Carter's Sad Liberia Goodbye
By Tom Kamara
November 9, 2000
Finally, former US President Jimmy Carter, the man who promised
Liberians that human rights abuses under Charles Taylor were "inconceivable",
has reneged on his promise three years after, charging instead:
"Much to our dismay, Liberia is a country where reports of serious human rights abuses are common, where journalists, human rights organizations, and political activists work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and where there is little political space for meaningful democratic debate. Instead of being used to improve education, infrastructure, and development, Liberia's resources have been diverted toward extra-budgetary uses. In addition, it is increasingly evident that Liberia's role in the conflicts of the sub- region has been a destructive one".
This is a disastrous testament in the departure of a man who had so much faith in another man, Charles Taylor, when most Liberians with better, intrinsic, understanding of their country knew the warlord turned President was a plague to be avoided by decent men.
President Carter should have heeded the African adage that a stranger visiting a village must listen to its children regarding roads to take, or whom to deal with, etc. A caring and careful stranger, however knowledgeable and good intentioned, who disobeys soon finds trouble. Mr. Carter found trouble in Liberia by not listening to its children. He selected to listen to a villager most believe was the Evil of the village, seen the village's problems, desires through the Evil's eyes. Now the stranger has accepted the truth of the village's children, but it is too late. The harm has been done not to the stranger in this case, but to the villagers. Much of the villagers have been killed, and the village harmed in an irreparable manner as Evil digs in.
Because a powerful stranger made hungry, powerless villagers believe they would be better off under the Evil of the village, their lot got worse. The virus of death and destruction of the Evil soon spread to other villages. The angry and disappointed stranger could do nothing but stand and watch as death, hunger and disease took their toll. Although Evil promised the concerned stranger protection of people, giving them the right to express themselves, the Evil went back to habits, denying every imaginable right to frightened villagers at his mercy. So is the story between President Carter, the "village stranger", and Charles Taylor, the village Evil.
Perhaps more than any other foreign actor on the Liberian political scene, President Carter played a powerful role in legitimizing Taylor's atrocities by giving the warlord an image outside that was the opposite. Despite abundant evidence that Taylor's agenda was personal power for personal wealth at all cost, Carter's lenses were just too blur to see. He saw Taylor as a reasonable man misunderstood by many, including his own people.
But Taylor is an actor supreme, and Carter saw all the orchestrated plays, deceptions, and phantoms as reality even if there were sufficient warnings for him to wake from the hypnotism. Taylor had stage-managed all happenings in the war, and stage-managing President Carter's mind was not difficult. He knew the man was an honorable man. So he carved out an honorable image that Carter found difficult to reject and only too glad to sell to non believers. In the end, Carter accepted a demon as an angel. Now, he leaves in regret leaving Liberians stuck with a man believing in violence as his only tool for personal and political survival.
Taylor's mirages meant for Carter and others like him worked in a world now accustomed to form instead of substance. Sources within Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) now say elaborate preparations and rehearsals were undertaken each time President Carter announced visiting the rebel kingdom of Gbarnga in search of peace in Liberia. Taylor would stage-manage an entire visit, portraying himself as a family man, a son of Jesus if he had to. Colorful Baptist worship services were staged, with Taylor taking the pulpit in long sermons to impress the Baptist preacher from Georgia, USA that he was at home amongst fellow believers, even if his rebels were splitting women's bellies to determine the gender of children inside them. He cultivated an image of a caring father, and his children would rush on him at public functions cheering, "papa, papa", to leave Mr. Carter with the impression that this man, known for recruiting children in his rebel army, even having the Small Boys Unit composed of teenagers, was indeed a loving family man who cared for children. Killer checkpoints en route to rebel strongholds would be dismantled, ragtag killers well-dressed and instructed in temporary courtesies so that when Carter heard or read about executions at checkpoints, he disbelieved.
Before Taylor's fateful 1991 "Operation Octopus" aimed at seizing power through military conquest, he convinced Carter to convince West African leaders to remove Ecomog heavy weapons from Liberian soil. In this way, Taylor was convinced there would be no military contest as he rode to Monrovia to take his coveted seat as President of the dead. He promised Carter that he wanted peace, but that the only obstacles in his path in submitting to peace were the weapons. Once they were removed, Liberians would get the perfect peace they so yearned for. And Carter believed! In a hand-written note to heads of state, President Carter did just that---requested the removal of the weapons. In no time, Taylor's artillery sounded over Monrovia, killing thousands of innocent people. Without the determination of former Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, the city would have capitulated, leaving heaps of more dead bodies in Taylor's quest for power. But Carter's faith in Taylor was not shaken. He continued believing Taylor's promises of peace and democracy. During the 1997 elections, he asked Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to consider joining Taylor's team of looters and killers. An angry Sirleaf, who knew Taylor better, accused Carter of "hanky panky". The fact that President Carter announced Taylor's victory, giving promises of better times to come under a man who has imposed poverty and empowered theft and plunder, meant that few were brave enough to challenge the verdict. The Nigerians, happy over their scheme blessed by men like Carter, announced they would "crush" anyone that disagreed. The deal was done. Liberia's woes had begun with threatening implications for West Africa.
Carter fell for the shams and proceeded to sell Taylor as a victim, not the predator. Thus the American's fault in the Liberian crisis is that he ignored valuable signals in determining the quality of an individual he imagined would make a fundamental difference. That Taylor had looted public and private properties, killed so many people, meant he was the wrong material for Carter's democracy-building project. That Taylor stole public and private property enabling him to become the "richest" man in the country backed by men like Libya's Col. Gaddafi, Ivory Coast's Houphuet Boigny and Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore, made no difference to Carter the preacher in declaring conditions for elections free and fair.
Respect for others, tolerance are values found in individuals through their past. In high school, Taylor is said to have defecated in the school's water reservoir because he disagreed with a decision against him. In church, using his uncle as a witness, the man Carter expected to be an agent of democracy testified beating his father to avenge his mother. Once made President, Taylor naturally turned on his enemies and butchered many, sending the lucky ones in exile. If Carter thought plurality of views was needed to build democracy and therefore lobbied for Liberia to have an independent radio station (Star Radio), Taylor soon let him know that in his kingdom, a monopoly of views, his views, would prevail. Other media outlets, such as the New Democrat, were intimidated into suspension. He pumped public money into his own media network, built with looted public and private transmitters. He left no doubt who was in charge. Carter's usefulness had ceased.
Carter's faith in Taylor was baffling. It is here that he made his most horrible mistake. He failed to see that he was dealing with a con artist capable of selling himself to anyone gullible enough to buy him as a saint. Believing in honor, Carter thought Taylor, because of his promises, pretensions, was a man of honor when the Liberian warlord was no more than a street smart con artist better suited for the underworld than national leadership in a poor country struggling for the basics of life. A supremo of crime sold as a nationalist by many African-Americans and others, he would disappoint, disgrace his most ardent supporters.
The regret is that for the time President Carter interacted and believed Taylor's machinations, he made many Liberians to believe he had special interests in Taylor. Just why President Carter could not see the Evil in this man, with all the evidence available, was difficult to understand.
But the harm has been done. The over 300 Krahns killed by the evil man of the village, the lives of dozens of others, including Samuel Dokie and his family, Madam, Nowah Flomo, etc., will not be brought back. He promised an autopsy in the mysterious death of Vice President, Enoch Dogolea, alleged to have been flogged upon his orders. But the autopsy never came, leading many to conclude that he indeed killed the man. The children of Sierra Leone, hundreds of them with amputated limbs and orphans in this difficult world, perhaps would have been spared the evil of the evil man. Without assistance of men of honor, his destructive programs, which have led to over 600 dead in Guinea and thousands of refugees and the displaced, would have been stopped. International isolation and pariah status, now sealed by friends like Carter, is the only electoral promise fulfilled.
But there is little doubt that President Carter believed Taylor's promises. Taylor promised he was fighting against a brutal dictatorship, and Carter believed. He promised Liberia's problems were the making of his opponents, including politicians, and Carter believed. He promised he would institute probity, good governance, and Carter believed. He vowed to live by the code of human rights and Carter took him seriously. He told Carter the rule of law would be the cornerstone of his rule even if he had come to power through unparalleled abuses, and Carter gave him ears. After three years of watching, listening and hearing, Taylor's record was too atrocious for President Carter to have to believe any more promises and excuses. He threw in his tower and closed shop.
But many will miss President Carter, for perhaps his sincere
belief in lifting the country from its depth of lowliness. Perhaps
he believed he would have made a difference in giving the Liberian
people a voice, a genuine start in rising from the squalor of
destruction brought upon them by a man in whose traps he fell.
Having someone with such an international stature and concern,
willing to travel the tropical forest in search of peace, will
be difficult in today's world of bigotry and racism. Liberians
are the losers in Carter's departure, not Taylor. He had gained
by Carter believing him on his way to his bloody presidency. That
is all that matters to Taylor. But he has lost a valuable friend
who has left him with a memorable goodbye letter:
"I write to inform you that The Carter Center has decided to end our work in Liberia because prevailing conditions and the actions of your government have made it increasingly difficult for the Center and others to be effective in supporting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
"I am very disappointed about the course of events in Liberia over the last three years, especially given the hopeful opportunities that were present after your election in 1997 following a terrible seven- year civil war. Since then, and in consultation with your government, the Center has tried to work with civil society groups, the media, government officials, and others to strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law, in the hope that this would help consolidate peace and reconciliation in Liberia. This work, of course, could only succeed if the Government of Liberia supported these goals in word and deed, and created an environment in which fundamental rights were upheld, and in which individuals and institutions could work freely and openly.
"Over the years, I have committed a great deal of personal resources, in addition to the resources of The Carter Center, to promoting a just and stable peace and democratic government in Liberia. I am therefore deeply saddened by the situation that has led to this decision. Nonetheless, we remain committed to assisting Liberia and hope that there may be more fruitful avenues to support her in the future".
"For a period following your election, you and I maintained a dialogue in which I repeatedly offered to assist you in efforts to demonstrate your commitment to building a genuine democracy in Liberia. On several occasions I raised serious concerns about developments in Liberia and unsuccessfully suggested specific actions your government could take to address problems. Unfortunately, however, the dialogue seems to have broken down, and it has become clear that your government does not share the same goals...
Sincerely, Jimmy Carter
There goes the Village Stranger, and there remains the Village Evil.