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Liberian Ex-Rebel Eyes Presidency

Voter registration for Liberia's post-conflict presidential election is wrapping up, with many potential candidates yet to make their intentions known. One exception is former rebel leader Sekou Conneh, who declared his candidacy early on, saying he was doing so at the request of disillusioned ex-fighters.

Around a dozen young men stand around a storefront in Monrovia's Duala neighborhood, not far from the city's port. Many are former fighters with the rebel movement, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known as LURD.

Not far away, a metal lamppost is so riddled with bullet holes, it sags under its own weight.

Duala was a stronghold for the rebels during their 2003 siege of the capital that eventually helped drive President Charles Taylor into exile.

Today peace has returned to Monrovia, but the young fighters in Duala are not happy. As on most days, their conversation turns to the money they say they are owed for handing in their weapons. One ex-rebel, who calls himself Trouble, says the United Nations owes him $1,200. He calls the money "billet money", which is a military term also used for room and board payment for soldiers.

"You know, we're really waiting for our billet money from you," said Trouble. "From the time you all disarmed us, from that time, we've never received our billet money. You know that just because of money, people do harm to their friends. You hear me?"

It is a volatile situation that has, at least in part, helped spawn the political ambitions of one of Liberia's leading presidential candidates, former LURD leader Sekou Damate Conneh.

"The former fighters are concerned about their own welfare, about their own future," said Sekou Damate Conneh. "They have been compelling us to be in the race. They want someone they can rely on in this country. During the revolution, the way I handled the organization, they are all impressed of me."

But some civil society leaders fear that history would repeat itself with a successful bid for the presidency by Mr. Conneh. In 1997, rebel leader Charles Taylor won Liberia's last presidential election, promising to rebuild what he had helped destroy. He did not, and Liberia's economic decline intensified under his watch.

Mr. Conneh says he is different.

"We are not warlords," he said. "We are liberators. Our revolution continues. We want to make sure our people get water. We want our people to get light. We want to make sure our roads are paved."

Mr. Conneh says, though the country is in ruin, LURD, which some human rights advocates say had a better record on violations than other armed groups, is not at fault.

"I don't feel any responsibility," said Mr. Conneh. "Everything that has happened in this country, Taylor is responsible. He kept our people hostages in this country. Though we regret the incident, that Taylor even had to be president, we regret that. Even for taking arms, we regret it. But we were forced to do so. There was no way that we could advocate. No other means but to resist the government."

Executive director of the Monrovia-based Center for Democratic Empowerment, Ezekiel Pajibo, says he is not convinced. He points out that LURD rebels have been given a role in Liberia's transitional government and their performance has raised questions about Mr. Conneh's ability to lead. The head of the interim parliament, former LURD commander George Dweh, was fired earlier this year amid charges of corruption.

"We need to look at people's history," he said. "What have they done before now? Before we can entrust to them a newer mandate to lead us. What's their track record? We know for a fact there has been ample documentation of heinous crimes committed by these faction leaders."

And even in the LURD stronghold of Duala there are doubters. Ex-fighter Trouble says he joined the rebels to get rid of Charles Taylor, a rebel leader who wanted to be president. Now he says Sekou Conneh is doing the same.

"He never told us that he wanted to become president," he said.

Liberian presidential and parliamentary elections to replace the government of transition are scheduled for October 11.