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Liberia Makes a Fresh Start After Six Years of Civil War

AFTER a dozen failed peace agreements, it appears as if a solution finally has been found to end nearly six years of war in Liberia and potentially give tumultuous West Africa a much-needed boost of confidence.

A new transitional government was sworn in last Friday, including Liberia's three main warlords, Charles Taylor, George Boley, and Alhaji Kromah. Thousands thronged the streets of the capital, Monrovia, to get a glimpse of them as hundreds of West African peacekeepers guarded the downtown pavilion where the ceremony was held.

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People danced and sang under small red, white, and blue banners - initially flown by the freed American slaves who settled Liberia early last century - in the first massive public celebration since war broke out in December 1989. More than 150,000 people died, and most of the population of 2.5 million is displaced.

A different interim government had been inaugurated in March last year, but the ceremony lacked the enthusiasm of Friday's celebration. Continued fighting in the countryside and power struggles among faction leaders ground the transition process to a halt.

Progress for W. Africa

The new government is to last one year, leading to elections. If it is able to work harmoniously and bring about the demobilization of more than 50,000 rebels and defunct national army troops it will bode well for West Africa as a whole.

The peace agreement signed last month was largely a regional undertaking involving Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria. Nigeria, followed by Ghana, leads the regional peacekeeping force protecting Monrovia since late 1990.

''There is a time to fight and a time to make peace, a time to give up, and a time to agree,'' said Ghanian President Jerry Rawlings, who led the inauguration. ''Today in Liberia ... it is time for peace. It is time for the ballot and not the bullet.''

Mr. Rawlings chairs the Economic Community of West African States - the umbrella organization for the regional peacekeeping force. His tough approach was instrumental in reaching an agreement.

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The change in Nigeria's leadership also played a role in the peace process. Taylor, who began the war to oust the decade-long military dictatorship of Samuel Doe, long harbored resentment against Nigeria's former President Ibrahim Babangida, accusing him of arming Mr. Doe. But after failing to make gains on the battlefield, Taylor approached his replacement Gen. Sani Abacha, who came to power in 1993.

Liberians had been waiting for their warlords to make peace, but they were looking for the wrong handshake. Ironically, it finally came from the iron fist: Nigeria, black Africa's most populous and powerful nation.

General Abacha said in a speech sent to the celebrations that strong efforts have been made to bring peace to Liberia because his country ''couldn't sit and watch the black man become the laughing stock of the world.''

The long bitterness between the Nigerian government and Taylor had been one of the largest impediments to peace. Nigeria has played a key role in the conflict. Nigerian forces were largely responsible for looting much of the country's scrap metal and selling off precious hardwoods to Europe, diplomatic sources say.

Taylor appears to have forgiven the peacekeeping force for preventing him from seizing the executive mansion in 1990, and it seems as if the Nigerians have forgiven him for attacking their troops in 1992.

''I think we should be proud of ourselves that Africans are capable of solving their problems, because without the help of the Ghanaians and the Nigerians I don't think we would have made it,'' said Taylor spokeswoman Victoria Reffell. ''What we weren't able to do before, maybe this war has done for us - coming together.''

Few people here believe that Taylor, known for his intransigence and breaking promises, did not extend more to the Nigerians than just his hand. It could be as simple as giving Nigeria some type of favored-nation trading status if he becomes president.

''There's no deal,'' said Nigerian Maj. Sola Kinola, a peacekeeping spokesman. ''All we are saying is that Liberians themselves can solve their problems .... If there is peace in Liberia, there is peace in the sub-region.''

Power to warlords

Sufficiently accommodating the country's warlords, who were not given enough political power last year, has also been key in reaching an agreement.

''Those are the guys with the guns. Those are the guys who can do something, and if they can't do it then nobody else can,'' said one senior diplomat.

The international community has grown frustrated with Liberia. It will closely monitor the new government's performance before releasing funds to help rebuild the country. The mandate of a UN observer force in Liberia expires on Sept. 15, but will most likely be extended.

Malaise, a lack of expertise, and preparedness in that force, however, could further complicate the disarmament process, observers say.

Donors and Liberians alike will be keeping a close watch as to whether the new leaders will be able to tame the ethnic rivalry that initially led to war.

But there appears to be a genuine will among Liberians to put ethnic hatred aside. The spirit of forgiveness was most apparent the day Taylor returned to Monrovia. A man once labeled a killer, and who armed children, was given a hero's welcome.

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