Liberia (February 1997)
by Philippa Atkinson February 1997

The process of disarmament, instigated on November 22nd 1996 as part of the Abuja II accord, has continued throughout the last two months.

Progress has been slow with less than 8000 fighters having handed in their weapons so far, out of an estimated total of 60000. The number and quality of weapons surrendered has also been low, and many observers continue to doubt the commitment of faction leaders to the disarmament exercise.

Little effort has been made either to ensure the security of the disarmed fighters, plans for demobilisation and resettlement hampered by a lack of funding, particularly in transportation, or to tackle the crucial issue of security for the faction leaders. This latter has contributed to the current situation of “virtual disarmament”, where all leaders pay lip service to the process while, in practice, maintaining their own militias at the high levels perceived necessary. The original deadline for disarmament of January 31st may have to be extended.

While security in parts of the country has improved since last year, fighting continues between ULIMO-J and K in diamond-rich western Liberia, and between NPFL and LPC forces in the south-east of the country, from where timber is illicitly exported. At least five out of the thirteen counties remain inaccessible to the international community, including Ecomog – the Nigerian-led peace-keeping force.

Humanitarian access has increased, but agency staff have been subject to high levels of harassment in the western counties, where incidents of hostage-taking and threats to personnel are common. Civilians in the area also suffer continued harassment by fighters. Attempts by the humanitarian community to deal with such incidents through negotiation with faction leaders have met with some success, and the recent assignment of a human rights monitor to assist UNOMIL may also help. The existing mechanism of the violations committee, however, has proved relatively ineffectual and, in inaccessible counties, the war continues.

Despite these unresolved issues, ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States – and the major aid donors, the EU and the US, are committed to the present Abuja II agreement, with elections time-tabled for May, and reconstruction and rehabilitation activities are being expanded accordingly. UNOPS, funded primarily by USAID and the EU, have started programmes of labour-intensive, community-based micro-projects, designed to promote infrastructural rehabilitation as well as the reintegration of former combatants.

Local NGOs are increasingly participating in all humanitarian activities as implementing partners. The international NGOs remain committed to their joint policy of minimal capital inputs, minimising the negative effects of assistance, and advocacy, for which a strategy is currently being developed at head office level.

The increasing coordination of the policies of the humanitarian community in Liberia is encouraging. Aid is increasingly being targeted effectively, and being used to actively support local groups and communities.

However, there is a danger that, as last year, the humanitarian community may be lulled into a false sense of security. More resources are required to implement the demobilisation and resettlement process, and more attention must be given to the political sphere, including advocacy and justice. Although there has been some discussion of the possibility of sanctions, including the setting up an international war crimes tribunal, the fundamental issues of continuing human rights abuses and exploitation of Liberia’s natural resources by the factions have yet to be tackled effectively.