Update on the situation in Eastern Liberia and Western Ivory Coast (guest post by Ilmari Käihkö)

Following the attack from Liberian soil to Ivory Coast that resulted in the deaths of seven peacekeepers from Niger working under the United Nations flag as well as a number of Ivorian civilians and military an update is in order. While my previous post explained the general situation, the targeting of UN peacekeepers requires some further explanation.

I got the news about the attack immediately from my supervisor in Sweden, who had learned about it from the Swedish television on the morning after it had been executed. During the day I must have asked around 50 people about their reactions and thoughts concerning the incident. Not one was aware that it had even taken place. Only on the second day information had begun to trickle down to Zwedru, mainly from the Ivory Coast.

I cannot say that that any of the reactions to the attacks were particularly strong. Most Liberians seemed to care little, while some even cynically claimed that the United Nations probably paid some Liberians to attack their own forces in order to further some business interest. Most were simply uninterested, possibly because of the multitude of unverified rumors that float around all the time. Others, of course, knew that there was something on the make, but probably had no exact specifics concerning this particular attack.

Reactions from some Ivorian refugees were different, however. At this point it can be in order to state my own position concerning an attack on UN peacekeepers. As a former peacekeeper I cannot justify an attack against the UN in any way. This said, apart from justifying the act I do believe that we must understand why it happened.

The first refugee I told about the attack answered with a single word: “bon” – “good”. Puzzled, I demanded an explanation to his positive reaction to events I consider to be bad. According to him the UN collaborated with the current President Ouattara in removing President Gbagbo from power to the extent that “UN and Ouattara are one”. Attack on the UN can therefore be seen as a way of opposing the government of Ouattara, and from the perspective of a Gbagbo supporter therefore furthering their political goals.

It should be also noted that this refugee is not an inherently a bad person even if he supports killers of UN forces. After sensing my bafflement he proceeded to explain that his whole family, including small children, was killed during the Ivorian crisis by forces loyal to Ouattara. After such an experience any chance to get payback is more than understandable. At the same time, it does lead into a vicious circle of violence that can be difficult to break out from. Already there are reports that the attack has driven thousands of people from their homes near the border. The refugee situation in Liberia may well be the first to be affected.

Finally, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future. There are no indications that these attacks are the last ones. Rather the opposite is true. As Gbagbo’s trial begins the number of attacks may even increase. In the case of a sentence the situation will likely deteriorate. Gbagbo’s supporters hope for a quick trial and acquittal, and not the six-year wait that the followers of Charles Taylor had to bear from 2006 onwards until his recent conviction. The announcement of the Liberian government to deploy the Armed Forces of Liberia to the border is also worrying, considering that no-one seems to have much trust in the military.

Another aspect of the conflict that I did not discuss in the previous posting is an ethnic one. As with the Liberian civil crisis, even the conflict in Ivory Coast is seen as an ethnic one by many in Grand Gedeh. In this case it extends to the Krahn and Gio on the Ivorian side of the border (i.e. the Guere and Yacouba). The Krahn in Liberia also claim that they cannot freely enter the neighboring Nimba County in fear of harassment by the Gio, whereas there are many Gio living freely in Grand Gedeh. While there are no signs that this dimension of the conflict is spreading to Liberia, it can be good to keep in mind that even this dimension is real to the people here. In any case, something is definitely brewing in Eastern Liberia and Western Ivory Coast.

Ilmari Käihkö is a doctoral student at Uppsala University currently doing fieldwork in Eastern Liberia.


  1. I strongly suspect that the attacks were carried out by Gbagbo loyalists. Claiming that the attack was launched from Liberia is a canard to distract attention from the those actually carrying out the attacks. It is not a shock to us in Liberia that the Guere will remain opposed to Ouattara. In fact, Liberian intelligence has predicted that the Western portion of La Cote d’Ivoire will remain unstable until there is some rapprochement between Ouattara’s loyalists and the Guere.

    If you think no one has trust in the Armed Forces of Liberia to prevent cross boarder intrusion from La Cote d’Ivoire, think again. The Armed forces of Liberia isn’t attempting to invade La Cote d’Ivoire. The force is small but very disciplined and is more than capable of preventing bandits from operating on the Liberian side of the border area.

    A significant portion of the current force consists of the black beret who were very effective in preventing Taylor forces from over-running Monrovia during the Liberian civil war. They engaged Taylor’s rebels in closed quarter combat on the outskirts of Monrovia. I have no reason to doubt that they can root out Ivorian bandits operating near the Liberian border whose only weapon is AK-47.

    The AFL has already deployed. The Liberian Emergency Response Unit (police swat team) will begin screening refugees to remove former Ivorian soldiers and militia men who may be living among the civilian refugees. Trust me, we have a way of knowing when we want to know these things. My only concern is that peaceful Ivorian refugees may be inconvenience in the process. Additionally, the President has ordered the relocation of all Ivorians from the border region to avoid collusion between these refugees and militia men and Gbagbo loyalist operating in the Moyen de Cavally region. Ultimately, any attack in the Western part of La Cote d’Ivoire which the Ivorian government falsely claims emanated from Liberia, will only annoy Liberians who are keen on being hospitable to the refugees in spite of these allegations.

    • Thanks James for your comments. I think it is appropriate that you question the Liberian involvement. Throughout the previous crisis in Côte d’Ivoire people in the western part of the country have been extremely quick to blame violence on Liberians. Although we know that Liberians have been involved in recent cross-border attacks these appear to be small and isolated one-offs. This attack is clearly something else. It may comprise a few Liberian elements, but in minority, and not led by Liberians.

      I am also happy to hear that you put trust in the new Liberian army and it is interesting that you point out that so many are from the old black berets! How new is the new AFL?

      My fear is if there is too much presence of AFL and ERU people in Grand Gedeh who already feel marginalized from the Liberian centre stage of events may feel that the presence of the Liberian security apparatus is a threat directed towards them instead of a mechanism for their protection. Maybe at this stage it would be better to make UN move some soldiers? They appear mostly idling around in the country at present, why not let them work? (or is that already happening?).

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