Checking In On Liberia

It’s been a few months since my last Liberia-related post, and even longer since one that addressed Liberian reconstruction and not just the fate of ex-dictator Charles Taylor. This is a case of “no news is good news,” with a couple of big caveats: 1) there’s been plenty of news, just nothing major, and 2) ‘good’ in this context equals ‘no resurgence of civil war, mass starvation, or other complete breakdown of the social order nationwide.’

Briefly, US troops are long-since gone, and the UN maintains a peacekeeping mission with forces from Ireland, Sweden, Pakistan, Nigeria, and many other nations. As part of their general ‘maintenance of law and order’ role, their biggest task has been to oversee the disarmament of thousands of fighters, many of them children, on both sides of the recent conflict. There’s been periodic news of rebel groups acting up in the back country, but nothing that has grown significantly. The current concern that there are Taylor supporters training in Nimba county is more troubling, but as yet unconfirmed. Peace hasn’t been achieved everywhere in Liberia yet, but it’s spreading.

The outlook on reconstruction is better than I thought it’d be. Monetary pledges have been <a href=",1280,3718634,00.html”>quite generous – $200 million from the U.S.; $520 million from international donors. The interim government, a messy power-sharing arrangement between the former government and rebel forces, is holding together. A clearer indication of progress will be how smoothly elections go late next year.

Charles Taylor continues to find himself under some pressure, even though Nigeria has no intention to extradite him to stand trial before the Sierra Leone Special Court. There’s a proposed UN resolution to freeze his assets. Investigators for the court are also trying to search Taylor’s residences in Monrovia:

The team, headed by Chief Investigator Allen White, met strong resistance on Friday, when they tried to enter a house in Congo Town, the south-eastern suburb of the capital, Monrovia . . . “We can not allow you to enter this house. We are under instructions not to just allow anyone to enter this house. There are properties here and they must be protected,” said Joseph Kollie, one of the supporters of the former president . . . It took the intervention of UN peacekeeping forces and a delay of several hours before the investigators were able to gain access to the building.

First of all, it’s “Congotown,” not “Congo Town,” and second of all, that’s where I lived. I wonder if the residence was on Old Road Congotown, the threading road that was the main route into downtown until the big-road-whose-name-escapes-me was built. There were quite a few swank houses on Old Road, including the big white one my family lived in. Many had lovely views of the ocean on the far side of the not-as-lovely lagoon. It wouldn’t be at all unusual if one of them was Taylor’s. Weird.

Freezing Taylor’s assets is a good idea, since there have been plenty of indications that he wants a victorious return to Liberia, and will use any means to get it. But what about the man himself? On the “get him from Calabar and put him on trial” side we have the unlikely alliance of human-rights groups and private military companies like Northbridge. (Northbridge apparently missed out on all the juicy Iraq contracts, so they really, really want this gig.) On the “leave him there” side there’s the U.S. State Department, which negotiated for his exile and would rather leave this particular boat unrocked for the time being.

Finally, the U.S. Navy has vastly increased its powers to stop commerical vessels in international waters in order to search for weapons of mass destruction, thanks to a <a href=",1280,3746450,00.html”>new pact with Liberia. Why would an agreement with a tiny, broken nation give so much power? Because this particular tiny, broken nation has always enjoyed a steady stream of income from selling flags of convenience. Plenty of countries will happily let you register your ship with them on the cheap – you pay cheaper licensing fees than you would at your First World home port, and all you have to do is fly that country’s flag on your ship. Liberia has always been one of the very cheapest purveyors of flags of convenience, and consequently, lots and lots of commercial vessels (I hesitate to say ‘the majority’, though I’m fairly sure that was the case in the Eighties) fly the Liberian flag. The Navy has taken advantage of this state of affairs to gain their new searching rights. Clever, clever Navy. Don’t go abusing that power, now.

An interesting footnote, enabled by Google News: the vast majority of newspapers that carried the AP story about the Navy pact gave it the headline “U.S. Given Right to Search Liberian Ships.” But a handful of small papers, mostly in Middle America, gave the headline a more patriotic spin, like the Topeka Capital-Journal’s “Pact empowers U.S. sailors.” I’m sure somebody out there has done a study on trends in regional variations in AP headlines in general. I’d love to see it.