Keeping the Peace in Monrovia


By Ezekiel Pajibo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 12, 2004

The last weekend of October 2004 has presented Liberians another
Chairman Gyude Bryant
opportunity to fully appreciate the dilemma confronting the country. It is important to note that during every such opportunity, Liberians should seek to find additional explanations as to where the country is heading; why and how dutiful citizens of the country can guide and inform that process. Whereas, some view the latest violence in Monrovia as attempts by "hidden hands" (NTGL Chairman Charles G. Bryant Statement to the Nation, Friday, October 29, 2004) to frustrate the peace process, sufficient evidence have been garnered to suggest that this is more of the kind of criminality that has characterized the Liberian society since 1980. We do not need a "hidden hand" to explain the riot carried out by a bunch of hooligans and thugs, during which time Mosques and Churches were reportedly burned and at least 16 persons killed (BBC Network Africa November 1, 2004) and scores of others injured while tens of thousands of dollars worth of properties destroyed (The News November 1, 2004). We don't need to visit on this event a Christian Moslem divide either. As well, we don't need to explain it as non-Mandingoes versus the Mandingoes. These are easy explanations that are not informed by the recent politicking by a number of Liberian politicians, principally the leadership of the various warring factions.

The first issue that needs unpacking is the deadline for the disarmament of armed factions. UNMIL announced more than a month ago that the deadline for disarmament would be October 31, 2004. Speaker of the NTLA, George Dweh in a public statement said that the deadline was ill-advised and needed to be re-considered. The nature of the public debate on the deadline has not been sufficiently enlightened. For example, the public was not told that according to the Comprehensive Peace Accord, the various warring parties were to produce a roster of the men/women in arms, their locations/whereabouts, an inventory of their weapons and their armories, if they existed. Either the warring factions did not produce adequate information at all or they did not produce them accurately and in a timely fashion (Speech delivered by Deputy Force Commander of UNMIL October 19, 2004, City Hall, Monrovia). Indicative of this lack of information is the high number of those disarmed so far, about 90,000, compared to the estimated number of 35,000 -50,000. In addition the disarmament has been on-going since April 15, thereby creating ample opportunity for the warring factions to ensure that accurate accounting of their armed men/women/children were presented. There is no telling that the process has had its hiccups, and its ebbs and flows. This is to be expected, especially given the poverty of intelligence gathering in the country, the recent exceptionally torrential rainy season which made large parts of the country impassable by motor vehicles and the complete absence of political will on the part of the powers that be to ensure complete and successful disarmament.

Another dimension to this issue has been public action and attitudes towards Africans from Guinea. Xenophobia is fast becoming a past time in Liberia. Several months ago, the Commissioner of Immigration reportedly deported a number of Guinean nationals because according to him, their traveler documents were not in order. The Minister of Justice publicly repudiated the Commissioner's behavior. A number of civil society leaders including the President of the Liberia National Bar Association, the President of the Press Union of Liberia have bemoaned the influx of Guineans into the country. In the view of the Bar Association President, the influx of Guineans is a "threat" to Liberia security. He has yet to elaborate. A number of Human Rights monitors in Lofa County have expressed alarm over the presence of newly arrived Guineans in the County. Some of them interpreted the influx as attempts to pad the voting rolls come the 2005 elections.

These claims and statements have not been interrogated to establish their validity and/or intentions/motivations. Yet, these claims and statements have been lodged within the minds of the public. Listening to various congregations of Liberians, presumably non-Mandingoes, during the last weekend in October, a troubling phenomenon seems to be in the making which expresses itself along this line: "Mandingoes are foreigners, and they want to take control of Liberia and that would not be accepted and in fact they should go back to where they came from." This sentiment is not at all different from similar opinions expressed by our national leaders who easily speak in glowing terms of the need for support from the international community but are then quick to suggest that "only Liberians can solve our problems" and that "foreigners" have no right to form part of efforts at re-creating Liberia's failed institutions. We can only accept their "technical assistance" and nothing else.

In the minds of the general public the "foreigners" in closest proximity to them and upon whom they can easily visit violence are "Mandingoes". Thus our national leaders need to be careful when they speak glibly about "foreigners." This is rather more important given the fact that Liberians are scattered to the four winds of the earth as refugees, especially within the West African region and specifically Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. As a country with the most refugees in the region, we must exercise caution in our public statements about "foreigners" in our midst. It is highly likely that some elements of the public may imbibe such talks and act upon them once the opportunity presents itself as happened during the last weekend of October 2004. We do not need "hidden hands" when we speak irresponsibly at public and or private meetings about "foreigners." Mandingoes are Liberians too and if foreigners are in Liberia during this time, this could be viewed as a barometer of the peace and stability that is returning to our country. This view in no way is suggesting that criminality be rewarded. Unless we have hard evidence that individuals are involved in criminal mischief, we should not assign or impugn sinister motives to their presence – that is the precursor to xenophobia, which is hatred for foreigners and that is incongruent to our nation's commitment to PanAfricanism and respect for international laws.

The political in-fightings within the leadership of the various warring factions have in no small way contributed to the current situation in Liberia. All of the warring factions have had examples of the collapse of their straw houses. The most bitter and public one has been within LURD in which Sekou Damate Conneh and his faction is pitted against Aisha Conneh and her faction. Just prior to the last weekend in October, the press reported attempts by some "elders" within LURD to hold elections. In response LURD Chairman Conneh stated that the "LURD's election" was "illegal" (The Informer 27 October 2004). The LURD's leader then proceeded to call for the resignation of the Minister of Justice, Kabineh Ja'neh. He said that Mr. Ja'neh was engaged "in acts inimical to the peace process and the stability of the state." The Minister's house on Duport Road was burned during the weekend in question. Any wonder? Other persons of LURD whose homes were burned included Aisha Conneh and the Minister of Transport, Vambah Kanneh (The NEWS November 1, 2004).

Public statements by public persons that have the propensity to inflame sentiments and incite people to violence must be put in check. If Mr. Conneh has any evidence that the Minister of Justice is a "threat to national security", he should be made to produce the evidence and not be allowed to make apparently irresponsible statements, which are then widely circulated especially during a period of political tension and violence. Mr. Conneh's statement was repeatedly aired on a number of radio stations in Monrovia. Some of these radio stations, including Crystal FM, conducted live call-in radio programs during which time callers employed incendiary language whose only logic and purpose was to incite public hatred against one group or another. This is irresponsible journalism. (In Rwanda, a radio station, Radio Mille Collins was used to inform people about whom to target and kill during that country's genocidal civil war and those responsible were charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.) On Friday, October 29 a caller on Crystal FM at about 11:40 A.M. said that he was in possession of firearms and if the violence in his neighborhood (Old Matadi) was not brought under control he would go out and "raise hell." This message was broadcast live! This is one way in which those who want to take the law into their hands are emboldened. They make public statements, which are broadcast far and wide and there is no remonstration. What is there to prevent them from carrying out their criminal intentions?

During the call-in broadcast programs, some irresponsible remarks were made concerning the conduct of elements of the UN peacekeeping officers. One caller said that some peacekeepers, specifically the Bangladeshi battalion was biased in their treatment of Moslems. According to the caller, since the Bangladeshis were from a Moslem country and they are "Moslems" they were treating "Mandingoes who are Moslem" more "favorably." This kind of broadcast can sows the seeds of hatred first against peacekeepers from so-called Moslem countries while more generally implanting in the minds of some sections of the public a basis for hatred against the peacekeepers and by extension UNMIL. This is even more unacceptable when such broadcasts are happening when the very peacekeepers are the ones courageously confronting and preventing Liberians from causing further mayhem and death in the city. Already, we are witnessing signs of creeping hatred towards UNMIL. For example, pedestrians' are beginning to bang on UNMIL vehicles as they drive around the city. This is intolerable and these kinds of broadcast must be discouraged as the feed into and feed on such behaviors by unruly and at times criminal elements of the public.

Another caller went on ranting about the slow response by UNMIL soldiers to the fast spreading violence. What Liberians need to be told is that members of the peacekeepers are trained soldiers. Soldiers are trained to kill, "not to maim" and certainly not to control violent crowds. That is a job best left to the Liberia National Police (LNP). Given that we don't really, as yet, have a police force that is "worth its salt" in terms of strength, training, and equipment, a slow respond to violent outbreak is expected. UNMIL cannot work miracle. Only God can and the last time I spoke to a Theologian, I was reminded that a miracle happens every fifty years. The most recent miracle was the release of Nelson Mandela from Apartheid South Africa's jail and it is not fifty years yet since that release. Liberians need to adopt realistic expectations, not that they are not justify in hastening peace but that lasting and durable peace can not be hastened nor rushed. Peace must be built on firm grounds – block by block - and based on principles of justice and equity. It also has to be sufficiently informed by a public conduct that is non-violent, embraces dialogue and is free of political demagoguery and posturing. Liberians must be made aware of those who want to parade themselves in our society as "paragon of virtue and leadership" as Dusty Wolokolie would say, for after all we know and indeed we all should know that our "emperors are not wearing any clothes." In addition, we as a people must be tolerant, discipline and dutiful citizens who don't engage in rumor mongering and exaggeration and the telling of outright lies but are proponent of truth telling, committed to ensuring that this hard earned peace is maintained and the Liberian people can go about rebuilding their lives and look towards the future with a deservingly great sense of certainty.