Thursday, 2 July 2009

ECOWAS in Liberia: Success or Failure


In this report, the role of the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) is explored in the Liberian civil war. The organization’s activities through its Military Monitoring Group ECOMOG are examined to see whether the role played by ECOWAS in bringing peace and stability to Liberia during its civil war was a success or failure. Issues considered in this report include a brief background to the civil war, formation of the Military Observer Group (ECOMOG), successes and problems of the group. The findings of the report is that despite the problems ECOMOG faced during its period in Liberia it managed to secure some level of peace in the first half of the conflict. The limitations or problems which it faced in terms of logistics, non-cooperation, division among member states, and human rights accusations were dealt with in one way or another to enable ECOMOG to manage and secure some level of peace and security.


The intervention of ECOWAS in the Liberian civil war in 1990 shows the effective role regional and sub-regional organisations could in bringing peace and security in their regions without the direct involvement of the United Nations (UN). After the end of the Cold War and the successful liberation of Kuwait from the hands of Iraq, the UN sought for ways and mechanisms by which it could deal with international peace and security issues, which were on the rise due to the many regional and sub-regional conflicts. This was the mandate given to the then Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali by the Security Council. He came out with his ‘Agenda for Peace’, which stressed on the importance of involving regional and sub-regional organisations in maintaining peace and security in their regions (Boulden, 2003:2, 15-16; Boutros-Ghali, 1992).

As stated above, the report takes into account the involvement of ECOWAS in the maintenance of peace and security in the Liberian civil war in 1990. The role played by the organisation through its Monitoring Group – ECOMOG is evaluated along with the accusation of human rights abuse by the group and problems it faced. The ECOWAS intervention in Liberia was the first peacekeeping assignment by a sub-regional organisation without the help of the UN at the initial stage to maintain peace and security (Boulden, 2003; Ero, 1995; HRW, 2003). This intervention by the ECOWAS shows how important sub-regional organisations are in the maintenance of peace and security in their region. These groups possess attributes that make them the right bodies to deal with conflicts in their regions (Boulden, 2003:2-3; Boutros-Ghali: paragraph 65, Olonisakin, 2003:111).

§ They are greatly affected by the outcomes of the conflicts and so take keen interest in finding amicable solutions. Outcomes include refugees, spread of the conflict into their regions and other cross-border activities.

§ They possess the accurate knowledge about the region which gives them the political will to intervene in comparison to international bodies.

§ They have existing personal and professional contacts to the process, which gives easy access and an ability to exert pressure that may not be available to the UN. This is true in the sense that they are based in the particular region in question with regards to the conflict and their involvement in the resolution and management process may not be seen as an intrusion by an external force by the conflicting parties. As argued by Boulden (2003:6), ‘Regional organisations are considered to be multistate geographically synchronous institutional entities that have played or are playing a role in conflict situations in Africa’.


The Liberian civil war has its root in the way the country was formed and ruled by the 5% Americo-Liberians between 1820 and 1980, when the first military coup by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe took place. After the oppression, maltreatment, and bad administration of the Americo-Liberians, which led to Doe’s coup, Liberians thought their new indigenous political leader was a ‘God-sent saviour’ who had come to liberate them from all their oppressions and sufferings. This was not the case as Doe turned out to bring ethnic nepotism into his administration, which led to the killings of masses of Liberians from other tribes. This became worse after rigging the 1985 elections and withstanding the coup attempt by Thomas Qwiwonkpa (Olonisakin, 2003:113-114). The Gios and Manos or the non-Khrans were his main target in the carnage that was carried out (Ero, 1995;, Adebajo, 2002:45-46; HRW, 1993; Francis et al., 2004:118).

Doe’s administration suppressed Liberians through the Armed Force of Liberia (AFL), which was known for killing many people including students, oppositions, civil servants, journalists and others. This led to the rebellion by Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), launched from Ivory Coast on 24 December 1989, which marked the genesis of the end of Doe’s administration. NPFL incursion into Liberia targeted the Krahn and Mandingo tribes who were perceived to be supporters of the Doe administration. This attack led to the creation of over 160, 000 refugees within two weeks who fled to Ivory Coast and Guinea. The situation was worsened when Doe also launched a counterinsurgency campaign, which escalated the figure to 700,000 refugees, representing one third of Liberia’s population (HRW, 1993, Olonisakin, 2003; Francis et al., 2004:121). The war reached Monrovia, the capital in the summer of 1990 and the level of mayhem and viciousness was outrageous and therefore an intervention was what was needed to bring things to normality.

As reported by HRW (1993), “In late July, five European ambassadors issued a statement warning that Liberia was sliding into "anarchy and national suicide”. Dead bodies, often mutilated, were dumped on the streets of the city or washed up on the beaches”.


The Liberian conflict came to the discussion table of ECOWAS during its 13th Head of States Summit in Banjul, Gambia on Wednesday, May 30, 1990, where it was decided that a 5 member Standing Mediation Committee (SMC) be formed. The 5 member SMC was formed on Friday, July 6, 1990 in Banjul and tasked to find a peaceful settlement to the civil war and they in turn came up with the ECOMOG on Tuesday, August 7, 1990. Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone were elected as its (SMC) first members (Ero, 1995; Olonisakin, 2003:114; Adebajo, 2002:51). The intervention of ECOWAS was very necessary and timely due to the situation in which the country found itself at the time:

I. The failure of America, Liberia’s godfather to intervene to save the country from collapsing, which was due to its lack of strategic interest in Africa and preoccupation with the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq, all after the cold war.

II. Nationals of other ECOWAS member states especially, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone were trapped in the country and needed to be rescued. This made the conflict more than an intra-conflict since it affected citizens of other ECOWAS states.

III. The death toll kept on swelling daily spreading the spilt over to neighbouring member states, which was also a threat.

IV. Destruction of the country’s economy since the economically sound counties where the country’s economic resources are found were shared among warlords who exploited them to finance their activities.

V. There was a letter from the staff at the Catholic Hospital of St. Peter’s Church and the relief organisation Medicins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) to ECOWAS to intervene militarily in early August 1990 (Ero, 1995).

VI. The activities of relief agencies were brought to a halt since they did not have access to the places where reliefs were needed due to the intensity of the war.

ECOWAS sent ECOMOG to Liberia with the mandate to separate the warring factions and to stop the bloodshed in the country in August 1990. Charles Taylor and his NPFL were a hindrance to the mandate of ECOMOG, which was to impose cease-fire, assist in the formation of an interim government and holding of elections within 12 months. This was because NPFL saw the Nigerian dominated ECOMOG as an enemy and was suspicious of the group and met them with fierce attack (HRW, 1993; Ero, 1995; Serro, 2000; Adebajo, 2002:50; Olonisakin, 2003:114-117).

Based on the reason of humanitarianism, it can be argued that the ECOWAS intervention was needed to rescue foreigners and nationals from the killings and abuses that were going on in Liberia. The situation in Liberia was very bad as both nationals and foreigners (Ghanaians, Nigerians, and Sierra Leoneans) were killed without any justifiable reason (Serro, 2000:10; HRW, 1993, Adebajo, 2002:47-49). Intervention, according to Coady (2003:275)

‘is an intentional act of one state or group of states or an international agency aimed at exercising overriding authority over what are normally the “internal” policies or practices of another state or group of states’.

Humanitarian interventions are aimed at rescuing foreign nationals and citizens from harm being meted on them by the state authorities that are responsible for their protection. The doctrine is summarised in the phrase ‘the right to intervene’, which means that a group of states has the right to undertake armed intervention anywhere in the world where massive and systematic human rights violations are taking place (Coady, 2003:275-77). This was what was exactly happening in Liberia where warring factions and government forces turned against the civilian population resulting in lots of deaths and creation of refugees. The successes and failures of ECOMOG, including accusations against the intervention in Liberia are analysed below.


ECOWAS used two main techniques in bringing about peace and stability into Liberia: diplomatic and military techniques. The diplomatic techniques involved the signing of treaties by warring factions and government and the military intervention was the use of ECOMOG. The focal point of ECOWAS intervention in this report as started earlier is the military intervention by ECOMOG.

ECOMOG managed to bring to a halt the cruelties and abuses of human rights that were going on when it intervened in August 1990 despite the belligerent nature of the NPFL who saw the group as its enemy (Ero, 1995; Olonisakin, 2003:116; Adebajo, 2002:51-52, Serro, 2000:101, HRW, 1993; BBC, 1999). Monrovia once again became a safe haven for its settlers and people were in a way safer than they were prior to the intervention. According to a report by HRW (1993) Liberians were pleased with the ECOMOG intervention and it was hard to visit Monrovia at that time without hearing certain expressions. The appreciations and sentiments of Monrovia residents were sum up by a Liberian Medical Worker who said;

“ECOMOG was our saviour; it was our salvation. ECOMOG saved the population of Monrovia. They avoided fighting, but were pushed into a corner. We feel sorry for them; they have no cause to die here for this stupid, senseless war”.

This peaceful and stable achievement was as a result of ECOMOG’s ability to drive or curtail the incursions and crimes carried out by the NPFL, the largest faction group. The intervention brought concrete human rights improvement and minimised the ethnic-based killings and allowed the flow of humanitarian relief items. Humanitarian and Aid groups had no access into Monrovia where the peak of the conflict was and this resulted in fatalities since the civilians who needed these aids did not have them. Judging from the number of forces of the NPFL (12,500), there seemed no means that the small ECOMOG contingent of 3000 troops, which increased a month later to 6,000, could have resisted the NPFL attack on it but it was able to resist NPFL in 1990. This is something that ECOMOG achieved, which to some (Adebajo, 2002; HRW, 1993; Ero, 1995) was great.

ECOMOG was able to confine the AFL and another splinter of the NPFL, INPFL led by Prince Yeduo Johnson to their barracks, which also enabled the flow of humanitarian reliefs into Monrovia which were much needed to tackle the humanitarian problems. These two groups were the second and fourth largest factions respectively during the civil war and their activities also led to the death of many civilians. ECOMOGs ability to confine them to their barracks meant reduction in hostilities, confrontations and death, which in a way allowed international humanitarian and relief groups to come in with their humanitarian and relief assistance.

ECOMOG was able to answer its critics who accused it of being an Anglophone community by involving troops from Senegal and Mali in its peacekeeping force in Liberia. 1500 Senegalese troops arrived in Liberia in early 1992 to assist the already existing ECOMOG force to breakdown the dominance of the force by Anglophone countries. The use of Francophone capitals for peace talks and the selection of five new committee members, which included three Francophone states, also confirm this fact. This to some extent reduced the portrayal of the force as an Anglophone force and to win the confidence and support of some of the Francophone states. ECOMOG was able to attain the support of UN and OAU support militarily to bolster its international legitimacy for the intervention, which it was lacking. This was a milestone achievement as OAU (now AU) supplied troops from Tanzania and Uganda and extra-regional UN peacekeepers legitimising the actions of ECOMOG (Adebajo, 2002:51-53; Olonisakin, 2003:118-9). This in a way fastened ECOMOGs operation in Liberia since it secured the assistance of other international body to build its confidence.

Despite the logistical limitations faced by ECOMOG, which affected its operations in Liberia, it was able to subdue and drive NPFL out of the capital, Monrovia when NPFL embarked on ‘Operation Octopus’ in October 1992. This operation was aimed at exterminating the forces of ECOMOG but ECOMOG quickly switched from peacekeeping to peace enforcement which enabled them to combat NPFL (Olonisakin, 2003:116-7; Adebajo, 2002: 55; Ero, 1995, HRW, 1993). ECOMOG was able to combat NPFL through its collaboration with two of the anti-NPFL warring factions and as a result was accused of being partial. This response by ECOMOG to the ‘Operation Octopus’ enabled it to seize some strategic locations in Liberia like the ports of Greenville and Buchanan from the control of NPFL. These were some of the places where the countries natural resources like rubber, diamond, timber and others were found. NPFL and other groups exploited these resources to finance their activities; therefore the seizure of these strategic areas meant a reduction to the illicit trade carried out by the groups. Between US$300 million and US$500 million worth of gold and diamonds as well as US$53 million worth of timber were exported to European and Southeast Asian markets by these warlords (Adebajo, 2002:47-48).

ECOMOG played a significant role in the 1997 elections in Liberia which was won by Charles Taylor. The July 1997 elections can be said to be much more democratic, free and fair and an improvement over the first elections in 1985, which was rigged by Samuel Doe. ECOMOG role led to the installation of Liberia’s independent elections commission and the Supreme Court in Monrovia, which supervised the elections since the security needed by these bodies was given. ECOMOG forces were deployed to all the 1,864 polling stations at the time to ensure voters could vote in a peaceful and stable environment. This in a way reduce the fear, intimidation, harassment, fighting and eventual rigging, which characterised the 1985 elections. Their success here can be summed up in the report of the UN, which deemed the elections as “free and fair” (Adebajo, 2002:52, 64-65; HRW, 1993).


ECOMOG has been criticised for many things during its intervention in Liberia. This section of the report takes into account some of the problems, criticisms and failures of ECOMOG.

ECOMOGs first major problem came as a result of the division among and impartiality of some of its members. They took sides and gave assistance to the parties involved in the civil unrest in various forms. This division greatly affected the mandate of ECOMOG since there was no cooperation and casted lots of doubt about the intentions of ECOMOG’s intervention in Liberia. Ivorian president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in his quest to revenge the death of his son-in-law and president of Liberia Benedict Tolbert and William Tolbert respectively, supported anti-Doe insurgencies especially the NPFL and even allowed them to launch their attack on Doe’s regime from Ivory Coast. Libya also played a part by giving guerrilla training to NPFL forces to revenge for Doe’s closure of the Libyan embassy in Liberia in 1981 and supporting U.S anti-Libyan policies. Nigeria who was a major contributor to ECOMOGs troop also supported Doe and AFL for personal reasons (Adebajo, 2002:48; Olonisakin, 2003:117-8; Ero, 1995; Francis et al., 2004: 120). This lack of neutrality in ECOWAS coupled with exploitation of the illegal war economy hampered ECOMOGs operation making it difficult to achieve a peace deal in its first two – three months in Liberia.

HRW (1993) accused ECOMOG of not integrating human rights protection and promotion into its activities. It argued that ECOMOG pursued peace in Liberia without a recognition of the centrality of human rights and this left the group embroiled in a conflict with few prospects for resolution. ECOMOG who was meant to protect civilians was involved in some gruesome activities; the protector of rights turned out to be violator of rights. ECOMOG forces sexually abused and harassed many Liberian women who sought refuge from them but they were meant to protect these women from such crimes. These troops were involved in massive lootings and took advantage of the situation in Liberia to amass wealth and even exported them to their home countries. Cars, gadgets and other household items were stolen and ECOMOG was corrupted to stand for ‘Every Car Or Moving Object Gone’. Troops from Nigeria were the worst culprits (Gberie, 2003:149).

ECOMOG was faced with logistical restraints. The group was ill-equipped looking at the kind of situation they were expected to deal with in Liberia. As a result of the gains that warlords had from the exploitation of Liberia’s mineral endowments they were well armed with heavy weapons and other ammunitions to overpower the strength of ECOMOG. This in part explains why ECOMOG found it difficult to fight back NPFLs ‘Operation Octopus’. To explain how poorly ECOMOG was armed to battle the situation, a reference can be made to the situation in 1995 where it had only one serviceable helicopter that was even used by its commander as his personal taxi (Gberie, 2003:149; HRW, 1993; Francis et al., 2004: 119).

ECOMOG also failed to be neutral, impartial and involved itself in undemocratic practices during the 1997 elections. ECOMOG forces greatly involved themselves in the campaigning process and campaigned for Taylor to be president since it was believed that clashes would continue should he lose the election. ECOMOG forces were seen escorting Taylor to cast his vote.


In this report attention was focused on ECOWAS military intervention, success and some problems, criticisms and failure of the operation in Liberia. It shows how important sub-regional organisation can be in finding lasting solutions to conflicts in their region. It also shows how regional organisation can employ severe strategies to deal with compelling issues. Though the intervention was fraught with many problems including lack of neutrality, logistical, financial constraints and the Anglophone-Francophone rivalry, it managed to bring some level of peace to Liberia. Below are some recommendations for ECOWAS

§ The ECOMOG troops should not be dominated by one country which could always result in monopoly of power by that country. There should be equal representation from member states.

§ Human rights guarantees should be included in ECOMOG interventions

§ Much should be done to reduce the tension between the Anglophone and Francophone states especially between Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

1 comment:

  1. Quite educative piece of work, well and critically analyzed.