Dispensing Justice: Bridge between our Dictatorial Past and Democratic Future

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 12, 2006


Following my most recent article on the arrest of alleged perpetrators of economic crimes in Liberia, I received numerous emails from readers. Two of these emails stood out to me. One response noted a concern that I was too quick to sing praises to the Sirleaf administration, without offering ample caution that the government’s actions could be a fig leaf to cover up its apathy. The other response noted that he/she saw hope in the reconstruction of Liberian society, given that these former officials were being brought to justice, and that the article addressed all of his/her concerns. This split in the perspectives of readers left me wondering about several other questions.

What effects would the lack of justice for the perpetrators have on victims and the society at large? Could justice be the instrument through which our society would achieve reconciliation? In answering these questions, I resolved that justice in these cases, even if fully prosecuted, would not result in reconciliation. Nonetheless, it would help serve as the bridge between our tyrannical past and our democratic future.

Another question lingered. What were the challenges in effecting justice so that healing could start or continue? I wondered if following the degradation of institutions during the war, the nation has an effective system of justice that would deliver outcomes deemed fair and impartial by all concerned. It is not surprising that when I have spoken with colleagues on the ground in Monrovia, they suggest that that the same ineffective institutional arrangements that made these alleged crimes possible are still intact. There is a generalized fear that victims of these crimes, the Liberian people in general, could be re-victimized, if the Sirleaf administration failed to make the well-being of the citizens its foremost concern in prosecuting the crimes in question.

Institutional failures, the warfare, and subsequent deterioration of living conditions were the beginning phases of the process of collectively victimizing Liberians. The second phase might be if the Sirleaf government makes the prosecution of the perpetrators a botched affair. If perpetrators are allowed to go scot-free or get slaps on their wrists, we will not be able to prevent future repression. In my mind, the government’s actions must be the beginning of sweeping institutional transformation. The steps that the Sirleaf government will take regarding these matters will be “proof and promise” that impunity is no longer a way of life in our country.

For every person whose freedom has been restrained or denied, there is an innate desire for freedom – and justice. When you have not had the opportunity to enjoy freedom, you spend your every waking moment seeking it. But it could also be true that those people who have experienced freedom, at least some of them, face difficulty in cherishing the freedom of others. There is the case of many of the Liberians returning to our beloved country from living in democratic nations and so much in a hurry to snap the liberties of others. In response, when victims or rights advocates have raised questions, some have had the tendency to declare that it is not a right for these people to question the violators for their actions. Such a twisted logic makes me wonder if it is possible for Liberians to re-conquer their liberties and recuperate rights that have been trampled upon.

I make the case that there is a reciprocal relationship between citizens’ allegiance to the state (patriotism) and their involvement in decision making. Equally so, humankind attaches himself or herself to the values of independence, self-improvement, and entrepreneurship, if they are assured of their government’s commitment to their freedom and prosperity. All those values like responsibility, self-restraint, strong work ethic, and integrity will also follow. Above all, hope in the future will follow, causing each to invest in the future of the country. Essentially, when people are able to look into the distance future and imagine that their conditions will improve, it inspires them to make sacrifices for the common good. If our government works hard to acquire legitimacy and create a climate where people are rewarded equitably for their hard work, there is no magic in seeing why these conditions cannot ignite all the values that promote stability, peace, and national security.

On the other hand, if we are unable to shed those discriminatory practices that destroyed every sense of community; if we build a country on the basis of raw ethnic allegiances, revive old privileged classes, establish new hierarchies, and construct heaps of subordinated people, this will destroy our capacity to build trans-ethnic, cross-generational and other communal alliances. If we do not value the autonomy of local communities and embed the sense of patriotism and duty in each child, by adults modeling those virtues, a combination of these negative undercurrents will wipe out any semblance of recovery that we are experiencing.

Liberians are eager to express confidence in their government. But in every heart, a “twin strand” of optimism and skepticism continues to operate, perhaps, collide. As each citizen seeks to navigate these tensions, they are reminded by the violent upheavals that just ended a few years ago. Our passage from a warring nation to one of tepid peace is held intact by individual desires to continually reconstruct their shattered lives. But we each cannot avoid looking back and asking, if the country will revert to the overwhelming mayhem and destruction from which people are trying to rebuild their lives. Simply put, how much thought and resources is the government investing in reconciliation? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is just one small slice and cannot be the only intervention.

Liberia is a nation that has been and might still be steering the wrong course because patriotism is in short supply. The cycle of corruption, violence, and bloodletting has left standing, most of the corrupted elements of our oppressive and dictatorial past. In the long tradition of our forbearers, people who have squandered the public treasury and violated the liberties of others have generally gone unpunished. Perpetrators and their supporters have often maintained that we forgive or offer “blanket impunity” in the name of peace. But these individuals must be reminded that to care for peace is to also care for justice. One cannot operate without the other.

Many occupying the corridors of power have yet to recognize that power is a temporary gift and the way to maintain it, both during and after public office, is through an exemplary protection of people’s civil liberties and firmly upholding the public trust. Oh! How our country hunger for statesmen and stateswomen. The parading of our past public position holders, not leaders, in and out of the judicial system for alleged public misconduct and crimes have caused me to wonder if there are Liberians who will in the aftermath of the Sirleaf government, walk out as statesmen and stateswomen. Who would it be?

Unfortunately, in our debate about nation building, perhaps, it has not dawned on us to ask if the same reasons for which others have been called “rogues” today, those in public office now, might just be accumulating their crimes. How would we embed a culture of accountability and trust in our public systems so that Liberian youth can latch onto an array of hope? I have often drawn a blank stare, when I have asked colleagues packing up and running to Monrovia, how would you ensure that you are different from the “corrupt crowd” in Monrovia? The answer that I have received from some is that malfeasance is a natural part of our culture, and therefore, it will be hard to get rid of it. I draw an inference that they too are running home to join the “party.”

True, just as it took decades of autocratic rule to ingrain inequities, incompetence, and decadence, it will take probably longer to reverse these conditions. For this reason, the Sirleaf presidency, however, astute, and prudent the public policies it implements, would require passionate debates among its critics and supporters alike to create a vibrant democracy. Our democracy is beginning to work as we can now see opposition parties standing up to support the decision of the Sirleaf administration to arrest former government officials who supposedly stole from the nation’s treasury. Equally, when opposition leaders offer criticisms of its policies, the government should welcome them and take their query seriously. Governments that are responsive to public opinion often endear themselves to the public. It should be noted that there is something about a people who have reached bottom in every sense, that not even the powerful, can impose their will on them any further. Hence, the most important variables in Liberian politics now and perhaps the future are openness and inclusiveness. These are the vehicles that will deliver justice and peace concurrently and prosperity will not be far behind.

Hopefully, these steps to punish corrupt officials will not stop at the doors of former National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL). It will go further to include former officials from the Doe and Taylor regimes, if not regimes before, warlords, other interim government officials, and the whole host of others who allegedly squandered the national assets. If the recent arrests become mere cloak, and jail sentences as well as the confiscation of ill-gotten wealth do not follow, the Sirleaf administration would have failed the Liberian people. The full measure of the citizens’ indignation has to be expressed for these scandalous crimes against the Liberian people, when guilt is proven in the court of law.

The government must avoid the substandard prosecution, ethnic prejudice, and clandestine interrogation practices that are likely to hamstring the public’s capacity to experience vindication when these alleged criminals are brought to justice. We know that the typical response from many benefactors of these crimes is to cry foul. Therefore, law enforcement in these cases must utilize top notch investigative and prosecutorial approaches to save us from the debilitating effects of having to live with these kinds of individuals among us; unpunished and unrepentant. Nothing short of making them real examples of things to come has to occur here. Anything less, will crush the spirit of Liberians who have pinned their hopes on these events as acid tests for whether or not we will shed the country of tyranny and its strong willed tentacles.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo and his family live in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He is the Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
© 2006 by The Perspective
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