Liberia: Laying the Foundation for Sustained Peace

By Ezekiel Pajibo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 16, 2003

On October 14 a new interim government would be inaugurated in Liberia. This occasion will provide Liberians another opportunity to take the path to peace and stability. This is no easy feat. After all, the country has witnessed more than 14 years of violent and destructive civil conflict, preceded by nine years of a repressive military dictatorship. As a result, more than 300,000 Liberians may have lost their lives, a million more displaced. What this actually means is that one in every three Liberian does not live where he or she lived in 1989 when Mr Charles Taylor launched his war to capture state power. As well, hundreds of thousand others are refugees in neighbouring countries in the West Africa region and around the world. They have had to flee their homes and in almost all circumstances, their homes were destroyed. Not only that, but also the fact that their lives are now completely destitute and wretched by these events. Mid-way during the war in 1995, it was quite clear that the Liberian nation had been driven back fifty years in its development objectives. What that meant in real terms was that by 1995, the country was worse off than it was in 1944 when President William VS Tubman took power.

Anyone familiar with Liberia’s history would know that in 1944, travel from Greenville to Monrovia for example, was possible only by boat - there was no functional secondary school or hospital in the inland counties (then provinces) - those without a coast. The monthly income of a typical Liberian civil servant was US$15.55/month. Fast forward to 2003 and the situation is grimmer because then there was peace and stability, the country was nearly self-sufficient in food production. No Liberian was asking for the US to come to their rescue and ECOWAS was not even in existence. Today, however, we are a prostrate nation, on bended knees - our pride and dignity severely brutalized. Liberia, once the beacon of hope in Africa, an oasis of peace, is now Africa eyesore and for very good reasons. Its citizenry are now scattered to the four corners of the universe.

But the Liberian spirit is undaunted and never mind all the fuss about our lack of nationalism or as some would suggest as a lack of patriotism because they argue we do not have a common agency that reflects our common patrimony. Yet, what does it mean to be a Liberian in 2003 - when our country is so destroyed and our people so hopeless? This is an important question because depending on how Liberians respond to this will be defining our future. This paper hopes to offer a vision of the immediate present. This is a contribution to the Liberian debate, as it unfolds.

It must be made cleared immediately that this policy paper is not beholden to any particular political party, interest group or any combination thereof, rather, its strength is resident in the fact that those who embrace this work and/or initiated it are independent Liberian thinkers - men and women who want to put forward a principled value-driven agenda to move the Liberian nation forward. After all, one notable Liberian once said "total involvement for higher heights." Let us not be oblivious to our history!

About the Transition
A number of critics have made reasonable statements regarding the nature, content and potential of the transitional process that emerged out of the Accra/Akosombo process. A favourable tenet has to do with the fact that even though the process including the duration for consultation and deliberation was extensive - about 78 days and the participation broader unlike the Banjul meeting of 1990, the outcomes are similar and the prospects for success limited. These critics point out that as long as the warring factions are major players in the dispensation, it is difficult to imagine a successful outcome. No doubt, these criticisms are well intentioned, but they don not address the prevailing circumstances and changed international climate. What does this really mean?

For starters, the changed international climate has certain discernible features that are indisputable. The interim government of Gyude Bryant seems to arguably have more acceptances among Liberians and probably more international recognition than the Amos Sawyer led interim government. The Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, unlike his predecessor, Samuel Doe, is an indicted war criminal. The United Nations has committed itself to a more robust presence in Liberia. The history of ECOWAS first intervention is laden with experiences that need not be repeated. There appears to be a common understanding that impunity by those in authorities will not go unquestioned and/or unpunished. Indeed, unlike the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a sizeable majority of Liberians are not prepared to give neither Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy and its Siamese twin, the Movement for democracy in Liberia (MODEL) the benefit of the doubt. What is even more important after 14 years of a bloody conflict, Liberians have reached their nadir, the point of no return. When they say NO MORE WAR they really do mean it this time.

It is these factors, which Liberians need to appropriate in order to envisage a better future, a future without war, a future of genuine reconciliation and justice. What needs to be done to make this future a living reality in the lives of Liberians?

The caretaker government
We should make no mistake about the mandate of the Bryant led government. Clearly, the government is mandated to lead the country to democratic elections by 2005. Certain fundamentals must be put in place for this outcome to happen. It is these fundamentals we need to concern ourselves with and they include the following.

Demobilization and Disarmament
Our present history is replete with too many unfortunate anomalies for us to ignore the failures of the 1996-’97 demobilization and disarmament process in Liberia. Most Liberians are familiar with the adage that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Well, we want to make sure that our most recent history cannot be ignored this time around. To this end, the primary objectives of the international peacekeepers, whether ECOMIL or UN would be the following:

Pacification of the country
Every nook and cranny of Liberia must be gun/rebel free. The verification mechanism espoused in the Accra Peace Agreement of June 17 must be revisited. In other words, all the warring factions must with ample documentation indicate the size of their fighting forces and weaponry. Since we can not naturally trust the various armed factions which include the government, LURD and MODEL forces, corroborating mechanism should be instituted that would involve neighbouring countries and international intelligence network to verify their proclamations. Alongside this, special programs must be put into place to ensure public exposure in ways that protect would-be whistle blowers while holding accountable culprits. Quite simply, no stone should be left unturned in efforts to adequately and effectively disarm and demobilize the warring factions.

Reintegration No, Demilitarization Yes
It is the position of this policy paper to for once declare the demilitarization of Liberia. We do not need an army. Our more than 150-year history has clearly demonstrated that the Liberian army does not fit any classical definition of what are the responsibilities of a standing army. At its inception, the Liberian Frontier Force, the precursor to the Armed Forces of Liberia has had a history of hostility towards the Liberian people. It is hard time that we recognize the fact that not only has the Army being a drain on our resources; it has caused us more harm than good. We should therefore resist any and all items to reconstitute the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Instead, we can beef up our police forces and ensure sufficiently trained and competent police force that would have measurable presence throughout the country. In the near future, those who are on government payroll and those who harbour ambition of being soldiers especially among the warring factions should be deployed in public works activities including the repair of roads, schools and clinics and other infrastructures relevant to economic recovery. If Costa Rica, Switzerland can survive without a standing army, so can Liberia. Again, we can be pathfinder in Africa.

Besides, we can fully embrace and practicalize the non-aggression treaties with our neighbours (via the Mano River Union) alongside guarantees from the African Union and the United Nations by dissolving our military. What is more, Liberia’s commitment to peace in the region would be made manifest by the fact that it no longer has a standing army. This way, international assistance (if it wants to be faithful to our best aspirations) - that is mobilised - can be invested in the productive sectors including the repair of hospitals, schools, road networks, water, electricity and communication infrastructures - what good and meaningful way to spend donor funding and what best way to rekindle hope in our people.

Priorities for the transitional government
Aside from the holding of the October 2005 national elections, the priorities areas for the transitional government that must be of necessity should include the following:

Repatriation and Resettlement
The repatriation of Liberian refugees should be the number one priority of the transitional government - in fact just as the 1997 election demonstrated, we can not really hold a free and fair elections without providing the requisite conditions under which the majority of our people who want to vote are able to exercise their right. Mr. Taylor and his supporters continually remind the rest of us and the world that he was elected by a free and fair election. That is far from the truth. Most Liberians were denied the right to freely exercise their choice for a number of reasons. Primary among these were the fact that Liberian refugees in neighbouring countries and elsewhere were denied the right to vote and in many parts of Liberia especially, areas under Taylor’s control, residents were not free to exercise their right to vote. In addition, the inaccessibility of large portions of the country meant - given the state of disrepair of roads and other communication networks - that a great deal of potential voters did not have the opportunity to exercise their right. Additionally, the domination of the airwaves by the NPFL certainly demonstrated the uneven playing field.

That is why the repatriation of Liberian refugees is of outmost importance. It must also be noted that the resettlement package in the mid 1990’s was too miserly to attend to the need of Liberians qualified for resettlement and should be substantially increased this time around. Practically, the government needs to institute a scheme that will provide easy credit facilities to Liberians in order for them to be able to access monies to repair their homes. One way to ensure a durable peace in Liberia is to give the Liberian people a basis for hope. This can be accomplished if people are provided with the necessary wherewithal to put their lives back together. A practical expression would be to provide means to Liberians to acquire the necessary fund to rebuild their houses, this in addition to government’s public work programs indicated above would provide ample guarantees that Liberia is on its way to recovery. With hope comes a possibility to no longer entertain any prospect for war. Therefore, a modest and appreciative resettlement package should be envisioned, one that includes access to grants/loans to rebuild homes. On this score, some international goodwill may be required. Perhaps, Liberians can prevail on Habitat for Humanity to establish a presence in our country and rekindle the hope of our people by assisting them to rebuild their destroyed homes.

There have been calls for the international community to conduct the Liberian elections. This is not a wise proposition. There are many Liberians who are competent, honest and dedicated to seeing free and fair elections in our country. We must call upon them to carry out this national responsibility. The role of the international community should be in the areas of technical assistance, logistical support and funding as defined by Liberians. This is all the more compelling because once we have Liberians conduct genuinely free and fair elections, the experience, knowledge and dedication would remain with the country and can be counted upon for future electoral exercises.

It has been pointed out that the life span of the interim government - 2 years is a short time to hold free and fair elections. This may be true but yet, we don’t have the luxury of time. The longer it takes the country to get back on its feet, the greater the likelihood that international good will that can be counted upon now would dissipate. The amount of demands that is being placed on the international community is such that we have to act fast, deliberately and intelligently in order to maximized whatever benefits we can accrue from the international community. We cannot pussyfoot. After all, we have Somalia to remind us. Even at the moment when we seem to have some international attention, it is fast fading away. With the US now calling for a UN presence in Iraq, we can just as well be rest assured that neglecting Liberia would not be far away. Already, the US is suggesting that it would pull out of Liberia even before the Interim Government is seated. Liberia should strike while the iron is hot.

The Legislature
As to the framework for the conduct of the Liberia election, we need to return to our Constitution. The 1997 election has taught us that the proportional representation formula does not ensure adequate representation of the country and its people. In fact, I will even hazard to suggest that the Liberian Legislature during the Taylor regime was arguably the most powerless Legislature ever in Liberian history. We cannot allow this to happen again. We need to have a powerful, capable and working Legislature. Given our present calamity, we need individuals in the Legislature who will make it a full time job in order to ensure that the democratic liberties of Liberians are upheld and the Executive is transparent and accountable to the people. In order words, the Liberian Legislature must be constituted by men and women who have spine and are fearless in their defence of the needs of their constituencies and the generality of the Liberian people. The Liberian Legislature must be enabled to adequately represent the aspirations of the entirety of the Liberian people and must be in regular contact with its constituencies.

The Judiciary
The Legislature must be capable of working with the Executive as peers in elaborating a competent and independent Judiciary. If Liberians are bereft of expertise in all other areas, the legal profession is the exception. The country has produced some of the finest legal minds on the African continent, this is the time to employ these legal minds and prevail upon them to once and for all establish a truly independent judiciary, one that is not at the beckon call of the Executive. The Liberian nation deserves a Judiciary that metes out justice to all and sundry. It must secure, uphold and protect the rights of every Liberian.

The Executive
Indeed, most Liberians will be concerned about who becomes their next President and no doubt, there will be countless number of candidates. Our country has established that the Presidency is "the be it all and the end it all." We have to change this concept and attitude. We don’t want an all-powerful president. We need to have a decentralized government in which counties can elect their own local governments, i.e., Superintendents, Commissioners, etc., and elaborate their own budget and priorities. Our Executive can concern itself with coordinating our national development strategies and objectives in order to ensure even development throughout the country. It can also ensure that the lives and properties of our people are protected, and as much as it, can represent and articulate the needs of the nation abroad.

If nothing else, the Liberian war years should teach us that a new political dispensation in which power devolves to the people is undoubtedly the most reasonable option that ensures lasting peace and stability in our country. This is what power to the people is all about. There should be no more "Oldman" or "Papay". We want a Mr, Miss and/or Mrs President. No more father figure as president. A regular Liberian, who embraces and respects the dignity of each and every Liberian and acts accordingly is what the country needs. We want a nation builder not a nation wrecker. Liberians want a leader who is the repository of their aspirations and values. Pure and simple.

The Economy
At a time when we have laid waste to our nation, globalization has taken over - we have been told that the free market is the panacea to our woes. With the prostrate condition of our country in which an Ambassador seems to exude more power and stature than our so-called "national leaders," and therefore the irresistible urge to want to elaborate in our behalf in terms of the economic path we should take, we need to be aware of our priorities. Indeed, trying to resuscitate a criminalized economy amidst massive poverty and social wretchedness, we may be tempted to grab at every straw we see but that would be foolish. More than anything else, we need to, as a nation, have a conversation about our economic architecture. We must of necessity begin where most of our people earn their living - the agriculture sector. Indeed, we need to ensure that whatever our economic policy orientation leads us, the Liberian people must be first and foremost. We can no longer allow a Bomi Hills to become a Bomi Hole and have nothing to show for it. We cannot have a Harbel Rubber Plantation, Cavalla Rubber Plantation and our country does not manufacture anything using rubber as a major component - not car tyres and not even condoms. We produce timber and not furniture, cocoa and not chocolate, iron ore and not steel. Foreign interests should not be allowed to exploit our resources while our people lead miserable lives. This has got to stop. Our resources must be used to improve the material conditions of our people and develop our country.

To every generation comes a challenge, that generation is judged by how it responds to the challenge. Those of us Liberians alive today, who are scattered to the four winds of the earth and those of us who endure the brutality of the war must rise to this challenge. What we make of our current circumstances characterized by destruction and death will be our legacy to our children. We must respond positively and affirmatively on the side of justice and reconciliation. We should rebuild our country on the principle of democratic liberties and social equality. This means that we must rebuild a country that is truly our common patrimony. We should "pledge allegiance to the flag of Liberia and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible and justice for all." Remember in High School? Is this right or is age taking over me?

About the author: Ezekiel pajibo (a Liberian) currently lives and works in Harare, Zimbabwe.