Ambassador Diggs Meets Liberians Of Metro Atlanta
By: George H. Nubo

For months, the Liberian Community Association of Georgia has been ignored and neglected by Liberian officials visiting metro Atlanta. But things changed during the past few months when Mr. Blamoh Nelson, Director General of the Cabinet, became the first Liberian official to formally meet with members of the community. It appears that the new effort is the result of the "public relations blitz" rolled-out by the Taylor government at the beginning of the year. The second high official who attempted to meet members of the community was Speaker Nyudueh Morkonmana of the Liberian House of Representatives.

Regrettably, the Speaker's attempt was shunned by the community leadership team that negotiated the meeting. Not only did the community leaders fail to inform members about the meeting, they also did not attend. The Speaker waited for over two hours in vain before disappointingly boarding his motorcade. This discourteous behavior exhibited by the community leaders underscored their political insensitivity. Some Liberians feel the community's behavior is tantamount to contempt and the leaders would have been cited for such if they were in Liberia. Some of us, at The Perspective, who jumped on Senator Brumskine for attending a secret trade meeting in Atlanta last October were stunned by the disrespect.

At the monthly meeting in April, however, community President Theo Bass blamed the failure to inform members and to attend the meeting on bureaucracy and bereavement. He said that in order to speak with the speaker, he had to go through George Kiadii and Lao Sherman who claimed to have organized the speaker's visit. Besides, Mr Bass had to attend a funeral that same day, and got busy tone every time he called the meeting venue. To make things worse, the new community leadership was due to be inaugurated on that same day. He also said that the community leadership wanted the speaker to meet with Liberians during their regular community meeting which was scheduled for Sunday March 8, but he was told that the Speaker's schedule could not permit him to attend the meeting.

Given the set of circumstances, I can see why the community made such a major blunder and embarrassed most Liberians in Atlanta. However, I am convinced that we could have avoided this mistake, had the leadership assigned this task to a committee. The failure to tap into the community human resource, which in turn led to this debacle, is inexcusable.

The third Liberian official to visit Metro Atlanta was the Liberian Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Rachel Gbenyon Diggs. Regarding her visit, a select few received formal invitations, while others heard of the meeting through friends; but the turnout was not bad. On April 27, Liberians gathered at Mina's Place to meet with the Ambassador who was in Atlanta to attend the conference held by the Liberian Studies Group in Atlanta.

Ambassador Diggs used the occasion to invite Liberians to attend the controversial Chicago conference which was being planned by Rev. Jesse Jackson. She said that the Taylor government was committed to genuine reconciliation, pointing out that Taylor appointed some of his opponents to high level positions: one such individuals is the Minister of Labor, the second heads the Ministry of National Security, while a third opponent is the Minister of Rural Development. She also informed her audience of President Taylor's selection of Dr. Romeo Horton to organize a national conference on the future of Liberia, in an effort to design the kind of country citizens want to see.

Further, the ambassador urged Liberians to make preparation to change their passports. According to Ambassador Diggs, the change will bring Liberian passports up to standard to meet the international civil aviation requirements. She indicated that passports for those traveling have to be scanned on airport scanners, and that the current Liberian passports do not meet these requirements set by the international body to fight terrorism. She also said the new Liberian passport will cost $20.00 in Liberia, but the same document will cost $100.00 in the U.S.A. Application forms for Liberian passport can be obtained from the Embassy website.

Regarding the recent 25 cent increase in gasoline tax, the ambassador stated, "The decision to increase the gasoline tax was not a unilateral decision." She said that the decision was based on the recommendation from the Economic Advisory Commission. From the 25 cent revenue, 10 cents will be used to rebuild roads, eight cents will go to education, while seven cents will be allotted for health. According to the ambassador, Liberians have to help in rebuilding their country and any resistance to the increase would send a bad message to the international donors who Liberia is appealing to for multi-million dollar assistance.

Commenting on her acceptance in Washington, Ambassador Diggs mentioned that Washington "wrapped arms around me more tightly and more quickly than the Liberian community". According to the ambassador, some Liberians in this country feel that she is unqualified for the position, while others spread erroneous rumors that her credentials have been rejected by Washington.

Ambassador Diggs noted that Liberians have been through lots of trauma,"many of us have not healed ..., many of us are still angry", and that such anger is turned into negativity that leads Liberians to ignore positive developments at home.

When asked about how Liberians can assist the embassy, Ambassador Diggs said that Liberians in this country could assist the embassy through material donation in the form of computers, paint, or services such as setting-up computers, painting, landscaping, etc. She clearly stated that she wanted to stay out of "people's money business." In other words, no financial contributions! She used the occasion to promote the embassy website: She admonished Liberians to visit the site and send their comments to the embassy.

On national security issues, she said, "I can tell you that national security is the (most scary) thing that is happening in Liberia." Liberian security officers are ex-combatants who do not have the requisite training. When asked about the March 24 shooting on Camp Johnson Road around the home of Roosevelt Johnson which caused many residents of the Camp Johnson Road area to flee, the Ambassador remarked that one shooting incident was not enough to create panic. "We live in the United States where it has been documented by the CIA that...two weeks in the United States...(in given cities in the United States - not all of them)... more people die than (the number of people who) died in Liberia during the entire seven year civil war." In other words, if Liberians feel free to walk the streets of America, they should feel free to do likewise in Liberia.

President Taylor said in last August that Liberian passports were being misused by some people trafficking drugs, while some were obtained illegally by non-Liberians and that beginning January 1998, Liberians would have to travel to Liberia to renew their passports. He said this was an effort to put stop to the abuse of Liberian passports. The Ambassador's claim that the change was mandated by the international civil aviation standard contradicts President Taylor's statement. In fact, some Liberians want to know how many other countries are required to change their passports due to the mandate - perhaps, only Liberia? Some consider it as a scheme designed to get money from Liberians abroad.

The increase in gas tax imposed by the Finance Minister Elie Saleeby on March 17, 1998, drew immediate and enormous opposition from the Liberian people. In an editorial, a Liberian newspaper in Monrovia said the imposition of the gas tax was like "pouring water on a drowning man." The paper said, "The tax is an act of insensitivity on the part of the government as it knows that increasing the taxes on such commodity has multiplier effect on other goods and services, thus imposing additional burden on the Liberian people." As expected, taxi drivers immediately passed the increase onto the already struggling Liberian public. The Liberian legislature also objected to the tax imposition, saying that it contravenes Article 34(D) of the Liberian Constitution which gives the legislature that power. Despite this opposition, the Taylor administration went ahead with the tax increase.

It must be recalled that President Taylor granted monopoly to import petroleum products to Galaxy, Inc. last year. In December, 1997, the president asked Finance Minister Saleeby to increase tax on gasoline. President Taylor is a major shareholder of Galaxy, Inc. Many, therefore, believe that the increase will benefit Taylor and not the Liberian people. This is a classic example of conflict of interest by government officials trying to enrich themselves at public expense, which is why these officials should declare their assets and other holdings.

The ambassador's remarks about being fully embraced by Washington has not softened her critics, who still question her credentials. Most of her detractors, especially Liberians in Cyber-space (internet), have intensified their efforts. Many contend that while it is true that the Ambassador has been accepted by Washington's diplomatic corps, this does not negate the fact that her qualification as a diplomat still remains questionable. They argue that the ambassador lacks any training and experience in diplomacy. Some believe Washington is a very important post, which should be manned by a seasoned, career diplomat.

But supporters of the Ambassador are quick to point out that some Liberians are simply jealous over the fact that they were not fortunate enough to get similar calls from President Taylor. They admit that the ambassador is not a career diplomat, but she is learning fast and doing a wonderful job in representing and promoting the Taylor government. And like the new Liberian government, the ambassador needs some time.

On national security issues, her critics characterized the ambassador's assertion as "evidence of unfamiliarity with the issues and sheer distortion of facts. The ambassador's flippant attribution of the March 24 incident as just a mere shooting incident is also further from the truth." Most Liberians in this country and elsewhere feel that if it were not for ECOMOG's intervention, the outbreak of another war was imminent.

Moreover, while the Ambassador may be privy to CIA reports and documents, which by and large, are classified - not for public consumption or disclosure, she grossly misrepresented the role of the CIA as well. The CIA is basically an intelligence gathering agency concerned with foreign security matters, not domestic security. Domestic security is the purview of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and others in the U.S.

Has Liberia really changed?
While it is true that the shooting and the slaughtering of unarmed civilians have stopped, Liberia still has a long way to go. The Taylor government has an opportunity to recreate a new Liberia, eradicating social injustices and corruption thereby improving the lot of all Liberians.

But from the way the new government is conducting business, one would conclude that nothing has really changed. The prevailing situation in Monrovia reminds one of the saying, "Old Wine In New Bottle" because corruption and human rights abuses have become the staple of the new government. As a matter of fact, government policy lends itself to corruption. For example, the sacrificial salary of cabinet minister is about $30.00 per month. This leaves the officials open to all kinds of corrupt opportunities to augment this measly salary. Accordingly, they do so "overtly and covertly..." The lavish lifestyle of officials reinforces this suspicion.

Most government officials are buying new homes like "crazy". A Liberian who recently arrived in the U. S. said, "Most Liberians now conclude that there is no difference between the Taylor government and that of dictator Samuel Doe. In fact, Liberians at home feel that president Taylor began from where Doe stopped. Comparing Taylor first nine months with that of General Doe, I will call the general an angel - this is clearly a sad story for Liberia. The plundering of the wealth of Liberia was not buried with the war."

However, the major concern of most Liberians is that Taylor was elected to bring positive changes to Liberia and not to repeat the corrupt practices of previous governments. After seven years of civil war, the Liberian people deserve a government that will address their needs, and not a government that will circumvent the constitution and allow a minister to break the law by usurping the powers of the legislature. This act constitutes a reckless disregard for the separation of powers, which calls for legislative inquiry.