As the frightened residents of Monrovia watch the chaotic drama of war play out around them, it's not just the various militia factions that they watch with trepidation. Just as important - and just as chaotic - have been the advances, retreats, and about-faces of the 8,000 or so West African peacekeepers stationed here.
The peace force, known by its regional economic community acronym Ecomog, had managed to keep the capital, Monrovia, as Liberia's last safe area since 1990. But that success crumbled last month when the soldiers in green camouflage fled their posts and seemed to disappear as factional violence engulfed the capital. Now struggling to reassert themselves, they face a crisis of confidence.
It's a crisis with big implications for other such fledgling regional peacekeeping efforts. As foreign aid budgets shrink in the absence of cold war tensions, Western nations are increasingly unwilling to insert their troops into quagmires such as Liberia's. Diplomats say Ecomog-style efforts may be the only recourse for small, troubled nations in the future.
But so far Ecomog hasn't engendered confidence among Liberians. "The only way I will feel satisfactory with Ecomog is when Ecomog is deployed along with US Marines that are on the ground," says Jerry Wonde, a Liberian computer operator who refuses to venture from military barracks downtown where he has taken refuge.
Patrick Okoh, the force's Nigerian spokesman, insists the loss of the capital last month was not due to incompetence. He says the problem was that several military factions had taken up arms alongside government forces, making it hard to define a clear-cut aggressor. "There was no way we could have sided with one group and the other group would not have accused us. So what we did was to ensure that government establishments were protected."
Mr. Okoh says soldiers first secured the Executive Mansion, "where the factions would have rushed and said, 'OK, I'm now the president.' " Ecomog also held the seaport, airport, and telephone company. Still, the loss of the capital has been a real setback for an already troubled force that diplomats once hoped would blaze new paths in regional problem-solving.
Nigeria led 16 West African nations in creating the peace force in 1990 after both the United Nations and the United States declined to intervene in Liberia's civil war.
That year, and again in 1992, the troops prevented militia leader Charles Taylor from storming Monrovia and seizing power. Store signs and car bumper stickers around town proclaimed, "Thank God for Ecomog."
But along with the successes, the force drew criticism for siding with certain factions, principally the Armed Forces of Liberia and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). Africa Rights Watch, a US-based monitoring group, has condemned Ecomog for failing to stop human rights abuses by these groups.
According to relief workers and diplomats, Ecomog's has shared in the widespread looting. Spoils include iron ore, rubber, tropical wood, and booty from diamond and gold mines. Witnesses have also described soldiers carting vehicles, refrigerators, and air conditioners onto freighters bound for their home countries. Locals have even coined their own definition of Ecomog: "Every Car Or Movable Object Gone."
In addition, foreign diplomats accuse soldiers of dealing arms to Liberia's factions and of providing cover for a booming drug trade from Nigeria.
Peacekeeping commanders have long complained that they need about 4,000 more soldiers to be effective. But foreign donations that could fund the hires haven't come through. Of $147 million pledged by member countries of the UN for Liberia last fall, part of which was earmarked for Ecomog, donor countries have so far paid only about 5 percent.
Countries like Nigeria, which has spent an estimated $4 billion on Ecomog, may be questioning their commitment. Ghana's president Jerry Rawlings recently warned that without a change of heart among Liberia's faction heads, his country and others may soon pull out of Ecomog.
Since then, Ecomog's troops seem to have reassert themselves, at least twice firing on rebels who approached an area held by peacekeepers. The troops have also secured Monrovia's port, where tens of thousands of tons of food donated by relief agencies is stored.
Speaking for the US, which recently pledged another $30 million for equipment and training, Assistant Secretary of State William Twaddell said recently that "by no means" can Ecomog be written off as a failure yet.