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U.N. plans tough action to guard Liberia polls

U.N. troops will take tough action to stop violence disrupting Liberia’s first post-war elections in October, the start of a recovery process that will require years of outside help, a top U.N. official said.
/ Source: Reuters

U.N. troops will take tough action to stop violence disrupting Liberia’s first post-war elections in October, the start of a recovery process that will require years of outside help, a top U.N. official said.

Alan Doss, the new head of the U.N.’s Liberia mission, said the world body’s peacekeeping force — one of its biggest, with around 15,000 soldiers — would “react robustly” to any effort to destabilize the polls and their aftermath.

High hopes, but fears as well
Hopes are high in the crumbling capital Monrovia, a hotchpotch of shantytowns and burnt-out buildings, that new, democratically elected leaders will quickly rebuild a country shattered by 14 years of civil war.

But some fear hardcore members of Liberia’s former warring factions are still sitting on sizeable stores of weapons despite a U.N. disarmament process.

“We are doing and will continue to do cordon and search operations based on intelligence tip-offs where we go and raid premises to recover any hidden caches,” Doss, who took up his post last week, told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.

More than 20 presidential hopefuls are set to run in the Oct. 11 elections. They include international soccer star George Weah, former rebel leader Sekou Conneh, veteran opposition politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Roland Massaquoi, a former minister regarded as a protege of exiled former president Charles Taylor.

Founded by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago, Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Helping the new government restore security and fight poverty will require international commitment extending well beyond the elections, said Doss.

“Our experience in many other countries has shown that it would be a mistake to have an election, declare victory and leave,” he said. “Time is needed to stabilize the situation, to give space to the incoming administration.

“Poverty is pervasive, the productive base of the economy has been destroyed. None of that can be fixed with the best will in the world in a few months,” Doss said.

Herculean task
Liberia’s war killed about 250,000 people and spawned a generation of trigger-happy soldiers, including many children barely able to handle a gun.

It left the country with no functioning schools or hospitals, and the capital is still without electricity two years after the end of the conflict. Tropical downpours, which turn mud tracks into quagmires, put large swathes of the country virtually beyond reach for much of the year.

Diplomats say rushing through a one-size-fits-all blueprint for reconstruction without addressing underlying economic and social problems risks plunging Liberia back into violence.

“When you demobilize tens of thousands of young men, if they don’t have any hope, then you create all the ingredients for a future explosion if you’re not careful,” said Doss.

He said he expected the United Nations Security Council to review the scale of the U.N. presence after the elections but said individual foreign nations should also help keep the peace.

Pointing to a commitment from Britain to guarantee rapid military assistance in the event of a crisis in neighboring Sierra Leone, he urged foreign donors to be flexible on the sort of initiatives they were prepared to back for Liberia.

“The United States has made a start here, training the army, but this goes beyond one partner and I hope others will come in,” said Doss.