- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

MONROVIA, Liberia — A former World Bank official and a soccer star vie in the runoff election for president today, focusing on education, graft and basic services.

But both candidates have carefully avoided the question of bringing to justice the warlords responsible for 14 years of civil war that killed hundreds of Liberians — disappointing their constituents, despite intense lobbying by the U.S. government.

“I do not support a war-crimes tribunal right now, because that is going to add to the division,” said Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the former World Bank economist.

She initially supported Charles Taylor after he won the 1997 presidential election, but says she later withdrew support after his appalling human rights record became clear.

The United Nations imposed sanctions in 2001 to punish Liberia for supporting an insurgency in neighboring Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor declared a state of emergency the following year when Liberian rebels began attacks near the capital. A U.N. war-crimes tribunal indicted him in 2003 for his role in Sierra Leone, and he resigned that August and went into exile in Nigeria.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s rival, former soccer star George Weah, also refuses to be pinned down about a trial for Mr. Taylor, even though his house was burned down and his cousins raped after he criticized Mr. Taylor in 1996.

Augustus Toe, head of the Liberian Catholic Peace and Justice Commission, insists on bringing warlords to justice. “We want to see those who brought murder, rape and mayhem to this country account for it here,” he said. “Justice is as important as reconciliation. Where there is no justice, there can never be peace.”

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is being set up in Liberia to recommend that the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses be brought to justice, but few expect to see anyone in the dock. The organization is currently located in a gutted public works building without electricity, and has a budget of $100,000.

A report by the International Coalition for Justice concluded this year that Mr. Taylor still had $210 million in hidden assets — nearly three times Liberia’s annual budget. Many of the other warlords, including Alhaji Kromah and Sekou Conneh, have yet to be charged with any war crimes. Many of them contested in the first round of presidential elections on Oct. 11.

Today’s elections, which will be overseen by 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers, were stipulated in the 2003 peace agreement, which sent Mr. Taylor into exile.

According to the rules, a second round of voting would be held between the top two candidates if no one drew more than 50 percent of the vote.

Mr. Weah, a political novice, won 28 percent of the vote in the first round with pledges to fight graft and restore piped water and electricity destroyed by the civil war. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf received 20 percent.

With a generation of Liberians denied schooling by the war, supporters of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf say education is the key to prosperity for Africa’s oldest republic, founded by freed American slaves in 1847.



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