Features

Peaceful preemption

International | LIBERIA: U.S.-backed regime change in Africa is succeeding without more war

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

When President Gyude Bryant totted up the cost of rebuilding a battered Liberia, the price tag totaled $488 million. Then he and his advisers flew to New York, hoping against hope that donor countries attending a United States/United Nations conference for Liberia wouldn't weary of unwrapping billfolds for another war-torn West African nation. They need not have worried.

Donors laid down cash so freely, Liberia walked away with pledges of $520 million. President Bryant had pleaded for a "new beginning" for his country. He never expected to be catapulted out of the gate.

If President Bryant was surprised at the generosity, it's because this won't be the first head start for Liberia. After 14 years of civil war, Liberia entered its latest ceasefire five months ago after peace plans in 1993 and 1995 crumbled and rebel groups and government forces clashed anew. But this peace looks like it might hold, and with President Bryant as chairman of a new transitional government, world donors could feel an upsurge.

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Retired Army Col. Michael Larmas Smith also sees reasons for optimism. Until the ceasefire, Col. Smith was the U.S. adviser in Liberia to the Economic Cooperation of West African States, or ECOWAS, the regional alliance that provided the first peacekeepers. The make-or-break element, he said, has been deep involvement of both the United States and the international community. That's been a motivation for peace. "It's something that you will hear among Liberian leaders," he said.

Col. Smith lists several heartening signs. Ousted President Charles Taylor, who resigned under pressure last August, was the stinger spurring rebel activity. Now indicted by a UN war tribunal in Sierra Leone, he's hiding out in Nigeria but with a $2 million U.S. bounty on his head. U.S. warships anchored offshore last summer as a further impetus to resolve the conflict. And UN peacekeeping troops are fanning out across Liberia, collecting rebel arms. When all 15,000 have arrived, they'll make the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

Warring sides are tired of fighting, too. Even rebel leaders, who now have spots in the transitional government, are keen on making this peace stick. A calm Liberia would help soothe conflicts in neighboring countries. In the last five years its civil war spread to Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, reportedly because Mr. Taylor armed their rebel groups in return for diamonds. The neighbors retaliated by arming Liberian rebels.

President Bryant said fighting has left Liberia a "portrait of utter destruction." More than 500,000 Liberians are internally displaced, with another 330,000 living as refugees in nearby countries. With only 3 million people, that figure represents almost a third of Liberia's population. Most homes haven't had piped water or electricity in 12 years. So fierce was the combat in the capital, Monrovia, locals dubbed it "World War I, II, and III."

President Bryant also hailed new vigor in U.S.-Liberia relations. The countries' histories go back to 1820, when a band of freed American slaves settled in West Africa, founding Liberia. But the ties grew cold during the civil war, culminating in a U.S. travel ban on Liberian officials three years ago for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone.

At the donors' conference, the United States contributed $200 million for reconstruction, and $245 million separately for UN peacekeeping. President Bryant was also the first Liberian leader in 13 years to meet with an American president when he discussed his country's future with President Bush. But President Bryant appealed to more than rejuvenated diplomacy with the United States: "Teach us new values, help us change our cultural violence. What we asked for [at the donors' conference] was simply to help us become civil again."

Already about 50,000 refugees have returned home, enticed by the promise of stability. Elections are planned for 2005. For now, the biggest hurdle is the tens of thousands of drug-addicted former child soldiers in the country. They're more adept at aiming AK-47s than simple arithmetic, and will now have to return to school. The recivilization of Liberia will be slow, but at least it has begun.

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