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History repeats itself in Liberia

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After a political rival murdered a New York City councilman in City Hall last week, the killer was shot dead by a policeman. Imagine the reaction if, instead, he'd been offered his victim's office in exchange for disarming. But that's the equivalent of what has happened in the past in Liberia and is happening again.

Samuel Doe, Liberia's dictator from 1980 to 1990, came to power by mutilating and murdering his predecessor. As corrupt as he was incompetent, Doe nevertheless survived numerous coup attempts by being more ruthless than his challengers. When he rigged the elections in 1985, the Reagan administration defended them as "relatively" free and fair.

At the end of 1989, Charles Taylor launched an attempt to overthrow Doe. By June 1990, fighting raged in the streets of Monrovia, the capital, and scores of innocent civilians were killed each day. The first President Bush ordered a three-ship task force with 2,000 marines and 2,500 sailors to take position off the coast. Two months later, as the situation became even worse, several hundred US marines were sent ashore, but only to protect the embassy and evacuate foreigners.

Shortly after that, a West African peacekeeping force, led by Nigeria, landed in Monrovia's port. Doe, thinking the Nigerians would protect him, visited their headquarters one day. He was wrong. A rebel faction captured him there and within hours he lay dead and mutilated.

Despite Doe's death, the war continued as one peace agreement after another was made and then broken. In 1996, American forces intervened again, but only to evacuate foreigners. In 1997, elections were held with UN assistance.

Taylor made clear that if he lost he would resume the war. The international community, anxious for any peaceful outcome, sat by as he blackmailed his way to the presidency.

The West African peacekeepers finally departed in 1999, nearly a decade after they arrived. When they were not embroiled in the fighting, they spent their time looting. The peace didn't last as Taylor proved even more ruthless, corrupt, and incompetent than Doe, and two rebel groups sprang up seeking to overthrow him.

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