The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) posed a similar question (“Can elections heal Liberia from its history of violent conflict?”) on its web site on during the week of the elections and solicited response from readers:
As I read many of the responses posted on the BBC web site I came across one that I thought was very poignant. Here is it:
“Elections can do for Liberia no more, but no less, than a wedding does for a marriage: An exciting event that quickly gives way to the real business of making things work! Liberia will remain a tough work-in-progress for the foreseeable future.” HKP, Ghana/USA
Most people, Liberians in particular, have again put all their eggs in one basket. They think, believe and/or hope that with this round of elections the country will see the reign of peace which will consequently lead to the solution of the numerous and serious problems the nation faces. And who is to blame them for having this kind of attitude. Liberians experienced a decade of terrible dictatorship under Samuel Kanyon Doe and nearly fifteen years of a very destructive civil war, coupled with the modern day equivalent of ancient barbarism and economic piracy under the rule of Charles Taylor. They, therefore, have every reason to hope that the elections will lead to a solution of their problems.
No. I am not suggesting that the people
of Liberia do not already know that things are not
always what they seem or what we hope they are.
They have ample reason to know this. However, it
is important that we consider things in historical
context and remind our brothers and sisters that
this round of elections, as historic as it probably
was, may not be the opportunity that leads the nation
and its people from the man-made hell they have
endured over the past two and half decades to the
peace and stability they deserve. As the respondent
to the BBC online question put it, a wedding is
an exciting event that culminates into a marriage.
But no sooner is the excitement over than the reality
set in. The realities that could determine what
happens in Liberia after the October 11, 2005 elections
are in part embodied in the country’s recent
history. Let’s take a brief look.
From Tubman to Tolbert
When President William V.S. Tubman died in a London clinic on July 23, 1971 and power transferred to Vice President William Richard Tolbert, a brand new day was born in Liberia. Or so most Liberians thought at the time. The death of President Tubman marked the end of more than twenty-seven years of rule by fear, corruption, cronyism and nepotism. President Tolbert, to his credit, did initiate many programs and policies that seemed to suggest a break from the past. I do not need to remind a lot of my readers of the slogans “From Mats to Mattresses”, “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” and “A Wholesome Functioning Society”. These were among the major slogans Mr. Tolbert coined to highlight the objectives and direction of his administration and its programs and policies for the nation. In the first few years of his presidency, Mr. Tolbert attempted to give voice to the voiceless and he seemed to want to encourage open political discourse and freedom. I still remember reading an editorial in one of the leading newspapers in Liberia at the time under the title “No Government by Secrecy”. Even though I do not quite remember what event or occasion necessitated that editorial, I do remember the atmosphere of fear in Monrovia at the time and the expectation that the government was going to come down hard on the editors and owners of the paper that published that editorial. Experience had taught Liberians that it was not only unacceptable to criticize their government, but it was perilous as well. In fact, if my memory serves me well, there was no significant negative political reaction from the Tolbert government. That and other acts of civility and restraint on the part of the government and the many programs Mr. Tolbert initiated in the early years of his presidency raised hopes that true democratic governance was not only possible in Liberia but that it was somewhere on the horizon.
But when high school and university students, workers and others began to take advantage of the freedom to express themselves and to engage in peaceful civil disobedience and protest, it was rumored that the heavy hitters in the True Whig Party were no longer happy with Mr. Tolbert’s policy of political tolerance as it was jeopardizing their stranglehold on political power and privilege. It did not take too long before the Tolbert regime became oppressive and to some extent brutal. I will spare the readers of the enumerations of the events of April 14, 1979 and April 12, 1980 and the reasons behind them.
From Tolbert to the PRC and Doe
After a group of non-commissioned officers led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe overthrew the government of President Tolbert on April 12, 1980, many Liberians (including this writer) thought that a new day of hope and progress had been born. In the feeling of elation that followed the military coup, I remember telling a fellow University of Liberia student and friend how I thought a bright future was now possible for all Liberians. And I also remember my friend cautioning me against being exuberant in my expectations of what the military government of the People’s Redemption Council would do for Liberia and its people. He said the country was in a honeymoon period with the military government and that the honeymoon would soon end. He was right. He was in fact speaking from his own experience. He was an Ethiopian student studying at the University of Liberia under a United Nations program for refugees. He had fled his own country after the military government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Meriam sent his forces to hunt down dissent students and other political activists. The same students had earlier warmly welcomed the military coup that overthrew Emperor Haile Selasie on September 12, 1973, my friend told me. We all know of the corruption, tribalism, nepotism, and brutality that prevailed during the PRC and Doe regimes. And let us not forget that “rampant corruption” was one of the justifications Mr. Doe and his gang of 17 non-commissioned officers gave for overthrowing the Tolbert government.
About 66 months after Samuel Doe and a group of other non-commissioned officers overthrew and killed President Tolbert, he was declared winner in a presidential election held in October 1985 in which his party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia, claimed to have garnered 51% of the vote. On September 9, 1990, President Doe was captured by Prince Yomie Johnson’s forces while on a visit to ECOMOG (West African peace-keeping force) headquarters on Bushrod Island, Monrovia. He was subsequently tortured and killed.
From Doe to Taylor and then to Hell
Less than a year before Mr. Doe was killed, Charles Taylor had started a civil war (on December 24, 1989), which he said was necessary to free Liberia and its people from the brutality, political and economic inequality and corruption of the Doe regime. And again, this writer, like many other Liberians, is guilty of having trusted Charles Taylor and admired him for the mission he embarked upon – to liberate Liberia from Doe. After all, he said he was out to rid Liberia of not only the Doe regime but also of social and political injustice, corruption, brutality and thievery of the resources of the nation. The man said he was going to bring “marked economic development and progress” to the country. Little did we know that he would turn out to be the most barbaric and corrupt ruler the West African sub-region has ever known. Taylor brought the nation to its knees. His insatiable appetite to grab and keep power at any price and to use that power to amass wealth, resulted in the loss of more than 270,000 Liberian lives and the displacement of more than a million people. He trashed and vandalized the country and pillaged its resources in a way no single individual has ever done since Liberia became an independent nation in 1847. He destabilized the entire West African sub-region. To the people of Sierra Leone, (who lost more than 70,000 of their fellow citizens in a 10-year civil war), he is known as the co-founder, financial sponsor and mastermind of the Revolutionary United Front, the group infamously known for widespread deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, torture, rape and deliberate amputation of limbs, and abduction and forced recruitment of large numbers of people, including children as young as 7 years old. To the government of the United States of America, he is seen as the man who provided Al Qaeda businessmen the medium to exchange more than $10 million for Sierra Leonean diamonds. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States government launched an aggressive campaign to uncover and confiscate Al Qaeda liquid assets as a way of taking away some of the organization’s means of financing attacks.
When one of Taylor’s “brothers” agreed to provide him “asylum” so he could physically leave Liberian soil, most people thought his departure would lay the foundation for peace and pave the way for economic resuscitation. While there has been no fighting in the country since the dictator was forced out in October 2003, corruption has in fact blossomed; the level of unemployment has not been any lower. There is still no electricity, working sewer system or pipe-born water in the capital city, Monrovia. The streets and roads in Monrovia are still pothole ridden and most of the country’s highways and by-ways are inaccessible. Public schools have hardly any textbooks and teachers; civil servants rarely get paid their meager monthly salaries.
Present Day Realities
Every decent and well-meaning person should be proud of the people of Liberia for conducting themselves in the manner they did during the recent elections. We are yet to hear of any significant and serious violent incident that occurred on that day. For that and for their bravery and perseverance, we thank the people of Liberia. If we lived in a fairy-tale world and there was one wish decent individuals everywhere could grant the Liberian people, it would be for instant peace and rapid economic recovery. However, least we get caught up in euphoria yet again, let us look at some present day realities that could (God forbid) delay and/or even derail the prospects for bringing lasting peace, stability and economic recovery to the nation.
Among the present day realities are the following: (1) the “Old Wine in a New Glass” phenomenon, (2) the Charles Taylor factor and (3) the failure to bring to justice those who are responsible for the torture and murder of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children and the total destruction of the country during Charles Taylor’s civil war and under his murderous reign.
(1) The “Old Wine in a New Glass” phenomenon relates to the recycling of politicians and other individuals who have in the past been guilty of or party to corrupt practices and indecent and/or inhuman treatment of other Liberians. They will try to convince the Liberian people and others that they have changed. But the reality will remain that they are one and the same unprincipled and unscrupulous individuals who stole from the nature’s coffers and maimed, tortured, raped and killed its citizens. These individuals will never change and Liberians have absolutely no reason to believe they will change. A leopard does not change its spots. It cannot! Also falling under this group are individuals who have lived in foreign lands over the years, especially here in the United States of America, who will now return to Liberia in hope of “cashing in”. They will go back to Liberia and say they have this and that degree and this and that qualification. No sooner will the Liberian people entrust them with the management of the nation’s limited resources than they will start stealing from the country and remitting funds into their bank accounts in the USA and in other foreign locations. I am aware that this is a very damning categorization but as they say, there is no better teacher than what we have experienced. Certainly, not every person who returns to Liberia from the United States or another foreign country does so with the goal of “cashing in”. It however does not take a lot of corrupt and dishonest individuals to wreak havoc on the country’s meager resources. It only took Charles Taylor along with his family members, friends (domestic and foreign) and political cronies to bring Liberia to its knees.
(2) The Charles Taylor factor is two-fold. One aspect of it has to do with the “invisible” hand the former dictator and tyrant will have in and over Liberian politics via his allies, family members and friends. Will they be willing and able to support measures that ensure Taylor is completely and totally neutralized so that he no longer poses a threat to Liberia and its neighbors? Only a person with half a rat’s brain will believe that if Charles Taylor’s family members, friends and associates win the House and Senate seats they ran for and sit in the Liberian Legislature, they will, for example, be party to or in support of a resolution or law that provides that the former dictator be brought to justice for his crimes against the people of Liberia. On the subject of Taylor’s negative impact on Liberia and the West African sub-region, the Washington Post wrote the following in an editorial on October 13, 2005:
“……Reconstruction, however, is not Liberia's biggest challenge. The inspiring elections ultimately will accomplish little unless they lead to the disempowerment of former dictator Charles Taylor, who from his exile in Nigeria still seeks to regain power and meddle in the affairs of Liberia's neighbors.”
The other aspect of the Charles Taylor factor is the possibility (even probability) that the eventual victor in the presidential race, as a result of past associations and affiliations, fear or coercion, will grant Taylor clemency or a free pass so that he can avoid being brought to justice before the United Nations Tribunal in Sierra Leone or the Hague. For example, who is to say that if George Manneh Weah (the former world football player of the year turned politician) wins the presidency, he will not forgive Taylor? We are told that Gabriel Bacchus Matthews and Milton Teahjay are the principal managers of Mr. Weah’s presidential campaign. Mr. Matthews and Mr. Teahjay once belonged to the same political party (United People’s Party) of which Mr. Matthews was the party leader. Mr. Matthews, a crony and friend of Taylor’s, was the public relations person for the Malaysian logging entity known as the Oriental Timber Company (OTC). The OTC was known as one of Taylor’s “pepperbushes”. Mr. Teahjay was media advisor to Charles Taylor. He was also Taylor’s Deputy Minister of Information up until about the first week of April 2001. Then we heard that he had fallen out of favor with Taylor. Mr. Teahjay “disappeared” from Monrovia and subsequently resurfaced in the United States. Given Bacchus Matthews and Milton Teahjay’s past alliance and association with Charles Taylor, it is not unreasonable to believe that if George Weah, who has absolutely no political experience and very limited formal education, becomes president of Liberia, he could be unduly influenced by one or both individuals to forgive their former boss and friend. Any attempt to excuse Charles Taylor for or relieve him of the crimes and barbarism he committed against the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone will bring disastrous consequences to the nation, if not right away but certainly sometime in the near future.
(3) The last factor is that those who committed hideous crimes against innocent Liberians MUST be made to pay. I am talking especially about the warlords who forced and/or lured little boys and girls into their rebel armies, gave them guns and set them loose to rape, torture and kill innocent people and ravage the country .
In my own hometown in Grand Cape Mount County, at the height of the civil war, a lady (whose name I will withhold for privacy purposes) was grabbed and dragged into her and her husband’s house and tied to a bedpost (she was probably raped) by heavily armed little child soldiers belonging to one of the rebel factions in the Liberian civil war. Then the town’s folks were made to stand by and watch as the child soldiers set the house on fire. When her husband, an elderly man, heard his wife crying for help as she burned to death, he tried to run into the house so he could die there with her. He was nearly beaten to death.
And then there is another incident in the same town, in which a man was bayoneted to death by one of the rebel soldiers, right in front of his wife, daughter and granddaughter as he stepped out of his house to go to perform his late afternoon/early evening prayers. The leader of that rebel faction was one of the presidential candidates in the October 11, 2005 elections. There are also accounts of a rebel faction leader who, under bouts of angry rage, would shoot and kill some of his own “commanders” only to turn around the next day and ask of their whereabouts. This warlord, who had his base of operations in the western suburbs of Monrovia, also personally shot and killed many innocent civilians. He was also one of the presidential candidates in the October 11, 2005 elections.
I have no doubt in my mind that there are thousands upon thousands of such horrific stories of the brutality and barbarism meted out against the people of Liberia. I also do not doubt the need for some level of forgiveness and reconciliation in the interest of national unity after the election dust is all settled. However, those who make the call for forgiveness should be extremely careful not to impose their will and decision on those who suffered senseless brutality, rape, and torture and on the surviving members of those who were killed as a result. To do so would be tantamount to making those traumatized individuals to forcibly accept that in fact nothing wrong or evil happened to them and/or their loved ones. As one famous leader once put it, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion.” Such a person, I think, is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode under the right circumstances.