The Liberian government and two rebel movements signed a peace agreement on Monday night that paves the way for an interim government headed by an independent civilian to take power in October to rebuild the nation and prepare for elections in two years' time.
The deal was signed two and a half months after peace negotiations began in Ghana on 4 June and just one week after former president Charles Taylor stepped down and flew into exile in Nigeria on 11 August.
The peace settlement is aimed at ending 14 years of near constant civil war in this shattered West African country, where 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The deal was brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has already begun deploying Nigerian troops in the capital, Monrovia. They form the vanguard of a multinational peacekeeping force that will eventually number 3,250.
About 1,000 peacekeepers have arrived so far.
“The war is over. We are now prepared to disarm,” Sekou Damate Konneh, chairman of the Liberians United For Reconciliation And Democracy (LURD) told IRIN shortly after the signing ceremony.
Thomas Nimely Yaya, chairman of the second rebel group, the Movement For Democracy In Liberia (MODEL), said: “Now that we have all signed, it is up to all of us to take up the commitment and make this peace document work.
Lewis Browne, who initialled the document on behalf of the government of Liberia, gave an assurance that the administration of provisional President Moses Blah was also committed to fulfilling the letter and spirit of the peace document.
“We will do so to give our people lasting peace,” he said.
The peace agreement provides for Blah to hand over to a broad-based interim government by mid-October.
It will be led by a civilian unconnected to the regime of Blah and former President Taylor or the LURD and MODEL rebel movements.
The new president will be chosen by the three warring factions and 18 unarmed political parties which attended the Accra peace talks and will have a mandate to rule until January 2006.
The peace agreement was due to be signed at the weekend, but diplomats said the deal was held up by hardliners in LURD, who were holding out for their movement to be given the vice-presidency.
They eventually caved into to strong pressure from ECOWAS, the United Nations and the rest of the international community, to let the vice-presidency go to a civilian.
However, the present government and the two rebel movements will be awarded most of the seats in cabinet in the new interim administration.
First reaction in Monrovia to the signing of the peace agreement was muted. People remained quietly indoors, wary of going outside at night to encounter the many government and rebel gunmen that still roam the streets, even though Nigerian troops are now supposed to be in charge of security in the city.
Peace talks mediator and former Nigerian Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar said Liberians should no longer be plunged into violence by anyone posing as a liberator or searching for political power. The country has been in turmoil since Taylor took up arms to seek power in 1989.
“Liberia does not need liberators anymore but nation builders and developers. Those responsible for signing this document must take their responsibilities seriously. The International community is getting impatient with this Liberian crisis,” Abubakar said.
Ghana’s President John Kufuor, Chairman of the West African Regional body, ECOWAS, reminded the former warring factions that genuine political power comes from the ballot box and democracy rather than from the barrel of the gun.
“Today, I join the women and children of Liberia to appeal to the warring factions to lay down their arms and never again lift up arms of destruction to settle grievances or seek political power,” Kufuor said.
The 50-page Comprehensive Peace Agreement spells out a plan for the disarmament of the warring parties, the deployment of an international stabilisation force and the laying of foundations for the future stability of Liberia.
It allots five cabinet portfolios each to the government of Liberia, LURD and MODEL. Six will go to the unarmed political parties and civil society groups represented at the peace talks in Ghana.
The sensitive defence and internal affairs ministries will go to nominees of the present government. Finance and justice go to LURD. MODEL takes foreign affairs, lands, mines and energy.
The document calls for a 76-member transtitional legislative assembly to be created. In this, 12 seats will be allotted to each to the three warring factions, one to each to the 18 political parties that participated in the peace talks and seven to civil society groups. Each of the 15 counties in Liberia will also have a special representative.