Friday, January 20, 2006


Regional Concerns

In 1990, when Charles Taylor invaded Liberia, he had raised his army in Sierra Leone, and crossed the border, eventually seizing power in Monrovia. A decade later, when the LURD and the MODIL challenged Taylor's rule, it is believed they did so with the help of neighboring governments in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. From 2003 until late last year, the United Nations was running peacekeeping missions in the three contiguous countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire. At its height last year, the UN had over 40,000 troops between them.

Several experts have observed that UNMIL, with it's current contingent of about 15,000 soldiers, is being pulled in two conflicting directions. It is the largest current UN operation, and is under tremendous budgetary pressure to draw down now that the permanent government of Liberia is seated. Simultaneously, others are seeing it as the basis of a broader, multi-national West African mission. With the closing of the mission in Sierra Leone last year, UNMIL has helped to steady the nascent government on Liberia's borders by stationing some rapid reaction forces in Freetown.

In a radio address by President Johnson-Sirleaf today, she listed her priorities for the new government. Before electricity and sewer, and before the implementation of anti-corruption transparency programs, the president claimed that establishing sovereignty of the borders is at the highest of priorities. There have been recent claims of recruitment in Liberia by combatants in Côte d'Ivoire. When they're paid, members of the Liberian Military Police (LMP) live on a salary of $18 USD a month. In a country with 80% unemployment, an offer of a steady $85 per month to fight elsewhere is very attractive.

Word of this comes as the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is deteriorating. The French government, with UN backing, had established a transitional government in 2003. The terms of this agreement have expired, with the country still divided between government and rebel forces. The UN authorities recently committed a faux pas when it recommended, last November, that President Laurent Gbagbo remain in office for an additional 12 months, but this week did not extend the same recommendation to the Parliament. This has led to four days of violent protests and counter-protests in Bouake, Guiglo and the capital of Abidjan, most of them directed at the UN. The United Nations is stuck in a difficult place, with the Dioula angry at the UN for disbanding the parliament, and Gbagbo's supports angry with the UN for not allowing them to clamp down on the demonstrations. The crisis came to a head earlier this week when UN soldeirs were forced from a number of camps and then Gbagbo requested that the UN withdraw. Add to this the continuing possibility of collapse in Guinea. This leaves a historically volatile region in a tenuous position, with the Ivory Coast continuing to churn just as Sierra Leone and Liberia are beginning to show progress.

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