Liberia's Illusive Dream of Democracy
By Musue Haddad

The founding of Liberia, and the entire historical momentum that greeted what became known in American political parlance as the "Negro State", was the quest for democracy and entrenched opposition to slavery. This could clearly be seen in America in 1776 when some strong and varying opinions began to emerge against the cruelty of slavery. The persistence of slavery itself was a political anomaly because the American Declaration of Independence had, after all, proclaimed that all men are born equal with certain basic rights. If so, then it was obvious that the millions of Africans shipped to America fell in the category of human beings. Advocates therefore insisted they, too, have "inalienable rights." To implement this egalitarian concept, what we now call Liberia was "founded" to settle the freed American slaves in 1822, at least those who wished to leave the slave plantations.

As everything the freed slaves "learned" in America, they brought with them (to Liberia) the concepts of the American Declaration of Independence, proclaiming democracy and independence on July 26, 1847. Not surprisingly our Founding Fathers bitterly complained against the grinding oppression which had been meted out against them during their enslavement. But surprisingly, the Founding Fathers themselves soon wore the garment of the oppressor, delineating special laws for the settlers, and special laws for those on which the "democracy " was imposed, the native population. Except for the difference of skin pigmentation, these "Democrats" were no different from the South Africa's Apartheid Afrikaner "Democrats." These two faces of democracy were to last for well over 130 years, temporarily broken only in 1980 with a sad military coup that propelled illiterate and inept soldiers to power.

The embodiment of this "democracy" encompass discriminatory laws that restricted indigenous participation in government, never mind that the indigenous constituted 98% of the population. It was not until 1946 some windows of conditional participation were opened to African-Liberians. But even at that, it was not until 1980 - about 133 years since Independence was declared - before a native could be President. And this was so not through democratic means, but through violence since there was no democracy. Samuel Doe therefore installed himself President and proceeded to implement what he had learned in Liberia--the repressive tendencies of successive regimes

It is vital to touch on these developments because words such as "ethnic cleansing", tribal conflicts, have become part of the global political lexicon. But when ethnic groups are ruled through force with total disregard for their input or feelings, armed conflicts become viable options. Such is the case with most African conflicts. They soon degenerate into "ethnic cleansing" as it is called in Yugoslavia or "tribal conflict" as it is termed for Liberia. These trends are caused partly by marginalization and/or political patronage system that consumes Africa. Such was the nightmare in Rwanda with the Tsutsi and Hutu reprisal massacres. So it was and it is in today's Liberia despite the façade of democracy.

Liberia's bloodbath would have been more horrendous without the intervention of West African countries, an intervention that, more or less, thwarted Charles Taylor's determination to make himself president through the barrel of the gun. Although the conflict took 250,000 lives out of a population of barely 2.5 million, the magnitude of the crimes committed by Mr. Taylor and other warlords led Liberians to popularize the slogan THANK GOD FOR ECOMOG.

The installation of Taylor as President led to heightened hopes for democratization, even if the warlord's record in his Greater Liberia warned Liberians not to expect anything better.

Before the July 19, 1997, elections, it was clear that the rebel leader Charles Taylor was buying time to get the peacekeepers out. The peacekeepers had frustrated his several attempts to take over the states of affairs through the guns. The U. S. State Department 1999 Human Rights Report describes the elections as "conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation". In addition many analysts say the process was rigged and orchestrated with the assumption to ending the war and Mr. Charles Taylor who had initiated the rebel war was declared winner. And Liberians had hoped that the election would have brought an end to gross human rights violations and abuses.

In his inaugural address of August 2nd 1997, President Taylor vowed that there would be no "witch hunting" during his era. But three months after this declaration, Liberians had the rude awakening of the gruesome murder of a leading opposition politician, Samuel Saye Dokie, his wife, sister and cousin. Dokie was abducted by PRESIDENTIAL SECURITY OFFICERS on November 28, 1997 while en route to his hometown to attend his sister's wedding. Up to now the murderers of the Dokies are roaming in and around Liberia with impunity. This horrible Dokies' episode typifies the frequent human rights violations and abuses in Liberia.

On July 10, 1998, Nowai Flomo, a market woman, was abducted by nine members of the Special Security Unit (SSU) in the suburb of Monrovia and has not been seen since that day. For the record, the Special Security Unit is the unique but fearsome presidential guard created by President Taylor.

Civil groups and human rights organizations agitated for the persecution of the SSU officers who had abducted Nowai Flomo. Surprisingly, President Taylor appeared on his private Television and declared that once the corpse of the market woman had not been found, there was no evidence to prosecute the suspects. Although the police had reluctantly detained two of the nine suspects, they were immediately released without facing trial following the President's statement.

There are many cases of human rights violations and abuses since elections were held in 1997. David El Dorado, a former security officer was also abducted and murdered. His crime was that during the transition period he was assigned to Lavela Supuwood, one of Taylor's opponents.

Last year, another presidential security officer, David Toe died at the underground jail of the Executive Mansion, the President's official residence. There are credible reports that a hammer was used to smash his skull while in detention. Although the newspapers reported the incident, no investigation was made. When a journalist asked President Taylor to comment on the circumstances of Toe's death, President Taylor said all around the world, people die in security cell so Liberia is not an exception. About $250 was given as compensation for the death of Toe to his family members. Officer Toe apparently one of those involved in the Dokies' arrest was explaining events surrounding their deaths.

Human rights violations and abuses are still wide spread in my country. The same National Patriotic Front of Liberia that committed atrocities during the civil war have been given uniforms as "soldiers, police and other members of security institutions". They did not undergo any form of training; they were not rehabilitated, and they remain traumatized.

Reports from the rural areas are appalling. Our rural folks are being subjected to all forms of harassment and intimidation such as rape, seizure of property, and even wanton murder by security officers. For example, recently a nursing mother was mercilessly/ruthlessly raped by a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia in Lofa County, the northern part of the country. A women's delegation from that part of the country came to Monrovia and literally cried on lawmakers for redress in vain.

Another area which quickly gained reputation for human rights atrocities in the country is the GBARTALA BASE in central Liberia about 80 miles north of Monrovia. Unlike in the past when Army barracks were created by the legislature, the Gbartala Base was set up secretly by President Charles Taylor. Although the base was set up secretly, it started attracting public attention when information began filtering about gruesome human rights violations on the base. Unsuspecting civilians passing near the base were abducted and tortured by officers of the so- called "Anti- Terrorist Unit" at the Gbartala Base under the command of President Taylor's dreadful son, Charles Taylor, Jr., commonly known as Chucky.

The most notable of these involved Mr. Kwesi Owusu, a Ghanaian, and Nathaniel Koah. Mr. Kwesi was taken on the base on suspicion of being a dissident. He was made to drink his own urine and eat cigarette butts. He said male captives or prisoners were made to have "sex" with one another. He managed to escape to Monrovia. When human rights groups took up the case, government at first denied it. However, when it became so embarrassing due to the undoubtable evidence, government reluctantly conceded that unspeakable brutality had actually been meted out against Kwesi.

Instead of prosecuting those who had tortured the Ghanaian, the Presidential Security Director offered him $200.00 and offered to underwrite the medical bills. As for Nathaniel Koah, a diamond broker, he was accused by Chucky Taylor of "stealing" one million US dollars worth of diamonds. From whom Mr. Koah stole the diamonds was not disclosed. He too was subjected to the same round of terrible treatment: sex, torture and the worst form of violations. Human rights organizations had to intervene by issuing a writ of habeas corpus to secure Koah's release. Koah explained that after being secretly arrested he was taken to President Taylor before being taken to the Gbartala base.

When calls came for the closure of the secretly set up base, President Taylor said at military bases around the world there are human rights violations and so there is no need to close the Gbartala base.

With all of these human rights violations, the 12 opposition political parties remain silent except the Unity Party of Mrs. Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf, which somehow remains vocal. Until recently, Liberians look up to human rights groups and the media to champion their cause. But, like the political parties, the human rights groups are gradually being silenced. The recent case is the sedition charge against Advocate James Torh who spoke against the handling of state affairs by President Taylor. Also the treason charge against a Catholic Father who government claimed had made statements against it and the treason charge against a Muslim leader who wondered why state security officers belonging to other tribes were destroying, killing and torturing already suffering people particularly Moslems in one part (Lofa) of the country.

As for the media, government on March 17th, intensified its clamp down on the independent media closing two radio stations and deploying security troops at the station offices. The government has also succeeded in causing a split in the media with the formation of various groups accusing media organizations and journalists who speak-out against the harassment and intimidation of journalists. The independent media in protest of the closure of Star Radio and Veritas published black/reversed front pages and also boycotted all government stories. The opposing media group, just like the government, accused other media institutions of causing chaos. Government has branded my institution, The News newspaper, as a "dissident paper". In a press statement from the Executive Mansion, the official resident of President, government promised to take harsh steps against The News.

In his address on July 7, 1998, the Public Affairs Officer of U. S. Embassy, Mr. David M. Park challenged the Government and the people of Liberia to help them help us (Liberians). He indicated that the quality of the Liberia-America bilateral relationship is based on particularly Liberia's policies on human rights and the performance of the Liberian Media, especially its ability to report responsibly on important issues in the society: the existence of a free and independent media.

In its assessment, the world should keep in mind the subtle methods by government to subdue the media: the government financed institutions, under the guise of independent media and President Charles Taylor's privately owned institutions.

Can we safely say the media is gradually at the threshold of being monopolized? Political and national decisions are manipulated and controlled by the absolute powerful ruling National Patriotic Party. Investments are all closely linked to the government and its officials. Personnel of numerous security institutions comprise former combatants of the Charles Taylor's led disbanded NPFL. Yes, monopoly confuses the free market system and destroys a nation and its people.

However, should the people of Liberia suffer because of their all- powerful government? There is a need for international visibility and pressure to halt the systematic violations carried out by government and its security officers against Liberians and foreign residents. The Liberian government is doing all to blind the outside world into believing that there is a free press and a government that operates by rules and laws under the principle of separation of powers.

If the international community and people of conscience cannot see that this is criminilization of the state by a tyrant bent on destruction, then I doubt whether we will begin to see or classify signs that show tyranny and a destitute people.

Musue N. Haddad is a Journalist with The NEWS Newspaper in Monrovia.
She is currently a Visiting Scholar at a U.S. University.

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