For decades now, people living on both sides of the Liberia-Guinea border near the town of Yeala in Lofa County have been engaged in a lingering border conflict, which occasionally has resulted to sporadic stand-off between civilians on both sides as the two countries keep watch.
Though there have been no fresh clashes in recent times, tension, however, remains visible here among rivals throughout the year at times prompting regional district commissioners from both sides to intervene in the interest of peace. The quarrel is over the Monuyea River which serves as demarcation for the two countries in this region. Guineans have laid persistent claim to the river arguing, it falls into their territories a claim being's rejected by Liberian authorities.
The river, a tributary of Lawa serves as a vital life source in the area. Yeala residents used it for fishing, washing, sand mining as well as commercial canoeing in the rainy season by crossing travelers, vehicles and goods into Guinean. The international cornerstone mounted by former colonial powers along the banks of the river on Liberia's side has been used by Guinean authorities to claim the river although much of the river curves into Liberian territories west and eastward.
Towns and villages on both sides of the border are inhabited by ethnic Lormas who share paternity. Interesting as this seems, Yeala residents report they hold cordial relations with their Guinean relatives across the border. The residents attributed ongoing tension to what they referred to as "aggressive posture by Guinean soldiers" sent from Guinea's capital Conakry to guard the frontier.
Already, Guinea has mounted its national flag (red, yellow and green) on the boundary across the Monuyea River on Liberia's side next to the international border corner stone. The flag was first spotted in 1996 by refugees returning home to resettle in Yeala and Zorzor after the war. ULIMO-K forces last occupied the region but eventually moved out of the area when rebel factions were disarmed to pave way for the 1997 elections. Residents indicated that till ULIMO-K arrived, the flag had been hoisted at Guinea's border custom, a mile north of the border since 1958 when the country gained independence from France.
According to local newspaper reports, similar border crisis is brewing between Guinea and neighboring Sierra Leone with Sierra Leone accusing Guinea of "encroaching on a portion of land near the town of Koindu."
Ownership row over the Monuyea River has led to a stall in development efforts as well. Yeala residents said Guinean authorities have prevented their Liberian counterparts from rebuilding a damaged Billy bridge that links both countries and previously gave boost to cross-border trades at this major crossing point. This news was confirmed by Yeala Custom workers who said "the other side" is yet to repair the bridge since squabble started almost two years now. The situation, they further maintained, has caused a sharp decline in revenue generation at the Yeala border custom also reported in a May 2010 edition of The New Dawn Newspaper in Liberia. The bridge was still out of order in December 2011.
The Liberian Government appears to be giving a lukewarm attitude toward the matter. But that's not the case with the Guineans who have become territorial in recent years thereby making a big deal of the situation. They have deployed armed military guards along the frontier and replaced them with new troops every 24 hours. On Liberia's side of the border, not a single soldier is deployed. Realistically, Liberia, on the other hand doesn't have a viable army at present. It, however, maintains small military troops composed of mostly engineers but are restricted to their camp due to political reasons coupled with fear of a mutiny. A United Nations peacekeeping force assisted by local police provides security around the country.
When this writer visited the troubled Yeala-Guinea border in order to ascertain the situation, curious Guinean border guards came close by to watch after they noticed a car was parked next to their flagpole with a group of people standing by.
Guinea's action has infuriated Liberian custom workers at the Yeala Gate who viewed the move as an act of "aggression." But there is little help custom personnel can do for now other than watch the Guinean Flag sways back and forth over Liberian land from their custom's balcony.
This matter is such precarious that Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf' during a visit to Yeala last year promised she would "properly review the country's boundary document and subsequently deal with the matter diplomatically."
"The Guinea Government's action was against international boundary laws, which declare rivers as the legitimate demarcations for neighboring countries," reported the May 5, 2010 edition of an online web magazine Afrique Avenir, quoting Pres. Sirleaf. Guinea's "aggressive posture" can be no less classified as a violation to international boundary protocols.
Elsewhere in Lofa County, the border crisis seems even worse according to County Superintendent, Galakpai Kortimai. "The Yeala situation is even better compare to what's happening in Foya," "In Foya, the Guineans don't even allow our people [Foya residents] to step in the Makona River," Mr. Kortimai who is a citizen of Yeala said in a telephone conversation some time ago.
The lingering Yeala-Guinea border crisis dates far back to the 70s. A Joint Security Team dispatched to Yeala by the Ministry of National Defense in early 1998 was first to alert Liberian authorities concerning a Guinean Flag being hoisted on Liberian land. Col. Sekajibo Kortor, the man who led the team told this writer at the time that he Kortor had forwarded his "findings" to the ministry. Col. Sekajibo Kortor led a cracked AFL brigade, which protected the Roberts International Airport during the height of the civil war. Col. Kortor's men withdrew from the airport when Col. Kortor was captured by rebel forces loyal to Mr. Charles Taylor and taken to Gbarnga. Mr. Taylor made headlines news after he freed Col. Kortor.
Grave as this border crisis may appear, there seems to be even another complex issue looming over the border town, Yeala. A recent Google map search placed the town several miles north into Guinean territory. In reality, the town is actually located half mile south of the international border cornerstone. This raises serious questions regarding the authenticity of Google's mapping system that could exacerbate this already fragile situation between the sister countries. Attempts by this reporter to reach Google's authorities for verification proved unsuccessful.
The Republic of Guinea has problems of its own. The country has been rocked by political turmoil since the death of its former dictator Lansana Conte with a sudden takeover of power by one junta after the other. With the present Guinean military junta struggling to hold on to power, ongoing border disputes such as those of Yeala, Foya and Koindu may not be a priority for the Guinean regime.
Asked for his view about Guienea's encroachment, a former Liberian diplomat Mr. Joseph Yarkpawolo Zubah who resides in Maryland, USA, maintained: "Liberia has the right to defend itself if provoked." Mr. Zubah, born and raised in Yeala explained that "one of the primary responsibilities of any government is to first take control of its territories while making sure her citizens are protected."
"If Guinea and Liberia will to go to war...it will start here in Yeala," remarked Pewee, a Yeala resident who, as a young guerrilla fighter in the 90s, fought alongside the Lofa Defense Force in attempts to dislodge rival ULIMO-K fighters who then controlled the town, once a strategic military detachment in Lofa County. The Yeala military brigade which was situated north-west of the town is said to have been abolished by the government some 50 years ago.
For now, relative calm exists at the Yeala border. But that too, might change if Liberia decides to deploy soldiers along the border like the Guineans have done, says an observer.
The two countries are not new to war. Liberia experienced more than a decade old brutal civil conflict during which an estimated 300,000 people died and scars of war are still visible everywhere in the country long after the war ended in 2003. For its part, the Republic of Guinea under former dictator Sekou Toure successfully crushed a sea-launched attack by Guinean dissidents with Portuguese backing to seize the capital, Conakry in the 70s. Guinea and Liberia launched cross-border raids against each other during the war and after Mr. Taylor became president in wake of Guinea's military supports for ULIMO-K and LURD dissident forces who forced Taylor out of power in 2003.
Both countries are signatories to the Mano River Union peace pack that prohibits member states from acts of aggression toward the other. The agreement also bars each from having its territories used by external forces for subversive purposes against member countries but all three have however, failed to uphold the none-aggression pack and have violated same.