West can learn from Liberia

Africa is not exceptional. On the contrary, studies of African rebel movements can help us understand what is going on in other parts of the world, including today’s Ukraine. Both in Liberia and in Ukraine the armed conflict is question of strategy to obtain political goals.

Former NAI researcher Ilmari Käihkö has met with people involved in “Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy”, LURD, the rebel group that after a four year civil war defeated the Charles Taylor regime in 2003.

“There is this perception that we cannot learn from Africa. One conclusion in my research is that we can compare Liberia with what’s happening in for instance Ukraine and in Afghanistan”, says  Käihkö  who recently published an article in which he applies definitions of strategy dating back to 19th century  Europe, to modern day West Africa.

LURD was the main rebel movement during the second civil war in Liberia, between 1999 and 2003. Many different groups joined under the LURD flag by one goal:  Taylor must go!

“The common enemy formed a common identity for LURD. They had a political goal and a strategy to obtain this goal”, Käihkö says.

Typewritten orders

His study challenges the view that African rebel groups consist of irrational criminals.  This is definitely not how LURD fighters saw themselves. The written military orders were one proof of the group’s political determination that caught Käihkö’s attention from the start.

“They used a letterhead and a typewriter. Written orders are signs of a hierarchy and also limit the distribution to those who are to be concerned. Of course LURD had internet, but that was used for other purposes, like reaching an international audience”.

Apart from the anti-Taylor commitment and the crucial access to supplies, LURD also had a third way to success - interfaith rituals.

“Before the fights the Muslim and Christian fighters joined in a ceremony, read from the Quran and recited the Lord’s Prayer.  In that way all were united in a higher cause”, says Käihkö who would like to look deeper into this phenomenon in his future research.

What about comparing Liberia with Ukraine?

“LURD is a similar case to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, but in another context.  They are both none state actors fighting the state and have political goals”.

Buffer zone

Foreign influence is also a common feature. The support from Guinean president Conté was crucial for LURD. How far he was willing to go is unclear, according to Käihkö, but one reason for the support could have been that Conté wanted a buffer zone between him and Charles Taylor’s Liberia.

Another outsider, Russian president Putin, is a key actor in the Ukrainian conflict.

“The separatists want to be a part of Russia. However, for Putin a buffer zone within Ukraine would be great. This would make it impossible for Ukraine to approach EU and NATO”.

Ilmari Käihkö’s conclusion in this research project is that the rest of the world can learn from the LURD experience. He also hopes to contribute to the understanding of recent Liberian history.

Footnote: This project was jointly funded by the Nordic Africa Institute, the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University and the Swedish Defence University"

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