Hope for Liberia

September 02, 1995

There is more hope in war-shattered, starving Liberia today than at any time since Charles Taylor launched civil war in 1989. A cease-fire (the 13th) has held all week. Mr. Taylor and five rivals for power are all back in Monrovia, as members of a transitional council charged with restoring the country and holding a free election next August.

All factions signed the accord in Abuja, Nigeria, Aug. 19. Soldiers of the joint West African force, ECOMOG, are keeping order in the capital. Supporters greeted both Mr. Taylor and his nemesis, Alhaji Kromah. The fragile peace is holding.

It comes none too soon. The economy has stopped. War and anarchy virtually halted food distribution. Malnutrition is gripping the population. Now, presumably, the nongovernmental organization community can resume distribution.

As in Cambodia, the Liberian tragedy has a strong U.S. interest and dimension, while the leading efforts at peace-making have been undertaken by others. For this the U.S. must be grateful. Successions of Liberian regimes have been virtually U.S. protectorates. U.S. businesses -- rubber and other -- have had enormous stakes in the economy. Its institutions are modeled on ours.

But that does not mean the U.S. took responsibility when Liberia descended into anarchy. Fortunately, Liberia's neighbors in West Africa, not model democracies themselves, did intervene for humanitarian concern and benign motives. Conspicuous is the Nigerian regime, much criticized for its own abuse of power, which has led the way in imposing a decent settlement on Liberia.

There is no promise of success. Personal ambition and greed rather than ideological purity drive the rival forces. Forceful leadership by the council chairman, Wilton Sankawulo, a leading writer and academic, will be needed. The council must restart normal life, militia disarmament and an open political process.

A start has been made, which is more than could be said before.

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