A Crisis Of National Security

By Abraham M. Williams

The Perspective

The Taylor administration came to power after seven years of a bruising civil war in Liberia during which Charles Taylor, the principal instigator of the violence, commanded one of the most vicious militias in recent memories.

His child soldiers, stoned on drugs and other substances, killed nearly everyone in their path as they commandeered their way to power. In the process, these bandits terrorized and extorted the helpless citizens. Together with other guerrilla factions, they wildly butchered, disabled villagers, and raped terrified women as they plundered the country to near depletion.

And because of the wanton violence Taylor and other warlords directed during the war, the president is very leery, indeed, edgy and uncomfortable around people. That's why he is surrounded by a large contingent of military and para-military people who constantly shield him from possible attacks.

In other words, these war criminals, who now make up the core of the Liberian government, are haunted by their past actions. Or at least, they're reminded by the ghosts of those they killed in their virulent pursuit for power, thus this constant phobia of people and the mountain of security apparatus.

Most Liberians want Mr. Taylor to boldly confront the truth and tell them how long he hopes to remain president in a fish bowl, where he is isolated from the suffering masses. How long can he hide behind the confines of his walled compounds and mouth empty rhetoric about patriotism while everything else crumbles? Why should they continue to have confidence in his leadership when he has commanded little trust and exhibited negative stewardship?

Peace is not just the absence of hostility; it always entails meaningful efforts aimed at bridging differences among groups in the interest for the greater good of a people. It elicits reasonable compromises which are the foundation for stability, an essential component for nation building. Sadly, however, Mr. Taylor lacks the leadership attributes needed to rescue Liberia from this abyss.

National security which encompasses protecting the nation against all enemies - both domestic and foreign - has been relegated to the nonessential, giving way to personal security of the president. This obsession for personal security has also deeply impacted the national coffers, as substantial amount of the limited resources has been allocated for this purpose.

Perhaps Taylor has become oblivious of the fact that re-armament of his loyalists under the guise of national security does not guarantee peace or stability. Attempting to bypass the Abuja accord which calls for restructuring of the Liberian army by West African Peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) is simply a recipe for conflict. No army or military structure skillfully put together to keep a dictator in power can last forever. Our recent experience is a case in point. National security must therefore supersede personal ambitions.

Not only has the administration been preoccupied with presidential security, substantial efforts are made to militarize Monrovia. But essential projects such as restoring electricity and water supply are being ignored for lack of funds. The available limited resources are being used to assemble and maintain the Taylor security fortress.

Since his ascendancy, Taylor has transformed Monrovia into a mini-military camp in the mode of Duvalier's Haiti, when the notorious Tontons Macoutes wrecked havoc on the Haitian people. Like the Haitian para-military, the Special Security Service (SSS) and the national police have become Liberia's legalized death squads.

According to reliable sources in Monrovia, not only is the city saturated with untrained, armed former guerrillas as police officers and special presidential security agents, but also the jungle justice system has resurfaced. The jungle justice was Mr. Taylor's method of immediate elimination of enemies and disloyal subordinates. This practice was prevalent during the seven years of civil war.

As guerrilla leader at that time, Mr. Taylor had absolute power in which there were no checks and balances. The same thing is being done in Monrovia today with a few exceptions of a nominal legislature and a kangaroo judiciary. And the president has begun to openly tag his perceived enemies to be dispensed with.

Reports indicate that various security squads have been assigned to track the activities of certain persons Mr. Taylor perceives as his enemies. Those targeted include other former guerrilla leaders, civilian politicians, journalists and human rights advocates. These former guerrillas, armed with high-powered rifles, often harass and intimidate their covered subjects and the general public. And because of inadequate compensation and training, they use intimidation to blackmail citizens for money and other valuables as a means of augmenting their meager pay. "Life in Monrovia is a constant hassle", one recent visitor quipped.

One of the strongest arguments that Taylor advanced during the special elections in 1997 was that since he was primarily responsible for the civil war, Liberians should elect him so he could fix the country. During the campaign he spoke confidently as a politician who had all the right answers to a beleaguered nation, and a people desperately weary of war and in search for solutions.

Some Liberians believed, though naivete clouded their thought processes, that Mr. Taylor would use the millions of dollars he has stolen from the country to help revitalize the devastated economy, rebuild damaged infrastructures and ameliorate their lot.

This kind of faulty reasoning and the need to survive convinced many to overwhelmingly vote for him to be president. Now that he is in office, reality has begun to set in. Many fighters from his former ragtag army are now being left along the street corners to fend for themselves, walloping in the same miseries they caused.

This article is in a series of attempts to review developments in Liberia one year after Mr. Taylor took the oath of office on August 2, 1997. This piece is designed to highlight key events in the security area, and the general state of affairs in Liberia. The effort here is not to accentuate pessimism but rather to underscore the poignancy of our precarious situation.

What is unfolding in Liberia can best be described as a vicious dictatorship in the making. All Liberians will be its prey, and democracy, the rule of law and transparent justice its victim, and Liberia could be headed for turbulent, uncertain future.

In past articles, I have argued that Taylor's motive for launching the war was ill-conceived and wrong-headed. It was a sinister design concocted by a master crook bent on enriching himself at the expense of his country and fellow citizens. No doubt, many of his supporters who viewed him as their benevolent dictator despised President Samuel Kanyon Doe, and regarded him as the enemy of the people.

But after a year in office, Taylor has no blueprint for solving Liberia's problems. Instead, he has shown contempt for democracy and a ruthless disposition to dictatorship. He has extended his tyrannical reach by usurping the powers of other branches of government. There are ominous signs that genuine democracy in Liberia will be a dream deferred while a totalitarian ruler is emerging.

The worsening economic and human rights situation, coupled with the proliferation of arms and armed men all over Monrovia, poses a grave and present danger to the viability of the fragile peace.

Here is an overview of the security and safety developments in Liberia, since Charles Taylor was sworn in as president of Liberia.

Shortly after Mr. Taylor took office, his Police Director, Joe Tate declared war on the waves of criminals that had accompanied Taylor and other warlords to Monrovia and were terrorizing the citizens. Many people realized that the police have a duty to protect citizens, but they questioned the controversial tactics the police used to curb crimes in Monrovia.

In what turned out to be the preview of Taylor's abysmal human rights record and assault against individual liberties and personal safety, Director Tate led the shoot-to-kill campaign.

Under the pretext of law and order, the police went after those former fighters from rival militias as the main culprit and without due process, the security forces killed some people who may have well been innocent. Incredibly, when the local press questioned police methods, the managing editor of The Inquirer, Philip Wesseh, was arrested, beaten and detained for criticizing police operations.

Earlier, in a blatant disregard of civility, Special Security Service (SSS) agents assigned to Vice President Enoch Dogolea were ordered to flog Bomi County Rep. Sando Johnson. Mr. Dogolea first denied the charges but under pressure from outraged civil rights organizations for his impeachment, he apologized to Rep. Johnson.

These early disregards of human rights and the grave concerns for individual liberties prompted Amnesty International to urge Taylor to respect civilized conventions by punishing human rights violators. But, Mr. Taylor as proponent of the crackdown policy was not swayed by international condemnation.

Instead, his agents of death intensified their assault against the targeted people, mainly those who have been rendered undesirables by the war. This includes Taylor-induced drug addicts who fought to bring him to power - people who have become mentally and emotionally deranged; individuals who see crimes as their only way of survival.

The non-high profile killing and harassment of the residents of Monrovia continued until November last year, when Special Security Service Director Benjamin Yeaten ordered the arrest of former Taylor's loyalist, Samuel Dokie and family in Gbarnga. The detention and subsequent brutal murder of the Dokies crystalized to the world community, and reinforced what most Liberians have known for some time, that Liberia is being ruled by a maniacal tyrant, who is prepared to kill anyone he deems his enemy.

The government swiftly moved to cover up the crime and those security agents who had committed this heinous act by launching pseudo investigations, and barring the independent press from the crime scene.

A young journalist, Alexander Redd, who dared to expose the truth by gathering solid, eyewitness accounts and photographing the graves where the victims had been buried, was severely tortured to near death and declared missing for several days. As national and international outcry heightened for the mysterious disappearance of this journalist, suddenly he was "discovered" in the central prison in Monrovia, in poor health and seriously wounded from beating.

The government then orchestrated a show trial for those accused of killing Dokie and his family. First, the administration, the most lawless of any civilian government in recent history, became law abiding, self-servingly, by digging up an old statue that says that a case may be tried in the circuit where the offense occurred.

This action removed the case from the spotlight in Monrovia and consigned it to the town of Gharnga, more than 100 miles in central Liberia. Other overt inconsistencies that led to the miscarriage of justice abound.

As these questionable police raids against suspected criminals continued, several people died in suspicious manner in which the police is responsible. Among those killed was Mannah Zekay, a former commander of Ulimo- J, who was seized by police from his New Krutown residence in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 1998.

His hammered skull body and that of an unidentified ex-ULIMO fighter were put on public display at police headquarters with a rusty rifle lying on the chest of each body. Director Tate said they were armed robbers who resisted arrest.

Then earlier this year, President Taylor began to detest plots to destabilize his regime. He accused his former arch-rival, Roosevelt Johnson, of engaging in activities abroad aimed at undermining his government.

In March, government security agents fired upon supporters of Roosevelt Johnson near Johnson's residence in the early morning hours of March 24. A second fracas occurred between the two forces that evening in the Capital by- pass area of the city. Each time, West African peacekeeping troops intervened and brought the situation under control.

Intelligence sources in Monrovia posited that the Taylor government was trying to provoke Johnson and his supporters to breaking the law, so Taylor would use that as a pretext for arresting Johnson.

In other words, while President Taylor was accusing his opponents of attempting to destabilize the country, his administration was involved in deliberate, dangerous activities, putting at risk the safety and security of the citizens.

Concerned that Taylor may have been over-zealous to get Roosevelt Johnson, which could have profound consequences for Liberia, the Taylor clan met with the president on March 27. The meeting included Taylor's mother, Lucy; cousin and Maritime official, Benoni Urey; sister Thelma & fiance´, Deputy Health Min. Arthur Saye. They warned the president to be careful about Johnson and the Krahn people.

Family members also admonished him that his own solders were demoralized by what they perceived as utter lack of improvement in their lives since his electoral victory. And because of this, the relatives emphasized, the soldiers would no longer risk their lives to support Taylor, if there is outbreak of violence.

In another incident, Vamba Kanneh, member of the defunct Transitional Council of State, told reporters state security agents "harassed and kept surveillance" on him, after Taylor implicated him in a planned coup. Others such as human rights advocate Kofi Woods are under constant security surveillance.

Several journalists, who complained of threats on their lives by the police, have sought asylum in the United States and elsewhere in Europe.

In April this year, human rights activist Korma Bryemah accused Tate of ordering his flogging and detention without charge. Taylor ordered a probe of the charge, but refused to make the findings public.

Meanwhile, Mr. Taylor continues to beef up his security apparatus by fortifying his residential compounds and heavily arming his security detail.

Early this year, Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) soldiers forced 2700 civilian internally displaced persons/refugees from the 72nd Barracks on Somalia Road in Paynesville. The 72nd Barracks was subsequently turned over to the 240-man Executive Mansion Special Security Unit(EMSSU) of the Special Security Service. Some of the displaced refugees were sent to a camp for internally displaced persons at the Monrovia Vocational Training Center (MVTC).

Why the EMSSU was moved into the 72nd Barracks is an intriguing question. The Barracks is not in close proximity to the Executive Mansion. However, a dirt road (72nd Street, for which the barracks is named) links the barracks directly with the rear of the president's new residence, some 3 1/2 miles away, avoiding the crowded Monrovia streets. Also of interest, the 72nd Barracks is astride one of only three routes providing access to Monrovia from ECOMOG base on Bushrod Island.

Meanwhile, mysterious disappearances of citizens continue unabated. Recently, seven persons associated with Roosevelt Johnson were reported missing, while en route to the Gambia. The government has issued conflicting statements as to its role in their disappearance and whereabouts.

Also there is the case of Madam Nowah Flomo, who was abducted from her home near ELWA Junction by members of the Special Security Service. Madam Flomo disappeared in June and has since not been seen. Six officers of the infamous 1500-member SSS were arrested and accused of being involved in the abduction of Madam Flomo.

In mid July, Liberia's notorious police chief, Joe Tate slapped a cabdriver in the face and stripped naked a police officer for breaking a minor traffic rule. The incident occurred on July 16, 1998 in Monrovia's eastern Sinkor suburb after Tate discovered two people sharing the taxi's front passenger seat, which is a violation of traffic laws.

Director Tate slapped the driver, who explained that the second passenger, a policeman, had insisted on sharing the seat. The police chief chastised the police officer and stripped him of all his police insignia as he undressed him.

Finally, on August 6, 1998, armed security agents flogged Grand Gedeh Senator Peter Fineboy and his family. The senator told reporters, "The armed security men beat me, my wife, children and aged sick father on late Thursday to retrieve a National Patriotic Front jeep in which we were traveling."

He accused what he called "Congo people (Americo-Liberians) within the ruling party of trying to marginalize their native (African-Liberian) colleagues." He charged the party's chairman and secretary general, Edwin Holder and Cyril Allen, respectively, were "the brains behind this divisive campaign." Party officials, however, denied the charges.

Without further commentary, let me say that this is a summary of what life is like in Liberia since Mr. Taylor became president. And the future of Liberia hangs in the balance!