Interview With Archbishop Michael Kpakala
By George H. Nubo
December 28, 1999
In the wake of a gloomy human rights record, the lack of genuine peace and reconciliation, and the failure to complete the implementation of the Abuja Peace Accords, this magazine was prompted to interview Catholic Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis of Liberia during his recent visit to the United States to receive the distinguished Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Just recently, a consortium of eight human rights groups under the umbrella of the National Human Rights Center of Liberia, of which the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission is a member issued a statement - saying that human rights condition in Liberia, especially in 1999, "is far from being satisfactory." The Archbishop discussed his perspective on these issues and current developments in Liberia today. Here is excerpt from the interview:
TP: We want to congratulate you for the distinguished Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award you have just received. This award places you amongst the pantheon of other distinguished men and women who have advocated for human rights for oppressed people of the world. What does this award mean for you and Liberia?
Archbishop: It is the recognition of the work we are doing. I represent so many others who are striving to create a society where justice reigns supreme, where there is respect for the fundamental human rights of every individual..., and provide the necessity for peace. For human rights to be respected, we want to have genuine peace and reconciliation.
TP: How can faith-based organizations such as the church and religious organizations become an effective moral voice in a shattered society like ours?
Archbishop: By first of all, trying to speak out against injustice in a society. Not only speaking out, but by creating an environment, by helping to remedy those injustices with the limited resources, to create an environment where those who are governed and the governors will come together to reconcile their differences, to be the voice of the voiceless and the conscience of the people.
TP: The seven-year civil war has ended. It is estimated that over 200,000 to 250,000 people were killed, human rights abuse continues, where are we as the country prepares to enter the next millennium?
Archbishop: I will say 150,000 Yes, there is violation of human rights. But there has been some improvements. And given the situation we've come from and those who are involved, it is plus in itself The pluses are: first of all, [there is a] very free and vibrant press. It is obvious that whenever something happens it is reported, in spite of sometime insidious trying to intimidate people as always the case. But the thing is, we have a very serious vibrant press and I take off my hat to our journalists in the print media and in the electronic media. We run electronic media with a radio station [Radio Varitas]. We have Talk Shows, some programs with people calling So that's a plus. Secondly, there is a culture of democracy that is developing where people are concerned about human rights, about democracy and that is a plus too.
On the other hand, we do have cases where there are intimidation, and I will put it - isolated, contrary to what other people will say that rights have been violated with impunity, there exist an atmosphere of arrogance of impunity when it comes to human rights. You can expect these things coming from where we have come from. Considering that many, if not all, but a large majority of the security apparatus are former fighters, they have not been detraumatized. So you can expect this behavior. But I'll give you example, for instance, the brother-in-law of the president [Henric Cassell] shot dead a taxi driver. And he is now being prosecuted. And, when I left, the case was being heard. I don't know if they've finished it now. So that tells you it is going forward. There is lot to be done. Human rights is not only what the government does, but also what we the common people do. There's corruption of the system both in the public and the private sectors: the system is corrupt and that's corrupting the people Women are being dehumanized. The abuse: children are being abused and vice versa We have a very young population which is dependent on the older population. [The older population is about] 40% and the young population is 60%. Out of every 100 Liberians, ninety depend on ten and those ten are not working.
But to come back to your question, I do think there is an improvement in the human rights situation. But we expect more there is more to come.
TP: In the last six months, there has been a spate of human rights abuses: A driver of a human rights lawyer, James Torh, ear was cut, Papa George, a taxi driver was brutally murdered by Henric Cassell a high-ranking government official, Mr. Bestman, a Liberian businessman was mercilessly beaten to death by a group of police officers, a local magistrate Joseph Doe was beaten on orders of the of the assistant minister for national security. Is there an erosion of human rights in the country?
Archbishop: Personally, I wouldn't say this is a pattern. In this great society [the United States], every day you see people killing people. Unfortunately, it happens there [in Liberia] like that. For instance, the cutting of the ear - I have not heard about that. I know of Pappa George as I've mentioned. And I would say this we got to be objective in these things. I always talk about objectivity because my credibility is on the line. We have to be objective I don't believe it is a set purpose of the government to commit these atrocities. I will say that yes many of them believe in their [raw] perception that that is what some higher-up there want. Like the case of Pappa George, the president didn't order his brother-in-law to shoot the man. The fellow [Pappa George] passed him and because he was in the [seven year civil war] war - fighting and he's still traumatized, so he went and killed the man. And the press came up vigorously that the president should let the law take [its course]. And it was so strong that the president himself went on and had a press conference. And [he] said, "let justice has its course". And so he's gone before [the] trial. The case of Bestman, I have not heard. But it is possible!
For the security apparatus, they are trying. The new chief of police, Paul Mulbah, he was never involved in the war. He is trying his best. He exposed security apparatus members who were involved in armed robbery. Ninety percent of our security apparatus, if not more, are former combatants, former fighters. So you know what happened, they lived for seven years meting out jungle justice. If they are not detraumatized, you can expect that. It is our hope and we pray for that and talk about that articulately that the whole security apparatus should be reconstructed, rehabilitated, etc. It has to be done. We understand that plans have been devised where the whole army will be reconstructed and so forth. The Abuja Accord has four elements: disarmament, remobilization, reconstruction of the army, and finally free and fair election. Only two parts were put in place: disarmament and election. The two middle parts were not. And that is a concern. So we do hope that they'll do something to reconstruct the security apparatus. So that these things that are happening may not happen.
TP: Generally Liberians in this country feel that if the Liberian government did not renege on implementing the provision of the Abuja Accord that calls for the restructuring of the Liberian security apparatus, these brutalities or human rights abuses by the security would have been minimum.
Archbishop: It was not the government to do this, it was ECOMOG. Unfortunately, ECOMOG did not carry out those two parts which was very unfortunate. The sequence was like this: disarmament, demobilization, reconstruction, then free and fair election. But since every body was running for free and fair elections, [and] ECOWAS wanted to get out of Liberia (ECOMOG), and so they left all of these important components. So the government comes on, they are supposed to do that. I wouldn't say they reneged on it but it has to be done. We know a commission is set up, to work out these modalities and my understanding, from what the press released and so forth, is that it has presented its findings to the president. The president should have the will-power, the political will, to implement these. And I believe if they implement these, things would be better than what they are. We don't have a perfect society we have a problem there.
TP: It is clear that after seven years of war in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed innocently, there is a need for a process of healing which can only come about if genuine reconciliation occurs. Where should reconciliation begin? Should there be a War Crimes Tribunal in which those who perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity are brought to justice? Or should there be a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" modeled after that of the South African experience? How do we seek the truth behind the war and at the same time ensure that justice prevails?
Archbishop: I wouldn't be in the position to say which is the right thing. But I will say this: we are trying for reconciliation... I, for my own, did advise the president last year to have a national conference in which all segments of our population will come. Now the reason were two-fold: First for reconciliation [for them to] voice out their opinion. Secondly, to map out the future and then they can be members of it. Two thousand delegates were present from all sectors and sections of our country. And, for me, it was a success. The original plan, when I saw certain things that were not correct, I published in the paper the critique of the plan together with a pastoral letter to call attention to the authority that this is not what we envisaged. And everything was corrected. Instead of four or five days, we had nearly four weeks. And I asked the president to be present, and he was present In my judgment, that was one of the first time in the history of our country that you had mass participation in mapping the future of our country. And during that meeting, for me, it was a psychotherapy where the people tell what they went through, where their rights were violated, and so forth. And that is the first process in reconciliation. That was very, very good I must say that.
TP: What happened to the recommendations from the conference?
Archbishop: Unfortunately, and I brought this to the attention of the president, the results were supposed to be published in January  and then hopefully we would start the implementation because what the people discussed there [at the conference] if everything would be implemented we would have real, and genuine reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation. But up until now, it hasn't and I feel very, very disappointed. Just two months ago, I had the occasion to bring it up to the president, to bring it up to other people in meetings, in seminars, in lectures because I believe that is the process where reconciliation can be effective. Reconstruction can be effective because it is the people speaking. Up until now, nothing has been done in terms of publishing. We were told that they were working on it, now it's a year and three months since those events happened. So I am baffled I don't know whether the government does not have the political will to do so - yet it is in the interest of everybody.
TP: There has been a number of conferences held on the need for Peace and Reconciliation in the last year and a half. First there was the Chicago Conference held in April 1998 under the auspices of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Rainbow Push Coalition. This was later followed the July 1998 Reconciliation Conference held in Monrovia. If the purpose was to bring together all sides involved in the war, there was a noticeable absence of several factions such as that of the Johnson and Kromah, etc. Would you care to comment?
Archbishop: I think you are overlapping we don't have factions. We don't have factions now. This is the problem I found here in the United States. Many Liberians here are factionalized. We don't have factions Let me tell you my opinion. All these people who came to liberate us, they came to kill us. And none of them has done any good for us. Since 1979 1980, I've been through it my life has been threatened. Y'all sit down here, you don't know what we have gone through. And all these burgers come and say they've come to liberate us. I always say they [came] to take our soul from our body. So I have no time for them all of them butchered us. No one is better than the other one. For ten straight years, we had this in the Doe administration, where we suffered. To crown all, we had this civil war which had no objective [but] for power and greed That's why we don't want to hear about faction. Whether this man belong to Alahaji Kromah, they belong to Roosevelt Johnson, they belong George Boley, they are irrelevant to our society. We want peace in our country. Tell me - what was their objective? We can't find the objective
Similarly for the elections, thirteen people went for the election. People who sat down here in the United States for dunking years wanted to be president. What is their motive? To me it is just for power. As long as our motive in Liberia is for power, we will never develop that country. We still have in the United States here group of people who want arms insurrection. Have we not learned from twenty years now that violence begets violence. Our country has been destroyed. Y'all ain't live there! I risked my life in the Tolbert administration, the Doe administration, the IGNU administration, LNPG administration, and now the Taylor administration. During the war, I know what it is. I lost so much. I saw all our institutions destroyed. Thanks, we have managed to rebuild most of them. We are getting our schools running and that's what I call reconciliation. We've got our schools running, our hospitals, and we even built a polytechnic with five constituent colleges. Things are going on.
But [the insurgents] started in Lofa county the other day. What do they want? If someone wants to become president let [him/her] start a political party. Where are the political parties today? Everybody is sitting down. Four months before the election, they will want to run for the presidency? Is that how we will have democracy? Start the political parties! They should start building up their parties, giving their platforms to the people. The money some of them are collecting here to start problems in Liberia, [should be] put in their parties [and they should] go through the electoral process. Altogether we had thirteen people running. And some of them did not have one cent, [and] had to pawn their coats to run for the [presidency]. That is the problem we have in Liberia.
Yes, there were many who were belonging to former groups [who] were present. And you should have heard what everybody said. That's why I am sorry I'm trying to get the tape Once they published it you will see They had the president to answer questions. So, we hope and we pray and we're honestly asking the authority to implement those things... Implementation is a Liberian disease from time in memorial. All these beautiful meetings, we talk the most beautiful language and we draw the most beautiful plans, how many of them have been implemented? If they have been implemented, we would not have had the problem today. I feel strongly about these things because I've worked hard to bring peace to our country. And I risk my life. Even at this moment, we are doing all we can to rehabilitate our people. Regardless of whether the government is doing this or that, we believe we have a commitment to our people.
TP: You have spoken copiously lately about the "culture of silence". What exactly do you mean, and how do we break away from this?
Archbishop: Good! Well I have been speaking on that during all these administrations and the last time I spoke [about it] was eight months ago. And when I say culture of silence - [I mean] people just keep quiet. When something happens "it's not my business." I think that is wrong. If something evil happens, we should get up and talk about it, and when good thing happens, we should talk about it. We must not only hop on the negative, we must also hop on the positive. But in Liberia everybody will say, "That not my business ooh". Some people come to me and say "Bishop, you better leave these people thing". I say get out from my face. When bullet goes in those people, they don't say you Michael Francis or you John Brown...
TP: What message do you have for the Liberians here in the United States and the readership of The Perspective?
Archbishop: That's good! Thank you for bringing that up. First, that you should unite you are Liberians, period. Secondly, to work hard by contributing to the well being of the country. You can collect money to send to help schools, clinics, etc. Thirdly, not to negate any efforts being made to rehabilitate that country. For example at one meeting I said, we asked the U.S. government to try to help us. And a guy said, no, no, no! As long as Taylor's there they must not get anything . I said, is Taylor Liberian people? Who's suffering? He [Taylor] got his own money. It is us who are suffering I said you are in America, y'all get everything, you're enjoying , and y'all want us to still be begging. We have the resources. Most of our professionals have left. We want to bring them back to work for the country. And then next [point] is: Let them advise those who want to destabilize the country that violence always begets violence Finally, let us love each other.
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