Nation the West must nurture, not neglect

Liberia's civil war has been going on for six years. An estimated 150,000 people have died. The latest flare-up began on 6 April when one of the main militia leaders, Charles Taylor, tried to have a rival, Roosevelt Johnson, arrested for murder. After fierce fighting in the capital, Monrovia, Johnson loyalists are now holed up in a barracks with 10,000 civilians. The US has been evacuating foreigners, and trying to ensure that a ceasefire agreed on Friday holds. This week, in a series of articles, the Independent will seek to show how Liberia came to grief, and how its state is the result not of some inescapable dynamic of insanity, but of political choices in Liberia, west Africa and the outside world. This is not just an an academic debate, and has relevance way beyond this small state.

Unlike its French-speaking neighbours, Liberia is a nation of rice-eaters. The Liberians, in their distinctive American-English accents, complain of hunger if they don't eat rice at least once a day.

During the last six years of war, this may have become a common complaint, but they have grown used to it, along with the other hazards of war - fleeing their houses, losing their families, and watching their politicians fighting as up to 150,000 people have died. They are strong people, and little surprises them; even the latest outbreak of fighting is seen as just another step on the long road to peace.

It might surprise them to learn that beyond their frontiers, commentators cast doubt on the very existence of their country.

Liberia has been classified with Somalia as a "disintegrating nation", with a sovereignty supposedly as fictitious as its borders. Reporting on the civil war has depicted a scene of chaos, greed and strange tribal fighting. Sensationalist stories of black magic and cannibalistic rituals convey the impression of a "weird" war, fought purely for the joy of destruction. One journalist said "there is no political ideology behind such wars"; blind ethnic hatred is offered in the absence of any better explanation.

Portrayal of the war in Liberia as savage and anarchic has fuelled the growing consensus - particularly in US policy circles - that African wars, being primitive, tribal, or just incomprehensible, are beyond the reach of Western help. It has even been suggested that the lack of a democratic tradition or strong base of educated middle-class people means that it is not worth the West committing its scarce resources to intervening in these conflicts.

Some argue that we would be better off concentrating our resources on countries that, in some strategic or economic sense, are "worth saving". These cultural, or even racist arguments against intervention are added to a history of failed military deployments to streng- then the case of isolationists.

Yet it is precisely the danger of this "hands-off" approach that has been demonstrated in Liberia. Avoiding direct engagement in the war, the US and UN have become involved by proxy, through their political and financial support for the West African peace-keeping force, Ecomog.

While this may once have seemed expedient, it has back-fired. Over its six-year deployment Ecomog has not only failed to implement any of the 13 peace agreements, but has become a major player in the war and the war economy.

Attempts to address the Nigerian domination of the force have failed due to a lack of will and funding. The small UN observer force, UNOMIL, fielded since 1993, has been ineffectual, becoming the first target for Monrovia's frustrated youth in the latest fighting. The world has let Liberia down.

This highlights the paradox of the West's attitude to African wars: the international community has been unwilling to commit itself, and yet has intervened anyway.

The cost in humanitarian aid, already over $500m (pounds 330m), and of rebuilding the country, continues to rise. Investment in preventative diplomacy has been acknowledged as the most cost-effective way to tackle potential emergencies, but it must be backed up by both an understanding of the problem, and by the proper funding.

Some of the fighters in Liberia are out of control, and some have committed heinous atrocities. Many, however, are waiting, along with the rest of the country and nearly one million refugees, for the war to end be they can resume their lives. Before the latest outbreak of fighting, much work had already been done on rebuilding, from infrastructure to counselling workshops for both victims and perpetrators of the conflict.

Up to 20,000 of the estimated 60,000 combatants have already been demobilised through the various programmes. Some of them have received sponsorship for education and vocational training. This work had been done with the support of the aid community, but it was initiated by the Liberian people.

Liberia is the oldest nation-state in Africa. It was inaugurated as a republic 150 years ago, which makes it older than many European countries. One aid worker described its people as "the most educated and entrepreneurial refugees I've ever worked with". That the international community wants to help is shown by its continued donations of millions of dollars. But to really help, the world must see Liberia as more than another African "descent into chaos". Only then will there be a chance for Liberians to eat rice every day of the week again.