Liberia's quest for legitimacy

Since the April 12 revolution that overthrew the government of Liberia -- the oldest independent African republic -- the only physical reminders of military rule are gun-toting soldiers and life-size posters that dot the city and proclaim the tenets of the popularly backed revolution: "honesty," "hard work," and an "end to corruption."

An uphill struggle for international political legitimacy is now being led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and the 27 members of the People's Redemption Council, the ultimate political and military authority. This campaign is attempting to instill confidence and create order and predictability in Liberia's relations with the international community, foreign businessmen, and financial institutions.

The new military elite has been only partly successful in translating its ideas and slogans into practical politics since the brutal executions of the former president, William Tolbert, and 13 close advisers. Part of the military's difficulties stem from their limited conceptual and practical range of policy alternatives.

Liberia's historical ally, the United States, has been attempting to convince the new leaders to conform to international standards of conduct ad crete a governmental infrastructure that woudl win the confidence of international and commercial bankers. High-level delegations from the US, one headed by Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry and three headed by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Richard Moose, have already visited Liberia. They have encouraged its government to allow human rights organizations to inspect prisons, to release political prisoners, to reinstate the supremacy of civilian courts over military tribunals, and to formulate a plan to return to civilian rule.

US support has gone beyond mere dialogue. It has included incentives such as training and money. Military sales approved for fiscal 1980 total $1.4 million for new equipment. Congress considered and approved reprogramming $5.2 million in economic support, $5.5 million in development assistance, and $1.07 million in military sales credits. Additional rice shipments will soon arrive in Monrovia, and US Special Forces are currently training the Liberian military in the rudiments of soldiering.

The US hopes that contact and commitment will lead to a more stable atmosphere and lessen the government's sense of insecurity, encourage private credit, encourage other donor assistance, and assist the government in adhering to International Monetary Fund stabilization requirements. The US also wants to retain its unchallenged "best friend" status and cut short any inroads that the Soviet Union might make with the new regime.

In the coup, American businesses lost millions of dollars and many America dependents were voluntarily evacuated. YEt today the general atmosphere and political climate appears relatively stable. The revolution has not inaugurated an anti-American era, and the ideals of the revolution appear to be ones that the US can support.

The government is liek a car tire spinning on ice. Since the coup, there has been little established policy. The internal political situation is fraught with rivalries, and lower echelon officials fear personal and professional harrasment by senior personnel. There is also a growing concern that Liberians are confusing freedom with license and that the revolutionary fervor is not being channeled toward any coherent structure or order.

Several power centers in Liberia are vying for control. These include the civilian ministers who are unsure of their relationship with members of the People's Redemption Council, who frequently overrule ministers' judgments and constantly interfere in daily operations. A second center is the council, and within the council are separate power enclaves. The dominant faction of the council includes military men with little education and administrative talent who have been harassing American businessmen and whose motives stem from economic hardship not from race or ideology. This harassment is contrary to guideliness issued by Master Sergeant Doe and it raises the question: Who is really in charge?

Unlike many council members, Sergeant Doe's senior personal advisers are capable and competent, and he and the council must learn how to work together an docme to grips with some of the basic concerns that are paramount to the business, financial, investment, and international communities.

Doe's ability to muster significant political will, achieve international legitimacy, and trnaslate ideas and slogans into a coherent and effective government are the keys to success. The sensitive and sensible approach adopted by the US toward the regime will continue to play a significant positive role in molding his reactions to the economic and political challenges he faces.

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