The Good Politics of Patience

By Bushuben M. Keita

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 24, 2004

During the thick of internecine fighting in Monrovia resulting from the attempt to arrest ULIMO-J leader Roosevelt Johnson on April 6, 1996, an official from the United States Embassy in Monrovia was cited as saying in effect that Liberian leaders lacked patience and were quick to render judgment. This, the embassy official explained, was the reason why the uncalculated attempt was made to arrest an individual who himself had a standing army willing to defend him. The result proved disastrous for the transitional government and the residents of the city of Monrovia. Mr. Kromah of ULIMO, who joined Mr. Taylor of the NPFL, was probably one of the greatest losers as he became associated with Taylor and probably has not shaken off that impression to date. The entire effort of the transition was discredited and therefore the foundation for lasting peace could not be forged.

But what if a path of negotiation had been pursued instead? What if in the name of peace Mr. Johnson had been given what he wanted and treated as an equal partner in the transitional government? Would that not have brought forth a stretch of peace building and confidence building before the 1997 elections? Would the elections still have been hurried? And with the confidence building period so extended would not the chances of more open politics been better enhanced and therefore the possibility of a different result from that elections more likely? What if the transitional government of 1995 had lasted until 2000, would that have prevented the formation LURD and MODEL and given more time for power sharing, full disarmament, and a proper transition in keeping with the Liberian constitution and related statutes?

I write to say that the circumstances which presented themselves in 1995 when a transitional government consisting of the rebel factions and the civilian population was formed, are again presenting themselves in the current transitional government, and that we as a people are failing to take advantage of it once more. We are again impatient and clamoring for the government to be handed over to elected authorities. We once again have set a deadline for elections and believe that the occupation of government posts by rebel representatives makes the government illegal. We are impatient and want the illegality removed as quickly as possible. We want the perpetrators of the war to be brought to justice and are prepared to discuss their arrests and trial even before they have been disarmed. People in Monrovia fight for the moral high ground, and want to go on record as being the first or one of those who called for trials for the wicked and retribution for the masses. But I strongly believe that if we have all that we want now, then like in 1997 we will really be getting nothing.

The reality in Liberia is that peace can come only with the full cooperation of the factions which control territories and their sponsors. There is a local as well as a regional element to the situation in Liberia which call for greater negotiation than the get- rid- of- the- rebels- now, try- them- now crowd is seeing. I find it ironic that we demand disarmament instead of trying to negotiate it.

Even if the power of the rebels and erstwhile Taylor government is universally condemned as illegal, Liberia stands to gain more from patiently disarming them than from a rush to force the process which leaves them feeling cheated and disrespected. Because at the end of the process, if they still feel that they were the losers, then the motivation to fight remains. The 1997 process did not end well with the fighters loyal to ULIMO and LPC. They were easily recruited into different factions. To end the fighting once and for all means patience in finding out what satisfies the factions, comparing that to the needs of the rest of the population, and trying to sought out a solution which gratifies the conflicting interests and removes the motivation to re-engage in fighting.

I am one of those who believe that a government like the one in Monrovia today is better for the stability of Liberia than an elected government like that of Mr. Taylor. On the one hand there are no exiles today. Every military or political faction of whatever persuasion is represented to some degree in the current arrangement and I have yet to hear that a particular group feels unwelcome in Monrovia. The Taylor family, including his wife and close friends, are in and out freely. Former faction leaders are there. Political parties and their heads are there. We also see Liberians returning in large numbers, a good number of them interested in investing in commercial enterprises. This is an atmosphere we should revel in, and allow it to run for a while. It builds confidence and re-establishes our commonality and nationalism. If you replace this government too quickly with one that is partisan, and the people do not feel reconciled, then all of a sudden certain people will not be able to return. Those people are the materials of future instability. A patient transition allows gradual interaction of conflicting interests which will arrive at an appropriate mixture of common interest that could remove the threat of a return to violence and division.

I am also one of those who disagree with calls for a war crimes tribunal at this stage of the process. I believe that even mentioning it will instill doubts in the minds of those to be disarmed. You are asking the factions to disarm and threatening them with arrests when they do so. What’s the hurry?

The other aspect of peace in Liberia is regional. It is no secret that the government of the Republic of Guinea has been actively supporting the LURD rebels against the Taylor government. The new Ivorian government has also been supporting the MODEL rebels in their fight against Mr. Taylor. These governments, as well as others in the region, believe that what happens in Liberia can adversely affect them, and so they have decided to move into Liberia to have a say in what happens. Whether Liberians want to accept that or not, peace in Liberia has to be approved by these regional powers and neighbors. By approved I mean they have to indicate that they no longer believe that Liberia is a security risk to them, and that political developments in Liberia will preclude Liberian territory from being used to undermine their respective governments or the region.

That is why the result from whatever elections we hold is important to a final peace. That is also why the elections in themselves do not guarantee the end to the conflict. In the event that the winning side in whatever elections we hold do not assuage the fears of the neighbors, they will not respect the elections, and they will be willing to undermine it. In our rush to be independent once again, and to regain our place as a full sovereignty in the comity of nations, our lack of patience in allaying the fears of our neighbors and other regional powers could keep us running in circles forever.

Our problems are not with political parties and local interest groups. They are the natural inheritors of power in the democratic system which we are attempting to build. But we also have to realize that because of their anticipation of the benefits of elections they want those benefits sooner than later. So we need to temper their exuberance in embracing the democracy from which they stand to gain the most with the reasonable expectations of lasting peace. If the transitional government really believes that all the modalities for holding fair elections are not in place, or that out neighbors and partners are not convinced that the disarmament is complete, then we should allow more time for all outstanding issues to be resolved. The issue for me is not whether or not we are disarmed because to rearm has proven to be an easy thing. The issue is whether or not we are reconciled. If we are then we can safely disarm and vote in peace.