As a student leader in the 1980s, he ran into problems many a times with the military government of Samuel Doe who went as far as jailing and sentencing him and a few other students to death by firing squad. He spent eighteen years in exile and returned last year to live in Liberia. Now, Mr. Ezekiel Pajibo is Executive Director of the Center for Democratic Empowerment,(CEDE) a center for social and political advocacy and research founded by former interim president Dr. Amos Sawyer. Activities at the center came to a standstill three years ago when individuals believed to be former NPFL fighters attacked Dr. Sawyer and ransacked his offices. The managing editor of the Perspective and our correspondent in Monrovia, Moses Gray, sat with Ezekiel Pajibo to talk about the current state of affairs in the nation.
Mr. Pajibo: I do not have the notes but UNMIL publishes periodically the number of people who have been disarmed, with the number of weapons turned in, and ammunitions. I have not seen the latest statistics, so I cannot speak to that. But this is information you can easily get from an UNMIL information officer. One of the problems here is that none of the warring factions has been able to put forward in a comprehensive manner where their armory is, how many men they have, how many ammunitions they have. I have not seen any indication that they have that kind of accurate record of those things. So that’s why this whole issue of disarmament is a bit tricky because we don’t have a list to check against.
Does the Comprehensive Peace Agreement not cover that?
Most of what the agreement has called for has not actually been achieved. The agreement says [the warring factions] should give UNMIL the rosters of their men. Now we are having lots of difficulties obtaining the rosters. I don’t think the reason is a sinister plan on the part of the warring factions. I don’t think they really have a roster… We hope that as the disarmament progresses, we will get an accurate indication of how many persons were actually bearing arms. That is why we in the civil society organizations are not [really sure about the success of] the disarmament in terms of collecting weapons. We think that we need to go into communities to ask questions and allow community people to inform us as to who was is in possession of weapons. But we also know that once disarmament is deemed complete, UNMIL intends to carry on cordon and search operations. So they will be like hitting a community without notice, and they cordon the community off and conduct a search for weapons. We think that operation needs to be informed by some form of intelligence - the intelligence based on community informers, people who have come forward to say we know that Mr. John in this community has this kind of weapon… So we hope that we will be able to have some community mobilization process underway to make that happen.
We understand that some of these people who have been disarmed do not present weapons. Do you know why?
That’s a tricky issue! We have more people disarmed than weapons, and UNMIL itself has admitted to that. What is happening in some instances is that the people who are being disarmed, sometimes it’s an entire family. So if you come to disarm, your spouse and children are there because of the benefit package. So that’s why you have a higher number of people disarmed.
So considering the people who have been disarmed today, one could say that the family was all disarmed although the spouse and children might not have been fighters?
Well UNMIL say the disarmament process is not only for combatants who actually fought. There were people who were used as proctors - people who were carrying the equipment as the fighters were fighting. So they are part of the disarmament process as well.
What about people who were running Taylor’s propaganda? The Taylor journalists, are they going to disarm them?
Well, you know that is another tricky issue. One of my friends was telling me this, but I don’t know this for a fact, that a number of them are now working for the UNMIL Radio. And there are people in this country that are having flashback when they hear these people on UNMIL Radio. I have raised this question with UNMIL people and the response has been that these are the people who are trained, who we got here and are available. So that’s why we employed them because we want to keep the ground running. That’s their explanation, but I think as we pursue this discussion, UNMIL now is asking them questions - do we have a list of the people, what they did, how they did it? So apart from the fact that people are saying these people did this, we need to see how we can document - tape recordings of those broadcasts, identify the particular voices and put the names to them. As you know, in Luanda, they are trying people who worked for [certain radio stations] for crimes against humanity and for committing genocide. So if we are able to document similar kinds of things in this country, perhaps they will have to play the music as well. But up to now we have not been able to get that kind of documentary evidence.
Well, there has not been any reconstruction. I think you have seen it for yourself. What I have learnt is that of the 520 million dollars that was pledged at the donors conference, only 60 million dollars have been committed so far. And this is government information from Mr. Greaves, Harry Greaves who is economic advisor to Chairman Bryant, on public radio recently. That is what he said so I am quoting him: “So efforts are now afoot to try to secure more of that money…” But having said that, there are a number of activities that are going on, a number of schools that have been repaired, for example Newport junior School… the task is mounting - it is a huge one. But government is not demonstrating any real interest in this work. If you look at the budget this government has allocated over the last couple of months - you know they have been running on a cash based budget - a critical examination of the budget does not suggest government priority in terms of reconstruction. Just look around Monrovia! Monrovia City Corporation is hard-pressed. They do not have equipment, they do not have trucks, but our government officials are making lots of overseas trips. The money that could be saved from the overseas trips could be used to put more wheelbarrows on the street, to cleanup Monrovia minimally. I know that Monrovia is not Liberia, but I know that one-third of Liberians reside in Monrovia. And Monrovia is a health hazard. We have not seen any real commitment on the part of this government to do anything in terms of reconstruction.
You have spearheaded efforts for the UN sanctions regime that include travel restriction to be maintained. But, unfortunately for you and your colleagues, the efforts have been defeated in the transitional assembly. Could you comment?
We have been getting threats for taking up this issue. There are people around here who think they can [force] us into silence or submission. In fact one of the signatories to that statement had his car stoned… We are unperturbed by that kind of stuff. The culture of impunity in this country is horrible. The first step in ensuring that the culture of impurity has ended is getting Mr. Taylor [to face the Special UN Tribunal] Freetown. And we’re committed to that process. We haven’t had sufficient success so far. We were defeated in the legislature, but that was not surprising because again the legislature is [predominantly] a combination of warring factions. So they know that if we can get Mr. Taylor to Freetown, his immediate lieutenants will follow soon. We are not surprised. But now our next step is to take this issue to the people. What we’re doing is to collect one hundred thousand signatures of Liberians throughout this country, and we hope that Liberians in the Diaspora as well can join us in this effort. We want to collect 100,000 signatures, and we want to take those signatures to the legislature and say: “This is what the Liberian people are asking for. You say that you represent them; you better make sure that you respond to their whishes.” So we are still working on that. As you know, there are lots of problems in this country we have to work on, but we want to collect the hundred thousand signatures as a way of [exerting] pressure on this government so that they can do what the people think is important.
Having said that, in the papers there have been a number of responses from a number of individuals, specifically Mr. Benoni Urey who continues to play on the public mind that somehow he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But we’ve been doing our own little studies. We kind of understand that the time Mr. Urey was born in Careysburg the average income in Careysburg at that time was about $75.00 a year. So I don’t understand how somebody born in Careysburg when the average income was $75.00 will be talking about being born with a silver spoon in his mouth… Some of the evidence that he tries to use as suggestion that he was born into wealth was the fact that he went to the American Corporative School. But what we’ve learned [is that] he went there on a LAMCO scholarship. So his parents did not have to send him to ACS. He also claims that he was able to go to school overseas and that was evidence of his wealth. We also learned that he went overseas to school on a LEC scholarship. So all the evidence he has produced for his wealth has already been disputed. So we hope that as this debate unfolds, the country will have a better understanding of where these people got their wealth. If Mr. Urey claims that he had all this money, why was he not in business before 1997? There is no evidence of any wealth prior to him joining the government. Was his wealth in Careysburg buried under the ground or something? So the sanctions should be kept in place because these people need to answer to the Liberian people about their acquired wealth. And we are not going to pussyfoot on this issue.
Why do you think sanctions should be maintained on logs and diamonds?
The reason is two-fold. One, government has not established authority in areas where these products are being looted. When we talk about the Southeast - the entire Southeast does not have any local government. As we speak, there are timbers leaving that area coming to Monrovia. Who benefit from those timbers? The sanctions regime that is imposed on the country only prevents the country from exporting timber. It does not prevent people from selling timber in the markets around Monrovia here. Every day, huge truckloads of timber are coming from the Southeast and other parts of this country,
We know that various warring factions control those areas. So we think the sanctions should be maintained. The second part is that the government is arguing that it needs those resources so that it can engage in reconstruction efforts. We are saying to the government, “look, you have some money right now. What are your doing with that money? You’re misusing it! So what makes you think that when you get money you will not misuse it all?” We need to stop this attitude of abusing government resources.
Let me give a typical example of abusing government resources: I am not sure that prior to Chairman Bryant becoming chief executive of this country, he would have been able to single-handedly buy a generator for a private school. He just donated a generator to B. W. Harris at the cost of $12,000.00. You know, we cannot spend government money that way. And for a newly established [administration] where did he get $12,000.00 to buy a brand new generator for a private school when the public schools don’t have one? And he’s a public figure! You know, we have to interrogate these kinds of behaviors. I don’t want to accuse the chairman of anything, but I’m saying perception is reality. The fact that he’s going to B. W. Harris and donating a $12,000.00 generator suggests in my heart that his priorities are misplaced. If he has $12,000 to buy a generator, that generator should have either gone to the University of Liberia or to Tubman High School. Those are public schools! And that is what the public should be concerned about.
People believed to be members of the former regime drove your predecessor away from this office into exile. Now you are occupying the same position - are you not afraid for your security?
You know, that’s one of the reasons why we are thankful that we have this kind of international arrangement for this country. So we are able to come back. We are not going to run anymore. We are going to be around here with the international support to see how we can get this country up and running again. As I said previously, single statement calling for the lifting of sanction is [like] getting desperate. But the good thing is that they don’t have the kind of power they had before. They cannot arrest me! They have no prison to put me anyway. As a national, it is not a good thing to say that our security is been taken care of by non-nationals. But practically, it is a good thing because it gives us the freedom of speech that we’re enjoy today. It gives us the freedom of movement - we can travel around the country. We can go to bed at night and sleep... So there is a degree of freedom in the country that we enjoy. Right now these people don’t have that kind of power to act on the threat. In the past, they threatened and acted on it but now they don’t have that kind of power. In a way, it’s a level playing field! We are also interested in making sure that the main national security apparatus that is being designed in this country - the architecture of the national security be [designed in such a way] that we have honest and professional people who will take care of national security in this country. We don’t want criminal elements to again run security in this country. Therefore, as long as our national security is in the hands of honest, decent, professional Liberians, then we will know that our liberty will be better protected.
Any closing comment?
Well, our message to people overseas or even in this country who will read this is for us to continue to make sure that this peace process is sustained. This country is more than seventy-five years backward. And we are in this information age; we should not be as backward as we are. The level of poverty in this country is unbelievable. And so we need to make sure that we reconstruct this country. This is our country and we need to be proud Liberians once more. So I entreat on all of my compatriots in and out of Liberia to make sure that we have a sustainable peace and build a vibrant and prosperous society