We Beg to Differ, Mr. President

The Perspective

November 23, 2001

In a recent interview with a French information network, President Charles G. Taylor said that his government failed to deliver basic services to the people of Liberia because of two factors, both out his control. The first factor was that the international community did not come to the rescue of Liberia. According to the president, the international community left Liberia alone to face the task of reconstruction.

The second cause of the failure of the NPP government, according to the President, was to be blamed on the war on Lofa. According to him, resources that should have been directed to building schools and restoring health centers were used to defend the country against the insurgents of LURD.

In as much as this may sound logical, there is a need to look at what caused these turns of events. The international community did not just walk away and the war in Lofa did not just happen. The government must assume the responsibility for both occurrences.

It is normal for a country like Liberia, after a deadly and devastating war to expect help from the international community. Before and after the 1997 elections, there was a lot of goodwill towards Liberia. Donors and reconstruction conferences were organized where friendly countries and institutions made pledges to contribute to jump-starting the Liberian economy. Unfortunately, none of that goodwill translated into action. The international community expected Liberia to put in place priorities and policies that could lay the foundations for national reconstruction and reconciliation.

Accountability is certainly one of the first things international institutions expect from any country before they give away money.

In 1999, the NPP government set aside $26 million dollars to repay the debts of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and its political wing - the so-called National Reconstruction Assembly (NPRAG). It was so unexpected that people just let it go. The President said in an interview at the time that the issue was not open to discussion. Where was that money going? To whom was it owed? How could the NPRAG ask the country to pay its "debts" when it was known to have exploited all natural resources - timber, diamonds, rubber - under its control for many years?

The second noticeable thing was that after it came to power, as if to make up for years of living in the countryside, members of the NPP government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build palatial homes. Hundreds of thousands more were spent on luxury cars and foreign travels. The head of one of the public corporations was once asked where he was getting the money to build the mansion he was erecting and his reply was "none of your business." It was not an innocent question and the answer could have made a difference.

The third noticeable thing was the awarding of contracts and the granting of monopoly to a few merchants who had business association with government officials. This was not conducive for the open market the country is known for. It signaled that government officials would be involved in corrupt practices, blurring the lines between public and private interests.

Beyond the issue of accountability, governance and human rights count heavily now days when applying for help from the "international community." Much has been said about those issues and there is no need here to dwell on the facts. The human rights record of the government has been pathetic, bordering on lawlessness. Those who killed former Deputy Speaker Dokie and members of his family and dismembered their bodies before setting them on fire are still walking free and enjoying total impunity. There has never been any follow-up on the attempted murders of Dr. Sawyer and Conmany Wesseh. If a former president could be subjected to such a treatment, where would other people go for protection? These cases are only the most prominent ones. There are many more. Those who dared to disagree with presidential policies or perceived interests had to flee or stay away from the country.

The international community manages money it is given by other countries from their tax dollars. That money comes with a political levy. There is an international standard of behavior when it comes to running a government. There are those countries in the Third World that are wealthy enough to never need money from the international community and they feel free to run their countries as they wish, without any regard for international standards. They don't care about the IMF or the World Bank. But if you are Liberia and expect money from the international community, you have to take these standards into consideration.

The second cause of the failure of the government according to President Taylor was the war in Lofa. This war did not start until after the September 1998 raid on Camp Johnson Road, which led to the fleeing of Roosevelt Johnson into exile and the arrest of many Krahn leaders. The war in Lofa may have cost some but since the NPFL nor the AFL never really disarmed at the end of the conflict, there certainly were enough arms to fight back LURD. The millions of dollars of the Maritime as well as levies on the timber and

diamond industries did not go to support that war. ECOWAS had offered to re-structure the army after the war. The NPP refused and send ECOMOG packing. One reason was that NPP was afraid of losing its grip on the military if a professional army had been created. Another reason was sheer arrogance. Some members of the government thought at the time that they had won the war thanks to the military superiority of the NPFL and therefore did not need training from anyone. They evoked sovereignty. In the absence of a professional and disciplined military force, the NPP cannot expect to change its human rights record.

The United States government started to provide training to the police force right after the elections. This program was interrupted because of differences about the tenure of the late police director Joe Tate.

The European Union recently asked that the government put in place policies and practices dealing with these issues before it opens its coffers to the NPP government. The Union also said that it was ready to pay the cost of implementation of some of these programs. The policies are very simple and are basic practices in governance: account for the public money; respect people's rights and dignity; and serve as a unifying factor in a war-torn country.

So, Mr. President, we beg to differ as to why the basic services were not restored to the country. Your government had misplaced priorities. The war in Lofa was occasioned by the failure of the government to be unifying force in the country and create an atmosphere of acceptance and reconciliation. May we also remind you that you once said that Liberia had everything she needs to be developed, not only in terms of manpower but also in natural resources and therefore does not need charity? What happened to those resources? Of course, you were speaking from Gbarnga, at the time.

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