Liberia's Persecuted and Rising Voices of Dissent
By Tom Kamara
August 7, 2000

Liberia's President Charles Taylor may have rightly awarded himself the prize of being "the most mischievous man in the country," while warning his subjects to "stop (their) mischief" since they "see fire and jump inside" But this has not extinguished the blazing fire of criticism under his troubled regime, now burning ever more as his name becomes synonymous with amputation of children's limbs and illicit diamonds for weapons. Many of his critics, including religious leaders, human rights campaigners, politicians and journalists have since fled the fire after his election three years ago. Nonetheless, as they are silenced and as others are fleeing, more voices are mushrooming to embrace the fire, and controlling, intimidating these rising chorus of protest is the regime's nightmare. Fear, as a political weapon, is slowly receding in Liberia.

The war, and its horrific dimensions seemed to have altered the psyche of fear in many Liberians. Death has become so common that when it comes, it may not even be feared or recognized. Thus, Taylor's warning, against seeing his "fire" and "jumping inside" is having the opposite effect, although not without grave consequences.

Critics such as Sam Dokie, his wife and two relatives paid the ultimate price of seeing the President's "fire" and "jumping inside." They were arrested by his bodyguards, slaughtered, dissected, and burnt in his "fire." Others such as the Opposition women activist Madam Nowah Flomo simply vanished after presidential security visited her home under darkness. Angry over noises of the woman's death, the President rebuked his critics, warning them to keep quiet over "every chicken that gets missing." Disappearances and arbitrary executions have become so common that they no longer make headlines.

The press and critical journalists have been prime targets, with some of the country's best writers driven out of the country through threats and intimidation. Star Radio, brought into the country by donors to balance information since Taylor owns multiple radio stations with less credibility, has been shutdown. The New Democrat, whose offices were burnt down in 1996 by Taylor's thugs and seen as an enemy newspaper, has been forced to cease publication due to frequent arrests, intimidation of staff, along with a ban on advertisement. These acts have left the environment inundated with Government subsidized and heavily censored press.

But such draconian practices, so useful and resourceful to Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels during the war as they executed enemies perceived or real, now seem feeble as mechanisms for silence and control. In despair, and dismayed by unfulfilled promises in a wretched economy which has seen American aid to Non Governmental Organizations fall from S38 million in 1998 to $14 million now (along with suspension of $50 million aid from the country's largest donor, the EU, and more threats of American sanctions), courage is not in short supply for the voices of change despite the spreading inferno.

For instance, notwithstanding Taylor's threat to arrest anyone discussing how his vice president suddenly and mysteriously died, he could not stop rising speculations that he killed the man by poisoning. Liberians have many ways of expressing their feelings, grief and thoughts. "We can't talkit ooh! We feelin' it ooh!", sayings laden with multiple meanings and implications. During the elections, Taylor's supporters coined a classic phrase to disarm those that reminded them of their candidate's horrendous human rights record. Knowing that they were left with less defenses to justify the abuses, they simply said, "We nor wan know," meaning they didn't want to hear the argument or know the details. In the case of the vice president's unexplainable death, Taylor's failure to release the promised autopsy report has only convinced critics of that, "He killed him. But we can't talkit."

Comments on the ongoing fighting in the north have also been discouraged with the President threatening to impose a State of Emergency, something that gives him more powers than he already has, to arrest, detain or even execute suspected enemies. The President claims "agent provocateurs" are in the city to topple him, accusing university professors of linkage with the plotters. Nevertheless, the will to speak out remains undeterred and it seems that Taylor's fear machine is crumbling.

Methodist Bishop Arthur Kulah, ignoring the President's "fire" recently, warned the Government that its credibility in the wake of international allegations of backing Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels has been terribly eroded. He warned that the country could not afford isolation within the global community, a warning made more ominous by an American threat of declaring Liberia an "international pariah" with the imposition of unilateral sanctions, which could lead to visa restrictions for Taylor's officials, freezing of their assets, and reduction of embassy staff. The Bishop reminded the President that when one associates with a thief, (in this case Taylor's ties to Foday Sankoh and his RUF) it is difficult convincing others that you are not a thief. In other words, tell me your friends and I'll tell you who you are.

The Bishop's statements are indeed "brave" ones, for when the now exiled leader of the Senate, Charles Brumskine, made similar allegations and called for investigations, he found himself hiding in a swamp to escape from the country. A jubilant Taylor later announced that the Senator, theoretically third highest ranking man in the country and a member of his National Patriotic Party, had "jumped the gun." The man now lives in the US, replaced by a more comfortable and compliant Senate President.

Opposition politician Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, drawing on Taylor's demand that "even a condemned man deserves a day in court" in response to a mountain of allegations regarding his ties with the RUF, called on the UN to give him a chance before its tribunal that will be sitting to determine his comrade Sankoh's fate.

"We call upon the international community to grant this request - to allow him to refute these allegations in the Tribunal that the Security Council is establishing for those who have committed terrible crimes against the people - the women and children - of Sierra Leone ..The President has asked for his day in court. ".

She then proposed the correct, but impossible solution to the Legislatures (packed with Taylor's cronies who spend more time quarrelling over gasoline allotment than on national issues) by asking them to set up a commission to investigate their boss and consider impeachment.

"The Commission would then present its findings to the Legislature and advise/recommend impeachment proceeding if the President is found guilty. By so doing, in accordance with articles 62 and 43 of the constitution, the Legislature, rising above partisan politics, would act in the interest of the nation and people whom they represent", she said.

Mrs. Sirleaf, silent for almost a year since her development entity was vandalized by the president's thugs, then went on the offensive on the Government's failures:

"When a war weary people voted on July 19,1997, there was hope for the end of social conflict, hope that those who commanded the resources for destruction, would now turn those assets into forces for reconstruction.

"We are greatly disappointed. Three years and midway through the period to the next elections, the numerous campaign promises have not been met. Once again, the opportunity for national renewal has been squandered. The economy remains collapsed, basic social services such as water and power unrestored. The schools lack qualified teachers and supplies; the hospitals and clinics are without proper equipment and medicines; public sector wages and salaries are unpaid for protracted periods. The nation faces a level of impoverishment unparalleled in its history. The nation is now virtually a pariah state characterized, by recent media reports, as one attracting drug dealers, illicit arms traders, money launderers and evangelists stealing in the name of the Lord.

"To counter all these adversities, we call upon the government to address urgently the many issues that constrain its potential success; that undermine the efforts of the many committed honest and hardworking Liberians in and out of government, who are trying to serve the same nation and meet the needs of its people.

"The need for government action to promote freedom from fear through a reduction of the level and the presence of militarism, and a judiciary system that provides redress to those whose safety and rights have been violated. This calls for curtailing the activities of specially armed security units and government action to investigate those serious cases of crimes and injustices such as the killing of the Dokies, and Madam Flomo, etc., and for a release of the autopsy report of the late Vice President."

Although she denounced dissidents now fighting to overthrow the regime, Taylor's party chair accused her of backing the dissidents following scathing attacks. Of course, Mrs. Sirleaf's bluntness is understandable under the circumstances. She lives out of Liberia, like many of the uncensored voices.

As the economy sinks and corruption is institutionalized, with the president saying that corruption in the Liberian government is justified because Liberia is denied aid by the international community, the voices of despair become louder. So it is with the country's university students who, over the years, have remained the conscience of the society, challenging any regime in power and keeping their distance in terms of expressing superficial support, something of a norm among political and social groups. Plagued with political parties known only during elections, students have continuously assumed the role of an effective Opposition and they are detested by all Liberian presidents. But they remained the most consistent group on the country political scene. They were among the first to challenge the authoritarian William V. S. Tubman regime in the 1960s when it was utterly inconceivable to question the feared President. Several students were arrested. Tubman's successor, William R. Tolbert, suffered a greater fate as he began to loosen Tubman's totalitarian grip on the country. As he opened windows, the restless students demanded doors opened for mushrooming of idea. Soon, the gates were opened.

Enter Samuel K. Doe, after butchering Tolbert and promising a new dawn. Like Taylor's NPFL, the military junta succeeded in the first months in its campaign of intimidation, but soon discovered that the marriage was over. For questioning the junta's lack of vision and its appalling corruption, several student leaders were arrested, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death by firing squad. At the eleventh hour, Doe issued a pardon. Monrovians took to the streets in celebration for the release of their heroes. This, however, was not the end. The junta was to invade the University of Liberia because of student protests against the arrest of a number of their professors on charges for plotting to overthrow the junta. Displaying a dead effigy of the junta leader to demonstrate their anger, students from Doe's ethnic group, the Krahns, performed a funeral ceremony on the effigy. As history was to prove, this came to pass, except that Doe, like Tolbert before him, had no funeral. The two men's graves are unknown.

Now, it seems the students are back to work, confronting another dictator in the worst possible political and economic conditions. But the enmity between Taylor and the university students began with the war itself. Many outspoken student leaders were captured and killed either by Government troops or Taylor's NPFL rebels. Loyal ones joined the rebels as spokesmen and ideologues.

During the elections, the students ensured that the University campus became forbidden grounds for Taylor and his campaign teams, challenging them to appear. For this, Taylor threatened to transform the University into his own image, accusing the few remaining professors of indoctrinating students with "Communist ideas", the same charge made by a man he killed for obstructing democracy and progress. He appointed his own like-minded professor to run the University with the mandate to ensure the spread of his ideas, whatever they are. Soon, he was rewarded with an honorary PhD., the same honor the same University refused to bestow on his predecessor Doe. When the students protested the appalling conditions on their campus, Taylor, fearing the worst, ordered the shady Oriental Timber Company to surrender half of its profits to the University. Since no one knew what the total earnings of the company, that was the end of the affair. Now, the students have gone to their past, challenging a regime they loathed from the onset in statement that landed their leaders in prison with Taylor warning that they could be conscripted to fight the war with dissidents in the north:

"The 153rd Anniversary of Liberia's independence comes amidst growing anxieties, doubts and speculations about the trend of events in the Nation since August 1997. From all indications the true meaning of independence is still strikingly bizarre to the ordinary Liberian, whose life style has remained untouched despite our unchecquered period of existence as a nation", they wrote.

"Against these backgrounds, the University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU) is commending Liberians for the extremely high level of tolerance displayed between 1997-2000 in spite of the dismal state of the Liberian economy. The resilience of Liberians against the backdrop of growing economic mismanagement and the recalcitrantly extravagant life styles of a minute segment of society cannot be overemphasized. The spiraling pomposity of those who continue to live, conceitedly, within the arrogance and falsehood of supremacy and indispensability over their compatriots primarily because of their ready access to the nation's wealth must be discouraged."

Angry over the contents, Taylor ordered the students arrested and at gunpoint, they expressed "regret" for misunderstanding the Government, only to appear on a radio talk show later to defend their statement as Taylor became enraged, promising to be "unreasonable" with them.

But the University of Liberia is a microcosm of the Liberian society. There, the divide of the nation is ever evident. Students from indigenous origin, along with radical ones, have always operated under the Student Unification Party (SUP). More conservative and Establishment oriented students have similarly operated on coming and passing student political parties to challenge SUP's hegemony, a hegemony entrenched by numbers. Now, SUP, too, has begun its traditional opposition crusade, particularly at a time when Americo-Liberians are again the most visible conspicuous consumers in the center of spreading poverty. They occupy key financial and economic positions in the Government. In their statement, they noted that:

"The Vanguard Student Unification Party (SUP) of the University of Liberia is deeply troubled by reports of renewed hostilities in Lofa Country between the government of Liberia and Liberian dissidents allegedly based in the Republic of Guinea", the students wrote.

Although they disapproved the war, they suggested that to the contrary, the Government should "strengthen the reconciliation process in order to encourage Liberian exiles to return home. The outbreak of hostilities in Lofa Country must not be exploited for witch-hunting of perceived enemies. Every precautionary measure must be taken to ensure maximum safety of peaceful and law-abiding citizens in the affected areas," they proposed, fearing a crackdown on opponents using the fighting as an excuse.

They also urged "government officials to refrain from making inflammatory utterances that are most likely to stain Liberia's relations with other nations. SUP however encourages government to reinforce its diplomatic efforts in resolving the crisis," a release from the student political party released over the weekend noted.

Taylor may have been a feared and colorful warlord. But it takes a different character to contend with civil society and its contending forces. West Africa's best known warlord may have won the election. But winning the heart and minds of his people and delivering on his promises present new challenges. In this, silencing all voices is a failed strategy. "We will talkit oh!

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