Liberia Update: Disarmament, Taylor, Bout

It’s been another long haul since the last Liberia update, once again because there hasn’t been all that much to report. The country is rebuilding, slowly. The UN force remains there to oversee the disarmament of the warring factions. It’s not terribly exciting, but a far sight better than the chaos that preceded it. I argued at the time that this was a situation that merited international intervention, and I feel quite comfortable with that position in retrospect.

That said, yesterday there was a riot in Monrovia instigated by former members of Charles Taylor’s army who claimed not to have been paid for weapons they’d already turned in. Several people were injured and one was killed. (A similar dispute over cash suspended the disarmament program for a while last year.) Ambiguities outnumber facts in this situation: Were the fighters actually unpaid or underpaid? If so, was it a result of mismanagement or corruption? If not, are the fighters just being uppity or are their actions part of a coordinated attempt at destabilization?

Who knows? But this is as bad as it’s been since Taylor was ousted, and it’s not near as bad as I thought it’d be. On Liberia’s future, I remain cautiously optimistic. Disarmament still has a long way to go: about 26,000 have turned in their weapons so far, out of anywhere from 38,000 to 60,000 total estimated former combatants. But most of those who remain live upcountry, not in the more heavily populated coastal cities. And in any case, the disarmament program is far less crucial to the country’s future than the delivery of aid and economic development, but since it’s the big UN operation it tends to get the press coverage.

Charles Taylor remains exiled in Calabar. I noted earlier that his stay there is looking a little less cozy than it was at first. Phase One of his exile involved barely-concealed activity to influence Liberian politics from afar. After being told to pipe down by President Obasanjo, Taylor entered Phase Two: stony silence. Last month, before sliding back into stony silence (or at least being ignored by the media), he briefly tried to enter Phase Three, tearful pleading:

“My involvement in Sierra Leone was approved by Ecowas. This bizarre scenario (of his sponsoring war crimes in that country) was put together to get at Charles Taylor,” he told his Nigerian television interviewer . . . Taylor broke down in tears when the television interviewer asked him if he missed Liberia, saying: “I did not squander the wealth of my people. Mr Taylor did his best in Liberia.”

Friendly tip to CT: if you’re gonna go for the heartstrings, don’t refer to yourself in the third person all the time. It freaks people out. But hey, big props for this bit . . .

The former president said he was writing a book, and added that he wanted to return to Liberia and set up a foundation for orphans, war wounded and gifted children.

. . . because nothing makes people forget all about corruption, brutality, and general misrule like helpin’ the kiddies!

Since I’ve been following this story relatively closely, I’m attuned to the slight misstatements and oversimplifications pervasive in media coverage. A classic example is this sentence from the BBC article cited above:

Mr Taylor, who relocated to Nigeria last August, said he felt “absolutely safe”—despite a reported $2m bounty on his head, and an Interpol warrant for his arrest.

Regular readers of Polytropos will be able to say it with me by now: _“It’s not a bounty!”_ Furthermore, the Red Notice put up by Interpol, while significant, is not the same thing as a warrant for his arrest. Come on, people. It can’t be that hard to keep the facts straight if I can do it, sitting on my ass and using Google.

Now we come to the disturbing news, which, thankfully, is only tangentially related to Liberia.

Let’s say you’re an ex-KGB officer who’s become wealthy in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union as a weapons dealer and smuggler. We’ll call you—oh, I dunno—Victor Bout. You operated out of Belgium for a while, but left when the government there started looking into the shady activities of your vast fleet of planes. You found it must more hospitable in the United Arab Emirates, where you operated for a long time, though you reportedly live in Russia now.

You sold weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, but when the Taliban took over, you sold to them too. In 2000, Peter Hain of the UK Foreign Office called you Africa’s “leading merchant of death,” because of your work smuggling weapons into war-torn Angola and Sierra Leone. Between your dealings with the Taliban and with the illicit diamond trade in Liberia, you certainly have connections with Al Qaeda] (Here are some related comments by Douglas Farah on that point.)

So, when the UN finally catches up with you and wants to freeze your assets because of your involvement with Charles Taylor’s ousted regime, who do you turn to to make it go away?

Why, the United States, of course!

Yes, that’s right, the U.S. wants to keep Bout’s name off a list of those who are going to get hit with UN sanctions, because—wait for it—he’s being used in Iraq. He’s a freakin’ contractor.

Contracting with South African mercenaries: objectionable. Contracting with people with known Al Qaeda links: completely fucking nuts.

And now the caveats: the story’s new, it hasn’t even broke stateside yet, there could be some other, perfectly innocent reason for wanting to protect Bout. Besides, Saddam contracted with far worse folks than him. I’ll be waiting for the facts to surface that make this less awful-sounding than it is now. But I’m not holding my breath.

(Note: After working on all this I discovered that, not surprisingly, Kathryn Cramer wrote about Victor Bout yesterday. Check her site out for some more interesting/depressing links and quotes.)

UPDATE: Suanna’s first comment on hearing the stuff about Bout: “I guess that makes the U.S. a country that consorts with those who support terrorists.” And her second: “If the guy had an Arab name he’d be sitting in Guantanamo right now.” Yup.

UPDATE: It looks like, thanks to the first Financial Times article, the U.S. is backpedalling on this one. Armitage: “As far as I’m concerned [Bout] ought to be on any asset freeze list and anything else you can do it him.” I’ll bet it wasn’t State that was trying to protect him in the first place, though. Anyway, thank God for media scrutiny.

1 This text is part of a web page about Victor Bout maintained by an aviation enthusiast named Ruud Leuw. Leuw has copied the full text of a number of news articles onto his site, some of which are no longer available online. From the ones that are it appears that the texts have been copied intact, but nevertheless, caveat lector. There’s much more good reading about Bout on the site—I’m only scratching the surface here.