Liberia: The Emergence of a Criminal State
By Tom Kamara
For many Liberians, the end of their 7-year ghastly conflict meant an opportunity for renewal and reconstruction. But 2 years after a much heralded election, the evidence is that this country of barely 2.6 million which lost about 300,000 persons, including 20,000 children dead out of 45,000 drafted into rebel armies, is being transformed into a criminal state and a comfortable, supporting home for West Africa's most callous criminal dissidents. Moreover, underground businessmen from other parts of the world are finding Liberia an appealing setting for activities unacceptable in normal states. Thus instead of the promised democracy and accelerated development, this tiny West African country, founded by American slaves in 1822 as their land of liberty, is emerging as a bastion of state sponsored terrorism and crimes, all under the cover of politics as practiced by a "democratically elected" government. .
But the foundations for this legitimizing of crime in politics were firmly laid during the war years. Forests were attacked in an orgy of indiscriminate logging. Diamond mining increased under Taylor's watchful eyes. Mining companies were severely looted and their equipment sold to Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and elsewhere. And although Taylor's new party chair, Cyril Allen, would announce this year that the rebel NPFL made about US$300m. annually from this unprecedented looting spree, not a single school or clinic was built when the rebels had 90% of the country to themselves. As the cries against the international community for failing to pump in millions into the pockets of the new leaders continue, the US State Department, in its 1998 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, noted that government officials and former rebel commanders are engaged in exploiting the country's resources for personal benefit. Logging entities are mushrooming while proceeds go to personal bank accounts of former warlord and government functionaries.
Now in control of the state, this entrenchment of crime as a political tool is not surprising, that is if the character of politicians is a determining factor in establishing the nature of the state and its politics. What is evidently clear in Liberia now is that those at the helm of power, from the president to party officials and leaders in the Senate and other branches of government, carry abysmal criminal records. Hence, they have simply given crime a respectable face by packaging it in politics with devastating consequences for the country and the sub region. Let us take a passing glance at some of the main actors in this transformation and their ties with the past, which is influencing the present.
The President, Charles Taylor: A known fugitive from justice following his escape from an American prison, Taylor's political fame in Liberia began when he participated in the 1980 military coup that toppled the centuries-old Americo-Liberian (descendents of freed America slaves) oligarchic regime. In the midst of the political confusion and anarchy that followed when inept individuals found themselves in power, Taylor appointed himself director of the General Services Agency (state purchasing entity and warehouse), then one of the most lucrative positions in the government. Along with his wartime Defense Minister, now Labor Minister, Tom Woewiyu, they are known to have organized a bogus American-based company through which used and useless equipment were collected in the US and sold to the government as new products at escalated prices. In his bid to win them over, Taylor also instituted a policy of showering the junta leaders and their many concubines, family members, with "gifts" bought with public funds. These schemes were possible because the junta, People's Redemption Council (PRC), adopted corruption as its guarding principle and it was here that Taylor, among others, became useful guides and allies. There was a common saying in Monrovia at the time that for each car Taylor bought for a junta member, he allocated funds to buy one for himself. For each house he furnished, he furnished one for himself. And in order to dig further into state resources, he convinced the junta that a "bulk purchasing" scheme with him in charge would save the government millions of dollars. This meant that Taylor would procure all supplies bought for state use. All Lebanese, Indians merchants and others wishing to sell to the government had to "see" Taylor. It meant budgetary allotments for various state agencies for supplies and logistics now went to Taylor's General Services Agency. (At his side at the GSA were two loyalists: Blamo Nelson, then his deputy, now Director of the Cabinet; Grace Minor, then his secretary or receptionist, now a senior Senator in the upper house.) This decision augmented Taylor's influence within the economic and political circles, now that every government entity, including schools and hospitals, got supplies from Taylor.
As years progressed however, Samuel Doe became wiser and capable of telling the difference between "gifts" and theft. So it soon became a case of no honor among thieves. Taylor subsequently lost his lucrative posting and was transferred to the Ministry of Commerce as a deputy minister. The man who succeeded him, Clarence Momolu, demanded an audit before he could assume office. Taylor, claiming he was stabbed in the back, would later declare Momolu an enemy unable to live in Liberia as long Taylor lives there as President. Feeling cheated, Taylor left the country, claiming political persecution. Doe pursued him in the US for allegedly stealing about a US$ 1m. It is here that the famous case against him began, leading to his arrest and subsequent escape. But the Doe years convinced Taylor of the sweetness of crime in politics, and one of his motivating factors in launching the war was that if less literate, less conning, naive soldiers could supervise such a criminal empire with him as a wealthy foot soldier, the sky would be his limits in crude wealth accumulation if he became president. Doe, despite his naivete, came to know Taylor well, although belatedly. His knowledge of Taylor as an individual was one of the prime reasons for his intransigence in negotiating with his former procurement director. "Taylor is a rogue", he cried, a cry coming too late. Doe would negotiate only with NPFL men like the late Samuel Dokie who was later butchered along with his wife and two others by Taylor's security men, but not Taylor himself. It must have been an awful feeling for Doe in realizing that a man he made would hold a knife at his throat. But thieves always fall apart. So did Doe and Taylor with a horrible aftermath for Liberia.
Tom Woewiyu, Labor Minister: Here is a man who earned his place at Taylor's side through longstanding criminal business links. The two men were among the many twisted-minded activists against the True Whig Party regime, which they repeatedly assaulted for human rights abuses and corruption while they roamed the streets of the US with no meaningful jobs and claiming answers to Liberia's dire socioeconomic problems. But more than that, Woewiyu was a key partner in the implementation of Taylor's "bulk purchasing" scheme, "buying" materials and equipment from the US and sending them to Taylor. He, too, must have concluded that if the PRC junta could make him reasonably wealthy in his shanty Newark neighborhood, then the risk of launching a rebel invasion for a bigger pile was worth taking. He, like other government officials, is now engaged in illicit logging and other dubious business deals.
Finance Minister John Bestman: A close actor in the PRC junta, he held key lucrative positions such as Governor of the National Bank of Liberia and subsequently finance minister at a time when the US Government's aid to Liberia surpassed any to previous governments since Liberia became a state. He owns several real estates and other properties in Monrovia. With his strategic postings at the National Bank and the Finance Ministry, two agencies responsible for disbursement of government funds, he was Taylor's close ally when they served in the junta. The alliance continued when Taylor launched his war, with Bestman as the rebels point- man in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, responsible for buying and sending supplies to the rebel leader as the war progressed. Immediately after the elections, he flew in to get his reward-the finance ministry once again. [Mr. Bestman is now Minister of Post and Telecommunications]
Senate Leader Kekura Kpoto: Here is a man whose fortunes, were tied to the junta. As the junta's party (National Democratic Party of Liberia) chair, his money came principally from taking huge supplies of rice, fuel and other state resources from state corporations, selling them and pocketing the money. Furthermore, although the Liberian dollar rated far lower against the US dollar, Kpoto's position and links to Doe enabled him to frequently exchange the Liberian dollar one to one at the National Bank of Liberia, a "business" he institutionalized without any protest from Bank officials who feared his influence. An angry Doe once threatened him with imprisonment if he did not pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owed the state, but the case was silenced.
Party Leader Cyril Allen: Those who know him believe his name is synonymous to crime and impropriety. Even among thieves, there is a star, and Allen proved this when he served as head of the rebels hydrocarbons in Gbarnga. Incredibly, he was dismissed for corruption even among known thieves! A case of first among equals? Too close a competition with Taylor himself. When journalists reminded him recently of the contradiction between the price of ore he made public and the actual price as stated in the sale contract, he ordered them flogged, leaving one of them with a bleeding split lip. But Allen's record in criminal activities are best known to those involved in Liberia's insurance business over the years. Of Nigerian ancestry, he masters the acts of theft and lies.
Presidential Adviser Emmanuel Shaw: This man was one of the closest beneficiaries of Doe's era. Some how, again in his sorry naivete, Doe saw him as a model, admiring his looks and rewarding him for them. Doe even tried to look like Shaw, copying his Afro hair style and dressing like him. Taking advantage of this, Shaw teamed up with others like Dew Mayson (the former fiery "revolutionary" who incited workers to demand justice against the Tolberts) and a Dutchman named "Gus" to "buy" LAMCO which they re-named LIBINCO. But Shaw may have overestimated himself when he penetrated South Africa's African National Congress Government and began to use his Liberian criminal knowledge to siphon funds for dubious services. He was soon exposed and up till now, a criminal trial hangs over him in that country. He is accused of converting hundreds of thousands dollars belonging to the Liberian government into his own at the close of the Doe era. His specially built Mercedes was shipped to him in London by Sawyer's interim government after Doe's death.
Here, in brief, is our team promising democracy, transparency and development. The backgrounds of key men running Liberia tell us to expect an entrenchment of a criminal state far worse than anything we have seen in Liberian history. This unchallenged and crude criminalization of politics, the transformation of con artists into national leaders, can be seen through many incidents since the team was ushered in a little over two years ago. Again, let us look at a few examples.
1. The Dutch daily, Het Parool reported in 1997 that a drug gang, involving in Dutch men, was active in Liberia under Taylor's personal protection. The paper said this gang, using business covers, was trafficking drugs from Liberia to other parts of the world, mainly Europe and the United States. Moreover, as traditional local banks such as the Housing Bank and the Agricultural Bank have been shutdown due to gross mismanagement and theft, dubious banks are mushrooming in Liberia, a country whose economy has virtually collapsed. Money laundering and other criminal activities are obviously the attraction.
2. Crime as a political weapon is now the norm, and there are several examples. Impunity in criminal acts is on the increase, as indicated when the deputy commissioner of immigration shot and killed a man for overtaking his vehicle. Examples of such acts are endless. When the Dokies were butchered and burnt, Taylor was the first to announce the killings due to pressure from human rights groups who had information linking the government to the murders. To avoid a possible arrest of the killers by uninformed security men, the President personally announced that they had suddenly escaped from government detention and that he would do all in his power to have them arrested wherever they were. The irony of the announcement was that the arrest of the alleged killers, their names was not reported. Since then, these presumed killers have not been seen or heard from. Inside sources reveal the actual story: the killers were in turn killed to erase the possibility of them ever emerging and pointers fingers to their recruiters. Thus, they may never, ever be found.
3. When state security men dragged Madam Norwai Flomo, an unbending critic of the government, from her home and butchered her, the government again promised to prosecute those responsible. A few thugs were arrested, but then ordered released for lack of evidence of their involvement. A similar Gestapo method was used when so-called ex-combatants, clearly under government control, attacked and looted the home of journalist Medina Wesseh, stealing a couple of thousand dollars. Mrs. Wesseh, now in the United States, received further threats for insisting that the UN's Special Adviser to Liberia and a known government backer, Downes Thomas, had helped to plan the attack. Several opponents to the government have fled as Gestapo tactics against critics intensify.
4. The case of the eleven Krahn officers arrested, interrogated and shot by state security men would have gone unnoticed, but for the report of the US State Department on Human Rights Practices. After executing the men, Taylor announced that they were shot in an attempt to escape. The fact, as given to us by the State Department, is that they were shot outside Monrovia in September 1998.
5. The criminal tentacles of state is gradually reaching beyond Liberian territory, as the Rev. Lloyd, once a pro-Taylor activist now a changed man, found out in September 1999. Because he had indicated that his return home would be based on security in the country, his home in the border town of Danane, Ivory Coast, was burnt down. Lloyd believes the Liberian government is responsible because immediately after the interview which he said was "blown out of proportions," the Liberian Information Minister issued a public threat against him.
6. "Illicit drugs: [Liberia is] increasingly a transshipment point for Southeast and Southwest Asian heroin and South American cocaine for the European and US markets."
A key strategy in this criminal extension of politics is the establishment of a clever basis of denial. The Dokie killers were in turn silenced to have a cover of deniability since there are no witnesses. Madam Flomo's killers cannot be found so no one is responsible.
But if crime in politics is now a nationally accepted policy, its extension within West Africa poses a greater danger as Liberia becomes the official headquarters for con men, dissidents, looters, and thugs from around the sub region.
Taylor's many denials of backing Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front rebels and their junta allies have now been exposed with the permanent residence of RUF and AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council) leaders in Monrovia. AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koromah told the BBC recently that he was issuing orders to his men in the bush from Monrovia. The notorious rebel commander Sam Bokarie, alias Mosquito, lives within Taylor's compound. Guinean dissidents roam around Liberia freely planning their moves to destabilize their country Liberian style.
Evidence indicates that the Sierra Leone war with all its beastly dimensions was planned in Taylor's stronghold of Gbarnga. The initial batch of fighters were overwhelmingly Liberians and so were those who invaded Freetown in the December 1998, leaving 5,000 dead, including dozens of amputated children and adults. From all accounts, the Freetown invasion would have been inconceivable without Taylor's active involvement in supplying men and arms to the RUF rebels. Moreover, the RUF military strength became formidable after Taylor's election. With Taylor as President, Liberia's entire Western border became RUF territory. RUF supply line now extended from Libya-Burkina Faso-Ivory Coast Liberia into RUF held areas of Vahun, Kailahun, etc. Often issuing commands on Liberian territory and using Taylor's satellite phones, RUF became a political factor feared and hated in Freetown. Several factors are key to Taylor's obsession with Sierra Leone. One is his fear of Sierra Leone as his weakest spot in case his enemies converge against him. Thus, he needs the RUF as eyes and ears within Sierra Leone, forestalling any possible attack against him. The other is the preoccupation with Sierra Leone'' diamonds. RUF's demand in keeping diamond areas under their control while disarmament is negotiated is linked to the factor. Since the height of Sierra Leone's war, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, non-significant diamond exporters, have become net diamond exporters. An estimated US$500m. worth of diamonds have left this world's poorest, now begging for US$35m for its disarmament package, in recent years. With Monrovia as a congregating point for underground and criminal diamond buyers, Taylor's RUF links become pivotal in any peace agreement.
All in all, what is evolving in Liberia which many now down play is the cementing of a criminal state with the capacity of extending its wings around the West Africa and beyond. Illegal passports issuance, money laundering, proliferation of dubious banks, drugs trafficking are finding an accommodating environment in Liberia.
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