Pariahs, Sanctions, Vs. "Ordinary People"
By Tom Kamara

Sept 9, 2000

With sanctions ominously hanging over his paralyzed and isolated country for its continued backing of Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Liberia's President Charles Taylor has vowed, "[He] will not budge. Sanction will hurt the ordinary people, not the Government."

Whatever the substance of this declaration, it exposes the insensitivity and hypocrisy of a government that emerged out of a misleading platform of democratization that took 250,000 lives in the name of better life, only to spread its virus of poverty and anarchy within the sub-region. The statement is an indictment of a government that has insolated itself from the suffering of its people, giving us a clear picture of how a coalescing of callous thieves, without any agenda for poverty alleviation or any program for the future, are determined to snub international opinion to continue stuffing their pockets over dead bodies. Prior to telling CNN that he and his cronies would not be affected by the pending sanctions, Taylor told BBC's Robin White how much he loves his people, to the extent that he is willing to suffer along with them in his swimming pools, luxurious settings, fleets of super-expensive cars, European villas and fat foreign bank accounts.

But Taylor's rationale for defying sanctions is clear. There is hardly any bilateral aid going to the government from donor countries. With its $2.3 billion dollars foreign debt and an annual budget of about $60 million used mostly on "security," the economic malaise is worsening with chronic instability. Three years since elections that many foolhardily believed would have provided the basis for reconstruction and reconciliation, the flames of war have been re-ignited. The Americans have maintained a travel warning to their citizens. Hundreds of frightened Liberians line up daily at the doors of American embassy for scarce visas. Hundreds of thousands others in refugee camps in Guinea, now facing Taylor's disease of chaos, are being subjected to arrests, and harassment due to the xenophobia gripping the country following incursions from Liberia and Sierra Leone blamed on Taylor.

In place of a concerted and rational national plan for reconstruction, the warlord has been spreading his begging and thieving hands to the very international community he snubs. Immediately after elections, he presented a bill of about $2b to the "international community" for the replacement and repair of all he stole, sold or destroyed. But expectations of containers of money shipped to Monrovia by the "international community" as reward for his war and subsequent electoral victory have since faded as sanctions loom. Although he came to power on a heap of promises of prosperity, he soon discovered God who allegedly told him to inform his voters that He (God) would help in, and direct reconstruction from Haven. As his official scrambled over scarce resources, stealing every penny in their path, he blamed the international community for the cemented regime of theft within his government, saying that his ministers were corrupt because no money was pouring from outside to replace what he stole, sold, or destroyed.

The UN Special Representative to Liberia, Felix-Dowes Thomas, who once hailed the government for its human rights record and demanded the extradition of ULIMO-J leader Roosevelt Johnson to face trial in Taylor's courts, now says lack of international funding is tied to Taylor's distasteful policies (summary executions and Kangaroo trials) which the world community find repugnant.

With the denial of bilateral aid, the regime has turned against and envied non-governmental organizations, NGOs, the recipients---and this has led to the onslaught of heavy and multiple taxations on NGOs, threats against them, and even intimidation of audits by Taylor's "accountants". When many NGOs pulled out in 1998 following his reign of terror against the Krahns in Monrovia, the President threatened to bar them from returning because, in his wisdom, they had abandoned the Liberian people in their "time of need", with "time of need" meaning the attacks on the Krahns which ended in more than 300 people slaughtered and over 18000 exiled. Angry over the air of helplessness and hopelessness without the NGOs, he rebuked his voters, charging them with laziness and "crying like babies" every time an NGO threatens to leave. He further ruled that within a couple of years, Liberia would be self-sufficient in its staple---rice---but decided to give monopoly for its import to a Lebanese with whom he runs the business.

If imposed, sanctions will affect mainly the NGOs, now the effective government in terms of providing social services. Thus the campaign against sanctions has been picked-up by NGOs with vested interest in attracting dwindling donor money. US money to NGOs fell from $38 m. in 1998 to $14m. now, and the downward spiral may continue. The EU suspension of about $48m has left many NGOs with the option of closing down or scaling down.

The entrenchment of NGOs as agents of developments has long-term implications in fostering dependency while removing the burdens of providing basic services from the government, which collects taxes and exploits national resources without any development plan or intentions. With no responsibility to the population, government officials have been spending national resources on personal luxury items, buying homes in Europe and America while stuffing foreign banks with stolen money. With the government lacking any blueprint for development and having no interest in developing one, donors are reminded about the "suffering of the ordinary people" if they pull out in the face of sanctions. The danger is that without a development-oriented government, the culture of dependency on NGOs is assured. Furthermore, investments have dried up in the face of heightened corruption and instability. The Washington Post reported this year that investors wishing to do business in the country must be prepared to share their investment with the President or one of his cronies. This has left the field to criminals and shady investers interested in short-term business deals. An American official once concluded that investment in today's Liberia is a case of crooks out smarting other crooks.

But the mantra of sanctions hurting ordinary people is well known within the NGO community opposed to sanctions during the Apartheid era in South Africa, Angola, Iraq, etc. In fighting against sanctions in the name of "ordinary people", many NGOs are fighting their own battles to be relevant as long as donor funding is forthcoming. But then the fundamental question is, what other alternative actions are available to the international community against pariah states like Liberia in the absence of sanctions? Empty condemnations, detailed human rights reports, periodic investigative reports in the media of criminal politics that erase the prospects of development are soothing for men like Taylor because they pose no threat to his hold on power since he is immune to public or international opinion. Therefore, in the case of Liberia, to argue that sanctions will hurt ordinary Liberians is to ignore the tremendous suffering imposed on ordinary Sierra Leoneans, victims of Liberia's exported war, who must bare the brunt of Taylor's criminal policies. No sanctions means no action, and men like Taylor, deep in their belief that criminal politics is useful, are content with such a posture.

But are Taylor and his cronies really insolated against sanctions as they claim? Well, it depends on the nature of sanctions imposed. If the Americans implement sanctions such as freezing of bank accounts, seizure of politicians' properties in America, the imposition of travel ban, strengthening the current arms embargo, etc., we could see significant difference in denting the confidence of the Monrovia clique against sanctions. Moreover, once certain socioeconomic services now provided by NGOs come to a grinding halt because of sanctions, we could see the Army of "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I will vote for you" looking towards the government for these services, and this could lead to the shrinking of the protruding bellies of officials using taxes for themselves without providing basic services. Democratization and accountability become serious concerns when the veil of donor money is removed for people to see the true nature of governance as it affects them. Continued funding of dictators (via NGOs) who use their people as a human shield against sanctions and other international actions is nothing more than oxygen for their survival, tyranny and continued dependence that kills initiatives.

Taylor recently disbursed about US$100,000 to organize an anti-sanction demonstration that attracted 3000 of his former rebels. A man affording such money is capable of providing services now provided by donor money. He should not be allowed to continue using Liberians as human shield against sanctions in pursuit of his criminal policies such as the invasion of Sierra Leone and now Guinea. NGOs that cannot see the danger in backing such a crude criminal strategy in the name of the "ordinary people suffering" are part of our problem, not the solution. The idea of NGOs is to supplement development, not to become de facto governments responsible for providing services and removing such burdens from corrupt regimes. Let sanctions come to give us some sense in solving our problems.

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