Interview With Counselor Varney Sherman


George H. Nubo
Josephus Moses Gray

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 15, 2004

The Perspective: We are on an assessment tour of the city. Our intention is to use the opportunity to talk with some of the major stakeholders on the ground. We have learned that you are running for the presidency of Liberia, and as such we have come to find out why you are running, why do you think that you are the right person to take Liberia out of this mess?

Cllr. Sherman: First, you call it a mess? You said we are in a mess?

Oh yes! From what I see, we are in a mess.

I agree.

And our question is: why would anybody want to be president of Liberia?

I agree with you that the country is in a very difficult period, the most difficult of her history. And you ask why would anyone want to be interested. The answer could be "to get us out of the mess." One of the reasons why I want to become President of the Republic of Liberia is to ensure that none of those who got us in the mess becomes President of Liberia. Or If may put it another way, we must not allow those who helped others to get us in the mess to become President of Liberia. We believe very strongly that if any of the protagonists of our civil crisis were to be elected president of this country there is a strong likelihood that the country would return to violence - because a large group of Liberians will feel threatened. Even those who may not be direct participants but somehow lent their support to protagonists should not be allowed to run this country. We need real reconciliation. We need real unity. We need real integration. We need somebody with integrity - that means independent from the mess. Somebody whom nobody will feel threatened by. We need somebody who has no axe to grind, who has nobody to revenge against.

What was your position during the war? Would you consider yourself another neutral person?

I used the word neutral before, but political a scientist told me nobody should be neutral. "Say you are non-aligned. You are not aligned with any of the protagonists. You never supported any protagonist." That’s the kind of person I was.

Does it mean that you were not aligned with the warring factions and the victims of the war?

I call myself one of the victims. I mean my properties were destroyed, I ran away, I was a refugee several times and I had to come back to rebuild.

Yet still you do not have a position - you are non-aligned?

I did not have a position in support of any warring faction. My position was to oppose the warring factions or to oppose the war.

During the war, did you speak out?

Yes, I spoke very frequently. In fact, that was the basis upon which I ran as a candidate on the ticket of the alliance of political parties. I couldn’t imagine being on the ticket of any warring faction. I was a senatorial candidate in 1997. You’re probably not aware of that. Before that, I was organizing chairman of the Liberian National Conference for the civilian population to step up against the military juntas of Liberia (1994-1995).

During your recent trip to the US, people felt that though you were in the US for graduation exercises, the Liberian government paid for the trip. Could you comment?

Well you are here now. Have you gone to the Ministry of Finance to see the vouchers?

No, I have not. I just wanted to hear your side of the story.

The "Analyst" newspaper carried that story and it was nonsense. The editor of the "Analyst" and I have been here… Before Gyude Bryant became Chairman, I traveled to the United States four or five times a year. My wife lives there, my two children are there,[and] we have a home there in Maryland. Why wouldn’t I have two or three thousand dollars to go there when all these years I have been going there that often at my own expenses? If I had never been to the United States or never had the means to visit the US, somebody could have said: "Varney Sherman needed two or three thousand dollars to pay his way." But I’m always there! Either for family or for business, I’m always there! So why will they… say Varney Sherman’s way was paid to go to the Security Council? I had absolutely nothing to do with the Security Council meeting. I never went around there. I went there (US) for two things: first and foremost for the graduation of my son from the University of Maryland at College Park… I then visited a couple of cities to talk to non-resident Liberians about my vision, about this country and what their visions were - trying to get ideas and information to put a platform together for our political party. The suggestion that Mr. Gyude Bryant gave me money to go attend a Security Council meeting and I was there having fun with my family is ludicrous.

Were you on the same flight with Mr. Bryant?

No way! I left Monrovia weeks before Mr. Bryant’s departure.

Are you legal advisor to Mr. Bryant?

No! Who said that?

What is your position?

I have no position. My Bryant is my friend. Chairman Bryant was four years my senior at St. John’s. I went to St. John’s Episcopal High School in Cape Mount. He left Monrovia and went there. I was born there and went to school there. At Cuttington, when I was in my first year I think he was in his last year. Mr. Bryant was Chairman of my political party (the Liberia Action Party) from the mid 1990s. He was chairman when we contested the 1997 elections. He was chairman up to the day he was elected chairman of the government. I left America on August 4th (2003) and went to Accra for one singular purpose: campaign for Gyude Bryant to become chairman. In my tradition from the Vai culture, when you dress the devil and bring it to town you don’t go back to the bush. You stay there to beat the drum for the dance. When I campaigned with people to vote Gyude Bryant I made certain promises. Even though I am a private lawyer, I stick around to see those promises come to fruition and reality - I try my best to do that. Mr. Gyude Bryant has asked that from time to time he might need my services to get certain things done and therefore asked me to serve as special envoy. I said I would be glad to. Mr. Gyude Bryant’s legal advisor is called Counselor Samuel Clark and he has his office at the Executive Mansion.

How do you get paid?

I don’t get paid. I live on my law firm.

Free service?

I also work free at the University of Liberia - I’m just coming from there. I spend two hours there every Wednesday and Friday. I have been doing that for years.

How about your trip to the UN to the Donors conference?

Yes I was on that delegation.

Did you pay your way?

Of course I didn’t. You think I will pay my way on a government delegation? Of course not! If you were to ask me to perform a service for the government - going out of the country, the government will pay. If it requires my brain, it is free, but if it requires expenses the government will pay.

The Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement bars the chairman from taking part in the 2005 elections and requires him to be neutral. But there seem to be indications that the chairman is not neutral. There are indications that he is supporting you.

What are the indications?

For example, Mr. Harry Greaves, the economic advisor to chairman Bryant, recently said that you are in the better position to win the 2003 elections.

Harry Greaves said I am in the better position?

Oh yes, The Perspective carried the story.

And he said what [puts] me in a better position?

Well, you are from his party, Chairman Bryant’s party.

Well he is promoting me.

Yes he is promoting you and he is seen as serving as the point man for Mr. Bryant.

Harry Greaves will never deny that he is a member of Liberia Action. Let’s be honest about that. Harry Greaves has been a member of the party from 1984. So was his father. His father was one of the people who signed the original document. Let’s assume that Harry Greaves is a member of Liberian Action Party for almost 20 years, that there will be a candidate for the Liberian Action Party, and under normal circumstances [will he] be supporting a candidate from Unity Party? So what he is doing by saying that the candidate of Liberian Action Party will win, to me it is natural.

So the same applies to Mr. Bryant. He has been member of the Liberian Action Party; in fact he was chairman of the party. So by the same token, he will support you.

Not necessary support, it will be foolish for him not to desire for me to win. Supporting me is different and wrong. You don’t think it will be foolish that we have a Republican candidate for the senate and George Bush, President of the United States, would prefer that a democratic candidate wins. Or because Mr. Bush desires that a republican candidate would win, that means he will take the government resources to support the republican candidate?

Well, if they have an agreement that compels George Bush to be neutral, he would be neutral.

The agreement says Mr. Gyude Bryant should not support a candidate, should not use his position as one of influence, and should not use the resources to support a candidate. You don’t think Mr. Gyude Bryant will vote? The agreement says he must not exercise his franchise? If he will vote, he will vote for somebody.

The Liberian Unification Party is currently in crisis. The assistant secretary alleged two or three months ago that you are supporting the former chairman of the party to whom you gave a vehicle and some cash. He added when they met with you at the Mansion once, you allegedly said that as long as you are with Chairman Bryant, Cllr. Brumskine will not run on the LUP ticket. Could you comment?

Who is the person?

One Jacob Smith.

I do not know him. He and I had no discussion on politics. And one thing about me, I don’t normally talk to journalists- if he is a journalist.

No, he is not a journalist. But are you following the development within the Liberian Unification Party?

Yes, I read the newspaper every day. You see these papers? You see them over there? So those who are journalists, I patronize them everyday.

Well, some of these are reports from other publications that we wanted clarifications on.

Well, I have made a determined decision that the newspaper will not be sold on my back - where they will go and make these outrageous accusations and expect that Varney Sherman will respond and there will be another reaction and another response. When somebody writes with dignity I will dignify him, but when you write with indignity I will ignore you.

Sherman Meets West Pointers
Sherman Leaves West Point
West Point
A few months ago, The Chairman of the Elections Commission said that it is not time for campaigning. Are you abiding by that?

Oh yes! Even though I differ with them as a matter of law. Our political party challenged them on the basis that the regulation is unconstitutional. The regulation is invidious, the regulation institutes what we call in constitutional law, prior restraints of free expression, it constitutes prior restraints on free assembly. But what we haven’t done though is to challenge them in court.

But are you abiding by the regulation?

Of course, I am. Do you have reason to believe that I am not abiding by it?

Well, I saw you in West Point this gone Saturday. Was it not campaigning?

No, not at all.

What was it?

What you think? The elections commission says that we must not go and canvas for a candidate. They will not allow people to organize political platforms for a candidate, or posters and parades in the streets for a candidate. But the Commission does not ban membership drive, mobilization, or awareness and sensitization programs, and recruitment of membership, these are activities political parties undertake normally. What we do not agree with is campaigning. And the program in West Point, even though I was the speaker, we continuously said, "we are not here to campaign." The program in West Point was in support of members of the Liberia Action in the West Point community. That’s what we went there for. They - organized it, and were doing a membership drive for us. We went there to pay tribute to the resilience of the West Pointers during the course of the civil war and to support - West Point’s membership of the Liberian Action Party.

You gave $1000.00 to the West Point school for chairs and $500.00 to the West Point members of the Liberian Action Party. Was it not campaigning?

How can it be? We went there [and] the West Pointers came up, the commissioner came up and said look we have a problem here - these are our problems: our streets, our this, our other things and chairs in our school. We need chairs in our school! So we said from our political party, we will make a contribution of $1000.00 to put chairs in the school, for our political party, for your own sustenance here, we’ll make a contribution of $500.00 How can it be campaigning? How can you go on a membership drive to recruit members, and you get to a community and they say our school needs something, and you have the means [but] say I’m sorry, we are not supposed to campaign.

When was this problem brought to your attention?

It was stated at the meeting.

So prior to that you didn’t know?

About that particular school?


Of course we knew about that particular school - maybe that was one of the reasons why they brought us there because they thought that during the course of the program of our political party, they would ask us to make contribution to the school. But they had a long [list] of things that they wanted, but we had to choose what we thought was in our means that we made the contribution to. So it was not an orchestrated request, they asked us for so many things. We just chose the little one, the chip on the block that we thought we could afford.

I was in West Point for funeral when I saw the crowd and decided to stop to see what was going on. When I got closer, I realized it was you. Besides the crowd, I also saw four to five jeeps with each bearing the Liberian Action Party logo on the side. Is the party that wealthy?

You are asking if the party is that wealthy?

Right, is the party that wealthy or are these private vehicles or government jeeps?

Well, if they are government jeeps, they will have government license plates on them. They certainly are not government jeeps. I think you see some of them up here - those are mine personally. Some of them belong to my campaign. One of those jeeps outside there belongs to my executive assistant - he had it for years. Some of them belong to my law firm - we put the Liberian Action Party logo on all of them.

A member of your party, in fact, the former chairman of your party now heads the interim government of this country. There has been a spate of accusations about corruption within the government. How do you evaluate the current interim government?

I think they have done fairly well. If you look at the government, i.e., the way it was organized, the way it is structured, and you wanted to be fair, very fair, you will conclude that this government is doing a tremendous job. Gyude Bryant’s election, you know how it went: politicians got together and made a nomination of three persons and the warring factions made the selection. And because of that some warring factions expect - Mr. Gyude Bryant to be submissive to them.

In reality, what it supposed to be? Is he supposed to be responsible to them?

No, I think he supposed to be responsible to the people. But isn’t that normally the principle that the appointee is responsible to the appointing power? That’s normally the principle! There are deviations, but that’s the general principle - the appointee is responsible to the appointing power. I who appoint you, you are responsible to me. Here we have a government where Mr. Gyude Bryant is given people [heads of agencies] to work with. Under the agreement, for example, the Ministry of Finance is reserved for Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. They appoint the minister of finance. Mr. Gyude Bryant just passes the name to the NTLA. The Minister of Commerce is an appointee of MODEL, they appointed him. Don’t forget about the general principle - the appointee normally feels responsible to whom? - the appointing power. Some people say when you suspect that the Minister of Finance or commerce is doing something wrong, fire him. But if you fire him and there is shooting and ten people die [people will ask]: was it worth it?

So should there be corruption with impunity?

No, no, no! I’m saying that the government has done well because of these restrictions. The plate has been prepared and the plate is just set before you. You don’t even have the right to put salt and pepper in the food. You see what I mean? And so managing that kind of government is extremely difficult. I do not condone corruption. I think it is wrong. It eats out the fabric of a nation. But if you put a government like this together, you run the a high risk of corruption. Do you know why they call him chairman? Nobody wants him to exercise presidential powers. That’s why the title is chairman. They didn’t want him to even believe that he is a president.

Some Liberians have recently spoken of the necessity to hold a national conference in order to charter a new course as we come out of this long conflict. What is your position?†

We, Liberia Action Party, are fundamentally in agreement with the broad objectives for a National Conference as recently proposed by some Liberians; but we are wary about the efficacy of establishing a new interim government or about postponing elections in order to give effect to the decisions of such National Conference. Secondly, we don't believe that a conference of a few weeks would comprehensively and sufficiently address our myriad problems and properly chart our future; we think that the necessary broad-based consultations, the acceptance of the proposals from such consultations and galvanizing the commitment of our people to the new system and processes will take two to three years. So we don't believe in the efficacy of a National Conference at this time.

Can you be more specific?†

For example, we agree with proponents of a National Conference that there is need for a change of the structure of political governance; not only are we advocating for such change, we are committed to making such change. However, a more effective change would require constitutional amendments, the legitimate process which takes more than one year, - requires a referendum. Having a National Conference to achieve this objective would then mean either extension of the term of this transitional government or establishment of a new transitional government.

So, why not extend this government or create a new one if it means changing Liberia for better?†

Given the obvious operational problems of this current transitional government, the extension of its term is not acceptable to the Liberia Action Party. On the other hand, the establishment of a new interim government, which would diminish the level of influence and participation of the warring factions, is likely to be unacceptable to warring factions. In fact, the quagmire that the debate itself at a National Conference will place our country in might likely inadvertently extend the term of the current transitional government and yet not accomplish the desired objectives.

What is your solution?†

What the Liberia Action Party proposes is an elected government that perceives itself as the "real" transitional government. This is what the Liberia Action Party proposed for the 1997 Special Elections and that is why we called for and participated in an alliance of political parties. This is one of the premises on which we are canvassing for the 2005 elections and that is why we are welcoming all like-minded Liberians into a campaign, dubbed "Enterprise Liberia", in which all stakeholders can be a part of the process of transforming our country. This "real" transitional government will open the national consultations with all Liberians on the way forward for us, as a people and as a country. These broad-based consultations will culminate into putting in place the system and setting in motion the processes that would transform our country and reinvigorate our people. This, of course, will include some amendments to our Constitution; but the time will be there to accomplish it.

Do you have any closing message for Liberians in the Diaspora and all those who read this interview? You do not have to campaign.

No, no, no, I don’t want to campaign. And you don’t want me to campaign. When I went to America I visited several states - I told them, among other things, [that] this is your country. We've got in that country (America) maybe 250,000 Liberians. There are gardeners, engineers, lawyers, carpenter, masons, and electricians - anything you can think about... I went to the Liberian medical Association in the Americas and I met some doctors and [saw] their listing - 105 medical doctors in the United States of America graduated from Dogliotti. If 50 of them were to come back to Liberia, our health system would be completely manned. Help us fix this country so you can come home. Get involved in Liberia and help us fix this country so you can come home. I know enough about America to know that [for] most of you, your standard of living will drop the day you retire. Your standard of living will drop the day you retire! That retirement income, that social security intake will not be able to keep you at the level you are today. In a few years, you will be retired especially those who are my age, I’m fifty-one. Come back here! We need your services, we need your wealth, we need your newly found skills - and you will still be able to receive your [social security retirement] checks right through these financial institutions here. That check that cannot do you enough good in America, will do you lots of good here. You will be able to send your children to school; you will be able to pay your bills, and you will be living a far better life - far better life than in America. I am asking you to join us here in this country. I’m not saying transpose yourself immediately or move yourself - no, but manifest some interest in this country and plan that tomorrow you will want to move back. The way to prove it is to get involved in the political process in this country. It is not enough to just criticize. Yes, you need to criticize for us to set the thing straight, [but] what are the proposals? Why weren’t you involved in Accra to make sure that the government that came out of Accra was the government that is desirable by you or at least you would have made a big input. I welcome you. Come to Liberia and get involved in Liberia. It’s your home. It is a far better place to live than the United States of America. Honestly! But you and I can make it that better place. That’s my message to the people in the Diaspora. I call you all non-resident Liberians. If I become president, no law should be able to take your citizenship from you; [and this will facilitate your continous involvement with Liberia].

Thank you

†Due to recent development, this question was asked to update the interview.