About Corruption, Samuel Doe, and New Issues….
By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
I tried to put in a word, not to defend myself but just to say that I have time and again written about those issues. But he was on fire and would not let me speak. “Doe was brutal and corrupt because he has brought up in a system that was corrupt to the bone! Do you know how all those government officials got those lands they developed using government money and turned around to lease the properties to the government? Samuel Doe knew nothing about corruption! Why don’t you talk about those people who own lands how they got it? That system is going on even today! Is it because your friends are now in government? Why don’t you write anymore like you used to write against Charles Taylor?”
When he stopped to catch his breath, I took my chance and said that I have addressed many of these issues. He jumped back on the phone. I was dealing with a “speaker”, not a “listener.” Furthermore, he was the one who initiated the call, so I let him carry on. He was basically angry that I singled out Samuel Doe amongst all the bad leaders of Liberia. Finally, out of breath, he allowed me to make some clarifications.
“I didn’t say that Samuel Doe was the only bad leader in Liberian history, otherwise we won’t be in the mess we are in today. What I wrote was that he was part of a class of African leaders who, during the Cold War, were somehow forced to choose a camp. Most of them were soldiers, who had come to power through the barrels of the guns. They paid more attention to their backers – either the West or the East – than to their compatriots. They were able to abuse their citizenry with totally impunity. The critics and the supporters had lines drawn in the sand. And they institutionalized corruption and brutality.”
I agreed that violence, corruption and bad governance predated Doe. And somehow, Liberia will continue to deal with these ills for a long time. It took us some 160 years to have the country we have and it would take a long time to instill a new culture in the minds and hearts of people.
He asked me if I would give credit to Samuel Doe for anything. “Yes, he broke the egg that provided us the chance to make the omelet.” I said that there was a need for change, not just from the indigenous people but even from within the ruling True Whig Party of William Tolbert. Many now say that there were another coup in preparation, by the higher echelon of the army, that would have resulted in a “bloodless coup,” and that would have taken place while President Tolbert were in Zimbabwe to attend the independence celebration of that nation. That coup would have brought to power a more “progressive” wing of the TWP to power. It would have been a status quo ante with some cosmetic changes. The irruption of Samuel Doe was like breaking the egg that allowed the Liberians to make a new beginning. But in the end Doe decided to cook the omelet for him and a few friends around. Had he not decided to run for president in 1985, Liberia would have probably not have a civil war. This is when the hero turned villain. There was so much hope riding on Samuel Doe that when he failed to deliver, he became the ultimate villain for an entire generation that had been waiting and working for a real change.
Of course, Samuel Doe was far from being the most corrupt and brutal among Liberian leaders. It is the amount of expectations and the level of failure that put him in bad category. Had he walked away and accepted one of the many scholarships offered to him in 1984, the story of Liberian would have been different. In the end, we seemed to agree, knowing well that in a day or two, we would have another argument on a similar subject.
Another friend called me a few minutes later and wanted to talk about the arrests of members of the Gyude Bryant transitional administration. He said the government arrested only the Mandingo man and the Krahn man. He asked why among all the other people who were involved in corrupt practices during those years, only these two were arrested. I had no answer. I did say that I would have preferred that Ellen stood by her campaign promise: that she would not go look in closets for skeletons and that the real fight for corruption would start with her administration.
Indeed, throughout the campaign, candidate Ma Ellen said she would not advocate for a war crimes tribunal and that she would not go out hunting for the wrongs that people did in the past because she wants to focus her attention on the future. She said that she would fight corruption by taking three steps: First, she would educate Liberians about the ills of corruption and what corruption is; Second, she would provide living wages to all those who work for government and Third, she would prosecute anyone who steals government money. I thought this was this best path to reconciliation. She also said that rather than a War Crimes Tribunal, she would advocate for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as agreed in Accra during the peace talks.
Now that she has started, she would have to go all the way. “Rope pulls bush.” One official told me that “the international community and rights groups have been on the back of government and wanted to see some action,” adding: “if we don’t do something about corruption we will never get a dime from the international community.” That is another aspect of the problem in Liberia. So much in Liberia depends on handouts from the “international community” that it is difficult to say what actions are genuinely carried out for internal national reasons. Every Liberian official who speaks about a policy issue always refers to the international community. It is as if we have totally lost confidence in our own capacity and all become fancy beggars in shiny SUVs. It is always about what the European Union, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the State Department or this or that NGO says. It is as if everything is always done to please someone somewhere else. That level of alienation is dangerous. Does that mean the day we don’t aid we would allow corruption? Or that government would have done nothing if there was no need for hand-outs?
I am not sure if the government is bowing to international pressure to carry out these arrests, just two months prior to the Donors’ Conference scheduled to take place in Washington Dc under the auspices of the US State Department and the World Bank. What I am sure of is that the action opens a Pandora Box. It is a courageous one, provided that it continues in two directions, going as far back in the past as possible as well as scrutinizing the present and laying the foundations for the future.
My second caller and I agreed on many issues regarding the current wave of arrests. Liberia is a country of ethnic groups. You have the Americos. You have the indigenous. You have the Christians and the Muslims. And then you have the Mandingoes and you have all the rest. Political actions are always viewed through these prisms. Many still remember how they crossed checkpoints or survived at the many displaced camps during the 1989-1990 war. As long as Mandingoes and Krahns were the only ones being slaughtered, the war was good. Chucky was only coming for Doe and his Krahns and Mandingo friends.
Ethnicity is a very strong layer in our national psyche. One just has to hear how people discuss for example Alhaji Kromah and Charles Taylor. Every now and then, pundits who write about the war would come up against Kromah, as if he were the worst amongst those who fought the war. Kromah got dragged into the war to fight people who killed his people. People had to swear at checkpoints throughout Liberia that they were neither Mandingoes nor Krahns to have their lives speared. It is so bizarre that nobody, in Liberia, rights groups or TRC included, is ever speaking about “genocide.’ There was genocide in Liberia. People were targeted for death because they were members of a specific tribal group. Being killed because you belong to a particular ethnic or social entity is the definition of genocide. This is what brought Kromah into the war. But most often, he is more condemned than the man who organized the genocide. Like in Hollywood movies, the Black man always dies first…
The truth is so hard to unearth in a country that has made oppression, humiliation and alienation its way of life through 150 years. Two years ago, when Dr. Conteh was nominated to head the University of Liberia after going through a difficult vetting process, some of the luminaries on the campus said that he was not a Liberian, because he was Muslim. When Kabineh Ja’neh was nominated for the Supreme Court, some people, including the current Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ganged up against him, saying that he had been part of a warring faction and carried out some bad actions while he served as Minister of Justice. Then, just two weeks ago, a group of political hooligans asked Sheikh Kafumba Konneh to step down from the TRC because he allegedly wrote an article in 1996. If there were three people of the moral caliber, integrity and commitment to peace and reconciliation as Sheikh Kafumba Konneh on that the TRC, it would have had all the money it needs carry out its work.
Now, the government decides to go after people who committed economic crimes during the past and the first person to be arrested is former Minister Kamara. One has to be blind not to see a pattern. It seems to be something beyond our control. People may say what they want. The test of the integrity of the process would have been to first call Mr. Bryant to testify and stop Mr. Johnson from taking his ambassadorial post in London. At the time of his confirmation, the reports of the ECOWAS audit were well known to every one.
In his defense, Gyude Bryant did say that his government carried out its mandate. Indeed, among all the governments that came to existence since 1990, his administration was the only one that fulfilled its assigned tasks: create a government of national unity, disarm the warring factions and organize free and fair elections under international supervision. But of course, doing your job is no excuse for stealing public money…
I still think the President should go back to her campaign promise: Educate Liberians about the ills of corruption; Find money to pay them decent salaries on time and Prosecute those who fail to adhere to the new code of conduct. She said a few months ago that she was aware that corruption existed in her government and said that she would soon take actions. She must have been told that some people were lining their pockets with public funds. I think the best anti-corruption PR move would have been to first grab officials in her government. We would have made lot of publicity about that. Then she would say to the world that some people who are walking the streets also have government money in their pocket and go after them too… All that would have been a real show. But, I am sure she will get to that sooner than many people expect. In fact, she is said to have a list in her little black book. Surprise. Surprise. Rat trap is not for rats alone.
I don’t condone corruption. I think people who steal public funds should be made to pay. But I also know that every government act is political. I am wondering about the timing and the structure of this action. I can’t wait to see the rest. Liberia is perhaps on a irreversible course to sanity.
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