There's No Maintenance-Free Democracy

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective
May 5, 2001

It would have been thoughtless, if not foolish, to have sought unanimity as the only basis for any decision about what to do about President Charles Taylor. Even then, those who leaned against action against the Taylor government did not do so with any conviction that any good would later come of the Taylor administration. Instead the dissenters were still in further pursuit of some solution with less impact on the population, but a solution
that had not yet come to mind.

The constant search for a better way and the disinclination toward endangering the lives of the population for a cause that might otherwise be pursued in other arenas without the toll in lives are the very traits in nature which the likes of Charles Taylor count on to force their will against ours. This is exactly what happened in the many African capitals to which we ran between 1989 and 1996 on any glimmer of hope that the next agreement we signed with Taylor would be the last toward lasting peace. But all Taylor saw was weakness in us by these very concessions, and so he pressed us for more and more until 13 peace accords had been signed and trashed by Taylor.

There was a simple word for it. Strong. Taylor was strong. His very wickedness in prolonging our suffering later became a basis for the argument that Taylor alone had the strength to unite Liberia. A host of other mind-boggling thought processes stemmed from that central theme of strength. ''You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I vote for you,'' as a campaign slogan later, was a natural offshoot of the string of concessions we made with a man who only knew how to kill.

So to do nothing about the government of President Charles Taylor is no insurance against death. In fact, doing nothing is also a conscious choice for slow deaths as well as apprehension between deaths. This is what the decision to fight to remove Taylor is based upon.

However, it was not a unanimous decision. Some people asked why wage a territorial war when the target is only one person. But let's take a few steps back and go to the most fundamental questions whose answers included war as an option. The question was whether the other branches of the Liberian government had been, after the 1997 elections, functional enough to curb any Executive abuse of power. The answer was no. And there are many extra-judicial killings to prove that point.

Samuel Dokie and his family and Vice President Enoch Dogolea are only among the famous ones to be killed while the full power of the Liberian Constitution was available for every citizen. Taxi driver Papa George and businessman James Bestman were not famous, but they died at the hands of people with state powers to enforce the law of the land. Minor indignities included having a legislator, a judge, and former President of Liberia, University students, and ordinary citizens beaten. On top of that, the President of Liberia threatens to chase people into the mothers' wombs to face his wrath. How has Taylor come by such power to threaten us this way?

This is only part of the reason President Charles Taylor himself became a target. And that's how we reach the point where the questions on the table became not whether to remove President Taylor, but how. Impeachment became an unenforceable option when the Liberian Legislature showed up at the Executive Mansion to hear President Charles Taylor's request that they should forgo half of their monthly salaries that were already four months past due. They, of course, agreed with President Taylor that they should lose half of their pay, but they also found President Taylor pleasant in the way made the request. That tells you that you cannot look to the Legislature to question the Executive use or abuse of power.

The next source of any possible relief would have been the Judiciary. But since cases in which the Judiciary could prove its tilt toward President Taylor were not turning up fast enough, the Supreme Court had to revisit a case it had already decided. That case was the treason conviction of 13 citizens more than a couple of years into their 10-year sentences. The Judiciary revisited the case and adjusted the 10-year sentences upward to 20 years apiece.

And that was why those two other branches of government were ruled out as useful in any way toward invoking the power the Constitution vests in the people to cause the removal of their President if his actions threatened their lives or if they felt he lost the capacity for rational judgment. I have just shown that we cannot credibly look to the Judiciary nor the Legislature for the will to question the President for the violations that affected even officers of Judiciary (whose judge was beaten by some law enforcement officers in the yard of his court) and the Legislature (whose member was flogged on order of a Vice President who has since been beaten to death on a separate issues by the President's Security details).

Still, why did war prevail as an option over targeting the prime doer of the evil since the elections of 1997 that brought in the current government? Good question. The actions that are now sweeping Liberia began while we still debated the best way to go about removing President Charles Taylor. Do we put all our energies into condemning the military drive toward removing the man, or do we do all that is within our power to have some influence that will curb excesses?

In my case, I got a call. They felt I had something they needed ­ experience and (would you believe?) wisdom. I have since been looking inwardly to dredge up any such virtue.

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