Liberia: From Bad to Worse?

The ruthless Samuel K. Doe came to power in a bloody coup 10 years ago and apparently met his own end at the hands of another brazen aspirant to power in Liberia. Now four men claim to be the president. Amid the chaos, the West African peace-keeping forces must hunker down, stay and expand. They are the only hope, however tenuous, for an end to a nearly nine-month civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 5,000 civilians.

The decade of Doe's rule was marked by shocking human slaughter, and, his many critics say, unabashed looting of the government treasury. But he held on, largely based on a popularity fueled by resentment of previous political dominance by the Americo-Liberians, descendants of freed American slaves who declared Liberia an independent republic in 1847.

Last December, a rebellion against the Doe regime was led by former Doe lieutenant Charles Taylor; another rebel group splintered off, that one led by Prince Johnson. Both Taylor, who controls the largest number of troops and land, and Johnson, who apparently succeeded in eliminating Doe, have indicated through their own erratic behavior that they do not hold the answer to a peaceful solution.

That leaves the West African peace-keeping forces as the only alternative. Admittedly, it doesn't inspire confidence that the attack on Doe took place at the heavily guarded headquarters of the forces of the Economic Community of West African States, which were dispatched last month to end the fighting and set up an interim government to promote free elections.

But the West African card is still the only one that gives any hope for peace and freedom in Liberia. The five nations of the force--Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Guinea--deserve support for their efforts so far, however imperfect, but need additional backing from other African nations.

Meanwhile, shortages of food, medicine and water are worsening. The U.S. government rightly boosted its humanitarian aid to civilians by sending disaster relief experts and food. But the West African peace-keepers must find a way to allow that relief to reach the Liberian people.

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