New breakdown in Liberia U.S. evacuation: Africa's country with most U.S. influence is also one of saddest.

April 10, 1996

THE NOTION that some African countries cannot function as nation states has subsided lately. Sierra Leone held a successful election that appears to have ended its anarchy. Benin just held an orderly election. Newly independent Eritrea, with more baggage of war and ethnic chaos than most, is remarkably successful at nation-building. And -- most gratifying to Americans -- Liberia seemed to end its dreadful civil war last August.

Now with a new outburst of fighting, the progress in Liberia is brutally set back. The State Department rightly instituted an evacuation of some 450 Americans who were courageously remaining in the country. Irony of ironies, the country with sufficient stability for staging the evacuation is Sierra Leone.

The adjoining countries are not exactly twins. But their founding was similar, as has been their recent chaos. Both were founded by freed slaves from America -- Sierra Leone by British abolitionists and Liberia by American abolitionists. Sierra Leone became a British colony and then protectorate and then independent. Nominally independent Liberia was a U.S. protectorate in fact for much of its history.

They broke down in recent years, each fractured by warlords with ethnic followings. Sierra Leone's election holds great promise of restoring national identity and institutions. There was hope that the coalition created for Liberia would do the same. But the strong men surround themselves with "soldiers" who are really teen-aged boys kidnapped from their parents and given guns and drugs and no discipline.

Liberians who had hoped since 1989 that the Americans would restore serenity are again disabused. The Yanks are not coming to their rescue. Liberians must put their house in order because, for better or worse, no one else will.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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