Why Go To Abuja? Peace Talks And Other Issues....
By Abdoulaye W. Dukule
The last time Liberians met in Abuja, Sani Abacha was President of Nigeria. The NPFL and ULIMO-K had just set Monrovia ablaze, killing some 3,000 mostly innocent people in their attempt to arrest Roosevelt Johnson and take over the government. Hundreds of Liberians, including Tom Woeweyiu, the late Francois Massaquoi and Lavela Suppuwood traveled days and nights on the leaking and very unsanitary appropriately named cargo ship Bulk Challenge. Liberia was traumatized. ECOWAS leaders met and decided that Liberians needed to get their acts together. At the time, Wilton Sankawulo, former English instructor at the University of Liberia, author of the Night and the Rain, a gloomy story about murder and greed, and former speechwriter for Samuel Doe was Chairman of the Council of State II.
At the end of the conference, Sankawulo was dismissed and Ruth Perry was appointed Chair of Council of State III. The warlords signed a communiqué&Mac226; where they promised to disarm their troops and go to elections. During the signing ceremony, Mr. Taylor made a short speech. He said he was the one who started the war and he would end it. He said others came in to stop him. Now he was ready to stop the war and if everyone left him alone, he would end the war. He signed the document and left the room. A year later, elections were held and Mr. Taylor was offered the presidency in exchange for peace.
That was in September 1996. Five years later, Mr. Taylor and a group of Liberians "leaders" are headed back to Abuja. Much has changed since then. Nigeria has gotten rid of the nightmarish military rule of Abacha. Liberia is almost a united country, except the Lofa piece serving as a battle zone between government and dissidents. Elections are to be held in 18 months. Conditions are deplorable in the country. Mr. Taylor has let the hardliners of the NPFL rule and ruin a country that had already hit rock bottom in the words of Madeline Albright when she visited Monrovia in 1996. Those who used to voice caution and sanity in his surrounds have been eliminated or simply silenced. The president, after months of denial, has come to face the fact that he needs help, both from the ECOWAS and the opposition. The upcoming meeting in Abuja, brokered by ECOWAS with the help of the Carter Center could lead to the lessening of tension in Monrovia. But few expect Mr. Taylor to change his ways or rein in his gangs of looters and killers. Fewer more expect Mr. Taylor to submit to anything that could lead to a lessening of his powers.
The problem in Liberia now is not really one between Mr. Taylor and the opposition. He and the political leaders - or leaders of various political organizations - may go to Abuja and have a show of confidence but that has no bearing on the situation at home. From all indications, the only politician now having problems with Mr. Taylor is Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Mr. Baccus Matthews now works for OTC and has been as quiet as a fish in clean water. Dr. Tipoteh, by his presence on the ground, has somehow become more or less part of the political landscape and seems to have reached a certain level of co-existence with Mr. Taylor. Dr. Sawyer has remained silent since he left the country after the thugs of the NPFL almost killed him. A few months ago, Mr. Taylor and some leaders of political parties from the opposition had a "warm and cordial meeting". With this background, the question remains what would be the agenda of a meeting between Mr. Taylor and opposition leaders?
There are two crucial problems now facing the country and neither calls for a leadership meeting of the sort being organized in Abuja.
The first real problem concerns governance: accountability, human rights and respect for the constitution. The government is the only one that can face and deal with these issues. No level of understanding with political leaders will ever make culprits to be accountable for public money. The security of political leaders does not mean security for the common people. The violation of the constitution by the Executive branch or people close to the center of power will not stop with a new accord between President Taylor and the opposition. These are matters that the government must look in the face and solve. The fact that a senator like Francis Galawulo of Bong County can order his bodyguards to flog a judge and walk away is not a matter that can be solved or avoided by a new Liberian peace accord.
The second problem of course is the war. How to stop the war? The way things are evolving on the battlefront, the LURD dissidents may not reach Broad Street anytime soon and Mr. Taylor may not set foot in Lofa any sooner. The war could go on for a long time. No accord between the political leaders and Mr. Taylor would solve that problem. Again, the government needs to address this issue. Can LURD be involved in a negotiated settlement? Should bilateral talks between Guinea and Liberia start to address this problem?
The proposed talks in Abuja can certainly lessen the tensions among politicians, and probably create a "friendly" atmosphere leading to the elections. These talks will allow Mr. Taylor to re-do his image and show to the international community that he really wants peace in Liberia and that he would make efforts to reach out to the opposition. But beyond that made-for-camera aspect, what is there to expect?
There is however a way to test the seriousness of the government. That would involve a different scenario. The civil society and political parties would get together and put on paper what is expected from the government, in the area of governance, accountability, human rights, security and the electoral process. But do they really need to do that?
If the next meeting of political leaders with Mr. Taylor were to be held at all, among other things, the agenda must include the following:
1. The presence of an international security apparatus which would have the
a. Train the security groups in Liberia - the National Police Force, the Armed Forces of Liberia, etc;
b. Create and maintain buffer zones between Liberia and her immediate western
neighbors, Guinea and Sierra Leone;
c. Ensure the safety of Liberians throughout the country in all manner possible;
2. The creation of an independent elections commission;
3. The revitalization of the human rights commission to monitor all human
rights issues with the power of subpoena.
4. The creation of a national financial review board to audit all public
finances and ensure that salaries are paid and on time.
5. The reopening of Star Radio and reinstating the short wave frequency broadcast right of Radio Veritas.
These are few of the issues that need to be part of any long-term solution to our crisis. Again, the question remains as to why the regime in Monrovia would truly take any chance to submit to anything tantamount to it being out power in a year. The tract record of an organization that has signed and walked away from tens of peace accords does not encourage anyone to believe that a discussion with a divided and weaken opposition would lead to any new goodwill. The Abuja meeting, if there is any, could end up solidifying the powers of the government, by giving the impression that it was truly accepting dialogue and ready to submit itself to the service of the people. However, to do so, there is no need to go to Abuja. The government knows exactly what to do. There are deep structural problems in our society and solving them would require more than another leadership conference in Abuja.
The goodwill of any government is tested through its willingness to confront national issues in the open and respect its citizens by engaging them in a dialogue at the time of national crisis. Recently, when we learned that the Minister of Foreign Affairs was on his way to Washington, DC, we sought to talk with him. We thought that our readers would benefit from having another "side" of the story. We were promised that once the Minister got in town, arrangements would be made for an interview with him and we would be allowed to ask him any question we wanted. We made several calls at the embassy while the Minister was in town and were promised that yes, indeed, the interview would take place. We are still waiting for the call.
While the Minister and his delegation were in Washington, DC, rather than a town meeting that would have allowed cross-sections of Liberians to meet with him, the embassy invited what they thought was a sympathetic group of receptive people. In the absence of the president of ULAA who was just returning home from hospital, there were about 9 people in conference with the Minister and special presidential advisor Lewis Brown. The meeting was aimed at "presenting the true picture" of things at home. The Minister was surprised when right into the meeting, one of the participants, a well known reverend [Rev. Nyemah], stood up and said emphatically that Liberians in America have only one message for the delegation: to go home and tell the president to pack up and leave if he cannot put an end to the criminal behavior and theft by his government. "We are tired and we have enough of this criminal behavior. You people killed hundreds of thousands of people and still..." Members of the delegation were asked how they could afford to be riding $60, 000 cars when people were not getting paid? Another reverend asked why the president would hand US $25,000 cash to a singer when he could not pay workers? The follow-up question was whose money was he dishing out? Another participant asked that President be reminded when he and the current Speaker of the House and others carried a coffin in Washington, DC, during the visit of the late President Tolbert, calling for his death... Questions about the Maritime, the sanctions, the killers of Dokie, etc, remained unanswered. The Minister admitted that the country was in "real and deep trouble." He talked about girls, most of them minors, packed-up on Broad Street every day, trying to make a living. As the voice of the master, the Minister blamed the Liberians abroad who were bad-mouthing the government. He showed a video of "liberated areas of Lofa." A participant remarked that he was sorry for Lofa but added that destructions in Monrovia were not caused by LURD. Meanwhile, throughout the meeting, Lewis Brown kept receiving calls from the "Chief" whom he reassured that there was a cross-section of Liberians involved in constructive dialogue with the delegation at the embassy. Of course, we were not present at the meeting. This is all second hand information from eye-witnesses.
It was sad to learn of the death of Minister Emmett Ross, a young man of great talent, the latest victim of our senseless war. He was at the Ministry of Defense during IGNU. One day, Americans wanted to arrest him and bring him back to the US because he had defected from the military. He ran away and went "across the lines", as we used to say in those days and joined the NPFL. May his soul rest in peace.