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Many Liberians Worry Aid May Be a Short-Term Affair

Disarming the militias, prosecuting criminals and creating an elected government are some tasks that may require external commitment.

August 18, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Zoe Tarnue spent a month separated from her husband and four children after rebels seized the port and divided this capital.

Last week's cease-fire and rebel retreat allowed peacekeepers to reopen a key bridge and begin reuniting the city. To some, it was proof of the progress this West African nation is making following the exile on Aug. 11 of President Charles Taylor.

But to Tarnue, who earns a living as a midwife, any celebration is premature. To her, Liberia is still a danger zone that won't be safe without West African peacekeeping forces and the U.S. Marine Corps.

"They should stay, until there is peace," Tarnue said. "There should be an elected government here before they leave. Otherwise, our people will go back to the bush and continuing fighting."

Taylor may be gone, but the country he left is in ruins.

Unemployment is well over 80%, government officials say. Most civil servants have not been paid in two years. Businesses have collapsed because few can afford to buy goods. Those that have survived are prey to rampant looting and lawlessness.

"Liberia is economically in the worst situation it has ever been in," said Geoffrey Rudd, mission chief at the Office of the European Commission in Liberia. "It basically doesn't have an economy.

"The Taylor government has impoverished the country so much that it doesn't have the human and financial resources to return to normality in the foreseeable future," he said. "Liberians are going to require a lot of in-depth assistance."

Neighboring Sierra Leone, where the United Nations took charge following a recently ended civil war, may offer a template for Liberia's recovery. International military and financial assistance is credited with getting that country back on its feet. The economy is now functioning, and the government -- by being able to provide basic services -- has won credibility with its citizens, analysts and relief workers said.

"What we've learned from Sierra Leone is that it is not enough for a country to volunteer troops," said Carolyn McAskie, the U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator. "It is very easy for the [U.N.] Security Council to vote for 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 peacekeepers and then sit back and let poor countries with poorly equipped troops be the ones to put their boys on the front line. The countries with well equipped troops must participate."

In recent days, the U.S. has beefed up its presence in Liberia, deploying about 200 Marines to back up a steadily building West African force here.

Still, some in the Liberian government voice concerns that outside aid can become interference, threatening their nation's independence. They bristle at suggestions that Liberia become a protectorate, overseen by other nations.

"You cannot surrender the sovereignty of a people," said Economics Minister Samuel Jackson. "There is nothing wrong with this country. What is wrong ... is the external interference. All we need to do is put people in government with accountability and transparency."

That may be easier said than done. Delegates from the warring factions are trying to form a transitional government that would include all sides, with the goal of holding national elections. But the process has been slow and costly, and a head of state and vice head of state -- as the interim leaders will be known -- are still to be chosen.

"The first priority is a government that wants to govern the population for the benefit of the population rather than to exploit the population for their own benefit," said Rudd, the European Commission official. "The problem with Charles Taylor is that he refused to govern the country and wanted to exploit the country."

Such exploitation permeated every segment of society. Under Taylor, people complained that both the militia and government security forces would beat them and shake them down for bribes. With a corrupt justice system -- from police to judges -- victims had nowhere to turn for relief. And with Taylor's vice president, Moses Blah, now temporarily at the helm, many here are worried that the style of governance will not change.

Observers say disarming the militias -- perhaps by putting them to work or sending them to school -- will be one of the keys to stability. Another will be bringing outlaws to justice.

"All those who have been accused of serious atrocities and human rights violations will have to be judged," said Krista Riddley, Africa advocacy director in the Washington office of Amnesty International. "That's what is going to allow Liberians to amend and reconcile."

Amnesty International has called for Nigeria, which gave Taylor asylum, to surrender the former Liberian leader to the international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone or open an investigation to determine whether to pursue criminal or extradition proceedings against him in Nigerian courts.

Taylor has been indicted by the international court on charges that he helped sponsor the campaign of brutal Sierra Leonean rebels, whose trademark was hacking off limbs.

In countries like Sierra Leone and South Africa, a truth and reconciliation commission has allowed victims to share their stories and get a sense of closure.

Many here are hopeful that the international community will stick around long enough to help with the healing -- and not leave Liberia to muddle its way back into civil war -- as has been the case in the past.

McAskie, the U.N. official, says that the international commitment is there.

"The difference now is that the international community is not just helping to broker a process and walk away," McAskie said. "We are going to help broker a process and then stay to see it implemented."

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