Liberians are starving. Monrovia no longer works as a city. Telephone and telex links with the outside world have not worked in nine months. The country, shattered by the civil war that deposed the dictator Samuel Doe, needs a respite from anarchy and tribal strife.
But the peace conference in Monrovia that could quick-start a regime capable of receiving aid is hamstrung by the issues that the last round of fighting was about: Whether Charles Taylor should be given power, or denied power.
Mr. Taylor, the former civil servant who launched the rebellion with aid from Libya, is thought to control most of the countryside. He would not come to the peace conference himself, and proposed an interim council of three including himself to prepare elections. The 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which sent in a peace-keeping force, wants an interim regime without any of the faction leaders, to guarantee fairness. This is a stop-Taylor maneuver, and what the two sides are at odds about.
Other factions include the remnant of Mr. Doe's army and the faction of Prince Johnson, a defector from the Taylor camp, which holds part of Monrovia and actually killed Mr. Doe. Liberia used to be ruled by an oligarchy descended from African-Americans. This was overthrown in the name of indigenous tribes by then-Sergeant Doe, who concentrated patronage in his small Krahn tribe. Mr. Taylor, who is part American-Liberian, has not restrained his followers from atrocities against the Krahn.
ECOWAS is right to distrust Mr. Taylor. But there may be no alternative. And the standoff helps no one. It only prevents conditions for the receipt of aid, particularly food and medicine which Liberians desperately need. The peace conference needs a conclusion.