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LIBERIA: Status Report

Author: Esther Pan
October 21, 2003

What is the current situation in Liberia?

Gyude Bryant was sworn in October 14 as chairman of the new transitional government. Bryant replaced interim president Moses Blah, the country's former vice president. Blah had led the country since August 11, when former president Charles Taylor, amid the latest round of violence in two decades of Liberian upheaval, stepped down in response to international pressure and the demands of armed rebels who were threatening to overrun Monrovia, the capital city.

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Has the fighting stopped?

The country's three warring parties--the rebel groups Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), and members of Taylor's government--signed a peace agreement on August 19. That pact stopped the worst of the organized fighting, but violence persists, especially in rural areas. More than 1,000 people were killed in two months of armed conflict before Taylor stepped down, and thousands more were displaced. Refugees are common in the countryside, and there are reports that rebels and Taylor loyalists continue to loot and mount attacks.

Who is in charge of security?

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), an international stabilization force under U.N. command. On October 1, UNMIL assumed command of a regional peacekeeping force--the ECOWAS Interposition Force to Liberia, known as ECOMILI--that began operations in early August. ECOWAS stands for the Economic Community of West African States; ECOWAS members Nigeria, Benin, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, and Togo contributed personnel to the roughly 3,500-strong peacekeeping force. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1497, passed on August 1, authorized ECOMILI and its successor, UNMIL, to separate groups of Liberian fighters, guarantee the safety of humanitarian agencies, and secure conditions for the departure of then-president Taylor.

How long will U.N. peacekeepers stay in the country?

Indefinitely. The UNMIL force includes peacekeepers redeployed from the U.N.'s long-term mission in neighboring Sierra Leone, whose 10-year war was declared over in January 2002. At its eventual full strength of 15,000, it will draw soldiers from Bangladesh, Denmark, and other nations. Under the command of General Daniel Opande of Kenya, UNMIL aims to extend the peacekeeping efforts of the ECOMILI force, which was primarily based in and around Monrovia.

Did the United States dispatch troops?

As the humanitarian crisis worsened and rebels took control of much of Monrovia, the United Nations and the international community came under increasing pressure to intervene. President Bush ordered three U.S. warships to the coast of Liberia in early August, though he resisted international calls to send in U.S. troops to quell the fighting. On August 14, a group of 225 Marines and Navy forces deployed in Monrovia. Welcomed by cheering crowds, the troops quickly secured Monrovia's port and Roberts International Airport to open the way for shipments of humanitarian aid. However, nearly a quarter of the soldiers came down with symptoms of malaria, and most of the U.S. contingent was withdrawn to the warships after 11 days. About 100 Marines are still deployed in the capital as liaisons and guards, mostly around the U.S. embassy. The U.S. warships sailed away in late September ahead of the arrival of UNMIL forces.

What are Liberia's biggest challenges?

Ending the sporadic violence and clashes between armed groups, disarming combatants, rehabilitating child soldiers, and rebuilding a devastated economy.

Who is Bryant?

He is a 54-year-old businessman from Monrovia and the chairman of the Liberian Action Party, which led the effort to unite Liberians behind a civilian leader in the country's first free elections in 1997. That effort failed and Taylor won the presidency, opening the door to six more years of conflict.

How was he chosen?

Bryant was selected by representatives of LURD, MODEL, and members of Taylor's government to lead the transitional government. The August peace accord called for an election on October 14, but weeks of instability led to the establishment of a two-year caretaker government that will seek to stabilize the country before democratic elections are held.

What are Bryant's goals for the country?

In his inauguration speech, Bryant vowed to fight looting, corruption, greed, and mismanagement; disarm and rehabilitate combatants; build friendship and peace with neighboring countries; and strive for national reconciliation and reconstruction after 23 years of civil war. He also pledged self-reliance, saying, "Liberians must be encouraged to assume the responsibility for building Liberia. No one else can do it better than ourselves."

What were his first actions?

Bryant pledged that, starting November 1, his government would lower the prices of rice, gasoline, diesel fuel, and kerosene. He also vowed to make education, health care, and food security top priorities of his government.

Can Liberia expect help from other countries?

Liberia's neighbors, including Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire, all have a stake in ensuring the nation's success. African regional leaders like Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and South African president Thabo Mbeki helped mediate the deal that led to Taylor's ouster and will likely continue to give guidance and support to Bryant. In his inauguration speech, Bryant thanked Mbeki and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, as well as President Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and others for their "personal contributions to peace and stability in Liberia."

What is the United States doing to help Liberia?

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in 1820 and became independent on July 26, 1847. In his inaugural speech Bryant spoke of Liberia's "special historical ties" with the United States and invited the U.S. government to join Liberia in a "renewed and strengthened friendship." Since Taylor's departure, the United States has provided $40 million in humanitarian assistance to Liberia and $26 million in logistical support to ECOMIL. The $87 billion Iraq spending request currently before Congress includes a proposed $200 million in reconstruction assistance for Liberia.

Who will replace Bryant?

A new president who will serve a six-year term. The new chief executive and 64 members of the House of Representatives will be chosen in a general election scheduled for October 2005.

Where is ex-President Taylor?

He is living in Nigeria, which granted him political asylum. The terms of the asylum, which Taylor accepted from Nigerian President Obasanjo on July 6, bar Taylor from interfering in Liberian politics; he reportedly has ignored that prohibition. In March, a U.N. war crimes tribunal indicted Taylor for his role in the conflict in Sierra Leone, and he is suspected of looting tens of millions of dollars from Liberia's treasury. Observers in Nigeria and worldwide have criticized Obasanjo for offering Taylor asylum and what appears to be freedom from prosecution as long as he stays in Nigeria. Obasanjo has defended the offer, saying it was necessary to ensure Taylor's resignation. International agencies and human rights groups have called for Taylor to stand trial in the Sierra Leone tribunal. In late September, Obasanjo said that Nigeria would not try Taylor but that Liberians could possibly put him on trial sometime in the future.

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