IRIN Focus on peace efforts by women in the Mano River countries

For Liberian peace campaigner Theresa Leigh-Sherman, the visit to Monrovia of Guinea’s Foreign Minister Hadja Mahawa Bangoura was yet another sign that her organisation’s efforts to bring peace to the countries of the Mano River Union (MRU) were not in vain.

Bangoura and her Sierra Leonean counterpart, Ahmed Ramadan Dumbuya, arrived in Monrovia on Monday for consultations with Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan. Their brief included setting an agenda for a summit of the presidents of their three countries, which make up the MRU.

Their agenda also included talks on the redeployment of their respective ambassadors to Liberia who, in March, had been declared personae non gratae by the government of President Charles Taylor.

The banning of the ambassadors, revoked late last week, coincided with an escalation of the war in Lofa County, northern Liberia, between pro-government troops and dissidents whom Monrovia accused Guinea of supporting. Relations between Monrovia and its two neighbours went steadily downhill, with doomsayers predicting war between Liberia and Guinea.

But even as fighting raged on the border between the two countries, members of the Guinean chapter of the Mano River Women Peace Network (MARWOPNET) travelled in June to Monrovia at the invitation of their Liberian counterparts for a one-week workshop in which the network’s Sierra Leone wing also participated.

That meeting’s activities included the formalisation of MARWOPNET through the holding of office-bearers’ elections, and the establishment of a constitution, bylaws and rules of procedure for the organisation. The participants also mapped out a three-year plan for activities the network would run concurrently in each country, and decided to site the network’s secretariat in Freetown, where the MRU Secretariat was established in 1982.

MARWOPNET was created at a workshop held in May 2000 in Abuja, Nigeria, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It is a non-political organisation whose members include NGO activists and professionals like Leigh-Sherman, who has been running a college and secretarial school in Monrovia for the past 25 years.

Leigh-Sherman, a veteran of earlier peace efforts that ended Liberia’s 1989-1996 war, is the first vice-president of MARWOPNET. The network’s main aim, she told IRIN, is to bring about peace in the Mano River Union.

The union, which is all but defunct, aimed to foster economic integration between the three countries. The attainment of this objective has been blocked by obstacles such as the instability in member countries.

Liberia experienced civil war in 1989-1996, and further bouts of insecurity since then. A war between rebels and the state in Sierra Leone that started in 1991 lasted throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. And areas along the borders between the three countries have been plagued by fighting between pro- and anti-government forces over the past two years.

Another stumbling block is mutual suspicion between Liberia and its neighbours. Monrovia has been accused of backing the rebels in Sierra Leone, while the Guinean and Liberian governments have each accused the other of supporting armed groups opposed to it.

MARWOPNET’s efforts to broker peace between the three countries have gone into high gear in the past few weeks. During the meeting in Monrovia, the women met Taylor, who promised them that he would rescind the ban on the Guinean and Sierra Leonean ambassadors and said he was prepared to meet President Lansana Conte of Guinea, Leigh-Sherman told IRIN.

Three weeks ago, the women travelled to Guinea, where they conveyed Taylor’s message to Conte, who agreed to a dialogue with his Liberian counterpart. On 5 and 6 August, they were in Sierra Leone, where they met President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and other officials. This week the foreign ministers are preparing the proposed summit.

Whether or not the three leaders will actually meet is anyone’s guess, but MARWOPNET is optimistic. “The results we have achieved so far allow me to believe that it will,” the network’s president, Adja Saran Daraba, said on the BBC in Guinea.

One of the biggest hurdles the women have faced is financial since they depend on donations from individual well-wishers and some institutions.

But they soldier on. Why? For the very reasons which made them begin their network in the first place. “We are the victims,” Leigh-Sherman says. “We are the ones who are raped. Our sons are the ones who go to war and die. Our children die from starvation. The infrastructure is broken up. We have a common enemy: war.”