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New Liberian Leader Faces Enormous Challenges - 2003-10-16


Liberia's transitional president, Gyude Bryant, who took office Tuesday, faces enormous challenges as he tries to give Liberians hope for better days after nearly 15 years of civil war.

In his inauguration speech Tuesday, he said all these challenges must be addressed so that Liberia's damaged economy can begin to grow before his term ends.

"Liberia sinks deeper into poverty as a result of gross mismanagement, massive corruption and continued conflict. This trend must be revised," he said.

Liberia's decline began in 1989 when former government official Charles Taylor launched a rebellion against the military government of Samuel Doe. Several competing rebel factions were active in different parts of Liberia during the early part of the 1990s. Mr. Taylor took power in 1997, and other rebel groups turned on him two-years later.

The spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Liberia, Margaret Novicki, says she believes the remaining armed groups are the biggest obstacle to restoring peace and prosperity in the country. She says there are an estimated 50,000 armed fighters throughout Liberia, and half of them are children.

"The number one priority I believe for everybody, and I am sure will be the priority of the transitional government as well, is to get the disarmament process going, up and running, and for the disarmament process to occur as quickly and as thoroughly possible to rid the entire country of arms," he said. "There are also huge demands in terms of reconstruction, which will need to take place. And the U-N mission in Liberia will be assisting the government in many areas."

Before taking power, President Bryant was a successful entrepreneur in the machinery industry and a second-tier opposition leader.

Under the terms of his transitional mandate, he will work both with the international community and with a power-sharing government that includes former rebels, members of the previous administration and activists.

West Africa development expert Ian Smilie, a consultant for the United Nations and other international groups, says it is crucial for all sides to work together.

"Liberia has not had good government for many, many, many years and to expect that to happen overnight is perhaps a bit optimistic," he said. "I think you are going to have a lot of different actors who are going to be key to making sure that this works. I think the relationship between the transitional government and the United Nations authority is going to be key to establishing the kind of international confidence in Liberia that's going to be required for the kind of financial commitment and the time commitment that will be needed."

At a Liberian refugee transit center in Ivory Coast, hopes are high that Liberia will become more secure so that some of the refugees will be able to go home.

But the center's self-proclaimed spokesman, Boley Tolo, says he believes it could take decades for Liberia to rebuild from its long civil war.

He also says he does not know Mr. Bryant, but he hopes the businessman turned-president-can do what is necessary to start the process.

"I have not seen him. I do not know him in person. In the first place, I did not know him. Maybe he will fix to bring everything under his control," he said. "But our country is so beyond repair and damaged. So it is not two to three, four- or five-year business now, but 20- to 30-year business before Liberia will come to herself as a country."

Many Liberians accuse former President Charles Taylor of running Liberia like his own criminal venture, making millions of dollars from smuggled timber, diamonds, and weapons. This, many Liberians say, is what led to war and caused economic ruin.

In contrast, Mr. Bryant has been considered an honest businessman since the mid-1970s, when he founded the Liberia Machinery and Supply Company. It provides equipment for ports and mining.

Before Mr. Bryant assumed power, U.N. authorities accused Mr. Taylor of continuing to run illicit operations in Liberia, by telephone from exile in Nigeria.

A U.N. backed court in Sierra Leone is trying to have Mr. Taylor arrested on a war crimes indictment for allegedly fueling instability throughout West Africa since the 1990s. The tribunal specifically charges charges Mr. Taylor with bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of international humanitarian law" in Sierra Leone where he allegedly supported rebel groups.

Mr. Taylor denies the allegations, saying he has become a scapegoat for all the problems of Liberia and West Africa.

The new Liberian government under President Bryant will have help from the international community, U.N. agencies, and a force of U.N. peacekeepers, which could eventually number 15,000.

But some observers are warning that if the new government and the U.N. force succeed in removing rebel groups from Liberia, some of them could cross into other West African countries, spreading trouble to other parts of the region.

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