Issues in the Transition

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 5, 2003

Dr. Alfred Kulah said he planned to return home soon and contribute whatever he can to the transition to peace. When asked what he thought of the chances of success of the Gyude Bryant government. Dr. Kulah said, "Bryant is between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, he is beholding to the warring factions who elected him and, on the other hand, he must assert himself as leader for a new Liberia, hungry for peace and everything else that comes with peace and stability and that means, jobs, education and health."

According to Dr. Kulah, the most important sign paving the way to return home would be disarmament. "Once I see an irreversible sign that guns are being taken away from the fighters – I mean a real disarmament not like the ones we saw in the 1990s- that UN Envoy Jacques Klein and Chairman Bryant are not bowing down to pressure and blackmail from the warlords, I will be on my way home… I am too old to learn a new way of life in America." And then, he added, as an afterthought: "but nothing good would happen if we all sit here and wait for Bryant and Klein to make things work before going home…"

There are signs that the transition period has begun. However, Liberians are wondering if this would be like the other failed transitions to peace or a success story. As Dr. Kulah put it, "this could be different. We never had so much support from the UN and the international community. We must allow this window of opportunity to shut."

Asserting himself as a national leader would not be an easy undertaking for Mr. Gyude Bryant. He is at the center of a power struggle with too many diverse interests. On the one hand, the warring factions would want to make him pay dearly for every inch of power and territory and every gun; and on the other hand, the civil society would want him to prove that he is not "in the pockets of the warring factions." It is not the kind of headache that goes away easily.

The peace process is now heading into a deadlock. Last week, the three warring factions walked out of disarmament talks over issues of jobs.

Former president Moses Blah convened his partisans and told them that he would not allow for any of them to be pushed-around. He went on to ask Solicitor General Theophilus Gould to investigate and report to him allegations of NPP-appointees being harassed in their new jobs. And it took the intervention of UN forces to quell a hostage situation at the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

What authority does the former president have in requesting a public servant to investigate and report to him? Do LURD fighters know that Chairman Bryant is the only one to sign letters of appointments? What are leaders of factions presently holding positions in the government telling their fighters regarding the authority of the Executive Mansion?

This issue of center of power could a major impediment to the process if not resolved. The problem is compounded when warring faction leaders congregate to form a unitary front. Attaining a sustainable peace would depend largely on the ability of the government and the UN to dismantle the factions, or to "de-factionalize" the body politic of Liberia in the coming months.

The logic of guns for jobs
Disarmament is certainly the most important aspect of the peace process. It is the cornerstone in laying the foundations for peace. However, disarmament is not an event, it is a long process that must end with the fighter deciding that s/he no longer needs to carry guns because there is a positive alternative to war.

Warring factions deserve all the blame they got for walking out of the disarmament talks. They must not be allowed to hold the country hostage because they think that a few dozen of their partisans ought to hold a ministerial job. They should not be allowed to further endanger the lives and welfare of the young people who spent the past many years fighting for them. Nor should they expect that every friend and family member is entitled to a ministerial job. This is a major test for Mr. Bryant’s leadership.

In their logic of "power for guns", the warring factions would go after everything they can get under the sun. They will try emulating former transitional governments where faction leaders appointed even messengers and drivers. In 1990s, it was not uncommon for a Minister to walk into his office and find two or three new secretaries "appointed" by the "chief." Is it a new day in Liberia? The UN, the civil society and the international community must not leave the fate of tens of child soldiers in the hands ho people who have used them for decades as cannon-fodders. In the end, the few jobs being sought are not really for those children mostly illiterate, who fought the war.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the interim government formed along the same principle of power-for- gun now counts 62 ministers, an assembly of 600 members and 4 vice-presidents. A few years ago, when the Interim Government and the warring factions were deadlocked on the same power sharing issue, a UN veteran of Liberian peace process suggested that we create as many ministries as possible in exchange for disarmament. In his view, since the transitional government was meant to last only a year or two, the subsequent elected government would have all latitude to dismiss all the unqualified workers appointed by warring factions.

The logic of "gun-for-cash" is a quick-fix formula that does not guarantee peace. Once the cash runs out, fighters would start looking for other ways of making a living. Since they have no other trade but the use of guns and with no alternative to the idealistic and lawless environment the factions provide, they would roll back. Asking young people who have been fighting for years to turn in their guns and walk away with small cash in their pocket does in no way address the critical social problems they are bound to face.

In the current stand-off, the warring factions may seem to only be concerned about getting jobs for a few more of their militants rather than be involved in the process of peace making. However, underneath it, there could be a desire to weaken the civilian leadership of the government as well as that of prolonging unnecessarily the peace process. If this continues, the transition could drag on for years, with "consultative meetings" – like the ones taking place in Côte d’Ivoire - every now and then to try and resolve issues that could have been taken care of by technical committees.

The principle of "job-for gun" served as basis for the formation of the transitional government in Accra. It may have been wrong at the time but it served as a lure to end the fighting. It may be too late to change the rules of the game in mid-course. If the process fails because a dozen or so people did not get assistant ministerial jobs to end a war 14-year old war that killed 250,000 and brought a once vibrant nation to its knees, there would be enough blame to go around for all those involved in the process. The focus must be achieving peace rather than making rules that really help nobody. Corruption and ineptitude in government do not necessarily always occur at the lowest level of government.

There are many questions that need to be answered: What is the primary function and responsibility of this transitional government? What is the scope of the authority of the Chairman of the government? How far would the UN go in allowing a few individuals to hold this costly hostage to their petty desires?

The consolation is that in a matter of months, the peacekeeping force would be complete and with the UN mandate to "enforce peace", the warring factions would be disarmed, whether they like it or not. The warring factions are well aware of this, may be that is why they are dragging their feet, while they still have some leverage…. But in the end, Liberia will have the peace she deserves and all warlords will slump into oblivion.