But the causes matter, because Liberia's descent into chaos is not accidental. The collapse into economic warfare and factional fighting for political control can at least partly be attributed to the hostility of the US and Nigeria to Charles Taylor.
It started on Christmas Eve 1989, when Charles Taylor entered Liberia in the last of the many attempts to end the autocratic rule of President Samuel Doe. In just six months, Taylor's forces, swelled by support from those targeted by Doe's brutal regime, had reached Monrovia, with the national army, the AFL, staging a strategic retreat. The war lasted only 10 months, and the ceasefire - negotiated in November 1990 - held for two years between Taylor's NPFL and Ecomog, the West African peacekeeping force.
Taylor controlled all of Liberia outside Monrovia, and, in the capital, an interim government ruled, with security provided by Ecomog. The country was divided, and a political stalemate precluded any early hopes of disarmament.
During this time, Taylor built up both a viable economy in Greater Liberia and popular support. The war had been marked by horrific violence, with groups associated with Doe's government being subject to summary and mass executions. But by early 1991 the violence was under control, and no new refugee flows occurred during this period.
The economy was supported by exports of rubber and logs from the main port of Buchanan. Taylor studied economics in the US and this education was perhaps reflected in his policies, which called on foreign concessions to pay wages in US dollars and taxes in kind. One company was asked to provide passenger buses for the Gbarnga-Kakata route, while the largest logging company in Buchanan provided electricity for the city.
The importance of Taylor's policies and the stability of his rule in Greater Liberia have only been recognised in retrospect. At the time, the US government, worried about Taylor's links with Libya, allied itself with the Nigerian component of Ecomog and its attempts to weaken Taylor's control.
Neither country was willing to let Taylor take over - the Nigerians because the then President Babangida had been a close associate and relative of Doe. While diplomatic and aid officials in Liberia now discuss Taylor's charisma, his consistency and his economics degree, back then the talk was of the atrocities committed by his fighters, his cocaine habit and his megalomania.
Ecomog is widely acknowledged to have conducted a covert campaign against Taylor during the ceasefire, through its support and funding of Ulimo, a new rebel army set up among Krahn and Mandingo refugees. These groups, leading political and business players under Doe, had been forced to flee for their lives in 1990, but, having amassed both contacts and wealth regrouped in Sierra Leone and Guinea.
By mid-1992 Ulimo were, with the help of Ecomog, driving Taylor's NPFL out of the diamond-rich areas of western Liberia. Refugees fleeing this area to Monrovia reported seeing Ulimo troops wearing Ecomog uniforms. Western Liberia has been controlled ever since by Ulimo and Ecomog, and the latest problems in Monrovia were partly sparked by in- fighting in January between Ecomog and Ulimo-J (the Krahn faction) over diamond mines near Tubmanberg.
During 1992, Ecomog was deployed around the country in accordance with the first peace agreement, the Yamoussoukro Accords. But Taylor refused to disarm to a non-neutral force, calling continuously for a small UN presence. In November 1992, he finally attacked Monrovia. "Operation Octopus" was strongly resisted by Ecomog, which bombed civilian areas to repel the NPFL attacks. Ecomog formed an open coalition with Ulimo and rearmed the AFL. Its actions, including direct attacks on an aid warehouse and convoy, were given the full backing of the UN Security Council in March 1993, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali praised the regional approach to conflict resolution.
The proliferation of warlords has made it much harder to resolve the conflict. Taylor's hands are not clean, and his motives may not be pure, but he alone has demonstrated a capability of creating some order. As one Liberian put it: "Why didn't you guys just let Taylor take over from the start - let him take what he's gonna get anyway, and save us five years of suffering."