The Liberian Senate's Feuding "Criminals"
By Tom Kamara
November 20, 2000

Crime and politics have become Siamese twins in Liberia. The criminal past is a burden that few of its new rulers cannot deny no matter how hard they try. The country's President, Charles Taylor, is a fugitive who escaped from an American prison to avoid extradition on a $900,000 theft charge. To compound his criminal links, Britain and the US are claiming evidence of his criminal ties with Sierra Leone's RUF rebels for diamonds and gunrunning. Now, two of his loyalist Senators are in a duel as to who is a greater criminal--- the President of the Senate Keikura Kpoto or the President Taylor's longtime pal and wartime spokesman Thomas Woewiyu.

These two shining stars in the government are the President's key operatives in a system built on crime and surviving on cronyism. Monrovia newspaper say the row between the two men is "deepening," with Woewiyu alleging that Kpoto was undermining Taylor's regime, and Kpoto revealing that Woewiyu is a criminal who jumped from a hotel room in the 1970s with a mattress into safety.

However, the contest regarding who is the worst criminal amongst officials is not surprising. Some of the key actors in Liberia's economy and politics have had serious problems with the law. Economic advisor Emmanuel Shaw, who served as the junta's finance minister, is wanted in South Africa on charges of duping the African National Congress (ANC) Government. Monrovia has become a favorite spot for South African Neo-Nazis finding life difficult since the end of Apartheid. A US diplomat last year observed that in economic and investment terms, Liberia has become a country in which "crooks are outsmarting other crooks." A UN economic mission has similarly observed that due to the absence of credible investors, underworld figures have taken over key economic institutions. Thus corrupt Lebanese, Indian and other merchants who thought business was good under the junta's reign when men like Taylor and Shaw were underlings of inept soldiers, now say they are faring far better under a President who was their influential "business" partner when he served as purchasing agent for the junta. Meanwhile, expenditure on luxury items and financing troops of concubines are national priorities even as the President begs other countries' taxpayers to save his people from dying. Says former US President Jimmy Carter after closing down his pro-democracy center due to the Government terrible human rights record:

"Liberia's resources have been diverted toward extra-budgetary uses. In addition, it is increasingly evident that Liberia's role in the conflicts of the sub- region has been a destructive one".

The Government is also known for its chaotic nature. One Senator recently ordered the imprisonment of state functionaries. Another stormed senate chambers with armed rebels to settle scores with colleagues. The Minister of Information and his deputy, now transferred, were known for fist fights and insulting shouting matches that drew crowds. A deputy minister who fought in the "revolution" as a rebel "commando" felt confident enough to flog his boss. Nevertheless, as "democratically elected leaders", the truth has become uncomfortable to confront:

"The truth is everybody in this country know (sic) that I have no criminal history and I've never been involved in any crime in this country," Sen. Woewiyu claimed.

Countering, Sen. Woewiyu accused Kpoto, the Senate President, of negating his functions and conniving to pass dubious laws, including the National Oil Company Act, the Land Tenure Act and the Forestry Act, without the knowledge of the Senate. This means Kpoto and his cronies in the Senate have been passing laws that legalize the plunder of key national resources under the directive of the President. Alleged discovery of oil has led to midnight passing of "laws" addressing the President's and his cronies expected financial holdings.

"If this type of lackadaisical attitude continues in the Senate, it would appear to the international community that there is no balance in government here," Woewiyu said. He added that Taylor's opportunity to "make Liberia great" is being undermined by men like Kpoto. Then he levied a rather feeble charge against Kpoto that weakens his case based on prevailing evidence. Reports The News, a local paper:

"Sen. Woewiyu pointed out that he was mindful that Sen. Kpoto was a key figure in the government of President Samuel Doe and does not seem to care about activities of the Senate and the government".

Here is the hitch. Finding individuals on Taylor's team who did not previously serve Doe's team is difficult, and Woewiyu may find it even more embarrassing substantiating the charge without listing Taylor, a protégé of the late Doe, in the same category as Kpoto. Officials like Emmanuel Shaw, the Dutch Liberian "Godfather" Gus Kouwouhoven, Thomas Bestman, Ernest Eastman, Cletus Wotorson, Baccus Matthews, Monie Captan and many more top Taylor operatives received their political baptism during the heydays of the junta. So Kpoto is in known company, operating with the same team that drove Doe to his horrific end along with 250,000 people.

But just who will win this duel is a tough one. Let us get a brief background of the contestants.

Kpoto is a master at subterfuge and sycophancy within a system that honors such values. After the 1980 coup, he is said to have masterminded the sales of fleet of fishing boats belonging to the late former business tycoon and late President Tolbert's brother Stephen Tolbert to a businessman in Freetown. At one point, Kpoto took a bunch of the junta members (who had never traveled outside Liberia) to Freetown, threw them into a lavish hotel and proceeded to drown them in drinks, food and endless supply of prostitutes. He threw bundles of Leon, the local currency (exchanged on the Black Market at very high rates), on them so constantly that the soldiers admiringly named him "Bundle", for they simply didn't know what to do with such mass of notes. Of course, one can imagine the personal economic benefits of this little play for Kpoto. But Kpoto's "generosity" would from then onward open doors for him within the junta whenever he wanted.

His "business" soon prospered. For instance, the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation, the Liberia Oil Refinery, the National Bank of Liberia, etc., became his private estates. As party chair and Doe's political guru, he was entitled to take supplies, sell to Lebanese merchants under priced, and pocket the money. Since the National Bank of Liberia was there to exchange the Liberian dollar one to one for the powerful and well connected, Kpoto simply collected Liberians dollars and dumped them at the Bank for US dollars. If he took LD50,000, he immediately got US$50,000. This was indeed "business" Liberian style.

After the 1997 elections, he is said to have asked Taylor to honor a pre-electoral pact they agreed on similar to the one he reached with Doe after the 1985 elections. The pact stipulated that after victory, a certain percentage of state jobs would be awarded to him to be filled by his own cronies. Doe, happy that he had a party chair that made the impossible possible, gladly honored the pact which entitled Kpoto to name key ministers, managing directors of vital economic entities for high fees and continued loyalty. But Taylor is not Doe. Between the two men, Doe was interested in the presidency more than its financial trappings, while Taylor is obsessed with both. So Taylor, according to NPFL insiders, reneged on his electoral pact with Kpoto, who was left in the cold for sometime until Charles Brusmkine was chased out to make room for Kpoto's Senate Presidency. With Charles in charge, personally scrutinizing every deal, "business" will never be the same for men like Kpoto who believe public resources are theirs through criminal politics.

The other contender, Sen. Thomas Woewiyu, was Taylor's wartime defense spokesman, one of the high knights in the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). He is said to have combined justifying the atrocities with a key role as a fundraiser, that is, before they began looting private and public properties to finance their war. Although there has been no confirmation of Kpoto's claims that Woewiyu jumped from a window at the high-rise Ducor Hotel in Monrovia in the 1970s, the story is well circulated. At that time, the story goes, Woewiyu was known as Thomas Smith.

During the closing years of the war, Woewiyu defected from the NPFL, forming the NPFL-Central Revolutionary Committee along with Samuel Dokie. Dokie, along with his wife and two family members, was executed in 1997 allegedly upon Taylor's orders. Prior to the election, Taylor had vowed he would "get" Dokie even if he went back in his (Dokie's) "mother's womb." He meant it.

Woewiyu later saw reason and rejoined Taylor. Most believe he was actually Taylor's insider within the breakaway rebel group. During the 1996 Monrovia Terror, Taylor secured Woewiyu's heavy logging equipment from looting or destruction, sending him a note at the ECOMOG base where he was hiding that all was well.

But ties between Woewiyu and Taylor date back before the war years. The two men are accused of running a New Jersey, USA-based fake company that supplied used or non-existent equipment to the Government of junta leader Samuel Doe at new prices. Thus when Taylor was arrested on theft charges, Woewiyu went to his defense, telling the court that Taylor was a political prisoner, not a thief. Taylor said a government official's obligation was to keep secrets.

The two men are in familiar terrain and the winner in this duel is difficult to determine. Kpoto is an old hand in Liberian politics, beginning from the Tubman years when he served as a French interpreter, to the Tolbert years when he unsuccessfully tried to get in the House of Representatives. His glory came during the Doe military regime when he was named chair of the junta's National Democratic Party just before the 1985 elections. His political genius that Doe found irresistible was his knack for intrigues and tricks. Using his experience in Sierra Leone's thuggish politics, he immediately recruited well-trained thugs from the then Sierra Leone ruling party, the All Peoples Congress. High on drugs and alcohol, they stormed Monrovia, intimidating the Opposition as members of the "NDPL Youth Wing". When the Opposition protested, Kpoto satisfactorily reminded them that he had at his disposal 99 means of winning an election, and that he was just using one.

At the height of the war, Kpoto is said to have been arrested in Lofa. He reportedly bribed the drunken NPFL fighters and convinced some of their leaders to fly with him to see Taylor. As the little plane took off from Lofa, the story goes, he told the pilot in Creole or French to fly towards Sierra Leone. They landed in Sierra Leone, and the rag-tag NPFL fighters found themselves in a strange terrain. They were reportedly arrested. Although Kpoto says he is founding father of the rebel faction ULIMO, he began recruiting for Taylor, sending the warlord messages of support. During the 1997 election, he used his second "weapon" in winning an election for Taylor, remaining with 98 unknown weapons for coming elections. He is a survival in a political system needing such qualities as lies and theft to endure. Now, the two Titans in Taylor regime at each other's throat, and determining the outcome of the battle is, well, not easy.

There is always a first among equals and we may soon see the winner in this duel between criminals.