Liberia's Scheduled Elections: Guns Do Not Heal

By Tom Kamara

It seems that at last, Liberia is on its way to sanity after almost seven years of grueling anarchy and plunder sustained by competing warlords. The protagonists of this senseless, mayhem, anarchy have resigned from the six-man state council to vie for the presidency. This means that after all, the principle reason for subjecting Liberians to the most heinous atrocities in the country's history since it was founded in 1822 was for these callous men of war and violence to become president.

The scheduled elections will be a test for all Liberians. All in all, it will be the first time that elections will be held in the country without an incumbent, and for a country that registered in the Guinea's Book of Records as having the worst rigged elections in history. In the presidential election of 1927, the incumbent, President Charles D. B. King was re-elected with an officially announced majority 234,000 over his opponent, Thomas J. R. Faulkner of the People's Party. President King thus claimed a "majority" more than 151/2 times greater than the entire electorate. The scheduled May elections should provide a clean start. But will it?

Although, there have been successes in the disarmament process, there are fears that some warlords still harbor a hidden agenda and are concealing arms for a new offensive or destabilization scheme if they are justifiably punished for their crimes at the polls. For this, there must be a satisfactory level of de-commissioning of arms, free movement of people, repatriation of about one million Liberians who fled from the new presidential candidates, before elections. Otherwise, we may experience Sierra Leone, or Angola in this plundered country now slowly forgotten by the rest of the world.

The primary reason for the warlords' new enthusiasm to opt for democracy and disarm is that each want to be president, with a foolhardy notion that there will prevail a winner take all scenario to cement the plundering of the country. Another reason is that the April 6, 1996 mayhem in which warlords Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kromah sought to eliminate their rivals and consolidate their grip on the country caused increased international pressure to play a decisive role. "It was good that April 6 happened because it has caused us to dream of liberation from banditry and pure theft," said one enthusiastic youth leader recently. Whatever the case, April 6 opened the eyes of all as to the real intention of the war chiefs. No one was left untouched by the well planned and supervised looting. Imagined enemies were butchered in cold blood. And with such fresh memories, some warlords, (principally Mr. Taylor) are asking Liberians to forgive them.

Of course, Mr. Taylor wants to be forgiven, something honorable for super sinner. The problem is that he will not accept any forgiveness without reward, and this means giving him the presidency. Whether such a man should be rewarded for destroying a country is a choice Liberians will have to make come May, 1997.

Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis recently noted that the next president of Liberia must be reconciler, a healer of wounds. The truth, the naked truth, is that if any of the warlords, under any circumstance, becomes President, it will ignite new flames of war. None of them is a reconciler. None can be a healer of wounds. The proliferation of warring factions was the result of deep seated suspicions and fears of one warlord against the other. The warlords' decision to grudgingly embrace the democrat option was not voluntary. They had sought to rule Liberia through the barrel of the gun. That their option was rejected by the Liberian people and the international community has forced them to take a bitter, uncomfortable look at the ballot box.

The scheduled elections will be between the men of guns on the one hand and civic society on the other. The problem is that in Liberia today, political parties are fragmented, built around individuals. Therefore, the danger of a personality cult, in which the leader knows all, takes all, with all vying for his attention and blessings, (and mercy) will loom high. But this option may be far better than having a recruiter of children as national leader, far better than having a leader of bandits as president. If Liberia is to put war behind and enter the millennium with a democratic and development agenda, then the choice is clear. The next leader must be a reconciler and a healer. Guns do not reconcile; they do not heal wounds.