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How The Factions Betrayed Their Cause in The Liberian Civil War

By: Arthur B. Dennis

This article is in two parts. The first part deals with the principle of just cause and how it applies to civil war; and the second part reflects on how the warring factions betrayed their cause in the just-ended civil war in Liberia.

Part l

Principle of Just Cause

Just cause, by definition, is the justifiable ground for resorting to war. The principle of just cause grew out of the just war theory of jus ad bellum (meaning, the justification for resorting to war), a theory credited to Hugo Grotius, the Father of International Law. Grotius second theory of just war is "jus in bello" (or conduct of war in accordance with the rules of war); while the third theory is jus post bellum (or justice and peace after war). Grotius listed a number of grounds that constitute a just war, but modern-day human rights advocates believe that the grounds for resorting to a civil war must be limited to (a) self-defense, and (b) social justice, a broad term covering political, socio-economic, educational, legal, and democratic and other human rights issues in society. Human rights advocates also argue that the credible ground for self-defense in every life-threatening situation is clear and real danger, while the ground for social justice is good faith.

In a just war, a faction fighting in the cause of self-defense or social justice can be indicted for war crimes, but no faction can be indicted for starting or participating in any just war for either of the cause. For instance, if a government persecutes an ethnic group for the misbehavior of few members, and other members of that ethnic group take up arms in self-defense, causing civil war to break up, their ground is justified in the cause of self-defense. And if the government takes action to contain the situation, that is also a cause since every government has a duty to maintain peace and security.

Similarly, as Herman Kelman rightly puts it: "in a healthy democratic society, there is time to obey, and there is time disobey, a time to say yes, and a time to say no, a time to speak in words, and a time to speak in actions." In other words, if the citizens' demand for social justice falls on deaf ears, and they decide to speak in action, causing civil war to break up, they have a cause. If the government takes action to restore peace, that is also a cause. In any of the cases, both parties are only required to respect the rules of war.
The Nigerian civil war involves a classical case of self-defense, while the American civil war and the Liberian Sasstown civil war involve a real-world case of social justice.

Self-Defense: A Case of Nigerian Civil War

The Nigerian civil war, which started July 2, 1967, grew out of the January 15, 1966 military coup staged by Ibo junior officers from Eastern Region. In that coup, they killed politicians and senior military officers mostly from the Northern Region, and later turned the affairs of state to General J. Aguiyi Ironsi (also an Ibo). On July 29, 1966, junior officers from the Northern Region staged a counter-coup in revenge, killing General Ironsi and many senior Ibo officers from the East. Later, they turned the affairs of state to General Yakabu Gown, a moderate Northerner. The northerners started killing the Ibos by the hundreds daily not only in the military but every where in the country, forcing thousands of other Ibos to flee to the Eastern Region where Col. Odemuwu Ojukwu (also an Ibo) was governor. Having failed to get security protection under the Federal Government, the Ibos, on May 30, 1967 broke away and declared a state of Biafria. The Federal Government fought back and civil war broke up.
On January 10, 1970, General Phillip Effiong, speaking for the Ibos in his surrender speech, said "throughout history, injured people had to resort to arms in their self-defense, and we are no exception. Because of the insecurity generated by the events of 1966, we took up arms and fought in defense of that cause.".

For his part, General Yakubu Gowon, accepting the surrender, said: "the primary objective of the Federal Government in the war was to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of Nigeria." Meaning, the two parties in the war had a cause.

Social Justice: A Case of American Civil War

The American civil war, which started, April 12, 1861, grew out of the issue of slavery. The institution of slavery was introduced in the United States to provide cheap labor in order to boost the American economy. But in the years that followed, the North wanted slavery to be abolished on humanitarian ground, while the South wanted slavery to be maintained on economic ground. At that time, the South depended largely on agriculture and cotton plantation for economic survival. And so for the South, slavery was not only a means of cheap labor but also a major source of economic power.

In the 1860 presidential elections, slavery became a major electoral issue. The Republican Candidate Abraham Lincoln's platform called for non-expansion of slavery, while the Democratic Candidate Stephen A. Douglas' platform called for popular sovereignty, advocating that the people, not the Federal Government, should decide the question of slavery in their own state. The South supported Douglas platform and hoped he would win so slavery could be maintained. But on November 6, 1860 Lincoln defeated Douglas. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina broke away from the Union followed by other Southern states at which time they formed the Confederate States of America. The Federal Government fought back to preserve the Union and civil war broke up.

On April 29, 1861, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis said: "We feel that our cause is just and holy; we protest solemnly in the face of mankind that we desire peace at any sacrifice;; we ask no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession;; all we ask is to be left alone…." That was the Confederate's cause in the war

For his part, President Abraham Lincoln said "the vision of our Founding Fathers is for us to form a more perfect Union. Therefore, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, you have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy this Union, but I am under solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend it. That was the Union's cause in the war.

Social Justice: A Case of Liberian Sasstown Civil War

The Sasstown civil war, which started 1931, grew out of the Sasstown Kru rebellion against the Liberian Government in demand of social justice. The grievances at the top of the list included Taxation without representation (that is, paying taxes to a government that had no room for indigenous population). and (b) Taxation without development in returns. The government under Edwin J. Barclay dispatched troops to contain the rebellion, and civil war broke up. In the end, the soldiers brought down the rebellion, forcing the ring leaders and other high-profile players to flee the country. Meaning, the Krus had a cause, and the government also had a cause.

A War of Just Cause

Samuel Doe

The Liberian civil war, which started December 24, 1989, began with two rival factions, each claiming a cause. The Gio-Mano dominated National Patriotic Forces of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor, which initiated the war, claimed that President Samuel K. Doe rigged the 1985 elections and abused fundamental human rights of citizens (apparent reference to the mistreatment of Gios, Manos and Americo-Liberians under the Doe regime); as such, President Doe should step down. At the opposing end was the government of President Doe, which claimed that it was defending the country in accordance with the constitution. Both parties had a cause and the necessary sympathy for their cause. But in the years that followed, the conflict degenerated into an ethnic warfare, creating over ten other splinter factions, each claiming a cause. And as each faction emerged in the war, people would sympathize with their cause and cheer for them.

Charles Taylor

During the first round of the civil war (December 1989-August 1997), the warring ethnic groups that played a high-profile role were the Gios and Manos supported by the Americo-Liberians who fought under the banner of NPFL; the Krahns who fought under the banners of AFL, LPC, and ULIMO-J; and the Mandingoes who later went solo and fought under the banner ULIMO-K. During the second round of the war( 2000-2003), the factions that played a high-profile role were Taylor's Government forces, the LURD (comprising mostly Krahns and Mandingoes), and MODEL (largely comprising Krahns).

Gio and Mano Ethnic Groups: The Gio and Mano people took up arms in self-defense against collective guilt persecution under President Doe government. It started from the 1983 Nimba raid where Captain Robert Saye and other prominent Nimba citizens were killed. And because Captain Saye and others involved were from the Gio and Mano ethnic groups, collective guilt arrest was made but not on a large scale.

On November 12, 1985, General Thomas Quiwonkpa staged a failed coup where he and several of his supporters were killed. But because General Quiwonkpa and most of his collaborators were from the Gio and Mano tribes, the government loyalists went on a rampage and started indiscriminately arresting Gio and Mano elements on a large scale, forcing thousands others to flee the country into exile. Those who remained in the country lived in constant fears until the NPFL, comprising mostly Gio and Mano exiles, started the war in Nimba. But the way the government forces aggressively responded to the NPFL attack in Nimba intensified the fears of local citizens and drove most of them to either flee the country or join NPFL in self-defense.

Krahn Ethnic Group. The Krahn-speaking population in Liberia consists of Grand Gedeh Krahn, Nimba Krahn, and Sinoe County Sarpo Krahn. The entire Krahn-speaking population was drawn into the war based on the sentiment of collective guilt, starting from the days of the 1980 military coup.

The enlisted soldiers who staged the 1980 coup came from various ethnic backgrounds of the country. During the night of the coup, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe was the highest-ranking officer among them and so they appointed him to head the military government. But because Doe was an ethnic Krahn, the sentiment that surfaced in the streets was that the Krahn people seized power in a military coup.

In the months that followed, the military officials and the civilian cabinet took a joint decision and executed thirteen former government officials, mostly Americo-Liberians. But the sentiment that followed the execution was that the Krahn people killed thirteen Americo-Liberians. Today, this sentiment is still hunting the whole Krahn population.

When the government security forces were dispatched to contain the1983 Nimba raid where some Nimba citizens were killed, the sentiment that followed was the Krahns killed Nimba people. Again when President Samuel K. Doe and General Thomas Quiwonkpa were having a misunderstanding over some assignment, the sentiment in the street corners was the Krahns and Nimba people were fighting over power.

When the government security forces foiled the November 12, 1985 coup in Monrovia where General Quiwonkpa and several Nimba citizens were killed, an incident which was followed by mass witch-hunting arrests, the blame for all the human rights violations in that crisis was placed squarely on the head of the entire Krahn-speaking population.

In other words, during the ten-year period of President Doe's regime, every negative thing he did in his official or private capacity, the blame would be on Krahn people ; every negative thing the Doe government officials or security forces did, the blame would be on Krahn people. And because President Doe was a Krahn man targeted by the NPFL for elimination in the war, the entire Krahn-speaking population was also targeted for elimination in the war. It was this persecution based on collective guilt that compelled thousands of ethnic Krahns to either flee the country or take up arms in self- defense.

Mandingo Ethnic Group: Before the war, the Mandingoes were the most marginalized minority ethnic group in the country. For this reason, close to 100 per cent of the Mandingo people in the pre-war years focused their living entirely on business with little or no interest in government jobs. The U.S. State Department even commented on this issue in its 1998 Human Rights Report.

However, what we eye-witnessed and what we gathered from several sources led us to believe that the Mandingoes were marginalized based on three fundamental moral grounds. Firstly, the Mandingoes share common language and common religion with several ethnic groups in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, and other Muslim states; and because of this commonality, most Liberians at the time perceived them to be foreigners. Secondly, in the pre-war years, over 80 per cent of the country was composed of believers of Christianity, while close to 100 per cent of the Mandingo population was composed of believers of Islam; and because the doctrines of Islam are diametrically opposed to the doctrines of Christianity, most Liberians at the time perceived Islam to be a foreign religion imported by the Mandingoes to decimate Christianity.

The third moral ground has to do with their opposition to inter-tribal marriage. Before the war, nearly every Mandingo family in the country was rigidly governed by the age-old Muslim tradition, prohibiting marriage or romantic relationship between Muslim believers and non-Muslim believers. In those days "Karflee was the term used in Mandingo language to describe a non- Muslim believer.

However, if a Mandingo man wanted to openly date or get married to a Karflee, he could do so but was required to first convert her into a Muslim. Only Mandingo women could not be seen in public in those days openly dating or marrying Karflees, a practice which did not go down well with most citizens. Even in one of the reconciliation meetings held in Nimba at the end of the war in 1997, the Gio and Mano attendees were very vocal on this issue. In response, a Mandingo elder got up and said, if inter-tribal marriage will bring peace between the Mandingoes and the local people in Nimba, then I have three daughters, any Gio or Mano man who wants to marry any of them, let him go ahead. The entire attendees burst into laughter. Anyway, these were the pre-war issues held against the Mandingoes.

During the early period of the war, the Mandingoes met with President Doe in Monrovia and Ganta and pledged their loyalty and support to his government in the war. Soon thereafter, the Mandingoes in Nimba and elsewhere started coming under full-scale attack by the NPFL, killing several of them and forcing others to flee the country. In the end, most of them formed an alliance with the Krahns under the banner of ULIMO and took up arms in self-defense.

The reason for attacking Mandingoes in the war is mixed. During the war, some NPFL loyalists told us in confidence that Mandingoes were business people with money; and so their pledge of loyalty and support was not only a pledge of alliance with President Doe but also a pledge of funds for President Doe to finance the war. In contrast, other NPFL sources claimed that the reason was based partly on the pre-war issues against the Mandingoes aggravated by the pledge of loyalty and support. However, as far as the principles of just war are concerned, none of the reasons given constitues a credible ground to target any unarmed civilian. Therefore, the attack on the Mandingoes was totally unjustified and so they had every righteous cause to self-defense.

Americo-Liberians: During the period of the war, we heard several voices of Americo-Liberians over BBC and foreign televisions cheering for Taylor; and we read several publications bearing names of certain Americo-Liberians supporting the NPFL with funds. We also heard some Americo-Liberian voices on the airwaves supporting the NPFL cause, accusing President Doe of rigging the 1985 elections, and abusing the fundamental human rights of citizens, as such, he should step down.

On the surface, that was the stated cause. But deep down underneath, the real unstated cause was the execution of the thirteen government officials, mostly Americo-Liberians; the confiscation of their property, the witch-hunting arrest and detention that followed; and the scare tactics used by the military government which drove hundreds of other Americo-Liberians into exile. Even if the Americo-Liberians had openly stated these issues as their cause, under the clear and real danger standard, their cause would have still been a legitimate ground to claim self-defense or social justice.

Because there are no provisions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or the Constitution, providing that people should be executed by firing squad and their property confiscated on guilty charges of rampant corruption and misuse of public office as alleged by the military government. The military leaders should have used their popular support to foster peace and national reconciliation, and not to have done what they did.

Part II

How the Warring Factions Betrayed their Cause in the War

We have seen that all the factions had a cause in the war and had the necessary public sympathy to support their cause. But sadly, this sympathy died before the war even ended. The reasons are obvious. First, the war crimes committed in the war by these factions targeted their enemies as well as their own supporters and those they claimed they had come to liberate. Secondly, the daily alarm raised over the indiscriminate looting of the nation's natural resources in the controlled areas of these factions fell on deaf ears throughout the period of the war. Thirdly, several faction leaders used the cause of their followers to pursue their own political ambitions, thereby turning the whole crisis into a drama of "Animal Farm."

For example, in the first few days of his BBC interviews in the war, Charles Taylor made it emphatically clear that he was not interested in power but only wanted President Doe to step down. But in the months that followed, he started proclaiming himself President of Liberia, and did not relent until he became President. Meaning, Taylor's demand for social change was made to pursue power, not for the cause of his followers.

Alhaji Kromah

Alhaji Kromah, leader of the ULIMO-K, also initially proclaimed that he was not interested in power but only wanted Taylor to abandon the armed struggle and turn to the ballot box. But later, he too abandoned his promise and engaged in power-sharing struggle for membership on the five-man presidency. George Boley, leader of the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) made similar promise but later compromised it for membership on the five-man presidency. During the 2000- 2003 war, leaders of LURD and MODEL also made the same promise but later joined the power struggle for positions in the current Transitional government. And fourthly, the rampant corruption and looting of public property in government, while civil servants went unpaid for years.

Concluding Comments

At the end every civil war, the first task of every government is to formulate the appropriate reconciliation strategies and policies that will guarantee lasting post-war stability. For example, at the end of the civil war in the United States in 1865, no one was held responsible for the war, and no one was tried. Instead, all participants of the civil war were granted general amnesty under the reconciliation slogan "with malice towards none, and charity for all…." The post-war stability achieved from the 1865 general amnesty is 140 years old today and has created the necessary environment for the American people to realize the dream of their Founding Fathers-"TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNION…."

Nigeria also used the same general amnesty to achieve post-war stability. At the end of the war in January 1970, no one was held responsible for the war, and no one was tried. Instead, all those who participated in the war were granted general amnesty under the reconciliation policy of "No victor, no vanquished with a call that the end of the war was a victory for reconciliation and national unity." Today, Nigeria's post-war stability is 35 years old and still on solid ground.

The 27 years of political stability achieved under President Tubman also developed from the general amnesty he granted players of the 1931 Sasstown civil war. Before Tubman assumed office in January 1944, most of the Sasstown Krus, who started the 1931 war, were in exile while others were still languishing in prison. And so he granted general amnesty to all participants of that war under the reconciliation slogan "No more native man, no more congo man, and no more pay back. The lesson of the Sasstown war gave rise to the Unification Policy; and the Unification Policy ushered in the government of national unity which paved the way for the indigenous population to be represented in the national legislature and other branches of government.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which calls for truth-telling in exchange for forgiveness, was used by South Africa to achieve post-apartheid stability, while Rwanda and Sierra Leone are still experimenting with the war crime tribunal strategy.

However, the sustained post-war stability in America, Nigeria, South Africa, and Liberia under President Tubman, was not achieved through a hard-handed policy of an eye-for-an eye. Rather, it was achieved through a soft-handed policy of forgiveness. Therefore, we should adopt either the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Model used by South Africa or we adopt the General Amnesty Model used by United States, Nigeria, and Liberia under President Tubman. And whatever model we agree to adopt will cover only war crimes committed in Liberia but not war crimes committed in foreign states. The fate of Liberians who exported war into those foreign states where such war crimes were committed will be determined by the International War Crime Court. THE END