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...