In Akasombo: A Time to Give Peace a Chance

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 4, 2003

We Liberians have reached another critical moment in these contemporary times. We have arrived at a fork in the road as we ponder our destiny as a people and a nation. As in all conflicts, opposing forces and views pull every which way, as the voices of reason remain shrunk in the middle. We must remember, whichever way we end up will be our making. Will the divisive forces calling for self-destruction prevail? Let's hope not. Will the calmer and more positive voices calling for peace, understanding and a new beginning triumph? That is what I (among many of my fellow war-wearied countrymen) hope - hence, the call for giving peace a chance.

For over two decades now, the country Liberia has been at war with itself. Many of our fellow nationals have perished at the hand of each other. Many are dying from horrible (and preventable) causes such as diseases, hunger and other natural catastrophes as well as from actual conflicts resulting in violent clashes with each other. Yet, a lot more people have become "displaced", living in indescribably horrendous conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

Inside Liberia, the government of Charles Taylor rules with an iron fist. It has instituted draconian measures to deal with its enemies (real and imagined), in many cases, its own creation.

Popping up, here and there like mushrooms in the fields, are some of the most violent and capriciously criminal gangs known to modern mankind. Whether they are more violent than the thugs protecting the government is a toss up. Ironically, these uncouth groups call themselves "liberators". They are killing the citizens to "liberate" them.

Unfortunately caught in the middle, at the epicenter of all this senseless violence is the Liberian public - citizens without recourse. Shamelessly, the government claims it is only defending the rule of law - that it has a duty to defend the citizenry. The rebels, on the other hand, claim to be fighting to dethrone a tyrannical government. It is quite undisputable, however, that they all administer huge doses of pain and cruelty to the public - all done in the name of liberation and justice. What a merciless joke!

Against this backdrop, the Ghanaian Government hosts another peace conference where the international community, especially of West Africa, will attempt to mediate the ongoing conflicts between the Taylor Government and the rebel forces, as well as the various opposition political groups.

Taylor goes to Akasombo from a position of strength and weakness. His strength is based on the fact that he is the sitting president and has a number of bargaining chips. But he is also considerably weakened in the face of persistent insurgency by the rebels. The rebels, we are told, have markedly increased their territorial control as Taylor's shrinks.

The reality is every other group, be it a rebel group or a political party, is also going in from a position of strength and weakness as well. That is why it will be necessary to go to the table with open-mindedness. Peace must be the goal, or we will be wasting our time, not to mention the precious time of our gracious hosts.

There are a number of parties that will approach that setting with no intention to compromise. (The rumors abound already). They will attempt to gain everything and lose nothing. Well, that is simply not the way to negotiate peace. The parties must be willing to give and take - to gain a little here and lose a little there. No one has all the bargaining chips; no one has all the trump cards. We must remember that what hangs in the balance is Liberia. Enough damage has already been done - we can't afford to salvage her for good. That's what must be remembered.

Many key issues will form the basis for discussion and negotiation. Some of the issues to be debated and hopefully settled will center on the up-coming elections. Will they be held as scheduled? Should elections be held at all, given the present atmosphere? If elections cannot be held, should the government's tenure be extended or should the government resign? If so, when should the government resign? Should there be any foreign intervention forces allowed in Liberia? Should there be any legal repercussions?

But I think the issue that may prove potentially damaging to the entire process will be the issue of succession. What if the international community finally convinces the Taylor Government to step down, who will become the interim leader as we sort things out? It is then I think the ugly spirit of tribalism will raise its terrible head and derail the talks. Delegates must not allow themselves to make crucial decisions that will affect our future based on narrow tribal affiliations or allegiances.

Isn't it about time for us all, Liberians, to come together as a unified people instead of being divisive and complicated pieces of a huge puzzle? It will most certainly be to our advantage to do so; the alternative is absolutely unacceptable.

Is it going to be a difficult task? Yes, of course, because participants will come to the table with preconceived notions about the issues at hand. For some, the necessary adjustments required to become rational and open-minded will be a small step. For others, however, it will require a paradigm shift in thought processes. But it must be done.

In order for us to exorcise our national demons, it is absolutely important to focus on Liberia's ugly past as we examine the present and contemplate the future. At one point it was fashionable and even fair to blame our nation's troubles on the so-called Congo people. They were in control and turned the government into an exclusive club run by the minority to the detriment of the majority - that was wrong.

Doe and his group entered the stage with new promises. Despite all their noises about revolution and redeeming the masses, they conducted business using the same old model. As far as we know, they simply commandeered an old taxi-cab and threw a new driver behind the wheel. That too was to the detriment of the majority. (Maybe more so than it had been). We all know how that tragic experiment ended.

On the scene right now is Charles Taylor. In all fairness to the man we must be honest to admit that the old charges of "Congo versus Country" simply do not hold true anymore. Charles Taylor, to his credit has managed to assemble an all-Liberian team to suck the blood out their fellow countrymen and women. We can no longer accuse the government of being an all-Congo or an all-Americo-Liberian team. No, they are simply a bad team, but a Liberian team, they are.

Of course, Taylor has surrounded himself by loyalists from his natural background. That is simply to be expected. But who can deny the fact that some of the most powerful of the president's inner circle are men and women of indigenous background? Consider the positions of Vice President, Chief Justice, Minister of Justice, Minister of Defense, Chief of Staff, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a host of powerful legal and political advisors. Again, we must simply recognize that this is simply a bad team and it's time to show them the exit. This goes for the Vice President, too.

The point I'm laboring to make is simple: Charles Taylor is the chief culprit here, but he is not alone, neither is he working exclusively with people of a narrow, similar background as the case used to be. Therefore, as the conference begins in Akasombo, let's remember that that old song is not going to sound as sweetly melodious as it once did - that is unless we intend to deceive ourselves. It will be counter-productive to try to exclude Americo-Liberians in the consideration of new leadership just as it would be to exclude the Krahns, Mandingoes or Gios. We need all of our people to get it right this time, as long as the new leaders don't come with blood-stained hands.

It is time to select a broad-based team. A team that will be genuinely compassionate, capable, selfless and dedicated. It should not matter who the ultimate leader will be - Congo, Mandingo, Grebo, Krahn, Kpelle or Bassa - he or she must have a track record to stand up to scrutiny. That individual must have demonstrated astute leadership in certain capacities and must be willing and capable to assemble a diverse team, a Liberian team, that is.

So as the conference opens in Akasombo, Ghana, let us adopt the positive spirit expressed in the memorable lines uttered by the legendary Abraham Lincoln: "With malice towards none; with charity for all". You participants must remember that many helpless and frustrated people will count on you to deliver this time. It's time to give peace a chance. The Liberian people deserve no less. Good luck, we will all need it.