More than a year after the end of the conflict in
neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, the Liberian government has pledged to deal once and for all with longstanding complaints of its nationals being party to military operations and serious human rights violations on the other side of its western border.
By sending troops from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) to Grand Gedeh County in eastern Liberia, helping to extradite alleged Ivorian militia fighters, temporarily closing the border, and pledging tighter surveillance on Ivoirian refugees as well as greater cross-border cooperation, the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has sought to show seriousness about tackling a now acknowledged mercenary problem on Liberians territory.
Critics have accused the Liberian authorities of tailoring their security policy to the needs of Côte d’Ivoire, at the expense of needlessly opening old wounds from Liberia’s civil wars (1989-1996 and 1999-2003).
Thomas Nimely, former head of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), one of the main rebel movements in the war against former President Charles Taylor, and long-based in Grand Gedeh, told Voice of America that: “If Ivory Coast wants peace, they should look for their own peace”, and that Liberians in the border regions should not suffer as a result.
Liberia initially appeared to make light of a damning report on 6 June by Human Rights Watch (HRW), whereby Monrovia was accused of “having its head in the sand in responding to the flood of war criminals who crossed into the country at the end of the Ivorian crisis.”
But the Liberian government rejected the report as seriously overstating the extent of Liberian involvement.
That position changed when unidentified militia fighters near Tai in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire killed seven Nigerien peacekeepers and at least 10 civilians on 8 June, and pushed border security issues sharply into focus.
Senior Liberian officials joined their Ivorian counterparts, representatives of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI), for a meeting in Abidjan on 13 June culminating in a joint communiqué offering to stabilize territory on both sides of the border, improve information exchange; tighten extradition procedures and consult more with community leaders.
Information Minister, Lewis Brown promptly announced 10 persons as wanted to turn themselves in to security authorities, implying their apparent involvement in mercenary activities.
Liberia delivered on its pledge to hold an extradition hearing for 41 Ivorian nationals who were extradited on 23 June.
The mercenary issue has long been a source of embarrassment to the Liberian government. President Sirleaf issued periodic warnings during the post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire that Liberians should not get involved.
Meanwhile, Liberia has been praised for its efforts to deal with an influx of over 200,000 Ivoirian refugees, but it has been regrettable accused of negligence in failing to stop a steady flow of battle-hardened fighters into Ivorian territory.
But high-profile mass arrests have sometimes been followed by the discreet release of those taken into custody.
Even with the presence and active support of UNMIL, the Liberian authorities have difficulty policing a porous 700km frontier with Côte d’Ivoire, much of which runs through dense forest. Dozens of informal crossings outnumbered the thinly scattered checkpoints and border controls.
Cross-border ethno-linguistic ties remain strong, particularly between Ivorian Yacouba and Liberian Gio in Liberia’s Nimba County, and Ivoirian Guéré and Liberian Krahn in Grand Gedeh.
Relief agencies and refugees confirm that the strong affinity between host communities and incomers was crucial in helping Ivorian refugees settle, particularly in Nimba. But the Krahn-Guéré connection has featured prominently in reports of mercenary recruitment and the alliances between Ivorian forces still loyal to ousted president Laurent Gbagbo and Liberian fighters.
The UN Panel of Experts on Liberia believes at least 300 Liberians, mainly from Nimba, fought on the side of the Forces Républicains de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), backing current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
But many more, particularly Krahn, were allied to the Forces Armées Nationales de Côte d’Ivoire (FANCI), fighting for ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, and were particularly active in western Côte d’Ivoire, where pro-Gbagbo militias had longstanding ties with Liberian combatants.
In a report submitted to the UN Security Council in November 2011, the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia documented not only the direct involvement of Liberian fighters in some of the worst atrocities in the latest stages of the Ivorian crisis, but also their predictably messy exodus from Ivorian territory in the wake of Gbagbo’s overthrow. The report made clear the inability of a weakened Liberian judicial and security system to track, try and detain combatants.
HRW has welcomed Liberia’s public commitment to resolving its mercenary problem as Matt Wells HRW’s West Africa researcher, noted: “The Liberian government has taken important steps, making it clear that those responsible for devastating attacks on Ivorian border residents and the deaths of peacekeepers will be held accountable”.
But they have caveats too about the role of the AFL, the revived national army, which has some experienced commanders, but inexpert personnel.
MODEL is now defunct, but former senior commanders from its ranks were on the government’s “wanted” list of 10 alleged mercenaries, including Isaac Sayou Chebgo (also known as ‘Bob Marley’), Amos Cheyee, Bobby Sharpee and Nehzee Barway.
MODEL’s former leader, Thomas Yaya Nimely, who served as foreign minister in the Transitional Government of Gyude Bryant in Liberia, warned against state harassment of former MODEL personnel, alleging that his own farm in Grand Gedeh has frequently been put under surveillance by security operatives. In a recent interview on the Voice of America (VOA) radio station, Nimely confirmed that the government had invited him to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to talk about the situation in his home area in eastern Liberia, while hinting that the government’s approach had been too heavy-handed.
Liberian lawmakers from Grand Gedeh have echoed Nimely’s criticisms, and have been rebuked in turn by national ministers and sections of the media, accused of raising ethnicity as an issue.