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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
09 January 2006

WEST AFRICA: Year in Review 2005 - Stability see-saws in the world's poorest region

DAKAR, 9 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - West Africa, the world's poorest region, chalked up successes in 2005, with war-battered Liberia and Sierra Leone edging closer to lasting peace. But perennial problems such as corruption and unemployment could still scupper progress, and elsewhere in the region prospects remained bleak.

Liberia, Africa's oldest republic, became the first country on the continent to elect a female president, when Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won the second-round run-off vote in November.

Liberians prayed the polls would close the book on 14 years of brutal civil conflict, while Sirleaf said she was "humbled by the awesome challenges" that lay ahead.

She certainly has plenty to do. Monrovia, the steamy seafront capital that bristled with economic development in the 1970s, is today a blackened bullet-riddled ruin with no mains electricity or running water.

As the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission oversaw the landmark polls in Liberia, residents in neighbouring Sierra Leone were starting to wave goodbye to their blue hats.

The last contingent of UN peacekeepers left in December after six years which saw them wrest control of a wild jungle terrain from rebel and militia fighters, restore government authority, and supervise elections.

The UNAMSIL mission -- which at one time was the biggest in the world with 17,500 troops -- leaves behind newly built and repaired roads, bridges and even schools and hospitals.

A UN-trained police force has taken over responsibility for security and government revenues are on the up now that 50 percent of alluvial diamond mining is under state control. The other half of Sierra Leone's potential diamond earnings seeps over the country's porous borders, disappearing without trace.

But corruption permeates all levels of society, with some aid workers saying that civil servants typically demand a 20 percent 'fee' for awarding government contracts, and donor funds get siphoned off into private accounts.

And analysts say corruption and unemployment could yet be the undoing of peace in Sierra Leone.

Small arms readily available

Although two UN missions -- UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone and UNMIL in Liberia -- have demobilised some 125,000 fighters and taken over 60,000 weapons out of circulation, small arms remain readily available in West Africa.

Sidiki Konate, spokesman for the rebels holding northern Cote d'Ivoire told IRIN this year that buying a gun in West Africa was "like needing a pair of Levi jeans -- if you want them you can get them."

And just as easy to find are the young men -- and women -- ready to bear those weapons, according to a 2005 UN report.

In the arc of conflict-ridden West African nations that runs from Guinea-Bissau to Cote d'Ivoire, unemployment and a lack of prospects continue to push youths into the ranks of militias, some of whom roam across borders to get to the next fight.

Liberia's Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, will be leading a youthful country where more than half of the population is too young to remember peace, has never had the opportunity to go to school, and is faced with an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent.

"Our time has been wasted," Mohamed Dukuly told IRIN in October. "I can't even spell my own name," said the 22-year-old, who was whipped out of school and sent to the frontline to fight still wearing his uniform.

If Sirleaf's new government can't create prospects for young men like Dukuly, there is a real risk that they will continue their fighter lifestyle elsewhere and sign up as regional warriors.

Anyone wanting to join a troop of rag-tag mercenaries wouldn't have far to go. While the security situation in Sierra Leone and Liberia has improved, peace remains elusive in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire. And Liberian ex-combatants were already hiring out their services there in 2005, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Cote d'Ivoire should, like Liberia, have held its own post-conflict elections last year, but three years after an initial peace deal, the world's top cocoa producing country looks no closer to peace.

Elections postponed

With only weeks to go before scheduled elections on 30 October, electoral registers had not been updated, militiamen and rebels still had a tight grip on their weapons and the nation remained split between a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north.

A South African mediation effort quickly became bogged down, and eventually the United Nations declared the poll impossible, blaming the intransigence of the warring parties.

An African Union plan to leave President Laurent Gbagbo in power for up to one more year was rubber-stamped by the UN, much to the annoyance of the rebels and the political opposition, who wanted a transitional government to shepherd the country to the polls.

In the closing months of the year, a new prime minister was appointed to try to untangle the deadlock and get the peace process back on track. Charles Konan Banny, the governor of West Africa's Central Bank, took on the role, his powers bolstered under UN resolution 1633.

Ethnic violence flared sporadically once again throughout the year, mainly in the cocoa-rich Wild West. In April and May, scores of people were killed and thousands of others fled their homes after a series of tit-for-tat killings between immigrant farmers and indigenous landowners.

As the year closes, analysts predict more trouble in the tinderbox region as well as on the national peace agenda. They doubt whether the squabbling sides will disarm, reach consensus on nationality issues at the heart of the crisis, unify the country and organise polls all before the new October 2006 deadline.

No elections means no end to Cote d'Ivoire's no-war no-peace standoff and the country will likely remain a considerable threat to the stability of West Africa and an economic drain in a region that has half of the world's 26 least developed countries.

Landlocked Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso continue to be directly impacted by the Ivorian crisis, not least because the war has created a new barrier between their borders and the largest port in Francophone West Africa - Abidjan.

Economic woes

Though new and often circuitous trade routes have appeared using ports in Ghana, Guinea, Benin, Senegal and Togo, the cost of imports has risen and exports are less competitively priced by the time they reach cargo ships.

The economic squeeze has hit hard for Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, who along with Sierra Leone hold the bottom four places in the UN's 2005 Human Development Index.

The 2005 food crisis that swept through West Africa highlighted the depth of poverty in the southern fringes of the Sahara desert, where subsistence farmers and nomadic herders eke out a living in a harsh and often unpredictable climate.

Niger, the world's poorest country, was hardest hit. Aid appeals went largely unfunded until images of emaciated babies were beamed across television screens around the globe and prompted donors to dig into their pockets.

While locust plagues and drought caused problems with the harvest, many aid workers said the underlying problem behind the 2005 crisis was simply deep-rooted poverty. West African children die of hunger every year, usually out of sight of television cameras, and according to UN figures 13 million children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition in the region.

While hunger hit the arid north, heavy seasonal rains proved deadly in the forested zone further south. Guinea Bissau became the epicentre of a region-wide cholera epidemic in 2005. The water-borne disease killed hundreds and struck tens of thousands more, with the elderly and children feeling the brunt.

In August, the government of Guinea Bissau -- struggling to cast off the legacy of years of political instability -- admitted it was so cash-strapped that it couldn't find US $104,000 to stop the spiralling cholera epidemic in its tracks.

Ultimately, the UN launched a region-wide appeal for US $3.2 million to tackle the epidemic, but that failed to secure a single donation and the disease ran its natural course, petering out with the rains.

Guinea-Bissau's residents also went to the polls in 2005 to choose a new president, in a process that reminded observers that political rivalries still ran deep. Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, a former military ruler, won the run-off, but his rival refused to recognize the result and a disgruntled prime minister was swiftly sacked.

Togo turmoil

Tensions also flared unexpectedly in Togo, when Gnassingbe Eyadema - then the longest ruling head of state on the continent - died suddenly in February and his son seized power with the backing of the army.

Violent protests at home and diplomatic pressure from abroad forced Faure Gnassingbe to hold elections, but the opposition said the April ballot was rigged and more clashes followed.

According to a subsequent UN investigation, at least 400 people died in the violence, most of them opposition supporters targeted by government security forces. Around 25,000 refugees fled to neighbouring Ghana and Benin, fearing reprisals.

With Eyadema dead, the mantle of Africa's longest-serving head of state passed to President Omar Bongo of Gabon, who won another term in elections in November.

Another political veteran of the region who extended his 18-year reign in office in 2005 was Blaise Compaore, whose interpretation of the constitutional term limits raised opposition hackles but allowed him to scoop a third term in power in November elections, with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Over in Chad, President Idriss Deby got the seal of approval in a June referendum to amend the constitution and enable him to run as a presidential candidate in 2006.

But Deby's grip on power looked fraught as the year ended, as he sacked his presidential guard and mutinous soldiers gathered in the east. An attack on a border post by rebels, whom he accuses neighbouring Sudan of backing, only inflamed regional tensions and the future seems problematic.

Deby's decision to scrap a fund set up to safeguard a portion of the country's petrodollars for future generations, also brought international censure. The move was deemed a "material breach" of contract by the World Bank, who helped set up the innovative scheme to ensure oil profits reached the people.

Time ran out with a jolt for Maaouya Ould Taya, president for 21 years of Mauritania, West Africa's only Islamic Republic. Ould Taya was ousted in August in the region's only coup - which proved to be bloodless.

The new military junta has promised a swift return to democracy and is planning on fresh elections for March 2007. But that leaves plenty of time for a change of heart, warn analysts. Oil revenues are set to begin flowing into state coffers in early 2006 which could encourage Mauritania's new rulers to prolong their stay in power.



This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006

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