Humanitarianism by force - the foreign policy of the Liberian civil war and ECOMOG


In August 1990 a regional security arrangement set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) came into being, it was named ECOMOG after ECOWAS Monitoring Group. Its task was to bring stability to one of the most volatile and coup-ridden regions in the world – West Africa. Its creation was triggered not by the pre-emptive foreign policy wishes of the statesmen of a well-integrated region but by the implementation of drastic measures that tried to cope with a serious regional humanitarian emergency that was the Liberian civil war (Howe 1997: 151).

After going through a brief synopsis of the engagement, the central concepts of “intervention for human protection” and “responsibility to protect” will be introduced together with some of the debates that are inherent to them and that are most relevant for this case-study. With these concepts in mind, the conflict in Liberia and the ECOMOG intervention will be assessed firstly in terms of its tactical-military innovations and difficulties and then in terms of the foreign policy geopolitical challenges it faced as well as the role of different international actors in working towards the stabilization of the region. Lastly, the strengths and weaknesses of regional arrangements for security will be assessed against the background of the United Nations’s (UN) and the African Union’s (AU) frameworks in terms of the challenges and innovations that the external intervention in the conflict posed to the current debates surrounding the tension between humanitarianism and sovereignty. This debate ties in with the tensions surrounding the concept of “intervention for human protection” (Chandler 2004).

ECOMOG’s intervention and cheer existence as an institution represents a very interesting and rather unique experiment with foreign policy and regional integration. Peace-building that uses regional arrangements as platforms or primary motors can in fact be a desirable route for a variety of reasons but its future is still in the open due to major institutional and political shortcomings. In Africa in particular, after the Somalia and Rwandan debacle, the foreign policy of the international community has been characterized by a reluctance to directly intervene leading the West to tend to stay away from the continent’s perceived “barbaric” wars (Kaplan 1994; Khobe 2000; Hutchful 1999:61). It is in this context that the ECOMOG model of doing foreign policy in general and carrying out so-called humanitarian interventions in particular remains a viable, if still uncertain, alternative. Liberia consists in a case whereby the West pragmatically accepted and promoted the regional bodies’ “responsibility to protect” without having itself to directly intervene.

Conflict in Liberia – A snapshot

“If efforts by the West African peace-keeping force failed it would be a big disaster for Africa”
Prince Johnson (Inter Press Service 1992)

Liberia was in tatters in 1990. After the scuffles between Doe and Tolbert in the late 1970s and beginnings of the 1980s, Charles Taylor, a renegade officer within Samuel Doe’s ranks that had fled to the United States, returned to his “homeland” with intentions that combined, governing, trafficking and looting with a hint of pan-Africanism. After his mainstream American education, Charles Taylor together with Foday Sankoh, had become one of Ghaddaffi’s Libya most infamous Green Book students and was able to efficiently set up his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) thanks to his ability to move within the dark political networks of West Africa as few were able to and thanks to the consent of Coute D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso (Adeleke 1995: 569, Howe 1997: 153). To Doe and Taylor one must add Prince Johnson, an ex-officer in Taylor’s ranks which set up his parallel armed group, once again a dangerous warlord born out of the instability in Liberia. It is against this backdrop that ECOMOG was set to intervene, paired on the side of Samuel Doe. Doe, Liberia’s incumbent president by then, was a close friend of Nigeria’s Ibrahim Bahbangida. The political altercations prior to the Liberian intervention reflected the existing geopolitical tensions within the region between Francophone and Anglophone countries. As the political order broke down in Liberia more and more factions were being created such as the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), created in 1991 and led by Alhaji Kromah , one of the most violent and brutal factions during the civil war that was later to splinter into ULIMO-K and ULIMO-J, a faction that was led by Roosevelt Johnson. In 1999 the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) invaded by using Guinea as a platform while in the south, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, was also putting Taylor under strain. The Liberian civil war was to a great extent fuelled and prolonged by the huge and profitable illicit networks of trade in alluvial diamonds, timber and other natural resources that provided easy sponsoring for different rebellious factions and made defecting as well as office-seeking very tempting. The conflict only came to an end in 2003 when Charles Taylor resigned as part of the peace agreement and a UN Peacekeeping force entered the country to protect what persists as a very fragile peace. Charles Taylor was later to be put in jail and is now
waiting for the initiation of his trial in June 2007.

The important notion to keep in mind for this study is the cheer complexity that any foreign policy efforts, interested or neutral, had to come to terms in a civil war that was fought on many fronts and characterised by quickly changing alliances and changes in the distribution of power between the factions.

Perhaps for that reason, at the end of the day ECOMOG, despite claiming that democratization and humanitarianism brought it to Liberia, ended up taking sides and compromising its neutrality, breaking with what Tharoor sees as the “the oxygen of peacekeeping” – impartiality. According to Tharoor (Tharoor in Malan 1997:19)., “the moment they are seen by one side as the ‘enemy’, they become part of the problem they were sent to solve”, a view that is shared by Hutchful (1999:67) when he argues that ECOMOG took sides, in this case when pairing with Prince Johnson, and compromised neutrality.

Responsibility to protect vs. Instinct to stabilize

The recent concept of the “responsibility to protect” has been the product of a long-term evolution and changes in the nature of relations between actors (state and non-state) operating at the international level. It should be seen as a notion that arose out of a necessity to progressively “bridge the divide between intervention and sovereignty” (Chandler 2004:65). The concept came about because the Westphalian system whereby the inalienable sovereignty of states is “sacred” has been under pressure from the changing nature of war and particularly by the “new wars” (Kaldor 2000) of the Post-cold war era. In these cases loopholes to the inalienability of sovereignty may be desirable for situations whereby these internal affairs become a threat to the stability of the international system.

Because it has not come about in a vacuum, this notion has been building on the several instances when the humanitarian label has been used to strengthen political and moral support for military interventions particularly since the end of the Cold War and by a process of a global socialization of norms and rules particularly when it comes to human rights (Stroehlein & Evans 2007). The main question that arises for those looking at the foreign policy implications of this trend is if this responsibility, this sense of “guilt” by inaction and respective responsibility to act, is enough in itself for not only justifying but also for triggering interventions. The answer has been for the most part no, which in turn does not necessary mean it is all bad news for firm believers in humanitarianism, the responsibility to protect and its implicitly attached liberal democratic peace thesis. Firstly the term humanitarianism, as is recognized by Chimni is “omnifarious and lacks rigid conceptual boundaries” (2000:244) and must therefore be seen as a term that has been abused and conceptually overstretched in the language of foreign policy and international relations.

As the 2000 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) recognized, the humanitarian label is problematic and often does not help making interventions defensible, meaning that in these instances it prefers to use the term ”responsibility to protect”, although it still recognizes that this often falls within a clear traditional “humanitarian framework” (Chandler 2004: 62). For this same reason this analysis of the Liberian conflict and the international policy of ECOMOG will rely on the concept of intervention for human protection. Intervention for human protection distinguishes itself from traditional chapter VI humanitarian interventions in that states are intervening as moral agents and multilaterally but that this intervention does not necessarily rely on “consent, neutrality and the non-use of force” (Chandler 2004:63).

If one understands the “will” to intervene as the recognition by a state of a situation whereby one the two premises safeguarding the responsibility to protect are being violated an interesting discussion arises surrounding the question of what else is required to enact an intervention. As will be noticed in this case study, at the end of the day, for those pondering an intervention under the humanitarian or the responsibility to protect label, besides the “will” the “means” must also exist. In this sense, these “means” comprise not just the physical hardware and manpower to carry out military interventions but also strategic interests in normalizing the specific crisis in hand. In the discourses of the “responsibility to protect”, this interest comprises more and more both the symptomatic instinct of states for self-perseverance and the notion that this self-perseverance is also dependent on the stability of their geopolitical domain of influence and the legitimacy of their foreign policy. This means that the “responsibility to protect” will invariably mix with the “responsibility to stabilize” as the two interlock with each other in a process whereby the former supplies the bulk of the “will” and the latter triggers the de facto intervention with the hardware and strategic “means”. It is in this context that self-interest can be understood as potentially positive (Chandler 2004:70) and some of the interventions under the “humanitarian” and “intervention for human protection” better understood as being under the avail of hegemonic states and often at the “service of power” (Chimni 2000:244). The need for a de facto strategic interest to be added to the “will” of the “intervention for human protection” also explains why it is often the case that “Western states are not prepared to invest the requisite political resources to conduct effective humanitarian interventions and match their bold words about the responsibility to protect with concomitant actions” (Williams 2005:44)

Between Gulliver’s Foreign Policy and West Africa’s Multilateral Security Body

“Nigeria is the true African Super Power”

Charles Taylor’s sarcastic remarks on Nigeria for deluding itself as Africa’s big brother (Okoroafor 2003)

The politics of international intervention in Liberia are indissociable from the regional politics of its Gulliver– Nigeria (Adebajo 2002). Nigeria is by far the main contributor to ECOMOG, its provision of US$12 billion (Bah 2005: 78) makes it the indisputable backbone of the organization. This, together with the previously observed “intimacies” between those the main figure in office in Nigeria - Bahbangida - and the chief of state that ECOMOG came to rescue - Samuel Doe- brings about the further question of the genuine intentions of Nigeria. Is its foreign policy advancing a truly regional security arrangement or has it been using it to disguise under the appearance of multilateralism what is in fact the self-help foreign policy of a regional hegemon mixing with regional patronage politics. The answer to this question is hardly clear-cut, since the “breakdown of sovereignty” (Hutchful 1999:66) in the region that ECOMOG tried to reverse was a threat to the region as a whole but particularly to Nigeria as the balance of power that had been tilting in its favour could dramatically be reversed.

On the one hand the interventions were not insulated from regional rivalries and power-politics but on the other hand they did not lack the authority and strength of the presence of the regional power -Nigeria- and was proud to contain a fair amount of local knowledge and cultural savoir faire that was nonetheless double-edged and in practice very questionable (Howe 1997:163). However, ECOMOG’s proximity and obvious interest in their regional surroundings brings about questions of impartiality and neutrality of the intervention that were always marred by the sense that those interventions were realpolitik actions of a threatened hegemon. These fears were attempted to be controlled by the advent of UN-ECOMOG joint initiatives such as the incorporation of two US-financed Tanzanian and Ugandan battalions in Liberia in 1994 (Howe 1997:158). There was nevertheless certain degree of hypocrisy in the announced ambitions of bringing “democratisation” and peace to the countries in which ECOMOG was intervening while at home repressive governments such as Bahbangida’s Nigeria did not give much leeway to such ideals. In addition, despite their inexcusable violence and degeneration, to a certain extent the rebellion had started as a reaction to what was an undoubtedly oppressive and autocratic regime. Interestingly enough, the autocratic nature of some of the regimes that were active participants in ECOMOG apparently helped smoothen the decision-making process in the conduct of the war (Hutchful 1999:81).

These dilemmas are also illustrated in the inherent technical difficulties that the requirement of a two-thirds majority for deployment brings about. In the case of a security body like ECOMOG acting in Liberia this provides space for the unresolved political questions between Francophone and Anglophone Africa to potentially undermine the institution, particularly in the case of an eventual intervention in a Francophone state (Gberie 2003:152). Furthermore, ECOMOG’s reliance on Nigeria for military, economic and political support also means that any eventual crisis in this country will also bring unpredictable consequences to the organism.

Muscled Humanitarianism - the “blessing” and “curse” of flexibility

The Love of Liberty brought us here
Liberian National motto

Analysing ECOMOG’s “responsibility to protect intervention” on purely tactical-military terms one acknowledges that first and foremost the force lacked military expertise. Difficulties comprised soldiers’ inexperience together with constant disputes within the force that caused a succession of military commanders being deposed and replaced apparently due to incompetence (Howe 1997: 161). According to Maxwell Khobe, an ECOMOG officer, there was “no common or central logistic administration system” as well as a lack of standardisation of equipment, arms and ammunition, poor sea and air lift capabilities and poor coordination and liaison with international relief agencies (Khobe 2000). The lack of military know-how was in turn not compensated with adequate military logistics, it was not just the case that the military equipment was old, outdated, terribly maintained and unreliable but more gravely that the soldiers were not being paid regularly or fairly. The ECOMOG mission in Liberia was terribly under-funded. In addition, Liberia saw a mission that was planned to last for no more than a few months dragging on for eight long years.

The mission was also plagued by language difficulties. The diversity and inadequate coordination of different sets of multi-lingual captaincies strained the communication process and interoperability between the units. This added up to ECOMOG’s somewhat anarchical and decentralized organization both in its lateral (within national contingents) and horizontal (between contingents) capabilities (Howe 1997:168). Inadequate payment to the soldiers of ECOMOG brought about the temptation, and sometimes necessity, of illicit mining, looting, thieving, smuggling and other corrupted practices, particularly in the Liberian case (Berman 2003: 46). The result was, in a way, a gradual blurry of the boundaries between the official and warlord armies whereby “ECOMOG cultivates its own warlords and mercenaries”, bringing about serious questions about the real humanitarianism of the mission to a mission that was more humanitarian in its rhetoric and objectives than in its actual process and modus operandi (Hutchful 1999:72; Ero 2000). The label of intervention for human protection can therefore perhaps be more appropriate if still far from being problem-free.

ECOMOG’s tactics were delivered on a “deal-with-it-as-you-go” ad-hoc manner. This was so due to problems with communication and decision-making channels between ECOWAS political committee and its military branches and with the much decentralized structure of an army that had been quickly and artificially “bolted” together. This in turn meant that officers on the ground held a high level of flexibility in their mandate which came both as a “curse” and a “blessing”. A “curse” in that rushed decisions were often taken that simply worsened tensions and problems on the ground, intentionally and unintentionally displacing, bombing people and infrastructure and increasing the levels of ethnic tension. Questions of legitimacy to what was supposed a UN licensed humanitarian intervention arose. A “blessing” because flexibility and improvisation meant that ECOMOG’s mandate did not suffer from the traditional delays and lengthy political diplomatic scuffles that have traditionally plagued United Nations missions. ECOMOG was further able to recognize its own limitations and seek help from the African Union, the United Nations and other international partners (such as the United Kingdom) as its “initiatives flagged” (Hutchful 1999:62).While on the ground, it held a strong mandate whereby peace-keeping and peace-maintenance gave way to pro-active peace-enforcement with its moral and political dilemmas that frequently brand “peace-enforcement” as a contradiction in its own conceptualization.
The Sovereignty-Humanitarianism conundrum - lessons from the Liberian intervention
In the peace-enforcement intervention for human protection in Liberia, ECOMOG operated in what constitutes a Regional Security Complex, “a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from each other” (Bah 2005:78). Its essence as a security organization represents a regional and multilateral foreign policy model that is novel in its goals and that constitutes an innovation, particularly in the African continent, that I will now try and situate within the wider UN peace regime architecture and when it comes to the tensions it faces over its humanitarianism-sovereignty tension.

When looking at the founding document of humanitarian interventions, the UN charter, Article 51 of the charter (Chandler 2004: 59), protecting the right of individual and collective self-defence, precedes Chapter VIII, the chapter concerning Regional arrangements. Article 52 recognizes regional arrangements as viable to deal with matters related to international peace and security as long as they comply with the “purposes and principles of the United Nations”. These regional arrangements are encouraged to try and solve disputes by peaceful means before they refer them to the Security Council.

Although enforcement actions still legally require a “go-ahead” from the Security Council, the United Nations welcomes the foreign policy of security arrangements such as ECOMOG as long as they represent an extension of its principles and purposes (Malan 1997: 16). The perils of UN peacekeeping, strained by the realpolitik chains of the Cold War, determined that a permanent military force was an impossibility right from 1947. Regional security arrangements offer in this instance a further alternative for the UN when organizing the means for its activities in addition to the traditional case-by-case ad hoc arrangements.

The provision of this chapter however does not offer immunity or full autonomy for the regional arrangement to do as it pleases in its foreign and regional policies as there is an allusion to articles 34 and 35 that safeguards the primacy of the Security Council to investigate any disputes and the right of any Member of the United Nations to bring any dispute or grave situation to the attention of the Security Council for further scrutiny. This attempt to devise a system of checks and balances between the regional and international spheres of the peace architecture has been put under strain, particularly in the UN-ECOWAS co-deployment in Liberia. The UN conceded with some unorthodox and uncharacteristically aggressive methods of ECOMOG on what was at times clearly a chapter VII intervention – peace-enforcement. This can, to some extent, damage the perception of the United Nations as an unbiased and rightful player in the peace architecture scheme as was reported by Francis et al (2005). Nonetheless, in the case of ECOMOG, its interventions marked a clear break with any form of classical peacekeeping. The Liberia and Sierra Leone interventions were of a clearly interventionist nature where coercive action was used for peace-enforcement objectives. ECOMOG interventions can arguably be classified as third generation as they are examples of situations whereby political authority collapsed or was at least severely undermined and the intervention sought to, at least rhetorically, bring a political solution to a humanitarian disaster. These contrast to second generation interventions traditionally associated with negotiated settlements of proxy Cold War conflicts (Malan 1997:23; Hutchful 1999:68).

Prospects for the application of similar norms in future conflicts within the framework of an African Standby Force integrated under the scope of the African Peace and Security Council (PSC) are still feeble. Only “baby steps” have been taken but the Liberian intervention has undoubtedly been seen as an important precedent from which lessons can and should be learned and whose progress has been attentively monitored and debated within the organs of the AU (Ero 2000). This wish comes not only in the context of international reluctance to intervene in “African problems” but also in the African wish to “break the dependence on outside military assistance in responding to African conflicts” (Ero 2000). At the end of the day, the future foreign policy success of the PSC and the sought after African Standby Force will very much depend on the will and success of the foreign policies of sub-regional organizations such as ECOWAS (in the form of ECOMOG), SADC and IGAD (Murithi:2005).


The lengthy and strenuous engagement in Liberia and the volatility of ECOMOG were determining features that any balanced assessment of an analysis of the conflict and subsequent international engagement. One can also be positive and look at the wider perspective of ECOMOG as a unique experimentation in foreign policy. ECOMOG holds a viable and possibly a necessary alternative to the more traditional forms of peacebuilding and humanitarian intervention but there is still a lot to be done concerning internal political scuffles as well as issues concerning the technicalities and practical military capacity for its forces to fully deserve the label of intervention for human protection in their intentions and practices.

In the context of the sovereignty vs. humanitarianism debate, ECOMOG’s intervention constitutes a classical example in how the international community progressively tries and devise mechanisms through which the cemented Westphalian structures of the state-system can be circumvented in order to ensure the very stabilization and “justice” of the system. It is surely an example of an intervention that inspired the ICISS promotion of the term “intervention for human protection” but it should also be looked at as an intervention whose flaws should remind us of the amount of debate, work and improvement still needs to be carried out about the design of the new peacebuilding foreign policy devices.

In terms of foreign policy analysis the unfolding of the ECOMOG saga in Liberia has posed both great dilemmas and opportunities for the international community at large and for the African continent in particular. Its model of intervention is surely innovative but its methods were unorthodox and its efforts at best, very “clumsy”. Its interventions provide a picture whereby ECOMOG’s decentralized nature gave it an edge of autonomy but also of anarchy where little progress was also witnessed in later interventions in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. The unsatisfactory learning curve of the organization, which repeatedly committed similar mistakes over 9 years, was reflected on how its actions were constantly questioned in matters of ethics in the rules of engagement and the professionalism of its soldiers as well as the underlying Nigerian politics of self-help

In his African Affairs article Gberie (2003) portraits ECOMOG’s intervention as a heroic failure. Conversely, Hutchful (1999) claimed the Liberian intervention as a success, even if a tainted one. Perhaps his claim as a successful operation would have been different had he witnessed how badly “Liberia’s lessons” had be learned in the proceeding re-intervention in Sierra Leone and in Guinea-Bissau. Although, in Liberia, ECOMOG’s and Nigeria’s rhetoric was often unconvincing in the true humanitarianism of its cause and in the sustained legitimacy of its mandate, ultimately such intervention’s final judge will be the future direction of the African Peace regime and its faith. If the regional foreign policy alternative proves to be, not just the soundest option but a viable one as well, ECOMOG’s critics will ultimately have to concede that, despite all its misdemeanours, the foreign policy project in its vision and ambition represented a turning point in the history of foreign policy and design of humanitarian interventions, nowadays better understood under the framework of intervention for human protection. If instead, regional integration in Africa halts and it never spills over to the political and security dimensions, Africa will either be fully dependent on a continental AU for any endeavour or fully rely on external help. In this latter case, even praises of ECOMOG for just “trying” in the Liberian intervention (Howe 1997:176) will be destined to belong to the footnotes of the books of foreign policy analysis dealing with issues of war and peace in the beginning of the 21st century.


Adebajo, A. 2002. Building Peace in West Africa. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Adeleke, A., 1995. ‘The Politics and Diplomacy of Peacekeeping in West Africa: The Ecowas Operation in Liberia’. The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4
Bah, A. M. S. 2005. ‘From a security complex to a security community’ African Security Review Vol.14, No.2
Berman, E.G. & K.E. Sams, 2003. ‘The peacekeeping potential of the African regional organizations’, in J. Boulden, ed., Dealing with conflict in Africa. The United Nations and regional organizations. New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan (35-78).
Chandler, D. 2004 “The Responsibility to protect? Imposing the ‘Liberal Peace’” International Peacekeeping, Vol.11, No.1
Chimni, B., 2000. ‘Globalization, humanitarianism and the erosion of refugee protection’, Journal of Refugee Studies 13(3)
Ero, C., 2000. ‘ECOMOG: A model for Africa?’ Published in Monograph 46, Building stability in Africa: Challenges for the new millennium, February 2000
Francis, D.; Faal, M.; Kabia, J.; Ramsbotham, A. 2005 Dangers of Co-Deployment: UN co-operative peacekeeping in Africa UK: Ashgate
Gberie, L. 2003. ‘ECOMOG: The story of a heroic failure’. African affairs, Vol. 102
Howe, H. 1997. ‘Lessons of Liberia: ECOMOG and Regional Peacekeeping’. International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3
Hutchful, E., 1999. ‘The ECOMOG Experience with Peacekeeping in West Africa’. Published in Monograph No 36: Whither Peacekeeping in Africa? April 1999
Inter Press Service 1992 “Prince Yedou Johnson now wants peace in Liberia” [16 May 2007]
Kaldor, M. 2001 New Wars and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era Oxford: Polity
Kaplan, R. 1994 “The coming anarchy” The Atlantic monthly http://dieoff.org/page67.htm [16 May 2007]
Khobe, M. M., 2000. ‘The Evolution and Conduct of ECOMOG Operations in West Africa’. Published in Monograph No 44: Boundaries of Peace Support Operations, February 2000
Malan, M. 1997 “A concise conceptual history of UN Peace Operations”, African Security Review,Vol.6 (1)
Okoroafor, O. 2003 “A red carpet for a bloodied warrior” [16 May 2007]
Stroehlein, A. & Gareth, E. 2007 “A responsibility to protect: the world’s view” in Open Democracy 5th April http://www.opendemocracy.org/ [22 May 2007]
Williams, P. & Bellamy, A. 2005 “The responsibility to Protect and the Crisis in Darfuf” Security Dialogue Vol.36 No.1

No comments: