March 3, 2005


From chaos, order: What can the world do about state failure? Surprisingly, quite a lot (The Economist, 3/03/05)

Today, thanks to the world's largest UN peacekeeping force, Liberia is calm. Some 15,000 blue helmets are keeping the streets more or less safe. There are still road blocks, but not the old sort, where militiamen stretched human intestines across the road as a signal to motorists to stop and be robbed. The UN road blocks are typically manned by disciplined Bangladeshis, of whom the locals vocally approve.

“They are very nice,” says Richard Dorbor, an office assistant in Buchanan, Liberia's main port. During the civil war, rebels looted the town clean: Mr Dorbor points to the dark patch on the wall where the kitchen sink used to be. But then the Bangladeshis came, overawed them and disarmed them, without a single casualty. [...]

Liberia illustrates some of the opportunities and pitfalls for peacemakers. The country was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, who at times enslaved the indigenous population, but also brought laws, roads and industry to Liberia. By the 1960s, the country was one of the most prosperous in Africa.

Its descent into mayhem began in 1980, when a semi-literate master-sergeant named Samuel Doe disembowelled the president in his bed and seized power. As violent as he was corrupt, Doe scared most of the middle class into emigrating, causing the average Liberian income to plummet by three-quarters in ten years.

Charles Taylor, an opportunist who had trained as a guerrilla in Libya, started a revolt against Doe in 1989. Doe was caught and filmed being tortured to death in 1990, but the civil war continued, on and off, for another 13 years. Mr Taylor emerged as the most fearsome warlord, and was elected president during a ceasefire in 1997, after promising voters that if they spurned him, he would go back to war. His campaign slogan was: “He killed my ma; he killed my pa; I'll vote for him.”

Once in the executive mansion, he ruled like a mafia boss, grabbing a slice of every sizeable business and wasting his rivals as if they were money. He did not even pretend to provide the services that normal governments do. Asked whether he would restore electricity to Monrovia, he advised people to buy generators. His misrule provoked a fresh civil war, and he used obscene tactics to defend his turf.

“I've never seen things like this before,” says Daniel Lomboy, a Filipino policeman hired by the UN to investigate Liberian war crimes. “In one mass grave, we found [the remains of] a pregnant woman whose fetus's bones were outside her stomach but inside her dress.” Mr Taylor's men sometimes took bets as to the sex of an unborn child, he explains, and then had a look.

Eventually, Mr Taylor made too many enemies. In return for a share of the loot, he armed rebels in all three neighbouring countries. Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire retaliated by backing Liberian rebel groups. In June 2003, George Bush said it was time for Mr Taylor to go, a suggestion he underlined by parking warships off Monrovia. Nigeria offered Mr Taylor sanctuary if he came quietly and ceased to meddle in Liberian politics. He flew into exile, where he remains, still plotting.

A peace deal brought the two anti-Taylor rebel groups into a power-sharing transitional government with some of Mr Taylor's former lieutenants. The United States, the UN and Nigeria insisted that those with the most blood on their hands should not be ministers. So the government now consists of personable but weak ministers with scary deputies. Elections are scheduled for October. In the meantime, the UN is trying to make the country safe for rough-and-ready democracy.

Liberia is instructive because what passes for the Decent Left demanded action; the rest of the Left pretty much ignored them but George W. Bush, with no constituency backing it, unilaterally effected regime change anyway; things worked out about as well as could be expected;and the whole thing was promptly forgotten. Success must be ignored.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 3, 2005 4:47 PM

The reality is that there are some spots on the planet where it is best to just hunker down in the main port-airport city and hope for the best. You establish a trading post, allow the natives outside to settle their differences in their time-honored fashion and maintain law-and-order in your narrow zone of control. Some parts of the world are returning to the bush, others never left.

The truth is, in many of these tribal struggles, nobody is a 'good guy.' Hotel Rwanda is an excellent movie but the viewer should understand that millions of Hutu were hacked into steak tartare by the Tutsi in the recent past as well. And the phony borders, made solely for the convenience of European imperialists, do not help matters.

Posted by: Bart at March 4, 2005 8:13 AM