The Congressional Black Caucus: Brain Trust on Liberia

(A Speech Delivered By Leslie Norman Abayomi Cole, Sr.)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 17, 2004

Editor's Note: On Wednesday, February 11, 2004, Mr. Leslie Norman Abayomi Cole, Sr., former President & Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas ULAA), spoke at the program sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. The program was held at 2237 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. The theme of the program was: “Liberia: from Crisis to Reconstruction”. Congressman Donald M. Payne of New Jersey chaired the occasion, while Hon. Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) delivered the keynote address. The following persons served as Panelists: Hon. Jacques Klein - Head, ULMIL, Hon. G. Edwin Smith - US Treasury Department, Christine Knudsen - Save the Children, Vivian Lowery-Derryck, Liberia Watch. Find below the speech delivered by Mr. Cole:

On behalf of all Liberians both here and at home, let me take this time to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the Congressional Black Caucus for planning and implementing this event on behalf of our leader, His Excellency Charles Gyude Bryant. The CBC as an institution and its individual members has done an exemplary job making Liberia relevant by keeping our issues on the front burner. We, the people of Liberia in the Diaspora, want to let you know that your effort has not gone unnoticed.

In addition to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, I will be remiss if I did not take this time to express special thanks and appreciation to others who have consistently advocated for Liberia. While the list is lengthy, the names of Senator Jack Reed, Congressmen Donald M. Payne, Patrick Kennedy and Ed Royce, along with the organizations represented on this panel have been of tremendous assistance to our various causes. To you, we say special thanks for all that you have done and will continue to do for Liberia.

The international community, under the leadership of the United States of America, United Nations, and ECOWAS, has and continues to play a major role in keeping Liberia away from violence and war, and towards peace and security. They are moving our nation towards constitutional rule and democratic governance. Restoring it back as a respectable member of the international community at peace with itself and its neighbors, and respectful of international covenants and norms. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), The USAID Mission to Liberia, and the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (EMIL) deserve the goodwill, thanks and appreciation of all peace-loving and democratic minded Liberians at home and abroad. Individually and collectively, the members of the international community have given Liberia a new lease on life and its citizens the best hope to achieve its longstanding aspirations for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Liberian society.

The leaders of the warring factions must realize that with the signing of the Accra Accords and the election of an Interim leader and the subsequent installation of a Transitional Government, the rules of engagement in Liberia have changed dramatically.

The Chairman is both Head of State and Head of Government. As such, the obnoxious tendency of members of the Warring Factions who hold cabinet portfolios, to behave as though their respective ministries are their private fiefdoms does not augur well for stability in Liberia and the credibility of the government. All things being equal, the government must speak with one voice in the interest of national unity. We support the Chairman in being assertive and in not buckling down to the asinine demands of certain rebel leaders as the obvious intent is to neutralize the effectiveness of his office.

The key to Liberia's reconstruction and development of its shattered society is security. Hence, maximum support must be given to efforts being made by the United Nations Peace Keeping Force to ensure security throughout Liberia and the eventual disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation of rebel forces.

It does not take a genius to understand the simplistic notion that in the absence of security nothing positive will happen in Liberia.

Policing and other security operations in the country should be conducted by officers selected for the clarity of their character and that such security personnel should be trained and supervised by qualified professionals.

The interim government should actively encourage those countries donating troops to the peace mission in Liberia that technical experts be included to help resuscitate our civil society. We are concerned about the lagging process of deployment and disarmament due to insufficient resources. With the recent pledges at the UN, it is our hope, that the process will be expedited. We are also concerned about the future of the child soldiers and public safety implications of unemployed ex-combatants.

Though we panhandle now, we seek not mere handouts. It is time we learn to fish. We ask the United States and other friendly nations to help us educate our people through the networks and other similar means, to become better community builders and electorates; better farmers and law-abiding citizens. We yearn for a Liberia that would once again be self-reliant, productive, and in a position to contribute positively to the world community.

Liberians in the US have done and will continue to be partners in the rebuilding of our country. Alumni organizations provide support for their respective alma maters. Support, ranging from under-writing the salaries of teachers and administrators, providing scholarships, computers, books, and clothing. Liberian communities in places such as Rhode Island, Michigan, Staten Island, Philadelphia operate computer labs to help our people become computer literate and as such, more marketable.

The national Liberian organization, the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, (ULAA) of which I am a chartered member, former president and chairman of the board of directors, has also successfully completed some initiatives of immense importance. It’s “Give Back to Liberia” Project, entails provision of educational and medical supplies and humanitarian goods. Last year, the Union shipped and distributed tons of rice to internally displaced Liberians in Monrovia. Secondly, the Union conducted a small-scale sanitation project, dubbed "Operation Clean Sweep Monrovia”, which collected and disposed of tons of garbage which littered the capital city. Finally, the Union also carried out “Operation Supply Water Resources”, which provided clean water storage for the use of Liberian refugees in Ghana. A vast majority of Liberian communities and their organizations have collected tons of relief supplies comprising of food, medicine and clothing, which await funding for shipment to needy Liberians.

I believe that Liberians in the United States can do more to help their suffering citizens at home and in the refugee camps. I have identified some areas where progress can be made, such as the adoption or sponsorship of Liberian schools, medical facilities, farms, welfare institutions; the adoption or care of abandoned or homeless or orphaned children; and the establishment of a satellite office in Liberia, among others. With the assistance of the freedom loving people of the United States, ULAA can spearhead the formation and management of a National Democracy Fund and National Development Fund to build and sustain democratic institutions and public facilities. These are two of the best initiatives ULAA can take to help the Liberian people “Take Back Liberia” from warlords and criminals, so as to preserve the best and collective interests of Liberians. All of this is possible if Liberians reach outside their communities and appeal to foreign friends of Liberia everywhere.

Liberian Citizens in the Diaspora want to be more involved in the reconstruction of our country. While there are self-help projects and initiatives all around the US, it is our desire to have the UN, with the help of the US set up a system whereby professional Liberians can render their services to Liberia.

The Transitional Government, with the help of ULAA and other Liberian organizations in the US, the US Government and the UN should host several workshops and orientations on how to attract Liberian technocrats.

Because we believe that economic development will be key to creating lasting stability at home, Liberians in the Diaspora want a role in creating economic development in our country. We are aware that strategies need to be developed and sustained that will allow Liberia to grow its private sector once again. Perhaps the answer is micro-loans. Perhaps the answer is a US situated economic development fund. Whatever it is, Liberians in the US are eager to form strategic partnerships between business, community, and institutions.

Last week, donors at the recent UN meeting on Liberia pledged over half billion dollars for Liberia's reconstruction and development. The funds and the awarding of relevant contracts appertaining must be within the absolute and complete purview of the United Nations and its pertinent Agencies. Any other arrangement would be a formula for disaster.

It is not that we do not trust the Chairman. We are concerned about those criminals who masqueraded as liberators and placed guns into the hands of child soldiers who used their guns as meal tickets. Now that you have a seat at the table, we do not want for you to have access to the redevelopment funds. In my entire lifetime, all I have seen is blatant greed and corruption. The level of accountability and transparency that we need will be nurtured over a period of time. Now is not the time.

The tendency of our people for corruption must be dealt with in a crucial and effective fashion if the deadly cancer of kickbacks is to be stifled. Corruption is one of the nagging bottlenecks that has been an effective obstacle to the development of our nation. If Liberia is to be restored to its former preeminence, we must, with extraordinary vim and zest, maximize our efforts to contain it.

Liberians need the continued assistance and support of the Government and people of the United States to recover from the horrors of its self-inflicted wounds. Liberians are encouraged by the tireless and steadfast engagement of the Congressional Black Caucus to ensure that US foreign policy goals and objectives help to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Liberians for the rebirth of a peaceful, secure and stable society. Past and present American contributions to Liberia are laudable, but more can be done given the fragility of current peace process, involving the lingering intrigues of warring factions, bad faith actions, and insufficient resources for robust and rapid disarmament, demobilization and reintegration activities. My own wishful list of appeals directed at the Caucus is lengthy, but I will prioritize them.

First, help us lobby for absolute and total relief from our current external debt which we believe is in the $3 Billion range. Former Secretary James Baker has experience taking on this type of mission, so, it may not be a bad idea for President Bush to appoint him to embark on a similar mission for Liberia.

Second, be it by executive order or by legislation, Temporary Protective Status (TPS) of all Liberians needs to be elevated to Permanent Residency Status.

The rationale is simple.

Projections vary as to how many Liberians there are in the US. My qualified opinion is that there are between 300,000 to 400,000 Liberians in the US. Of that number, there are about 15,000 to 20,000 who qualify for the TPS.

As optimistic as we are, it will take a period of time to develop our economy to the point where it will be able to absorb all of our brothers and sisters who are on TPS.

Interestingly, the $35 Million or so sent through Western Union and other groups to sustain lives in Liberia yearly, is sent mostly by those who are on TPS. If you were to deny Liberians TPS, it will be a recipe for disaster.

Many Liberians in the U.S. have children who are U.S. citizens. Many Liberians have worked so hard without getting on the U.S. Welfare wagon, to earn good and honest living in the U.S. As a result of the civil disturbance in Liberia, many Liberians, because of the length of stay in the U.S., have established themselves by purchasing homes in the U.S. Every time Temporary Status is granted to immigrants who need it, there's a high financial price.

Additionally, Liberians on TPS spend significantly more for college or technical education than other immigrants who have resident status. Our people want to get that education so that they can better prepare themselves to return home as more productive citizens.

Ladies and Gentlemen, before taking my seat, may I ask each and every one of you to please join the struggle by calling your Congresspersons and asking them to support the causes that we have articulated here this afternoon.

I thank you.

About the Author: Mr. Leslie Norman Abayomi Cole, Sr. is a former President and Chairman of the Board of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), the parent organization of Liberian organizations in North America. He has a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is a Board Certified Protection Professional and Certified Security Trainer. In 1983, he established the Leslie Cole Associates, Inc., a Security Consulting firm. Presently, Mr. Cole is the Chairman of the Crime and Loss Prevention Council of ASIS, International, the world’s largest security organization with 34,000 members worldwide.