Breaking the Cycle of War in Liberia

By George Werner

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 7, 2002

"If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos," wrote, Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the course of the 20th century, Liberia has had the bitter experience of the power of killer weapons, the tragedy of civil wars, massacres, the threat of all-out border wars, class conflict and tribalism. The constant repetition of the word war in Liberia has caused the hearts of women, men and children to long all the more deeply for peace. This longing alone is not sufficient for peace to grow and flourish in Liberia. To this must be added an in-depth understanding of the nature of war and peace and the values and outcomes associated with both.

This paper examines the implications of war and peace within the context of contemporary Liberian history. It then places before Liberians an invitation to choose between war and peace, while making the point that human misery can never fully be avenged. It can be prevented through peaceful means. One hopes that the reader will realize that peace thrives in an atmosphere where conflicts are resolved without violence and war, where people experience forgiveness and freedom, not revenge and oppression, living so they can reach their full potential.

The Nature of Peace

Peace is synonymous with integral human development. It is more than the absence of war, the silencing of weapons, the suspending of hostilities between communities and states. Peace is a gift toward which all history tends and all human yearning points. As a gift, it can either be accepted or refused. When accepted, peace brings with it joy and the need to share it with others. Sharing peace with others demands an internal and external renewal, a complete change of heart, and a deep personal commitment to the values, which promote peace. This is why it is often said that the roots of peace are in the heart of humankind, because it is in the heart that the gift is accepted, it is in the heart that evil is overcome, it is in the heart that commitment arises.

Pope Paul VI describes peace as “the supreme good which, in this temporal life, embraces all the others, and not only order based on discipline; it is order which confers well-being on all (people), order which assumes that all have what is necessary for their life: food, clothing, shelter, quality education, work, rest, security, ...and also a society which is free, harmonious, well-ordered, respected by those around it, conscious of life’s ultimate end and therefore cultured and, above all, religious” (Insegnamenti di Paolo, 1971, p. 1074).

In The Dancing Mind (1996), Toni Morrison speaks of peace in this way: “There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war. It is larger than that. The peace I am thinking of is not at the mercy of history’s rule, nor is it a passive surrender to the status quo. The peace I am thinking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one-an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in. Accessible as it is, this particular kind of peace warrants vigilance.”

Peace is not peace, which has lost its moral base, championed by persons and countries benefiting the most from perpetuating the injustice of warfare often disguised as a just struggle for liberation. That is why all countries, especially the ones deeply wounded by war must have research for peace. Such a project would embrace the outstanding problems of morality. The time has come for our intellect, our scientific methods, to win over the brutality and irrationality of war and militarism. The history of humanity’s experience of war now forces us to eliminate from the world forever “this vestige of prehistoric barbarism, this curse to the human race.”

The Nature of War

War is the direct opposite of everything peace represents. War is a consequence of people’s inability to settle their differences nonviolently, economic despair, social injustice, political oppression, the manipulation of people’s religious sentiments, the distortion of reality and information by those who use power at the expense of the most vulnerable in society, massive unemployment, and the lack of adequate social integration and education. Caught in a web of structural inequality, people with inadequate resources often turn to violence.

Liberians have lived through war and know what it offers. Besides destruction of lives and property, war triggers displacement of citizens, severe disruption of economic activities, anarchy and despair. War dismembers persons, communities and nations and, as we now know, the process of re-membering takes time, sacrifice, and resources.

There are no clear-cut answers as to what motivates people to engage in warfare. Some among us think that violence is intrinsic to human nature. It is the natural order of things, and there is a constant struggle within every human being to overcome these inherent violent urges. Others, however, disagree. To simply consign warfare to human nature would take away responsibility from those who, often knowingly, perpetuate violence. They cite factors such as the need to build one’s reputation, the aura of invincibility, the use of noise and silence in combat, and the aspect of winning the hearts and minds of the people through terror and intimidation, as being integral to the reasons why some people manufacture war machines and keep oiling their wheels.

The following Russian War Oath suggests that many wars have been fought on the basis of revenge and hatred:

"For the burned cities and villages; for the deaths of our children and our mothers; for the torture and humiliation of our people; I swear revenge upon the enemy... I swear that I would rather die in battle with the enemy than surrender my people, my country, and myself to the Fascist invaders. Blood for blood! Death for death!"

Sometimes, too, those who promote warfare speak of decisive action. The truth is wars are never decisive and, as Robert Lynd (1879-1949), an Anglo-Irish essayist and journalist puts it, “The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions.” E. Stanley Jones once said that a rattlesnake, if cornered, will become so angry it will bite itself. That is exactly what the harboring of hate and resentment against others is-a biting of oneself. We think we are harming others in harboring hatred and seeking revenge, but the deeper harm is to oneself. Those who take the lives of others for granted may one day have to take their own.

Humans are at one time capable of the greatest good and, at the same time, capable of the greatest evil. Wars have also been fought “in the name of national interests”. Looked at more carefully, sometimes politicians confuse their business/self interests with national interests. These unscrupulous politicians put into place media and war machines to back up their hidden agendas: to destroy those they pinpoint as enemies. They will do all that it takes to protect their own interests, not the national interest. Such protection is fleeting because a society that cannot help many of its impoverished citizens cannot secure the few who are wealthy. Worst still, private citizens tend to imitate the government by also killing perceived enemies. In the end, everyone is worse off. Colman McCarthy best summed it up when he wrote: “Warmaking doesn’t stop warmaking. If it did, our problems would have stopped millennia ago.”

Choosing Between War and Peace

Over the past two decades, Liberians have been constantly confronted with the choice between war and peace. Many Liberians have not yet recovered from the April 12, 1980 coup d'état. The deaths of well meaning Liberians, the manhunt that ensued, the fear that drove many Liberians into exile, the lies that were told to the Liberian people about what was either right or wrong with the Tolbert administration are all still remembered by many Liberians today. The leaders of the 1980 coup d'état thought that by killing Tolbert and some of his associates, they would bring about a Liberia better than the one Tolbert was trying so hard to build. Their economic policies were chiefly directed by financial aid from the Regan administration and when that money was no longer being given them for one reason or another, the Doe hierarchy began crumbling. The consequences were catastrophic.

First, the administration turned on itself by purging its ranks of members it regarded as traitors of “the revolution.” Second, it ill-treated those Liberians who had dissenting views of the way Liberia was being governed. Last but not least, it encouraged ethnocentric politics and distribution of jobs and national wealth based on nepotism. When the Liberian people sought to change the Doe administration in 1985 for its ineptness, the election was rigged. This was the final act, which, according to Dr Joseph Saye Guannu, a well-known Liberian historian, reduced the chances for a peaceful restoration of democracy and justice in Liberia. One would add that by denying the Liberian Action Party victory, the Doe administration was resolutely set in a path that would not lead to peace. This further polarized the Liberian society, led to the death of Doe and many Liberians, the consequences of which are still felt today.

The 1989 insurgency led by Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party of Liberia exploited the problems created during the Doe era. There were many Liberians who wanted to get back at Doe for one reason or another. There were some who did not think that Doe would relinquish power soon, as manifested in the rigging of the 1985 elections. Some wanted to avenge the death of Tolbert and some members of his administration. If Taylor succeeded in overthrowing the administration of Samuel K. Doe, they thought, peace would be restored to Liberia and they would once again return home. Elections would be regular, free and fair. There would be economic prosperity and the good old days of the Tolbert era would be returned. They were terribly mistaken.

As it turned out, Taylor decided to pursue an agenda of his own. Soon splits emerged within the ranks of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). As if this scenario was not chaotic and deadly enough, those who were deeply affected by the death of Doe formed ideologically divided armed groups to see to it that Taylor was stopped from assuming the presidency of Liberia. Liberia became a virtual battlefield of rival armed groups, each trying to annihilate the other and in the process killing innocent Liberians. These opposing rebel movements were brought together not by war but by creative dialogue-a lesson that seemed to have been forgotten after the 1997 elections, which, observers say, Charles Taylor and his supporters won by a landslide.

There are some Liberians who contend that the Taylor administration is a replica of the Doe administration. They say that Taylor dresses and speaks like Tolbert but acts like Doe. His government is marked by lawlessness that goes unchecked, human rights abuses, unequal distribution of national resources, the depletion of Liberia’s forests, lack of tolerance of dissenting views, national instability, degeneration of education, collapse of healthcare delivery systems, massive unemployment, lack of credibility, general despair among citizenry and the manipulation of tribal differences for political ends.

This “prevailing school of thought” is divided into three main camps. One camp supports the overthrow of Taylor through military means, covertly or overtly, to bring about change. This camp, fundamentally, comprises remnants of the Doe regime and disgruntled escapees from the Taylor regime. They purport to be liberators of some sort, a déjà vu for many Liberians, but are undoubtedly, in the main, vengeful loyalists of a regime overthrown during a vicious civil war set in motion by Charles Taylor. The second camp wants change but through the ballot box. This group mainly comprises civil society groups, some human rights activists, and some members of the Liberian opposition political parities. Because they are nonviolent, they are very vulnerable in Charles Taylor’s Liberia. They are courageous patriots who will not allow evil, with its emotional populist appeal, triumph over goodness. They stand as a vanguard against abuse in any form. The third camp brings together camps one and two. They want Taylor to be helmed in on both sides, militarily and diplomatically, because they do not trust him.

No matter how legitimate one’s concerns are about any government, present or past, the period between the 80s and now prove that in making war one’s ideals do not have a chance of being realized. Even if such a person takes up the presidency, s/he will sooner or later realize that s/he had not been prepared for the immensity of the tasks of a president. The new Liberia cannot be built on mounds of corpses of fellow Liberians. The deadly cycle of violence and warfare must stop for the Liberia we all dream of to surface, grow, and flourish. St Augustine (354-430) once wrote that the purpose of war is peace. The logic seems to be if war does not bring about peace, there should be no war at all. War ends nothing. Every war has unfinished business. Thomas Jefferson describes war as “an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses.” War should not be waged in the name of peace. The two are incompatible.

This is why Liberians are being challenged to choose now between war and peace. If we do not change our direction now, we are likely to end up where we are headed for. It is in the interest of Liberians to do what is right, to choose peace over war. The choice must be made now to allow us to garner Liberia’s enormous resources to fight poverty, disease, ignorance, greed, ambition, envy, anger and pride (Romans 12:14-21). Liberia needs the kind of revolution, championed by young and visionary patriots, that destroys the notion that war dissolves human differences and liberates us from all that keeps us in chains. As Albert Einstein says, "The pioneers of a warless world are the young men and women who refuse military service." "Peace has its victories," remarked Ralph Waldo Emerson, "but it takes brave men and women to win them."


What is contained in this paper has been written, primarily, to help strengthen the many reflections about Liberia’s future. We gain no wisdom if we do not reflect on the many events that have shaped Liberia’s history, either for good or for bad. By examining the nature of war and peace, I wanted all Liberians, young as well as old, perpetrators and victims alike, to become aware of how our attitudes and actions can either promote or hinder the emergence of the kind of Liberia all of us so desperately desire.

If the blood of Liberia continues to flow because one Liberian detests another Liberian, the most certain victors will be the forces of destruction and barbarism. Like Mohandas K. Gandhi, I object to violence and warfare because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. Liberians must put an end to war, or war will put an end to Liberia. If Liberians desire peace, freedom, prosperity, and the rule of law, we have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way toward one another. We should never think of war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, as a just means to an end. Although wars have a way of silencing laws and good people, one must never grow tired of advocating for a nonviolent approach to solving problems. As Martin Luther King, Jr. writes: "The principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence-while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both. The nonviolent resister agrees with the person who acquiesces that one should not be physically aggressive toward his opponent; but he balances the equation by agreeing with the person of violence that evil must be resisted. (S/he) avoids the nonresistance of the former and the violent resistance of the latter. With nonviolent resistance, no individual or group need to submit to any wrong, nor need anyone resort to violence in order to right a wrong."

Let us not use bombs, rocket propelled grenades, and guns to overcome the oppressions of our day. If we wish to bring peace to Liberia, let all tools of warfare drop from our hands. One cannot speak of liberating a people from oppression by using oppressive and destructive tools. Only then can the conversation be lifted up to another plane: an invitation, not only to put an end to wars, but also desire an end to the beginning of wars, in Liberia. This could end once and for all the brutal, inhuman and thoroughly impractical method of settling our differences.

So allow me to end by paraphrasing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech. It is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. We cannot and should not shrink from the conditions that are facing Liberia today. This glorious land of liberty will endure as it has endured through thick and thin, will revive and prosper. But, first of all, let us do those things that make for peace without fear or cowardice. For if there is anything to be feared at all, then it is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes much needed efforts to transform war into peace and stability, development, happiness, and security. We face the arduous days before us in the warm courage of soul-searching and the challenge of putting an end to warfare in our country; with the challenge of seeking firm and life-supporting values; with the uncompromising call to duty by old and young alike. In our quest to re-found Liberia, in our determination to create a peaceful country, we humbly ask the blessing of God. May God not desert the Lone Star, and may our feet be guided in paths that lead to genuine peace. Only then will the cycle of violence be broken throughout the land, allowing us to bequeath to unborn generations of Liberians a society both at peace with itself and its neighbors.

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