Although the armed conflicts are officially over, life for many people in the Mano River Union region remains fragile, with societies caught in an uncertain balance between democratic growth and poverty. There are many challenges to achieving justice and securing lasting peace.
The violent conflicts that scarred West Africa from the 1980s onwards were marked by extreme cruelty, mindless atrocities and the widespread use of sexual violence and child soldiers.
Communities were devastated and most schools, hospitals, power supplies and roads were destroyed. There are now young adults with no or limited employable skills, who are vulnerable as they are used to perpetual crime and violence.
An end to the fighting but instability remains
Peace agreements eventually ended war in Sierra Leone in 2002 and Liberia in 2003. Sierra Leone held its second post-war elections in August 2007 – a sign democracy was at work. Liberia's 2005 election brought into power Africa's first female president, who recently commenced a second term in office, despite questions about the conduct of the election.
Meanwhile in Côte d’Ivoire though a peace agreement ended four years of political impasse and a sustained period of conflict dating from 2002, the country is still deeply divided. Efforts at reform and economic development are patchy and elections in December 2010 drew attention to deep splits reviving hostilities. It is still very early days in the country’s transition from conflict to peace and the challenge for all concerned is to find a peaceful way forward. Guinea remains volatile after recent political violence and could destabilise the entire region.
For decades the Plateau and Niger Delta States of Nigeria have continued to experience communal violence. And the Casamance conflict in Senegal, which has regional dynamics that influence situations in the Gambia and Guinea Bissau, is still unresolved.
The interconnectedness of all these neighbouring countries must be seen in the context of strong historical and cultural ties that exist between the peoples of this region. Mandigo people reside in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone; Fula people are present in most countries across West Africa including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mali. The line where one country ends and another begins can be unclear.
Life around the borders
The Mano River Union region has long and porous borders, which are often not well managed. There are only a few classified border posts while several other crossing points are left to the mercy of ‘volunteers’ or organised gangs. The official crossing posts have onerous procedures and often states have no clear policies or do not monitor the implementation of the policies do exist.
Border communities find themselves in an environment with limited access to basic amenities such as education, health, industry, civil service, and justice. They feel excluded from processes of reconstruction in the post-war context and want to be included in processes of political, social and economic development. Link roads are often in a poor state and the communities are excluded from the politics, development and economic progress of their countries. Acute poverty adds to their marginalisation.
An uneasy balance
After the wars ended young people had to return to these border communities where there are few opportunities for skills development, training and employment. Disenfranchised young people – considered a root cause of previous conflicts – still face serious social, economic and political exclusion.
Meanwhile the unauthorised crossing points create the opportunity for trade in illicit drugs, human trafficking, illegal arms and criminal violence. Border communities are left insecure and susceptible to criminal incursion and uncontrolled refugee related challenges.
Border officials lack supervision and work in very challenging environments with inadequate equipment or facilities to influence effective services. As explored in Talking Borders, some officials resort to corrupt practices, extortion and harassment of travellers, especially females and youth who go across the border on a daily basis to earn a living through trade.
The situation is precarious, especially given that most of the previous wars in this region started from the border regions.
Helping affected communities give voice to their concerns and enabling them to play a positive role in future stability is the primary focus of Conciliation Resources’ work in this region.