"No Belgrade Here"
By Tom Kamara
November 28, 2000
The echoes and ripples of dictators crumbling under the weight of unarmed mass of angry protestors are being felt and feared in many countries operating on fear and brutality. Relying on "security forces" as protectors of their "democracy," dictators now face the menacing option of mowing down hundreds of thousands of people demanding their exit for better life. This specter of insecurity built on failure, the inability to deliver on politico-economic promises, and the people unified yearning for change, are becoming a dictator's executioner's knife.
The emerging impotence of the gun, now unmasked by people's boldness to challenge it, is a feared genie for those who rule and live by dictates of violence. "People's power" is intangible and unpredictable. Arresting, prosecuting faceless mass of demonstrators is difficult. Yes, deaths may mar protests, but in the end, the objective--- the Tyrant sustaining power--- is lost, with the prospects of the dictator losing his head or fleeing if he is lucky, as in the case of the Ivory Coast's Gen. Robert Guei. Peru's Fujimori's success in tampering with elections was short-lived as he opts for life in Japan.
Events in the Ivory Coast were followed by the flight of a recalcitrant Army General in Guinea Bissau, Ansumane Mane, who believed he was the power behind the throne determining who becomes president outside the ballot box. The Ivorians themselves were fired up by events in Belgrade. Ghanaians are watching closely if past tricks of state intimidation and heavy handedness will be factors in their coming election. From all indications, the gun and trigger-happy soldiers or security forces at the service of tyrants are becoming lesser tools of control and command in stealing the state.
These omens of fear and paranoia are already being felt in Liberia, with a worried and increasingly insecure President Charles Taylor recently warning, "There will be no Belgrade here They are talking about people power; we have people powerYour stay out of the streets"
Taylor warned against a repeat of the April 1996 and September 1998 bloody terror campaigns that left thousands dead and dented any hope of immediate economic recovery. In the April 1996 uprising he masterminded and staged (along with Alhaji Kromah of Ulimo-K) with the open backing of ECOMOG, over 3000 people were killed, according to UN figures. Hundreds of Krahns were killed in the September 1998 pogrom when his security forces attacked Krahn neigbourhoods. According to the US State Department, over 18,000 Krahns fled the city. Key Krahn leaders remain in jail after a Kangaroo treason trial. Understandably, a repeat of these pogroms for power, made possible by spreading discontent, can only affect him and his cronies, since they are now the wealthy and propertied class with everything to lose in a society struggling with poverty.
The warnings come after reports that mass demonstrations demanding the President's exit have been planned for next moth. Unconfirmed reports say some University students have already been arrested in connection with the alleged "People's Power" movement, although Taylor denied giving orders for their arrest. A number of opposition political parties have also formed a union to challenge Taylor's grip on power. But key exiled opposition leaders have been charged with treason, with the President vowing to personally arrest them if they return home. He has announced that if, and when the next elections are held, "enemy" states like the US and Britain" will be barred from sending observers. Thus he is already setting the tune of the elections before the date. Intimidation of journalists and human rights groups continue, with former US President Jimmy Carter recently shutting down his pro-democracy center in frustration and charging the regime with abuses and the destabilization of the region.
Protests are the monopoly of the government. Since the elections, the only demonstrations allowed are those organized and sponsored by the government against its opponents. When the European Union canceled a $50m aid package to the country due to Taylor's RUF links, hundreds of ex-rebels called "Veterans", were poured into the streets as "the Liberian people" to oppose the decision. These mobilized and paid "demonstrators" have been used against critics as "angry Liberians" denouncing their criticisms of the President. Many critics have been forced into exile. This standing army of "veterans" has similarly been used to ransack offices of opposition groups and their self-help projects.
In the absence of a democratizing environment, armed incursions aimed at overthrowing the regime have become frequent, with the latest incursion into Nimba County, Taylor's stronghold from where he launched his uprising in 1989, being the fourth in three years.
"The only factor that has minimized the possibility of a full-scale war is the lack of resources for dissidents. If a country like Guinea had been backing the dissidents as Taylor alleges, there is no doubt the war would have spread. The President spends more time in Tripoli and Abuja than finding ways to end international isolation hurting every aspect of life in Liberia. The economy is in shambles. If the NGOs withdraw totally, there will be total collapse. Democracy under this regime is a dream that will never be fulfilled", said an Opposition activist currently in the US.
But it is clear that there is no immediate relief for those wanting change since it is unlikely that Taylor will allow transparent elections and substantive change without mass protests, something he has already ruled out. Members of the House of Representative, dominated by his lieutenants, recently decried plans to impose a one-man rule on the country. Several laws on natural resources have been dubiously passed without legal debate, according to members of the Senate. Much needed economic reforms are absent, and departure from crony economics made impossible by the President's business desires in the midst of mass economic hardship. Reports a local newspaper:
"President Taylor noted that the country is going through difficult times but added that Liberians have always gone through difficult times and have endured these times. He used the occasion to call on Liberians to have courage because, according to him, Liberia will rise again. The Liberian leader further said his government would not succumb to any pressures, intimidations and insults from any nation as if it will cease to exist. He pointed out that though his government has made some mistakes, but added that even big countries make mistakes".
Nevertheless, those inspired by people's power must indeed accept that Liberia is no Belgrade or Ivory Coast. Unlike Belgrade or Abidjan, Liberia has no institutional Army or "security forces." What is called the Liberian Army and "Security Forces", are nothing more than uniformed rebel fighters passionately loyal to the President, the musicians of the infamous "You killed my ma, you killed my pa (but) I will vote for you" electoral hit. They are prepared to implement their commander's commands without questions. Their loyalty is based on the fact that if he goes, they ago with him. They heavily rely on him for daily survival, unlike during the war years when they simply lived off the population to survive, looting and killing at liberty in their commander's name. Now, as a legitimate president, he must dig into his pocket for their survival to complement their continued extortion of the population.
At stake here is the preservation of common interests crystallized during the war, and characterized by killings and looting to meet material needs. But despite their loyalty, the president is heavily reliant on Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels roaming the country, and European and other mercenaries for his personal security. A number of his fighters, on loan to deposed Ivorian strongman Guei, are reportedly now imprisoned in Abidjan following their failed attempt to keep him in power.
In any case, Liberians are accustomed to threats. The late President Samuel Doe survived on threats and brutality. Taylor, his protégé, has learned useful lessons. Whether these lessons will determine his end as they determined his master's is left to conjecture.
Liberia may indeed "rise again." One can only hope that it does "rise" from more ashes.