This West African country's eight-month-old government, which took power amid popular demands for a more equal distribution of wealth, has had to make stringent cutbacks to prevent economic collapse while warning Liberians that austerity is all they can expect for the forseeable future.

The 17 young noncommissioned officers and privates who toppled president William Tolbert in a bloody coup in April, soon found they had taken over a government on the verge of insolvency.

After the coup and the grisly executions of 13 former government officials, jailing of political foes and an acknowledged crisis of confidence in the ruling military People's Redemption Council, Liberia's sources of vitally needed foreign credits dried up overnight.

As in many coups in Africa in the past two decades, a chief reason given by the Liberian soldiers to justify their takeover was the deteriorating economy, under which only a corrupt minority lived decently. But like other coup-makers, Liberia's solder-rulers have found that blood and bullets do not ensure a better economy.

One pessimistic banker said the country "is headed the way of Ghana," Liberia's West African neighbor in severe economic distress.

Recently, however, Liberia won emergency aid from the United States and Western Europe following the adoption of an International Monetary Fund stabilization plan. In September, the IMF agreed to pump $85 million into the country over the next two years and Western creditors are expected to reschedule payment of the existing $800 million debt.

Still, bankers say the Liberian economy immediately needs $80 million to stabilize.

Liberia, historically close to the United States, has begun an anxious search for a large cash infusion from other sources. A high official civilian delegation recently visited Libya after radical leader Muammar Qaddafi offered aid.

In what Richard Moose, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, called a "courageous speech", Liberia's 28-year-old head of state, Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe told Liberians candidly last month about the near economic ruin they face.

Besides the $800 million debt, Doe said revenues from Liberia's iron ore exports, 60 percent of the country's $250 million annual earnings, were steadily dropping because of a recession in the world's steel industries. The government's budget this year stands at $325 million while expected earnings, with aid grants, are only $240 million.

Doe complained in his speech that it seemed the Tolbert government, with a projected deficit of at least $75 million, "had only been surviving from hand-to-mouth and from money they had borrowed at a very high cost to the Liberian people."

The country's three iron ore mining companies could go bankrupt, Doe indicated, leaving destitute some "25,000 Liberians who are either employees or dependents."

The only bright spot in Liberia's exports is a 33 percent jump in world prices for raw rubber, the country's second revenue earner, produced on plantations owned by Firestone, Goodrich and Uniroyal.

Liberia's labor unions have become restive since the coup and a nervous Redemption Council has sided with the foreign companies operating here. Some 15,000 rubber tree tappers at Firestone's million-acre plantation, halted a strike recently when the government said it would honor wage agreements reached under Tolbert. The workers sought a doubling of their $75-a-week wages.

The country's problems were aggravated when Doe, seeking popularity immediately after the coup, raised army privates' base pay from $100 to $250 a month and the lowest paid civil servants from $100 to $200.

Doe came to power in a coup that followed a year of tension after riots in Monrovia in April 1979 over a Tolbert proposal to raise the price of rice, the urban population's staple food.

Although they took power representing Liberia's "have-not" majority of indigenous Africans against a tiny elite caste of ruling descendants of former American slaves who founded the country in the 19th century, Doe and his army colleagues have become fiscal conservatives.

They have banned strikes, initiated a forced national bond savings program for all wage earners beginning in January and indefinitely frozen government hiring. Tension was reduced last month when Doe freed 27 political prisoners but there are still about a hundred, including Adolphus B. Tolbert, eldest son of the slain president.

"There is confidence now [among U.S. banks] and in Washington That the [economic] problems here are manageable," Moose said recently after talks with Doe. "Liberia retains its place in the larger, free commercial-financial life of the West," said Moose, who was on his fourth trip to Monrovia since the coup.

But, although the United States has lent and given Liberia $27 million since April, Foreign Minister Gabriel Baccus Matthews said: "We believe here that the United states government could have done more."

In a blunt acknowledgement of a "confidence crisis" in his government, Doe said in November that "random harassment of members of the business and banking communities by men in arms" had exacerbated Liberia's economic difficulties by creating a climate of political instability. These incidents have since been brought under control by long jail sentences for unruly soldiers.

In addition, individuals on the Redemption Council had intervened arbitrarily "in the affairs of business houses, public corporations, concessions and, generally, in labor matters," Doe said.

The Redemption Council members "are tense because they are afraid they may be the next set executed if they don't make things better," said an influential civilian in the government. "They get very nervous if things don't go right and then they want to force things to go right."

Doe also criticized some Liberians for what he called unrealistic expectations after the coup.

"Even after half a year, people are still hoping and dreaming of the impossible," he said. "They are thinking that the revolution means instant prosperity, plenty of new jobs, big cars, big houses and all of the fine things of the world."

His government, Doe said, will try to spread Liberia's meager resources around more than the previous government, but "we will not promise you that this will be achieved without toil and hardship. We can can make it fairer for you, not easier," he concluded.