US Ambassador John Blaney And Speaker George Dweh: The Hand that Feeds…

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 7, 2004

Amb. John Blaney - © IRIN
Liberian websites and news organs both in Liberia and the US all had one headline since Friday past: “US Ambassador Threatens….” I was copied at least 20 variations of articles of the pronouncements made by the US Ambassador to Liberia John Blaney during a press conference. He said that unless elections were held in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA, signed in Accra last year), the United States of America would withhold its support for the ongoing peace process. He went on to castigate those who are bent on keeping Liberians in poverty because they benefit from the chaos. At times, he sounded condescending and came close be simply “undiplomatic.” He was angry and as the Voice of America in hungry Liberia, his words sounded more like a dictator.

Liberians are certainly thankful to Mr. Blaney. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor who had been maligned and dragged in the mud by the Taylor NPP government, he was instrumental in getting the dictator out of business and providing Liberians with a chance to take control of their country. Liberians at home and in the Diaspora would never forget his forceful outings against the criminal enterprise the NPP government had become. Matt the Rebel, a young man featured in the documentary “A Day In Monrovia,” recalled the day the ambassador braved bullets and angry crowd to walk on the Gabriel Tucker Bridge in Monrovia and brought together the two fighting groups of LURD and the NPP and made them to drink and smoke together. That gesture signaled the end of the war, in the shadows of the same giant cotton tree on Providence Island, the same tree under which, more than 150 years ago, “settlers” and “natives” signed their first peace accord and got together to build the Liberia house.

The Ambassador's anger at what he perceives as an attempt by the Speaker of the Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) to delay or derail the CPA is understandable. Mr. George Dweh got the votes he needed to rewrite portions of the proposed elections law by the National Election Commission (NEC). In their version, the NTLA demanded that census be held before elections in accordance with the Constitution of Liberia. A human rights and constitutional lawyer with impeccable public and private record and with no stakes in the elections timetable, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe long before the elections commission made the same proposal as the NTLA. No one in his right mind would say that Gongloe and Dweh could make a team!

The CPA is a political document, negotiated under duress. In Accra, the issue was more about ending the killing that was going on than really thinking of the future. The CPA is not the constitution of Liberia, it is a band-aid used for the purpose of stopping the flow of blood. Liberians should give themselves the right to sit back and take a look at it once they have come to their senses.

In the Ambassador’s remarks, Mr. Dweh and the NTLA sounded to be acting solely for their own selfish interests. Their only aim seems to block the peace process, postpone the elections and prolong their stay in power. Is this the case? Beyond that perception, is there a case to be made for census? Is it realistic to conceive that Liberia needs to attain total peace before rushing into elections? Is it out of place to think that Liberians may want to have the hundreds of thousands of displaced people return to their villages, start working on rebuilding their homes and farms before being asked to rush to the booths and elect a new government? Do Liberians have the right to allow themselves time and not be rushed into another elections as in 1997 when they were told by the international community that all was well? Peace and democracy have nothing to do with elections. Is Liberia ready for elections? Is disarmament complete and comprehensive? Do Liberians feel confident in the process? The international community is not stranger to Liberia’s ills and any step forward must be taken with a look at the recent past.

Mr. Dweh’s response was almost as emotionally charged as the statement by the ambassador. The Speaker issued a strong press release, trying to remind everyone that Liberia is a sovereign state and therefore has the right to govern itself. There is a proverb that says that the hand that gives could also slap. Mr. Dweh seems to have forgotten that without US involvement in the conflict, Mr. Taylor would still be president and he Dweh would be running from one refugee camp to another.

Of course, Liberia is a sovereign state, but if Liberian leaders need to keep repeating it – as did Doe and Taylor - there may be something flaky in the argument. Both the Taylor and Doe governments had in common that they never lived up to the expectations of the Liberian people and could not speak for the great majority of Liberians.

Has the NTLA shown any real concern about the welfare of the Liberian people? How many of the NTLA members have ever visited their constituents in their counties? And if they did so, did they go without UN escort? Sovereignty is more than a phrase on paper. Can the NTLA convince Liberians that the issues of census was primarily for peace and not to stall the peace process? How can they convince Liberians that they were guided by a desire for true stability and national welfare when they are all riding luxurious jeeps while sick babies can’t get aspirin and teachers don’t get paid?

As the mouthpiece of the grand patron of Liberia, Ambassador Blaney can make threats. He spoke about the $520 million pledged by the international community that Liberia would need to jumpstart its economy. There is food aid Liberians depend on. The security forces of Liberia are being restructured thanks to the international community. Refugees are returning home. Tens of thousands of combatants have been disarmed. All of this is possible because of the leadership of the United States.

However, to be meaningful, all this must serve to lay the foundations for a new, stronger and more vibrant Liberia. This tremendous aid should not be reduced to making pressure on Liberians to go to the polls either they are ready or not. The hand that gives can also slaps, said my father. But does it have to? The greatest help the US can provide to Liberia now is to allow Liberians to decide how to move forward.

The argument of the $520 million is not a real issue when one looks at US involvement in recent Liberian history. Without the US government using Liberia as pun in its Cold War chess game, Master Sergeant Doe would have never become president in 1985. Had the US not been afraid of the Sawyers and Jackson Does and Matthews in the 1980s, Liberia would have made a smoother transition to democracy. Rather, the Reagan administration gave a corrupt military dictator some $500 million in (mostly military) aid… to keep him in power and then the US had to spend another $1 billion in the 1990s in humanitarian aid to feed refugees and displaced people. The US strategic interests during the Cold War has had tragic consequences for Liberia. Liberians partly look up to America because, somewhere, in the back of their minds, they know that America owes them something.

The dictum from Ambassador Blaney is certainly understandable under the scheme of a relationship based solely on dependency. Liberians have always looked to America for everything. Even when American officials said time and again in the 1990s that they have no special relationships with Liberia - until George W. Bush came to power and said something to the contrary - Liberians never had any doubt about their kinship with America. Liberian leaders somehow always acted as the unwanted stepchild, doing everything to be “seen” and “accepted” by America. Every Liberian running for presidency now thinks that they have to prove to Liberians that s/he has the “backing of America.” Aspirant political candidates come to Washington, DC and rush to the US State Department to exchange banalities with whoever they run into just so to tell friends: “I was at the State Department.” In Monrovia, being invited for coffee or tea at the US embassy is like being anointed by the pope. This is all good and well, but what have Liberians done with that connection? It all led to a dependency syndrome that makes every one beg for “the intervention of the international community.”

In the shouting match between Speaker George and Ambassador Blaney, Liberians seem to have no voice. And that is the real problem. Is there something valid in what Dweh said that could bring Liberians to have a census before elections? Do we need to know who lives where before we give people carte blanche for six or nine years at our expenses? Who would they represent?

Could the international community spend some of the $520 million to carry out census in two-three months rather then the 3 years suggested by Blaney? All in all it comes down to two issues: money and the state of the peace process. More than $30 million would be spent on the restructuring of the military in the next few months. The same amount spent on repatriation and resettlement could change things in Liberia and census could be carried out in a few months. If every county in Liberia was given $1 million to resettle its people, everything would be different. The military is not the highest priority in a country where children die of malnutrition. The $500 million military aid given to Doe did not stop the rat-tag army of Charles Taylor from taking over the country in less the six months.

Are Liberians ready for elections in October 2005? Is it possible to envision other alternatives to an all-out election that would lead to the same disastrous outcome as 1997? Can Liberians be involved in the process and reach a decision that could serve the cause of lasting peace? Who would benefit from elections under the current circumstances? Certainly not democracy, and certainly not the millions of displaced Liberians and refuges who cannot return to their homes.

Because he represents the stronger side, Mr. Blaney can change course without losing face, because George Dweh has nothing to lose in a chaotic situation. Liberia has been synonymous with chaos for almost a quarter of century. This trend can be reversed, if, and only if, Liberians are allowed to be the center of the debate.

Liberia has been plunged in a state of warfare and destruction for 25 years. Going to elections without having Liberians get together to find out what went wrong and how to fix the system and decide on the way forward would be like jumping from the frying pan into the flames. The current (1986) Constitution was forced on the Liberian people. It contains many things that the drafting commission did not put forward to the military government. As Napoleon, Doe rewrote the draft constitution to suit himself. Later, he went on to steal the elections and that plunged the nations into a war. Liberians therefore have many issues to discuss, from the constitution to the state of disarmament, from reconciliation to matters of war crime tribunal. There is a pressing need for a national dialogue.

And seriously, the US would not dump Liberia because Liberians want to take a new look at things and get it right this time before rushing to the polls. Elections are not a panacea for stability and democracy. Rather than look at US support for Liberia as a handout, the Ambassador could see it as an overdue token for peace and stability in the new world order. Liberia has never wavered in its friendship towards the US in 157 years. The US should not start to get impatient because it is lending support to a friend in a difficult time.

This is not about George Dweh or Ambassador Blaney. It is about the future of a nation. It is not about meeting international standards. Liberians know something about elections, good or bad. But is everything really in place for free and fair elections in October 2005?