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Mending Torn Liberia

Without US and UN aid, the country could stumble back into war

ON the evening of Sunday, July 25, representatives of the two warring groups and the interim government of Liberia signed an agreement in Cotonou, Benin, to end a war that began on Christmas eve 1989 and has cost thousands of lives. It took several months of patient negotiations by Trevor Gordon-Somers, special representative of the United Nations secretary-general, to achieve this breakthrough.

Decisions made this month in Washington and New York will determine whether the means will be provided to implement it.

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The Cotonou Agreement will be implemented jointly by the Economic Community of West African States Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the regional peacekeeping force, and the UN. The Security Council must approve an expected request for observers to monitor and verify the disarmament process. And someone will have to pay for thousands of peacekeeping troops. The Security Council must provide several hundred monitors.

The country most involved in seeking a solution, apart from Liberia's regional neighbors, has been the United States. When anarchy prevailed in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in 1990, following a stalled attempt to overthrow the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe, many Liberians deplored the fact that American marines were sent ashore just to protect their fellow citizens.

A cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 1, and a transitional government with representatives from all sides of the conflict must be established. If the US government does not step in decisively within the next few weeks and commit the funds to consolidate the imminent but precarious peace, Liberia could stumble back into all-out war as occurred last year in Angola.

Since December 1989, with the incursion of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of Charles Taylor to seek to topple the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe, half the population of 2.5 million has been displaced or forced to seek refuge abroad, and the country was eventually partitioned between the NPFL, the United Liberation Movement for the Independence of Liberia (ULIMO), and the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU).

Until recently, the latter's role was effectively limited to Monrovia and depended almost completely on ECOMOG troops. As the war raged, then waned, it was the US government that provided most of the humanitarian assistance to sustain the population, over $250 million worth.

Nigeria has provided most of the ECOMOG forces since this exercise began in August 1990. However, in view of the great confusion in Nigeria's own transition from military rule, and the adamant refusal of Charles Taylor to disarm to an ECOMOG that is overwhelmingly Nigerian in composition, the fate of the Cotonou Agreement may depend on the speed with which an expanded and reconfigured ECOMOG is put in place.

Experience with previous peace accords and cease-fires in Liberia, as well as with other African countries such as Angola and Mozambique, demonstrate that gains made at the peace table can be undone by the inadequacy of the process of disarming the combatants. A joint cease-fire monitoring committee will initially oversee the Liberian cease-fire, but that is only a holding operation until the full peacekeeping exercise is established.

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The present five-member interim electoral commission will be expanded to seven with the addition of two ULIMO delegates. The interim supreme court and legislative assembly will similarly be broadened to include representatives from all three sides. While overseeing the military dimensions of the Cotonou Agreement, the UN and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - the parent body of ECOMOG - will have their hands full keeping representatives of the three parties to the agreement from thr ottling the work of these institutions in pursuit of their partisan interests.

The agreement optimistically calls for elections in seven months - an unduly short period for disarming the country, reintegrating 500,000 refugees, promoting reconciliation, and preparing for a national poll. Of immediate concern is that all of these measures have been decided without any indication as to who will pay to implement them. Although the UN is strapped for funds and is overextended in peacemaking operations, it has a critical role to play. To avoid the collapse of the Cotonou Agreement, the US must give high priority to establishing peace and democracy in Liberia.

By promoting an international effort to assist reconstruction, President Clinton can strengthen a unique bond that was established when President James Monroe permitted government funds to be used in 1820 to launch the repatriation mission to West Africa of the American Colonization Society.

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