IN a poignant address to the Liberian Transitional Assembly on July 6, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of a visit by Nelson Mandela to Liberia in the early 1960s. Mandela, it turns out, was given a sum of money by the Liberian government to support the struggle against apartheid. That report by Dr. Tutu stunned his listeners. While South Africa enjoys a united government under Nelson Mandela, Liberia, one of its former benefactors, is fragmented into several armed camps.
Liberia has been the scene of intermittent fighting since the insurgency of December 1989 to topple the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe. On July 25, 1994, Liberians observed the first anniversary of the signing of a comprehensive peace accord in Cotonou, Benin, designed to end the multiple conflicts that have since emerged.
Despite the expansion of ECOMOG (the peacekeeping force dispatched to Liberia in 1990 by the Economic Community of West African States), the addition of soldiers from Tanzania and Uganda, and the deployment of 400 United Nations military observers, the country is bogged down between war and peace.
In the past year, only token disarmament has occurred, and the Sept. 7 deadline for holding multiparty elections is approaching. Every day there are reports of armed clashes. As many as 100,000 civilians are estimated to have fled the fighting in the southeast since the start of the year.
In response to an invitation from The Carter Center in Atlanta and the Liberian Council of Churches, Tutu paid a four-day visit to Liberia from July 3 to July 6 to help energize the faltering peace process.
In private meetings, church services, and radio broadcasts, Tutu exhorted the armed factions - now five or six in number, depending on how they are counted - to follow the example of South Africa and seek a peaceful resolution of their conflicts. He urged the faction leaders to call an end to the fighting, initiate face-to-face talks, and help extend the authority of the Liberian National Transitional Government (LNTG) established on March 7, 1994.
Despite so many failed attempts during the past four years to bring peace to their country, Liberians should not give in to a sense of hopelessness, Tutu said. ``If South Africa could achieve accommodation among its diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural groups, what prevents Liberia from doing likewise?'' he reportedly asked. He held out the image of a future Liberia that, as a country that had overcome the divisions caused by armed conflict, could serve as a model for other war-torn countries in Africa and the rest of the world.
Invigorated by Tutu's visit, and in acknowledgment of the anniversary of the Cotonou accord, Liberian groups and institutions have been challenged by Carter Center representatives in Monrovia to reach across faction lines and conduct reconciliation meetings during the week of July 25-31. After separate meetings with four faction leaders in Monrovia, Tutu traveled on July 5 to Gbarnga to meet the head of the National Patriotic Forces of Liberia (NPLF), Charles Taylor, who led the initial struggle against the Doe regime in 1989-90. In an impromptu move, David Kpomakpor, chairman of the five-person Council of State of the four-month old LNTG, decided to accompany Tutu, along with other members of his government, to meet with Mr. Taylor. Following this meeting, the NPLF issued a statement pledging to respect the Cotonou accord, including its provisions for disarmament and free elections, and acknowledging that ``the time for dialogue was now.''
The other faction leaders also agreed to heed Tutu's plea to respect a cease-fire throughout the country and to participate in high-level direct discussions. At the very time that Tutu's visit was taking place, the UN Security Council was reviewing a report on the Liberian situation and also lending its support to a meeting of the faction leaders before the end of July. No such meeting has taken place in Liberia since the conflict began.
The time has come for every armed Liberian faction to make a solemn public declaration instructing its combatants to terminate offensive actions. They must be willing to discipline anyone who disobeys that order and act collectively to prevent the emergence of more armed groups. Such restraint should extend to the persistent harassment of relief workers and UN observers. There should also be a concerted effort to create conditions for the secure movement of relief supplies to the areas most affected by skirmishing among the armed groups.
Finally, the LNTG should exercise the full authority bestowed on it by the Contonou accord. All signatories to the accord are now represented in the LNTG. The spirit of inclusiveness, based on the South African experience that Tutu so ardently recommended, should make it possible to include the nonsignatory factions within the broader frame of the government.
The world desperately needs models of how conflicts within nations can be resolved in the post-cold-war era. Liberia can be such a model. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.