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Children at War in Liberia and Sierra Leone

By the 1990s weapons had become light enough for children of use with ease. The semi-automatic AK-47 made a child closer to equal with a similarly armed adult. And there were those willing to use armed children for their political ends. Child soldiers fought in Asia, the Balkans, Latin America and Africa. Members of child armies who were around fifteen years of age were described as critical of soldiers merely around nine and wary of offending them because the nine-year olds, being less mature, were more inclined to shoot in response to mere annoyance. 

One of the first to use children as soldiers was Charles Taylor of Liberia. Taylor was from a family elite enough that he had been sent to study in the United States beginning in 1972 at age 24. He was a Liberian of African-American descent who had settled in Liberia in the 1800s. His father, Nelson Taylor, is reported to have been worked as a teacher, a lawyer and judge. In 1977, Charles Taylor earned a BA degree in economics at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. During his years as a student in the United States he had elevated himself among his fellow Liberians, becoming chairman of the Union of Liberian Organizations.

Liberians descended from American slaves had been ruling Liberia, and they were resented by other Liberians. Siding with this resentment, a Master Sergeant, Samuel Doe, led an overthrow of Liberia's government in 1980. Taylor had been at the forefront of the criticism against the government that Doe overthrew, and he was offered a job in Doe's regime, running a general services agency which controlled some of the regime's budget. Eventually Doe accused Taylor of embezzling nearly 1 million dollars. Taylor returned to the United States and there an extradition warrant from Liberia resulted in Taylor being imprisoned, where he awaited extradition. Taylor escaped and disappeared. In late 1989, several hundred members of the Gio and Mano tribes rebelled and threatened the Doe regime. In December, Charles Taylor reappeared in Africa. He is described as having launched a Gaddafi-funded armed uprising from the Ivory Coast into Liberia, a force of from 100 to 500 persons trained in Libya, where Taylor is thought to have been hiding. Taylor announced his intention to overthrow Doe's regime and is reported to have said "The best Doe is a dead Doe." 

Leading the Gio tribe against Doe was Prince Yormie Johnson. Johnson's force that reached Monrovia before Taylor's, and Johnson had Doe executed as Doe was trying to leave the country. Taylor carried on with his struggle for power and civil war continued. He asked President Joseph Momoh of Sierra Leone permission to use his territory as a springboard for attacks across its border into Liberia. President Momoh refused, causing Taylor to resent Momoh.

In 1991, war in Liberia spilled into neighboring Sierra Leone. A force of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans led by the Sierra Leonean, Foday Sankoh, entered Sierra Leone. Sankoh, about a decade older than Taylor, had been corporal in the Sierra Leonean army, then a wedding photographer and a television cameraman. He is reported to have met Taylor in Libya. He is said to have been financed by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who was supporting West African dissidents, including Taylor. Sankoh claimed to be making revolution against Sierra Leone's corrupt elite, and he had been recruiting children to his "Revolutionary United Front." 

Sierra Leon's President Momoh fought Sankoh using combatants trained from among the 250,000 refugees from Liberia who were in Sierra Leone. The military in Sierra Leone ousted Momoh and continued to fight the rebels. Taylor continued to support Sankoh and the rebels. Between December 1989 and mid-1993, Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), was responsible for deliberate killings of civilians. Thousands of civilians were killed, mutilated and raped.

Sankoh's force fought for control over Sierra Leone's diamond mines. His response to criticism included denying atrocities and, where possible, having his critics killed. Two of Sankoh's comrades, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray,  were executed after they had tried to moderate Sankoh's excesses.

Taylor, meanwhile, found wealth controlling territory in Liberia and selling Liberian export items: diamonds, timber, rubber, gold and iron ore. He had made sweeps through communities. And, needing as many gun-slingers as he could get, he recruited boys into his army, some as young as nine.  

With neither side winning the war, a peace agreement was made in 1996. In 1996, wartime elections in Sierra Leone resulted in the presidency of  Ahmad Kabbah, ending four years of army rule in Sierra Leone. In 1997 in Liberia, a transitional government of various factions was installed and elections held. Taylor was elected president with an official count of 75.3 percent of the vote.

In 1997 in Sierra Leone disgruntled military men overthrew Kabbah. President Taylor continued to battle insurgents in Liberia opposed to his rule. Taylor was giving the rebels in Sierra Leone weapons in exchange for diamonds. These rebels swept through areas in Sierra Leone chopping off the arms, legs and noses of thousands they suspected of supporting Sierra Leone's government.

In February, 1998, Nigeria intervened in the civil war in Sierra Leone and ousted rebels from the capital, Freetown. In May, the ousted president, Kabbah, returned to Freetown amid rejoicing. In January 1999, rebels returned to Freetown and were driven out again, leaving about 5,000 dead. A compromise peace was made with the rebels, giving some government posts to rebel leaders. In 2000 in Freetown, rebel soldiers gunned down a number of protesters. The rebel leader Sankoh was arrested, followed by celebrations in Freetown. Sankoh was handed to the British and, under jurisdiction of a United Nations court he was indicted on 17 counts for war crimes, including crimes against humanity, along with rape, sexual slavery and extermination. A United Nations force arrived. The civil war in Sierra Leone flared again. Rebels abducted several hundred of the UN force. British paratroopers arrived to evacuate British subjects and to secure the airport for UN peacekeepers, and they moved to rescue British hostages. In May, 2001, British trained Sierra Leone forces began to spread into rebel areas. By January, 2002, the civil war in Sierra Leone had finally ended. The United Nations declared that 45,000 rebels had been disarmed and that the disarmament was complete. In May in Sierra Leone, Kabbah won a landslide election.  Sankoh died in 2003 died of complications arising from a stroke while he was awaiting his trial.

In 1999 in northern Liberia a rebellion had also erupted against President Taylor, these rebels thought to have been backed by the government in neighboring Guinea. This uprising has been described as the beginning of the Second Liberian Civil War. In 2003 a rebel group backed by another neighbor, Cote d'Ivoire, arose in southern Liberia, and it advanced rapidly.

On 4 June 2003 a United Nations tribunal indicted Taylor for war crimes, accusing him of bearing the greatest responsibility for murder, the taking of hostages, rapes, exterminations, sexual slavery and for the use of child soldiers. In July, Taylor was fighting rebels for control of the capital. US President George Bush ordered Taylor to leave Liberia. Several African states led by Nigeria, looking to stability in the region, sent troops to Liberia. Three US warships with 2,300 Marines appeared off Liberia's coast. Taylor gave up. On August 10 appeared on national television to announce his farewell. On August 11 he resigned. He flew to Nigeria, and there the government provided him houses for him and his entourage.

In March 2006, Liberia's democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asked Nigeria for Taylor's extradition. Taylor fled in his Range Rover Nigerian diplomatic plates. He was stopped at the Cameroon border. The US State Department was to report that significant amounts of cash and heroin were found in the vehicle. He was flown to Liberia, and immediately transferred to the custody of the United Nations Mission in Liberia. Following a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council, Taylor, in June, was flown to the Netherlands and held at detention center of the International Criminal Court located in the Scheveningen section of The Hague.

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Copyright © 2000-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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