The Bethesda and Ouagadougou Conferences

By Francis M. Carbah

The Perspective
July 17, 2002

Having contributed to the discussions at the Bethesda Meeting in Washington D.C., my comments might come as a surprise. I make these further comments in fairness to my conscience. Furthermore, the Ouagadougou Conference has taken some decisions which are not quite the same as the Bethesda’s, thus engendering a need for harmonizing and consolidating the decisions into a common agenda, if Liberians are to be taken seriously at all. I am restating my own opinions for a possible rehearing through the harmonization process. Here they are:

I believe the Bethesda Conference did not demonstrate the courage that the times demand: the Conference’s position is equivocal and somehow shirking in its presentation. Ouagadougou did not do as good as Bethesda in these matters, obviously given its setting and the fact that most of the participants have to return to what is virtually now Mr. Taylor’s den.

Ambiguous Position

It is my opinion that Mr. Taylor's government has long since lost the legitimacy it had from inception and has become manifestly more harmful to our country and our people. Therefore, every non-violent means should be employed and assistance and support sought from democratic and friendly governments to terminate his reign. If we cannot be that forthright, whatever we manage to muffle and do must be understood to mean that. We must also commit to dissuading LURD and others contemplating similar strategies to abandon armed hostility. The reason for the latter action is not that LURD is wrong- they have every reason to fight for their lives and rights; but war hurts our people as well as provides some excuses for Mr. Taylor to continue raking our country and dehumanizing our people.

The ambivalence in Bethesda's stance makes the role of the Contact Group just as murky. The Contact Group is proposed to contact and negotiate ceasefire between LURD and the government. It will also encourage the establishment of the multi-national stabilization force and mobilize support for its operations. However, if we maintain recognition, as our public declarations have so far, of Mr. Taylor despotic regime as the legitimate government of our country, the Contact Group will face legal obstacles in going any further if negotiations fail - for sure, negotiations with Taylor will fail. Any action to deploy a foreign force in Liberia and disarm Taylor's forces will require his government's consent. Otherwise, such actions would be in violation of the sovereignty of Liberia, of which Mr. Taylor would still be chief trustee. Even leaders in the Sub-region would find that difficult to accept.

Liberians need to and must withdraw that trusteeship from him and his government. And we have the right and every reason to do so; because he has abrogated the Abuja Agreement which provided the arrangements under which Liberians conferred the authority of that trusteeship on him; he has done the reverse of everything the said Agreement was intended to achieve; and he has abused the Constitution of Liberia - Any challenge to these? We all say no.

If we are really serious about ending the calamity and rescuing our country from Mr. Taylor, our request to bilateral friends, regional partners and the international community for assistance should be definite. Get Taylor out of our country, please and as best as you can without further harm to our people, including the deployment of the stabilization force even without his consent. The international community has already disapproved of his government, but they do not have any right to withdraw the mandate the Liberia people have given him. Legally, only Liberians can. Additionally, we can work to debilitate his capacity to mount any hostile resistance to the deployment of the multi-national force, when negotiations fail.

Avoiding Calling A Spade, A Spade

The Bethesda Conference also treated or responded to some issues less sternly than the issues deserve. Perhaps the reason is to maintain a disposition of acceptable political and diplomatic parlance. Or are they afraid too? (I am so afraid of Taylor that I hide behind a pen-name when my views are published) I will cite two cases:

The first of two instances is the Conference, approvingly, endorses indictment of Mr. Taylor for war crimes for his support of the RUF in Sierra Leone. However, it makes a very significant back-down to a mild Truth Commission in the case of Liberia. This moderation in stance has to an error; because I do not think the participants consider the direct atrocities of Mr. Taylor in Liberia any less grievous than what he did somehow indirectly in Sierra. We need to upgrade this decision to a trial by the International War Crimes Court. Thank God, there is one now.

A second instance is the Conference's referral to the abrogation of the Abuja Peace Agreement by Mr. Taylor as an "early departure of ECOMOG", suggesting, among other impressions, that the departure was a decision of the Sub-region. The wrongness of his refusal for the multi-national force to assist in restructuring the army and security system was grave as the detrimental impact felt today on the peace and stability of Liberia and the Sub-region. The facts do not change because he got away with it. We are not under any obligation to understate such gross disrespect to the Sub-region and outright disregard for the concerns and apprehensions of his former rivals and the citizens of Liberia. To avoid calling him the spade that he is undermines our cause and injures the interest and wellbeing of our people.

On Ouagadougou

I had completed my comments on Bethesda when Mr. Commany Wesseh's e-mail transmitting copies of the Ouagadougou Conference's results arrived. My comments on it would have remained as stated above if it were not for the manner of presentation and divisiveness that his transmittal note tends to incite.

I encourage and give my support to the political party leaders to spearhead the political and diplomatic exercises that are necessary to redeem our country so that they can show their juice. For a more serious reason though, as leaders of political parties, they are the only persons outside of government who were elected, consistence with the Constitution and laws of Liberia, by members of their respective parties across constituencies in the country to represent the political interests of such groups of Liberians. To a very large extent, they hold some mandates and have some legitimacy to act in behalf of the people who elected them to those positions.

All of us have the right to advocate for our people in whatever way we see fit. However, that right does not automatically translate into any authorization from them, as expressly as they have conferred on their various standard bearers, to act in their behalf. In their various legally organized political groupings, partisans of political parties chose standard bearers as their choices of persons to be entrusted with the maintenance and protection of the sovereignty of our common patrimony. In that respect, these elected officials are the principals of their various legally constituted political organizations. That is the source of my reference to them as principals and insistence on equal deference for each of them. I introduced the concept in these discussions to remind us that while we are all equal, in our varied associations, we ourselves elevated some members to positions we consider and treat as higher. In our interactions across organizations, it is important for us to observe our rules as well as those established by others in their legally equal groups.

Much of our struggle in Liberia is about equality; an ideal only fully achieved in the mind, and almost impossible to obtain in practice. According equal courtesies to personalities placed on the same or equal pedestals manifests respect for the views and decisions of fellow citizens who have placed them there and observable measure levels of equality between them and us. On the other hand, to accuse them of crowing themselves seem tantamount to downplaying the right do so by those who crowned them with the mantle.

Secondly, attendance at Ouagadougou was impressive, confirming the undaunting commitment of many of our people, especially those from home who risked coming to a meeting that is being described in government circles as LURD meeting LURD. However, there seems to be something odd about asking the standard bearers to return to their parties for internal reconciliation because their party chairpersons, secretary generals and other officers met in a by far much larger number in Ouagadougou and agreed on something different from what they, "self-crowned decision makers," agreed on in Bethesda, Washington DC. The only analogous occurrence in the history of our conflict is the Akosombo meeting, in which a key member of the interim government was separated and beguiled against his government. The ultimate demise of the interim government makes, today, the concept of "neutral leader" doubtful as an effective manager in a process of transitioning from conflict situation.

I know Ouagadougou was not intended to, and did not, do that. We should strive to avoid projecting that kind of impression. Some of our citizens assembled, in a larger number and comprising largely those in the country, and in their best judgment, took some decisions that do not tally with others earlier taken by some of their compatriots. That, I think, is normal. Put the same people who were in Ouagadougou or Bethesda respectively together again, they are likely to produce something that would vary with their earlier decisions. So, the process of forming and reforming our positions and strategies is continuous; it's going to be with us throughout. The way and manner in which we manage it is what will keep us together or divide us.

I had dismissed Ouagadougou off-hand when first contacted. At no point and under no condition I will participate in any exercise that honors Blaise for destroying my country and giving rise to such level of destitution of our people. I, nevertheless, have to respect others views. Now Ouagadougou has taken place, crowning, in my view, Blaise with a "Ouagadougou Declaration", and showering him with praises profuse enough to wash away his iniquities as well, but presenting us as divided. A harmonizing process is certainly necessary otherwise..., we will loose credibility which we have yet to build. A meeting just for this might not be necessary; but the harmonization has to be undertaken to preserve togetherness among us, particularly the mantle holders who are likely to represent all of us in important quarters.

On the output from Ouagadougou, the endorsement of the Monrovia reconciliation conference represents an incorrigible error with irrecoverable costs. In the first instance, it is an endorsement of the waste of resources that the conference itself will amount to; and it provides a tenable channel and good opportunity to charge some of Mr. Taylor's illegal, off-budget expenditures to government accounts. More importantly, it gives the impression that we still have some confidence in Taylor's commitment and sincerity about reconciliation. LURD represents the most visible group at serious odds with him and his government. If he is refusing to sit with them to stop the bloodshed, then with whom is reconciliation more urgent? I believe it would have been better had Ouagadougou just ignored the subject just as it did the war crime trial issue, for reasons that I think I know, understand and appreciate. This and other qualms I have with Ouagadougou do not make anyone who attended the Conference there my enemy. However, we need to work on our differences together; it's not a one-way street where you have decided and I am the one who needs to adjust my position.

Finally, the change of political hegemony in 1980, the execution of thirteen former officials and the persecutions that followed seriously wounded and devastated a segment of our population was. As their presence in political parties is conspicuously low, we need to go the extra mile to entreat their association and participation in the on-going efforts. I hope they would be fully represented at the mass meeting of Liberians which I believe we should convene in the very near future to broaden the consensus base and strengthen the legitimacy of our endeavors. We do this not only to show remorse, but also because all of us have common interest in our one patrimony. Working from every sphere and stratum of our society together on our problems is one of the best ways to build understanding and trust between Liberians, as well as solidifying the foundation for national unity, integration and progress.

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