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IRIN-West Africa Background Briefing on ECOMOG

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U N I T E D N A T I O N S
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Integrated Regional Information Network
for West Africa

Tel: +225 21-73-54
Fax: +225 21-63-35
e-mail: irin-wa@africaonline.co.ci

[This brief is intended as background information for the humanitarian community and does not necessarily reflect the views of the UN]

West Africa: Regional peacekeeping

Western countries unwilling to risk their soldiers in African peacekeeping missions following failures in Rwanda and Somalia, have increasingly demanded that Africans find solutions to African problems. One model cited for future regional peacekeeping operations has been the seven-year mission of the Economic Community of West African States Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Liberia. It is credited with bringing peace to the country after seven years of civil war.

ECOMOG has now been mandated to enforce United Nations sanctions and an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) embargo on Sierra Leone, following the ousting last May of the civilian government by junior army officers. However this has stimulated analysts to look more critically at the peacekeeping force. They are also evaluating its real impact in Liberia.

ECOMOG successes

Created in August 1990 to intervene in Liberia's civil war, diplomats note that ECOMOG was dominated by anglophone West African states. Nigeria contributed the majority of troops, materials and finances. The United States contributed around ten percent of the cost of running the force, estimated at an average of US$ 660 million a year. Approximately 15,000 soldiers were successfully deployed at the height of the Liberia mission, with The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, and Sierra Leone all supplementing the force. Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda also briefly deployed troops.

In October 1990, ECOMOG expelled Liberia's largest faction from the capital. That faction, the National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL) is led by Charles Taylor, who is now the elected president. ECOMOG handed Monrovia over to a transitional civilian administration recognised by ECOWAS. Two years later ECOMOG also successfully resisted an all-out NPFL assault on Monrovia. ECOMOG was able to slowly extended the territory it controlled to parts of central Liberia despite setbacks in 1994 when the NPFL captured and executed six Senegalese soldiers prompting Senegal's withdrawal from the ECOMOG force in Liberia. In 1995 and 1996, ECOMOG eventually expanded to parts of rural Liberia and secured Monrovia itself.

The mass looting of Monrovia by the Liberian factions in April 1996 was a major setback for the peacekeeping force. But by November that year it had not only regained control of the capital, but also deployed to every major city in Liberia. This included Taylor's stronghold in Gbarnga in central Liberia. When ECOMOG's strength was tested by an assassination attempt on Taylor in Monrovia by rival faction leaders in October 1996, the Force Commander at the time, Major General Victor Malu successfully prevented a crisis. ECOMOG troops managed to close all the city's checkpoints and stop NPFL fighters flooding into Monrovia to "defend" their leader.

By February 1997, ECOMOG was widely acknowledged by diplomats and western governments as a West African success story following the peaceful demobilisation of over 22,000 faction fighters, and the disarmament of approximately half of them, according to figures provided by the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL).
ECOMOG furthered its reputation with the international community in July when it successfully supervised the presidential elections, which Taylor won overwhelmingly.

Liberians could hardly believe peace had come at last, a local source in Monrovia told IRIN. "We were all just saying over and over again - thank God for ECOMOG." When ECOMOG began its first withdrawals from Liberia in December, cheering Monrovians turned out on the streets to show their appreciation of what ECOMOG had achieved in Liberia. "We will never forget you," placards carried by school children read.

ECOMOG failures

Nevertheless, in the Liberian intervention, ECOMOG drew criticism from the diplomatic and humanitarian community for the way it served its own interests by supporting some factions against others - in contrast to the strict neutrality a multi-national peacekeeping mission is expected to maintain. Analysts say, clashes with Taylor in 1990, 1992 and again in 1994 were because Nigeria did not want Taylor to get the upper hand at that point in the conflict.

In 1996, ECOMOG drew further criticism for failing to intervene to stop widespread looting in Monrovia, much of it carried out by units of its own forces, a senior Western diplomat in Monrovia told IRIN. He said ECOMOG has also been held responsible for stripping Liberia's natural resources during the conflict.

A member of expatriate business community in Monrovia told IRIN that "ECOMOG Enterprises" was open for business" throughout the war at the ports of Monrovia and Buchanan, 80 km south-east of Monrovia where it was effectively able to control the export of Liberian timber and rubber. US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns openly accused ECOMOG troops in 1996 of being "heavily involved in ripping off Liberians, looting goods, and dealing in contraband."

One analyst said that ECOMOG's withdrawal from Liberia has been "inelegant". In particular, clashes between ECOMOG and the new Liberian government had so far prevented ECOMOG re-training the Liberia security forces.

Tension with Taylor came to a head in December when former ECOMOG Commander Major General Victor Malu told IRIN that his force was mandated to re-structure the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) as the last part of the Abuja II agreement, which ended the Liberian civil war. However, Taylor, he said, maintained re-organising the Army was his constitutional prerogative alone.

Observers say ECOMOG contributed to its problems with Taylor. "Malu reminded Taylor he used to be just another warlord," a Monrovia source told IRIN. "It is no fun being president if you do not have full control of the country." By January, Malu was replaced, and the new commander, General Timothy Shelpidi told IRIN AFL re-structuring was the government's affair.

In the final analysis, some diplomats maintain that although ECOMOG was able to persuade the Liberian factions to hold elections, it was not able to dismantle them and bring long-term stability to the country. According to humanitarian sources in Monrovia, ECOMOG's enthusiasm to promote its own agenda for Sierra Leone has contributed to Liberia's instability by hastening its falling out with Taylor.

Sierra Leone: Fresh problems

Some ECOMOG forces had been based in Sierra Leone since almost the start of the Liberia intervention, using Freetown as a rear base for its operations. Thus diplomats said it was unprepared to take on the Sierra Leone army when junior army officers toppled the civilian government of President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in May last year.

Once it received the mandate for a full peacekeeping operation after the signing of the Conakry accord in October, ECOMOG started to boost its forces. ECOWAS secretary general Lansana Kouyate said that the force would be strengthened to 15,000 troops with Nigeria maintaining the lead role. He said this should enable ECOMOG to enforce compliance with the Conakry accord.

Taylor, however, has clashed with ECOMOG over its new mission. Diplomats said Taylor suspected ECOMOG was using Liberian territory to provide military support for Sierra Leonean Kamajor militias he fears will destabilise his western border. The militia, loyal to Kabbah, has been engaged in clashes in recent months with the AFRC. Political analysts said Taylor was sympathetic to the AFRC because the council includes members of the former Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Taylor helped found the RUF in the early 1990s as a punishment to the then government of Sierra Leone for contributing troops to ECOMOG to fight him.

Other West African States

Other West African states were more cautious about committing ECOMOG to another conflict when the security situation in Liberia was still tenuous in the run-up to July's elections. "Other states were also suspicious of Nigeria," one analyst in Freetown said. According to the source, ECOMOG countries supported the restoration of Kabbah. However they were concerned Nigeria was managing ECOMOG for its own purposes.

Improving ECOMOG

According to Africa observers, the international community will continue, however, to insist West African countries deal with conflict in the region. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and Western governments have all advocated for the institutionalisation of regional African peacekeeping forces. The US and France have also set up their own and sometimes rival military assistance programmes to hasten the process. Analysts say ECOMOG will certainly stay as a model for future peacekeeping operations, but the challenge is to make ECOMOG promote peace as a neutral multinational force.

Abidjan, 5 February 1998 20:30 GMT

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