Issue 9 - Article 14

Liberia (November 1997)

November 1, 1997
Philippa Atkinson, RRN West Africa

Since the July elections in Liberia, won overwhelmingly by former warlord Charles Taylor, there has been little news about the country’s economic or political normalisation. It is difficult to judge whether Taylor is pursuing a real strategy of rapprochement with the international community, abandoning the illegal practices used for so long to fight the war, or whether the patterns of wartime, involving the exploitation of the civilian population in the pursuit of power, continue. Some observers feel that Taylor is being forced to tread carefully in order to placate or reward loyal supporters, within Liberia and internationally, and that his own ambition is to develop the country and thus retain the support of the population. Others view his relationship with Gaddafi, the suspected signing of questionable economic deals, and failure to include representatives of the opposition in the new government as evidence that nothing much has changed since the elections.


The new government has been attempting to consolidate its position of strength, notably through a crack-down on security. Taylor has adopted a forceful position with regards to the ECOMOG forces still in the country, claiming the rights of the Government of Liberia to take the lead in the restructuring of the armed forces, and opposing Nigerian actions in Sierra Leone. Notorious former police director Joe Tate, removed last year at the insistence of the international community, has been reinstated. His first actions have included threats to the independent press, and the arrest of the editor of one of Monrovia’s foremost newspapers, The Inquirer. Appeals from the Liberian human rights community led to the editor’s early release, but a worrying precedent has been set. Independent press were also recently banned from attending an important Senate committee meeting on Investment and Concessions.

There has been no news since the elections on the controversial mining deal between the Government of Liberia and the small South African company, Amalia Gold, whereby the rights to 40% of all the country’s mineral wealth will be handed to Amalia, in exchange for access to western financial markets provided by the South Africans. The role of the new government in the deal is unclear, and some reports suggest that Taylor has not approved it, preferring to negotiate with the IMF for alternative channels of financing for the mining industry. However, the involvement in the deal of the Mines Minister, and former finance minister, both known to be close to Charles Taylor, suggests that it may go ahead.

On the political front, Taylor’s recent visit to Libya was criticised by the US, and rumours circulated regarding the withdrawal of US aid. Some funds have since been pledged – $56m by the US government, but with $40m of this specifically for food aid, and the rest allocated to small projects as part of the UN rehabilitation and reconstruction plans. The possibility of making aid to Liberia conditional on the guarantee of political freedom and other human rights has certainly been discussed within the US administration. Other donors including Denmark, Germany and Taiwan, have promised funding for reconstruction, and the EU, the biggest potential donor, with up to ECU200m of undisbursed Lomé funds, is pushing ahead with its large scale plans to rehabilitate Liberia’s infrastructure.

Donors appear to be adopting a wait and see attitude, only pledging aid that can be withdrawn if the new government fails to fulfill its promises. It is unlikely that a decision on debt relief, requested by the Liberian delegation to the recent UN conference on Liberia in New York, will be seriously considered until Taylor has established a reputation for good governance. Although his government recently moved to set up a National Commission for Human Rights, a move which may help persuade donors that genuine reforms are being implemented, the independence of the proposed commission has been questioned. Taylor and members of his government, guilty themselves of serious human rights abuses and economic crimes, are unlikely to support any effective mechanisms to really uncover the truth of the abuses that were committed during the war years.

Donor governments have a key role to play in the coming months, both in ensuring efficient planning and distribution of the large amounts of aid that will be necessary for the reconstruction of this devastated country, and in helping to promote, through the conditional use of aid, due process and the protection of human rights.


Comments are available for logged in members only.