Poverty's Triumph over Democracy in Liberia
By Tom Kamara

As Liberians brace more uncertainties in their quest for democracy, believing that such is their antechamber for prosperity, it is now abundantly clear that the poverty perimeter remains the single most daunting obstacle in achieving this illusive goal. With over 85% unemployment in a chronically paralyzed economy colored by an entrenched system of perverse warlord patronage, it is time to bid democracy farewell as a despised mistress of a criminal and underground economy.

The defacement of the multi-party system is evident by the fact that nearly all of the 12 opposition parties that contested the July 1997 Abacha elections have withered, contrary to jubilations that multipatyism, however superficial it was from the onset, signaled the dawn of a new era in this Africa's oldest republic swallowed in terror for almost a decade. A good number of "Opposition leaders", left with no means of basic livelihood, turned into wandering paupers, have joined the lootocracy in a despicable, but understandable hope to survive.

This all encompassing poverty net and economic crunch, worsened by recent decision of the country's largest aid donor, the European Community, to suspend aid as punishment for Taylor's backing of Sierra Leone insane rebels, provides a fertile ground in which the resulting hardship cements "loyalty" to the only individual with the means of survival in the country - the president. On the other hand, such extreme level of poverty may heighten the contest over the spoils of state, a contest in which armed groups, not political parties, become the key variable. However laughable, Dakinda's threat of a revolution along the lines of Uganda's Lord Resistance Army only indicates the nature of the contest for the crumbs falling from an impoverished state.

The end result of this spreading poverty is the dampening of hopes on the forth-coming elections as an exit out of this cycle of deprivation imposed by a pariah state so clearly devoid of any economic or reconstruction agenda. And according to reliable information, Charles Taylor has indicated that elections will be unnecessary. He is anticipating massive petitions demanding the continuation of his rule. But in fairness to Taylor, the replacement of votes by petitions is not an unusual political ploy in backwards Liberia. During the heydays of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy, petitions took precedence over elections. They also replaced judicial proceedings in political cases, for whenever an opponent of the regime was arrested (as in the case the late H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Sr., and many others) on cooked up charges, petitions were orchestrated to demand convictions. Hordes of chiefs or peasants were herded into Monrovia to "petition" the president to butcher the accused even before trial. The only twist in this opera of political deceit is that 250,000 persons were killed to change this system.

Nevertheless, the political climate, to some extent, is undergoing a new metamorphosis buried deep in the prevailing level of deprivation amongst Liberians. Hence, Taylor does not really need petitions to perpetuate his current pillage because the stage for the triumph of poverty over any dream of democratization was built in the war's agenda. With his seizure of all means of survival, and the wanton destruction of most employment entities, poverty descended as a natural determinant of political loyalty as seen by the thousands of underprivileged youths, orphans, hungry men and women, that flocked into the rebel army. The starving population, even in normal times accustomed to "generosity" from corrupt leaders, now depended on the generosity of those with the means of livelihood - meaning the warlords, their commanders and officials. It was the norm in the rebel capital of Gbarnga, as the killing fields expanded, that those seeking to be fed by Taylor were treated generously. But those seeking redress for the execution of family members, raping of their wives, sisters, daughters, and the looting of their properties along with other atrocities met the wrath of the warlord. "This is war", became the standard answer, an answer soon repeated by men like Dr. Amos Sawyer in addressing the rising atrocities.

By July 1997, crudely accumulated and looted wealth was accepted as legitimate instrument in the political process, thus giving honor in all its forms to plunder of the most brutal type. The Nigerian commander of the West African peacekeeping force, Gen. Victor Malu (who now heads the Nigerian Army) told warlords less-wealthier-than Taylor that they had an opportunity to loot state finances during the tenure on Council of State. Too bad if they did not loot enough for their political campaigns. Gen. Malu said of all the presidential candidates, only Taylor looked presidential because of the trappings of wealth around the internationally connected warlord. "Some of them don't even have bicycles", Gen. Malu announced. Of course, this was the fact because, according to a Canadian report, by 1995, two years before the elections, Taylor was amassing over $500 million dollars in Sierra Leone diamonds alone. This is apart from proceeds looted from several banks, privately owned rubber farms, (including rubber from the giant Firestone plantations) coffee, timber, and drugs, etc. Moreover, international criminal syndicates were investing heavily in him, knowing that once he became president, they would get their returns. And he kept his credibility with the syndicates. Sierra Leone diamonds are still under his RUF rebels and therefore his. Liberia's forests are disappearing. He was further augmented by, among others, the Taiwan government which provided one million dollars for his "campaign."

With the country now one mass camp of starving people, and with Taylor viewed as the wealthiest man (Robin Hood) to free them from their bondage, this "level playing field" was ordained, and the political process declared "free and fair" even by men who, in their own countries, are severely scrutinized about the sources of their campaign funds. Former US President Jimmy Carter, would declare the process "free and fair," fully aware that this once penniless and wandering exile, a US prison escapee on charges of embezzlement, had looted millions over heaps of corpses. Even as men like Carter accepted theft and plunder as legitimate political norms, they were circulating the deception that democracy and accountability under gangs of thieves would emerge.

As the drums of hope sounded announcing Liberia's entrance into a new future, the campaign itself became a classic example of how poverty transforms individuals into mindless zombies, caring for nothing but their daily bread, accepting and expecting those who have reduced them to such inhuman levels to lead them to the illusionary Promised Land of Plenty. Malnourished children, frightened women with dehydrated babies tied to their bonny backs, old men, hungry-looking and having no hope of where the next bread would come from, scrambled over bundles of looted Liberian dollars thrown at them in the streets by Taylor's campaign teams. (The National Housing Bank, the Agriculture Bank, etc, headed by Taylor's loyalists, were emptied of depositors savings which became NPP property.) Refugee camps in and around Monrovia and elsewhere holding hundreds of thousands Sierra Leone refuges were Taylor's campaign hot spots. These starving refugees were registered as legitimate voters, and of course, innocently and determined to live another day, they voted for their diamonds to be the continuous source of their misery.

Taylor's party headquarters was a daily, 24-hour scene of dancing, drinking, and long lines of starving people receiving daily rations of fish and rice donated by the Lebanese Community for the man who would multiply their business gains in Liberia. The nonsense that US dollars would be legal tender in a wretched economy, along with the Lebanese penchant for corruption which they knew would be institutionalized under Taylor, drove them in droves to back him. After all, Taylor was the man they knew so well when he served as Samuel Doe's most corrupt purchasing czar, responsible for buying all state supplies and determining who got the inflated contracts. To the drum beating and dancing poor, the unmistakable message was that this would be their Liberia in which free food would be available for all. To their astonishment (and why not?) immediately after their "savior" was elected, he condemned his own party loyalists - the hungry poor - for dependency and for crying every time relief agencies threaten to pull out. Taylor said they were simply lazy. No more free food. The party is over. I've got what I wanted.

The extent of poverty as an element cementing stupidity could be seen in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, where residents sealed off their fences in expectation of airdrops of bundles of imaginary US dollars Taylor's men had promised. Any talk of another candidate, any warning that this was nonsense and that the worst laid ahead in economic reconstruction, that people must not expect easy solutions due to the level of destruction and economic dislocations, were viewed as "enemy talk." To their hungry and traumatized minds, Taylor, with his hovering helicopter above and fleets of expensive vehicles, undoubtedly held the key to economic prosperity and happiness. He became not a Robin Hood, but a pirate after he was elected, demanding $US26 million payment for his war from the very people had fed with cups of rice - an unfortunate twist in this circus of stupidity.

And where was the Opposition in all this, on this "level playing field"? Most of the opposition parties were led by individuals who had spent decades in the US or in exile. If at all they were opposition parties, they were only so in name, not in substance. Those who had some roots in the country, like the United Peoples Party leader Baccus Matthews (now said to be a spokesman and Public Relations officer for Oriental Timber Company, a company accused of unimagined criminal activities leading to deforestation) later became de facto members of Taylor's NPP. It was Matthews; once labeling the NPFL "lords and angels of death," (comments that forced him into the protection of ECOMOG while his house was looted by Taylor's disciples) who saw prudence in urging this archangel of death to use "Executive Power" in handling the Krahn Opposition. As a result, over 300 Krahns were massacred, 18,000 forced out of Monrovia, according to US State Department report of 1998. Such advice, given to a man who had led the death of 250,000 people, left little doubts as to where the vacillating Matthews' new loyalty was since Samuel Doe's gruesome death that left his people, the Krahns, at the mercy of former allies, loyalists and beneficiaries of reign of plunder.

Many Opposition Parties had no offices then as now. (The Taylor controlled Elections Commission recently threatened to disqualify Opposition Parties with no offices. The National Patriotic Party, an offshoot of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, also volunteered to bankroll penniless Opposition Parties in the name of "democracy.") The candidates flew in from the US to live with relatives or friends in a city so strange to them. With lines of hungry followers storming behind them not on the basis of loyalty, but to feed the belly for a day, they would roam around the city in dilapidated taxis, unable to afford a single car. When the Nigerians, fully aware of the poverty level among the candidates, decided that their soldiers would provide security escorts for candidates on condition that the candidates would provide vehicles and feed the soldiers, this effectively confined our presidential hopefuls to Monrovia, afraid to encounter Taylor's armed rebels in rural area deceptively declared disarmed by the Nigerians. Many of the polling booths had no party representatives because a good number of the parties could not simply afford to pay their poll watchers. In reality, most of the parties were fronts for Mr. Taylor. They were paid to muddy the waters, and immediately after the elections, "opposition figures" were named ministers and officials, and then dismissed. The leader of Labour Party, a veterinary doctor turned a dubious medical doctor then politician, Dr. Fahnboah Dakinda, became Health Minister for a couple of months and then sacked. His "party" has since vanished, and he has vowed to lead a Christian oriented "revolution" to redeem Liberia from a man he now describes as evil. George Toe Washington, Fayia Gbollie, all presidential candidates, packed their bags and returned to America. The geologist Cletus Wotorson, the favorite of some on the basis that he was a "technician", is now key adviser to Taylor on minerals. Others, like the Liberian People's Party stalwart Dr. Bangali Fofana, died under mysterious conditions. Key members of Matthews UPP became top appointees in the Government. Former UN Executive Ellen Johnson, the second runner-up and perhaps the only candidate not in the poverty club, left the country for her own security.

But in all fairness to Taylor and his NPP looters, they were not the first in using poverty as an effective campaign weapon. During the 1985 elections, Samuel Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) used similar tactics. State property, finances were placed at the disposal of the party. To be against the party was to be against the government. After its "victory", the NDPL chairman, Kekura Kpoto, now a leading member of Taylor's NPP who heads the Liberian Senate, imposed a system in which those aspiring for appointment had to pay thousands of dollars as a sort of employment fee. But the low level of poverty under Doe allowed individuals to make their own choices. There were no long cues of starving voters; there were no refugee camps. There could be no deception of airdrops of US dollars. The registration of children as voters, so widespread and ignored in the 1997 Nigerian supervised elections, was uncommon.

So, as we approach another dark crossroad, the unfortunate truth is that poverty has robbed many Liberians of the right to think. Bob Marley poetically tells us that a "hungry man is an angry man." In today's Liberia, a hungry man has become a pawn in a vicious cycle of deception that will only crystallize his/her misery. Farewell to dreams of democracy. Hungry men have become stupid men.

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