During the past few weeks of fighting, the Old Bridge between downtown Monrovia and the industrial Bushrod Island formed the front line. Each push or counterattack started here and, invariably, ended here. But on Aug. 5, when government troops stepped onto the bridge, the rebels were waiting for them with handshakes and hugs. "They looked at me and said, 'We're happy. We want peace,'" says Timothy Daydee, a 29-year-old government soldier. "I looked back and said, 'Yes, I want peace.'" For the rest of the afternoon, the rebels on one side of the bridge danced and waved white flags, while back on the other side Daydee's comrades laughed and milled about, each step sending the carpet of shell casings clinking like Christmas bells.
The cause of the celebration: after weeks of dickering and delay, a couple hundred Nigerian peacekeepers finally arrived at an airport more than 40 km outside the Liberian capital. The battle that had claimed at least 1,000 lives seemed over. But even as the city stuttered back toward normalcy, a troubling question hung over the peace: Would President Charles Taylor keep his promise to leave the country, as the rebels demanded?
"He has to resign and leave the country," says General Seyeah Sheriff, the rebels' chief of staff, his manic eyes squirming under his red beret. "As long as he lives in Liberia, he stays President. As long as he doesn't leave, we will attack him."
On Aug. 7, Taylor pledged in a letter to congress that he would step down from the presidency on Aug. 11, but he refused to say when he would depart the country. Nearly everybody wants him out. President Bush has set Taylor's departure as a condition for any large-scale deployment of American peacekeepers, though seven arrived on Aug. 6 to coordinate logistics with the West Africans. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has offered Taylor asylum from a war-crimes indictment.
Jacques Paul Klein, the top U.N. envoy in Liberia, has urged Taylor to accept the offer. "Go while the getting is good," Klein says. Even Taylor's militia and congressmen from his own party say he should leave, arguing that his presence would spur on the rebels and risk his safety. His critics worry instead about what Taylor might do if he stays.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]"Taylor's not a man who can sit quietly," says the Archbishop of Monrovia, Michael Kpakala Francis. "He will try to destabilize whatever government is sitting here." Taylor's support of armed rebellions in nearby countries has turned his neighbors against him, too. Nigeria has gone out on a limb to offer him asylum, and a rejection would earn its enmity. His resignation strips him of presidential immunity, and leaves him vulnerable to arrest by Liberian authorities.
Taylor's aides have been calling for his indictment to be lifted before he leaves the country, gambling that a little ambiguity over his intentions leaves him some weight to throw around. He can count on at least some of the military following him, whatever he decides to do. "The loyalty of his soldiers doesn't go to the state," says a local businessman. "They're not loyal to the President of Liberia. They're loyal to Charles Taylor."
The uncertainty has already complicated the peace process. The rebels have refused to allow access to the port before Taylor leaves, so food in government- controlled Monrovia has remained expensive and scarce. The port is also key to any humanitarian effort, and according to an American official, Obasanjo has written to Bush asking him to help secure it.
Meanwhile, businessmen and aid workers are reluctant to bring in much-needed food and medicine, fearing it will be confiscated if the conflict erupts again. "I can't write to my boss and say, 'Send me more expatriates and 200 tons of supplies,'" says Frédéric Bardou, country director of Action Against Hunger. "We don't have enough stability." As the Nigerian peacekeepers made a tour of the capital, hundreds of Liberians chanted: "No more looting. We want peace." They may have to wait a bit longer before they get their wish.