MONROVIA, Liberia - Beleaguered Liberian President Charles Taylor reaffirmed yesterday his commitment to leave Liberia, but he warned that the nation had not seen the last of his administration.
"We are not a vanquished government," Taylor told a cheering crowd that braved pouring rain at a rally. "This government remains the government of Liberia. And let me say to you, that the constitution of Liberia will prevail."
Taylor's comments raised questions about his departure, a precondition for the United States to send peacekeepers. Opponents believe that his words are cosmetic and are convinced that the president's supporters and political "inner circle" are trying to devise ways for him to stay.
"Traditionally, it is an abomination for a traditional leader to live in exile," said Cyril Allen, chairman of the ruling National Patriotic Party. "It is an abomination under our culture for a traditional ruler and leader to live outside of his mother's land."
Peace negotiations are under way between Taylor's government and rebels that have been fighting to force him from power. But many citizens, traumatized by 14 years of war, are pessimistic and do not expect a recent cease-fire to hold.
Most people continue to hope for the deployment of U.S. peacekeepers. Wrapping up a five-day trip to Africa yesterday, President Bush said the United States would be "active" in Liberia. But he repeated that he had not decided whether to send American troops to a country where rebels have threatened to fight peacekeepers if Taylor fails to leave before troops arrive.
Taylor has accepted a Nigerian offer of asylum but wants an international force in place before he goes. Yesterday, he described his prospective departure as necessary for the sake of peace in Liberia. "I have decided to be the sacrificial lamb [so] that you, our people, would live," Taylor told the animated crowd. But he has not given a date for his departure.
Analysts say Taylor's closest allies will go to any extreme to keep him in power. "He has his henchmen, who, without him, are nothing," said Twaplayfano Dohr, an associate professor of political science at the University of Liberia in Monrovia.
A United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal indicted the Liberian president last month on charges of helping to fuel a protracted and brutal civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Since then, several of his followers say they have become victims of assault.
"There has been a series of attacks and harassment on most of our members," said K. Johnson Borh, national secretary of the War Veteran Association of Liberia. "People say that we are fighters - and we brought war to Liberia and carried out destruction. Now that Charles Taylor has been indicted, they say it is their time to pay back."
Ghana has pledged 1,000 troops for an international peacekeeping mission, and Nigeria said it was ready to field two battalions. But many Monrovians believe that a West African peacekeeping force would serve to prop up Taylor's regime and that some soldiers might be easily bribed.
Analysts in West Africa said the ideal scenario would be for U.S. forces to secure Monrovia and gradually spread military tentacles throughout the country. Then the United Nations would step in and work with the American forces.
Ann M. Simmons is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.