President Pro-Tempore Addresses Surreptitous Liberian International Trade Conference

By Abraham M. Williams

The Perspective

Posted: April 8, 1998

On October 27, 1997, the news about the surreptitious Liberian International Trade Conference seeped into The Newsroom of The Perspective. The editors of The Perspective, along with other Liberians who were informed late that evening of a Liberian trade delegation, went to the Atlanta Public Library to hear Liberian officials speak. We knew from the outset that the atmosphere might not be friendly, since the group's arrival in Atlanta and the so-called Liberian International Trade Conference had been kept secret by the organizers from the Liberian Community in the metro areas.

Nevertheless, we decided to attend the meeting. The delegation was headed by Sen. Charles Walker Brumskine (NPP, Grand Bassa County) and President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate. It also included Mr. Philip A. Z. Banks, Mr. Emmanuel B. James and Mrs. Rosemarie James, all practicing attorneys-at-Law.

The conference was organized by Liberian Evangelist George M. Kiadii, and some Americans with interest in Liberia.

According to Ms Caroline D. Agho, Mistress of ceremony, the conference would be devoted to trade issues. It would be a forum where Liberian officials would outline the need and opportunities for American businesses, mainly African American business entities, to invest in the West African country. Most of those in attendance, save three whites, were members of Kiadii's church and a few black entrepreneurs.

In introducing the occasion, Mr. George M. Kiadii said the Liberian International Trade & Development Conference was designed in order to explore the possibility of economic opportunities. Mr. Kiadii said, "We've come today to create a space for economic growth and opportunity."

In his speech, Sen. Brumskine said the "Republic of Liberia is not only the oldest black republic in the world but also the African man's institution." He said the role that Atlanta played in the civil rights movement in this country can be likened to the role Liberia played in the emancipation of the African man.

Sen. Brumskine further told his audience, "I come to you not to talk about the war you heard so much, some true, some embellished. But I come to you seeking your assistance because we are aware like you are that democracy is not an event. Democracy is a process." Adding, "unless our government stands to provide the wherewithal that facilitates the democratic process that ensures the continuation of that process, the process could break again."

The senator rhetorically asked his American audience: "Why do we come to you? Why not other nations?" He said "because we share a historical tie with this country. Liberia, unlike most other African countries, was never colonized. We do not therefore enjoy any direct benefit of the north/south relationship."

Sen. Brumskine briefly reviewed the long-standing relationship between Liberia and the United States, and underscored the need for American investment in Liberia, at a critical period in its national life.

He said the relationship goes as far back as 1820 "when free slaves left these shores for West Africa giving birth to a nation that we proudly call home, a nation that has been the prize and pride of the black man all over the world. A nation that you must help today to be restored to its dignity."

Mr. Brumskine, outlined the mineral reserves in Liberia and the business opportunities available to corporate entities for investment. He told his audience that Liberia is endowed with natural resources, among which are iron ores, rubber, coffee, cocoa, gold and possibly oil reserves. However, he cautioned his audience that the latter has not been positively determined to be in exploitable quantity. But, it is said Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia are located on the same continental shelf, and there is oil in both Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Therefore, it's reasonable to conclude that Liberia has exploitable oil deposits. The senator also pointed out other investment opportunities in the areas of telecommunications and power generation.

He emphasized that Liberia has a democratic tradition and the free enterprise system. Sen. Brumskine also assured his audience that the body of law which governs business activities in Liberia is "similar to what you have here. The difference is you have a federal system while we have a unitary system. Our laws are the same."

At the end of his speech, the moderator announced that the senator would entertain a few questions from the audience. A number of questions dealing with business incentives and the gridlock of red tapes, which discourage the average businessperson, were addressed.

One questioner wanted to know that there were news reports that Mr. Taylor was coming to lay out his country's plight, advance his strategic vision for recovery before the United Nations in September. But suddenly Mr. Taylor elected to go to Libya instead of New York, Why?

The senator responded, in effect, by saying, we all know the problem Mr. Taylor has with the U. S. with respect to extradition. As you know the Doe regime had requested his extradition to Liberia. Mr. Taylor is president of Liberia. He cannot be extradited there. So we have withdrawn the extradition request. It might interest you to know that it's not the United States, but Liberians here who are making a big issue of this matter. "I spoke to a federal official a few days ago and I'm not going to call names. He said the U. S. saw no useful need but Liberians in this country were keeping the issue alive."

I then asked the senator why would he call a federal official to deal with a state issue. As far as the political aspect of extraditing Mr. Taylor to Liberia, which involved the federal government has been resolved. The situation that awaits Mr. Taylor in Massachusetts is a criminal matter in which he is regarded as a fugitive from justice. Why didn't the senator call Massachusetts authorities? Senator Brumskine asked me did I want an answer to that. The moderator intervened and reminded the audience that the conference was about trade and not politics.

When the senator and his delegation came outside the auditorium to interface with Liberians and others who had come to hear him speak, he transformed himself into that old familiar Liberian authoritarian, self-assuming mode, berating all others who hold opinions different from his own. He began to question the patriotism of Liberians who are opposed to Mr. Taylor and his government.

"How dare you think you're better than Liberians at home who overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Taylor? I am disappointed by the attitude of Liberians in there. I did not hear a single positive proposal from any of you, instead, all criticism of our government."

All the discussion about the virtues of democracy and how Liberia adheres and subscribes to all the democratic tenets and practices were nothing more than political gobbledygook, a merely flowery rhetoric designed for his unsuspecting American audience. I suspect Sen. Brumskine does not believe, let alone subscribe to, a whit of his own rhetoric.

As I approached the senator to present him a special package on behalf of the editorial board of The Perspective, he launched forward and said: "you're from Owensgrove. I bet I can beat your butt in your hometown of Owensgrove." I assured the senator that he was secure in his position as representative of all our people in Grand Bassa County and Liberia.

In an angry tone of voice, the senator told me, "as for me, my forebears were brought to this country by force, and I was not prepared to be forced to come back under any circumstance. That's why I decided to stay with our people during the crisis."

This encounter with Sen. Brumskine shows two disturbing, paralleled views about the Liberian civil. First, it reinforces what we have been talking about in The Perspective, that the proponents of the war were only interested in the reclamation of power by the Americo-Liberian elite. Having used all kinds of means, including denial of education, taxation without representation, inadequate health service, to keep the African- Liberian majority in servitude, the Americos could not conceive the notion of being ruled by their former servants.

Secondly, the claim that the war was necessary in order to stem out dictatorship and restore democracy is a fallacy. You can only restore that which existed. But Liberia was not a democracy, and dictatorship has its root far back before President Doe came to power. Besides, those who make this claim are not themselves predisposed to democratic tendencies as exemplified by Sen. Brumskine's performance.

On paper and in international forums, Liberia profusely exults and professes democracy and all its attendant characteristics. But in reality, Liberian officials not only disdain the concept, but also loathe democracy in every aspect of its applications. And this is why I am sadly convinced that the prospect of democracy is bleak in Liberia.

Many attendees believed the Senator adequately addressed the political and legal aspects of the delegation. However, the delegation failed in one critical phase of its mission, which could have been dealt with had the senator been briefed by trade experts of the Ministry of Commerce. And that's the critical need to lure manufacturing entities to Liberia.

Moreover, the delegation did not have prepared brochures or handouts containing mineral reserves & potentials, other investment opportunities, the protection and rights of investors and the availability of the abundance of cheap labor. This was a major mistake by those who organized the conference. It left an impression of irresponsibility with potential investors.

In the past, Liberia had relied heavily on its exploitable natural resources and rubber as the centerpiece for international trade development. But this dependency may have helped the foreign investors more than the Liberian people.

For instance, the Liberian Mining Company (L.M.C), which was located less than 50 miles from Monrovia, exploited the iron ores for several years until the mineral was depleted in the 1970s. And when there was no more iron ore to mine, the foreign investors folded their tent and left town.

In the aftermath, L. M. C. left a community in ruins, with a deep hole on the side of the mountain, a community saddled with unpredictable ecological and economic problems, such as mud slides. The town of Bomi Hill, now Tubmanburg, became a huge unemployment center since the only employer in town had gone under.

Similar situations are likely to happen at other mining centers in the country, because the viability of these corporations depends on a finite product. Liberia must therefore learn from the Bomi Hill experience and begin to diversify the economy.

But the prospect of Liberia reversing its flawed reliance on natural resources as the centerpiece of its trade and economic policy is not promising. We have never had any innovative economic and trade initiatives which blend our natural advantage (climate and natural resources)and acquired advantage (technology and skill development) as a national priority.

This lack of sound economic thinking led Hugh M. Browne, a noted black educator, to make the following remarks about the Americo- Liberian and his notion of education and development in 1896.

He described what manner of man the Americo-Liberian was in this way: "He was a man who, in every line of life, was a non- producer. All that he possessed came to him as a gift, either from another race, or from the wild products of nature. A man who had memorized higher education of another race, without ever realizing the fact that knowledge is power..."

Mr. Browne then pointed to the poignant economic inactivity which was prevalent in Liberia at the time, that continues to be the benchmark of our economic development or lack thereof today.

He advanced the following observation: "In my journey through Liberia I find a few iron implements used by civilized races, but I find no remains of an iron foundry of factory; and iron ore, though plentiful, rests undisturbed. I find some manufactured cotton wares, but I find no remains of a cotton gin or mill, and the cotton plant is only found in its wild state." Importantly, Mr. Browne added, "I do not find one article bearing the stamp of a Liberian manufacture."

Unfortunately this dismal trend of economic paralysis and social development continues today. And it's sad to conclude from government policies over the years that Liberia is still operating on 19th century mind-set. No progress has been made in economic development, nor is effort being made to correct a defective educational system which fuels inadequacy and retards advancement.

International trade and development which is essentially modeled after emphasis on exploitable resources will not bring Liberia out the abyss of self-destruction. Liberia must rethink its economic and educational strategies and emphasize manufacturing and skill and technology development as the underpinning of its recovery efforts.

We must engage multinational corporations about bringing manufacturing and outsourcing facilities to Liberia. This will help create a much needed, self-sustaining middle class, as Liberians will be involved in exporting finished products and importing supplies for international manufacturers. The potential for success in this area is enormous.

But while it may be unreasonable to reach a definitive conclusion about Taylor administration's policy based on four months in office, it's, however, fair to expect a policy agenda, and the direction in which Mr. Taylor intends to take the country.

The failure to put forth a strategic vision for recovery in a timely fashion, promote transparent justice and respect human rights, along with Sen. Brumskine's bombast are matters of concern. These issues create an uneasy feeling within those who have hopes that perhaps Liberia was at the dawn of a new era in which democracy would flourish.

Equally, Sen. Brumskine's antics reaffirm the suspicion most detractors of Taylor have that Liberia is, sadly, headed back to a ruthless dictatorship.