The situation might have been funny if it weren't so horribly sad. The people of Liberia have been pleading for outside help to stop the chaotic civil war that since June has killed over 1,000 civilians. And last week help was supposed to arrive not the 2,300 U.S. Marines on the three gunships expected off the Liberian coast last weekend (they as yet have no orders to come ashore), but an African peacekeeping force, known as ECOMOG, from the Economic Community of West African States. But last Wednesday, when an advance team of 10 military advisers finally set off for a fact-finding mission to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, the commercial flight it was booked on was cancelled. Then a military plane the men commandeered developed engine trouble and had to turn back. "I'm sure you waited for us last week," force commander Festus Okonkwo said when he finally landed in Monrovia. "We couldn't make it, but now we're here."
It's been a long time coming. Fighting raged into its second week in central Monrovia last week, and rebels took Liberia's second biggest city, Buchanan. President Charles Taylor promised yet again to step down, this time by Aug. 11, but also said he wouldn't leave as long as his indictment by a war-crimes court in Sierra Leone stands.
Though they say they're committed to sending soldiers, the countries behind the ECOMOG force have argued more about how to get them to Liberia than about what they should do once they arrive. The force, which West African states say will finally start deploying this week, should help with peace efforts and allow in desperately needed food and medical supplies. But even as news of their arrival spread, Liberians asked, what took you so long?
ECOMOG was meant to be the symbol of a new era. The intervention force, drawn from the armies of 15 West African nations, was first deployed in 1990 after the outbreak of civil war in Liberia. Since then, it has helped quell unrest in Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Ivory Coast. Washington points to it as an example of Africa helping itself, and over the past few years has trained Nigerian, Ghanaian and Senegalese battalions. But with around 1,300 troops in Ivory Coast, and West African soldiers in Congo as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force, ECOMOG is already stretched thin. "We just can't meet all these crises," says spokesman Sunny Ugoh. "We still need help to help ourselves."
The biggest problems are money and logistics. Nigeria, which has supplied the bulk of the troops for past ECOMOG missions, says it has spent billions of dollars on peacekeeping over the past 13 years. South Africa, which is not a member but is often asked to help out financially, has its own commitments in central Africa and last week declined to underwrite a Liberian operation. It says it spends $165 million a year on keeping troops in Burundi alone. And most West African armies are small and ill equipped. "The resources are just so minute compared to other regions," says Eric G. Berman, an expert in African peacekeeping at Brown University in Rhode Island. "It's easy [for the U.S.] to point the finger and say, 'Well, we trained you and what are you doing?' But that's mistaking a lack of resources for a lack of seriousness."
Then there is the conduct of the troops themselves. ECOMOG forces have often been criticized for causing more problems than they solve. Human-rights groups cite rape and summary executions allegedly committed by ECOMOG troops in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. West African soldiers also used their time abroad to run businesses like illegal diamond trading. "They tend to strike fear into people's hearts," says Martin Rupiya, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank. "Whether that's a good thing or not depends on whose side they take."
Liberians may be prepared to overlook such tactics as long as someone anyone turns up to help. In government-controlled Monrovia, civilians huddle against walls and run when they reach an exposed intersection. Food is running out. "We need ECOMOG , George Bush, anyone," says Favor Dennis, a vegetable seller. "We're dying." Liberians have even given up on the aid groups trying to help them. "If the bullets start to fall here, the Red Cross and the international community will evacuate," says Mohammed Sheriff, the head of the John F. Kennedy Hospital. "But the Liberians will stay and die."