Gauging Taylor's PR Stunts
August 24, 2002
Amid abject poverty, high unemployment, appalling living conditions, poor social services, and lack of meaningful work in the public sector, Monrovia socialites are sure to rush for their coal irons and makeshift ironing boards, or head for the nearest functional dry cleaners in this overpopulated city without pipe-borne water and electricity to smooth over what is left of their elegant dresses and coat suits for their attendance at the only major social event in town this week, the political tea party and state dinner being hosted by President Charles Taylor and his NPP-led government on August 24, 2002, erroneously dubbed as "Liberian National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation".
With political opponents and critics of the government languishing in jail or fleeing for their safety to exiled life in foreign lands, coupled with crippling economic and social conditions, a looming seven-month-old state of emergency, and sporadic gun battles between government and dissident forces mostly in the north of the country, it is inconceivable that the NPP-government can initiate and host any meaningful reconciliation talks in Monrovia as it is professing to do without first lifting the state of emergency, releasing all political prisoners, granting clemency to all political enemies, and enticing exiled Liberians to return home and contribute to the development of their country.
Unless, of course, the impending so-called Liberian National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation on August 24 is by all intents and purposes a Public Relations (PR) stunt by an internationally isolated government desperate to improve its public image to the effect that it too is concerned with the plight of the Liberian people and is making efforts to reconcile with its political enemies and critics for the betterment of Liberia. But such claims to genuine reconciliation are sure to founder by simply reviewing the government’s policies, programs, activities, and track record in relation to both the current state of national socio-economic and political developments in Liberia and previous peace and reconciliation efforts initiated outside the government’s direct control.
First, if the NPP-government of President Taylor has any policies and programs in place at all to rebuild Liberia after the seven-year (1989-1997) devastating civil war that saw the loss of over 250,000 lives, a total collapse of state authority and law and order, and a complete destruction of the country’s roads, bridges, public and private buildings, power hydro and water treatment plants, and other basic infrastructural developments, it has failed miserably after five years in power to unveil or implement such policies and programs.
Instead, the Taylor government has succeeded in presiding over a decadence society burdened by 85 percent unemployment, 52 percent severe poverty, armed insurrections, poor health and sanitation facilities, wanton civil and human rights violations, uncontrollable abuse of individual civil liberties by the state police and national security apparatus, and a general inability on the part of the government to provide basic health, education, housing, electricity, and related social services to the Liberian populace while members of the upper echelon of the government equipped their homes with power generators and lavish in lifestyles befitting of the rich and famous as the standard of living in Liberia falls far below pre-civil war periods.
Now, considering Mr. Taylor's own track record as the rebel leader who flaunted all the Abuja Peace Accords aimed at stopping the human carnage and humanitarian catastrophe that punctuated the Liberian civil war, except where his key interest of becoming president of Liberia was secured, and considering the NPP-government’s no show at the Liberian Leadership and Peace Conference in Ouagadougou early last month (July), and its under-representation at the May 2002 Abuja Peace Conference on Liberia, it will be illogical to expect exiled Liberian opposition politicians and other critics supposedly invited by the government to turn out en masse at a so-called peace and reconciliation conference under the sponsorship of a government that not only dug its heeds at similar peace initiatives, but which has yet to address the issue of personal security raised by exiled politicians, civil and human rights advocates long before invitations were extended for the conference.
So far, the government seems committed to, and contented by, its publicity stunts that it published the names of all conceivable Liberian opposition politicians, governmental critics, and even the dissident Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) as potential invitees to the Monrovia conference. But what is noteworthy about the invitation to LURD is that the government and dissident forces have not only been engaged in fierce gun battles across the country since 1999, but both the government and LURD are on record pledging not to negotiate with each other. President Taylor has made clear in no uncertain terms over and over again that he will not negotiate with "terrorists" - his word of choice for the dissident LURD, and ordered his forces to take “no (LURD) prisoners” on the battlefield, while LURD has equally been vocal about not negotiating with Mr. Taylor directly, and demanding his ouster from power.
And, as if to undermine the government’s PR stunts, the opposition NEW Deal Movement, with offices in Monrovia, lambasted the organizers of the Monrovia Peace and Reconciliation Conference earlier this week for including the names of its officers on the published list of invitees to the conference when no such invitations had been extended to the Movement. So it remains to be seen if other supposedly invited guests to the conference will follow the New Deal protestation, or if they will simply protest quietly by staying away. And, unofficially, it has come to our attention that many foreign-based Liberian politicians and civil leaders will not be attending the Monrovia Conference for fear of their personal safety.
Of late, though, Monrovia has degenerated into a gangster’s alley where personal security is no longer guaranteed. Apart from an increase in armed robberies, burglaries, and other serious crimes, the government security apparatus seems to have gone amok arresting and torturing perceived governmental critics and political opponents. The cases of Journalist Hassan Bility, Human Rights Tiawan Gongloe, late Vice President Enoch Dogolea, former Liberian Chief Justice Frances Johnson-Morris, and Suku Wesseh, and the illegal searches of the homes of opposition politician Togba Nah Tipoteh and Commany Wesseh are just a few glaring examples, without having to count cases involving ordinary Liberian citizens who suffered the wrath of the dreadful ATU and other unsavory units of the notorious government security apparatus.
But it is said that power corrupts, and many people generally have difficulty learning anything from history. And Taylor and his cronies in the NPP-led government have easily forgotten their own revolt against the Samuel Doe government for the very manipulations and mechanisms they are setting in motion. Liberia is seriously torn apart by greed and political rivalry and is in dire need of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction, but no progress will be made by governmental imposition on the people. All the roadblocks to civil liberties must be removed before a concrete dialogue aimed at resolving Liberia’s myriad social, economic, political and cultural problems can take place.
The people whose lives are affected daily by governmental excesses must be key players in any peace process. It is never a good idea for the government to plan and execute a so-called peace conference on its own terms and timing. After all, a peace conference is about serious negotiations, compromises and reassurances between two parties, or two or more parties with vested interest in the outcome of such peace conference. Political infightings and power plays must give way to rationale thought and what is in the best interest of Liberia. And the best interest of Liberia at this crucial time in our national history involves the frank exchange of views and serious analysis of the direction of the country’s political and economic future.
Unlike the Vision 2024 Conference hosted in Monrovia by the NPP-government in 1998 as part of its coded strategy to stay in power up 2024, the much publicized Liberian National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation scheduled to begin this Saturday, August 24, should be about how best Liberians can reunite to rebuild their devastated country, and should not be about how best the NPP government can institute PR stunts to ease its international isolation. Good luck to all those who will attend the conference, and those who will not attend for very obvious reasons. At least the date of the conference, August 24, which is also the Liberian National Flag Day, should give added meaning to the fact that a peaceful statehood is more important than the interest of any individual politician or citizen just as the drafters of the Liberian flag thought.