When Enemies Dine: Notes From Abuja
By Alhaji G.V. Kromah
March 26, 2002
At first glance one would have thought the gathering of Liberia’s leading political and social rivals in a hotel suite in the Nigerian capital would have erupted into chaos requiring intervention from the local Police. The attending tension was nearly literally visible. And even without the presence of their common adversary, Charles Taylor, there was real fear that the Liberian opinion leaders were doomed in protoplasm of ego and joggling schemes for political leverage.
It had been a hectic full week for me in Abuja prior to the meeting, having been engaged with some matters in this splendid and sprawling national capital carved out of a rocky valley in the middle of the country. The city started almost two decades ago and the competition I observed in the style and enormity of residential and public buildings could only match the perception of negative competition among the Liberian players. I had just begun my mission to the city when I was informed about the March 14 meeting called by the Nigerian government in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). They were inviting Liberian opinion leaders to begin a dialogue with their government and among themselves for peace. There was still trouble nearly six years after the election that was supposed to be the beginning of harmony and democracy in the war-wary first republic of Africa.
The mere thought of holding another Liberian conference in Abuja immediately created a quiescent twitch of anxiety in me. For better or worse, we again were about to gather at a venue that hosted the remaining critical meetings that were intended to lay the basis for a restful nation that for all practical purposes had lost its sovereignty. For some of us who are signatories to various peace accords brokered by ECOWAS, the memory of the conference hustling and manipulations in the corridors of the Nicon Hilton and Sheraton hotels brought relief that it was in Abuja that we signed the last document signaling to the world we were finished with war and ready for genuine peace. The world was simply tired with the ceaseless meetings and nagging civil armed conflict, which began 1989/1990 in Liberia. The elections of 1997 were meant to stand out as the cut off point for catastrophe and calamity.
Still for other signatories, Abuja was reminder of agony and apprehension. We see the city as the source of the diplomatic and political network that brought Charles Taylor to power in Liberia, after introducing bloody rebel war to the country and its neighborhood.
In the mixed sensation, I was shivering with worries that the world was whispering how we Liberians were once again coming to Abuja to agree on nothing. Even worse, I was nervous that the opposition would be locked into quarrels and bickering that would give Taylor the ammunition to show to the world he was innocent of all the accusations of rights violations and misrule made against him by the same opponents cited to dialogue in Abuja. As it turned out, I was the only signatory of the various Abuja Accords who was present at the meeting, though nearly all the big names in contemporary Liberian politics and social order (or disorder) had descended upon the city.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was in Abuja on a lonely mission to push for a peaceful intervention in the worsening Liberian crisis. I met twice with President Olusegun Obasanjo and several times with the then ECOWAS Executive Secretary, Lansana Kouyate. There was also a shuttle to Lome, Togo where I presented the same matter to President Gnassingbe Eyadema, then Chairman of the Organization of African Unity. The ECOWAS leaders had always asked their Liberian colleague, Charles Taylor what he was doing about reconciliation. My mission was therefore intended to encourage genuine reconciliation that required security and electoral guarantees advocated by ECOWAS within the international community. I was happy that Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh pursued the same matter in Nigeria following my return to the United States.
It was amazing nevertheless that the time had come for the talks I pushed for, and there I was gripped by an omen of conference failure. I had just transferred to the Nicon Hotel where the conference participants were being officially hosted, and met a few of my colleagues in the hotel's buffet restaurant. Members of my party, the All Liberia Coalition Party (ALCOP) had arrived the same Wednesday afternoon, the 13th, and we all walked into the restaurant. We were told that an informal meeting was taking place upstairs in the suite of Mrs. Ruth Sando Perry, who had arrived from Monrovia. She was Chairman of the last Council of State (Collective Presidency) that ruled the country up to the 1997 elections. We were told that some Liberians were in her room trying to map out strategies on how to approach the next-day conference, and that everybody was invited. It wasn’t quite clear whether those upstairs were all coming from Monrovia along with Mrs. Perry as opposed to those of us in exile and refugees camps.
Since the invitation to the think tanking upstairs was not discriminating, I thought it was useful that my colleagues and I should join in after lunch. Besides, I was quite comfortable with Ruth Perry. I recommended her in one of the Abuja meetings in 1997 to be considered for the Chairmanship of the Council of State, a nominal position that did not give her head of state nor veto rights within the collective presidency as far as the ECOWAS agreements on the interim government structure was concerned. George Boley and Charles Taylor accepted my recommendation in Abuja. They were the other two members of the collective presidency who had to agree. It appeared not to have been a problem for them as Mrs. Perry did not have the power to appoint government officials as the rest of us on the council. My first recommendation of Prof. Wilton Sankawulo, her predecessor, evidently did not turn out beneficially to the Liberians and their ECOWAS peace brokers. By the way, the acceptance of my nominees was not a right conferred upon me or a provision of an ECOWAS Agreement I was exercising. It just happened that way.
Like Sankawulo, Ruth Perry was to serve as presiding officer at the meetings of the Council of State and also sign authorizing documents along with the rest of us. But as things sometimes turn out, she was being named in the international media as Liberia's first female Head of State, and eventually she was given that courtesy on her travels, including the current visit to Abuja. She was assigned a stretched Mercedes with a police siren escort. Though Ruth was the widow of Counselor Macdonald Perry, a fellow lawyer friend of my father's, the former Senator had distinguished herself somehow as a strong and nearly independent political figure before and during the war. And that was enough for me, and apparently for my consenting colleagues in the Collective Presidency.
When my ALCOP partisans, including Josephus Garley, Chairman of the Grand Gedeh Chapter, Joined me to finally start off to Ruth's suite, Dr. Harry Moniba, former Vice President of Liberia prior to the war under President Samuel K. Doe, decided to go along. Moniba was also a presidential candidate in 1997.
We walked into the room and indeed it was cramped with Liberian icon antagonists. Sitting on the right of Ruth was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former Presidential candidate; on the extreme right was Amos Sawyer, former President of the war-time Interim Government of National Unity; and opposite Ruth standing against the desk was Veteran Activist, Presidential Candidate Togba-Nah Tipoteh, one time buddy but now archrival of Sawyer. The True Whig Party Chairman Rudolph Sherman was also in the room from Monrovia, along with leaders of female organizations, including Rudolph's ex-wife, Theresa Leigh Sherman, and Mary Brownell, mother of another presidential candidate and activist, Boima Fahnbulleh, absent from the meeting. Sahr Fayah Gbollie, another presidential candidate and interim leader of the US-based Collaborating Liberian Political Parties, was in the room along with Charles Brumskine, the former National Patriotic Party fanatic who is now nurturing presidential hopes following his eviction as Charles Taylor's President Pro-Tempore of the Senate.
The list of Ruth Perry's suite inmates went on, but a comforting presence was that of the delegation from Liberia's Inter-Religious Council, which played a crucial mediating role at the beginning of the war with the name, Inter-Faith Committee. Sheik Kafumba Konneh and Rev. Jeremiah Walker were sandwiched between some of the unfriendly attendants.
The Tipoteh-Sawyer split was not the only bitterness in the room. As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf later jokingly confessed, she and I had a bittersweet relation, going at each other various times. I was also not so sure Sawyer was sweet on me. I had labeled him, in an interview last year, as a foe of my erstwhile resistance movement, ULIMO. I told the Perspective magazine he wanted to suffocate the organization before and after it was established. Sawyer's proteges did not waste time in coming to his defense in subsequent articles.
"Some people in this very room have vilified me," Sawyer alluded in one of the informal sessions of the March Abuja meeting. It didn't take long for people to know he was talking to me when he quipped, "Young man pipe down," as he tried driving a point against something I had said. My response was equally swift. We both were ultimately "piped" down by admonitions from the rest of the group. We joked about the exchange later. The list of similar incidents among and between others was not short. And yet, we all were chock-full in the room, somehow franticly trying to give seat to each other. I suspected for good reason that everyone else had the same latent fear I had - unending dialectics that would condemn us into the cliché that the "Liberians are not serious."
It only took a few minutes in the room to notice it was really an informal forum of sharing ideas to at least narrow the differences in perceptions of the problem and what could be done. There was no one topical issue. It was clear that everybody was introducing what he or she thought should have been taken as the priority for the conference. Suggestions ranged from the self-contradictory proposal that all the politicians should put up one single candidate at the 2003 presidential elections against incumbent Charles Taylor. This was contradictory because it was soon agreed there was no way any free and fair elections could be held as long as Taylor was militarily in control of the country. So everyone returned to the fudnamental issue - security. And that ran well into dinnertime, and it was decided that the Perry suite had become too small to accommodate the lively, hot exchange. A bigger place in the hotel was arranged, and the cost was to be billed to Mrs. Perry, who was emerging as de-facto Liberian chairman of the meeting. She wasn't going to pay the bills anyway. The host government was taking care of food, accommodation and transport.
The chatting was adjourned and was to resume after dinner at the new venue. An informal secretariat group was set up, I must say, consisting of a few participants who proved tremendously efficient. James Kiazolu, President of the Press Union of Liberia, headed the group, which included Harry Greaves, Jr. of the Liberia Action Party; Josephus Garley of ALCOP; J. Koffa, a Liberian lawyer in the United States seemingly accompanying Brumskine to the conference, and Nohn Kidau, Chairman of the U-based Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia. Commany Wisseh, long time youth activist and Eugene Peabody, a Liberian businessman from Abidjan also associated with the secretariat, among others.
Someone whispered to me that Sawyer and Ellen Sirleaf Associates were dominating the group. Dwelling on that I knew was a perfect recipe for the breakdown of unofficial efforts to develop a positive consensus before the start of the conference. And quite frankly, it did not really matter who was taking notes and drafting documents, as far as I was concerned. The document would have had to come to the floor for full discussion. Besides, I was the one insisting that individuals like Commany and Dusty Wolokolie be placed on the secretariat.
It was amazing that the buffer dinner downstairs soon expanded into a continuation of our Ruth Perry room discussions, only this time we were not loud and were in pairs, trios, and other small groupings at the tables. We soon reassembled at our new venue where we virtually spent the night.
It was at the new venue that people actually felt comfortable to go full blast with their mini agenda items previously hidden in individual position statements. By 5 a.m., we had exhausted ourselves and everything else. And there was the miracle. Liberians from within and without the country, antagonists and even real enemies as some of them were, had actually come out with a consensus document, that involved only one instance of voting.
In our deliberations, we decided that National Reconciliation was a process and the foremost consideration under the present conditions in Liberia was the provision of guaranteed security for Liberians and residents. In other words, there was total insecurity in Liberia principally perpetrated by the government. Opponents of all categories had been persecuted, either killed, maimed or abducted and detained. Nearly a million, or a third of the population, was either displaced internally, in refugee camps around the world, or in exile. It would be inane to talk about having a reconciliation meeting in Monrovia when the security problems had not been convincingly resolved. Accordingly, it was resoundingly decided that we reject any reference to the Abuja conference as preparatory to the assembly Taylor was proposing in July. We thought it was an obvious expression of insincerity and lip service.
Our gathering had essentially rendered a verdict of no confidence in the ability of the Liberian government to stop violating the rights of its citizens. The right thing to do therefore was for the international community to deploy a security stabilization force (peacekeeping) that would be in charge of all forms of armed security until the elections were held in 2003. That group, under the aegis of ECOWAS, would disarm all warring forces, including those of government, demobilize and then recruit and retrain members of the armed the national armed services of the country.
It was decided that if the security requirements are met, then elections could be freely and fairly held, provided additionally that the Elections Commission was restructured to have seven members, three of whom would be appointed by the government and four by the opposition political parties.
We agreed that early morning that we would not engage the government delegation in any form of dialogue if Taylor himself were not present. It was evident that in his absence, no one had the authority to commit him to any agreement. We resolved that our position statement would be presented to ECOWAS and Nigerian Authorities for presentation to the Liberian government and the international community for implementation as a genuine basis for realistic and lasting peace in Liberia.
On Thursday morning, the 14th, when the ECOWAS conference should have officially commenced, not all of the Liberian government delegation had arrived. I learned that over the past weekend, Victoria Reffell and a couple of others were in Abuja to present a message from Charles Taylor to President Olusegun Obasanjo. Before and after that, including Wednesday the 13th, ECOWAS Executive Secretary Mohammed Chambas had accompanied Nigeria's Minister for Cooperation and Integration, Bimbola Oguneka, traveled to Monrovia also with a message from President Obasanjo. The Nigerian head of State wanted Taylor to come if not for anything but to address the opening session of the conference as a demonstration of commitment to the reconciliation program. But even that was never to happen. Taylor said in Monrovia at the end of the Abuja event that he was not going to attend an occasion with "rebels." Someone was asking, "look who is talking about rebels."
In the late night of our second brain storming, we heard a plane sent to Monrovia by the Nigerian government had returned that evening with the government delegation, and that the group that came on the flight had also gone into some informal session. So it was assumed that the actual conference would begin on Friday.
There was something interesting about the government group, as the delegation on the plane was being referred to. Agriculture Minister Roland Massaquoi was heading the delegation. Massaquoi was present in his capacity as Chairman of the government's "Bureau of the National Reconciliation Conference" (BNRC) which Taylor said would take place in July this year. A friend of mine and a classmate for five years at St. Patrick's High School and then another four years at the University of Liberia, Roland had gone on to achieved a Ph. D. in Agriculture in the United States. He was a scientist working on the development of high yielding rice seeds when the invading rebel forces of Charles Taylor overran him and many such professionals. Ever since, whenever Taylor wants to present a human and reasonable respectable face to his otherwise questionable activities, he would send out individuals like Roland.
As part of the strategy from Monrovia, the government group also consisted of a number of individuals from other parties and organizations, but seen as under the influence of Taylor working in the government or as operatives in organizations. Present from this group was Blamo Nelson along with fellow founder of the United People's Party, Baccus Matthews. The two have become closely aligned with Taylor following the elections. Nelson is Taylor's Director of the Cabinet with offices at the Executive Mansion, and Matthews is Public Relations Officer of the partially Taylor-owned Oriental Timber Company with headquarters in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.
Others not openly but solidly linked to Taylor included Veteran Paramount Chief Jallah Lone, who happens to be my maternal relative from Bopolu along with his attendants; and David Kortie, one of my party members who has since the elections been co-opted by Taylor and effectively used to portray an image of division within ALCOP. Somehow members of the ALCOP delegation from the refugee camps correctly predicted that Taylor would send Kotie to the meeting if for nothing but to create confusion in case I signed a document in the name of my party as a founder and the Standard Bearer. As a matter of fact, one member of the BNRC delegation told me that he was allowed to come on the plane because he had attended a meeting in Taylor's office the previous day where it was decided that they would come to disrupt the meeting if anything was decided against the BNRC and Taylor's direct interest.
The meeting did open later in the evening, but not without a real threat of premature collapse. Mohamed Chambas, who proved quite a mediator for Ghana during the marathon Liberian peace conferences, must have sensed the problem. Some key leaders were called to a meeting of inquiry before the conference opened on Friday. And those of us who assembled in the closed-door consultation told Chambas and the Minister we would not attend a meeting nor dialogue with the group sent by Taylor, repeating that they could not negotiate nor give guarantees. At the end it was decided that the meeting officially opens and all statements, including any from the government be read. That was done, and Ruth, having been officially agreed upon to serve as the Liberian chair of the meeting, cleverly adjourned the meeting for the next day after the statements. She said the break was to give all participants overnight opportunity to study the documents presented.
Baccus Matthews, just before the adjournment, had started raising what appeared to have been the beginning of the interruption strategy that the government had planned in Monrovia. He said political parties in Monrovia had announced that they were not invited to the meeting and therefore would not identify with statements signed on their behalf. It was clear, as it turned out, that Matthews did not listen keenly to the preamble of our statement. For we had anticipated that Taylor would work through doubles of our parties and organizations he had “sponsored” in Monrovia to create impressions of disunity among his opponents. So our document read, "We, the undersigned, members of Liberian political parties, civil society organizations, and opinion leaders…" That automatically neutralized any agitation by Taylor agents in Monrovia that we were not representing our parties officially. And in actuality, ECOWAS said it was inviting Liberian opinion leaders to dialogue among themselves. Matthews evidently realized the phraseology of the document, which rendered his tactics mute.
The atmosphere of hostility between the government group and us also miraculously dwindled before the next day, which was supposed to be a moment of fireworks, though we stood by our position of non-dialogue with the toothless government delegation. Overnight, Liberians were happy to see one another, irrespective of their linkage to Taylor. The strength of being relatives and friends, and am sure, conflict fatigue, subdued the hostilities people were apprehensive about. All threats of "rebutting" our statement from the government side gradually gave way during a pervasive atmosphere of reunion and private reconciliation throughout the hotel rooms and corridors during the night. By Saturday morning, it was clear that we were going to the conference hall minus the fight feared the previous day.
The bottom line was direct. The opposition had collectively come out with a summary diagnosis of the nation's problems on security, reconciliation and peace, and had for the first time in a long time jointly put forward a realistic set of mechanisms that would bring peace to Liberia short, of the involuntary departure of the current leader.
As we began the final session that morning, people an all sides went about greeting and pressing flesh. I walked over to the government side, embraced my elder relative, Chief Jallah Lone, and Marketing Association official Marie Washington. Then I walked over to a cousin and others, and then the ALCOP renegade that Taylor had deployed immediately after the '97 elections stood up. It was indeed a sight. Monrovians standing by knew this man had been on the radio blabbing all kinds of anti-Alhaji statements, and here he was standing in front of me stretching his hand in friendship. For me that was nothing I had shaken the hands of Taylor, who executive more than 75 of immediate relatives, and I did that for the sake of peace. In the presence of large group of the government delegation, I took Kortie's hand and told him enough was enough. For I had gotten word from committed and angry partisans in Monrovia that they wanted to eliminate him for working with Taylor to destroy his own party. I told him I had advised that the party was not in the business of elimination, but he Kortie should be mindful that Taylor could never trust him. "You are our father, our founder, and we did not hear from you all this time," Kortie told me. Of course he had to save face for I am in touch with partisans in Monrovia every week. In any case I consented to give my telephone number, and Sheik Kafumba Konneh was pleased with the small display of reconciliation that had taken place. That was enough for me, but I knew that as soon as Kortie returned to Monrovia, he would have to return to his old disposition or risked being killed by Taylor.
Besides my own episode of bridge building, I heard a number of old adversaries had patched up differences overnight, but were cautious not reveal the good news as some were returning to Monrovia where they would be faced with charges of betraying Taylor's whims, which normally translates officially into being indicted for treason.
Dr. Roland Massaquoi promised he would carry our document to Monrovia for consideration, but any hope from that statement soon fizzled the same day as government representatives were barking from Monrovia condemning our statement.
The absence of LURD, a group claiming to represent dissidents fighting the Taylor government, did not actually undermine the meeting. The dissidents say they are fighting tyranny, which expresses itself in violation of human rights by the government and the lack of conditions for the exercise of the people's will through elections. Our position statement addressed those matters adequately. And if the government condemns those points outfight, what is it going to negotiate with LURD.
By now, the world should know that the Taylor government would only pretend to want to talk because of military pressure. Taylor has never compromised for peace while he had the upper hand. He is a master of buying time. Eyewitnesses and diplomatic sources have repeatedly disclosed that the unpaid Taylor military and security forces habitually go into villages, run the men out, loot their properties, rape their women and sometimes kill them. Then the government calls in some sympathetic international correspondents to blame the dissidents and then run story on the government web site, AllAbout Liberia. All who were close to the Liberian war knew that deception was Taylor's Modus Operandi. That strategy has never stopped.
What to Expect
Collective fate played a crucial role in the derivation of consensus among the Liberian opinion leaders at the meeting, but what made it happened this time when the reality of joint fate had always existed since the beginning of the war. Perhaps more than ever before, Liberians have realized the sweetness and value of being home and contributing to its development. Never before have so many opinion leaders of all categories been made to leave the country. The pressure to return home is more than ever before. That factor, I believe, weighed heavily at the Abuja meeting.
Additionally significantly, the international community since the ascendancy of Charles Taylor to the Liberian Presidency now has a single position from Liberians in their country and across the Diaspora on what they see as the solution to their country's problems. For long, Liberians were asked to unite and come out with a common position. That was accomplished at the March 14 Abuja dialogue conference. ECOWAS is going to study the proposals, and Liberians are anxiously awaiting to see whether the organization has the will to look at the real problems in Liberia and not be taken in again by the ungrateful and manipulative schemes from Monrovia.
We are aware that leading members of the United Nations may not hesitate to include Taylor and his companions on the list of those to be tried by the Freetown International tribunal for complicity in heinous war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. That is if Taylor thrashes the Abuja March Declaration.
About the author: Alhaji G.V. Kromah was a presidential candidate in the 1997 elections, and served as Minister of Information and a university professor before the Liberian war. He was leader of the erstwhile United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, ULIMO-K, one of Liberia's warring factions during that country's brutal seven year civil war.
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