A conversation with Sheikh Kafumba Konneh
By Abdoulaye W. Dukule
Editor's Note: He is probably one of the most familiar faces in the ongoing Liberian peace process. His popularity goes beyond traditional, political and tribal boundaries. With a group of religious leaders from various faiths, he participated in the creation of the Interfaith Mediation Committee at the onset of the Liberian civil war, back in 1990. Their efforts led to the ECOWAS intervention, with the creation of ECOMOG, which has now become a model for peacekeeping the world over. Sheikh Kafumba F. Konneh, of the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia is currently in the United States, to attend the World Conference on Peace and Religion, organized in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, events. He is also meeting with Liberians in the United States to talk about the need for peace and reconciliation. We talked with him about issues and events in the country.
How is the situation back home?
Things are very bad, to say it bluntly. The country is now going through very unfavorable conditions. Our economy is in shambles. The reconciliation process is stagnant. There is a mounting and rampant suspicion between the government and the opposition. People are divided along ethnic and geographical lines. For example, there is a war going on in one part of the country (Lofa), and the rest of the country seems not be concerned about it. That is very bad. It seems that there is a lack of national conscience. This is a very small country. When something happens somewhere, it affects everyone and we must be united to stop it. But we are divided and this is not good... The country is in a very bad shape. We need to do something, quickly, as a people to move from where we are.
How can we move forward?
I think we need to have the courage to re-examine what happened in our country in the past 12 years and go from there. What did we get from the war? Did the war bring us prosperity and happiness? Did it create a new society that we can be proud of? In my humble opinion, the answers are No. The war demoralized our youth, it traumatized the elders, it broke down families, and villages disappeared. People have turned their back to each other. The rich and strong have become poor and the poor have become destitute. People are hardly surviving. Sectionalism has never been stronger. Whatever we held on to and that made Liberia a country broke down in pieces. Now we are at a juncture where we must all look back and decide where to take the country. That would only be possible if we are all united, committed and working genuinely for the same cause. Can we continue on the path of war and violence? No, it would lead into more disasters. We need to find a way to chart a new course for our country. The war destroyed the social fabric of our country and we have to look at that fact in the face and take measures that would help us restructure our national life, put the pieces together and move on.
Your organization has been very active in the peace process from the onset in 1990. What are you doing now to help chart that new course?
We are working on several levels. But before going into those details, I want to say that when we started back in 1990, we were just a group of religious leaders who came together to try to find a solution to the war, on a ad-hoc basis. We were aware of the fact that in Liberia, like in many other places, people hold to their beliefs to overcome problems. In our case, we always think that Islam, Christianity and African traditions play an important role. So we tried to approach the conflict from these angles and they all led us to a negotiated settlement. After the elections, we realized that the end of the war did not mean the end of the process. We have therefore decided to create a formal entity called the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia. We have assigned ourselves three areas of intervention:
a) Human rights issues. We don't think there can be peace in any society without the respect for human rights. There can be no harmony if there is no justice and justice demands the respect of basic human rights for all people;
b) Conflict mediation and conflict resolution. There is still a war going on. Beyond that, there are many conflicts in our society today that need to be resolved, that need to be ironed out so that the country can move forward;
c) Humanitarian issues. The recovery process of our nation would largely depend on how well we understand the basic needs of our population and find a way to deliver basic services. We are now involved in many schools, we are
trying to revitalize health care centers and we talk to every group in the society and make our opinion known about national issues.
You have mentioned the war in Lofa. Has your organization tried to intervene in that crisis?
We have tried. Right after the first shots were fired, we went public and said we knew there was trouble brewing in Lofa/Nimba area. We work at the grass-root level so we see problems and talk to people before things become public. We started to interact with tribal leaders in Lofa. We tried to find out whom we needed to talk to and how to start a dialogue. We went to Lofa and then to Nimba. We held meetings with villagers. But the government stepped in. First Minister Edward Kessely and then Senator Kekura Kpoto went to Lofa. They came back and said they had taken care of the problem. The government told us to stay away. But the fighting kept going on and we asked the government to let us go in. We could talk to people from various backgrounds. We have made contacts with religious leaders of Guinea and Sierra Leone and asked them to talk to their leaders. We had a first meeting in 1999 and we are meeting in early December in Monrovia to review the situation and adopt a common position.
Some people in government have said that Islamic fundamentalists are behind the war...
That's is a fallacy. That's a lie. That is like trying to give a different color to people. I don't think there is such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism in Liberia. And nobody that I know, Christian or Muslim is waging a religious war in Liberia. The people who are in Lofa are not fighting for Islam or for any other religious belief. That kind of thinking makes it hard to find a solution, because people refuse to face the real issues. We never had religious problems in Liberia and I consider it a failure to blame religion for our political shortcomings.
How are your relations with the government? Is the President open to your ideas?
We talk to people in government at various levels. We meet with the president whenever it is possible. Sometimes we seek him out and at times he invites us to talk and discuss issues of importance. I must however say here that there is a serious problem in Monrovia. There is a suspicion between the government and the rest of the people, be it in the opposition and religious groups. There is what Honorable Alexander Zulu, from the Executive Mansion called the Gbarnga Connection, at the time of the appointment of the Vice President. It seems that on one hand you have the whole country and on the other side you have what is called "the Gbarnga group." This is not healthy for our country. Once someone becomes president, he must be leader for the whole country, not for one small group of people. This is a serious problem for reconciliation and national governance. While the government talks about national reconciliation, many of its actions point to sectionalism. Chapter 3 of the constitution says that the primary responsibility of the government is to unify the country. We just came out of a war that tested everything, the government must go beyond itself to create national unity and reconciliation and not just feel responsible for the welfare of a small group. Our country is in dire need for unity and reconciliation and it is not a good thing to give the impression that one group is better than the rest of the country.
Let's talk about the sanctions...
When people talk about sanctions, they see a stigma. Sanctions are a stigma. Once people hear the word "sanction", it rings a bell. For serious investors, it means "don't go there." And that is what has been happening to the country. The sanctions are having a very negative effect on the country and on the common people. As you know, sanctions were imposed on diamonds and we know government does not mine diamonds. It is concessions, local corporations or private individuals who do mining and these are the ones affected by the sanctions on diamonds and not the government.
How about the travel ban on government officials?
Well, at that level, the sanctions probably put a cap on the elaborate expensive travels by government officials. But in the same vein, because they can't travel, government officials can't interact with the international community and that put an end to even the smallest interest some people may have in our country. So we can say that the sanctions are not helping an already desperate situation.
Some people in government have talked about postponing the 2003 elections because of the war. What do you think?
That's a difficult issue. Can and should we have elections while there is a war going on and the country is not stable? On the other hand, if the elections are postponed because of the war, it means the government will have to stay in power. And here comes the problem, the current government was democratically elected under special circumstances but it was not constitutionally elected. The constitution calls for one- man one -vote and the past elections were done according to special arrangements. Therefore, this government cannot legally evoke the constitution to stay in power beyond the end of its mandate, whatever the circumstances may be. We think postponing the elections will only heighten the tension in the country. We would like to provide a forum to political parties and opinion leaders to come together and discuss all impeding difficulties and lessen the tension in country. But definitely, postponing the elections will not be a positive move.
How do you see the future?
The future of Liberia will be what we make of it. We need to go beyond our division and past anger at each other. Every Liberian must examine his or her actions and see where he or she needs to make adjustment. We need to look at all this from a very objective position and do it for the good of the nation. We must do so with the full knowledge that only us can make Liberia what it ought to be. We must reconcile. We must forgive each other and admit our mistakes and go on. We need to get out of this terrible situation and it won't happen until we realize that we are one people and one nation.
Are you currently meeting with specific groups of Liberians in the United States?
Yes and I think this is important. When we talk about national unity, we must first realize that our own tribes and religious groups, as well as villages and other communities are divided. Therefore, before going to the national level, we must start by putting together small pieces, reconcile families, churches, mosques and communities and go from that level. We have to start with our own families. How can you talk about uniting the country when people in your own community don't speak? The war has created frictions and deep wounds in every part of the society and we think that we must go around, reconciling our own villages and from there, we can unite the whole country.
What message do you have for Liberians in the United States?
A very simple one: let's forgive each other and do whatever we can to help our country rise from the ashes of the war. As long as we keep casting blame on each other for what happened, we will never go ahead. We must all re-examine our recent past, look at the bad things we did, admit our faults and move on. We must also remember the good we did and do more of that. Liberia is one small country but it is big enough for everyone. There is enough for every one. There is no reason why we can't come together and be a people. The rest of the world is moving fast and we are stranded in anger, despair and blame. We must reconcile and to do, we must look at each other as human beings and respect each other. So, our message is really brief, peace, reconciliation and respect.