By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
August 4, 2004
A new relationship between the Embassy and the Community in Washington, DC
The most recent celebration of Liberia’s 157th Independence in Washington, DC was a real departure novelty for many. As far as many people remember, the embassy of Liberia in Washington DC has mostly served mainly for a lieu of demonstration or just a place where Liberians reluctantly sent their official documents for renewal. An embassy represents a government and for a long time, since the mid 1980s, very few Liberians have been proud of their government.
From the day Samuel K. Doe and his cohorts of non-commissioned soldiers stormed the Mansion and entered the Liberian history through the back door, Liberian embassies have been viewed with contempt, suspicion and disdain by one group or another of Liberians abroad. When the Taylor war of national mass murder began in 1989, some angry people simply firebombed the embassy in Washington, DC. From then on, Liberians organized mass demonstrations throughout the 1990s in front of the ghostly building, demanding the end of fractional wars or the freeing of Tiawan Gongloe or Hassan Billity or protesting the murders of so many victims. Mostly, they were always angry at their government and demanded the restoration of peace and dignity in the devastated land.
However, if events of the past weekend were any indication, relationships between the Liberian communities in the US and the embassy could soon be taking a new direction. For the first time in history, the Liberian Embassy and the community, through the leadership of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, (ULAA) met in a two-day symposium to discuss the recent past and the future of the country.
The symposium was the brainchild of the new ambassador of Liberia to the USA, Mr. Charles A. Minor who said, in his opening remarks that he had three priorities in taking up his post in Washington, DC: sell the best possible image of Liberia; rekindle the relations between the US and Liberian government and finally, involve every Liberian he can find in helping to carry out his task. Mr. minor, an international consultant, presented his letters of credence to President George w. bush on July 15, 2004.
The seminar brought together leaders of ULAA, including the president Roberta Rashid and vice-president Morris Koffa and many academics and political personalities from various professions. For two days, Liberians discussed three main topics, among other things, such as the 2005 Elections and the role of Liberians abroad; restructuring the national economy and national reconciliation. The symposium filled two entire days at Africare headquarters and the embassy promised to soon publish all communications presented both on their new website (EmbassyofLiberia.org) and in hard copies for distribution.
Beyond the rare quality of the discussions and the papers presented, the fact that the symposium even took place and that it was organized by the Embassy merit commendation. “This is something truly refreshing and commendable and we hope it is only a beginning,” said Dr. Al Hassan Conteh who chaired a panel on the 2005 elections. No matter what the government in Monrovia and the international communities do with the recommendations, it can be said that the symposium marks a new beginning in the relationships between the community and the embassy. That some people criticized the government or that others called for the postponement of the elections all pale in the face of the fact that a dialogue has begun and must be pursued. A major recommendation was that the government in Monrovia finds a way to start a national dialogue with the citizenry to discuss the myriads of issues that need to be looked at prior to elections.
Ambassador Minor certainly took a risk by inviting so many people from so many different backgrounds to discuss Liberian politics but in the end, it paid off.
The Press and The National Welfare: Bravo to The Inquirer
From Monrovia, there was refreshing news that is worth discussing. This came from a newspaper, The Inquirer. Realizing that its destiny is tied to the peace process in Monrovia, the oldest of post war newspapers in the country has decided to forego “cato” from LURD - journalists usually receive “cato” when they publish words from a “prominent” person in Liberia. A few years back, Dr. Amos Sawyer, while heading the Interim government, told journalists that sometimes, the press must realize that it needs a certain atmosphere of freedom to thrive and that in consideration of that freedom, it must take certain responsibilities and think twice before publishing certain things. He was responding to a question about the fact that some newspapers back then carried headlines paid for by Charles Taylor, at the time a warlord in Gbarnga. In January 2004, during his 100th Day meeting with the Press, Chairman Bryant said almost the same thing: the press has to know the limits of its freedom when working in a fragile social situation.
In the 1990s, the press played a dangerous game, serving as the mouthpiece for warring factions and penning anything that could help them make a few dollars. It gave Taylor and the other warlords the feeling that they were Gods and could get away with anything. In the end, they burned down the city and ran many journalists out of town.
From the day Liberian peace-negotiators left Accra back in September 2003 and rumors surfaced about the break-up between Sekou Damateh and his wife, the “largest’ of the warring factions, LURD, has been in newspapers, for one reason or another. In February 2004, just three months after the transitional government was installed and Liberians started to breathe some fresh air of freedom, the “in-fighting” started. One group – mostly those in Monrovia in high offices - wanted to remove Sekou as chairman of LURD while another branch composed mostly of those who fought the war on the field, refused to go along. At another time, they wanted to replace the Minister of Finance and lately, as they went to Accra, they wanted to get rid of Chairman Bryant. In going to Accra, they did not seem to realize that the Accra meeting was solely dedicated to Cote d’Ivoire and that Liberia was just a side dish for a last minute progress report.
There is no need here to speculate as to why anyone would fight for the leadership of a movement that is being dissolved everyday a fighter surrenders a gun. Those in LURD must realize that once the guns are taken away from the fighters and that the boys and girls that sacrificed their lives to get them into office are provided an alternative to toting guns, every faction would be dead and gone. If things keep going the way they do, in the next few months, LURD, MODEL and the NPFL would all be things of the past, just as in Sierra Leone, the Kamajors and the RUF are now covered with dust.
Those in LURD who expected “changes” in the government at the Accra conference – Accra III because it was the third Accra such meeting on Cote d’Ivoire – must be really disappointed: the final communiqué published yesterday only mentioned Liberia when it cited Chairman Bryant among the participants. In the end, according to reports from Accra, it was Sekou Damateh who spoke for LURD and said that the process towards elections was irreversible and that those advocating for change were undermining the peace process. He accused some members of his warring factions of playing games with Liberian lives.
The fact that the Accra communiqué failed to even mention the Liberian crisis signifies that ECOWAS, the ICGL and the UN would not touch the structures of the transitional government until elections in 2005 unless something dramatic happened. As long as DDR is moving along, as long as there are no bullets flying over in the country, nobody wants to return to the 1990s when warring factions blackmailed the international community by constantly changing leadership of the transitional government and delayed the peace process. Is Bryant corrupt? Is he working outside of the CPA? Is the Minister of Finance acting in corrupt manners? For ECOWAS and the UN, these are not matters that would and should paralyze the peace process and warrant the review of the CPA. There is no guarantee that the next administration would be any better than the present one. If we have learned anything, it is that from Tolbert to Taylor, every administration has been worse than the one it followed. Liberian should focus their attention on the next elections and ensure that they would elect men and women of integrity, whose first and foremost ambitions would be to restore Liberia as a vibrant state.
The feud in LURD in 2004 as in ULIMO in the 1990s, with its propensity to derail the peace process was mostly possible because the press fueled the in fight. For a fistful of dollars, unscrupulous warlords staged press conferences, published press releases simply because there was a hungry press ready to jeopardize public safety for a few bucks. Those who worked with the press in Monrovia know for fact that many newspapers would publish anything as long as they get the “cato”. The stand taken by The Inquirer to no longer accept cato from LURD or be part of the charade, a dangerous and shameless game that jeopardizes the future of the whole nation for the greedy ambition of a few mindless and arrogant people, must be commanded. It was about time that someone in the press, in Monrovia, realizes that when “hell breaks lose between warring factions, everyone ‘s life is at stake.” Bullets and bombs don’t differentiate.
Bravo to The Inquirer! Would others follow their example.