As we entered the compound on Tubman Boulevard, two young men leisurely sitting on a half-broken bench jumped to their feet to salute Matt. He greeted them and then turned to me, asking for the name of the guy we were to meet. “John Whitfield.” I said. One of the young men, in his early twenties volunteered to lead us. I refrained from asking Matt why the young men had greeted him as if I were some four-star- general. For the past two weeks, every where we went, people saluted him and I reached the conclusion that if everyone who saluted him or threw almost imperceptible sign at him was a former fighter, then every other young person in Monrovia was potentially a former fighter.
We found John Whitfield sitting on the porch of his office, chatting with two older men. They were talking about politics. John said to the men, “they want us to go after them and I am saying, no, they must come to us, publicly join the party and take part in the primaries and if they win, we will take them as standard-bearer… we are not going to go after nobody… this is the most organized party in the nation and we are not afraid of anyone. Don’t mind the people at the Mansion. They think they can win with Sherman, we have a surprise for them come 2005.” At the end of his tirade, John introduced me to the two other gentlemen. He said he was ready for the interview. We walked into his office and after some niceties I started the interview.
“Just six months ago, your party, the NPP was on its way to a sure victory at the pools. What happened?” I asked. John remained quiet for a second and looked at me, as if wondering if I were serious, having been one of the most vocal critics of the regime. Finally, he said:
“Well, you know what happened. Because you were in Accra when everything unfolded. The international community mounted a smear campaign against us; a web of lies and deceptions, armed bandits and mercenaries to terrorize our people and then they falsely indicted President Charles Taylor. They unleashed killers on the nation. In the name of peace, the president accepted to leave and go to Nigeria. This is what happened and this is why today, the National Patriotic Party is no longer in power but we will be back.”
“You don’t believe that charges brought against him were true?” I followed up.
“Of course not. From the day the results of the elections were announced in 1997, and seeing that certain people who would have taken this country and mortgage it to foreign interests did not win the elections, the powers-to-be in the world, who are after our gold and our oil started a campaign against us, using the press as well as mercenaries… This is what happened but we are not giving up, nobody can run us out of this place and we will win the next elections.”
“Do you truly think that the NPP can win the next elections?”
“If we don’t, who is going to? As I was saying on the porch, we have the most organized party in this country. We have members in the most remote areas. Look out there, who else is there? Most of these parties are just a handful of people, sometimes just family members and friends joining together to form a party. People thought that after Taylor leaves, we were going to fold up and run away, that the party will break into pieces like the True Whig Party or the NDPL after Tolbert and Doe were assassinated. We say we are here to stay. This is why just one month after the president went into exile we bought this new headquarters. We are here to challenge the democratic system and we will prevail.”
“Do you have any standard bearer in mind for 2005?”
“No, not yet, we have to go through a selection and primary process. But I can assure you that whomever it turns out to be would have the most organized machine to work with. Some people have approached us. They want us to go out public and ask them to run with us. We are not into that kind of old game. We want people to come out and join the party and if they win the primaries at the national convention we will make sure they win the elections… And let me add this, if Charles Taylor were to return today and run for president, the people would vote for him, forget all that propaganda about people having voted by fear in 1007…”
“Well, before he runs again for president he would have to clear his name at the war crimes tribunal. Aren’t you worried what that could do the party?”
“Listen my friend, those are political charges, trumped up charges that any impartial judge would dismiss. Don’t tell me that this tribunal in Sierra Leone can be fair to Taylor! And besides, the NPP was not a one-man political party. This is a party that was borne out of the a popular mass movement and it is here to stay, either Taylor comes back or not.”
“Do you expect him to return?”
“Why not? This is his country and sooner or later the truth would come out and people would understand that he has been innocent all along. He left so that the mercenaries and barbarians who were killing our people would stop their killing spree and give peace a chance.”
“Taylor used to say that he had the best trained army… but the AFL and the ATU and all those paramilitary militias just melted away when LURD and MODEL came up…”
“This was not a war between AFL and LURD or MODEL. This was a war financed and carried out by the international community with mercenaries. People talk about Taylor in Sierra Leone, what about Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire who trained and unleashed bandits on peaceful civilians with the backing of the international community and mercenaries?”
“Looking back, don’t you think your own mistakes led to the demise of your administration?”
“I am not going to sit here and debate what mistakes were made or by whom. Mistakes are part of human nature and I would not say that our government did not make mistakes but those mistakes didn’t end our administration. It was the international pressure, the propaganda and the mercenaries…”
“Many Liberians are calling for a crime tribunal, what is your opinion?”
“As a Liberian, I welcome anything that would bring justice to this country but we hope people are not talking about a court like the one in Freetown where one are convicted before trial. And we at NPP are not afraid of a tribunal. I would prefer a national forum for reconciliation but if people want a tribunal, let’s go ahead. And we can go back in history and re-examine all the crimes committed against the people of Liberia. We can talk about pre and post 1980. We can talk about economic crimes and those who armed mercenaries to come and kill our people, and some of those people are now back in the country, pretending to be innocent. People talk about war crimes tribunal as if this will be just about Charles Taylor, no, it is going to be about every grievance, every rape and every murder…”
“With Taylor gone, how do you finance the party?”
“What? I told you, this is not and has never been a one-man party. That’s why I am sitting here today, talking to you in this office, in this compound. We are a party of the people. People finance this party not Charles Taylor. Just look at our membership. We are a party for the people and we are here to challenge the process, we are going to take part in the elections and our candidate will win.”
“What message do you have for Liberians in America?”
“All I can tell them is to not believe all the lies and propaganda that have been poured on this country and especially on Charles Taylor’s administration. We want them to come back and talk to people and see for themselves. Too many bad stories have been told about our country and they need to come home and see it for themselves. Nobody can bring peace and development. We have to accept to live together as one people.”
I thanked Whitfield and left the office. He walked with us into the vast courtyard and we took some pictures. The NPP had purchased the two-block compound that had housed the Ministry of Agriculture for years. Their party occupies the two three-story buildings and the Ministry of Agriculture was now relocated in a small cottage that was built for workers. The compound belonged to the Tubman family.
After we left the compound and got in our taxi, Matt remarked that corruption would never leave Liberia. When I asked him why, he pointed to the new headquarters of the NPP. He said: “Tubman was president for almost forty years. Instead of building something for the Ministry, he takes government money, builds this place and rent it to the government. With all the problems he created in this country, Samuel Doe was the first president to start building places for government.” I made no comment. We headed for the Ministry of Defense to meet with Joe Wylie. The Ministry was still in the same green woodhouse on Benson Street. That building also belonged to an “old prominent” family to whom the government has been paying rent for decades. And so are most ministries and government agencies in and around the country.
We were told that both Minister Daniel Chea and his deputy Joe Wylie were out of their offices. There were hundreds of people lingering around, some in uniform. It would have been nice to ask Joe Wylie, the former military spokesman of LURD how it felt – working as deputy to the Minister of Defense of Charles Taylor. Was it worth it? May be he would have told me that peace always comes at a price and politics makes strange bedfellows. .