"We saw hell in Liberia," a Nigerian who recently escaped fresh fighting in the war-ravaged country told Lagos' Vanguard newspaper. The papers say the latest surge of violence between rebels and the government around Liberia's capital, Monrovia—inevitably also striking civilians—is fueling calls for U.S. intervention.
A peace accord signed by rebels and the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor in Ghana last week called for a national unity government—sans Taylor—to be formed within a month. Days after signing the deal, Taylor reneged, refusing to step aside. Fighting erupted anew, and rebels say they will not stop until they have seized the capital and ousted Taylor. Taylor was elected president in 1997, after an eight-year civil war he had launched. Anti-Taylor rebel movements, linked to conflicts the president is alleged to have fomented in neighboring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, began about three years ago. Rebels are now said to control about two-thirds of the country.
In recent days, rebels closed in on Monrovia, foreigners fled the capital, and hundreds of civilians died—including several June 25, when explosives struck a U.S. Embassy annex where refugees were seeking haven. This is the closest rebel groups have come to taking the capital. Britain's Daily Telegraph said, "The advance marks the greatest crisis Taylor has faced since he rose to power as a warlord 13 years ago." Taylor, known for his support of brutal rebel movements throughout the region—including alleged guns-for-diamonds trading—and his brazen defiance in the face of U.N. sanctions and sweeping international condemnation, now also faces war crimes charges presented June 4 by a U.N. special court in neighboring Sierra Leone.
The humanitarian crisis stemming from Liberia's conflicts is one of the worst on the continent. The latest violence—reportedly penetrating many refugee shelters—has put already desperate civilians in horrific conditions with nowhere to run. With the recent outbreak of fighting, the Telegraph reported, "Thousands fled their homes and thousands more who had already travelled to Monrovia to seek safety, packed their bags again in terror."
President Bush, who is scheduled to travel to Africa next month, said Thursday that Taylor must step down and vowed U.S. support for peace efforts in the country. But the United States has yet to commit to any action on the ground, as called for by people who draw comparisons to the considerable British role in Sierra Leone and France's intervention in its former colony, Ivory Coast. (Liberia was founded by freed U.S. slaves.) Several papers reported that Britain's U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, called the United States "the natural candidate" to intervene. The Telegraph went as far as to say a U.S.-led force "looked likely" after Bush's remarks. The paper concluded, "It is unlikely that Sir Jeremy would have floated the idea of a US-led force without first having at least tacit approval from the Bush administration."
The Financial Times observed, "The chaos in Monrovia showed up the fragility of the ceasefire in the absence of an outside peacekeeping force." An op-ed in the New Democrat, a paper published in the Netherlands by Liberian exiles, called Taylor a "serial liar" and a "psychopath," declaring, "A force empowered to arrest the fugitive [Taylor] would do a service to humanity."
On Thursday, Liberian civilians mounted their own stark appeal for U.S. action. Britain's Guardian reported that Liberians marched on the U.S. Embassy, depositing at its gates seven corpses—among the more than 300 killed in this week's violence.
Papers in the region said an African solution to the Liberian crisis is crucial to the continent's progress away from war and toward development. An op-ed in Nigeria's This Day said it is "high time" Africa established a process for preventing and resolving conflicts. "Liberia offers the best opportunity for African leaders to show their skills and commitment in uplifting the African continent." Notre Voie, the paper of Ivory Coast's ruling party, said the continent's future stability depends on it. African leaders must "show themselves to be firm and unified to avoid rebellions destabilizing other African states tomorrow." The Ivorian paper echoed widely held anxiety over the effectiveness of the Economic Community of West African States, which brokered the latest cease-fire accord. "In failing, ECOWAS would show once again its incapacity to resolve crises in the sub-region. … The problem of ECOWAS is its lack of political will." A U.N. Security Council delegation set off Thursday on a mission to West Africa, partly in an effort to stem the violence in Liberia. The mission—which is to meet with several members of ECOWAS—is likely to press Taylor to step down.
A recent op-ed in Johannesburg's Mail & Guardian said impunity for leaders such as Taylor—who "have shattered the social cohesion of the continent and entrenched poverty"—must end. The op-ed said that although the timing of the recent war crimes indictment was wrong—coming as it did during the delicate time of peace talks in Accra—it was "the right thing to do. … Africa needs to confront the bald fact that the absence of accountability has for too long stood between the continent and real progress."
An editorial in the Financial Times conceded that peace and stability are not automatically assured in a post-Taylor Liberia, noting that the rebels trying to oust him themselves "have a murky agenda" and an abysmal human rights record. "A longer-term and wider strategy for the region is needed," the paper said. "As in Iraq, the removal of an undesirable leader is one thing, a plan for the future quite another. Mr. Taylor's departure would not be a solution. But it would be a start."