to kick Idi Amin out. Charles Taylor is no different from him. Why haven’t we had West African troops go into Liberia and get him out?
GWEN IFILL: What is the distinction between logistical support provided by the U.S. And the kind of support Mr. Booker is talking about?
GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, the logistical support is, the U.S. can provide military transport, could provide some funding, not the actual initiative of sending troops into Liberia, which needs to be taken by the West African states.
GWEN IFILL: How do you draw that distinction between what he’s talking about and what you’re talking about in terms of the amount of U.S. involvement?
SALIH BOOKER: Right. Well, there are real reasons why the West African leaders and the Liberians and the U.N. Security Council want to see the United States play the lead role. What’s needed is a multinational force. Everyone agrees to that. The West Africans have agreed to commit 3,000 or more troops to that. But they’ve asked the United States to commit up to 2,000 troops to play the lead role– troops on the ground, command and control. The United States has a more professional army, a more disciplined army, a more sophisticated army, and the kind of coercive power necessary to succeed….
GWEN IFILL: Are you saying there are no African nations, neighboring nations to Liberia who could serve that role?
SALIH BOOKER: Not who have the same military capacity of the United States. I mean, I think it would be absurd to assume that impoverished countries in West Africa would have the kind of professional military that the world’s greatest, richest superpower has. And Liberians have an experience with a somewhat unruly West African force that did intervene in the ’90s because the U.S. refused to. It did its best, but it also engaged in a large number of human rights abuses, corruption, et cetera. They feel the U.S. playing a lead role would make sure that doesn’t happen again, and would create the conditions necessary for peace.
GWEN IFILL: Does the U.S. in your opinion have a strategic interest in playing a lead role in Liberia? This is a question that’s asked prior to intervention in any number of countries when the U.S. gets involved.
GEORGE AYITTEY: Oh, I don’t think the U.S. has a strategic role, but rather an historic, tenuous historical link to Liberia. Liberia was founded by 1842 by freed U.S. slaves. But let me get back to a point about, you know, needing the military. Look, we’re dealing with child soldiers in Liberia, and also even in the Congo. We’re dealing with children as young as ten years old wielding AK-47′s who have seen devastation and terror. We’re saying we don’t have armies in Africa to deal with these children soldiers? You don’t need, you know, heavily equipped, you know, and extraordinarily skilled soldiers to deal with this particular type of situation. And I think we should not be making excuses for African governments and armies. They need to take the initiative.
GWEN IFILL: Are you making excuses?
SALIH BOOKER: No, we’re not making excuses. We want to make sure that human rights are respected as well. But the critical issue is, the U.S. has been delaying the entire process. Everything has been ready to go for weeks in terms of an intervention. Every day that’s delayed, the tragedy is compounded. Humanitarian aid workers can’t provide relief because there’s no security. The West African forces, rightfully so, don’t want to intervene without the U.S. leadership role, in terms of fighting their way in.
GWEN IFILL: But would you consider the possibility that U.S. forces in Iraq– we see them very active still in Afghanistan, all around the world– are maybe stretched a little too thin to take on another project?
SALIH BOOKER: I don’t think so. We’re talking about a maximum of maybe 2,000 troops. We’re not talking about a long duration, maybe six months to a year. This multinational force would be replaced by a U.N. official blue helmeted peacekeeping operation. The Liberians all are requesting the U.S. leadership role — the government, the two rebel factions, and most of all the civilian majority have been abandoned and betrayed by the U.S. in the past.
GWEN IFILL: Only 2,000 troops, six months, United Nations eventual role. Does that seem like it might work to you?
GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, I mean, nobody, you know, condones the suffering in Liberia. We all want to end it, but we want long-term solutions, and that’s why it is critically important that, well, why can’t we find these 2,000 troops from West Africa? There are those who need to get into Liberia first and establish an interim government. That interim government, the rebels should not have any part of it, because if you look, Gwen, if you look across Africa, time and time again, in fact, Charles Taylor is no different from Samuel Doe, whom he himself removed. We remove one person, and the next person who comes, comes in and does the same thing. We need to have a board to run an African country and to prove to the other collapsed states that we’re not going to tolerate this anymore. Otherwise, time and time again we’ll be calling upon the international community, we’ll be calling upon the United States. We need to get our act together in Africa.
GWEN IFILL: We talked a little bit about the chicken and the egg question of whether the aid comes before or after Charles Taylor leaves. How about the question of the cease-fire? Apparently a lot of governments are holding back waiting to see if they’re able to maintain a cease-fire. Today one was declared, kind of a tenuous one. Is that… does that have to happen before other governments can feel like it’s even safe to go in?
SALIH BOOKER: I don’t think so. There has been a cease-fire in fact since June 17. It hasn’t been honored. Of course more recently it’s been breached. Why — because the international community is failing to intervene. So the rebel forces, the government, everyone is jockeying for position, because they don’t see a peacekeeping force intervening. It is possible to enforce this cease-fire as it exists. The parties are negotiating in Ghana. The West Africans have taken the lead on diplomacy in coming up with a transitional arrangement. What’s really lacking is U.S. leadership here. And it’s a lost unity, because this is an opportunity to have a successful, multinational intervention in Africa that provides security, that’s welcomed by all parties involved in the conflict, and that really does secure a peace where civilians can get on with the role of reconstructing their country. That’s all that the Liberians are asking for. It’s the least the United States can do after having exploited Liberia in all of the previous wars, but most of all in the Cold War.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Ayittey, is a cease-fire necessary and sustainable?
GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, the cease-fire obviously is necessary to stop the killing and to stop the bloodletting, the bloodbath. The U.S. can play a role, but the initiative has to come from West Africa. And the point that I want to emphasize is that any future government, Charles Taylor and the rebel forces need to have no role in it. That government needs to be… you know, look, Liberia let a board run Liberia for, say, ten years to build up the institutions and so forth. When you talk about cease-fire and peace talks, what you’re doing is you’re legitimizing these rebels. All they want is power. Power to do what? Power to loot, power to hurt the economy; we’ve seen this happen so many times.
GWEN IFILL: George Ayittey and Salih Booker, thank you for helping us out on this.