The Chicago Conference On Reconciliation:
Public Relations Ploy or Reality?
By: Bodioh Wisseh Siapoe
Few weeks ago, when The National Rainbow PUSH Coalition shrewdly decided to host a covert conference on reconciliation in Chicago, many Liberians embraced the idea. The called meeting, however, did not invite the hundreds of thousands of Liberians living in the United States. A select few were chosen by the National Rainbow Coalition.
How did most Liberians get to know about the conference? With the help of the evolving Internet technology and by word of mouth advertising, other Liberians were informed about the Chicago Conference.
Visiting the Liberian Embassy's Universal Resource Locator (URL) at http://www.liberiaemb.org, Jesse Jackson's tentative program was outlined. Those scheduled to speak at the event were NPP representatives and other appologists of the Taylor administration. This one-sided approach to a conference on reconciliation irked dissenting Liberians, who protested that all major players on the Liberian political landscape be included.
Leading those opposed to the tenative program was a New York City-based watchdog organization, The Coalition of Progressive Liberians in the Americas (COPLA). In a telephone conversation with Yuri Tadesse, International Affairs Director and Conference Coordinator at the Rainbow Coalition, about why certain panelists should not be allowed to speak, Tadesse said his organization did not care about those sentiments; and that the meeting would proceed as scheduled.
Responding to Tadesse formally, COPLA wrote: "It was disheartening to hear that you didn't care about how African-Liberians feel regarding your so-called Conference on Reconciliation in Chicago, IL. If you sincerely want peace in Liberia, don't you think it would have been appropriate to consider the views of the Liberian majority as you plan the conference? But then, again, your careless response typifies and explains your ignorance of Liberian history...
If the Rainbow Coalition/PUSH cares to effect genuine reconciliation, we ask that a Romeo Horton, who helped finance the carnage of our people, be not recognized to speak at the conference. It would be a politically incorrect thing to let this co-conspirator against the Liberian State to be heard at any such forum. As indicated in our telephone conversation yesterday, we hope this is not a public relations exercise for the NPP-led government - a government whose leaders are criminals qualified to be tried for war crimes...
To ensure political equity, you would do well by allowing some (if not all) of the former warlords to speak at the conference. You may also include progressive Liberian organizations to take part as opposed to the present line-up of speakers you have. The views of those suggested will matter more than citing them to attend as sheer spectators."
Tadesse, as expected, disliked the letter.
COPLA also wrote a letter to the Rev. Jesse Jackson informing him that the problems in Liberia did not start 18 years ago as claimed by the Civil Rights activist. The organization further called on Jackson to be inclusive in its program to help effect genuine reconciliation in Liberia. Copies of the letter was sent to the U.S. State Department, President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
A few days later, Tadesse called and expressed his dissatisfaction that COPLA should not have sent any copies of its letter addressed to Jackson to the U.S. Department which called and admonished PUSH to include the political opposition.
A gentleman's agreement was reached. COPLA was asked to submit five names of the opposition to match the Liberian government's presenters at the Chicago Conference. PUSH would fax COPLA the final program by April 14.
By the end of the business day on April 14, PUSH reneged on the agreement. COPLA departed New York City for Chicago on April 15.
The New York Delegation arrived in Chicago at noon, and were fortunate to book a hotel room downtown Chicago for only one night. What was sad is that nearly all the hotels in the Windy City were booked because of the influx of Liberians to the confab.
At the PUSH/COPLA meeting, the delegation observed that the final program was the same as the tentative. PUSH, again, said opposing views would be accommodated at the conference.
At the plenary session on Thursday, strange things happened. "It's morning time in Liberia. It's morning time," declared the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "We have come to reconcile our differences. We understand there are those in this hall who label themselves the opposition, or adversaries to the Taylor administration. If there are any adversaries who are not ready to reconcile, please leave the room."
Those introductory remarks sent chills down the spines of many Liberians. As if that was insufficient, Jesse Jackson warned Liberians to stop using the Internet to embarrass the Taylor government. "The international community frequents the Internet and take note of whatever information is disseminated on the Information Superhighway; so, please stay off the Net."
Jesse Jackson has shown himself as a reconciler of sorts. The civil rights activist has taken side with the minority by condemning the interest of the majority. And that's paradoxical. A man of God has sided with a mass killer, describing Taylor as a democrat.
Speaking to the participants of the conference, President Taylor said, "We want America to forgive the debt, and encourage the private sector to come here, re-engage in Liberia by assisting us to restructure our security forces, help us rebuild our economy, and invest in human resources. There is a moral obligation America has to get Liberia going again." Representing the U. S. government were Susan Rice, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Ambassador Howard Jeter. Ambassador Jeter said, "The government of Liberia must convince every Liberian by deed and action that today and tomorrow can be better day than ever existed in the past... Liberians must rebuild Liberia."
There were also pleads for Liberians in this country to return home. One of such pleads came from Chief Jallah Lone, the so-called president of all the chiefs in Liberia: "I come for you Liberians to come back home. You must teach your children your language and ... your culture." The information minister, Joe Mulbah said, "I make the equivalent of $15 U. S. per month. But it's my country. It's time for the true Liberians to wake up and identify with the people."
More than 10 Liberian government officials spoke without any time limits. But when COPLA was delivering its presentation, time became a factor, more so, when COPLA appealed to the U.S. State Department and the National Rainbow PUSH Coalition to call for the institution of an international tribunal to try war criminals. COPLA's call for the institution of an international tribunal for war crimes received a thundersome applause from the audience. The applause speaks volumes, but the PUSH organization cut off COPLA speech, saying that the speaker was out of time (5 minutes).
Did Money Change Hands?
Without being asked, perhaps out of guilty conscience, Rev. Jackson said, "This is no assignment from our government or consultant fee (from Liberia). I do this because I want to see Liberians live again... The agenda is to get the government and other views reconciled." A Liberian recalled that during the Liberian civil war, the Liberian Community in the Chicago area invited Rev. Jackson to serve as its guest speaker, but the poor Liberian community was slapped with a $10,000.00 honorarium. Rev. Jackson did not speak to the body because it could not afford the amount. So why would Reverend Jackson exhibit this type of generosity at this time? "Money is powerful", said another Liberian.
What did ordinary attendees say? Of course, Jesse Jackson's stance at the conference was clear. He has taken side with his long distant relatives, descendants of ex-slaves, who had misruled Liberia for more than a century and a three decades. Many Liberians were sad that a man of God would be consumed by sheer greed against the commonweal of the dispossessed. Almost everyone thought the pseudo Conference on Reconciliation was simply a public relations campaign by Uncle Jesse for Cuz Charlie.
What did the Chicago Conference achieve? Was this a reconciliation conference? Who were reconciling? One thing is clear, the conference achieve its unstated objective: it provided Taylor with the publicity he needed in this country through Jesse Jackson. The National Rainbow/Push Coalition has asked Liberians to sign up for the national conference to be held this July in Virginia, Liberia. On resolutions, all that one can say is that the conference has resolved to travel to Monrovia for a "reunion" of African Americans and their distant relatives (the Americos), after the Americos having wrestled, once again, Liberia's political and economic leadership at gunpoint.
Liberians left with conclusion that the recent conference was a major propaganda ploy for the Liberian Government. As one Atlanta based radio station put it, it was a reunion between African-Americans and their distant relatives, freed slaves, who left U.S. to colonize Liberia. It was a joke of sorts.
Bodioh Wisseh Siapoe is a Founder and Chairman of the New York based Coalition of Progressive Liberians in the Americas (COPLA)