Another in exile

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2003

After two months of prodding, Charles Taylor has finally departed Liberia, leaving behind the wreckage of 14 years of misrule, six of them his.

"God willing, I'll be back," he said. The rest of the world willing, no he won't.

As an expedient measure, Nigeria is giving Taylor asylum, but if he tries to leave or use his new sanctuary to foment more unrest he should be arrested and tried for the war crimes for which he's already been indicted by an international court.

Taylor leaves in charge his wonderfully named vice president, Moses Blah, a fellow graduate of Libya's guerrilla training schools. Blah is likely no solution. He is too closely identified with Taylor and the vicious guerrilla war the exiled Liberian leader financed in Sierra Leone.

Blah is supposed to rule until a new, interim government can take over in October, but it is a safe bet he is already casting around for ways to hold onto power. He offered the vice presidency to the rebel group that has penned up his government in the capital, but these coalitions have proved unstable, generally being a way of buying time until one partner or another can build up enough strength to drive the others out.

Meanwhile, the capital is running out of food and fuel because the rebels control the capital's port, although that control has not brought law and order. Wednesday, thousands of people again went on a looting spree in the port area's warehouses, carting away food supplies. As journalists were arriving, rebel soldiers resorted to beating looters with gunstocks in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the stealing of food. But that didn't stop the looters who fled out of the port with foodstuffs.

The onus for sorting out this mess falls, properly, on a West African peacekeeping force led by Nigerian troops. Liberia's fellow West African nations should take the lead in bringing stability, restoring services, disarming the small militias that terrorize the countryside and providing a breathing space until the Liberians can hold elections.

A contingent of 2,300 U.S. Marines is waiting offshore, but the U.S. role in Liberia should be one of support and logistics for the West African peacekeepers. This should be their show, not ours.

The United States is already overstretched with its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this is not as selfish as it might sound. There are encouraging signs that the democratic African nations are ending their tolerance - even indulgence - for the depredations of dictators and warlords on their continent.

The Economic Community of West Africa seems disposed to try to rehabilitate Liberia. It deserves the opportunity - and our help - to try to see it succeeds.

The Birmingham Post-Herald

August 13, 2003