Surprising as it may seem, Liberians have elected Charles Taylor by choice, with 65 per cent of the population voting for him in an election deemed fair by international observers. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the favourite civilian alternative, and choice of the international community, gained only 15 per cen. So, in spite of, or even because of, his record of death and destruction, Charles Taylor has achieved his ambition to be president of Africa's oldest republic.
The elections mark the end of the civil war, fought by up to seven different factions, for domination of the valuable resources of the hinterland. Taylor's faction, the NPFL, was the strongest, for years controlling the flow of profits from the upcountry riches of timber, diamonds, gold and rubber. The formation of successive interim governments in the capital Monrovia has only entrenched the power of the warlords over this wealth, as government appointees from the factions have taken corruption to unprecedented heights. Everything in Liberia is for sale, even, it is rumoured, the more lucrative positions in the new government.
Many believe Taylor's success in the elections stems from the wealth he accumulated in the war. Opponents accuse him of spending far more than the $3.5m allowed by the election rules. His campaign was marked by its reach into the most inaccessible rural areas, with T-shirts, posters and stickers bearing his picture seen throughout the country.
His Kiss-FM radio until recently was the only station broadcasting outside the capital. Many observers said voters in rural areas had not even heard of the other candidates.
But Taylor's victory is due to more than just successful electioneering. Liberians have voted for the man they see as most capable to lead them into a new era. "The wise man changes", they say, optimistic that the habits of wartime will be discarded for a future of development. They point out that all the former warlords stole money from the country.
Taylor, his supporters argue, will bring his money back, investing in his future as leader. The British government recently presented its credentials to the interim government for the first time since the war started, in recognition of the progress made towards peace and democracy. Others fear Taylor may pursue his close ties to Libya, Nigeria and shady international businessmen. The US has always opposed Taylor, who faces criminal charges there. And Liberians themselves worry the country may become excluded from international circles because of these links with pariah states and the international black economy.
It remains to be seen whether the ruthlessness with which Taylor has pursued his quest for power will persist into peace-time. Liberians have voted for peace alone, and they seem confident that the war is truly over. Many former fighters have been reintegrated into society. The Liberians now believe in democracy. Many were heard to say that if Taylor does not prove himself, they can always vote him out in four years' time.