Friday, November 5, 2004

Liberia: Provocateurs threaten religious harmony.

Date: Friday 5 November 2004
Subj: Liberia: Provocateurs threaten religious harmony.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


On Thursday evening, 28 October 04, an incident in Paynesville, an eastern suburb of Monrovia, Liberia, triggered violence that escalated rapidly and spread to several Monrovia suburbs. Order was only restored through the "robust" peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and Liberian National Police, as well as a government-imposed 24-hour, indefinite curfew. Rioters were warned that anyone found with a weapon would be regarded as an extreme threat and dealt with accordingly. UN peacekeepers were given permission to use "maximum force" against anyone found attempting to disturb the peace. On Saturday the curfew was amended to 4pm-7am. By Monday 1 November relative calm had been restored.

While any threat to Liberian peace is tragic, the most serious aspect of this incident is the religious nature of the violence. It is critical to note however, that the religious violence appears not to have been instigated by people with religious zeal or purpose. Rather, it appears that those who profit from conflict, those who thrive on war, and those who would stop at nothing to disrupt the disarmament process (due for completion on Sunday 31 October), either took advantage of a relatively minor situation to whip up unrest, or strategically planned and then created that situation and orchestrated the unrest for their own purposes. It is emerging now that it is these criminals who set fire to both mosques and churches. Those seeking conflict clearly believe that the best way to return the country to war is to incite religious violence.

While the authorities have been firm and effective in dealing with the crisis, the incident has doubtless raised religious tensions and in particular, Islamic zeal. (Muslims are a minority in Liberia.) Evangelical elements in the Liberian Church and the interim government of Gyude Bryant will need our prayers and support, that the nation's journey towards disarmament, reconciliation and peace may not be hijacked.

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HOW THE VIOLENCE UNFOLDED

The trigger for the unrest was a land dispute in Monrovia's eastern suburb of Paynesville at around 5p.m. on Thursday evening 28 October. The Inter Regional Information Network (IRIN) (from the UN's office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reports: "Residents in Paynesville said the trouble began when a group of former fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group beat up a man who objected to them building a house on his land. These men were from the Mandingo ethnic group. The injured man's family and neighbours subsequently set up a manhunt for all Mandingos in the area that led to the burning of the mosque." (Link 1)

The former LURD fighters who provoked this incident are Mandingos – the main ethnic group associated with LURD. There is deep resentment and mistrust of Mandingos in Liberia due to the appalling atrocities committed in recent years by LURD. The Mandingo are historically and predominantly Muslim. The victim was not Mandingo and was not Muslim. While his family and neighbours sought revenge by attacking local Mandingos, it is not to be assumed that these particular rioters are responsible for the burning of the local mosque.

According to IRIN, "Muslim crowds subsequently burned down three churches and on Friday morning, Christian youths armed with sticks, knives and broken bottles burned down the Muslim Congress High School in central Monrovia, the only Islamic high school in the city. They also tried unsuccessfully [due to the intervention of Nigerian peacekeepers – EK] to burn down the two main mosques in central Monrovia."

Religious violence also erupted in Kakata, a town 50 km northeast of Monrovia, in Liberia's second city Buchanan, 120 km southeast of Liberia, and Ganta, on the northern frontier with Guinea. According to Reuters, some of the Muslim youths were armed with AK-47 rifles.

Reporters from the Monrovian newspaper, The Analyst, attempted to drive into Paynesvilles late on Thursday night (28 Oct) in order to find the cause of the violence. They describe the Paynesville region as "a no go zone with the northern entry route to the city cut off effectively by marauding bands of angry youths brandishing sticks and other crude weapons and vowing to kill anyone believed to be supporting their enemies". At one point, the Nigerian peacekeepers ahead of them are surrounded by "a large group of the thugs, believed to be Muslim youths chanting, 'Allah Akbar' meaning God is Great. They chanted the same slogans at UNMIL, saying 'Y'all think we are stupid? We will die tonight. Eh, they burnt our mosque? We will burn all the churches too'." (Link 2)

The youths then attacked the vehicle belonging to The Analyst reporters, smashing its windows. Eventually the reporters fled for their lives, noting that many building were in flames.

The National Muslim Council of Liberia condemned the violence as "barbaric and unacceptable". The Council also noted however, "An attack on the Mandingos would be inimical to peace in the country because such attack could be interpreted as an attack on all Muslims in the country, adding that Mandingos in Liberia are not just 'co-terminal to Muslims, but also inseparable, particularly as Mandingos are one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Community of Liberia'." (Link 3)

According to The News, Monrovia, at least two people were reportedly hacked to death on Sunday (31 Oct) while en route for church services in the Jacob Town, Paynesville and Doe community areas where much of the rioting occurred.

CASUALTIES AND ARRESTS

The casualty figure stands at 16 people dead and 208 injured, of whom 47 are critical (UNMIL 1 Nov). UNMIL also reports that some 250 males have been arrested. Interestingly, around 200 of these are reported to be "non English-speaking foreigners".

Witnesses told IRIN that UN peacekeepers arrested some 80 people from the home of Philip Kamara, a former senior commander within LURD, and confiscated rifles and petrol bombs.

UNMIL spokesman James Boynton comments: "There are factions of LURD that, we believe, don't want to see an end to DDRR." (DDRR - Demobilization, Disarmament Rehabilitation and Reintegration.)

Liberia's Head of State, Interim Chairman Gyude Bryant, believes the violence was planned and orchestrated. Several individuals, arrested in connection to the riots, have already been charged with orchestrating "Terroristic Threats".

PROVOCATEURS THREATEN RELIGIOUS HARMONY

The editorial in The Analyst on 1 November comments, "Those involved in the plot against the Liberian people seemed determined to project themselves as the patriarchs and heralds of religious renaissance in Liberia when the fact, and their true intention, is that they want to protect their shady deeds and ill-gotten wealth. 'What we're seeing is the death throes of the [old] regime,' UN envoy Jacques Klein told the BBC. 'In the old days they used tribal differences which don't seem to be working now so now they've hit on religious differences'." (Link 4)

- Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) LIBERIA: Religious riots erupt in Monrovia, curfew imposed
MONROVIA, 29 Oct 2004 (IRIN)
http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=43935

2) Churches, Mosques in Flames!
The Analyst (Monrovia), 1 November 2004
http://allafrica.com/stories/200411010963.html

3) Muslim Council Condemns Violence
The Analyst (Monrovia), 1 November 2004
By Bill K. Jarkloh
http://allafrica.com/stories/200411010962.html

4) An Unmistakable Telltale Sign
The Analyst (Monrovia)
EDITORIAL, 1 November 2004
http://allafrica.com/stories/200411010960.html