chapter  4
28 Pages

Controlling the Warlords: West Africa

Since 1993 three United Nations operations have been mounted in two neighbouring countries of west Africa - Liberia and Sierra Leone. The two conflicts, although distinctive in their local origins, afflicted states that had certain historical and sociological similarities. The lines of political division were drawn in both countries between cosmopolitan coastal ‘elites’ and more traditionally organized tribal societies in the interior. Although this cleavage (more marked in Liberia than in Sierra Leone) did not map precisely on to the tangled conflicts of the 1990s that brought UN intervention, they were central facets of political cultures that had a propensity to division between competing patrimonial poles. Beyond the parallels between the civil conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, each to some extent fed the other. Interests on each side of the common border exploited the disorder on the other side at various times in their own interests, precipitating a complex regional crisis reaching far beyond the two protagonists themselves.United Nations involvement in each country also shared unique features. First in Liberia and then in Sierra Leone, the UN’s intervention was of a limited and secondary character. Its function was to legitimize and supervise a larger ‘peacekeeping’ presence provided by the regional intergovernmental organization, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In both cases, this role was neither articulated nor performed in a satisfac­tory manner. As a result it did not become the model for subsequent UN interventions in Africa as some had hoped. In the case of Sierra Leone, in fact, after the failure of this limited initial role the UN mounted a large-scale military operation directly under its own auspices.The experiences of both countries raised fundamental questions about the purposes and impact of multilateral interventions in civil crises in Africa. In Liberia the effect of foreign intervention by the regional body under

however, in terms both of its novel mandate and of its possible implications for future patterns of UN involvement in Africa. The mission was not a 'peacekeeping force5; it was not even a conventional military observer mission. Its primary function was to monitor - and in doing so ‘legitimize5 - the activities of a regional intervention force.In August 1990 ECOWAS had established its own military operation to intervene in Liberia's civil war which had broken out at the end of the previous year. It was soon clear that the tide of this operation, the ECOWAS Military Observation Group (ECOMOG), was, to say the least, a misnomer. Almost immediately on its deployment the 3000-strong west African force had itself become a faction in the civil war, and soon came to occupy a central position in the military balance in Liberia. The war, and ECOM OG5s participation in it, continued for the next three years until, in July 1993, a peace agreement was signed between the main parties. It was at this point that the United Nations became involved as the west African force sought to ‘reconfigure5 its role from one of partisan enforcement to supervision of the peace process. The UN5s function was to ‘monitor the monitors5 in order to build confidence among the parties to the conflict without ‘de-Africanizing5 the intervention. The relationship between ECOM OG and the UN mission was closely scrutinized over the following four years for any lessons it might provide about future collaborative peacekeeping operations in Africa. Ulti­mately, however, such indications as were discernible were ambiguous, and proved of only limited relevance beyond the particularities of Liberia itself.