Liberian leader Samuel K. Doe appears to be nudging this West African nation back to one-party rule amid signs of confusion in the political opposition, which was widely viewed to have been the real winner in a controversial election last October.
Doe has begun issuing calls for national reconciliation and has named a number of opposition figures to his new government. This tactic has led some members of the three legal opposition parties to break ranks with their organizations and indicate that they would accept the appointments.
Doe's willingness to move toward democratic civilian rule is being monitored closely in Washington, where millions of dollars in U.S. aid hang in the balance. The funds are needed to cope with Liberia's foreign debt, estimated at $1.4 billion.
The Liberian leader's appeals for reconciliation began with Doe's inaugural address on Jan. 6, one diplomat here said. "Unfortunately," he added, "they took place in an atmosphere of total terror, with prominent politicians in detention, rumors of mass graves, disappearances and secret arrests."
Among 450 political prisoners here, by U.S. estimate, two leaders of the Liberia Action Party are of particular concern to Washington: presidential candidate Jackson F. Doe and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The latter, an ex-finance minister and a Citibank official currently on leave, has become a symbol of the opposition. Both have been in prison since a coup attempt on Nov. 12.
The government formally charged Jackson Doe and Johnson-Sirleaf with treason last week for alleged complicity in the failed coup, but it has not specified the charges.
The United States has historically strong ties to Liberia, founded by former American slaves in 1847. U.S. aid to Liberia has totaled nearly $450 million during the past six years but has been called into question amid rising concern about Liberia's human rights record under Doe.
The political atmosphere has remained tense since the election, with the opposition parties challenging the results and officially refusing to take the 20 percent share of seats in the legislature that the government says they won.
At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing in Washington last week, Assistant Secretary of State Chester A. Crocker called into question the fact that Doe's government changed the vote-counting procedure at the last minute and declared him the winner with 51 percent of the presidential vote and 80 percent of the legislative seats for his party.
Several opposition figures have broken ranks with their parties during the past week, accepting government offices after learning of their appointments through the press.
A former Liberia Action Party chairman, Tuan Wreh, was expelled from the party after he accepted one of five opposition seats in the 26-member Senate. The controversy surrounding Wreh took a new turn yesterday when his party withdrew the expulsion order, saying it recognized Wreh's "commitment to the principles and ideals which gave birth to the LAP." At the same time, Wreh revoked his Jan. 14 expulsion of 22 party members and called for Liberian unity.
Opposition leaders say they are looking to the United States for help in "guaranteeing certain basic rights in Liberia." One said, "If Doe called on the opposition parties, saying, 'We are all Liberians, let's sit down and work out a solution together,' we would participate. But not while political prisoners remain in jail. He really wants to destroy us."
Some observers here now are convinced that Doe's tactics are meant to disguise plans to return Liberia to one-party rule after a brief experiment with democracy.
As evidence, they cite statements in recent weeks by tribal chiefs, the Liberian Marketing Association and the transport union calling for the creation of a one-party state, presumably under the direction of Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia.
Such a move could encounter bitter resistance here. As one taxi driver put it, "Doe killed former president William Tolbert because of one-party rule. He should know better than to try and govern that way."
Despite the official U.S. view that Liberia has "clearly not fully met our high standards for democratic and human rights practices," as Crocker said in Thursday's House hearing, the administration still feels that the election was partially fair and free and that Washington must work with Doe to ensure further progress toward democracy.
The House subcommittees on African affairs and human rights are drawing up a resolution similar to one that has already passed the Senate that would ask the administration to suspend military assistance to Liberia until Doe releases political prisoners and provides for free elections.
Several members of Congress say they think this does not go far enough. Two members of the Africa subcommittee who rarely agree with one another, Reps. Mark D. Siljander (R-Mich.) and George W. Crockett Jr. (D-Mich.), both indicated Thursday that they would support binding legislation freezing all aid to Liberia, and the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), when pressed for a timetable, said that if progress is not made "within a matter of weeks," he would push for binding legislation.