Visas, "Peanuts" and Sovereignty
By Tom Kamara
October 16, 2000

Unfolding developments between America and Liberia would have passed for a roving circus were it not for the bandwagon of destabilization rolling from a country many believe is the closest to an American colony in Africa. First, the Liberians accused Washington of violating their "sovereignty" by refusing to "develop" their country and dishing out "peanuts" to civil groups. When Washington implemented a long-held threat by slapping Liberian officials and their families with visa restrictions, President Charles Taylor responded by announcing similar restrictions on Americans, ignoring the fact the Americans had previously warned their citizens against traveling to Liberia because of its rising insecurity.

But whatever the concretized mediocrity prevailing in Liberia, President Taylor made one commendable decision in retaliating the American visa ban. "Because of the action taken by the United States, the government of Liberia has imposed reciprocal action by denying the United States government officials, their families, their wives and spouses visas to enter Liberia," the Liberian president said. He has also ordered all his cronies, officials with families in the US, to bring them home in a typical demonstration of a James Jones mentality of not sinking alone. Those with me must go down with me. He said, "we are going to consider strong actions where it is necessary for them to bring their spouses back, resign or be fired."

Those officials who are not willing to do so may lose their jobs and more. This move, indeed, is a just one. The challenge now is for the president to set a "patriotic" example and spearhead the repatriation since he, too, has families and many backers in the United States. Many of them were amongst the celebrants of President Clinton's one-year refugee status given to over 10,000 Liberians.

For years now, America has been a safe haven for Liberian politicians and their families. This fallback option for individuals deciding the fate of millions with no option of where to run outside terrifying Liberia, has led to a clique of officials living in the country on emergency basis while milking it, with no intention of creating the necessary conditions for peace and reconstruction. Even before the war, Liberian politicians simply regarded the country as fertile wilderness for economic expedition.

Many politicians have adopted a policy of sending their wives and children to America, buying homes there, while they govern a frightened and vulnerable people, an indication of lack of faith in their own ability or commitment to ensure stability. Key officials during the reign of Dr. Amos Sawyer's interim government kept their families in America in paid for homes while negotiating "peace" in Liberia. With children in American schools and wives saved from the terror of marauding killers, the urge for an honorable peace benefiting all was absent. Many lived Boy Scout lives, with nothing of value in squalid Monrovia, and knowing they would be on the next flight to America at home if they were lucky to survive. Thus unholy compromises tied around individual interests, alleged payoffs to key officials from Taylor who, by 1995, was making $500m largely from Sierra Leone diamonds, logs and other minerals, became the norm. In the end, the interest for an honorable peace succumbed to the desire for personal economic gains. The poor, now clustered around closed borders with nowhere to turn for security, have been the victims. Although expectations were that the election would lead to resettlement of refugees, not even influential members of the regime dare resettle their families from America to Liberia.

The high level of uncertainty, coupled with spreading insecurity, meant that Taylor and his incoming officials would adopt the same strategy of keeping their families far from the country they were determined to rule and plunder, although they command the means of terror. Hence, many of his lieutenants have similarly bought homes in America since they lack faith in their own political machine. Key officials within the Taylor entourage in charge of finances and controlling the nerve center of what is left of the crumbled economy, now maintaining homes there, lived in the US for years preparing for a comeback once the warlord shot his way to the presidency. Whether they will be fired for keeping one foot in America and another in Monrovia is left to be seen. Implemented, the entire cabinet could disappear.

If the Americans thought Taylor's choice was between severing ties with the RUF and American support, they were grossly mistaking. He had long made up his mind. The Chair of his National Patriotic Party (NPP), the former insurance broker Cyril Allen, dismissed the visa ban by accusing the US of "imperialism."

"It is only a myth by a number of misguided Liberians that a visitor's visa to the United States of America is an important aspect of our national development efforts. It is in fact the main avenue of brain drain and capital flight and humiliation to our citizens who stand in lines in the rain and sun for visas," Allen declared following the American decision. Convincing his partisans, whose unconditional loyalty is portrayed by the song "you killed my ma, you killed pa, I will vote for you," to "view the denial of visitor's visa to government officials as one of those calculated efforts by the imperialist forces to undermine the peace and stability that the NPP led government is maintaining," is no problem.

But even as the Americans were charged with "imperialism" and barred from the country, the Government was blaming them for failing to provide the millions in development aid, and not doing so is considered a violation of Liberia's sovereignty. At the center of the violation of sovereignty charge is America's Ambassador to Liberia, Bismarck Myrick, once threatened with arrest by Allen. Now, the Ambassador is discovering some strange rules in diplomatic service. He is being asked to pack his bags for home because of his alleged inability to ensure millions for the cornered regime. Furthermore, the Ambassador is being accused of violating Liberia's "sovereignty" by offering "peanuts" to local self-help groups and for not convincing Washington to flood the country with money. This, indeed, is a weird twist of logic that says snubbing a beggar-country is tantamount to violating its sovereignty, or that refusing to pamper a child is a denial of his/her freedom.

But in their perpetual search for scapegoats needed to justify failures, the Liberians have found out that Ambassador Bismarck Myrick, an African-American, is singularly responsible for the lack of expected American reconstruction and development aid since Taylor rose to power with unqualified promises of unrivaled and accelerated development, a computer for every school child and an era of greatness on the African continent. Ironically, just three years ago during the elections campaign, Taylor accused the US of plots to subvert Liberia's "sovereignty" by "imposing" its alleged candidate (Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf) on Liberians against the wishes of the sub-region, mainly Nigeria. How the refusal of this enemy state (US) to bankroll a "sovereign" country matches violation of that sovereignty depicts the sadness in Liberia? With wishful thinking of billions flowing after elections being unmasked, blames are not in short supply. Yesterday, fingers for the dried coffers were pointed at exiled Liberians, the press, the human rights community, and defeated politicians. But the Government has finally solved its problems by identifying the real culprit for its economic malaise.

Says Thomas Nimely, Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and its foremost foreign relations "expert" in the Liberian Senate, who is convinced that an Ambassador's responsibility is to develop his post of duty:

"My friend Bismarck Myrick has failed and I expect him to be ashamed enough. He should pack his bag and leave this country for America. After coming out of seven years of brutal civil war in this country, we have relative stability"

Nimely said Liberia has met all conditions advanced by Washington for aid but that the promised money, not forthcoming, has forced human rights groups in Liberia to remain silent over abuses. The Senator, head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, admitted that American insistence prompted the introduction of the idea of "good governance", adding that "we have tried as a government but we cannot say this has been done at the level of 100 percent."

The Americans are not however the only ones pressurized to justify their diplomatic representation with millions. Senator Nimely is also spearheading a review of ties with Libya and Taiwan because these countries, in his view, have not brought in the expected millions to "develop the country." Selling diplomatic representation has been the crux of Taylor's policy. A controversy arose when it was learnt that the late King Hassan of Morocco gave Taylor $1m. during his (Taylor's) state visit after the elections. When queried about the money, he said it was a personal gift from the King to him, although opposition leader Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf disputed the claim, insisting any gift given to a president is meant for the country. Observers believe the money was given to win Taylor over in backing Morocco against the Polisaro Front fighting for independence.

And as if explanations were required, the American Ambassador reminded the Government that foreign assistance from one country to another is not an "entitlement", but rather based on bilateral relations. He laboriously enumerated the merits of his people to people approach in giving direct assistance to small groups and the benefits these social groups, terribly in need of help, have accrued. The Embassy said it was desirous of working "with serious leaders" capable of fostering development on the basis of "partnership."

"It is also appropriate to recognize that foreign assistance programs are built on a partnership that must include transparency, protection of human dignity, accountability, mutual respect and interest, as well as the over-all creation of an environment that supports the effective use of the assistance," an Embassy release said.

While the Government sees the assistance as peanuts, it recipients immediately responded by announcing how grateful they are to the Americans. A number of human rights and grassroots groups, in a press statement, denounced the Senator's remarks.

So here we are. The Americans are singing a song that Taylor and his cronies terribly detest. They came to power believing the rest of the world owes them. Somehow, for whatever reasons, they believe that the "international community" is responsible for all the theft, destruction and continued plunder. During his first year in office, Taylor castigated the "international community" for the high level of theft within his Government because, he reasoned, the "international community" had refused to come in with the millions. When he was reminded that certain conditions had to be met for aid, he quickly put into motion a number of acts to impress the "international community" of his democratic credentials. Among them, he collected some old and outdated weapons, called a number of like-minded African leaders, and burnt them in full view of cameras in expectation of the $3b. he said was needed for replacing what he destroyed, sold or stole. But even after this clear demonstration of "civility", the millions were not shipped. Disappointment prevailed. Efforts have been made to practice "good governance", but it must be understood that people emerging from a culture of "gun governance" are not likely to understand the tenants of "good governance". It is a fruitless and uphill battle, and as Senator Nimely admitted, it has not been 100%. The truth is that it has not even been 10%, and there are sufficient facts available to indicate this.

Immediately after the elections, American officials sent signals as to what was needed to commence the difficult task of reconstruction. They indicated to the Taylor gang that the era of aid, grants, was at an end. What was needed, they said, was an environment for private investment. In today's world, private capital creates wealth, not governments. Within their own economies, developed nations are letting inefficient, non-productive private entities, refusing to administer the needed oxygen of subsidies. Similarly, with a monolithic world, democratic governments find it impossible, unattractive, and useless dishing out their taxpayers money to back regimes in other countries with no strategic significance. The era of allies for aid is over. Nations are interested in making money, thus the theology of "Globalization."

Taylor, the US trained "economist", saw deception in such talks. He cried to a Dutch TV crew that his predecessor operated with $500m. while he was left with a meager $60m. What Taylor wanted was free cash a la Samuel Doe, for he worked with Doe and tasted the flavor of free money. Creating wealth is beyond his capacity. Using public wealth is his specialty. He and a number of his cronies got rich out of the junta, deciding later that it is better to take the entire pile than to share. Thus the war was launched, the junta overthrown and 250,000 people slaughtered in the process. The foundations of the enclave economy were destroyed.

As the Americans and others suggested an environment conducive for investment, Taylor sought means to make the fast buck. Forests and Sierra Leone's diamonds became the targets. Encouraging an investment environment requires transparency, and democratization, conditions impossible when the pillars of criminal and crony capitalism are erected. For example, a visiting IMF team noted the monopoly in importing Liberia's staple, rice. Sources at the Ministry of Commerce, responsible for overseeing and granting business rights, say there is nothing that can be done to alter this unfair business practice because "the President has interests in the rice business." Many reputable investors have left the country, unable to compete with shady "businessmen" with criminal ties to the President. The Washington Post reported this year that investors in the country must be willing to share their investment with the President or one of his cronies. A 1999 UN fact-finding team concluded that the absence of bona fide investors has created a terrain for criminal ones interested mainly in diamonds and logging. An uproar has broken out in the rubberstamp Senate over "dubious" laws passed without debate on forestry and minerals, with one Opposition figure contending that the laws were passed to address the President's economic interests.

Fertilizing the ground for investment demands the rule of law, trust and reliability. Three years are enough to conclude that such is not possible in Liberia. The Government came to power with an agenda of depending on others' money while stealing national resources to satisfy the insatiable tastes of its parasites. This will not change. But for a beggar to call the shots is a strange mentality the US Ambassador may find hard to accept or understand. He must live with this anomaly until a "better person" with keys to the US treasury can replace him to the delight of a Government so bent on preaching sovereignty while spreading its begging hands in arrogance. This is Liberia.