As Liberians debate the recently completed draft of a constitution for an elected government, many are questioning whether the country's American-guided military rulers actually intend to return power to civilians.
Much of the concern has grown out of military head-of-state Samuel K. Doe's admonition to would-be politicians to resign from his government by this weekend or be barred from running for places in the civilian government scheduled to take office in 1985.
A number of Liberians complain about what they see as Doe's willingness to interfere in the lineup of future candidates, and they are concerned about how far the U.S. government is willing or able to pressure the all-military, ruling People's Redemption Council that Doe heads.
U.S. Ambassador William Swing denies that Washington is exerting strong political influence here, but he describes the growing American aid to the Liberian government as "a disciplinary tool."
In a particularly forceful speech by the constitutional commission's chairman and in numerous private conversations, Liberians have expressed apprehension that the "sycophantic" beneficiaries of Doe's military government could lead him away from his public commitment to give up power.
"Most Liberians feel that whatever happens will be on the head of the American government," one top Liberian official said. Swing "wields a lot of power here," he said. Several influential Liberians expressed similar sentiments.
Swing said that while "the perception" of his having a strong influence with Doe's government "is almost inevitable, this is not the case."
Swing said he is aware of the attitude among Liberians and feels it results from the U.S. role as its largest aid donor, his own high-profile travel throughout Liberia and the special ties between Monrovia and Washington dating from the 19th century.
"Our relationship is one of consultation," Swing said when told that several important Liberians had said no major decision is taken by Doe's government without being discussed first with Swing.
American economic assistance to Liberia, Swing conceded, does "provide leverage," in conjunction with an International Monetary Fund austerity program, to impose some fiscal responsibility on Doe's financially strapped government.
"I see the aid as a disciplinary tool," Swing said.
Since Doe's coup overthrew the late president William Tolbert's government three years ago, annual U.S. aid to Liberia has risen from $6 million yearly to $70 million this year.
The United States also gave Liberia $131,000 for the two years of hearings conducted by the 25-member constitutional commission and $100,000 for the operations of the soon-to-be-elected constitutional advisory assembly, the body that will debate the constitutional draft before it is submitted to a national referendum by the end of this year.
"The United States government is itself committed to the constitutional process and is encouraged by the progress made here to date," Swing said in response to a question on whether the American government through the ambassador was pressuring Doe's regime to hand over all authority to a civilian government.
"Right after taking power, this government committed itself to a return to civilian rule," Swing added.
Liberia was founded early in the 19th century by freed black American slaves whose descendants, known here as Americo-Liberians, ran the country largely for their benefit to the exclusion of the indigenous African population until Doe's Army coup on April 12, 1980. When he appointed the constitutional commission a year after the coup, Doe publicly promised a return to civilian government by 1985.
In accepting the draft constitution on March 30, Doe told all candidates for office in the future government to resign from his government within a month. The potential politicians in his government, however, reportedly are reluctant to resign for fear of being branded disloyal to the military government and being forced to live without salaries for two years.
Constitutional commission chairman Amos Sawyer said the transition to civilian government will be a delicate process and the full implementation of the new constitution a difficult task given Liberia's history of abuses committed with impunity under the old constitution.
In a strong speech on April 12, the third anniversary of the coup, celebrated here as Redemption Day, Sawyer said that "there is no record of free and fair elections in our modern history."
Liberians know "that our political culture has not developed the political values appropriate for democratic competition," Sawyer said.
Under the old constitution, Liberia's president functioned as an all-powerful tribal chief with minor but ignored limits on his power.
Under this system, "sycophancy has been institutionalized in our political culture," he said. "The path to our future requires that we dismantle the cult of the presidency" by upholding the checks on his powers contained in the new constitution.