Liberia: Back to Square One

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective

Posted: April 2, 1999

From all indications, we are back to square one. Although a tenth of the population was massacred, over a million internally displaced and hundreds of thousands more sent into pathetic refugee camps in the sub region and elsewhere all in the name of change, the ghost of Samuel K. Doe looks on laughingly as his killers renege into his ghastly past.

Says the British writer Mark Huband who covered the war extensively for the Financial Times of London and whose book, Liberian Civil War, is now on the market: "In a sense, in a twilight, Taylor has been in power for (almost two years) but has achieved little; he is consolidating his position, isolating people he doesn't like and not capitalizing on his increasing power in the country devastated spiritually and materially. What Liberia needs is a government that can prove to donors that it is different, that it has been through the conflict, come out on the other end and now wants to rebuild and I think its unlikely that's not going to happen for a very long time. To build a strong civil society that can overcome the crisis of factionalism is going to be very difficult if people in charge aren't interested. It is horrible to think it, but perhaps it's back to square one, as it was in 1980... In a sense, Doe was the native response to Americo-Liberian rule and Taylor is now the return of the Americo-Liberians. It's not that simple but there are worrying incidents that suggest a very strong political conflict between the two. Things are moving slowly, but we will have to wait longer to see if Taylor is capable of healing wounds....In this kind of conflict, criminality becomes the order of the day and the worst people rise to the surface-that's what keeps its going over so many years. The good people left the country because they knew if they didn't they would die.."

So here we are. Back to square one as it was in 1980. However, justice must be done in analysis. From current developments, 1980 seemed to be a time of Liberia's political renaissance. Yes, the so-called Senate was packed with Doe's henchmen ( just as earlier Presidents) but there were no visible, arrogant intimidation schemes as we have seen in the Taylor - Brumskine Affair. Yes, Doe, like all Liberian presidents before him, was the only center of power, passing on favors to cronies as he felt like; but there was no glaring display of supremacy in dealing with other branches of Government as we have seen in the Taylor regime. A case in point is his personal "donation" of a fleet of jeeps to his Senators. Instead of allowing the relevant state ministries handle the senators' needs, Taylor personally handed the keys over to them, receiving the expected "Thank you, chief!" He explained that the jeeps were bought with a 3-year loan but his experience at lucrative GSA under Doe restricted him giving the source of the loan nor the amount. The message here is clear: "I give and I take away." As if this message was not clear to the Senators, he warned them a few weeks after "giving" them the jeeps that he would take them away if they (the Senators) did not stop plying the streets of Monrovia with them and go to the rural areas to visit their constituents. Separation of Powers? It's more like Big Daddy dealing with his boys and girls.

During the Doe years, development budgets for political subdivisions such as counties were a part of the national budget. Now, it is President Taylor who dishes out cash to certain counties for "development," as he did recently for Nimba and Bong counties. He and he alone determines the needs and priorities.

There is however one similarity between the Doe and Taylor eras: summary executions, disappearances of real or perceived opponents, the expanding influence of securocrats, henchmen who target and eliminate opponents for the "chief" in the name of national security, show coup plot trials.

Although some political window dressing was attempted immediately after he was elected, it is now self evident that Taylor is deeply consumed by the bunker mentality. Says Africa Confidential: "Senior NPP officials dislike level of power sharing. Pressure on Taylor to fire opposition ministers could become irresistible." NPP Secretary General Cyrill Allen told Africa Confidential. After Taylor and Senator Grace Minor, Allen is third in the government hierarchy..."

This explains the grudging exit of Brumskine from the Senate leadership. Brumskine, never mind his dreams of recreating the "Good old days", is not simply one of the Taylor types. Days after his dismissal standoff between him and the Taylor supremo Allen, Brumskine, the man who, prior to the elections, vowed that "We will get our country back," and that those who agitated against the True Whig Party in the 70s must pay for their act, finally could not bear the Allen pressure. The Liberian saying that "If your house cannot sell you, the public cannot buy you" came to pass. The "revolution" eats its own children. Brumskine was in effect kicked out and replaced by Senator Kekura Kpoto, the once powerful, scheming, coning Chairman of Samuel Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL). Taylor spearheaded the killing of over 250,000 people and the destruction of the already impoverished country to overthrow the NDPL government.

In any case, the fallout between Brumskine and Taylor was expected. The differences between the two men are simply glaring and irreconcilable. Brumskine, genuinely educated, has an independent mind, believing in the theoretical separation of powers and transparency; Taylor prefers other minds dependent on his, determined to build an autocracy clothed in concepts of democracy; Brumskine is an academic, far devoid of conspiratorial designs common with Mafia-type politicos that currently rule Liberia; Taylor specializes in scheming, the use of strong-arm measures to reap political dividends; Brumskine truly believes in the competition of ideas, the specifics of democracy; Taylor uses democracy only if his demands are addressed. It was therefore clear that from the onset, a clash was inevitable.

In less than 2 years, the real children and backers of the NPFL are back in business. Saleeby had to go as Finance Minister because there are certain things he was unable to stomach or cover-up. He is now replaced by John Bestman, another Doe "technician" who managed the National Bank of Liberia and the Finance Ministry as Governor and Minister respectively at a time when Uncle Sam gave Liberia more money (half a billion dollars) than at any other time in the country's history. Bestman and Taylor served together in the Doe regime in lucrative financial areas. While Taylor was in charge of buying everything for members of the junta, the People's Redemption Council, needed and wanted, (and there were endlessly many) Taylor bought with funds released by Bestman. So the two men know each other very well. It is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. Back to square one.

The entire political scenario would be a comedy had it not been linked to the massive destruction and killings engineered by men and women grossly incapable of fostering change. Even Taylorists with some degree of honesty, along with independent observers of the Liberian political scene, would now concede that the war was waged in the name of greed and graft, not for change. There was no ideological justification of the killings and destruction and that nearly all of Doe's men, those that managed to stay alive, are back determining the fate of the country justifies this conclusion. Taylor's frame of reference cannot be anything different from that of a man who propelled him to power and influence in Liberian politics. His frame of reference will always be Samuel K. Doe. The tragedy is that Doe ruled at a different era, an era dominated by the Cold War through which (like Mobutu) he immensely benefited. For example, Liberia's import-export earnings in 1988, one year before Taylor's war, was USD707m. In 1997 when hopes for economic recovery were tied to elections, it was USD239m. In 1998 since he began managing of the economy, it has fallen to a mere USD119m. And with Liberia now a pariah in the world, globally accused of destabilization plots in Africa, the stakes are different.

"But Liberians" modest hopes have been dashed and the cycle of West African insurgency and counter-insurgency, in which his (Taylor's) role is central, is rebounding on him. The coastal belt between Liberia and Guinea Bissau has become one of the most politically unstable areas on earth, a lucrative market for arms and gems. Distrusted abroad and with a collapsed economy at home, Taylor grows weaker," observed the authoritative Publication Africa Confidential.

Back to square one. The ghost of Samuel K. Doe looks and laughs. Monkey has come down; bamboo is up. But the anarchy, killings, mismanagement continue on a higher plane.

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