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Visit to Liberia and Nigeria

By Jimmy Carter

The primary purpose of this trip was to complete the long search for peace and democracy in Liberia, an effort in which The Carter Center has been deeply involved for the last six years. The nation has been almost destroyed by a terrible civil war; in a population of 2.6 million, there have been nearly 200,000 killed, 670,000 forced into neighboring countries, and 800,000 others displaced from their home communities, mostly to camps near Monrovia.

A brief review of history may be helpful:

  • 1980: Sergeant Samuel Doe ended 150 years of Americo-Liberian autocratic rule when he overthrew the Tolbert regime and summarily executed the entire cabinet. Doe received strong U.S. support for nine years, despite brutal repression in the country.
  • 1990: Encouraged by leaders in neighboring countries, Charles Taylor and his NPFL party invaded the country and soon controlled the entire territory except for a small area around Monrovia, which was protected by an African multinational force (ECOMOG) led by Nigerian troops, representing 15 West African nations (ECOWAS). President Doe was tortured and dismembered by Prince Johnson, a military faction leader.
  • 1991: Leaders of ECOWAS and parties to the conflict invited our International Negotiating Network (INN) to assist in peace efforts. Carter Center's representatives first visited Liberia, and then Rosalynn and I went. We met with all faction leaders, and called for disarmament of factions to ECOMOG, demobilization of troops, and internationally supervised elections. ECOMOG supported rival factions to control Taylor, who refused to disarm, denying the neutrality of ECOMOG.
  • 1992: NPFL troops attacked Monrovia and took 580 ECOMOG troops hostage. Back in Liberia again, we joined ECOWAS leaders and the U.S. State Department in calling for a neutral peacekeeping force, and again for disarmament and elections. Rosalynn and I returned to the interior and convinced Taylor to release the hostages. We opened a full- time Carter Center office in Monrovia, which we've had to close twice during times of great danger to our people.
  • 1993: Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings and other ECOWAS leaders in Cotonou set up a coalition government in Liberia. The U.S. agreed with our call to help expansion of ECOMOG, to include more non-Nigerian troops. General Sani Abacha assumed power in Nigeria.
  • 1994-95: Military factions moved into Monrovia, but the Cotonou agreement unraveled. We went back to the region to encourage meetings among Abacha, Taylor, and other regional leaders. ECOWAS leaders in Abuja set up a ruling Council of State in Liberia, comprising faction and civilian leaders.
  • 1996: An attempt to arrest one of the faction leaders in Monrovia resulted in 1,500 casualties, further destruction of the city, and more than 20,000 people crowded into the U.S. compound for safety. Nigerian General Sam Victor Malu finally brought neutrality and competence to ECOMOG, and vowed to complete disarmament by early 1997 to permit long-awaited elections.

This brings us to 1997. Almost total disarmament was completed in February, and elections were scheduled for May 30, then extended to July 19. We have had several Carter Center representatives in Liberia, including Ambassador Gordon Streeb and Chip Carter. Gordon accompanied me on this trip.

On June 27-28 we met with the major candidates, all of whom were required to relinquish their military leadership roles. They included faction leaders Charles Taylor, Alhaji Kromah, and George Boley, and civilians Cletus Wortorson, Bacchus Matthews, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (until recently a high UN official). If none of the 13 candidates obtains a majority, a run-off election is scheduled for 8/2.

In addition, we had extensive meetings with the Independent Elections Commission (IECOM), ECOMOG commander General Malu, members of the Council of State, Archbishop Michael Francis, the foreign minister and ambassador from Nigeria, and others from the European Union, UN, and NGOs who will be joining us in monitoring the election. General Malu showed us the tremendous piles of 32,000 confiscated field pieces, rocket launchers, and semi-automatic weapons. He also reported that 126,000 refugees have crossed the border into Liberia within the last two months.

We visited a number of sites, some about 50 miles from Monrovia, where long lines of citizens were registering to vote. ECOMOG forces were in charge of maintaining security and seem to be trusted by all election officials and political party leaders. Despite transportation difficulties, ECOMOG, a small UN force, and election officials had used helicopters supplied by the U.S. and ground transportation to deliver registration materials to 1,564 voting sites throughout the rain-soaked country.

850,000 people participated in the last election in 1985, and it is hoped that at least 600,000 will be registered this time. The process seemed to be going well, with about 250 having been processed at each of the visited sites during the first three days of the 10-day period.

One of a few instances of violence took place on the first day of campaigning in the countryside, when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was harassed by Taylor supporters. The two ringleaders, including a general, were immediately arrested by ECOMOG and are still being detained. Since then, there have been no similar instances.

There are a number of newspapers published and FM radio stations broadcasting, representing the views and interests of a range of candidates. However, Charles Taylor controls the only operating low frequency station, giving him almost exclusive coverage of more remote areas of the country. We helped to make arrangements for the expedited delivery of another low frequency transmitter from Italy, and expect a total of three to be operating by July 10.

Another problem we encountered was an apparent shortfall of donor commitments to cover the full cost of the registration and election process. The Carter Center helped arrange for UN and EU auditors to move into the Election Commission offices so that funds could be made available more expeditiously, and began efforts to secure enough pledges to meet commitments already made for four election officials in each of the 1,564 sites.

Monrovia is physically destroyed and overpopulated, but there is amazing commercial activity in the streets of the city, and the people are in good spirits. This is quite different from the situation during my last visit, when a pall of despair prevailed. While jogging at 7 a.m. one morning, we saw a long line of people waiting to register as voters, and hundreds of open-air stalls being opened along the streets. The most vivid measure of the poverty and suffering experienced by the people is that none of us ever saw an animal of any kind, except for one dead cat that was being offered for sale.

Conclusions: My overall assessment is that the groundwork has been laid for an adequate but far from perfect election, probably the only alternative to continuing violence. The winner is likely to be inaugurated peacefully, and ECOMOG will remain at least six months, long enough to stabilize this situation and to train a minimal but adequate national army and police force. No faction with most of its weapons confiscated can challenge ECOMOG, and there is little doubt that the large number of highly qualified international observers can detect any significant fraud. My relative optimism is predicated on ECOMOG's retaining its present neutral role, observers continuing to work in harmony, and the international community's being generous in supporting this troubled nation's effort to come back to life.

With General Sani Abacha now serving as chairman of ECOWAS and his troops dominant in ECOMOG, Nigeria is the most powerful force in Liberia. We went to Abuja to meet with him and other top officials to discuss a number of issues.

Liberia: I congratulated General Abacha on ECOWAS decisiveness and on the recent superb performance of ECOMOG forces. He stated that Nigeria will continue its leadership and the neutrality of their troops. I asked him to retain the option of extending their presence beyond next February if necessary, and to leave General Malu in command. I also suggested that all the confiscated weapons be destroyed. He replied that some few will be necessary to arm the Liberian national army.

Sierra Leone: The overthrow of President Kabbah's government and occupation of Freetown by military and revolutionary forces has created another crisis in West Africa that is being addressed by ECOWAS. Having just come from a summit meeting in Conakry, Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi explained that a four-nation West African group would attempt to get the coalition leaders to permit the return of the president, prevent further violence, protect ECOMOG and other foreign troops in Sierra Leone, and only then participate in peace talks. In the absence of progress within two weeks, General Abacha is likely to resort to military action by ECOMOG forces. I encouraged immediate meetings with the revolutionaries, but this suggestion was rejected unless they first comply with the ultimatum to permit the return of the president.

Carter Center projects: We have reduced Guinea worm incidence in Nigeria from about 700,000 in 1988 to 12,000 last year, and we are also involved in the treatment of more than 6 million people in 1997 for onchocerciasis (river blindness). We also have about 6,500 small farmers in our Global 2000 program to increase production of food grain. I had extensive discussions about these projects with General and Mrs. Abacha and cabinet officials.

Release of prisoners: As expected, I urged the release of former president Obasanjo, his associate Yar'Adua, and president-elect Abiola, but without success. General Abacha responded that Abiola's case was on appeal and that the other two were coup plotters who escaped execution only because of intercession by foreign leaders. I reminded him that their imprisonment was the source of worldwide condemnation, and he responded that it would be reviewed when the time is appropriate.

Later I met with human rights activists, who expressed their concern about the absence of a comprehensible rule of law, with total domination of the society by General Abacha and the military ruling council. They were doubtful about the promises of the council to restore democratic civilian rule in October 1998, with 1997's gubernatorial elections already postponed until next year. They were divided in their opinion concerning Abacha's likely candidacy, which some other generals are known to oppose.

I also spoke to an assembly of 200 leaders who are preparing a long-range development plan known as Vision 2010, chaired by former head of government Shonekan (in 1993 before Abacha assumed power). I also met with the petroleum trust fund, which administers about $800 million annually, derived from "excess profit taxes" collected on the sale of gasoline. This group deals with all aspects of Nigerian life except security, and is headed by another former head of state, Muhammadu Buhari, widely respected in Nigeria for the honesty of his administration from 1/84 to 8/85.

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