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Liberians optimistic about peace deal

The two top posts in Liberia's interim government are expected to be named Wednesday.

By Nicole ItanoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2003



MONROVIA, LIBERIA

Under intense international pressure, the three parties in Liberia's civil war signed a peace agreement on Monday intended to establish a transitional government and pave the way for elections no later than 2005. [Editor's note: The original version of this article stated the wrong date for the next elections.]

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The businesslike end to 2-1/2 months of peace talks in Ghana's capital, Accra, reflects a broad determination to bring to a close 14 years of factional fighting. War-weary Liberians are convinced that this peace deal will stick, cementing the current two-week-old cease-fire.

"We have to go through this fire to be purified, like gold before it becomes bright," says John Billon, an employee with the government. "But eventually we will be No. 1 in Africa."

The peace deal requires some give and take from all sides. Pressed by the United States and West African leaders to come to an agreement, all of the parties - the government and two rebel groups - backed down from long-held demands, ultimately getting less than they wanted. But the rebels had already won their key demand last week, when former President Charles Taylor stepped down and left for exile in Nigeria on Aug. 11.

According to the terms of the agreement, the Liberian government agrees to give Liberia's two rebel groups equal status in the transitional government. The rebel groups gave up demands for the presidency and vice presidency, instead accepting parity in the parliament and cabinet. No combatant group will hold either position as the country's temporary chairman or vice chairman, both of whom will be drawn from civil society and nonarmed opposition.

Liberia's political parties and civil groups worked Tuesday to choose candidates. The names will be submitted to the rebel movements and the government for their final selection, with the two leaders due to be picked by the end of the day Wednesday.

The new interim government will take control on Oct. 14 and govern until January 2006, when free elections will be held.

"I believe this definitely buries the war. Charles Taylor has departed; the major reason why these groups have been fighting has been removed," Mohamed Ibn Chambas, secretary-general of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

But this will be the fourth transitional government in Liberia in the past decade and a half, and there are still many dangers ahead.

The first transitional government, implemented in August 1990, was an abject failure, kept alive mainly by the presence of West African peacekeepers.

The last, inaugurated six years later, served for one tumultuous year before Mr. Taylor's election in 1997. Many observers say Taylor was able to win the election because the last transitional gov- ernment failed to prepare Liberians for the poll. Michael Francis, archbishop of Monrovia, says many steps, including disarmament, demobilization, repatriation of refugees, and the creation of a new national army, did not occur.

As a result, many people voted for Taylor because they did not feel they had a choice. "We hope this time around, because the United Nations is involved and because of the involvement of the international community, the agreements will be upheld," Archbishop Francis says. "We are tired of warlords."

The task of reuniting and rebuilding the traumatized country will require enormous international investment, both to ensure the peace process remains on track and to restore the country's infrastructure. President Bush said that US troops will remain in Liberia, supporting what will ultimately be a 3,250-member West African force, until Oct. 1, at that point turning peacekeeping over to the UN.

Francis Daniels, president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, says Liberia is deeply in debt and largely blacklisted by international financial institutions. Most of its professional class has fled into exile, its infrastructure is destroyed, and many of its people are traumatized or uneducated. An estimated 80 percent of the country is unemployed, and illiteracy has skyrocketed during a generation of conflict. And thousands of child soldiers know no other life but war.

"We need help to rebuild our infrastructure, both human and physical," says Daniel. "Liberia could be a rich country, but it needs help to realize that potential."

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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