A QUIET initiative by West African governments offers a fragile hope for ending the civil war in Liberia that has killed thousands of people, made half the population refugees, and spilled into neighboring countries. Although West Africans are divided over the 17-month-long Liberian conflict, rebel incursions into Sierra Leone and Guinea, meant to weaken those countries and undermine support for peacekeeping efforts, have instead spurred renewed efforts by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to find peace.
Already, an ECOWAS peacekeeping force controls Monrovia, Liberia's capital, where an interim government operates under ECOWAS auspices. In addition, moves to find a solution gained fresh impetus when fighting spread into new areas of Sierra Leone last week, and fleeing refugees reported continued killing by rebels in southeastern Liberia.
West African states are increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Charles Taylor, leader of the main rebel group, who pulled out of an ECOWAS-sponsored "All Liberian Conference" in April, which was to lead to free elections later this year.
Acting President Amos Sawyer made a diplomatic breakthrough last week at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Nigeria when he was received with full honors and seated with more than 30 other heads of state.
The OAU action followed a flurry of diplomacy within the region, as well as stepped-up activity in Liberia by the peacekeeping force. ECOWAS troops blockaded Buchanan, a port 65 miles southeast of Monrovia, which Mr. Taylor has been using to export timber and rubber to finance his rival administration. At least one ship has been diverted to Monrovia and its cargo seized.
Two important players in the ECOWAS operations are President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Africa's longest-serving head of state, and President Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria, the region's dominant power.
Nigerians make up half the 7,000 ECOWAS forces and are key to any widened peace-keeping action. Ivory Coast shares a 350-mile border with Liberia, and, though sympathetic to Taylor's efforts to oust former Liberian dictator Samuel Doe, Ivorian leaders are worried about his intentions, especially after he quit the peace conference and fighting began in Sierra Leone.
Ivory Coast's role will become more important if ECOWAS extends its blockade of Buchanan, because Ivory Coast is the only outlet for Taylor's exports.
Taylor controls most of Liberia, although many people have fled to neighboring countries or to Monrovia, which harbors about one-third of Liberia's 2.3 million people. Taylor, who sees the ECOWAS plan to sponsor elections as a Nigerian ploy to bar him from power, insists he either head the interim government or share power with Mr. Sawyer. Sawyer, who is barred by the peace plan from running for the presidency, has challenged Taylor to test his popularity at the polls.
MEANWHILE, the United States has boosted ECOWAS efforts. Late last month, the US Justice Department asked a federal court to "confer standing" on Liberia's interim government which would allow it to "present claims and defenses for the Republic of Liberia." The action means the interim government can contest a lawsuit filed by an international bank for nonpayment of its debts, and thus try to free some of Liberia's frozen international assets.
If successful, the move would be a crucial victory for Sawyer. Doe left Liberia's treasury bare, and the government has been running with virtually no money.
"This is not official, formal recognition," said Leonard Robinson, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, from Washington. "But it does indicate our support for the efforts ECOWAS is making." Mr. Robinson said the US "will follow suit" if West African states establish diplomatic relations with Monrovia. Liberia, which was founded in 1822 by freed American slaves, has long had close ties with the US.
An important next step could be for Sawyer to meet with Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, followed by an Ivorian-sponsored session between Sawyer and Taylor. However, Taylor's critics believe he is trying to stall moves toward peace for personal gain. "He is shipping timber, iron ore, diamonds, and rubber out of the country and depositing the proceeds in a private Swiss bank account," says Paul Reichler, a Washington attorney representing the interim government. "The longer it takes to settle, the more he can accum u
Meanwhile, Nigeria is pushing the ECOWAS process forward. Mr. Babangida has sent more than a thousand troops to Sierra Leone, where they could be used in a pincer action against Taylor's forces, if ECOWAS decides to attack him from Monrovia. The next phase of the ECOWAS peace plan calls for opening Liberia's roads so relief supplies can reach areas desperately needing food and medicines. Liberians could move freely, and the many divided families could be reunited.