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The West African Regional War

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The West Africa Regional War

For observers of the West Africa regional war, the recent calm in the war-torn Mano River Union (MRU) states Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea has given rise to optimism. Guarded, as this optimism might be, the decrease in violence in West Africa during the second half of 2001 is an important development given the scope and intensity of fighting that gripped these states earlier in the year. While observers agree that the current absence of widespread violent conflict in the MRU is a much-welcomed development, it must not mask the profound cleavages within these societies, the tenuous nature of the UN-imposed peace in Sierra Leone, and the continued serious threat of renewed warfare in the region. A brief overview of the horrendous and persistent conflicts that have engulfed the MRU over the past decade underscores the need for vigilance by the international community in its pursuit of lasting peace in West Africa.

The past dozen years of violent conflict in West Africa have led to the death, injury, and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more. Conservative estimates place the total number of war-related deaths during the seven-year civil war in Liberia (1989 1996) at 150,000, more than 5 percent of Liberia's estimated population (SIPRI Yearbook, 1996). But this number only begins to tell the story of the horror that civil war brought to this small nation of 2.8 million [United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report, 1995]. Hundreds of thousands more Liberians were injured, displaced, and terrorized by the conflict, and today the tiny state remains the hostage of its corrupt and brutal dictator, Charles Taylor.

After the war spread into Sierra Leone in 1991, it had a similarly devastating effect. As in Liberia, armed insurgents preyed on the rural populations, raping, pillaging, and forcefully inducting children into their ranks. During the eight years of warfare that followed, it is estimated (conservatively) that over 60,000 of Sierra Leone's estimated 4.2 million inhabitants were killed and hundreds of thousands more injured, mutilated, and displaced (SIPRI Yearbook, 2001; UNDP, Human Development Report, 1995). The 2001 UNDP Human Development Report ranks Sierra Leone last out of the 162 nations rated on the human development index (HDI), a composite measure based on life expectancy, education, and gross domestic product per capita.

Most of the refugees sought shelter in neighboring Guinea. The end of the 1990s housed over 500,000 refugees housed in hundreds of camps and settlements in Guinea, one of the largest refugee populations in the world (U.S. Commission for Refugees, Guinea: Country Report 1999, www.refugees.org/world/countryrpt/africa/1999/guinea.htm). While the destabilizing effects on Guinean society of large numbers of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees was profound throughout the 1990s, sustained cross-border conflict did not break out between Guinea and her neighbors until 2000. Cross-border attacks into Guinea by Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and various Liberian-based rebel groups precipitated a harsh military response from the Guinean military, which led to thousands of militia and civilian casualties.

Of course, fighting in West Africa during the 1990s was not confined to the MRU states. Serious bloodshed occurred in Guinea-Bissau (1999), the southern Casamance region of Senegal (ongoing), and Nigeria (ongoing) and conflict threatens to engulf c?te d'Ivoire. Sometimes referred to as "the arc of conflict" in West Africa, these wars escape simple classification. While the war that started in 1989 in Liberia has become regionalized in the rest of the MRU, the other areas of instability in West Africa are based on intra-state phenomena. Nevertheless, the broader and deeper that instability grows in West Africa, the greater the risk that conflicts will merge and spread, further exacerbating conditions that make West Africa the most impoverished region in the world.

The Big Picture

In light of this fighting and the gloomy specter of a growing regional war in West Africa, the United States Institute of Peace convened a group of experts on the conflicts in West Africa and formed a working group to bring together individuals from various national and international agencies and organizations to shed light on the nature of the conflicts in West Africa and recommend appropriate American responses. In this way, the group endeavored to inform itself and support the Bush administration's new Africa team that was confronted with complex and difficult policy choices. This effort led to four gatherings of the West Africa Working Group (WAWG) between March and August.

From the outset, the working group adopted a "big picture" analytical focus. That is, the group quickly agreed that the series of conflicts in the MRU stretching over the 1990s and into the 2000s should be looked at as a whole. Conceptually, the MRU conflict was therefore seen as a regional war with regional dimensions. Thus, what started in Liberia in 1989 is related to the war in Sierra Leone and to the fighting that broke out in Guinea in 2000. And while different dynamics are responsible for the instability radiating beyond the MRU into other parts of West Africa today, these conflicts further menace regional peace and complicate efforts to find a lasting peace across the West African region.

The working group attracted a diverse array of U.S. and foreign specialists that varied depending on the topic of the particular session. The group included representatives from Capitol Hill, British and French governments, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, intelligence agencies, International Peace Academy, Interaction, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), National Security Council, Pentagon, Physicians for Human Rights, State Department, United Nations, and United States Agency for International Development. The views expressed here represent a summation of issues examined by the WAWG, highlighting the most salient findings and policy recommendations.

There were few points of disagreement during the many hours of discussions, both over what has led to the current crisis in West Africa and how the United States should move forward in the region. Perhaps the most significant and sustained point of contention within the WAWG was the degree of optimism/pessimism shared over the current process of demobilization, disarmament, and resettlement (DDR) in Sierra Leone. While some WAWG members were cautiously optimistic that the RUF is finished as a military force, others believed that the rebel group will dig up its guns and resist expulsion from the diamond

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