ABIDJAN: When Liberia’s President Charles Taylor started West Africa’s hurricane of violence in 1989 he came as a saviour to a land short on hope.
His departure into exile removes the prime mover of the chaos, but leaves a region just as torn by the poverty, despair, absence of law, misrule and tribal hatreds that really nurtured its tangle of conflicts.
If anyone needed warning of troubles ahead in Liberia, it came from renewed fighting that flared as Taylor was handing over power and continued on Tuesday.
The same goes for the rest of West Africa.
“I’ve always been very wary of this successful effort to paint Taylor as the bogeyman of the region, but that will start to come apart at the seams with Taylor’s exit,” said Kayode Fayemi of the Centre for Democracy and Development.
Nobody doubts that Taylor gets most credit for starting the region’s conflicts and breeding a generation of young warriors, addicted to drugs and murder.
He attacked in 1989 from Ivory Coast to unseat unpopular dictator Samuel Doe, who kept power within his Krahn tribal clique and was blamed for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.
Seven years of war followed before an exhausted Liberia elected Taylor, by then accused of conniving with rebels in a horrifically brutal struggle in Sierra Leone.
REGIONAL WARLORD: Subsequent conflicts in Guinea and Ivory Coast also bore Taylor’s fingerprints and it was the help from those countries for his old civil war foes that finally drove him out, along with growing international pressure.
“Mr Taylor’s extraction does promise in the mid-term to stabilise the region,” said Alex Vines of Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.
But analysts warn of the creeping rot in West Africa’s weak states and point out that there were plenty of factors beside Taylor to justify its conflicts.
Pre-war Sierra Leone was one of the most venal countries on earth as negligent leaders stole its diamonds, Guinea has one of Africa’s most iron-fisted rulers while Ivory Coast was torn by tribal intolerance and corruption.
“If you look at Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Taylor has been a complicating factor, but the problems are still there,” said James Smither of the Control Risks Group consultancy.
One difference now is an increased willingness of Western countries to intervene, both from altruism at the sight of the horrific images played around the world and in fear of the total collapse of the region.
Britain helped end the war in former colony Sierra Leone. France deployed troops to at least temporarily quell the crisis in Ivory Coast. Now the United States has sent back up for regional peacekeepers in Liberia.
A better-coordinated regional strategy also offers hope.
SICKLY STATES: But even where foreign intervention succeeds, it raises an awkward question over the viability as independent countries of the unhappy mosaic of still-young states sketched out at the whim of colonial powers in the 19th century.
Efforts at regional integration have been growing, but have been hampered since the independence era by the very insecurity of the states and leaders trying to implement them.
Poverty has grown steadily worse as a consequence of swelling populations, falling export prices for some commodities and often misrule by ethnic powergroups fearful of losing influence.
The violence itself has bred thousands of young guns for hire, ready to fight wherever they smell blood or loot, and with little other option for getting on in life.
In many countries, democracy has not taken solid root despite promises of change in the early 1990s.
In fact the only West African country to deal swiftly with insurgency was Guinea, labelled as one of the least democratic on the continent. It wiped out the town where rebels attacked from Liberia, then stepped up support for Taylor’s enemies.
But with President Lansana Conte ailing, it is now Guinea that looms large again as a new potential worry.
“The social fabric in West Africa has been damaged by long years of economic stagnation and irresponsible leadership and at its core this is about getting governance right,” said Fayemi. “This is not just about Liberia.”—Reuters