Does Liberia Need Another National Conference?



By John S. Morlu, II



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 5, 2005

The idea of having a national was first floated by Former Chairman of the Interim Government of National Unity, Dr. Amos Sawyer, in a letter to Chairman Bryant in April 2004, when he declined Chairman Bryant’s request for him (Dr. Sawyer) to serve on the Good Governance Commission. Dr. Sawyer sees are too many institutional flaws that need correction. So the holding of the elections should be based on a successful restructuring of political institutions, and implementing good governance.

In July 2004, Liberian Ambassador to the United States Charles Minor held a symposium on Liberia at the Africare building in Washington. The need to hold a national conference to postpone the elections was brought up and discussed at the Symposium. Ambassador James T. Tarpeh immediately rejected that idea, because he correctly believed then that it would be unnecessary and a complete distraction. But Dr. Tarpeh is now fully on board and before last night, January 4, 2005, was the presiding Chairman of the Conference’s Steering Committee. After weeks of infighting and power struggle, Dr. Tarpeh was however overthrown last night and replaced with Mydea Reeves-Karpeh , former president of ULAA and current chair of the Women Wing of the Friends of Charles Brumskine.

Dr. Sawyer made another argument to postpone the election on August 21, 2004 at a conference held at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss Mr. Weh-Dorliae’s book. Presidential Candidate E. Sumo Jones wrote a commentary in The Perspective entitled, “Comments on Sawyer and Weh-Dorliae's Postponement of Elections”. In his commentary, Candidate Sumo Jones effectively rejected such a proposal to postpone the election with well-reasoned counterpoints. Besides, Winsley S. Nanka interviewed the late Dr. Harry F. Moniba, Bishop Bennie D. Warner and others on this elections postponement debate, and each of them rejected Amos Sawyer’s proposal to postpone the elections. They plan to hold “The All Liberian National Conference for Peace, Reform and Reconciliation” in February 2005 in the United States and in April 2005 in Monrovia.

The planners have set up several committees, whose membership is by invitation only.

The Steering Committee of the National Conference has had a series of teleconferences on strategic and tactical matters. One of such teleconferences was held on December 12, 2004 and several more – the most recent meeting was held last night. They have also managed to shift the debate over time without the Liberian people realizing it.

Now let me shift gears and give you a taste of how the rationale for a national conference has shifted overtime:

First, Amos Sawyer wanted to postpone the elections to make institutional reforms. These reforms would be predicated on Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s Good Governance Commission’s recommendations. Liberians gave a resounding no. Good Governance Reform was supposed to be part of the overall initiative implemented under Chairman Bryant’s Interim Government. It has not been done, so a constitutionally elected government would handle that. Dr. Sawyer is not a member of the conference committees.

Second, they wanted to postpone the elections to undertake constitutional changes to implement Gbai Bala, E. Sumo Jones, and Weh-Dorliae’s decentralization proposal. Liberians rejected this proposal as well. Many Liberians believe this to be a good idea but can wait after the elections. As a matter of fact, we don’t have a constitutionally elected Congress. Instead, we have a pieced together Assembly, not selected by the people. So they cannot institute constitutional overhaul of government with such a magnitude as decentralization.

Third, in a last minute ditch , Philip C. Banks III wrote a 20-page long article, published on The Perspective web site that in summary stated that Chairman Bryant’s Interim Administration was illegitimate. Read Banks’ article, “The Liberian Peace Process: Continuing Challenges for the Future (Part I). I was just surprised that a man like Banks would now be arguing that this Interim Government is illegitimate but not Amos Sawyer’s.

Fourth, in “It Is Time To Rethink,” November 3, 2004, B. J. Samukai argued that we need a town hall style national conference to settle our differences. Mr. Samukai stated, “If election 2005 is to provide a political leadership for stability in our country, then the alternative to a National Conference before election 2005 is chaos after elections… The demand for a National Conference before election 2005 is reality one that we must accept.” Chaos?

In any case, after Ambassador John Blaney III issued his warning against the troublemakers trying to delay the elections on the basis of a census, in less than 48 hours, Dr. Abdoulaye Dukule was out with an article to chastise the U.S. Ambassador for trying to do the right thing for the Liberian people. Rapid response? Yes. Read Dukulé’s commentary on this site, “US Ambassador John Blaney And Speaker George Dweh: The Hand that feeds…” Let me give you his main point. “Liberians therefore have many issues to discuss, from the constitution to the state of disarmament, from reconciliation to matters of war crime tribunal. There is a pressing need for a national dialogue.” National Conference replaced with dialogue. Same meaning!

Abraham G. Massaley also engaged in a regular mass e-mail to Cape Mountainians to register his disapproval of Ambassador Blaney’s position and persuade them to support this national conference. But Speaker Dweh backtracked after the Ambassador spoke and I am happy to say that they have finally approved the Elections Law, without a requirement for a census.

The national conference has been named, “The All Liberian National Conference for Peace, Reform and Reconciliation. Let’s take a look at each of the key phrases of the national conference. First, let’s analyze the phrase “All Liberian.” Who elected these people to represent all the Liberian people? I don’t know! Do they feel that they and only they are the mouthpiece for all Liberians? In one of the agendas sent out by former Chairman Dr. James T. Tarpeh to members of the conference, it was stated that participation is predicated on invitation and voluntarism based on expertise. Wow, expertise? Who is going to be the judge?

Here are the facts, fellow Liberians. National conferences are Liberia’s version of a “Rotary Club.” Or better yet, it is a “Country Club” and only a select few are invited. People who are not connected in some way to the entrenched political and so-called intellectual elites are not invited. Don’t even talk about the poor people attending; they are not welcomed. So, the sole purpose of national conferences is to divide up the pie anew, with only the head of government being replaced with another inept and corrupt group of people. It is about government jobs, pure and simple. We don’t have to go far back in history to observe this pattern. We had a national conference in Banjul in 1990 that produced the Amos Sawyer Interim Administration.

Undoubtedly almost all of the people who took part in the conference worked in the Interim Government of National Unity. They got fat government jobs. What did the Liberian people get? Nothing! They were left holding an empty bag.

In July 1998, the Government of Liberia under the failed leadership of Charles Taylor sponsored a national conference entitled, Conference Vision 2024 to discuss the future of Liberia. This conference was held at the Unity Conference Center, Virginia. Presidential Candidate and Taylor Confidante Roland Massaquoi chaired it; Gbai Gbala was the Vice Chair. Both Roland Massaquoi and Gbai Gbala occupied fat government posts in the Taylor Administration, with Massaquoi serving as Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs, and the latter as Minister of Agriculture.

U.S. Reverend Jesse Lee Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition also held a national conference of national unity in Chicago, with some of the usual suspects attending. Some of them went back to work for Taylor, and others just decided to remain in the US. But again, none of these conferences produced anything tangible for ordinary Liberians. It only benefited those who were invited to attend. The people are still suffering. That is a fact.

Most recently, Liberians had a conference in Ghana that created the Charles Gyude Bryant Interim Government. The warring factions, civil society and the political parties divided up the jobs amongst themselves. They are riding in nice cars. They live in air-conditioned homes. They are stealing from the Liberian people with impunity. Ordinary folks are unemployed in astronomical numbers - 85% to be precise. Common people have to walk from Duala and Paynesville to work on Broad Street even though they don’t get paid. People have totally lost their pride, with grown ups turning into street beggars in record numbers. Now we hear again about another national conference for peace, reform and reconciliation. Fancy words!

Second, we don’t need a national conference to achieve peace. Maybe stability. But peace? How can a man have peace when his kids go to bed hungry? How can a man have peace when his fourteen or fifteen year old daughter has to prostitute herself just to put food on the table? How can a man have peace when his children are not getting a decent education? How can a man have peace when he lives in the worst condition - hut or zinc shack? How can a man have peace when he sees government officials ridding in a convoy of 5 cars when he has to walk everywhere bare-footed? How can a man have peace when he cannot afford a decent health care, but then sees a few people sending their families to America and Europe for medical checkups? How can a man have peace when he lives in a dark room next door to a government official with an air-conditioned home but who refuses to share his government issued generator? How can a man have peace when the prices of everything including rice and gasoline are going up, because government officials are receiving stipends and have allowed their Lebanese partners to charge exorbitant prices to afford them a kickback?

We don’t need a national conference to know that peace is only possible when people are living a dignified life and that they are being treated fairly. Economic justice is just as important as political justice. The resources of Liberia belong to everyone, and we don’t need a national conference to tell us that. The bottom line is that government can use force to bring about stability, but not peace. Peace is only possible when people know that they have a stake in the outcome. Now, we don’t have that in Liberia. Liberia is not an ownership society. It seems that it has always belonged to a select few, and we cannot build peace on that.

Third, we also don’t need a national conference to achieve reconciliation. What we need for reconciliation is to hold people accountable for what they have done to Liberia. Are the planners prepared to stand tall and state unequivocally that they are for a War Crimes Tribunal for Liberia? That would be the test of their commitment to reconciliation. I don’t mean truth and reconciliation either. I want a real War Crimes Tribunal to punish anyone who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of countless numbers of fellow Liberians, and displacement of (internally and externally) hundreds of thousands of others.

Today, many people are maltreated in foreign lands and are dying and being buried in shallow graves while these people live comfortable lives in America only to go back home occasionally to create trouble. I would also like to know whether any of the conference planners would stand up and say that they are for catching, prosecuting and seizing the assets of all those people who have stolen the Liberian people’s money. The moral message of the article is that we cannot achieve reconciliation without accountability, and we don’t need a conference to argue for a War Crimes Tribunal and a Corruption Tribunal. I am sure that the planners would agree that a democracy without accountability, personal responsibility and enforcement of the laws is a toothless arrangement that will collapse even under minimal pressure. We are building the new Liberia. We have to make accountability, personal responsibility and the rule of law the bedrock, or else we are forever doomed.

Fourth, we also don’t need a national conference to undertake institutional reforms. We are having presidential and general elections on October 24, 2005. We have about 18 political parties, 8 more have registered and we have about 43 candidates for president and countless others for Congress. Chairwoman Frances Johnson-Morris of the NEC argued that we will about 36 political parties by Election Day. We can better use our time by forcing each of these candidates to give us a platform of how they plan to govern. I am sure that many of these candidates have listed institutional reform as a part of their agenda.

Can anyone really believe that this is all about reform? In any case, we should not put the cart before the horse. The next government will have the legitimacy to make all of these institutional changes. You can ensure that by financially supporting and voting for the candidate that you think will implement the changes you want to see made in Liberia. The national conference planners are no more Liberian than we are. These national conference proponents would be well served to channel their reforms through their respective political parties.

On a side note, Dr.Tarpeh and partners had engaged in a debate with ULAA as to whom should host the conference. ULAA is the legitimate organization for many Liberians in America. But the Tarpeh group argued that the national conference was their idea, and so it is only fair that they host it. Now think about this. In a draft letter intended to be sent to Chairman Bryant, they claim that they represent 250,000 Liberians in the US. They also say that in order to achieve what they are planning to do, they have to register as a non-profit organization. But ULAA is also a registered organization. Why not allow ULAA to host it. Why go through all that trouble to register a non-for-profit just to hold a conference?

Moreover, in a draft letter intended to be sent to Chairman Bryant the then Chairman James Tarpeh was so vague that even the conference planners recognized it. In the letter, they promised Chairman Bryant that they will provide more details in the future. First impression matters! Imagine sending a letter to someone requesting his assistance but then telling him you will provide more information in the future. He would most likely throw it in the trash. Chairman Bryant is no President Bush, but the office he holds demand some respect. I am sure the conference planners are afraid to disclose to the Chairman their real reasons (and what the government’s role will be), and that is why they are delaying the details until he finally supports them.

Anyway, if this all national conference was really about the Liberian people, does it matter which organization hosts it? I don’t think so. But it is not about the Liberian people. Moreover, would they be willing for me, a young professional Liberian, to host the conference? I bet you not. I wouldn’t even do it because it is a waste of time.

I also hope that Chairman Bryant is wise enough not to provide any credence to the group. I strongly believe that they are after the chairman’s job. They are after every government posts in Liberia. The late Harry Moniba made a mistake of not standing up to Sawyer and his Banjul friends. Chairman Bryant cannot make this mistake. I know that the Chairman has had several missteps and that there is no shortage of corrupt individuals in his government. But holding credible elections so that Liberians can for the first time make a resounding choice for president is not too late. This is where Chairman Bryant can make the difference. His government’s support for a national conference now would be diversionary at best. It would undermine not only the CPA but also the elections process and confuse the Liberian people. And the Liberian people can also help Chairman Bryant to fight back by making it abundantly clear that they are tired of the political gamesmanship that these national conference planners are engaged.

In closing, we cannot allow this group to represent us. This whole National Conference is a job fair in the making, but don’t prepare your resume. We are going to have the elections! So don’t waste your time. Instead, prepare your resume by supporting financially or otherwise the candidate of your choice. That’s where Liberians can make a real difference. And for the national conference advocates, please run for congress to bring about reconciliation, peace and reform. Congress is the most appropriate place to make stand.
Author: Founder, Liberian Institute for Public Integrity. He holds an MBA in Finance from Johns Hopkins University, MA in International Commerce and Policy from George Mason University, and BA’s in Economics and Foreign Affairs from The University of Virginia. He is also Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Financial Manager (CFM), and Certified Masters in Business Administration (CMBA), Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), and Level II Candidate in the CFA Program. He can be reached at