Shifting Alliances in Liberia's Theft and Plunder
By Tom Kamara

One of the multiple and difficult challenges facing many African states as we enter the millennium is fulfilling the high expectations of their restless, impoverished mass, the world's poorest people. This challenge, which has already been brought into focus by numerous armed conflicts around the continent, has transformed Africa into a house of horrors with a bleak future in terms of poverty alleviation and political stability.

Dwindling resources, and the emergence of con artists (rebel leaders) as national leaders entrusted with state management have enhanced conditions for the proliferation of armed rebellions as the new political elite, now buttressed by international criminals, scramble over the diminishing pie in what some are aptly referring to as the "new scramble for Africa". Unlike on the eve of independence when Africa's political elite, despite the many mistakes and misguided policies, genuinely sought to provide platforms for socioeconomic development, there is growing evidence that many of today's new politicians, lesser men and women of integrity, are grossly incapable of rescuing the continent from its current malaise. Sadly, in the place of visionaries like Nyerere, Nkrumah, Lumumba, etc., we now have firmly in place the Kabilas, Charles Taylors, and Foday Sankohs, men claiming answers to complex problems far beyond their understanding; thus, they are plunging their nations into greater misery and anarchy.

Liberia, known as the first African republic that many saw as a beacon of hope on a continent then in need of models, is now a classic example of a degenerate state in which shifting alliances, geared towards theft and plunder, have become the norm, leaving the population wandering like a headless herd of sheep in a wilderness. These alliances, made-up of key "technicians" who schooled the military junta (which ruled the country between 1980 to 1990) into acts of theft and dictatorship, poses a greater danger to stability and development as the competition amongst allies today and foes tomorrow intensifies over increasingly scarce state resources.

This new wave of theft and plunder consuming the war devastated country since Taylor came to power in 1997, is bound to engender new alliances, all aimed at fighting for a piece of a pie that may no longer exist as the economy crumbles. Already, legislators, overwhelming disciples of the president, for the first time in memory, have joined ordinary civil servants in staging walkouts demanding benefits because, they contend, the government has spent about half a million in a couple of months for travels of the chosen ones while they are left in the cold with landlords threatening to evict them. Understandably determined to get their portion of the vanishing pie, the legislators have formed a committee to monitor state expenditure. Although $87,000 has been dished out to members of a body whose necessity is in doubt, teachers, unpaid for months, are being ignored. Students striking in sympathy with their teachers and for basic facilities such as chairs were severely flogged by the police, manned by the most vicious of fighters in the NPFL who reigned terror on the country for 7 years. The new minister of finance (Nathaniel Barnes) who replaced John Bestman who could not find $8m. Taylor wanted for his abortive American tour) has promised that he will transform the ministry into "a people's ministry," signaling a political union between Mao and Al Capone, with Al Capone as president. The result is anyone's guess.

But the Taylor gang's anticipation of more booty to flow after elections has its roots in misguided expectations by individuals who actually believed that although they looted and wiped out key economic entities, the amorphous international community would replace them once a government, any government, was formed. For some strange reasons, and in their incapacity to judge and understand global signals, Taylor and Company concluded that if Samuel Doe could be showered with grants and aid, their coffers would overflow with limitless supply of money from the so-called international community after polling day. During an interview with a European television team, Taylor complained that although his predecessor (Doe) operated with a US$500m. per annum budget, he was working with barely US$40m., and expected the international community to flood him with more money. So, of course, Taylor and his cronies were looking at themselves in a cracked mirror because their extensive looting, their wanton destruction of lives and property, the clear indications that theirs was not a war for change but one for loot, meant his era would be dramatically different from that of his master. They could not see that this transfer of power from a corrupt and selfish Americo-Liberian elite to naive and equally corrupt military junta was greeted with enormous goodwill because others were serious of making a difference after about a century and a half of corruption and misuse of privilege.

Between 1980 to 1989, the junta was awash with grants and aid from various donor countries. The US alone contributed half billion dollars in development and other aid. The Germans, Japanese, Chinese, etc., competed to finance agricultural, health, communications and other projects. But as expected in a political setting devoid of a development agenda and with acknowledged thieves at the helm, most of the money ended into the pockets of some of the very men and women who would later form an alliance with the objective of usurping power from the soldiers and installing themselves as the new general staff better trained in plunder. This competition for state resources has led to devastating consequences for the country's helpless 2.6 million people, over 80% of them illiterate, a legacy of the founding fathers (descendent of African slaves sent to Liberian in the 1800s).

So, a new team has emerged, with over 99% of the principal actors in this avalanche of theft under the military, as captains of the ship to stir a lost people towards socioeconomic development. This alliance of "old wine in new bottles", endorsed by many unfamiliar with the country as a new and bright beginning, is playing a leading role in driving the final nil in the coffin of Liberia's economic and therefore political decay as confusion reigns. Although Taylor had blamed the international community for encouraging corruption within his government, he now says officials should be prosecuted for alleged theft. Despite the fact that he promised every Liberian school child a computer if he became president, students are flogged for demanding chairs.

From all indications, this resurfacing of an alliance of junta loyalists (as developments now testify) is aimed at completing a cycle of political and economic decay begun in 1980 under the direction of a ruthless military dictatorship. And those who see a purely ethnic dimension to this decay, such as the return of Americo-Liberian predominance, are grossly mistaking, although there is plenty of that. What is now self evident is that the common denominator within this alliance, concretized during the junta years but erected on the foundations of the Liberian state in the 1800s when Americo-Liberians saw state property as their private property while running a country with patronage as the guiding principle, is the insatiable drive for wealth by a ruthlessly corrupt clique through the looting of national resources.

The cracking of this alliance in the late 1980s, and the intense scramble over state resources as each thief became greedier, played a significant role in igniting the flames of war in which 300,000 ordinary people, victims of this orgy of sanctioned theft, were killed in the name of preparing them for a "better future". In carving and implementing this "better future" since all blames for the theft and accompanying human rights violations were laid at the doors of the inept soldiers, the old civilian elite, with Taylor now as the chief of their general staff, consolidated their efforts and resources for total control of the state's coffers during the war.

And as the war raged, the junta's unchallenged ideologues and entrenched beneficiaries of its corrupt and repressive empire, abandoned ship; many left the country for the safety of the United States and Europe. Samuel Doe, in his loneliness, was left only with second class loyalists who would later be mutilated in a hail of bullets in August 1990 from Prince Johnson, a man recruited and trained by Doe's flamboyant procurement officer now a ruthless foe, Charles Taylor.

Soon, and true to the saying that "honor is a scarce commodity among thieves", increasing numbers of the old friends, allies in mass theft under the junta, began to flock to Taylor's rebel bandwagon to augment his war machine, now that the Gen. Doe's had paid the price for supervising a thieving gang dancing in his blood. Taylor as chief of the gang's general staff may have been a suitable choice on the surface. But as events are now indicating, a chief too "knowledgeable" can leave subordinates in the cold with no room to maneuver, since everything goes to the chief who passes crumbs to disgruntling lieutenants accustomed to independence and maneuverability under the junta. This was the case in Gbarnga, when Taylor was "President of Greater Liberia." Only he disbursed funds and knew where the rebels' looted millions were deposited, according to Samuel Dokie and other insiders who later defected. Taylor was the president, minister of finance, comptroller, banker, etc. Such centralization of loot can lead to disunity and eventual chasms within such an alliance, but Taylor was convinced, as now, that he who controls the belly also controls the mind. NPFL insiders say Taylor had a collection of all major world currencies, dishing out specific amounts for his emissaries wherever their mission took them during the war. Earning US$300m. per year, according to Cyril Allen, NPP chair, and having no standard payroll, no schools, clinics, roads, etc., to build or renovate, buying loyalty and ensuring the continuity of the war became an easy affair.

This rebel method of "running a government" descended upon Monrovia when the entire state was surrendered to rebel factions in September 1995 based on a power sharing agreement preceding the July 1997 elections. With state finances at the disposal of the main rebel chiefs who came to be known as "big three" (George Boley of the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), Taylor of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Alahaji Kromah of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-K) in the collective presidency, plundering and sharing state funds soon buried perceived or real political differences for which the butchering of the innocent was continuing. Because management of state resources required their collective decisions and cooperation, the three men suddenly became "brothers", with Kromah at one point accusing politicians of sowing seeds of discord between him and Taylor whom he repeatedly referred to as "my brother" during one of his many rambling press conferences.

The ties between Taylor and Boley were so cemented that Taylor named Boley "Jesus," while calling himself "God" on the state council. It became publicly known that the bedrock of this alliance, and the sudden "brotherhood" between men who were committing horrible atrocities in the name of change, was plundering state resources by, among other means, simply ordering the minister of finance, (Kromah's brother Lansana Kromah) to constantly provide cash for "the big three". Civilian members of the council (the Chairman Wilton Sankawolo and Oscar Quiah) reduced themselves to pitiful accessories in theft by participating in this plunder and accepting crumbs in the sharing game, since they were lesser members of the council because they commanded no private armies. Key financial and economic institutions, now headed by the rebel appointees, eventually crumbled under the weight of the sustained plunder. At the National Housing and Savings Bank, then headed by an NPFL banker, depositors' money became NPFL property used to finance its military and political operations while it promised disarmament to the delight of a traumatized people. The bank soon closed down, leaving depositors, many of them poor market women, poorer. The Agricultural Development Bank, also headed by the NPFL, suffered the same fate. The National Bank of Liberia disintegrated. Forests fell (as now) under a crusade of mindless logging never experienced in the country as the "big three" got wealthier.

But other allies in plunder bought their ticket on the winning team much earlier, and there were several personalities in this stampede for Taylor's embrace, now that he was undisputedly the "anointed one" within the old alliance. One of the key allies at this time was the chair of the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) the junta' political front, Kekura Kpoto - (now leader of the Senate on Taylor's party ticket). More than any other person, Kpoto is credited to have "won" the 1985 election for Doe, using threats, intimidation and organized harassment (which he reputedly mastered in Sierra Leone as a young political operative during the 60s and 70s). In 1984, he hired well-trained thugs, the rank and file of Sierra Leone's then ruling All People's Party (APC), as "activists" for the NDPL, its "Youth Wing". These thugs were equipped with motor cycles and other gadgets to conduct marauding raids against the opposition. Often under the influence of drugs, these thugs were paid by Liberian taxpayers for reigning terror on them.

When the military seized power in Freetown under Valentine Strasser, Kpoto was arrested for allegedly transporting arms and men to the NPFL, the godfather of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which Strasser was determined to defeat. Kpoto's lengthy prison term gave birth to another alliance, (or so to speak) this time with Amos Sawyer's Interim Government of National Unity which saw the former NDPL chair, now NPFL operative, as an honorable and useful politician, a man with redeeming values. Sawyer asked Strasser to release Kpoto, clearly providing the basis of his rehabilitation for going back to business as usual. Doe's party chair became an immediate asset to Taylor, now serving as leader of the Senate

The craving for rebel blessings and acceptance became intense. Mr. Dew Mayson, then Doe's ambassador to France who made good in his post in several "business" deals, crossed carpet. Mayson became the intermediary between Sawyer and Taylor, although it is difficult establishing what he was mediating. But the late Sam Dokie, before his death and after he defected from the Taylor team, revealed that Mayson was crucial in negotiating the sale of some materials (including rails) left behind by the Swedish-American company LAMCO. Both Taylor and Sawyer, Dokie said, had to reach some agreement on the sale of the materials or equipment, and Taylor felt at home with Mayson in striking deals. The junta's finance minister, John Bestman; (Taylor's former finance minister now post and telecommunications minister) used resources amassed under the junta to buy his ticket for a lucrative future with the rebels. He became a sort of rebel procurement officer based in Rotterdam. Edward Komo Sackor, one of the most vocal Doe loyalists who served as minister of internal affairs and later Taylor's minister of internal affairs, saw the light and crossed carpet.

For men like Emmanuel Shaw and many others, including Doe's key ethnic allies such as Shad Kaydia (who died suddenly after reportedly being poisoned in Abidjan immediately after concluding a business deal with Taylor, according to close family sources), it would be not a-so-difficult transformation from Doe to Taylor, but perhaps one with lesser benefits and freehand since Charles himself was now in charge. The same cannot be said about men like the now imprisoned Bai Gbala, advisor to President Doe and later advisor to President Taylor.

But the meat is becoming tinier and tinier, leading to an onslaught on a bare bone by so many scrapping knives. For this, new areas for crude wealth accumulation are being explored.

The Dutch justice ministry in 1997 launched an investigation which linked Taylor, Shaw, and a Dutch man Gus Kowenhoeven, (known as the "Godfather of Liberia") among many others, to a drug gang operating from Monrovia. According to a story in one of the Dutch dailies, Het Parool, the main suspects in the "Tass-investigation" is "shrimps handler simply known as Jack S. described by the paper as "veteran hash dealer." The Dutch authorities said Jack S. had a number of associates in the gang, including Paul K., who was (in 1997) honorary consul of the Ivory Coast. The paper quoted the public prosecutor in Haarlem, (The Netherlands) as saying that another gang member, I. Gonzales, is closely linked with the drug baron Etienne Urka gang, who is in charge of internal distribution. The prosecutor revealed that Jack S. organizes the mega transports. "The African West Coast with Liberia as points of support is being used by S's gang as a transit station. It is there that the mega transports are being transferred into smaller boast," the investigation revealed. The investigation added that the gang is reported to have transported over two hundred and fifty million dollars worth of hash since 1992. A ship named Great Alexander is reported to have transported tens of thousands kilos of hash in 1996 from the Liberian coast. The report added that contacts between the Dutch men and Liberian officials date back to the early 1980s when Doe seized power with many of those named in the investigation as his close aides. So here we are!

Nevertheless, these explorations of new avenues are linked to the dwindling state coffers which cannot meet demands of the cast. And despite incessant cries of wooing investors to resurrect the dying economy, extortion and predatory demands have slammed doors before credible financiers. A Dutch airline management and technical team from the Schiphol, desirous to reactivate Robert International Airport burnt down by Taylor during the war, soon discovered the meaning of extortion Liberian style even before it could evaluate prospects. In the end, Taylor chose Emmanuel Shaw, his ambassador extraordinary with criminal charges hanging over him in South Africa. But Shaw's choice carry larger implications due to the tainted image he carries.

A South African paper, in an article "His Occupation is Crime", said Shaw's passport was found on the body of a South African drug dealer, Mark Wolmann, who was found shot gang-style in Cape Town. Shaw said that "Wolman's Liberian diplomatic passport had run out of space, and he lent Wolman his own to use some pages. He said it was no secret he and Wolman had been good friends" [MAIL & GUARDIAN].

Moreover, as Liberia was disappearing in flames early 1990, Shaw its minister of finance ensured that a total of about US$27m. was siphoned, according to court papers in his legal battle with Sawyer's Interim Government of National Unity. The papers further indicate that Shaw, as minister of finance, convinced that the impoverish West African state was disappearing, obligated its future government to a company, Liberia National Petroleum Company (LNPC), an entity in which he had 60% with top members of Doe's government as shareholders. This is a man entrusted with reactivating an international airport and playing a key in running the country.

Meanwhile, the country, once a key transit point in West Africa for many reputable international carriers, remains cutoff from the outside world, with Taylor's war partners, the Ivorians, tapping the economic benefits since many passengers now stopover in Abidjan to board rag-tag African planes destined for Monrovia. The airport, built by American soldiers during World War II as a re-fueling station, is now a shadow of its former self, making a perfect setting for Tarzan movies, with hungry looking former fighters as security officials roaming with rusty guns, reminding visitors of Idi Amin's Uganda. A tiny second-hand generator supplies electricity on command, and when the command is not obeyed, death ensues, as was the case with the notorious police chief Joe Tate, whose plane burst into flames, failing to locate the landing strip consumed in darkness because the "special forces" failed to put the machine on.

But it is difficult to phantom why a sane individual could wage a well calculated and brutally destructive war, emerge from it with arrogantly begging hands, and proceed to blame others for not flooding him with money that would be squandered anyway. And if the brutalized population cry in pain for seen no hope in sight for their imposed misery now that bimbos are deciding their fate, a president responsible for their misery berates them for "laziness", never mind the fact that he and his cronies are living in the midst of plenty. Complaints about unparalleled corruption among his officials are dismissed as coming from an ungrateful people who do not appreciate the enormous sacrifices undertaken by his team - each member earning $25 per month, although their real incomes, obtained through dubious means, are much higher. No need pointing out that each time peasants try to replace their looted belongings, "security forces" descend upon them with greater determination to ensure their infinite poverty, and that this never-ending cycles of looting, accompanied by now entrenched harassment, create the groundswell for dependence since farming and food production require sustained stability. The President believes all these conditions are not responsible for the current economic decay. It is the international community which, he told his cabinet at a recent meeting, that is an accessory to corruption within his government since it is not shipping the dollars.

Nevertheless, the new alliance, clever, deceiving, conning, capable of dancing to every tune once money is the note, will make the years of the military look like the years when Jesus ruled Liberia. Sadder days are nearer.

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