Liberia: A society at a crossroadsBUFFALO, New York The election last week of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated former World Bank economist as president of Liberia, is a milestone. She will become the first woman African head of state and give her tormented country the only real opportunity in more than a generation to emerge from the ashes of a savage civil war. But these rays of hope will be extinguished if George Weah, her vanquished opponent, becomes bellicose and stokes violent conflict.
It is virtually impossible to imagine a place on Earth where life has been more hellish than Liberia. For almost three decades, the country has been in the grip of brutal dictatorships or ruthless warlords.
It reached its nadir in 1980 when Samuel Doe introduced a rein of terror. In 1990, Doe was killed by rebel forces led by Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, two equally ruthless warlords. Liberia remained lawless until 1997 when Taylor intimidated his compatriots into electing him president.
But rather than pursue peace and reconstruction, Taylor instigated coups and civil wars in neighboring states. He sold arms in exchange for diamonds to Sierra Leone rebels who cut off the limbs, ears and noses of opponents. In 2003, Taylor was forced to resign but was granted refuge in Nigeria in spite of an indictment for war crimes by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone. His forced departure paved the way for last week's elections.
The election of Johnson-Sirleaf notwithstanding, history will repeat itself unless the international community acts resolutely. Although she won 60 percent to Weah's 40 percent, Weah has refused to concede defeat, charging fraud and other irregularities. International monitors have categorically stated that there is no evidence to bolster Weah's allegations.
Weah's threat to the democratic process should not be taken lightly. Liberia has been down this path before. Easily the most famous Liberian, 38-year-old Weah is a former international soccer star who draws most of his support from dispossessed urban youth, former child soldiers and scores of warlords. A product of the slums of Monrovia, the barely literate Weah's rags-to-riches story resonates with poor youth.
Even so, most Liberians seem to have voted for experience and technocratic competence over glamour. The belief is that 67-year-old Johnson-Sirleaf, with her connections and legitimacy in the world of global finance and capital, stands a better chance of leading Liberia to economic recovery and international demarginalization. The silver lining for Weah is that he has established himself as a powerful political force and the man likely to succeed Johnson-Sirleaf.
Liberia has not known a modern democracy. Weah can change that dismal history if he accepts the election results and joins a government of national unity or plays the role of a legitimate democratic opposition. What the country needs is not another warlord but a massive reconstruction effort.
But Weah's support from unsavory characters, including Taylor's backers, should give pause. There are indications that Taylor himself maintains an unhealthy interest in Liberian politics from exile. It is unlikely that Liberia will know peace until Taylor is held accountable for the atrocities he committed in office. Weah should join those democrats and reformers who have called for Nigeria to turn Taylor over to Sierra Leone's Special Court.
Unless Weah makes these commitments - and renounces confrontation - his backers are likely to revert to violence. Yet, it is his supporters who must be rehabilitated for this election to relaunch Liberia. UN peacekeeping forces cannot allow the situation to deteriorate. Nor should the international community permit thugs to reverse the freely expressed will of the Liberian people.
Finally, the United States must recognize its special responsibility. The country was established by Americans, and successive administrations treated Liberia like an unofficial vassal. That is why Washington bears some responsibility for Liberia's woes. U.S. material, diplomatic and logistical support is crucial if Liberia is to emerge from its long night of privation.