GOOD LUCK LIBERIA: 35 Years of a Long and Painful Transition to Democracy
(April 14, 1979 - April 12, 2014)

By: James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 14, 2014


After the bloody rice riot of April 14, 1979, President Tolbert missed an opportunity to engage genuine  democratic and liberal reforms that  he had  so courageously announced almost 10 years earlier.  The military coup of  April 12, 1980, disrupted the trend, and Sergeant Samuel Kanyan Doe ignored the necessity to reconcile Liberians by imposing himself as a military-turned-civilian president in 1986. Then from Dec. 24, 1989, Charles Taylor took our country on the highest human destructive spree in its history – more than 250, 000 innocent victims in a  senseless civil war. In the aftermath,  he too would impose himself upon the Liberian people as a warlord-turned-president, and another opportunity for a genuine national reconciliation was squandered. But Mr. Taylor is today serving a 50-year jail sentence in a British prison – regrettably, not for what he had subjected Liberia and its people, but mainly for his extended rebel engagement in Sierra Leone.

Despite our unending tragedy, however, we voted massively for our own national Nelson Mandela in awaiting, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female President, on November 8, 2005. But six years later and with a Nobel Peace Prize to her honour, our President was re-elected for a second term in Nov. 2011- but an election marred by controversies. And thus went our hope as a nation to have become the heir to the Mandela model of Africa. As a result, while the real Nelson Mandela was buried with all the  unprecedented international honours ever to an African leader, some quarters of our political class were vehemently requesting the resignation of the President in the face of an acute  economic crisis and political uncertainties. And let me stress further something, perhaps,  that has been lost on the minds of Liberians. That is, we have  two prominent Peace Nobel laureates  who have not been able to combine their efforts and energies to effectively reconcile and unite the Liberian people and country. What an extraordinary opportunity in waste.
It is on this premises that upon my recent visit to Liberia (February 7-28, 2014)  and at the approach of April 12, 2014, I have decided (with the indulgence of my readers) to undertake this three-part reflection entitled: “Good Luck Liberia…”  Further, less we forget that since the sudden death of Tubman in 1971, all our successive Presidents have suffered what I termed  the effect of the “10th year syndrome.”  Tolbert  was overthrown almost in his 10th year in power; and so too was Samuel K.  Doe. Mr. Taylor had almost completed the first six years and had  prepared himself to stay on for life. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is in her 9th year, (after a shaky start of the second term) and already the combined social, economic and political tension has tripled  on the government.  I will attempt to explain the phenomenon in Part Three of this paper as a sort of guide to  those aspiring to be the future presidents of Liberia.  For now, however, in this Part One and Part Two to follow, I will give a general purview on the state of affairs in Liberia as I saw, felt and lived through for three weeks. And though I  have been visiting our country every year since 2007, but today the situation has dramatically changed  from optimism to a generalized pessimism.

February 11, 2014 Armed Forces Day: Importance and Implications

Immediately after reading the President’s long awaited Annual Message to the National Legislature  on January 27, 2014, on the theme: “Consolidating the Processes of Transformation”, I credited a ticket and flew to Monrovia on February 7, 2014.  For nothing on earth could I have missed the  induction of the first Liberian Chief of Staff of our new army –AFL – trained, fashioned and equipped by our foreign partners for the last 8 years.  What is more, the orator of this all important occasion was Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, the first interim President of Liberia. It was his office – the Governance Commission – that drafted the first and most comprehensive National Security Strategy blue-print  of the post-war democratic Liberia, and from where now comes the new AFL (see National Security Strategy of the Republic of Liberia, January 2008). And second, as Interim President he designated me as his first National Security Advisor on Feb. 4, 1991, with the responsibility the “ coordination of the various security agencies of the IGNU.” In this capacity, he thought it also expedient and essential that I be associated with the Military Advisory Board; thus on September 27, 1991, I was appointed an Ex-Officio member (with no salary, no compensation, no reimbursements or per diems whatsoever –only a sincere patriotic duty). This board was constituted for the achievement of the following objectives:

To explore ways of fostering understanding and improving  communication between or among the warring parties within the area in which the Interim Government of National Unity exercises civil authority. To advise the IGNU on approaches in the pursuit of peace from a military oriented perspective. To advise on strategies for the formulation of a military defence policy.

In comparison with the National Security Strategy document, these objectives of the Military Board were also very concise and  precise.  And we wasted no time and worked around the clock in honesty and determination  to reorganize, reconcile and unite a factional  security apparatus entrenched in place. We did not consider ourselves as the know-it-all or a “thing  for only the Dr. Sawyer’s partisans;” instead, we searched through the rubbles and every corner of Monrovia and areas under our control for all the experienced, professionals of the national security apparatus and brought them on board. Those we met at the Executive Mansion and the Barclay Training Center were Doe’s men and fervent supporters; whereas the National Police Headquarters and National Security Agency  were more or less under the influence of the INPFL. The Special Security Service agents and other security groups had dispersed into the different factions or went underground. The task was difficult and  the odds were numerous, but the IGNU crafted an effective security apparatus that helped made it the longest surviving interim administration. And I dare say that the IGNU could have prolonged its tenure indefinitely on the suffering and division of the Liberian people, if Dr. Sawyer was a  man who had greed for power and wealth. Instead, he relinquished power for peace, national unity and democracy.  And even though some of those who castigated the IGNU as the “Monrovia Based Government”, living in a  5-star hotel (the rat and mosquito infested Ducor Palace Hotel at the time) and enjoying themselves,  are all part of this current administration, and so too is Dr. Sawyer.  I have no doubt that there is nothing more worthy then  to share his vast wealth of political experience in this same post-war government   in order to assist in nurturing a genuine democratic culture, good governance  and foster a sustained peace, national reconciliation, unity, progress and economic development for the common  good of our nation and its people. For the rest, it is left to history and the Liberian people to determine his legacy as of the most outstanding politician and statesman of our generation.

So I was in Monrovia to be among the living witnesses to his message or advice to the reborn AFL.  I also wanted to get a general perception of how ordinary Liberians felt about their new army – an army that could  either protect their democracy or undo it for the worst.  Well, as for the ruling elites  I already knew what some of its members think about the army and police – they have no confidence in any of them. In fact, if left with  them the UNMIL could stay in Liberia for life. On the other hand, the sentiment of  the ordinary Liberian is with a sort resignation: “AFL or no AFL and UNMIL or no UNMIL, who cares! No job, nothing to eat, who cares!” The majority of the population has sunk into deep poverty and despair ; Monrovia is overcrowded with healthy,  jobless young men and women that no one seems to care about their future and the extreme danger that poses to the security and stability of the country. The ruling elites, if not cruising in tinted glass SUVs,  have barricaded themselves behind barbed wire, high walls and luxurious homes, while the country sits on a real time-bomb.

But let me come back to the new army. On Monday, Feb. 10th I was driving down the Sherfflin/RIA highway toward Monrovia. Right after the VP junction, I suddenly heard this special security car horn sounding from behind and forcing motorists off the road (something very frequent under this administration). Politely, I told my driver to park as I never wanted to be ridiculed  in such a lawless society; and because the scandal that I would provoke should such a misfortune ever came upon me  would be so great that the entire world would hear it.  Suddenly, I saw this camouflaged military pick-up, packed with soldiers in camouflaged uniforms and fully armed. Following behind was a black Toyota or Nissan van with tinted glasses and very colourful license plate of a 2-star general. My driver quickly confirmed to me that that was the convoy of the new army Chief –of-Staff to be inducted tomorrow (Feb.11th). I said in my heart: “That is a damn good start indeed.”

I went around telling the joke to some of  my political friends on how  the convoy of the new Chief-of-Staff almost threw my vehicle into the gutter. Curiously, that did not seem to be any news of importance. I guess because there are so many convoys plying the already congested streets of Monrovia and embarrassing struggling motorists, that adding just one more is no big issue. But only one of those friends had the instinct to reflect on my story, and he said to me: “You know, I don’t think the Nigerian Chief-of-Staff who was in charge ever had a convoy or even a special license plate.”  So I concluded: “Well, I never saw it under Tubman, Tolbert or the first interim government; but perhaps it the culture of “morale” inherited from the eras of Doe and Taylor.”

On February 11, 2014 Armed Forces Day, I ignored the protocol of this all important occasion and woke up late. By 8:00 a.m. I took off for the Barclay Training Center, but unfortunately I was not admitted entrance as the security perimeter was already closed to the public. As I would learn later, to get a seat one had to be there from 6:00-7:00 a.m.; otherwise when the President and dignitaries are seated  around 8:00, the gate is closed and the ceremonies start. But bad luck, instead of hanging around the BTC I turned around and went  home to listen to this all day  program on the radio. And I had no regrets.

It was a very long program, and from all indication it was all extremely colourful, moving, emotional and, of course, historical. I listened keenly to all the speeches beginning with that of Dr. Sawyer’s – a very short one indeed. But in essence it was a summary of his National Security Strategy blue-print; but he also proposed a development oriented military and then reminded  his audience (Executive, Legislatures,  Judiciary, political parties and foreign partners) that the military was a part and parcel of the wider society, and that the overall and general well-being of this wider society is the surest way to maintain an highly effective  national security in which the army should then play its role efficiently. Well, all that sounded very clear and logical to me,  but from what I saw and heard on the ground, I am obliged to remain an inherent pessimist and alarmist.
Thus my attention quickly went to the impressive résumé and career life span of our foreign Security Sector Reform Advisors who crafted our new army. All these highly qualified and experienced professionals have been serving for more than twenty and thirty years and have only attained the rank of  a “colonel,” with the exception of Major General Suraj A. Abdurrahman.  And yet they have given us in less than 8 years 2-star generals and colonels with the same sticker of very impressive résumés – young men and women who are hardly   in their early thirties, and we celebrate knowing deep in our hearts that something is certainly not too correct.

But do not read me wrongly. I have no doubt that these young men and women of our new army are highly intelligent, brilliant, hardworking, conscientious and patriotic. But there are limits if we are unable to accomplish our goal on the well-being of the wider society. In that case, then,  this is the opportune moment for us as a nation, people and a serious government to begin the real task – psychologically and financially – of building the  right kind of army we need to guarantee our democracy, peace and stability of our country.

Psychologically, we should manifest our genuine trust, confidence and respect for our army (as we should also respect others and the wider society). At the same time though, we should also beat out of their heads and minds that obnoxious culture of “morale”, - power,  pomp  and pageantry (just as  we should do unto  ourselves to show the right example). We should make them  to realize that the impressive résumé bestowed upon them is only just the beginning of a long, tedious and patriotic career; and that they have still far away to go to prove their worth and merits in protecting their nation, people and a democratic system of government. We should also bear in mind that those servicemen sent at our porous borders and foreign peace missions will return as the real battle tested men, who will require special psychological attention and financial compensation. Or else, we should not exclude dissension, desertion, etc within an already young and fragile military Establishment. Furthermore, we should avoid the temptation of using the military as the trump card or blackmail  through which we could impose our choice of national leadership should come 2017, to protect our personal  interest. Liberians should be let to elect a President of their choice in 2017, and not to be made to accept a “compromise” that we would be told has the “silent blessing or support” of the army. It would be an enormous political miscalculation and an affront to the determination of the Liberian people to effectuate a genuine change.

And financially, we should avoid establishing a ridiculous salary disparities between the military high brass and the majority base of non-commissioned officers. As a young army that will be in function for the next 30-40 years, we should establish a decent, balanced  salary structure, adequate pension scheme, service awards and compensations, lodging facilities and other advantages for the men and women of courage and bravery who make a real sacrifice for the nation.

 But having said that, if we should sit back, entrenched in our opulence and privileges, and  think that we can buy and control only  the  top military brass with hefty salaries and immunities as we have done so well with the minority elites, then we have simply lost from memory the genesis of April 12, 1980. Because the majority grass-root discontent today in Liberia is as high as it was in 1979. And this grass-root discontent could also be translated into a discontent of a grass-root, forgotten  new army –AFL.

Yes, at least I try to keep my memory as an alarmist and  pessimist. When the training of the new army begun back in 2006/07 by Dyna Corp International, we learned that the recruits were receiving three full meals per day and sleeping in fully air-conditioned boarding rooms. I thought then that was the greatest of absurdity in a country just emerging from such a devastated civil war. And here we are today that those same  recruits who have been trained under such a plush condition and now with families and no lodging accommodation,  will be paid   less than $200.00 per month by us, and while some Ministers, Commissioners, Managing Directors, and not to mention the Legislators, Judiciary, etc, take home up to $10,000.00 and $15,000.00 per month. And mind you, these Ministers are all young and ambitious as these new soldiers. What is more, they are all equally and culturally disoriented, like big money and comfort. The only major difference is that one group (Ministers and others) came from the United States, while the other group (new soldiers) are from the  refugee camps and the many poor shanty towns and slums of Monrovia and elsewhere in the country.

Now, if all this reality is not taken into consideration, and the army is maintained at the bare financial minimum,  what is the guarantee that those soldiers who are now maintaining joint security at our porous borders or sent to the Central African Republic (engagements that will definitely be very frequent), but without adequate compensation, logistics, and you name it, when return will sit quietly and passively in the barracks and shanty dwellings, without decent salary to feed theirs families, send the children to school, pay the rent, etc? There is also another instigating factor that cannot be ignored. That is, today Liberia is highly lawless, disorderly and indiscipline, where anyone thinks that he or she can  do anything or achieve anything with absolute impunity or without consequences. In short, we are not only in state of “Rampant Corruption”, but also “Lawlessness and  Disorder”- a perfect leitmotiv for any ambitious tyrant.

Therefore, as the UNMIL withdraws, I unconditionally join  our Army, Police, Immigration and other to urge my fellow Liberians, the Executive, Legislature, Judiciary, political parties and all aspiring national leaders to  make the “ adequate financial support of our National Security Establishment”, a genuine national priority or debate.  As for the army, I think it would be better to have a small force, but well trained, paid, equipped and efficient in accordance with our national budget than a bigger number that would keep us dependent on our foreign partners for financial support. But if we should chose to shy away from our national responsibility and continue to bury our heads in only “what we can get” then once again the army, instead of being a partner for genuine national development, reconciliation, unity, peace and stability, could become only a major determinant player in the near political future of our nation


To be continued

© 2014 by The Perspective
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