Washington, The Beginning of a National Dialogue
By Abdoulaye W. Dukule
July 2, 2002
The Washington conference of Liberian political and social organization leaders just ended with recommendations for actions to move the peace process from where it currently stands stranded in midstream, manipulated by the tandem NPFL/LURD.
The conference attendance was by invitation only and therefore the crowd was small. It went beyond the 16 people who held a telephone conference to include religious leaders such as Bishops Ronald Diggs and Nah Dixon and participation from groups such as the MDCL (the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia) and influential community leaders as E. Sumo Jones and Dr. Brahima Kaba. All political parties were represented and from the opposition, the only major absent figure was Dr. Tipoteh although LPP was represented.
The agenda covered the three major issues today confronting Liberia regarding security, the electoral process and reconciliation. Issues regarding humanitarian crisis were dropped from the agenda, because as some participants put it, once security and reconciliation issues are taken care of, people would return to their homes and the humanitarian crisis would end.
The most difficult issue confronted by the conference was the linkage between this meeting in Bethesda, Maryland and the next meeting slated to take place in Burkina Faso in barely two weeks. For many, the meeting in the capital city of the second home of Charles Taylor was a problem in itself. However, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, organizer of that meeting reassures everyone that the Burkina Faso would in no way undermine the Bethesda conference. She added that conclusions reached at this meeting would form part of the discussions in Ougadougou.
On security matters, the conference decided to call for sanctions against both LURD and the government for refusing to dialogue and lay down their arms. Participants called on ECOWAS to enforce the travel ban of ECOWAS on the Guinea-based movement. On the government, they called for tougher measures including the freezing of assets of government officials and the inclusion of timber export in the current UN regime of sanctions. The conference participants also called for the indictment of Charles Taylor by the war crimes tribunal. In the corridors, some conferees contended that all former warlords should be included on the list of war criminals.
The electoral process dealt mostly with technical issues but called for a re-structuring of the independent electoral commission. Reconciliation came in many folds. Many saw their mere acceptance of sharing a conference table with certain individuals as a sign of reconciliation.
Subjects of the Americo-Liberian domination and mistreatment of “natives” was brought up more than once and it was suggested that the issue be revisited with all the economic implications at one point. Killings committed by the Doe government in Nimba and atrocities by ULIMO in Lofa, as well as political misunderstands and personal conflicts were mirrored but not fully discussed. The killing and destruction by LPC of Boley in Southeast Liberia was also mentioned. However, the greatest concern was the present situation that led more than half of the population on the road of exile.
The conference accomplished a great deal just by allowing people from different organizations to meet and openly discuss very touchy issues that are many times swept under the rug at certain gatherings. The size of the conference may have had something to do with that fact. People spoke their mind and openly expressed their intention. Alaric Togba, student leader from the 1980s remembered his encounters with PRC Justice Minister Chea Cheapo who in turn looked at former NPP Senator Brumskine to raise issues of the past. People said what they had to say and then either hugged and asked for forgiveness. This was the success. At the end, people went along with meeting in Burkina Faso because “nobody has the exclusive solution to the problems of Liberia,” said Nohn Kiadu, Chairman of the MDCL.
As a link between the Abuja meeting and the next meeting in Ouaga, the conference was an important step in bringing together major stakeholders in the political process. The meeting in Ouaga just as the one in Abuja would bring together many more participants where things would be more diluted. The mere presence and participation of LURD and the government at the Ouaga meeting would definitely overshadow another issues and would certainly be centered around matters of disarmament and demobilization.
Regarding their participation in the July meeting on reconciliation in Monrovia, participants rejected the narrow agenda and the fact that there was still a state of emergency in the country. “How can we go home and walk into a state of emergency to talk about reconciliation? The basic set-up for trust is not there. How can we trust a government that does not trust anyone or even itself?” said a participant. Talking about the narrow agenda of “tribal reconciliation”, participants said that although ethnic groups have had their differences, they managed to live together. The big divide really never began until Doe came to power and created a wedge between Nimba and Grand Gedeh. The situation was exacerbated with the factional war when children from one tribe were given drugs and AK-47 to kill people from other tribes. E. Sumo Jones pointed out that once security situation in the country is resolved, ethnic groups would find a way to live together in peace as they did for centuries.
The success of this conference may also have to do with the fact that there were no “observers” or “guests” and this is a lesson to remember. This is an important factor. After some 20 peace meetings in the sub-region in the 1990s, where presidents and international observers served as “mediators and consultants” the Cotonou Accord that led to the cessation of hostilities was possible only because Liberians were left together to talk, away from cameras and international organizations. The process may have derailed later on because of other factors, but it worked and brought a clear understanding of issues and how others felt. Most importantly, Liberians spoke to each other, rather than speaking about each other through foreigners.
By talking to each other behind close doors and away from cameras and “observers,” Liberians can and will find solutions to their problems.