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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
Taylor's departure thaws relations
Jonathan Paye-Layleh
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Charles Taylor
Taylor is banned from interfering in Liberian politics
A joke that has long done the rounds in Monrovia is that when Charles Taylor was in power the only neighbour he had a good relationship with was the Atlantic Ocean.

But even the sea let him down when, in 2003, a fleet of US war ships loomed on to the horizon - forcing him to board the plane that took him to his hilltop mansion refuge in the Nigerian port city of Calabar.

Nigeria has promised not to hand Taylor over to Sierra Leone's United Nations-backed war crimes court, where he is wanted on 17 charges of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in their civil war - as long as he stays clear of politicking.

However, the leaders of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone claimed at a meeting in July of the Manor River Union, an informal body set up three decades ago to promote trade and border security between the three countries, that Taylor still has a full hand and is far from leaving the region's political card game.

Fearless travel

The fact that Liberia's transitional President Gyude Bryant, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone and Guinean Prime Minister Cellou Diallo met at all is a sign of how relations between the three neighbours have improved in the two years since Taylor's departure.

In fact, Liberia now has an ambassador in Sierra Leone, and Bryant has formally apologised for Liberia's part in their brutal civil war.

Charles Taylor's house
Charles Taylor is currently in a Nigerian hilltop mansion refuge
And amicable relations on a diplomatic level are reflected by security on the ground.

Today, Liberia's main border crossing with Sierra Leone at Bo is open 24 hours a day, patrolled by UN peacekeepers.

In July, 18 Ecowas vehicles drove into Liberia from Sierra Leone to help with election preparations, a symbolic move emphasising that the era when borders were crossed to wage war are over.

There is also freedom of movement between Liberia and Guinea, which once acted as a base for the Lurd rebels who fought Taylor's government.

Now, even at the dead of night, people from both sides fearlessly travel through the border post at Ganta, which has seen a cross border trade boom in the post-Taylor era.

Clothes, palm-oil and peppers are pouring into Liberia, and plenty of cars with Guinean number plates drive about the streets of the capital, Monrovia, proof that old enmities - if not forgotten - are a thing of the past.

Disturbingly, however, Guineans, along with Mauritanians and other foreigners, are also taking advantage of the thaw in relations to buy diamonds, in violation of UN sanctions, from ex-combatants mining the stones in the dense forests in south-east Liberia.

On its western border, Liberia has also had an on-off friendship with Ivory Coast.

In the last days of Taylor, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo turned a blind eye to Liberia's smaller rebel group, Model, operating from Ivorian soil.

Turmoil

Ironically, Ivory Coast - once hailed as a model of stability - has now slipped into internal turmoil and Liberia has become a place of refuge for its citizens, with at least 19,000 people crossing into the country earlier this year.

Diplomatic relations, however, have been restored since Taylor's exit and there have been no flare-up of tensions.

Lansana Conte
Sierra Leone alleges Taylor tried to assassinate Lansana Conte
As the International Contact Group on Liberia points out, internal insecurity feeds on regional instability and therefore Liberia's peace hinges on its neighbours.

In this context, there is concern about Guinea, ruled for the last 21 years by Taylor's nemesis, Lansana Conté.

It is the only country in the sub-region to have avoided full-scale war, but with no obvious successor to the ailing leader, it could fall apart, according to a report released by the International Crisis Group in June.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone tribunal alleges that Taylor was behind an attempt in January to assassinate Conté in revenge for Guinea's backing of Lurd, adding to the concerns that Taylor still haunts the region.

For the moment, his fate lie in the hands of Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has said he will consider an extradition request if asked by Liberia's incoming president.



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