Restriction on Press freedom and Reckless Spending, Again?
What is going on in Liberia?

By Tiawan S. Gongloe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 15, 2004

“In incurring expenditure, we should consider whether what we are about to pay for will really contribute to our national progress and happiness, or whether we merely wish the object because others have it. We must lay hold of essentials instead of accidents-of substance rather than shadows. I am satisfied that if we pursue this course- if in our political and social life we restrict ourselves to our actual necessities; if we reduce our exigencies from what is purely factitious to what is undoubtedly real, we should soon place ourselves individually and our country generally on a more comfortable, easy and prosperous footing.”

President Daniel B. Warner, January, 1864

Alarming Developments in Liberia

Is it really true that the Bryant Government is clamping down on the press too? With Liberian people still stranded in camps in and outside Liberia, John F. Kennedy Hospital still virtually closed, Monrovia still in the worst unsanitary condition ever with feces running down Broad Street and Benson Street, no buses for the Monrovia Transit Authority to transport the tens of thousands of people in Monrovia, with thousands of Liberian children out of school, with the highest level of unemployment ever in Liberia for the last fifty years and with pronounced abject poverty present everywhere in Liberia, is it really, really true that Chairman Bryant is buying brand new Chrysler cars and Grande Cherokee Jeeps? These are the kinds of actions that tend to incite people against their government. This is just beyond anything that I expected. I am out of words. I am speechless. This is just too much, too soon for the Liberian people. This is why the Liberian people must not accept Chairman Bryant’s appeal for bygones to be bygones. Liberians must press for justice and accountability to be incorporated as major elements of the peace process. In this regard, the United Nations Security councils’ recent decision to freeze the assets of Charles Taylor is family members and close associates is a great step towards real peace in Liberia. Without this approach, the same wrongs that were done before by others in public service will continue to be perpetrated each time there is a new leadership in Liberia.

Who expected Chairman Bryant to be a car freak like Taylor? And look who he is dealing with, George Haddad, the same Lebanese businessman Taylor dealt with. Was there a public bid for the procurement contract for the supply of vehicles to the government of Liberia? What is the Anti-Monopoly Commission saying? What is the Liberian Business Association saying? Is there no Liberian businessman or woman capable of supplying cars to the government? What is the Good Governance Commission saying? This is business as usual. Isn’t it? Liberians must not keep silent on these developments. For me, I cannot wait any longer, less I become a co-conspirator by silence.

Press Freedom
Over the past four months, there have been reports of arrests of journalists on all kinds of charges ranging from criminal malevolence to the publishing of obscene material. Finally a newspaper has been shutdown. I used the word finally because this is the last action the Bryant Government needed to take to complete the circle and be on par with past oppressive governments of Liberia. The history of Liberia is replete with various accounts of attacks on the press, especially from the period of the rule of Tubman to the rule of Taylor. But the last thing that anyone acquainted with the history of Liberia would expect at this time is for this Government to be repeating the wrongs of the past and to do so at such speed. Four months? This is just unbelievable! Stop, Chairman Bryant. Change your course. Stop arresting journalists. Stop banning papers. Remove the ban placed on the Informer. That is the right thing to do right now.

Criminalizing speech should be a part of the ugly past

Criminalizing speech and arbitrary actions against the press should really be a part of the ugly past. It should not feature in the rebuilding process. This is a way to begin to give hope to the Liberian people for the future. The Constitution of Liberia provides for openness in the governing process in Liberia and guarantees the right of the people to know about their government and its functionaries at all times. This right, the Constitution of Liberia provides, cannot be enjoined, limited or curtailed, except by due process of law or during national emergencies, declared in accordance with the Constitution. Even privileges, according to the Constitution of Liberia cannot be taken away without due process. The banning of the Informer Newspaper is not consistent with any provision of the Constitution of Liberia governing freedom of the press. The action is therefore illegal. The Informer Newspaper can apply for a petition for a writ of prohibition against the Ministry of Information in the chambers of the Supreme Court to question the legality of the action of the Ministry of Information. But in my view, it makes better political judgment for the Ministry of Information to remove the ban placed on the paper because the continuation of the ban will stimulate bad publicity for Liberia, again. Certainly, this is something that, I believe, many Liberians do not want anymore or at least at this time. Besides, from my last reading of the Act creating the Ministry of Information, apart from the function of censoring of movies, I did not find anything in it giving the Ministry of Information the authority to register or police media institutions. The registration of newspapers is a legacy of the dictatorial Taylor regime (the fourth worst dictatorship in the world) and was meant for limitation of press freedom. It is a legacy that must not be kept on the road to the building of democracy in Liberia.

Did Speaker Dweh not have any responsibility too?

On the question of the Heritage Newspaper story about dog having sex with Liberian girls, I was surprised at the kind of treatment the newspaper got, while Speaker George Dweh, the source of the story went scout free without question (except picketing by a few Liberian women). I am against the display of obscene materials to children, particularly under the current conditions in Liberia. The question of buying an obscene material and the free circulation of an obscene material are matters that probably constitute another set of arguments. However, while the Government saw it fit to arrest and prosecute the employees of Heritage for the story, nothing was done to George Dweh, the source of the story, true or untrue, who called in journalist and gave them the controversial story, not merely, as a matter of information but for the clear purpose of publication. There is nothing on record to indicate that Dweh was even questioned in any manner by members of the Transitional Legislative Assembly or that Chairman Bryant even complained to the TLA. Yes there were ethical and social responsibilities on the editorial staff of the Heritage Newspaper, but what‘s about George Dweh. Did he not have any responsibility to Liberia and particularly the women of Liberia? I believe that Speaker Dweh had national obligation to handle this matter more appropriately than he did. I consider national responsibility greater than social responsibility. What did he, as a public official, do about the information contained on the video that he watched. Again, the Heritage case was just another reminder of Liberia’s past, where the law has always been rigorously applied against the weak, while, largely protecting the convenience and comfort of the powerful. Selective application of laws is not the proper way to build a nation. Again, this is a major element of the Liberian story that must change.

Reckless spending of the People’s Money

The reports that the Transitional Legislative Assembly has spent over US$ 478, 000.00 on foreign travels and that Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant has spent over US$3,000,000.00 of the people’s money to buy expensive vehicles are most disgusting and inciting. If sitting in the comfort of America with no hunger and having a place to lay my head, I could get so angry on reading these reports, can anyone imagine what unemployed Liberians walking up and down Broad Street, and those at the displaced camps around Monrovia are feeling about these reports? This kind of spending does not make sense at all. Grand Cherokee Jeeps and Chrysler cars are luxury vehicles anywhere in the world. There can be no common-sense justification for buying them for officials of government in Liberia at this time. Even if these vehicles were free gifts from a friendly government, the current conditions in Liberia should cause any conscious or serious government to sell them and buy cheaper cars in order to attend to the most basic needs of the people. Buying luxury cars at this time in Liberia with the people’s money is a terrible display of insensitivity to the plight of the Liberian people. This is clear misuse of public office. Is this not one of the reasons that were given for the 1980 coup?

Another Promise Betrayed?

No public official in Liberia who cares for the Liberian people should ride the luxury vehicles purchased by Chairman Bryant. Riding Grand Cherokee Jeeps among the homeless, sick and hungry Liberian people is the highest demonstration of insensitivity I can imagine, given the situation in Liberia. When is Chairman Bryant going to put the interest of the people first, above all other considerations? I thought I heard him say that in his speech or did I presume that that would be the case? Well, one statement that I am sure he made was that the time for business as usual and impunity in Liberia was over. At least this was his promise to the Liberian people. I remember another promise form a Liberian businessman. His name is Emmanuel Shaw. Following his appointment as Finance Minister by President Doe in the 1980s, Shaw said in his first meeting with the staff, “ the party is over” referring to corruption at the Ministry of Finance. The immediate reaction to Shaw’s statement by one of friends who was with me when the statement was made on the radio was that Shaw meant the banquet had begun (meaning real corruption was to begin. The rest is history. Is this another promise betrayed? A Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights Report on Liberia published in 1988 was titled The Promise Betrayed because Doe promised the Liberian people on April 12, 1980 that Liberia was now free for everyone, that there would be no corruption, no misuse of public office and that these acts were high treason. President Tolbert and 13 officials of his government were summarily executed because they were guilty of high treason. The Council was named the People’s Redemption Council symbolic of the Liberia that was promised by the military. It turned out that what was termed by Doe to be high treason became normal behavior in his government. He betrayed his promise to the Liberian people. In the same way, Taylor promised the Liberian people when he became President of Liberia. In his inaugural address said, “I will not be a wicked President”. He also said that he will place the interest of the Liberian people before all else. Under his rule there were bill-boards from Cape Mount to Cape Palmas with the slogan,” Above all else the People”. These promises, too, were betrayed.

The Purchase of Luxury vehicle versus Looming Humanitarian Crisis in Liberia

The purchasing of brand new Cherokee Jeeps and Chrysler cars is more than business as usual; hence, a gross betrayal of Bryant’s promise to the Liberian people. After the death of over 300,000 thousand Liberians and the displacement of over a million, does Chairman Bryant think the most urgent matter to deal with at this time is the buying of luxury vehicles for government officials (many of whom belong in jail for crimes against humanity and war crimes)? The buying of luxury vehicles at the time that Abou Moussa, the United Nations Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs in Liberia is crying that he is running short of supplies to meet the demand of the humanitarian situation in Liberia, is wanton, reckless and an arrogant display of complete disregard for the suffering of the Liberian people at the refugee camps, displaced centers and under siege of armed groups throughout Liberia. Oh! My God! Who will bring hope to the Liberian people? No don’t get me wrong. I am not looking for a liberator, at least not the Liberian type.

Flash Back
I remember as a student of the University of Liberia in 1980, we marched with representatives of various student groups under the banner of the Liberia National Students Union (LINSU) headed by its President Conmany Wesseh (now a member of the Transitional Legislative Assembly, and one of the few who has not been affected by the foreign travel fever in the TLA) to read a petition to the Chairman and members of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) on the path to the future for Liberia. One count of our petition to the PRC was that in order for them to demonstrate to the Liberian people that they were serious-minded leaders, they should not engage in conspicuous consumption; hence, they should buy vox wagon cars instead of Honda Accords (a year later Mr. Wesseh faced the wrath of Doe for this suggestion and was later forced into exile). Our suggestion to Doe was in the national interest. This same suggestion is even more appropriate today than it was 24 years ago. The National Transitional government of Liberia should buy less expensive cars (used cars) to save money in order to meet other pressing national demands. It must follow the wise council of President Warner.

The Neutral Businessman
Many Liberians did not know Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant. I did not know him until a few years ago, even though I lived in Monrovia for more than twenty five years before I was forced into exile in 2002 by President Charles Taylor. He was largely an obscure person with not many people knowing what he was doing. Even his line of business was not known to many ordinary Liberians as none could easily direct a stranger to Gyude’s business place as they would do for a shopkeeper. This is not to say that he was not doing business. It is just that his line of business was not one known to the ordinary man sufficiently for them to classify him as a businessman. Also, although he was chairman of the Liberian Action Party, many ordinary members of the party were more known to the public than was Chairman Bryant. It took Dr. Ibn Chambas, Executive Secretary of ECOWAS to tell the Liberian people and the world who Chairman Bryant was. Dr. Chambas said that Chairman Bryant was a neutral businessman who had not “being party to any of the contending issues”, but “had been above the fray”. I was troubled by the description of Chairman Bryant as a neutral businessman. Can there be neutrality in the situation of good and evil? How could one live under Taylor’s dictatorship, with the killing of innocent people like Nowai Flomo and perpetual blatant violation of human rights and be neutral? At least one must be opposed to these acts, if nothing else. Assuming the posture of neutrality in the face of wanton abuse of human rights, in my view, is not a compliment. But be that as it may, Liberian people were prepared to accept anybody but Taylor (as they seem to be coping with the likes of George Dweh as their Speaker). Some Liberians felt that even if Chairman Bryant were to achieve nothing else, he would manage their money prudently. Those Liberians who felt this way were probably judging from the fact that business people are accustomed to minimizing cost (including debt) and maximizing profit. But even that hope has been chattered by the purchase of luxury cars with their money, while they suffer in displaced and refugee camps and live in abject poverty in the slum that Monrovia has become, as well as, in towns and villages in rural Liberia. Why has Chairman Bryant let the Liberian people down so soon? Why? This is really, really sad.

The TLA and the foreign travel fever

Before I read about Chairman Bryant’s spending on luxury cars, I was angry about the amount of money spent by members of the Transitional Legislative Assembly on foreign trips. In the 1990s, officials of interim government, at least, could use the search for peace as justification for their trips. Officials of this government cannot because the world is present in Liberia in a big way and there is no need to go anywhere to find peace. So what justification can the Assembly members give for the kind of money that they are spending on foreign trips? I can say without a doubt that the Interim Legislative Assembly (ILA) did not spend in fours years (1990-1994) what this Assembly has spent in four months. Also members of the ILA drove used cars, many of them Japanese made, like their colleagues in the Executive at the time. All ministers in the Interim Government of National Unity drove used cars, either purchased by the Interim government or inherited from the Doe Government. Interestingly, at that time Liberians were not as poor as they are today. Almost all banks in Monrovia were functional and people could withdraw their savings, unlike today when most banks in the country are closed.

I suggest that members of the Transitional Assembly who are not beneficiaries of the foreign trip scheme should call for an inquiry into the purposes of the various trips with the view of finding out in what way those trips were made in the interest of the people. If such an inquiry proves no national interest associated with those trips then, those who received travel money should be made to refund the people’s money. The game of taking Liberian people for a ride must be put to an end. Liberian people must demand for accountability in public service, beginning with those who are in power right now.

Finally, I urge Chairman Bryant to learn from the prophetic words of wisdom of President Daniel B. Warner and begin to spend the people’s money on what the people need and not on luxury vehicles and on financing huge travel bills. We cannot be begging the world to help us with what we need and at the same time, spend our own money on what we do not need. We cannot be asking the world to waive Liberia’s debt, while we spend money carelessly. Spend money on what the majority of the people need, not on the comfort of the few. This is one way to give hope to the Liberian people. Liberians are tired of unfulfilled promises. Let Chairman Bryant deliver on his promise to end the practice of business as usual and impunity in Liberia. Let him match his words with his deeds; otherwise, like the Americans say, “talk is cheap”or as Liberians say “Da so so tuh tuh”