Settling The Liberian Palaver: In Search of a New Vision - An Apology for Change

Delivered By Conmany B. Wesseh

The Perspective

August 8, 2001

Editor's Note: More than anything else, settling the Liberian palaver which is a "big palaver," will continue to be the fundamental challenge confronting the nation, says Conmany B. Wesseh, a veteran democratic activist and Executive Director of the Center for Democratic Empowerment. Wesseh argues that historically, the major source of Liberia's perennial problem lies within the "quality of governance" the country has had. How the affairs of state have been managed, the absence or breakdown of institutional structures, the disproportionate participation by large sections of the population in the decision making process that affect them, among others, form the crux of the Liberian problem. He further argues that unity, justice, reconciliation, human security, etc. should form the basis of a new vision. These remarks were made at a recently held Town Hall Panel Discussion organized by the Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta (LAMA) to commemorate Liberia's 154th Independence Anniversary officially celebrated on July 26 each year. Below is a full text of Mr. Wesseh's presentation:

It is my understanding that we are all gathered here to help find ways and means of "settling the Liberian palaver" and searching for a new vision. I have chosen to contribute by offering what I prefer to call "an apology for change". It is an apology, which in this context, is both an acknowledgement and regret for a fault and also a justification or defense of the social movement for change in Liberia based on my 30 years of personal experience and involvement.

I would like to begin my presentation from the premise that indeed Liberia has a very "big palaver" in its house. Settling that palaver has been and will continue to be our most serious and tedious challenge as a nation.

What is this palaver about? How has it manifested itself: Since 1821 when the first group of settlers arrived on the West African coast from North America? And since 1847 when the country gained independence? And since the 1970s when social fermentation heightened and the military staged a coup d'etat in 1980? And since the misrule of the military became the pretext for the launch of a criminal adventure of death and destruction of the 1990s and its aftermath of a continuing national nightmare?

Permit me to suggest that our "palaver" has its roots in our history, social order, systems and practices of governance, the methods we have chosen to affect social change, and in the education or non-education of our people.

Our approach in searching for ways and means of "settling the palaver" must involve a thorough investigation and understanding of the nature and form of the Palaver, the causes and the lessons and opportunities.

In the interest of time, I shall only attempt an outline of what I mean.

Liberian History
Let us first examine Liberian history as taught in our schools and often told repeatedly. Our history is one that is replete with accounts of conquest and vanquishment. It is a history in which the "conquerors" rule with limitless powers and impunity and the "defeated" has no place.

So it was with the "conquering" settlers in the 1820's who with guns at the heads of unsuspecting native chiefs "bought" lands with beads, rum, mirrors, gun powder, trinkets, tobacco etc.

The history of those who inhabited the lands now called Liberia before the settlers arrived, is blank pages. The indigenous inhabitants from whom the lands were supposedly purchased are presented as people with no life worth reporting on.

The history books would report the "exploits" of settler militias and their collaborators who would kill natives and take their lands.

Our more recent history gives accounts of a "conquering Native" Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and his "gallant" sixteen non-commissioned officers and men who killed a settler Liberian president and senior officials of his government. That same history records a "conquering" Krahn-dominated Liberian army vanquishing their Gio and Mano "enemies" because a Gio man tried to overthrow a Krahn-led government. By 1990, it was the Gios and Manos who were recorded as the conquerors and vanquishers of Krahns and Mandingoes; then it was Mandingoes versus the Krahn; Mandingoes versus Lormas and so forth.

Recording history in this way is dangerous. It creates a situation where the vanquished permanently feels the need to redeem itself, to fight back, to cleanse the record.

Liberian history must be recorded without any attempt to cast collective guilt and shaming by association. It must highlight the beautiful Liberian Mosaic, or the Liberian quilt with patch work of multiple colors which is good enough to give warmth to those it covers.

There is something else about our history. Too often unchecked and unverified stories get included in written text. The story of how Matilda Newport lit the canon on Fort Norris that "killed" natives is one example. More recent accounts of the developments that I was alive to see or participated in make frightening reading.

The challenge is research, true documentation and presentations that find a thread that binds and points to a future worth living for.

Let me make it clear that I am not arguing for a revisionist history. I am speaking of a history which teaches patriotism, a common patrimony and a national unity around the ideas of justice, democracy and peace, among others.

The major source of the recurring Liberian Palaver is in the quality of governance. I am referring to the way in which we seek to manage our affairs; the nature and form of the governing structures; the lack of participation by large sections of the population in decisions that affect them; the arbitrary rule; the lawlessness; the lack of accountability in society; the promotion of the culture of impunity; the rampant corruption; the abuse of power; the violations of the constitution; the policies and practices of exclusion, nepotism, tribalism/ethnicity, and religious fanaticism.

Let us take a look at some historical landmarks to explain how governance or the lack of it has been the longest standing palaver in Liberia history.

In his seminal work, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia, Dr. Amos Sawyer deals extensively with the problem. He reminds us for example that what may be the first Constitution governing Liberia was drafted and adopted by the Board of Managers of the American Colonization Society without regard to those it was meant to govern. Drafted in June 1820, that Constitution for the Government of the African Settlement was formulated even before the first settlers ever set sail to their new lands. Those it was meant to govern had no say in its construction. The result was that considerable conflicts ensued between the settlers and the agents of the ACS with charges of arbitrariness on the part of the agents; unfair distribution of rations and land (town lots); discourteous behavior by agents; and racism. It took major disruptions and threats of violent rebellion to get the ACS in 1825 to make some adjustment in that constitution and the promulgation of the Plan for Civil Government of Liberia and the Digest of the Law.

The periods between the 1820 constitution, the 1825 constitution and the independence constitution of 1847 were replete with conflicts among settlers and agents of the ACS and settlers and the natives of Cape Messurado, the Dei and Gola Chiefs of the western areas and between the settlers and the Bassa and Kru Chiefs and later the Greboes of the eastern and Southeastern areas.

The exclusionary nature of the instruments of governance by which the ACS conducted the affairs before independence remained a dominant feature of governance after independence. Thus, the conflicts between ruling elites and the marginalized population only intensified. That nature of governance, which was basically to effect control by denying participation, meant that education - Western education - necessary to operate Western governing structures was not to be made accessible to the vast majority of the population.

It was not surprising therefore that by the time of the Coup d'etat of April 12 1980 - 133 years after Liberia's independence and 159 years after the first settlers arrived, Liberia was still 85% illiterate. Not one of the 17 enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia who staged the coup had graduated from high school. Some of the coup leaders could barely read or write. The leader of the Coup, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe read as if he was counting.

The men seized power by killing the president of Liberia - some say by shooting and disemboweling him - marching old men and previously feared men of power butt-naked in the streets before proceeding to execute 13 of the senior officials after a kangaroo trial. Doe and his colleagues, joined by many of their kind and even men and women with a certain degree of education began a rule of extortion, corruption, abuse of human rights, extra-judicial killings, clannishness, tribalism, impunity, voodooism etc.

But as I have been quoted more than once of saying, Doe and his peers were simply a reflection of the society that bred them. Everything Doe did wrong had been done just as wrong before. The difference between Doe's and those before him was in the scale of his actions. He did his more crudely and much more often and did not have the propaganda finesse to justify his actions.

Like the people of the1820s and later, Liberians were yearning for change - a change for the better. It was this yearning based on genuine grievances that Mr. Charles Taylor exploited to launch his war, ostensibly to remove Doe from power and "give Liberia democracy". Mr. Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), joined later by six other armed groups killed, maimed, drove into refugee camps, displaced people and looted and raped the country for seven years. He was conferred with legitimacy through elections but his form and content of governance as a warlord never changed. He lives and rules by terror - something we may have to return to now and again throughout this discussion.

The Social Movement For Change:
Social movements are borne out of the desire or necessity for change in a society. It is about people with diverse interest and from different backgrounds working together to effect a specific change.

Liberia, as a result of its historical realities, has always had a social movement to address one cause or the other. The country itself was borne out of the need to address the problem of freed slaves.

The ACS, which helped establish Liberia, was a kind of social movement, a non-governmental organization. Since then, Liberia has had a reason for social movements to intervene in her life to effect change.

The years of the 1970s and later can readily explain the point.

The period saw the founding of the Student Unification Party (SUP) of the University of Liberia to advance the interests of the hitherto marginalized sections of the student population from mainly the rural areas of Liberia. Student elections at the University have ever since been of interest to the ruling elite in the Executive Mansion - no matter their background. A rural development support group - SUSUKUU was formed during the same period.

Then came the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) which used the support for the struggle for national liberation in countries under colonial and apartheid rule to raise awareness among Liberians about their own condition. The leading lights of the movement had been affected by the civil rights movement of the 1960s when they were studying in the United States. The leaders particularly, Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh and Dr. Amos Sawyer became household names. Tipoteh made particular impact when he dropped his acquired name of Rudolph Lorenzo Roberts for his native Liberian name. He wore sandals made of discarded automobile tires and spoke about the need for a system that would eschew "monkey work baboon draw". President William R. Tolbert, had assumed power in 1971 and tried to break the 27 years conservative traditions and tyranny of his predecessor William V. S. Tubman. Among other things, Tolbert joined MOJA. But MOJA was more than what Tolbert may have thought. It was organizing major social groups - workers, students and peasant farmers with the aim to engender fundamental changes.

During those formative years of MOJA immediately before or after 1973, a number of pressure groups emerged, peaceful assemblies and marches held and radicalism heightened in and around campuses of higher institutions of learning and secondary schools.

There had been the campaign for the release of the detained editors of the Revelation Magazine as the organ which was published by mainly children of the ruling elite but which exposed the contradictions in society. There was COLIDAP - Citizens of Liberia in Defense of Albert Porte when the renown constitutionalist and social commentator fell foul of President Tolbert's all-powerful brother and Minister of Finance Stephen Tolbert.

By 1975, a group was formed in the United States called The Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). It too spoke of change. PAL's principal leader Gabriel Baccus Matthews, then an official of the Tolbert's administration resigned his post in the United States and moved PAL operations to Liberia.

The Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) became a major voice of Liberians outside Liberia. It too demanded change.

There was also the All Peoples Freedom Alliance which published a radical paper called APFA Fanga and promoted worker's interest.

All of these groups, especially MOJA, found immense followings among students. With the University of Liberia students leading the way, radical student activism intensified - not around mundane student-type issues of books, dormitory conditions, dinning room privileges and campus rules, but their activism was about the general social situation in the country. They argued then that their life at the University was influenced by the state of life of their parents outside the University.

It was then that things began to happen. The dismissal of Tipoteh from his associate professorship and Chairmanship of the Economics Department at the University by the University authorities on charges of radical teachings created disruptions on campus. The Stephen Tolbert vs. Albert Porte libel trial provoked public outcry. The murder of student Gberie by Lebanese traders in their supermarket and the slowness of the government to arrest the suspects provoked student demonstrations and conflicts.

All these developments were to be crowned by the Rice Riots of April 14. President Tolbert himself a rice farmer had declared his government's intention to increase the price of rice. Gabriel Baccus Matthews who had yet to stamp his organization on a ground dominated by MOJA and its affiliates saw an opportunity. In remarks at a very well attended MOJA anniversary rally on March 21, 1979, Mr. Matthews surprised his host by announcing his plan for a demonstration against the increase in the price of rice contemplated by the Tolbert government. Even when Tolbert gave notice that the decision would be suspended until he had properly "considered the interest of the consumer and producers", Matthews would not be dissuaded from holding the demonstration. When the dust was settled, about 140 persons were gunned down by the police, millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed or looted and scores of social activists were arrested and detained.

The government wrongly named two of my colleagues and me who had not supported the demonstration and Matthews and Oscar Quiah as the ringleaders wanted for a reward of $5,000.00 per head. We spent four months behind bars. Liberia was never going to be the same again. Even the unchallenged power of the True Whig Party was shaken by the University Professor Amos Sawyer's bid for Mayor of the city of Monrovia in 1979.

Two days to the first anniversary of the Rice Riots, a group of seventeen semi-literate young soldiers mainly in their 20's staged a coup d'etat of which I mentioned earlier. Although they called the coup a revolution and borrowed the slogan of the liberation movements, which had been popularized by PAL - In The Cause Of The People, The Struggle Continues - the military's action was no revolution. It was an explosion waiting to happen as a result of the accumulated combustibles that had been stockpiled during the 159 or 133 years previous.

The social movements, while advocating for change, had not put into place or adequately prepared itself to manage that change; nor did it believe that it was at hand. The soldiers, opportunistically took advantage of it and began to rule as they had seen it being practiced when they served as drivers, cooks, yardmen, gatekeepers, messengers, washmen, watchmen, and even executioners for the rich, the powerful and the "big shots" of the True Whig Party, the Masonic Craft and the Church.

Expectedly the military regime soon began to launch its attacks on leaders of the social movement beginning with its then loudest and most active voice - the student movement represented by the Liberia National Students Union.

As was mentioned earlier, the unabating repression, corruption, murders, rigging of elections, and the blocking of every avenue to peaceful change provided the perfect pretext for Mr. Taylor and company to launch their armed insurgency in December 1989.

Where Are We Now
In 1997, the civil war formally ended with elections that were agreed upon as the way to settle the leadership question. Mr. Charles Taylor, whose intransigence and reneging on 13 peace agreements delayed the peace and the man who had boasted of having the biggest machine for destruction, received a "vote of surrender." Everyone, the Liberian voter, the West African peace keeping force (ECOMOG), The United Nations Observer Mission, and the national, regional, and international peace brokers surrendered to Taylor to have peace. So we all believed.

But everyone who believed that was wrong.

In the four years since Mr. Taylor took office as President, the situation in Liberia leaves a great deal to be desired:

A) Security Conditions:
Liberians continue to flee the country for fear for their lives. The recent incident of fleeing Liberians following at sea confirms that some even prefer the risk of the sea than living in Liberia. The people of Lofa have never seen one day of peace. If it is running or dying from a war involving Liberian armed groups opposed to the government, it would be the threat from the indiscipline, uncoordinated multiple armed gangs loyal to Mr. Taylor. Real and imaginary opponents are targets of murders or murder attempts, physical attacks, harassment, intimidation and other forms of abuse. The charge of treason or sedition awaits political leaders opposed to the regime.

B) Social Conditions:
Water and electricity are still a luxury reserved mainly for the rich and powerful. Out of a prewar 450 medical doctors in the country, there were only 25 left in the country, in 2000, according to the Minister of health. Hospitals and clinics are only empty shells for lack of staff and medicines. The plight of our schools is deplorable where they may exist.

C) Liberia's relations with its neighbors and the international community:
Since the League of Nations investigation into slave trade charges against the Liberian government leading to the resignation of President Charles D. B. King and the impeachment of his Vice President Allen N. Yancy in the 1920s, our country has never fallen so low in comity of nations.

We are virtually at war with all our neighbors, even the Atlantic Ocean is at war with us. Our President and many of his officials friends are banned from traveling to other countries as a result of a United Nations Security Council Resolution. Media houses and commentators around the world reporting on our country describe our President as a criminal, a fast talking con artist, a jail breaker, a gun runner, a cannibalist, a dictator, a tyrant, an drug abuser, and other unspeakable names.

Generally speaking, Mr. Taylor comes over as the worst president in the history of Liberia. He brings shame and disgrace to real patriots. He has dragged our country down a dark alley and has made it a pariah state, a rogue state.

What Is The Way Forward
A) Resignation:
There are many who believe that Mr. Taylor will serve our country and himself well were he to follow the good and patriotic example of President Charles D. B. King under similar circumstance of international condemnation and resign. They suggest that he should do so at the earliest possible time. He can help himself by organizing his own exit orderly.

B) It has taken me a great deal of painful thought to agree with this simply because I do not believe that Mr. Taylor is capable of changing his ways in favor of democracy. Since the elections results declared him the winner of the 1997 general elections, I have always prayed that God would touch his heart. Unfortunately, I am yet to see the change. The only change continue to see us going deeper underground. Yet, as a consummate optimist, I continue to pray and listen for some good news. That is why I am encouraged by what I am hearing from Monrovia and being confirmed today by the Liberian Government representative who spoke before me. I am referring to the news of Mr. Taylor's release of some of the people he has been holding hostage during the last three years and the dropping of the bogus treason and sedition charges against a number of political leaders including former presidential candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

C) Important as the pronouncements and actions might be, they are rooted and based on the personal whims and caprices of one who has arrogated unto himself the powers of life and death.

D) Investigations:
In order for me to believe that Mr. Taylor is really serious and is ready to turn a new leaf, I would like to see him become accountable by taking a number of contingent and concrete actions:

1) Release the autopsy reports on Vice President Enoch Dogolea and Youth and Sports Minister Francois Massaquoi.

2) Support and encourage the setting up and functioning of a special independent board of inquiry/investigation into the following:

a. The murder of Samuel Dokie and his family;
b. The murder of Norwai Flomo;
c. The death of Vice President Dogolea;
d. The death of Youth and Sports Minister Massaquoi;
e. The plane crash that killed Police Director Joe Tate and others;
f. The brutal attack on the home of this speaker on July 30, 1999;
g. The criminal attack on Former President Dr. Amos Sawyer and the speaker and their offices on November 28, 2000;
h. The charges of Taylor fueling the wars in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The results of these investigations shall be made public and all those found to have a case to answer would be dealt with according to the law. President Taylor shall make a firm undertaken that if the boards find any convincing evidence linking him to any of the matter being investigated, he would resign and bear the consequences under the law.

All of this is necessary because the bedrock of Mr. Taylor's rule is "impunity". He uses that to hold captive his supporters and uses it to scare away any dissent.

The Vision, With Or Without, Mr. Taylor:
The new vision for Liberia must have the following as principal ingredients:

a) Justice
b) Eschewal of impunity
c) Accountability
d) Education
e) National Unity, not necessarily, national conformity
f) National reconciliation
g) Truth Commission
h) Human security not regime security
i) National security: the restructuring, reorganization, retraining, retooling
j) of the national security institutions under the philosophy "service to the people" and "security for all".

The Challenge To Those Of You In America:
My dear brothers and sisters, I am truly happy to see so my faces from our motherland in this hall. I am happy that so many of us survived the war and the tyranny. I am sure that I would be correct when I suggest that many of you left our home, not because you learned to love its loss. You left because you wanted to save your life. And once in safety, you are working day and night to help support family and friends back home. Without you, I do not know where many in that county would have been today. I want to thank you all for that.

But we must not stop there. I think that we can help our people better if we prepare ourselves to work together for change - a change that will allow us to utilize the best of our potentials.

We must work here, train ourselves here and keep ourselves healthy for the building of a future in Liberia. We must build unity among ourselves so that our efforts can bear fruit.

Let us make no mistake, no matter how good it may be for some here, your best is in Liberia and Africa. We must therefore work for that and nothing else.

As in closing, I would like to once again think the organizers and participants at this meeting. As I see it, the motivation for speaking on national issues and the practices of those entrusted with responsibility is essential because of love for humanity. When we raise concerns about societal ills and suggest ways to move forward, we do so, or we should do so because we love our country more than individual leaders.

I strongly believe that our country will rise from the wretchedness in which it is today. While we pray, we must act to save Liberia. Central to all we do must be the pursuit of justice, democracy and more democracy.

HAPPY 26 and God Bless Us All!

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