West Africa Lurches Toward War

As the world watches the tsunami in Japan and the uprising in Libya, another part of the world is on the brink of disaster. Is anyone paying attention?


MONROVIA, Liberia — Along a muddy border between the Ivory Coast and Liberia, Ivorian refugees pack into a small wooden boat that resembles a giant, square fruit crate. The raft fills quickly and just as quickly departs directly across the river, where a Liberian immigration officer waits to direct them on the opposite bank. The new arrivals carry nothing but the clothes they are wearing and any small plastic bags they can manage. Once on the Liberian side, they are herded into long lines and processing queues. Many will sleep outside; some will take shelter with ethnic kin, in local villages, who are themselves often struggling to survive.

Armed conflict from the Ivory Coast is spilling over its fluid western border with Liberia. And the result is the worst humanitarian crisis that West Africa has faced since 2003, when the wars ravishing Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast finally wound down.

What’s unfolding now in West Africa are the warning signs of another all-out war. Off and on for almost two decades, from 1989 to 2004, rebels roamed the region, pillaging and attacking villages and displacing millions. In Sierra Leone, rebel armies routinely hacked off limbs and hands to deprive villagers of their economic potential — their physical ability to farm. In Liberia, child soldiers, drugged and armed with old Kalashnikovs, terrorized the countryside. Tens of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers have worked for years to stitch the region back together.

The scene today, however, is darkly familiar. Elements of the old wars are surfacing again: Armed fighters are suddenly trying to cross the border from Ivory Coast into Liberia, Liberian ex-combatants are being lured to fight in the Ivory Coast, and almost half a million have been uprooted from their homes in both Liberia and the Ivory Coast, plunging the region into humanitarian crisis. Tension throughout the region is reaching a boiling point at a time when Liberia was already warily preparing for a national election. War is in the air.

The trigger came in November, when Ivory Coast’s incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after losing an internationally certified election. Although international pressure has isolated Gbagbo diplomatically, he retains strong local support — about 50 percent of the vote and the country’s territory. He and his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, are each backed by loyal armed forces, which were supposed to have integrated after the war. But instead, Gbagbo’s army has maintained control over the south while Ouattara’s rebels, the Forces Nouvelles, have guarded the north. In early January, they started fighting one another again in Abobo, a suburb of the capital Abidjan, and in recent days all along the border with Liberia.

The result has been growing chaos on the Liberian side of the border, where the flow of refugees increased by 90 percent in February. In just the last two weeks, the number of people who have entered Liberia from the Ivory Coast has jumped from 30,000 to 100,000. In the Ivory Coast, at least 200,000 have fled their homes in Abidjan, bringing the total number of displaced in the country to around 370,000. In the country’s interior, the United Nations has very limited access to them. Meanwhile, U.N. agencies in the Liberian capital of Monrovia say they have contingency plans for housing as many as 250,000 refugees.

But civilians aren’t the only ones crossing the border. The U.N.’s top envoy in Liberia, Ellen Margaret Loj, confirmed that armed Ivorian fighters from both sides of the emerging conflict have recently attempted to enter the country. "Some [were] trying apparently to use Liberia as a transit to re-enter into Cote d’Ivoire, others to come in and see if there were any defected fighters among the refugees," she told me on March 9.

The U.N. mission in Liberia, UNMIL, has so far turned those combatants away — at least at formal border crossings. But along an unmanned, largely forested border that stretches across four Liberian counties, neither the United Nations nor the local military and police can be everywhere. Many fear that Liberia’s hard-earned disarmament over the past several years may be put into jeopardy, Loj said. "The worry both on my side but certainly even more so on the government side is that people will come in with weapons from Cote d’Ivoire."

In recent days, the number of men and boys among the refugee flows, which were originally dominated by women and children, has skyrocketed in what U.N. officials say is a sign of how intense the fighting has become. Sulaiman Momodu, the local spokesman for UNHCR, the U.N. relief agency, told me on March 9 that many of these young men left for fear of being conscripted into pro- or anti-Gbagbo forces. Others, Momodu said, had seen fighting directly or heard gunfire. For now, Ouattara’s troops are controlling the Ivorian side of the border with Liberia, but refugees from both political affiliations are literally running for their lives.

Meanwhile, some Liberians are said to be going in the other direction. According to local radio reports and secondhand accounts, former combatants and other jobless young men are heading across the border to fight, lured by the promise of cold, hard cash. UNMIL can’t confirm those rumors, Loj told me, "but I’m sure there’s some truth to them." Certainly, money could lure plenty of recruits here in Liberia, where the vast majority are not formally employed, particularly in rural areas. During its disarmament program, the U.N. partnered with NGOs and the government to offer ex-combatants vocational training, but many are still without work. Former soldiers are jobless, too, ever since the army — tainted by the atrocities it committed during the decade and a half of fighting — was disbanded after the war.

The newly recruited and trained security forces that replaced them are still struggling to maintain order. There are about 4,000 Liberian police, for example, but they don’t yet operate independently, and their UNMIL trainers readily admit that outside Monrovia, police operations are even more remedial. In response to the violence and the refugee situation, UNMIL has redeployed some forces to the border, and four units of armed policemen (most police in Liberia are not armed) have been moved there as well.

Relief workers seem overwhelmed by the burgeoning crisis. The U.N. refugee agency originally requested funds for the operation based on a maximum refugee population of 50,000 — only half of the number present in Liberia’s border region now. Of the nearly $19 million that the U.N. says it needs for the operation to function, only 10 percent of that — $1.9 million — is in hand. "We are losing the battle on the CNN effect. [In Libya,] geopolitical interests are more acute," says Isabel Crowley, UNICEF country director in Liberia, who expressed frustration that the situation in the Ivory Coast has failed to capture headlines. "If we don’t get funds, people are going to start to die."

Supplies of food and water are running desperately low. At the moment, the U.N. World Food program has enough provisions to feed some 72,000 people for 15 days at the rate of one meal per person per day; new supplies won’t arrive until April 1. As for water, U.N. agencies and humanitarian organizations say they can meet the emergency needs of about 30,000 people and long-term needs of just 8,000. Worse yet, the rainy season will begin in a matter of months, making roads inaccessible and raising transportation costs.

UNHCR has constructed one refugee camp, but only about 650 refugees have relocated there. Most of the refugees in Liberia are still close to the border, many camping outside or finding temporary shelter in schools or churches, says Crowley. Others are being taken into the homes of local Liberians, many of whom are the same ethnicity.

The welcome wears out fast, however. "We already have reports of tension between the refugee community and the host community," Loj reports. "You can be generous, but only so long when you have nothing to share, and then you start bickering and arguing, and we are watching that very carefully because it has the potential of threatening the security situation." Local radio stations are a mouthpiece for those fears, as talk shows feature local residents discussing their anxieties that incoming refugees will take scarce resources or jobs.

In Liberia, all this is taking place against the backdrop of an upcoming presidential election in October. The incumbent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female leader and a darling of international donors, has significant support, but her victory is far from a done deal. "If you analyze this, the situation in Cote d’Ivoire is a result of elections, disputed elections," Momodu of UNHCR said. "So as Liberia heads toward elections, there is a genuine fear in the population that what has happened in Cote d’Ivoire could also happen here."

Things in the Ivory Coast are likely to get worse before they get better. On March 10, Gbagbo rejected an African Union deal that would have created a unity government including both him and Ouattara, but with Ouattara as the official president. Other pressure on Gbagbo to resign has come to naught. Threats from the regional West African economic community, ECOWAS, to use force if necessary to remove Gbagbo have dimmed as regional giant Nigeria prepares for its own tricky elections in April. The one hope of the international community has been that economic sanctions could cripple Gbagbo’s ability to pay his loyal military and civil service, come hell or high water. But he still seems to have cash.

Perhaps more importantly, for every moment he stays in power, Gbagbo gains more leverage. What began as threats of military action faded into vague discussions of an African Union working group, occasional mediation from regional presidents and dignitaries, and discussions of a power-sharing government. The more proposals he rejects from the international community, the more — and larger — concessions he wins in subsequent rounds of negotiation.

While those discussions continue, the fighting and the humanitarian crisis triggered by it continue apace. Analysts here fear that the situation will soon devolve into all-out war as the number of displaced rises and clashes escalate.

The gravity of the situation was clear on March 8, as Johnson Sirleaf began her International Women’s Day speech with a moment of silence "for our brothers and sisters in Cote d’Ivoire," as she told a stadium full of otherwise jubilant Liberian women. "May god give them the courage not to follow our path, because we know what that means."

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.