Liberia is fast becoming a pariah state; war and economic criminals are solidifying their grip on the restive country, impunity is taking hold, and crime is fast becoming the acceptable path to wealth and political power.
Terrorists who have already had a stint in the country are once again establishing a foothold through shady business ventures intended to hide or multiply their resources and to plan terrorist attacks. The decision in the 1980’s to ignore similar conditions in Afghanistan enabled Al Qaeda to turn that country into a haven from which it launched the world’s worst terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 on the U.S.
That is why the international community must act now to confront the situation in Liberia with the establishment of a war and economic crimes court. The U.S. has a significant role and responsibility in this regard.
As the world’s preeminent power and the guarantor of global peace and security, the U.S. has a duty to work towards protecting, promoting and building a culture of respect for human rights, justice and democratic values, even in far-flung parts of the world; for it is in those unstable, corrupt and undemocratic places that the seeds of global insecurity, conflict, and terrorism are planted and nourished through abuse of human rights, bad governance, poverty and the culture of impunity. Afghanistan was such a place in the 1980’s and Liberia is today.
By such engagement the U.S. will not only help to promote global security, it will also protect its own national security, the security of its citizens and of its allies. It will also be upholding the values and principles upon which it was built, and that have endeared it to so many around the world.
WHY THERE MUST BE ACCOUNTABILITY IN LIBERIA
Liberia underwent a bloody fratricidal 15 year-long civil war (from Christmas Eve 1989 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003). In that war over 250,000 people were murdered in ethnically and politically motivated genocidal killings, over 70,000 women and girls were raped, subjected to sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, 15,000 children (boys and girls) were conscripted into fighting forces, thousands were tortured and mutilated.
The war decimated the country’s infrastructure and its resources were looted and pillaged, leaving millions in abject poverty and lives of misery.
Yet, more than 20 years after the mayhem, none of those who masterminded and executed the crimes have ever faced justice. Even Charles Taylor, the country’s former President who led the genocide and currently sits in a British prison for war crimes, was convicted for crimes he committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, not in Liberia.
Instead, the perpetrators of those dastardly crimes continue to rule the country and its wealth; holding the people hostage through threats of restarting the war if they are not given state power or if they are threatened with prosecution. These criminals also use ethnic division- the major cause of conflicts, political paralysis, instability and under-development in Africa- to perpetuate their strangle-hold on the country.
As leaders of Liberia’s ethnically motivated genocide, these war criminals portray themselves as heroes of their various ethnic groups, who alone can protect their ethnic kinsmen. They have also taken to forging alliances among themselves in order to stifle accountability and to cement their grip on power. All this while victims and their needs are ignored and biting poverty continues on an upward spiral.
TERRORISM AND REGIONAL INSTABILITY
These conditions are unmistakable early warning signs; and if they are allowed to persist, the world risks creating an attractive haven for terrorism in an already fragile region already boiling with ethnic and political tensions. The West Africa region is also home to some of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world. If the deepening culture of crime and impunity taking root in Liberia and the West Africa region, as a whole, is not confronted, the region could become more attractive to criminal organizations, including terrorist organizations, particularly those currently being uprooted from theaters such as Syria, Iraq. Somalia.
West Africa is already host to some of the world’s most violent terrorist organizations, including Jamaat Nusrat al- Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) and Boko Haram which have attacked U.S. citizens and U.S. interests in and outside the region.
On October 4, 2017, four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger, West Africa by Jamaat Nusrat al- Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), an Al Qaeda and ISIS- affiliated terrorist group. The soldiers were on a mission to apprehend a terrorist leader whose group had earlier kidnapped an American citizen (An Endless War: Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died in a Remote African Desert: www.newyorktimes.com) There have been terrorist attacks in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and elsewhere in the region, on cafes, restaurants, and hotels targeting U.S. citizens and nationals of western countries.
Boko Haram the notorious Nigeria-based terrorist organization, affiliated with ISIS is very active in the region. In April 2014 Boko Haram abducted 276 school girls in Chibok, northern Nigeria. Again on February 19, 2018 the group abducted about 110 girls from another school in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced over 2 million since it launched its insurgency in 2009 (More Than 100 Nigerian Girls feared kidnaped after Boko Haram storms school; www.telegraph.co.uk) and has launched attacks into Cameroon as it seeks to extend its reach in the region.
Even worst, terrorists being routed out of theatres such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places, may find a destabilized West Africa a fertile ground for their activities.
LIBERIA’S TERRORIST LINKS
Early this year the U.S. government identified three Hezbollah connected businesses operating in Liberia. A destabilized Liberia has for years been a haven for terrorists. From the 1990’s to the early 2000’s Al Qaeda terrorists found a destabilized Liberia an attractive destination to do business and plan attacks. Liberian President Charles Taylor provided them the support they needed, including safe haven and diamonds that they used to commodify and hide their assets from U.S. and international investigators.
UN investigators and U.S. intelligence operatives investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. found that several high profiled Al Qaeda terrorists, including the group’s then military commander Mohammed Atef who, according to U.S. intelligence officials planned the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was in Liberia before and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Other top Al Qaeda elements, including Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a mastermind of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, and Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan, all then on the FBI’s 22 Most Wanted Terrorists List, as well as MIT-educated biologist Aafia Siddiqui, received sanctuary from Liberia’s then president Charles Taylor in the 1990’s.
Although Taylor is currently serving a 50-year prison term for war crimes in Sierra Leone, many of his henchmen, including those who helped him in harboring and helping these dangerous terrorists still remain in Liberia, hold key positions in government and continue to wield enormous political influence.
WEST AFRICA IS A TIME BOMB READY TO EXPLODE
West Africa is teeming with poverty, extremism, and religious and ethnic conflict. It is also the world’s fastest growing region (West Africa: Land Use and Land Cover Dynamics- population: eros.usgs.gov/westafrica/node/156) with roughly 379. 5 million people or 5% of the world’s population (West Africa: Land Use and Land Cover Dynamics- population: eros.usgs.gov/westafrica/node/156; www.worldometers.info/world-population/western-africa-population). West Africa also boasts of being one of the regions with the world’s youngest population. The median age in West Africa is 18 years old. This region is also one of the poorest parts of the world, with more than 70% of its population living below the poverty line. More than 60% of the youth population in the region is unemployed.
Insisting on and supporting a process of accountability and good governance in the region will send a powerful message to abusive political leaders in the region that, as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan noted “impunity will not be allowed to stand.” This intervention will also embolden democracy advocates and elements in the region and put the region on the path to democracy, peace and development.
THE HUMAN RIGHTS AND RULE OF LAW IMPERATIVE
In addition to protecting against instability and terrorism, securing justice against acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity is crucial to strengthening the rule of law and rebuilding people’s faith in the rule of law. This is especially critical in countries such as Liberia that have experienced such horrendous violence and abuse.
Continuing the status quo of crime and impunity will reinforce the dangerous notion that crime is acceptable. Conversely, holding perpetrators of such serious crimes responsible will work to prevent their recurrence.
AS A PEACE DIVIDEND
Ending impunity is a peace dividend. In the words of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, “… there can be no peace without justice, and there can be no justice without respect for human rights and the rule of law.” This truism was re-echoed by Deputy U.N. Secretary General Amina Mohammed during a visit to Liberia when she emphasized to the Liberian government the critical imperative of implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission…to “establish solid foundations for long-lasting peace.” The horrific crimes committed during the country’s brutal civil war, coupled with years of impunity have undermined the faith of the Liberian people in the rule of law and led to serious social dislocations that undermine sustainable peace and stability. Liberia cannot move forward until there is a process of accountability and the rule of law to address abuses of the past. Accountability for past abuses is an important safeguard against future abuse.
Recent developments in Liberia including the regrouping of notorious former rebel commanders, the mobilization of former fighters and threats of reverting to violence, are a testament to how impunity emboldens criminals and fosters criminality, lawlessness, and undermines peace.
THE CRIMES ARE TOO GRAVE TO BE IGNORED
The systemic, widespread abuses and violations of human rights and humanitarian law that took place in Liberia- several large-scale massacres, summary executions, rape, sexual slavery, torture and mutilation, conscription of children into fighting forces, etc.- are too grave to go without being redressed.
Among these are such horrific crimes as the gruesome massacre of 600 displaced civilians at the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on July 29, 1990; the Carter Camp massacre of June 10, 1993, at the Firestone Plantation in which about 600 displaced people were murdered as they slept, the Sinje Massacre of 1996, by ULIMO-K fighters in which women and children were hacked to death, the Bakedu Massacre in Lofa County; the rape, and sexual enslavement of about 70,000 girls and women, the conscription and use of over 15, 000 children as fighters, the murder of aid workers, peacekeepers, and religious personnel. The victims of these wanton crimes need redress and healing and Liberians need to be assured that their government will protect them, their rights, and their properties. Attempting to sweep those horrific crimes under the rug is folly, for crimes of this magnitude cannot be held for long by any rug.
IMPUNITY UNDERMINES DEMOCRACY
Liberia will never emerge from its dark years of crime and mayhem until this cycle is broken. As it stands only politicians who are willing to cut protection deals with war criminals have a chance of being elected. This means that only corrupt politicians are likely to be elected.