William Telbert and Samuel K. Doe
After the dust settled, the Steering Committee scheduled to hold the conference this weekend. The fact that it was a quarter of century ago, exactly, in this week that Liberia started its descent into the abyss is a coincidence that is worth being reflected upon.First it was on April 14, 1979 when mostly unemployed city youth and students took to the streets of Monrovia in what was meant to be a peaceful march to oppose the increase in the price of rice. Neither Baccus Matthews, the principal organizer of the demonstration that turned into looting, nor William R. Tolbert, the president of Liberia at the time could have anticipated, in their wildest nightmares what their respective actions and reactions would lead the nation into. Baccus underestimated the level of anger and poverty that permeated the ghettoes of Monrovia. The government was caught off guard and over-reacted in its state of panic.
A year later, on April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe and friends found their way into the Executive Mansion, assassinated Tolbert and freed Matthews and others from jail. Theories abound on the events of that night. Did Samuel Doe consciously, sit with his friends to plan and carry out a coup d’etat to reverse the political order and then went out looking for people to write their first communiqué or were they simple instruments in bigger hands? Most of those who could answer these questions have been “eaten” by the “revolution” – some, literally.
The madness that gripped the nation following the assassination of President Tolbert and the torture and execution of Doe reached its peak on another hot April day, in 1996, when warlords, whose combined efforts had led to the destruction of the nation and the death of hundreds of thousands, decided to bring another warlord to “justice” for killing one of their flock. It was certainly the saddest irony of the past 25 years.
Between April 14, 1979 and April 14, 2005, other Liberians have killed some 250,000 Liberians, some in the most savage way. The Tolbert government buried victims of the rice riots in a mass grave; Tolbert and members of his government were buried in another mass grave, on the same grounds.
Samuel Doe who staged a televised execution of the Tolbert government on a sunny beach became the first world leader to be tortured on camera before being executed and his body desecrated. That was 1990. It should have brought the nation full circle and led to a closure, but it did not. More violence would kill more Liberians and hundreds of thousands would jump onto the first ship, boat, truck, canoe or airplane when not trekking hundreds of miles to flee to anywhere, as long as they could get out of Liberia.
The forced migration somehow explains why Liberians have remained so engaged in the affairs of their country. This may be why they have established so many social, regional, religious and professional organizations everywhere they went as if attempting to recreate some semblance of “home” away from home. Many Liberians who came to the US found themselves here as the result of the violence at home, not because they wanted to migrate to the US and many of them would pack up to return.
Now, on April 14, 2005, representatives of some 40 Liberian organizations in the US and Europe are gathering to discuss issues crucial to the future of the nation. The idea of an all-Liberian national conference germinated at a symposium organized by the Embassy of Liberia in Washington DC. In as much as the diplomatic mission initiated the dialogue, it could not host a conference of this nature. The idea was thrown around, discussed at few other gatherings and finally became a reality.
With delegates coming from everywhere in the US, Europe and Monrovia, the conference is expected to draw an unprecedented number of participants who will discuss a variety of issues, with security, peace, reconciliation, political reform as the core items on the agenda. The Steering committee headed by Mrs. Mydea Reeves-Karpeh has devised an agenda where each topic will be introduced by a guest speaker, then discussed in small focus groups and finally presented in the plenary for adoption.
It is unlikely that any recommendation from the conference would make it onto the ballots during the upcoming elections of October 2005. However the outcome could serve as a basis for further consultations down the line in Monrovia, where many have been advocating the holding of a national conference that could be held in Monrovia in November 2005, after the elections, according to informed sources.
A conference is far from signaling the end of the problems the nation is facing. Liberians have probably organized and attended more conferences than anyone can count. What makes this one different is that its primary objective is not to unseat a government, to reach a ceasefire agreement or to select a group of leaders. It is an open-ended event that could mark the beginning of a process where Liberians meet, discuss ideas and put forward solutions for the future and not necessarily bent on influencing the immediate future to make political gains.
Can Liberians Move On?
More than a quarter of century after those fateful April days, Liberians have to find a way to move on. Moving on would not mean forgetting the past and pretending that all would be well because people have stood up in public and said: “Let bygones be bygones.” Launching barrage of insults and recriminations on one group or the other will not resolve the problems. Accusing one group or the other of responsible for all the ills of the nation would be political irresponsibility. There are some actors that fingers could be pointed at, but it took generations to reach the current state of decay, therefore using a few people as scapegoats will not bring peace nor serve as a panacea for stability and democracy. How we got here and how to move on should be the only real issues for debate.
Liberia can only move ahead after unearthing the reasons for its ugly past filled with humiliation, arrogance and ignorance with their corollary consequences, anger and hatred. Appropriate actions for redress – pardon, contrition or punishment - of some type consistent with local history and cultural values could be a starting point. Liberians have to come to term with the uniqueness of their own history and develop appropriate mechanisms for the way forward.
The success of the All Liberia National Conference in Columbia, in the suburbs of the American capital is the fact it is being held at all. After 25 years of mayhem and distrust and the rule of the biggest guns, it is time that dialogue prevails.
Finally, it is symbolic that the person chosen to deliver the keynote address on the theme of political reform, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was one of only 4 high-ranking members of the Tolbert government not to be executed in 1980. As chairman of the Governance Reform Commission in the current administration, she somehow personifies that transition from the most recent political eras into the future.
After 25 years, Liberia may be on its way to sanity. It is time to move on.