Setting the Record Straight
By Patrick L. N. Seyon
African Studies Center, Boston University
In an interview conducted with Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and reported in the January/March 2000 issue of The Perspective, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is quoted to have said:
. . . As you have reported before, a few of us, members of the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL) then operating in Washington DC, with the strong persuasion of one of our members, Tom Woewiyu, did try to be of assistance to Mr. Taylor when his rebellious activities seemed headed in the direction of a strong response to protect people in Nimba County from an overreaction of the Doe regime to their invasion of the country. . . We raised the grand sum of $10,000, hardly an amount that could do very much. In fact, it was a mere drop in the bucket. The fact that the sum was so paltry explains why we had so little leverage over Taylor and why he paid so little attention to us, especially when we started raising questions about reports of human rights violations by his troops. Initially, we had committed ourselves to try to do more. But within six months or so, i.e. around the middle of 1990, we had withdrawn any support and any connection with Mr. Taylor and his group on account of the serious atrocities which were taking place, some affecting long standing political allies of ours. (p.9)
There are several revelations in Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's interview
which cause me great concern and which impel me to respond. They
are: 1) ". . . a few . . ." members of ACDL supported
Charles Taylor in his brutal war campaign; 2) some members of
ACDL raised and contributed a sum of $10,000 to Taylor; 3) the
money was contributed in order to have "leverage over Taylor";
and 4) ". . . any support [to] and any connection with Taylor.
. ." were reportedly withdrawn once it became clear to the
contributors/supporters that they could not exercise "leverage
over Taylor." Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf does not say who in fact
raised or contributed the money, nor does she name the ACDL members
who were the supporters of Taylor.
There is a critical need, therefore, and several reasons, to set the record straight on the first two issues. Firstly, the horrific war that left 250,000 people dead and Liberia in total ruins has to be documented as fully as possible for future generations and historians.
Secondly, there is controversy over those who (financially, politically, materially and morally) supported Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in their war campaign, but who, now, make attempts to distance themselves from Taylor and the atrocities of his war. When disassociating themselves from Taylor, the most convenient argument often advanced is that they neither knew of Taylor's grand blueprint for war, nor approved of the outcome. This propagandistic ploy allows them to nullify or control the truthful, objective picture of their role in the war. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's statement in her above interview is a case in point: "[W]e had withdrawn any support and any connection with Mr. Taylor and his group on account of the serious atrocities which were taking place, some affecting long standing (sic) political allies of ours." If the public accepts this propaganda, then Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and other contributors to the war get away clean. They have very cleverly presented themselves as playing no role in or having any responsibility for the war.
Since the withdrawal of support and connection with Taylor and the NPFL was reportedly partially based on "serious atrocities", one wonders whether committing "atrocities" was acceptable to Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and her cohorts, while committing "serious atrocities" was not. She also gave the impression that the support and connection would or might have continued, if "long standing (sic) political allies" were not being affected by the "serious atrocities."
Let me first present background information germane to the issues at hand before commenting further on Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's interview. It must be stated for the record that I was chairman of ACDL during the period to which Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf makes reference - 1989 - 1992, after which ACDL became moribund.
In early 1990, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Grace Minor, Harry Greaves, Jr. and Tom Woewiyu sought to have ACDL endorse Taylor and his group. The majority took the position that if the organization were opposing political rule from the barrel of the gun under Samuel Doe, then it could not endorse or support Charles Taylor, who was also seeking to seize political power through the barrel of the gun. It was argued, accordingly, that endorsing or giving support to Taylor would have been contradictory to ACDL's fundamental operating principles. These operating principles clustered around constitutional, democratic governance, rule of law, protection of basic human rights and civil liberties, including but not limited to freedom of speech, the media and assembly, and due process. There were reports, borne out by the subsequent joining of Taylor's NPFL by Tom Woewiyu and Grace Minor, that certain members of ACDL were supporters of Taylor. Those members were not required, nor did they publicly or privately renounce their membership in ACDL. However, since their membership in or association with NPFL made their continued membership in ACDL contradictory, it was considered a de facto renunciation of their ACDL membership.
It should be noted for the record also that the issue of membership of ACDL members in other organizations was part of a long, heated debate of the rapidly deteriorating political condition in Liberia in early 1990 within ACDL. What sparked the debate was a reported secret meeting between Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Taylor in the Ivory Coast. Some members thought the meeting placed ACDL in a compromising position, since Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf was a prominent member, though not an officer. There were strong feelings that prior notice should have been served on ACDL that such a meeting was going to take place. It was further contended that ACDL's operating principle of transparency had been violated by the secret nature of the meeting, and that the breach threatened the very delicate principle of trust, on which the group depended to function. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf did not deny attending the meeting, but argued that it was unplanned, and hence prior notice could not have been given. More fundamentally though, breach of transparency and threat to trust notwithstanding, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf contended, and others agreed, that she and any other member of ACDL had a right to membership in other organizations and to meet with whomsoever without giving ACDL prior notice.
At the end of the debate, it was recognized that members needed to be sensitive to the association or with the membership regarding issues that might tend to undermine or violate ACDL's operating principles. Members were urged to keep ACDL informed of their activities that might be in conflict with or give the appearance of being contradictory to its fundamental operating principles.
Let me now comment on Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's interview, which, indeed, is a revelation. I and others were unaware of her cohorts' double, or perhaps triple, agenda ( one for support of Taylor, another for presidential ambition, and a third paying lip-service to the noble goals of ACDL) as we sought to work together for, or some of us thought, the common good of Liberia.
ACDL was neither associated with, nor gave support of any kind
whatsoever to Taylor and his band of pirates. This fact needed
to have been stated by Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf in her interview,
since she and "a few" ACDL members were active supporters
of Taylor. Not having stated otherwise leaves the erroneous impression
of alleged ACDL support to and connection or association with
Taylor. Further, she needed to have said who the "few"
members who both raised money and pledged themselves to support
Taylor were. Not having done so leaves a thick cloud of suspicion
over every ACDL member. And that is morally and ethically unacceptable.
The good name, reputation, and integrity of the members who were
not part of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's "few" have unjustifiably
been called into question for the past ten years, and that is
I, for one, never raised a finger to aid Taylor and his NPFL in any way, form, or shape, nor did I contribute a penny.
There are people like myself, who have worked in organizations such as ACDL, who have repeatedly been accused of having supported Taylor and the deadly horror that he unleashed on Liberia. I have always been mystified by the accusation, have never understood its basis, and considered it preposterous, even though I have spent the past ten years fencing off the accusation. My public reaction to the Johnson-Sirleaf interview is to clear my good name of the baseless accusations, once and for all.
To have learned that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and "a few" other members of ACDL raised $10,000 for Charles Taylor and his NPFL, and committed themselves to do more was a total surprise. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and her ". . . few. . ." cohorts did not, in violation of the understanding we had reached, inform the officers and other members of ACDL of this. I had no knowledge of these members' fundraising and other activities on behalf of Taylor and his NPFL until I read about them in the above interview.
Finally, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has sought to make light of the $10,000 contribution by saying "...[it was] hardly an amount that could do very much. In fact, it was a mere drop in the bucket". But that amount of money impacted, tremendously, the lives of many Liberians; many might not have been killed if Taylor had not received it. Taylor did not have much money at that time, and it was doubtful that he was going to succeed against Doe. Then, $10,000 was a significant amount of money. It was sufficient to purchase many weapons, arms and other war materiel that helped to kill the 250,000 people in Taylor's war for power and greed. Even if the amount raised and contributed had been one dollar, and that dollar had bought a bullet that killed one person, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and the contributors cannot easily and glibly absolve themselves of responsibility for such loss of life by claiming "it was a mere drop in the bucket." She and others, who financed Taylor's war, are as responsible as the warlords for the hundreds of thousands who died in the war.
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