THE elements that crop up to blight much of western, sub-Saharan Africa are all present in the Liberian civil war: poverty, government corruption, indifference to human rights, and wanton killing fueled by tribal animosities. Right now, the United States or other nations outside the region can do little to alleviate the suffering, other than to try to protect the lives of foreign nationals and to hold up the lamp of civilized expectations. The war broke out last December, when a rebel force entered Liberia from the Ivory Coast to overthrow President Samuel Doe. Under Mr. Doe, who seized power in a violent 1980 coup, Liberia has seen increasingly ostentatious consumption by government leaders combined with a downhill slide in the nation's economic condition. So blatant were the corruption and mismanagement presided over by Doe, that US economic aid, which averaged $100 million a year during the early '80s, has been cut by 90 percent.
Since its founding in 1822 by freed American slaves, Liberia was governed by an Americo-Liberian elite. The accession to power of Doe, a native Liberian, opened up the nation's politics, but it also allowed into the political arena pent-up tribal conflicts.
The recent announcement by five members of the Economic Community of West African States to send a peacekeeping force to Liberia could be a thin reed on which to fasten hopes. The force of 2,500 soldiers from Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone that is assembling in the latter country may not be effective in separating Liberia's government troops and the two rival rebel factions. Beyond that, it's not clear that these interveners - all but Gambia having authoritarian regimes - are qualified to carry out their professed plan to install an interim government in Liberia and then conduct a free and fair election.
Still, the collective attempt to come up with an African solution is welcome. It's better than simply allowing the war and the accompanying atrocities to go on.