Liberia (June 1996)
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 1996

Some of the worst fighting for three years between Liberia’s seven warring rebel factions and coalition forces broke out in the first week of April, displacing an estimated 50-60,000 civilians and sending between 15,000 and 20,000 to take shelter in the US Embassy compound in the southernmost part of Monrovia, the country’s capital. It was the first time during the conflict that Mamba Point district, where the Embassy is situated, had come under attack. Tension has been building since January this year, when conflict between Ulimo J and Ecomog erupted following a dispute over control of diamond mines in Tubmanburg. It did not take much for fierce fighting to break out following the attempted arrest of warlord Roosevelt Johnson on murder charges at the beginning of April. Rival factions went on the rampage throughout the capital, burning homes and killing at random. For the first time, UN compounds and vehicles came under attack, suffering widespread looting. Only the American Embassy escaped; hence the huge influx of civilians seeking shelter from the fighting. Most diplomats and aid workers were evacuated to Freetown, Sierra Leone and Dakar, Senegal, leaving only core staff.

Since the beginning of the civil war in December 1989, leaving what is widely believed to be well over 150,000 dead, and after six years of killing and looting, there are an estimated 305,800 Liberian refugees in Côte d’Ivoire, 410,000 in Guinea, 15,000 in Ghana, 4,000 in Nigeria and 4,700 in Sierra Leone (UNHCR). It is estimated that a further 1 million Liberians are displaced within Liberia.

At the beginning of March, before the current outbreak of fighting, a UNHCR appeal called for $60 million to finance its voluntary repatriation programme over the next 18 months to cover transportation, food and plastic sheeting, jerry cans, tools and livelihood projects. Since the signing of the peace agreement in August last year, approximately 30,000 refugees are estimated to have returned voluntarily from border regions, most arriving in the early months of 1996. Continued fighting has hampered access for both UNHCR and relief agencies and the recent fierce clashes will only aggravate the situation – WFP’s first convoy following the outbreak of violence in Monrovia, sent during the second week of April at the peak of the emergency, was looted despite the presence of an ECOMOG escort. An emergency situation prevails, at least in Monrovia, where there is little water or food and the priority is now to establish some stability and halt further large movements of people. The situation improved slightly towards the end of April, with evidence of gradual movement from hiding places and WFP convoys have been able to get some food through, at least to West Point and Mamba Point. Food stocks are adequate for the coming months, the key constraint being one of movement of food due to insecurity and the fact that most forms of transport have been stolen – the capacity of most agencies has therefore been severely reduced. With the fighting over, epidemics pose the greatest threat, and with little access to clean drinking water, hundreds of suspected cholera cases are coming to light. At the time of writing, only limited information was available for outlying areas.

The main challenge is now one of reconciliation. There is a feeling amongst many Liberians that although Taylor has undoubtedly been involved in atrocities during the war, the comparative stability and economic progress made under his control of ‘greater Liberia’ (everything outside Monrovia) merited greater support from the UN, US and Ecomog. (The US has promised $30m for training and assistance to Ecomog if it takes on a more neutral role). The proliferation of warlords, and partisan nature of Nigerian-dominated Ecomog forces, working to destabilise Taylor’s grip on the country has made it much more difficult to resolve the conflict. A situation which looked to be stabilising and offering chances for reconstruction has slipped back to one of emergency and this breakdown of the peace process will have reversed much of the progress made since the signing of the peace Agreement in August last year. The recent ceasefire accepted on 6 May does not seem to be holding, with sporadic shooting, shelling and burning continuing.