Tenuous peace spreads in West Africa

Thursday, February 5, 2004

DAKAR, Senegal -- Machete wounds are healing in West Africa's conflict zones. Child soldiers are laying down AK-47s. Warlords languish in jail or exile, their countries now patrolled by the world's largest deployment of U.N. troops.

"Out of Africa, always something new," Roman author Pliny the Elder declared some 2,000 years ago. The news out of West Africa today is peace, after nearly 15 years of wars that killed more than a quarter-million people.

Peace deals in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and, since August, Liberia have brought six months without major bloodletting. But stretching tranquility into years will take commitments of outside money, militaries and attention, Africa watchers say.

Those efforts pick up today when envoys of rich nations gather at U.N. headquarters in New York for a Liberia donor conference chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Conference taking place

International groups bill the conference as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to steady one of the world's shakiest regions. Analysts and West Africans hope that if outside powers help, Pliny's novelty could at last be durable peace in West Africa.

"It's good news that there are no wars, but a lot of these situations are tenuous and could return to conflict if mismanaged," said analyst Ross Herbert of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.

On the streets of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, people scarred by relentless warfare were also skeptical that peace could hold -- even with funding from wealthy nations.

"Let's see what the international community has to give us, and let's see whether in fact what will be given will be used for the intended purpose," said 45-year-old Moses Tenway. "Sincerity and honesty are still difficult to prevail in Liberia."

Maintaining West African peace won't be easy or cheap. A U.N.-led assessment team put the price tag for Liberia's needs over the next two years at nearly $500 million.

But failure by the international community to shore up stability could mean the recent European, American and African-backed peace deals, peacekeeping troops and transitional administrations will provide only an illusory interlude amid conflict, observers say.

"Unwavering political commitment and prompt, generous and sustained funding are needed to meet the ambitious plans for the next two years" in Liberia, Amnesty International said.

Even if power-sharing deals and interim governments hold, the roots of West African conflicts are firmly planted: corruption, mismanagement, autocratic or elitist rule and rampant poverty.

"The absence of war is not the same as a thriving economy. The region has a long way to get back to where it was 15 years ago," before Liberia tumbled into conflict, Herbert said.

Liberia, a rubber- and gem-exporting country of 3 million, is seen as the linchpin of the region's stability. Under now-ousted President Charles Taylor, it spread conflicts across borders.

In 1989, Taylor, then a warlord, launched his insurgency from neighboring Ivory Coast. The fighting that followed destroyed what once was sub-Saharan Africa's most prosperous nation.

Small arms flooded the region, and job-seeking, disaffected young men found in Taylor a top employer in a new industry: War.

Taylor allegedly directed or aided rebels in a 1991-2002 uprising in Sierra Leone and a nine-month civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002-2003. Last year, a Liberian rebellion allegedly backed by his angry neighbors put Taylor under siege in his capital. On Aug. 11, he flew into exile in Nigeria.

Today, a U.N. peace mission in Liberia is due to build to 15,000 soldiers, the world's largest, and an Aug. 18 peace deal established a power-sharing government meant to arrange 2005 elections. Already, it's under pressure.

Liberia's main rebel movement has splintered, raising fears of a return to factional violence of the 1990s when Taylor and his one-time warlord allies turned against each other. And while Sierra Leone announced a successful end to its disarmament program this week, U.N.-backed disarmament in Liberia has stalled.

U.N. officials postponed the start of Liberia's disarming last year, after rebel groups balked at giving up arms. At least nine people died when gunmen went on rampages to demand cash for their AK-47s.

Analysts say the episode underscores the fragility of Liberia's peace and the difficulties of neutralizing its estimated 40,000 fighters -- some 15,000 said to be children.

Keeping Liberia calm is essential for preserving peace efforts in neighboring nations.

In Sierra Leone, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal indicted Taylor for directing rebels there, and many of the country's warlords are in custody or dead. In Ivory Coast, 4,000 French and 1,200 West African troops patrol front lines between rebel and government forces -- a mission the United Nations is considering expanding.

One plus for peace, analysts say, is Taylor's exile.

"Charles Taylor -- if he's kept out and kept under control, the prospects are much, much better," said Princeton Lyman, a Washington D.C-based fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Associated Press writer Jonathan Paye-Layleh contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia.

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