Liberian president plans to step down, but what next?

Taylor's VP is expected to take over Monday amid concern over how he'll be welcomed.

This was a weekend of waiting in Monrovia. The city is beginning to come to life again - shops are reopening, streets are being swept, and piles of trash are being removed - but there is an anxious mood all the same.

The question on everyone's mind here is whether President Charles Taylor will indeed step down Monday as promised, and whether his successor - expected to be Vice President Moses Blah - will be accepted by the rebels and by the people.

Mr. Taylor says he will step down in a ceremony Monday at 11:59 a.m., and at least two influential African presidents, Thabo Mbekiof South Africa and of Nigeria, are scheduled to attend the event to ensure things go as planned.

But while all eyes are focused on Taylor's impending departure, important questions linger about what will happen in the post-Taylor period.

The rebels have said they will not accept Mr. Blah, a former Taylor general and party insider - and there are not yet enough peacekeepers on the ground to hold the peace if fighting resumes.

"Can you tell me the difference between Moses Blah and Taylor?" asks Sekou Fofana, an official with the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), who control part of Monrovia, including the city's strategic port.

"They are the same. We will not accept Moses Blah to take on the seat of power.... We will not allow any military man to take over."

While making their dissatisfaction with Blah known, the rebels have sent mixed messages about how exactly they will respond to Monday's expected transition.

Some say they will take up arms immediately; others say they will wait until the negotiations taking place in Accra, Ghana - where government officials, opposition parties, and rebel groups including LURD and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) are trying to create a transitional government - are complete.

In theory, Blah's presidency would be only temporary, a transition between Taylor and the new government being finalized in Accra. Eventually, new elections should be held.

West African leaders who have pressured Taylor to step down have emphasized that any transition must take place under the Liberian Constitution. Like the US Constitution it is modeled after, it calls for the vice president to step in if the president can no longer serve.

And the president himself, who seems to want his departure to have at least the appearance of legality, is going through the process of an official handover.

But this facade of legitimacy may be rapidly crumbling. On Thursday, Taylor called a joint session of the Liberian Congress to name his successor. Only 33 of the 90 representatives attended. They sat clustered in one corner of the country's House of Representatives while looters carried out sofas and air conditioners from nearby offices.

Outside, the national director of police patrolled the city, his five motorcycle guards in tow, pulled along by rope because of a lack of fuel anywhere in the city.

On Saturday, a few hundred people gathered to catch a glimpse of Taylor as he said farewell to the executive committee of his party. Party loyalists were there, chanting and singing the president's praises, but many had come just for a final glimpse of their warlord-president.

"I came to see him for the last time," said Joseph Sumo Sr. "It's good that he's stepping down because people say he is the problem here."

Worry over possible puppet president

One danger for Liberia is that the president will step down, but refuse to leave the country and continue to control Blah and the country from behind the scenes. Presidential aides have indicated that the Liberian leader will not leave until war-crimes charges against him in neighboring Sierra Leone are dropped.

Nor does anyone know much about Blah, or how he may yield his new power. With most government agencies looted or destroyed, their staff scattered, the presidency has become the nexus of the Liberian government.

Speaking to the Associated Press last week, Blah said he would share power with rebels inside Liberia and those outside, now in Accra.

"Let bygones be bygones," he said. "If there is power, we can share it."

But Blah has been largely silent about his plans since being named Taylor's successor.

The former general is one of Taylor's oldest companions. He trained with the president in Libya before crossing with Taylor into Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast in 1989. Blah, who was known as a tough guerrilla commander under Taylor, was appointed vice president in 2000.

There is also evidence that the Liberian government is continuing to arm itself, despite the cease-fire.

Early last Thursday, a Boeing 707 carrying weapons landed at the airport outside Monrovia. The weapons were confiscated by Nigerian peacekeepers. But The Washington Post reported that this was the second such shipment in recent weeks, both of which, the Post reported, came from Libya.

At the Paynesville Community School on the outskirts of Monrovia, 2,500 displaced people still spend their nights crammed together in the school's few rooms and their days foraging for food in nearby swamps.

Hopeful, but still skeptical

They will rejoice if Taylor leaves, they say, but no one is yet returning home. They do not trust Blah or the rebels.

"Most Liberians are saying there should be a United Nations trusteeship," says Byron Wilson, executive director of Youth Aid, a local NGO helping the displaced here. Like many of the city's local aid workers, he has had to relocate. "We want someone neutral."

"Forget the Constitution," chimes in Randolph Bernard, another displaced man. "Liberian law is already broken. According to the Constitution, no one who raises arms against the state should be president," he says with a laugh.

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