Liberians Take Stand For Democracy

In his tumultuous and disastrous presidency, Liberia's President Charles Taylor has overcome and survived many obstacles in his path. He would have perhaps achieved a major feat and scored an heroic triumph if his visit to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly Conference last September had not been stopped in its tracks. While he says the "lack of funds" made it impossible for him to attend, it is clear that there was a gathering storm and a confluence of several forces beyond his control that helped prevent this visit.

The importance of this United States visit was penultimate. The stakes were high. The hiring of a U. S. public relations firm, owned and run by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, for about $300,000.00, and having Mr. Cohen as a special personal advisor to Mr. Taylor, set the stage for this visit. Using his vast State Department connections and influence, Mr. Cohen convinced the federal government to bring pressure to bear on the state of Massachusetts to drop criminal charges against Mr. Taylor who fled prison while serving time for embezzling one million dollars from the Liberian government.

Having cleared this legal huddle, the real public relations campaign began in earnest. Tapping into his vast network of influential American friends, sympathizers and supporters, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, U. S. Representatives Donald Payne, (D. NJ); Cynthia McKinney (D. GA) and many others, Mr. Taylor sought to remake his image and prepare the way for his triumphant entry into the United States.

As part of his image makeover, Mr. Taylor tried to use his well-connected friends to influence Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male black liberal arts college known for its civil rights tradition, that has produced distinguished African American leaders such as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to confer upon him an honorary doctorate degree.

This well-touted and much-publicized visit would have not only been a personal triumph for Mr. Taylor, and a redemption of his sins, but would have also provided him a world stage that he had long awaited in order to fulfil his personal ambitions as one of Africa's "renaissance" leaders that should be taken seriously.

But this well-orchestrated and well-financed public relations extravaganza collapsed as a result of internal and external pressure of Liberians at home and abroad. Internally, Mr. Taylor had to confront the challenge of a second incursion launched by dissidents in Lofa County in northwestern Liberia. The group, Joint Forces for the Liberation of Liberia (JFLL), reportedly comprised of disgruntled ex-combatants of Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), and remnants of erstwhile warring factions, launched a cross-boarder raid in July and seized several strategic towns and villages. This development threatened the already fragile security situation in the country.

The external factor posed an even greater challenge. Liberians abroad, especially those based in the United States, presented a formidable opposition to Mr. Taylor's visit. In various Liberian communities across the United States - from North to south - Liberians used their community organizations as a vehicle to overwhelmingly vote against the planned visit. In many states -especially Georgia in the south, Massachusetts and New York in east- where Liberians are heavily concentrated, they seized the opportunity to highlight the atrocities the Taylor government has committed against the Liberian people by writing letters to their congressional representatives.

In Atlanta, for example, where he had planned to visit, Liberians, while preparing to engage Mr. Taylor, resisted attempts by Morehouse College to confer an honorary doctorate on Mr. Taylor. Although the college denied this allegation, it admitted that it had planned to receive and welcome Mr. Taylor on its campus

Of course, most Liberians knew that they could not have stopped Mr. Taylor from visiting the United States. But they used the planned visit to underscore the abysmal human rights record of the regime; draw attention to the dismissive attitude of the world community about war crimes and other atrocities committed by Taylor and other warlords during the civil war in Liberia. More importantly, the trip would have provided an opportunity for Liberians to use the American media to confront Mr. Taylor with the facts of his dictatorial rule and urge U. S. authorities not to accord him a red carpet treatment.

With the worldwide web as a platform, a coalition of pro-democracy groups began to assemble the plethora of economic, security, and general living conditions in Liberia under Mr. Taylor's rule. Not only is the record replete with poignant telling stories of suffering and a systemic assault against individual liberties, but the regime seems incapable of advancing serious initiatives to alleviate these difficulties and provide some relief for the people.

The regime's failure to provide effective leadership to deal with the pressing problems in the country prompted progressive organizations such as The Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), Coalition of Progressive Liberians in the Americas (COPLA) and the Liberian Democratic Institute (LDI) to coalesce their skills and resources to oppose this visit. These organizations began releasing the horrendous human rights abuses and the pervasive scorn for life in Liberia since Taylor came to power on the Internet. In addition, they and their allies led the debate that gave impetus to the planned public demonstrations that awaited Mr. Taylor in key cities on his official itinerary.

As expected, the indexing and posting of the regime's atrocious human rights record enraged some Taylor's supporters. Liberian diplomats as well as other Taylor's loyalists accused The Perspective and its partners of waging a negative campaign against the government and a personal vendetta against Mr. Taylor. However, they did not challenge the accuracy of evidence.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of human rights abuses and the economic paralysis of the Taylor presidency, the president's supporters mounted a vigorous defense of the Liberian ruler. But realizing the weakness of their argument, they shrewdly downplayed his determined refusal to face up to the critical issues of war crimes and genuine reconciliation to heal the national wound.

Instead, his defenders pleaded with other Liberians in the Diaspora to ignore all the human miseries that Taylor and other former warlords imposed upon Liberia, but accord him respectability simply because he was elected in a free and fair election. They further argued that whether his detractors like it or not, Mr. Taylor is president of Liberia and the critics better reconcile themselves to this fact. But these Taylor's surrogates failed to realize that election is only one of many components in the democratic process. And it imposes certain responsibilities upon those elected ­ responsibilities which must be fully executed under the watchful eyes of the electorate.

The Perspective recognizes the right of any citizen to express his views in support or against his government, and advance argument that is germane and substantive to the issues at hand, but we expect such a person to do so with a degree of honesty. But Taylor's supporters often not only rationalized his failures, but also engaged in moral bankruptcy of duplicity. Not long ago, many of these same people were calling for removing of President Doe by "any means necessary" for some of same things that Mr. Taylor is being accused of today. Some of them said it did not matter how many Liberians were killed, so long Doe was among the dead. Now theirs has become a voice of moderation, urging other Liberians to cast a blind eye to the mountain of ills that has characterized the Taylor regime.

What is even more disheartening in the Liberian saga is its profundity for hypocrisy. Some of the individuals who ardently opposed Mr. Doe for his ruthlessness and brutality turned out to be no champions for democracy after all. What they oppose is not dictatorship, human rights abuses, callous disdain for life and other evils, which are inimical to democratic practices; but who perpetrates these atrocities. Many could not accept a Doe leadership.

But now that Taylor is president, those things that were at the center of our political debate: democracy, the sanctity of life, freedom of speech and equality before the law, suddenly became secondary and unimportant. Some of our people have become apologists for Mr. Taylor; others are offering new definition for democracy, lecturing us that perhaps we should analyze our situation in an African context, not as defined by western values and ethos. Essentially, these characters do violence to our sensibilities and demean all Africans ­ Liberians in particular ­ as a bunch of creatures who deserve less and must be treated differently from people in western societies.

What is at play is that familiar demonic class system which underpins our predicament. Taylor's core support comes from the remnants of the defunct elitist political establishment that ruled the country until the military takeover in 1980. During that rule ­ from 1847 to 1980 ­ the United States, a citadel for democracy and common decency ­ cast a blind eye on Liberia while a tiny minority of former American slave expatriates set up a plantation of abuse and exploitation of the indigenes.

So when political opportunists such as Winston Tubman says "African countries expect the United States to work with other international partners to fulfill its historical obligations to Liberia" it becomes a coded message to most African Liberians. Which aspects of those "historical ties" Mr. Tubman has in mind? Is he suggesting that the U. S. ignore the waves of human rights violations as it did during the reign of the old political order? And why should Liberians listen to him when we know he entreated President Doe for a position as minister of justice at the time when Liberians were trying to expose Mr. Doe's Draconian crackdown on the opposition? What job is he seeking now by this subtle attempt to ingratiate Mr. Taylor?

It is this kind of devious somersault that has rendered such politicians and organizations like the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) irrelevant in our current political discourse. But Mr. Tubman is by no means alone in this theatre of opportunism, where the "self" is the dominant character. There are other suckers like him who are ready to throw our people once more to the devouring wolves of dictatorship.

Other such compromised individuals handicapped the Union to remain silent and work against the sentiments of the majority of its members. The once powerful, well-respected advocate for democracy in Liberia has become a surrogate for Mr. Taylor. It's now a "Toothless Bulldog" that has abandoned its core principles.

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