Advancing The Politics of Vengeance

By Tom Kamara
Jan 3, 2001

The progressing criminilization of Liberia, which is now lucidly portrayed by the recent UN Panel of Experts Report on how its President Charles Taylor is extending his tentacles around West Africa and elsewhere, brings into focus the politics of vengeance and separation introduced in this African enclave by American freed slaves who made it their home since 1822. But the fear is that ongoing policies geared towards ethnic clampdowns pose dangerous setbacks in building multi-ethnic coalitions so needed for rescuing the country and saving it from further collapse.

From December 1989 when Taylor stormed Liberia via Libyan, Ivorian and Burkinabe backing till now, the crusade of ethnic vengeance cemented in the process of capturing power for personal economic and other benefits, has been unrelenting. But this scramble to sustain power by all means and at all costs is now made more ruthless by the collapsed economy and the infinite search of enemies believed to be stumbling blocks in the criminilization process. This is significantly so because the economic infrastructure needed for the resurrection of the "good old days" of the past are unlikely to reemerge, since recovering from the horrendous looting and theft supervised by the leadership of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia is virtually impossible in the midst of mass theft, ineptitude, international isolation and an incurable pariah status. Now, the dream of every Liberian, escaping from the self-imposed economic misery, is to cross the ocean into the end of the tunnel-life of America and elsewhere.

A clear indication of this trend embedded with further anarchy is the rubber stamped Supreme Court's decision to up the number of years for imprisoned Krahn political leaders from 10 to 20 years even after a trial that raised more questions of simple justice than answers.

The Court's decision was followed by Taylor's announcement that the jailed men have "confessed" and that for their alleged confession, he would consider "compassion. We will see where to go from here," he said in appeals from religious groups and political parties to let the men go. But "Where to go from here" is not difficult to locate in this crusade of vengeance sowing the seeds of doom.

In an email to The Perspective by "EMMETT/CATHY" following its publication of the Court's verdict, a glimpse of the minds ruling Liberia emerges. It is high time for "an eye for an eye," they contend. "Whomever (sic) wrote this diatribe [the story on the Court's decision] must know that in this world the victor's make the rule and I am sure living in America should teach them that. The Krahns deserve everything they have received. Remember "an eye for an eye". These men should have been sent to hell long ago. Some of us out here feel and in fact Taylor have (sic) stayed within the Jurisdiction of Liberian laws. These people respected no laws when they put [13 Americo political leaders] others to death [during the 1980 coup] but the laws of Liberia guarantees (sic) them "Life" although caged. Others weren't so lucky... These were men that lived by the sword, and for anyone to think that because they have been given mere 10 years more in jail is justification for the tyranny[,] death and destruction they caused Liberia, is cause to not reconcile our differences then be prepared. To see these so called jailed men as mere opposition politician (sic) is either to have forgotten history or to be naive, dumb, or stupid. These men were killers and death squad executioners, they were not mere politicians that were placed into prison because they only spoke against the government. These were men that lived by the sword Long Live Charles Ghanky Taylor".

Endorsing such venom, the next "victorious " president succeeding Mr. Taylor, if he is, for example, Kpelle, and appoints some members of his tribe in Government, runs the risk of condemning his people to endless insanity that some members of society hail as justice. We then will have an endless circle of vendetta that breeds terror and therefore poverty, more so for the singers and dancers of "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I will vote you" that ushered Taylor's reign of chaos. However, the blueprint for the prevailing cycle of abuses was released during the war.

In 1996, Taylor announced he would institute the process of "Jungle Justice" which was already well underway in NPFL ruled areas. Thus key aboriginal professionals, politicians, and opinion leaders were sought out and executed. One year after his presidency ordained by the late Nigerian Dictator Sani Abacha, this process has gained new heights. The Krahns, his former benefactors when he served as Samuel Doe's key ally in the sharing of loot and enhancement of theft, were the immediate targets because of the military threat, perceived or real, they posed. Ernest Eastman, an ideologue within Taylor's inner circle who worked religiously for Doe and benefited immensely in material terms, reportedly protested that the American embassy protected fleeing Krahn men while it had refused similar protection for key Americo-Liberian leaders during the 1980 coup.

Making no secrets that the Krahns were hunted down not because of their alleged guilt but because they represented a tribe that led the violent collapse of the Americo-Liberia cast, the new Americo-Liberians released a video recording of the 1980 coup as they were paraded in court. During the trial, state lawyers repeatedly reminded the men of their tribe, which led to the fall of the Americo-Liberian dominion. At street corners, these men openly talked about how the "natives" will pay for interrupting their rule.

Prior to this inquisition, the agenda was unveiling. Charles Brumskine, then a prominent legal mind within the NPFL, at a meeting to discuss the role of ECOMOG in post-election Liberia, announced, "We want our country back." Brumskine, currently in exile after fleeing Taylor's security following a disagreement when he served as President of the Senate, warned that the era of the 70s and its political activists must never be forgotten. One can therefore understand why Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer, and Mr. Commany Wesseh, two of the "people of the 70s", recently escaped death and are now reported out of the country. Although Dr. Sawyer may have believed the promise of former US President Jimmy Carter that an internationally supervised Nigerian organized election meant democracy, and therefore proceeded to be co-opted within the Taylor fold, the truth soon emerged. "We must never forget the people of the 70s," Brumskine had warned. But to Taylor's credit, not all "people of the 70s" have been targeted. Baccus Matthews, one of the anarchistic firebrands of the 70s credited with leading a midnight demonstration to demand the resignation of the government and the violent Rice Riots of 1979 which left many poor people dead, has since perfected the act of crude political survival, successfully selling himself to any governing king once his personal interests are addressed. Once the Krahns were out of power with the butchering of Doe, Matthews urged Taylor "to use Executive Power" in eliminating the perceived Krahn threat. Taylor obeyed, and sent his son, at the head of murderous Anti-Terrorist Unit composed of the best terrorists Liberia has known, to gun down over 600 Krahns, many of them women and children, in September 1998. About 18,000 others fled into exile, according to the U.S. State Department. But again Matthews does not completely fit the paradigm, for he is not an African-Liberian.

In all fairness, this crusade against the "people of the 70s", in which the Krahns have become the icons even if many are innocent about the mass demands of justice in the 70s, did not begin with Taylor. It commenced with the military junta of Samuel Doe. Less than a year after dethroning the Americos, key Americo operatives found their way at the helms in the junta's power structure. They found a zealously welcoming Doe whose ambition was to look like Emmanuel Shaw, appointing him Minister of Finance to compensate him for his Afro-looks. Now Taylor's advisor, Shaw is wanted in South Africa on criminal charges. Americo women, lust of peasant soldiers in power, helped to unveil the myth around the coup makers. Some appointed themselves "designers", buying suits from abroad and sending them to dress "My president, my houseboy" leaders. Soon, the Americos and their operatives succeeded in convincing Doe that he was an excellent leader. The only dirt he was carrying was "the people of the 70s." Buying their value system and their politics of exclusivity and violence, he launched a full-scale war on "the people of the 70s", accusing them of undermining "our republican form of Government" and therefore deserving death. Whether he, with his 16 AK-47 totting friends, was guiltier in "undermining this republican form of government by using violence, and not those who exercised their rights under the Constitution by forming political unions and staging demonstrations, escaped his greedy mind. But the extension of "logic" against "the people of the 70s" even gained international attention, with the African-American Jesse Jackson, one of Taylor key friends and advisors, lamenting during a visit to Taylor that Liberia's problems are tied to the 1980 coup. "Good people" were eliminated, he said. Any historical reminder that tens of thousands of "good people," African-Liberians were and are being eliminated could not suffice in the mind of the American civil rights activist. Although 250,000 African-Liberians have been killed to avenge the 13 executed Americos, and despite the fact that dozens of Krahns have been specifically executed by a man, Taylor, who participated in the coup they led, the war against "the people of the 70s" continues.

Of course, the 70s were turbulent years in Liberian politics. Education had spread, thanks to international and religious institutions. African-Liberians had gained higher education elsewhere, mainly the United States, and returned home. The era when Americo-Liberian ethnicity went unchallenged in terms of the monopolization of politico-economic benefits was receding. It was comparable to slaves receiving political consciousness and challenging the bedrock of their slavery. The slave master naturally smelt threats and reacted viciously. Many of these young African-Liberian intellectuals and university students were arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. It was this era that men like Brumskine now wanted to avenge. Those who led, those who advocated for change through political demands, those who had the boldness to organize demonstrations against the oligarchy which constitute not more than 3% of the population, were now targeted for total elimination. And Taylor, as usual, provided a clear agenda in this mindless crusade when he declared, "I will use dogs to hunt dogs." By then he had an unlimited pool of rural and urban youths, those Fanon calls the Wretched of the Earth, at his command. As "Generals", Colonels, and Commandos" in his private army living at the expense of the country's forests and Sierra Leone' diamonds, he would use them (dogs) to hunt dogs (people of the 70s who would questioned his dominion). The oddity in all this crusade is that the main crusader was a key participant in the era of the 70s. Sensing that he was not regarded as one of the influential key Americos and therefore kept out of the system, Taylor led a series of violent demonstrations in the United States against the Americo regime at home. In 1980, he joined the soldiers in staging a coup that executed 13 Americos he now claims to avenge. His original objective was to join the ruling Americo True Whig Party as a "Youth Wing leader." But the coup provided brighter opportunities. He would now be a key man in the new Government, occupying the post of procurement officer for the entire country with the aim of theft. Quickly, he began to siphon money out of the country as he, along with a long time- anti Americo campaigner Tom Woewiyu, formed fake companies selling non-existent goods to the junta. In the end, he was arrested for theft but escaped from an American prison.

As rebel leader, he wooed many African-Liberians on his side, convincing them that his was a genuine objective to erect the cornerstones of democracy and accountability. He told many what they wanted to hear. Once success was assured, many were executed, replaced by key Americo loyalists.

But the margilization of African-Liberians has its historical roots in their exclusion from economic opportunities from the formative days of the Liberian State. Since politics determined all relationships among the Americos and their system, aborigines could not aspire for meaningful economic positions. Commercial ventures required political connections and a system of political exclusion ensured their economic exclusion. Those African-Liberians that were co-opted into the system at lower levels in the 60s and 70s, such as H. Boima Fahnbulleh Sr., James Y. Gbarbea, etc., were soon arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the Americo dynasty. How a few civilians, without military connections, would have performed such feats was not important. What was important was that they stood as symbols of equality in the eyes of their people, and this was dangerous for the Americos.

The sense of personal superiority, which dominated Americo policies and actions, meant that any other person from any part of the world was more accepted within their ranks than sons and daughters of the soil. Thus even now, a Monie Captan (father from Syria, mother with some Americo roots) is preferred as Foreign Minister. Names like King, Shaw, Taylor, with Sierra Leone Creole roots, were unquestioned while those like Toure, Mamadi, instantly became associated with Guinea even if they came from border villages. There was therefore no abnormality when Taylor's Minister of Internal Affairs, Maxwell Poe, a Kissi, told Mandingoes to go back to Guinea and tell their president to stop the war against Liberia. And when one looks at the facts that nearly all Americos are related in one form or the other as cousins, nephews, etc., this is understood. Late arrivals from the West Indies, for example, joined this cast of make-believed superiors, so that they all fitted within the gang to share the spoils of the state.

The fear is that the road ahead is filled with obstacles. Americos and their sympathizers abhor any discussion of the ethnic factor in Liberian life, seen it as sowing the seeds of division as if the country is a unified entity. African-Liberians are growing increasingly angrier at the continuation of a system that kept them back for decades. Xenophobia is becoming the rule. A Rwanda is not far fetched. But with constituting only 3% of the population, one would believe that Americos best option is to build bridges. That they see Taylor as their savior is a dangerous option.

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