Back to Arms and Anarchy
By Tom Kamara
After the official disarming and demobilization of the country's feared armed factions accused of committing some of the worst atrocities ever in Africa, and the façade of publicly "burning" weapons as an inducement for international aid, Liberia is on the verge of recruiting and arming 30,000 more fighters in an effort to defeat the advancing insurgents of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the country's new dissident group. There are grim implications in this decision, for it entails that conditions which made the country a living hell for almost a decade with horrendous consequences for development, which still linger, will be exacerbated. Even if the dissidents are defeated, these 30,000-armed, dreaded fighters would remain a plague on a society already on its knees in chaos, leading to spreading insecurity and therefore an unsuitable climate for reconstruction and democratization.
Following a failed ultimatum to his Army to flush out the dissidents within 72 hours, President Taylor has now pledged to tap his reserved army of idle ex-fighters who, in the recent past, have terrorized the population in the absence of reintegration benefits. Promises of better economic opportunities, which served as key incentives for the war, are far from being fulfilled in the face of new moves to rearm an unlimited reservoir of discontented fighters who feel cheated over the distribution of the war's booty - state jobs, money and status. Thus, a new Army of untrained and unpaid zealots may be a convenient, short-term tool against opponents, but carry nightmarish long-term implications.
"The problem is that once armed, disarming them after
the military offensive becomes a greater problem. And once they
are not disarmed, they turn on the population for their livelihood
because experience has shown that the Government has no plan to
make their lives better, is not interested in their welfare after
their service, and only woos them when it is cornered. Then there
is another question. Where is the certainty that these arms will
not be turned against those that have provided them or that they
will not be placed at the service of the dissidents?" asked
a former foreign minister, adding, "These are mercenaries
who fight for anyone that will give them bread. We are not talking
about ANC (South African National Congress) or Frelimo (Front
for the Liberation of Mozambique) here. We are talking about boys
and girls uprooted from rural life, urban squalor, and made to
believe that life can be better with an AK-47 in hand only to
face the rude awakening that this is not the case. We see the
extension of the myth in Sierra Leone."
But the need for more fighters to battle the dissidents, however unavoidable and understandable, has its drawbacks. Already, key commanders of the Army (which remains largely composed of NPFL fighters since Taylor rejected the idea of a unified army trained by the Economic Community of West African States peacekeeping force - ECOMOG) have been arrested for refusing to fight. The arrested men, all key and loyal commanders of Taylor's rebel force during the war, are demanding benefits for their families before proceeding to the front. The Chief of Staff of the Army, a Krahn who fought for Taylor during the war against the Samuel Doe, a Krahn, is being investigated for alleged disloyalty and misleading the President. In Nimba, the stronghold of the NPFL, fighters are said to be furious over the naming of an Americo-Liberian as a commander in their area as indication of Taylor's distrust of Gios and Manos, the two tribes that made him win the war and therefore the presidency.
The recent rampaging of a hospital and flogging of doctors by wounded fighters protesting neglect highlight symptoms of the appalling service conditions for these fighters. Members of the Legislature dipped into their pockets to contribute to the welfare of the wounded fighters, a wise offer because without the fighters, they have no jobs. These events indicate that a poor country cannot endlessly be at war to be at peace.
Trouble with the ex-fighters began immediately after the 1997 elections when they staged several demonstrations demanding promised benefits. A Catholic learning center in rural Liberia was seized and held hostage until the church negotiated a settlement by paying a ransom. Between 1998 and 1999, many returning peasants in Lofa County, now a scene of renewed fighting for third time since elections, rejected relief supplies from aid agencies because, they said, the supplies provided the basis for the terror waged on them by the ex-fighters in search of food and other valuables. In the capital Monrovia, fighters went on rampage in 1999 confiscating cars in demand of benefits. To quell another violent protest in the capital, the United Nations Special Representative in the country, the Gambian Felix-Dowes Thomas, known for his overt support and loyalty to Taylor, intervened with promises when fighters stormed UN offices demanding benefits. Although he promised resettlement packages, there is no evidence of such programs. Before the outbreak of the current fighting, the Ministry of Defense announced that soldiers, mainly ex-fighters of the rebel NPFL, were deserting posts in search of other means to make a living. In an astonishing public display of dismay and frankness, the ministry warned that it should not be blamed if these hungry soldiers turned on the population to meet their needs.
Since Taylor's presidency, many of the estimated 60,000 fighters have been abandoned in abject poverty while the lucky ones in tattered clothing roam with rusty guns as "security forces," preying on the population. Although the war was waged on the platform of democracy, transparency and dreamy equal economic opportunities, repression and cronyism have become the norms, pointing to mounting disenchantment, as indicated by the University students in their recent statement condemning "The spiraling pomposity of those who continue to live conceitedly within the arrogance of falsehood of supremacy over their compatriots" These views landed the student leaders in prison, and then forced, at gunpoint, to issue retractions. In a recent article, The Washington Post reported that investment is hindered partly because conventional investors are compelled to give shares or pay bribes to either the President or one of his trusted cronies. This has left the economic terrain clear for South African neo-Nazis and arms traffickers, among the shady "businessmen" storming Liberia to fill the vacuum.
Moreover, the old class dichotomy, in which the Americo-Liberians (descendents of ex-slaves) were the custodians of the economy while African-Liberians, as "soldiers," protected them, has reemerged in many forms. But the current political structures, together with the ongoing criminalization of the economy and the state, cannot be simplified along ethnic lines. More honorable Americo-Liberians have simply kept their distance from those they regard as a clique of thieving and unscrupulous gang sowing the seeds that will self-destruct.
"This is not what our Liberia was all about. We had our problems, and believe me, they were many. But we were respected in and around Africa. We were not criminals in politics", recalls an angry former Liberian ambassador to East Africa now living in Europe. Others such as the outspoken head of the Senate, Charles Brumskine, have been exiled because of serious disagreement on policy and practice. Despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing Brumskine's job protection, he was replaced by a native Liberian, Kekura Kopto, chair of the junta's political party and one of the most corrupt loyalists of Samuel Doe. Kpoto incurred Doe's wrath and once faced imprisonment for a series of theft related crimes, including taking supplies from state parastatals which he sold without making payments to the government.
But the so-called security forces, an amorphous conglomeration of different and competing structures, are overwhelmingly made up of African-Liberians while the engines of the economy remain largely in the hands of a minute and intensely loyal group of Americo-Liberians. Many of these native-Liberians, as young as 8 years old at the onset of the war, formed Taylor's notorious Small Boys Unit. In peacetime, they are the reserved army of "professional" demonstrators, always mobilized to storm the streets in protest against the President's enemies in an attempt to show critics how popular he is and how hated they are. Traditional chiefs, the few around, have been pulled into this incessant state demonstration bandwagon without knowing the issues or policies they are protesting. Although they are inundated with propaganda about the personal difficulties American and British sanctions may cause for "ordinary people", the fact that their leader's backing of the RUF has caused horrific difficulties for Sierra Leone's 5.6 million people more than any imagined sanctions regime is irrelevant.
This week, the Government announced a mass demonstration "by the people" against sanctions by Britain and the US in protest of Taylor's continued backing of Sierra Leone's ruthless rebels. When the British succeeded in suspending about $50 million EU aid, Taylor, relying on the ex-fighters to storm the streets, threatened a mass demonstration against the decision and placed the ruthless Anti-Terrorist Unit, composed of the most atrocious of ex-rebels, at the gates of the American embassy under the pretext of providing protection. The Government's critics have been pursued out of the country by the "angry people", meaning the ex-fighters, as was the case with journalist Medina Wesseh who was brutalized and her home looted by ex-fighters because her husband questioned the validity of their claims for more benefits while their victims languish in poverty. Their most memorable song, "You killed my pa, you killed my ma,(but) I will vote for you" remains the barometer of their unquestioned loyalty to a man who has become a father figure to them since many of them are orphans with no where to turn, even if he is an absentee father with no concerns of how they live.
But old ethnic and social divide is prevailing at a time when the country's economy is in ruins and its political leadership a pariah in the eyes of the world. Nevertheless, the divide did not originate with the current group. It is the result of centuries of manipulations for economic and political objectives. Says Abraham Williams, a Liberian writer.
"Instead of calling every citizen just a Liberian, the Americo-Liberians created a class system modeled after the antebellum plantations of slavery from which they had been extricated. In their system they were the masters and the African majority became the servants. As this nation of two states in which all the citizens did not have equal rights or equal access to national benefits in all spheres of social development evolved, efforts were made to suppress any awareness of the African self-worth. One of the obnoxious reminders of this insidious legacy is that some African-Liberians today feel inferior, as the system has conditioned them to be. Sometimes, they exhibit a tendency of low self-esteem, timidity and deference, especially so when the two groups interact. A friend and colleague of mine once referred to this wretched effect as a 'consequence' of social orientation.
"But the situation took a dramatic turn in the decade of the 1970s when political consciousness in Liberia reached its zenith. During that period, various progressive politicians and democracy activists seized the opportunity occasioned by a national policy of casting the African majority in low light and neglect. These reformist politicians began to emphasize the virtues of African culture, urging Liberians not to be embarrassed of their African heritage. This gave rise to a greater awareness of ethnicity that the ruling oligarchy had tried to degrade".
Nevertheless, this ethnic divide assumed its crudest form during the war, when the NPFL systematically sought out native-Liberian political and opinion leaders, and professionals for elimination. Most key political leaders, avowed foes of President Samuel Doe whom the NPFL was fighting to kill, were executed once they fled to NPFL-held areas.
Now, as the current fighting intensifies, Mandingoes and Krahns have again become targets, with reports last week that a number of people have already been arrested as fear engulfs the country. No one knows who is the next prey in the evolving witch-hunt. A number of officials in the Krahn region of Grand Gedeh are reported missing, while the region's superintendent has been under house arrest. Mandingoes in Monrovia, frightened of the prospects that they will soon be targets as they were during the war, last week urged Taylor against repeating the use of "collective guilt," since some of the leaders and fighters of LURD are Mandingoes. Krahn leaders adopted similar posture in 1998, condemning their kinsman Roosevelt Johnson, accused of plotting to overthrow the Government. But this did not stop the massacre of over 300 Krahns, according to US State Department. Nearly all respected leaders of the Krahn ethnic group have since been convicted and are languishing in jail for 10 years after a trial described by many human rights groups as a farce.
Taylor has blamed every perceptible socio-political grouping, along with the international community, for his failures. First, he accused the "politicians', meaning the Opposition, for his failures in delivering on his promises, including the reintroduction of the US Dollar as common currency, a computer for every child, and rapid development programmes. Then the Krahns and the Mandingo ethnic groups were lined up to take the blames. The international community was then discovered to have caused the unparallel corruption within the cabinet and government because it had failed to offer help. The Director-General of the Cabinet recently predicted war if the international community did not provide help, while the Minister of Information accused Washington for failing to provide safe drinking water and electricity.
In his bid to consolidate power, Taylor has adopted Machiavellian norms such as transforming himself as a son of the native majority (African-Liberians) with the adoption of the name Dakpana Ghanky Taylor instead of Charles McArthur Taylor, and threatened to make ethnic definitions treasonable. This meteoric transformation should symbolize his native roots and win him numbers (since African-Liberians dominate in numbers), while placing the economy where his heart is - with his small clique of Americo-Liberian confidantes. Hence, the few engines of the disintegrating economy, such as the Maritime Fund, the timber companies, key financial institutions, are firmly in the hands of trusted Americo-Liberians while African-Liberians served in the security, propaganda and other conspicuous political positions such as powerless legislators or in dysfunctional ministries and agencies. Family members of his late Vice President revealed that the man, one of the few surviving native confidantes of Taylor from Libyan training camps until his sudden death, could not afford simple medical fees or trips out of the country without Taylor's largesse. The promised autopsy on causes of the man's death has not been released, convincing critics that Enoch Dogoleah was indeed killed by Taylor as he has done with many other politicians of native background. Public and private discussion on the causes of death has been banned, with the President vowing to be "ferocious" with anyone discussing the tragedy.
Furthermore, the fighting has provided the needed excuse to silence key Opposition leaders. Taylor has announced discovering a list from an alleged dead dissident with the names of several of his political opponents in the man's pocket. Among the names is that of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and Taylor has threatened to arrest her whether in or out of Liberia. Mrs. Sirleaf had earlier rejected the charges, vowing to defeat Taylor in the coming presidential elections in 2003. "This vow to defeat Taylor at the polls played the determinant role in her name being discovered on an alleged dead dissident", said a student activist from Monrovia.
Implicating political opponents in plot is a common tool in Liberia used to silence opposition. The Americo-Liberian oligarchy used it extensively to kill the possibility of native political challenge by arresting emerging African-Liberian political leaders on plot charges. The military junta of Samuel Doe learned this insidious scheme from previous governments, frequently eliminating opposition through executions or imprisonment of trumped-up coup charges.
"If there were ever any doubts that there would be no free and fair elections under Mr. Taylor, they have been cleared", said a member of Mrs. Sirleaf's Unity Party from Washington.
After all the efforts disinfesting the country of arms and drugged fighters, we are back to square one. "The worst crime of the international community against the people of Liberia is to have allowed warlords to stand for election. Once a warlord, always a warlord. We, the helpless, are the pawns in this game," laments a woman pro-democracy activist now living in Europe.