Praying and Celebrating Against Going Home
By Tom Kamara
Oct 9, 2000

Celebrations by thousands of Liberian refugees in the United States, saved from deportation to a hellish home, have been blessed and endorsed by their President Charles Taylor. The former warlord, who has been waging a come-home campaign via his globetrotting officials, joined his beloved people in joy to dance for President Clinton's decision granting them another year of freedom in America. But what awaits them in their short-lived happiness is ensuring infinite sympathy of uneasy hosts since their refugee life is similarly infinite. Very soon, the celebrants' fate will be determined by determined lobbyists convincing either President Gore or Bush not to send them packing for home against their will. It is a difficult and humiliating undertaking.

In the US, where the largest number of Liberians reside outside West Africa, Liberians are praying for God to have mercy on them so that Congress can grant them permanent residence status as America braces for elections. Whether President Gore of Bush will have Clinton's compassion to protect them from home remains to be seen. On the other hand, various organizations connected with Liberia continue to handle the country's refugee crisis by persistently standing at the doors of the US Congress pleading to let Liberian refugees in even as more trek to America as the easy way out of their nightmare. Hundreds stand daily at the doors of the US embassy in Monrovia, the capital, praying to get what they see as the stamp to freedom (US Visa) liberating them from home. Whatever the merits of wooing Congress to open America's doors for Liberia's exodus, it seems the most honorable solution is to improve security and other conditions in Taylor's Liberia that would halt the current stampede and attract people back. The Yugoslavs, proud and determined, determined their own fate not by begging other countries to let them in, but by removing a pariah regime of "Demon-King"(in the words of a British journalist) Milosevic to democratize the country. But again Liberians, who look to God to solve all problems despite His Almighty's full hands, are far from being Serbs.

The obvious is that conditions are not likely to improve for a mass return home. Paranoia, in the midst of failed, false promises and stagnation, has become the norm. A journalist was recently imprisoned for remaking that opting to be slave in America was now more honorable than living in Africa. The man was freed only after the Police Director ruled that his statement did not constitute treason. According to a Dutch daily, many of the stories placed on Internet by papers are not seen by their own reporters, an indication of the draconian censorship on the struggling media. Opposition politician Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh indicated the Government's policy against journalists and criticism gives the impression it may have won only 5% of the votes in 1997 and not the acclaimed 85%. In a rare criticism of the Government by an on-the-ground politician since the elections, Tipoteh accused the Government of insensitivity, failure to tackle admitted corruption, unabashed luxury living by officials, while they have opted to impose the controversial "hut tax," which means forcible collection of money from rural dwellers for each hut owned despite the fact that thousands of huts were burnt by Taylor's and other rebels, and that the bulk of hut-tax payers are in refugee or displaced camps. It is a system advanced in all its cruelty by Americo-Liberian politicians that left native peasant population impoverished, in a typical case of taxation without representation for decades. It was finally abolished by the military junta in 1980 amidst popular approval.

All facets of a brutal criminal state have become visible, as attested by Senator Tom Woewiyu's (Taylor's wartime defense spokesman) recent revelations that the lapdog Senate was secretly passing "dubious and clandestine" laws on forestry and oil that affect the economy. The questionable laws are being passed when rumors of oil finds in Liberia have been flaring, and many believe the laws, now printed in handbills to make them legally binding, have been passed to meet the private economic interests of Taylor and his cronies. Some Senators are demanding that the printed documents be revoked since they do not represent the wishes of the Senate, while others insist the laws would have been passed in any case once Taylor had given instructions to his cronies in the Senate who dominate it. "This is dangerous for this countryThis is why the international community cannot take us seriously," Woewiyu said in what the local media called a "bombshell" in the rubberstamp parliament. Woewiyu's concerns about bad governance are backed by the Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin's announcement of Liberia not qualifying for debt relief designed for heavily indebted countries (HICs) due to its poor record on human rights and good governance, two of the main criteria for qualification. With secret passing of laws to address the President's business interests, the stage for legalizing crime is advanced. Phony companies born out of laws such as the one establishing a phony Liberia Oil Company and the dubious "Forestry and Land Acts", meant to legalize theft of public resources, are Woewiyu's worries. When approached by the whistle-blowing Senator, the President of Senate, Kekura Kpoto, one of the architects of Samuel Doe's junta's wheeling and dealing when he served as chair of Doe's party, claimed he had no knowledge of the secret laws. According to reports, he referred an angry Senator Woewiyu to Senator Grace Minor, a powerful voice in the Senate who was Taylor's secretary at the General Services Agency when he served as its director and was arrested for alleged mass theft. "They are already stealing, but to pass theft into laws is something new in Liberia", said a businessman who was kicked out recently.

With such confusion and dire economic conditions, what Liberian refugees can count on is that no one, however xenophobic, is bold enough to suggest forced repatriation or deportation without condemnation for insensitivity. Officials at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are taking the lead in warning against sending Liberians home. "We are afraid that the time is not ripe for refugees to return home", said Soren-Jessen Peterson, assistant commissioner for refugees. "I clearly cannot see UNHCR being involved in major repatriation to Liberia at this timeThey (Liberian Government) say they need UNCHR support, and my answer to them is then you have to make conditions such that we can continue to work."

But creating the conditions to encourage humanitarian work and foster self-reliance has been the obstacle. For instance, despite all the denials of non-involvement in the cross-border raids into Guinea which have left over 300 killed in recent weeks, a UNHCR worker abducted allegedly by Guinean dissidents (while her colleague was killed) tuned out in Monrovia, just as hundreds of UN troops held hostage turned out in Liberia, now a clear staging post for rebellions in other countries.

What is not lacking among Liberian officials is emotional public rhetoric about "seeking the welfare" of their refugees. They have accused Guineans authorities of obstructing the airlifting over 126,000 Liberians now in that country. But when the Guineans clarified that the Liberians only had to supply particulars of the aircraft along with the names of its crew to begin their planned evacuation, they backed down. Not a single Liberian was evacuated despite all the yahoo. Sierra Leone, which is in turmoil, repatriated about 17,000 its citizens, with most returning on foot.

Whatever the dream, conditions for mass repatriation in Liberia are not likely to change soon with the current team of rulers, despite the wishes of international humanitarian organization plagued with catering for Liberian refugees for over a decade. The euphoria generated by the 1997 elections, which propelled the creators of refugees to power with the bizarre expectation that they would create conditions for mass return, is a typical case of forms elevated as substance, when deceit overpowers truth. The truth is that with a plundering gang firmly in place and hindering any possibility of change, Liberia will continue to produce more refugees, instead of accepting them. Former President Jimmy Carter may have assured Liberians after the election results of a new beginning pregnant with hope, promising that abuses of the past were now "inconceivable" under a President Charles Taylor, a man who rose to power through death and plunder of the worst type in the country's history. Based on such promises by the honorable world statesmen, such as former President Jimmy Carter, Liberians placed faith in elections as the single most important factor in returning home. But such delusion was characteristically Liberian, knowingly placing hope in an event that provided no hope. Devoid of the courage to opt for relevant solutions, Liberians wrapped themselves in an election as their salvation, even after Charles Taylor's threat of resuming war if he did not win. Long before men like Carter could see unrivaled fairness in Liberian elections, the British writer Graham Greene, discovered their hopelessness and folly as far back as 1946 when he became one of the few Europeans to unveil the farce of democracy entrenched in this country founded and ruled by freed American slaves, the Americo-Liberians:

"For the curious thing about Liberian election campaign, which goes for more than two months if there's enough money in hand, is that, although the result is always a foregone conclusion, everyone behaves as if the votes and the speeches and the pamphlets matter. The Government prints the ballot papers, the Government owns both newspapers, the Government police the polling booths, but no one assumes beforehand that the Government will win, or if the turn of the Opposition, the Opposition. A curious fiction is kept up even among the foreign representatives. There are excited conversations at dinner parties, bets are always on the point of being laid. But the fiction, of course, stops short of losing money. Perhaps to an American, who is used to his own state elections, the conditions seem less odd."

Amazing! Fifty-four years since the Englishman's diagnosis, nothing has changed. They have only worsened, and the 1997 election was a classic case. Greene further noted how the so-called Opposition was at the mercy of the President in terms of dishing out to them looted public funds, a practice that continues in its most dastardly form under the warlord Taylor.

What is regarded as an Opposition in today's Liberia is heavily dependent on the largesse of the President who dishes out plundered money to like-minded loyalists, Opposition or otherwise. This is the environment that must be changed, allowing transparency, to encourage the mass repatriations of hundreds of thousands of Liberians who saw elections as the panacea to their problems. But so far, the signals after three years point to perpetual refugee status for hundreds of thousands of Liberians if elections are the yardstick.

The collective desire is to lobby against going home, not to change conditions for making home a real home. This is the Liberian character.