Liberia & Ivory Coast: Two Different Paths to Peace

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 30, 2004

Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia are both emerging from civil war. Both countries are preparing to hold elections in less than a year. If everything goes according to plan, a democratic and transparent exercise in each country will usher in new government with a mandate from the majority of people. How long that new peace will last will depend largely on how the countries would have resolved the issues that either directly or indirectly led them into deadly conflict in the first place. Future peace can only be sustained if the root causes of the conflicts are unearthed and dealt with, and here Cote d’Ivoire is a step or two ahead of Liberia.

Once the guns had gone silent, the protagonists of the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire were quick to look to their system of governance and their laws for what may have caused so much dissension in the society and to ask why all the country’s wealth was concentrated in certain geographic areas, and what made some Ivorians so angry that they were ready to tear the country apart to have their voices heard. Rather than an aberration or accident of history, they saw the conflict as wake-up call, one that would force them to look at the many problems that had been swept under the rug and find adjustments. They allowed themselves the right to criticize Cote d’Ivoire’s founding father, Houphouet-Boigny notwithstanding the fact that he has been a reference point for every political class, including those who fought him for decades. They courageously questioned their century- old relationship with France and put in the open what they thought was wrong with those relationships. Ivorians reached a clear understanding that in order to be sustained, whatever peace formula they workout in ending the conflict must be based on new ideas, new laws, a new social and economic order and more respectful relationships between the various religious and ethnic layers of the nation.

Rather than relying on international organizations to tell them what human and infrastructural damage the war wrought on them, Ivorian human rights lawyers, doctors and other local organizations formed research groups that traveled from village to village, from town to town to catalogue every victim, dead, raped or wounded in the course of the war. They photographed every building that was destroyed. Survivors were provided with legal advice and were given time at the national legislature to voice in their own language their grievances and say what they expected as reparations. With protection guaranteed under the law, they called the names of those who mistreated them, raped them or burned their houses. This was all done on live national television for weeks.

At the political level, the legitimacy of the government was questioned. Even among those who opposed the rebellion, many found valid arguments for the formation of a new government of inclusion. Political leaders went a step further and insisted that certain provisions of the constitution regarding eligibility, land tenure, electoral laws and citizenship, just to name a few thorny issues, be put under the microscope and reviewed. Furthermore, no international organization dictated to them how these laws would be re-written. The rebels, the government, and the legal opposition all agreed that certain provisions of the constitution inserted in the document by the military junta of General Guei with the intention of rigging the 2000 elections needed to be reviewed before a new government is elected. What they did not agree on was how to effect the necessary revisions prior to elections next year.

On the international scene, Ivorians have publicly raised the issue of Burkina Faso’s involvement and support for the rebellion. They have either praised or condemned France’s role in the crisis. They have forced both countries to come to terms somehow with their responsibilities. No matter how things turn out a year from now, relationships between Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso and France will never be the same contemptuous, innocent or paternalistic relationships they were.

A portion of the national budget recently passed by the National Assembly set aside funds as compensation for war victims. This is not money Ivorians went out to beg for--they raised it locally.

Finally, a monument dedicated to the victims of the war was erected in the heart of Abidjan, symbolically located on the road the presidential convoy takes between the palace and the official residence of the president. The names of all those who died during the war will be carved on the monument, including that of the late General Guei whose tenure at the presidency precipitated the war.

The case in Liberia is totally different. There is not a single law regarding the victims of the war. Nobody in Liberia knows exactly how many people were killed during the war. The number of Liberians who fell victims to the war is mere statistic used by international organizations in their quest for aid for those who survived. Nobody talks about the hundreds of thousands of young women raped and enslaved by warlords and their armies of drugged teenagers over the past two decades. Similarly, besides a fistful of dollars, no attention is paid to the future of the hundreds of thousands of young boys used by warlords as cannon fodder in the quest for power. Nobody is asked to account for the millions of dollars stolen from the national coffers, nor is anyone questioned about their tenure at the head of state financial agencies.

Land ownership has been and remains a serious problem that nobody wants to deal with either. Very recently, thousands of villagers and traditional landowners in Bassa county were told that they would lose their land to a timber company under a deal said to be fraudulent - negotiated decades ago by a corrupt regime. And this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the vast farmlands taken away from rural communities over the decades. This is an issue that many expected Samuel Doe, “the countryman,” to address.

Like the Ivorian constitution, the draft constitution of the Sawyer Commission was tampered with to suit the ambitions of general Samuel Doe. The great majority of Liberians who write about the constitution today point to the need of revising key aspects of the documents, including the tenure of the chief executive and of the legislature. There is strong opposition also to the power of the president to appoint people to every position, from the janitor to the superintendent.

Should an incoming president have the right to appoint an entire judiciary as well as the heads of state-owned entities and academic institutions with no regards for their performance? Why should anyone elected for nine years feel any obligation to perform in his or her first five years in office as a senator? Why should a superintendent who owes his job to the president and not to the county do anything for that county unless the president says so? How can the judiciary feel safe and independent if all it takes is a signature from the president for a judge to be removed from the bench? How can there be peace in a land where judges are made to obey the chief executive?

Although they are aware of these political shortcomings that played a major part in precipitating us into our national tragedies - at least those who know something about governance issues - aspirant leaders avoid asking for changes to be made now. A few of them go as far as suggesting that those issues would figure prominently on their agendas. They want to be presiding over the changes so that their tenure is not affected.

Among the arguments advanced for not attempting to make changes, many politicians who already are dreaming about sipping champagne in the Executive Mansion cite the fact that a transitional or an unconstitutional administration cannot make changes to the constitution. This is a fallacy, because the Samuel Doe administration that gave us this constitution in the first place was a transitional administration.

Another argument is that the transitional government is so corrupt that its needs to be removed right away. Another fallacy. Every government elected according to the current constitution will be corrupt because it will be based on the absolute power of the presidency--and absolute power always corrupts. Leadership is important, but where the framework for balance of power is lacking in the system, there is no salvation.

In its rush to declare Liberia a success story, the “international community” is playing along. It wants an election and a winner so that it can move on to another crisis until it is needed back again in Liberia as was the case in 1997. Liberians in the United States who have the chance to sit back and reflect on the issues are too consumed by the daily challenges of a consumer society that many would have never had access to if it weren’t for the war.

The major difference between Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia is perhaps to be found in the make-up of the political class. For the past 30 years, Liberians have been running to the US. Because most of them were educated in America and with names and culture, integration was much easier than it would have been for Ivorians in France. As a consequence, the Liberian middle class, which was in its formative years in the 1970s and 1980s, is now in exile in America. Democracy cannot be built in the absence of a middle class.

The current process will not lead to a sustainable peace because the foundations are flawed. Doe and Taylor were bad leaders, but they were not the sources of Liberian problems, they were creations of a bad political culture built on cronyism, sycophancy and corruption.

After shying away from any direct intervention in the Liberian crisis, the US finally took sides with the majority and helped to oust the dysfunctional regime of Charles Taylor. But since the departure of Taylor, Liberians have fallen back into their customary political lethargy. There is no engagement and no follow-up to the political overture made by the Bush government. The only thing the US hears from Liberian political class is “help us to win the elections” or cockily announcing: “You are looking at the next President of Liberia.”

The focus and energy in Monrovia have been and remain the conquest of political power, focused narrowly on who will become president. This has resulted in a plethora of presidential candidates. In the absence of high-level debate on complex issues, any John Brown can stand up and say: “I want to be president.” Had the political class in Liberia and the US embarked on a national debate trying to find an answer to difficult problems, many would-be presidents would have remained silent, because they would have had nothing to bring to the dialogue.

In Cote d’Ivoire, a country of more than 15 million souls, there are not more than six presidential aspirants while in Liberia with 3 million inhabitants, 44 people have made known their intentions to vie for the presidential. One rarely attends a Liberian function anywhere in the US without somebody trying to slip in your hand a photocopied pamphlet declaring his or her intentions to be president next year. The danger is that one of those “clowns” could win! Because all of them say the same exact thing.

The various commissions set up by the CPA have done little, if anything, that could charter a new political culture. Suggestions made by the commission on good governance are all covered with dust somewhere in drawers between the Transitional Legislative Assembly and the Executive Mansion. This is a clear indication of how enthusiastic Liberians are to come face to face with the truth. With barely 10 months before elections, there is little chance that even the truth and reconciliation commission will ever become reality. The commission on monopoly has not curtailed the old ways of government running to the same handful of Lebanese merchants to buy everything, from pencils to armored cars.

Holding elections under the present conditions is tantamount to building a new house on the rubble of a collapsed building and expecting it to stand strong. This peace is without foundations and will crumble sooner rather than later, because Liberians don’t seem to have learned anything from the past.