Monday, January 23, 2017 8:52 am
By Wale Okediran
Monrovia. A sultry June afternoon. Overhead, the rumble of thunder heralded the beginning of rain while miles and miles of thick vegetation extended as far as the eye could see. ‘We are in the raining season and it could rain for 24 hours non-stop’ the cab driver who had come to pick me up from the Robertsville airport complained. ‘If only it is possible for us to trap all the rain water and export it. Liberia will be swimming in money’ he added.
As we left the airport for the one hour trip to the city of Monrovia, it became obvious that Liberia was still recovering from its 14 year old civil war with an estimated 250,000 Liberian casualties. On both sides of the road could still be seen buildings damaged by mortar shells while the blue berets of the Peacekeeping UN troops could be seen everywhere. Just outside the airport, we chanced on the Military Barracks that housed the UN troops. Amidst the barbed wired fortified building was a big billboard with the screaming headline…WE BRING PEACE!!
The country known today as Liberia was founded in 1821 as a result of the efforts of the American Colonization Society to relocate free slaves of African origin living in the United States on the African continent. Monrovia, named in honour of the American President James Monroe in 1824 subsequently became the capital of Liberia. Since August 24 1847 when the country became a republic, Liberia has had 23 Presidents beginning with Joseph Jenkins Roberts in 1848 till the current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who took over a little over a year ago.
Nigeria became involved in the affairs of the approximately 2.5 million populated country after Samuel K Doe who took power in a military coup in 1980 reneged on his promise to hand over power to a civilian government in 1985. It was in an attempt by Charles Taylor to dislodge Doe from power that Liberia became engulfed in a civil war. Although the Nigeria-led ECOMOG forces which came in in 1990 was able to achieve some degree of peace, the hurried departure of the forces from the country in 1996 resulted in large scale chaos.
The last stage of the civil war was in 2003 under Charles Taylor when rebel forces who had entered Monrovia tried to push him out of office. The resultant war which has been acclaimed as the severest in the Country’s 14 year old civil war became so bad that Liberians cried to the outside world for help. However, the UN insisted on Charles Taylor’s departure from the country before it could send in its troops. Thanks to the joint initiative of Presidents Obasanjo, Mbeki and Kuffour, Charles Taylor was eventually persuaded to abdicate while Nigerian troops moved into the country in August 2003 before merging into the current UN forces that eventually moved in in October of the same year.
For this timely intervention which saved millions of lives, Nigeria and indeed former President Olusegun Obasanjo are still held in high esteem in Liberia. Everywhere I went during my one week stay in the country, Liberians were still appreciative of this wonderful gesture by Nigeria. Apart from contributing the marjority of the UN soldiers currently in Liberia, the country’s Ministries of Commerce and Defence are headed by Nigerians.
However, four years after the war, and with peace gradually returning to the once turbulent nation, it seems as if the 17,000 UN soldiers with about 70 percent Nigerian population have outlived their stay.
Some Liberians whom I spoke to have started complaining about the social and economic consequences of the long standing ‘army of occupation’. While some Liberians consider the 17,000 size too big for a country of just 2.5 million population, others have accused the UN troops who are paid in US dollars of causing inflation in the country. As one religious leader put it, ‘the Liberian dollar which had been steady at 50 to the US dollar for a long time has now gone up to 62’. Apart from inflation, other offences against the UN soldiers include, rape, violence, and armed robbery.
At about the time of my trip, many Liberian Newspapers reported the story of the theft of a Liberian ship which was hitherto under the care of the UN troops. ‘This would be the second stolen ship in the last one month’ remarked the newspapers. A week after their disappearance, both ships were eventually traced to Ghana! Also, in one of the several seminars on HIV/AIDS conducted by my group during my stay, some community and religious leaders were of the opinion that as long as the UN soldiers remain in Liberia, the war against HIV infection, prostitution and teenage pregnancy can never be won. ‘Each time a UN soldier is convicted of a crime, he is aided to escape from the country by his superiors before judgement can be meted out’ complained one community leader.
It is also the opinion of some Liberians that it was time for their country to start training their own Army and Police forces instead of depending on international peace keeping forces.
As to be expected, not all Liberians agree that the UN forces have overstayed their welcome. A taxi driver was very angry with the proponents of the UN withdrawal accusing them of having a hidden agenda. As he put it, ’we Liberians are a very stubborn race. The moment these UN soldiers leave our soil these people will start fighting again.’ While the taxi driver agreed that a sizeable amount of arms have been seized from the combatants, he still believes that a lot of arms are hidden in the bushes ready to be used again. Another student of the University Of Liberia wants the UN soldiers to stay for another four years in order to attain a better stability while some market women who claimed to have seen hell during the 14 year genocide would like the UN soldiers to stay for ever.
As if reading the minds of Liberians on the status of the UN troops in Liberia, the Nigerian born Force Commander of the UNMIL (The UN Mission in Liberia) Lt Gen C Isaac Obiakor in a press statement on June 7 2007 stated that the UNMIL will soon reduce its physical presence in Liberia. According to Obiakor, with peace gradually coming back to the country, it was important for the force to gradually decrease it presence in the country. The Force Commander also promised to reduce checkpoints in Monrovia to allow for a free flow of traffic. These checkpoints will be replaced by mobile and foot military patrols. Obiakor also promised that his troops will vacate government buildings so that they can be used by government officials who are now gradually coming back to work. On the spate of allegations against the UN soldiers in Liberia, it was the opinion of the General that such incidents cannot be entirely avoided and that comparatively, his troops have done creditably well. While not setting a definite timetable for the eventual withdrawal of the troops from Liberia, Obiakor assured Liberians that the training of the Army and Police forces will continue until the country gets a standard armed forces of its own.
Despite this cheering piece of news from Gen Obiakor, it is obvious that UN troops cannot stay on for ever on the soil of another foreign country. Apart from the economic and social implications to both the UN and the host country, the continual dependence on foreign troops will never allow a country’s armed forces to be truly tested. It is therefore important that a timetable for a gradual withdrawal of the UN soldiers as well as that of the training of the Liberian forces be drawn. Equally important is the urgent need to curtail whatever excesses the UN troops are perpetrating in their host country. While many Liberians are grateful to Nigeria for delivering their country from genocide, they are equally sad at the heinous crimes being perpetuated by some of their protectors. It is therefore important that Lt Gen Obiakor intensify his efforts in curbing the few soldiers who are giving his command a bad image. This way, the respect and honour which Nigeria continues to garner due to its noble role in the Liberian situation will not be eroded.
Dr Okediran, a former Member Of The House Of Representatives, wrote this article in 2007.