With Charles Taylor gone, what next for Liberia?

With the world watching, Charles Taylor, under intense pressure from President George W. Bush, African leaders and a two-prong rebel onslaught, boarded a plane last month for exile in Nigeria. This historic event was seen by many as the end to nearly 14 years of on-and-off fighting that has destroyed nearly 300,000 lives, over half of them civilians, and turned a once prosperous country into a basket case.

Conspicuously absent from Bush’s pronouncements throughout the weeks leading up to Taylor’s departure, however, is a blueprint for sustained peace in Liberia. The United States should help Liberia establish long-term stability. It would be wrong to suggest that U.S. Marines or West African troops alone will solve the deep-seated social and political issues, especially when an international military resolution will not solve the problem. A military intervention is not an end in itself. It has to produce a stable political outcome.

The problems in Liberia will not automatically end now that Taylor has departed. The picture of good versus evil that seems to be the prevailing understanding of the Liberian crisis as portrayed in the Western press is deceptive, at best. The situation is far more complex than that and will require a robust military and political initiative.

For weeks, as the main rebel group, ironically calling itself, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy besieged the congested capital, the Bush administration and the international community steadfastly called on Taylor to step down. Now that that call has been answered, we need to take a broad look at the rebels and their intentions. Who are these rebels? What is their agenda? If they came to free the Liberian people from the tyrannical grip of Taylor, why are they still fighting in central and northern Liberia now that he is gone, creating more misery for the people in rural Liberia? Why are we pacifying them with political positions? So far, we can only describe them according to words of the adage: “a cut of the same cloth.”

The rebels are a mix of recycled armed thugs and political opportunists. These include remnants of the late Samuel Doe government, which was overthrown in 1990, and some fighters who defected from Taylor’s camp. In an analysis of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a think tank called International Crisis Group has documented some horrendous atrocities, including cannibalism, rape and widespread looting perpetrated by their fighters.

The United States, in concert with the international community, should help Liberians build a civil society, where the avenue to power and wealth is not seen through the barrel of an AK-47.

There are deep psychological wounds; there is a legacy of distrust, suspicion and fear that needs to be addressed. The entire psyche of the Liberian society has to be healed. Adolescent boys and girls who are attracted to a culture of violence and lawlessness need to be given hope of a better life.

Instead of negotiating with and rewarding warlords they should all be served with indictments to appear before an international war crime tribunal to answer for the economic, political and social crimes they have committed. Then we will be on our way to a new Liberia.

Wynfred N. Russell is an instructor and project manager in the department of African-American and African studies. He welcomes comments at [email protected]