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Interview with Liberia RPCV Joseph Siegle
Interview with Liberia RPCV Joseph Siegle
Liberia: Joseph Siegle
Friday, August 1, noon ET
West African leaders committed Thursday to deploy the first peace troops to warring Liberia by the start of next week, and said President Charles Taylor would go into exile three days later. The United States has promised $10 million and is sending three warships with Marines to Liberia for what President Bush says will be limited assistance. Chat about the situation in Liberia with today's guest, Joseph Siegle.
Joseph Siegle is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining the Council, Siegle worked for over 12 years in some 20 countries on international development and humanitarian assistance projects in Africa, Asia, and the Balkans. These included projects focusing on agricultural production, small business creation, environmental rehabilitation, conflict resolution, refugee resettlement, nutrition, improving water access, literacy, and primary health care. He was the country director for the international NGO, World Vision, in Eritrea from 1995-1997 and promoted aquaculture as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia in the mid-1980s.
Washington DC: I realize that the situation is very bad, but REALISTICALLY speaking, is there anything American soldiers can do? It seems that sending them into Monrovia would merely turn them into moving targets.
Joseph Siegle: Whenever we deploy troops abroad there are risks involved, adn these need to be taken into serious consideration. In Liberia, the prospects of US troops coming under fire, however, is relatively small. All sides in the conflict have called for US intervention, the US is practically revered by all Liberians, and there's a general war-weariness on all sides of the conflict. The are looking for some outside force to help them bring this to a close. Given the fact that the militia groups are fighting are very ragtag, our experience in other similar type conflicts is if you come in with a robust military force, this can be done in a secure manner that quickly stabelizes the situation at low risk to the civilian population and the intervening forces. We expect this to be the case if US troops were to be deployed in Liberia.
New York NY: I don't mean to sound flip, but does Liberia actually have a functioning government? Why are the streets in such chaos? Who really runs the country?
Joseph Siegle: That's not being flip at all; in fact, there really isn't a functioning government in Liberia. Event the so-called government forces are really another militia in this combat. That's why the crisis there really calls for an international intervention.
Alexandria VA: Which lessons that were learned in Somalia can be applied to Liberia?
Joseph Siegle: The situation in Somalia is very different from Liberia. In Somalia, not all the sides were asking for international involvement. In Somalia, there was a belief by some of the factions that they could gain a military victory, and therefore they were not interested in a political resolution. Somalia has a very long warrior tradition; therefore any grievance against one's clan is grounds for retribution. None of these qualities apply to Liberia; in fact, Liberia had been one of the most stable countries in Africa up until 1989 when this conflict was set off.
The lesson we can learn is that we need to go in with a robust force, and we need to be targeting a political resolution where the goal isn't just to provide humanitarian assistance or to stop the fighting, but to help the parties create a stable political structure that can allow for a stable peace.
Newark, NJ: Is the conflict tribal, political or both?
Joseph Siegle: It's mostly political. Charles Taylor has ruled as an autocrat. He has almost from the day he took office tried to exact revenge on his political opponents through violence and intimidation. He has rewarded cronies with government contracts and has used public resources for his own personal enrichment. This has obviously generated great animosity from Liberians of all backgrounds.
Arlington, VA: It seems like I always see kids carrying weapons - where are they getting these guns? Who's funding them?
Joseph Siegle: The weapons that have come into the Liberian conflict have largely been around over the years in which the fighting has been going on. Charles Taylor has long been a key link in arms smuggling operations, so he has acquired these weapons from a global network. The rebel groups have bases in Guinea and Ivory Coast, and therefore it is believed that they have also acquired some weapons from those countries.
Orlando, FL: There's a grotesque story in Rolling Stone this week about Liberia, describing the many atrocities being committed by armed, drunken and drugged kids - atrocities that include cannibalism. Honestly, what can be done to temper this situation? It's so out of control that there doesn't meant to be any solution.
Joseph Siegle: These atrocities are indeed grotesque and abominations. Having said this, there are resolutions. Many of these kids have been pulled into the various militias because they're orphans, because they have been manipulated or pressured in other ways. We have to remember, however, that the number of people fighting in this conflict is a very small fraction of the population, something like 1 -2 percent. Most Liberians have chosen not to fight, and in fact they have fled. For that matter, nearly 50% of the population is currently displaced or refugeed in neighboring countries. In fact, the culture in Liberia in normal times is not prone to violence. Liberians have a long tradition of resolving their differences through argument and debate and not with guns. The fact that there are so many child soldiers really underscores the need for rehabilitation programs to target these kids with counseling, as well as helping them develop skills they can use to lead a constructive and productive life.
Miami, FL: Is there a rift between the Amero-Liberians and the rest of the population?
Joseph Siegle: These differences have largely disappeared. There has been so much intermarrying that this difference isn't as evident as it was several decades ago. Certainly during these years of conflict, no one has been spared.
Alexandria, VA: Has Charles Taylor also been stealing money? If so, how can that money be confiscated?
Joseph Siegle: There is a general perception that Charles Taylor has used Liberia's natural resources for his own personal enrichment, and for that matter this includes some of the revenues from the diamonds in neighboring Sierra Leone. By all means, his assets should be frozen to the extent that they can be identified. Once there is an accountable and representative government in Liberia, these resources should be returned to the government there.
Portland, ME: Is there a connection between Charles Taylor and al Qaeda? If so, what is it?
Joseph Siegle: In fact there are persistent reports that Charles Taylor has hosted and protected al Qaeda agents over a period of years, from 1998 to September 11. This is alleged to have been part of a diamond and arms smuggling plot, and while we don't have all of the details of this relationship, it has been identified by investigators in Europe and Latin America, as well as the Special War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone.