Fewer guns, but tensions persist in Liberia

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Armed gangs of young men no longer roam the streets of this town hacked out of the dense forests of eastern Liberia, an area laid waste by 14 years of war. A United Nations-sponsored disarmament program has brought enough security to Zwedru that traders sell their goods from stalls along the main street without fear of looting, while men sit chatting at the tea shops until late in the evening.

As Sunday's deadline for the disarmament of Liberia's former warring factions nears, most observers are calling the process a success, albeit a qualified one. More than 90,000 combatants have been demobilized and 26,000 weapons destroyed.

But the complexity of truly bringing peace to this war-ravaged nation becomes apparent one evening when angry voices drown out the buzz of conversation at a tea shop. The argument is about money. A one-time rebel commander is demanding a cut from the payments made to his former soldiers, and he doesn't seem to care who hears.

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Attempts at extortion like this one are just one of the unintended consequences of Liberia's disarmament program, which has become one of the biggest forces driving the country's woeful economy. According to various officials working on the process, the $300 being paid to each demobilized fighter - totaling some $27 million - is breeding corruption among former commanders and fueling resentment among ordinary Liberians.

Officials say ex-commanders are recruiting civilians to pose as former combatants and briefing them on how pass themselves off as unarmed participants in the war. Those who slip through the screening questions posed by UN military observers are then forced to hand over most of the payment to the commanders; those who fail, particularly the women, often get beaten. Others bypass the screening questions by handing in precisely 150 bullets, the minimum to qualify automatically for disarmament.

Every afternoon in Zwedru, commanders flock to the vehicles dropping off their former troops after the four-day demobilization process to extort a share of the payment. It's a sign that faction leaders retain a substantial amount of control more than a year after former President Charles Taylor went into exile and a transitional government was formed, ending the civil war.

"There will always be unscrupulous commanders who try to benefit from the program," says Clive Jachnik, head of disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration (DDRR) for the UN mission in Liberia. Mr. Jachnik says the program does not tolerate fraud and cracks down when it uncovers instances of coercion. But he is also critical of policy decisions made before he joined the mission earlier this year. "The planning could have been more comprehensive," he says. "Arms and cash should not be seen to be linked."

Liberians in the rural areas who didn't take up arms say they resent that the fighters who destroyed their country are being rewarded not only with money but also with preferential access to employment. The US has made it policy that all the projects funded through its $28-million Liberia Community Infrastructure Program must allocate three jobs to ex-combatants for each job that goes to a member of the war-affected community.

"It's like offering me a job because I have done wrong to somebody and not considering the person I have done wrong to," says Jonah Sampson, a manager with Multi Agrisystem Promoters, which is recruiting laborers for a US-funded project to clear more than 2,000 acres of an oil-palm plantation near the eastern town of Zleh.

"Everybody felt the effect of the war," says Mr. Sampson. "Why should the emphasis be on ex-combatants?" He says the ex-fighters have been slow to respond to work offers, but if the $2-a-day jobs were thrown open to the community, every slot would be filled "tomorrow."

During previous failed attempts at demobilization in Liberia, programs aimed only at former combatants "divided communities and caused considerable resentment on the part of civilians who received no special assistance," Oxfam, a British aid agency, warns in a report. An official at the US Embassy in Liberia says the main goal of the US funds are to help the ex-fighters reintegrate: "We are trying to hire as many non-combatants as possible, but the focus is not general employment."

There's a palpable sense of entitlement among many of the ex-combatants. Any day outside the headquarters of the National Commission for DDRR in Monrovia finds dozens of ex-fighters demanding cash for transport, school fees, or food. They defend their preferential treatment. "We are more traumatized than them," argues Prince Neagor, who says he has been a soldier since he was 12. "I was forced to go and fight."

So why aren't more ex-soldiers leaping at the jobs on offer? "The money is too small for them," says Alex Geayea, a former commander with the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, a rebel group.

Moses Jarbo, director of the government's National Commission for DDRR, says countries that go back to war don't do so during the demobilization phase, but afterward, especially if former fighters' expectations aren't met. He says Liberia needs a massive public-works program both to provide jobs and rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure.

Donors pledged $520 million to Liberia in February. Two-thirds of the pledges have come through, but according to Abou Moussa, the UN's chief humanitarian official here, little of the funding available is earmarked for rehabilitation. "I am concerned that if we don't get the money, ex-combatants will start protesting and causing unrest," he says. "We have a fragile peace in Liberia. We don't want to compromise that."

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