Bumpy Road for the Liberian Opposition

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 27, 2003

Few weeks ago, a communiqué - that did not receive the deserved attention -was posted on the various Liberian websites. It related the fact that the LLF and the LLC, chaired by Conmany Wesseh and Cletus Wotorson have decided to merge and form one body. The two groups, one formed in Burkina Faso and the other in Bethesda, MD, had been involved in a long power-struggle as to who would speak for the opposition and who has the best connections to bring every politician under one umbrella to remove the Taylor regime. Although the arguments seemed superficial, they pointed to deep-seated mistrust and antagonism. After months of wrangling and realizing the futility of any political exercise in disunity, the two sides reached the conclusion that whatever differences they had pale compared to what opposed them to the Taylor government.

As by coincidence - something that rarely happens in politics - talks of merger between political parties intensified. Technical committees were put together to iron misunderstandings. If all goes well, the Liberian Action Party (LAP), Unity Party (UP), Liberian People's Party (LPP), the Liberian Unification Party (LUP) and others may find themselves under one umbrella, emulating the Kenya example.

However, putting a coalition together on paper is much easier said than done. The risks of break-up are numerous and it would take more than "common sense" for Liberian politicians to stay together. It will take a real sense of patriotism and total selflessness. Those who think they represent the new generation may have to accept that their time has yet to come. Or those who think they are "entitled" to the throne because of their lifelong involvement in politics may have to accept that one does not become president simply because one dreamed it or because the partisans want it. The burden is on those who call themselves political leaders.

The 1997 beauty contest where every candidate thought they had what it took to defeat "the warlord" is still fresh in our memories. There is no guarantee that our politicians have out-grown the same sentiments and complexes that broke down the coalition in 1997. So far, none of the politicians and possible candidates has said that they believe more in the coalition than in their own parties. We will provide two examples, Togo and Kenya.

In the early 1990s, the opposition in Togo was strong enough to force President Eyadema to accept a national conference that led to multi-party democracy. They forced him to set up an independent elections commission and to appoint Koffi Koffigoh as Prime Minister with many junior members of the opposition in the government. Eyadema popularity was at the lowest. Workers were not getting paid, roads were disintegrating, schools and hospitals were all falling apart. When the time came for elections, the political leaders, all relying on their past glories, thought they did not need to stay in the coalition. They went to elections by their separate ways. When the ballots were counted, their combined votes came to about 65 percent, enough to win had they have one candidate. Some opposition members got 20 percent, some 16 percent and so on. But Eyadema, with 32 percent, won the presidency. The constitution did not call for a run-off. The opposition leaders in Togo have never recovered. They are still blaming each other. In Kenya, in 1998, Kibaki won close to 45 percent and other parties in the opposition won about 10 percent but Moi ended up winning by grapping the rest of the votes. The Kenyans got their acts together in 2002 and admitted that Kibaki was the strongest candidate. They put their hats in his basket and Kenya won in the end.

Liberians could find themselves being overly confidence, given the unpopularity of the Taylor government. The thousands of people who thronged the streets to greet the return of Senator Brumskine were defying Taylor and his security people. Granted, they wanted to see Brumskine, the man who dared walked into the "pappy's pepper bush" and defy him. But beyond that, there is the search for a new voice. How can the opposition build on this momentum? Would another opposition leader in exile jump on the bandwagon and help Brumskine to maintain the atmosphere? Joe Wylie said that Monrovia is too small to accommodate him and Taylor... Anyone else?

There will be many roadblocks to a building a real coalition. Prominent among those obstacles would be the agreement on a common agenda, or simply how to choose one candidate.

Already, Senator Brumskine has made it known that he wants a primary process where "the common people" would select the opposition candidate. This is a serious problem and could lead to breaking down the coalition even before it started, for many reasons.

The first problem with this approach has to do with the simple idea of taking around Liberia 9 to 14 men and women and asking villagers to line-up and choose amongst them one person who they would want for candidate in a presidential elections. The people in the counties, busy in their survival and running away from armed predators of the thuggish Taylor regime or the rebels of LURD, have no clue as to what goes on in Monrovia. They would have no way of making a judgment as to who is who in the group of candidates. The second problem is that of logistics. How would those primaries be financed? Who has the money to run around the country, buy T-shirts and rice and then later have enough money to run a national campaign against Charles Taylor? After all, the person to beat is not Tipoteh or Ellen or Kieh or Brumskine but Taylor. Primaries get nasty and after that, how can anyone guarantee that people who lost would follow the winner and finance that campaign after spending their money on the primaries?

Added to that, is the issue of time. We are only a few months away from elections and by the time we wake up, we will be in October. If all the political leaders get together and come out with one candidate, the people will follow as they did in Kenya.

Even in the United States, candidates for parties are chosen in a convention of party leaders and representatives, no matter who is more popular in the land. There is no miraculous way around this. Party leaders meet, agree on a small convention of some sort and decide who has the best chance to win and follow that leadership. After winning a nationwide primary, does anyone need a coalition? After all, Taylor is the most unpopular politician in the land today.

Another possible problem that the opposition may face, and where the democratic process may fall apart, is the LURD issue. Unless LURD is brought into the political arrangement, they could stand as spoilers. Are they really fighting or not? Are they serving Taylor's agenda or not? The only way to secure an atmosphere of peace where Taylor would not put a monkey wrench in the electoral process by using LURD as an excuse is to get LURD on board. Calling for a ceasefire between the government and LURD is a nice thing to do but will not satisfy neither LURD nor the government, because each of them could gain from a protracted war.

Finally, of course, there is always the possibility of a military coup, by some Taylor insiders who may not want to face a war crimes tribunal, in case the Sierra Leone War Crimes Tribunal indicts the "Chief". Deputy Assistant Secretary of State did say that he couldn't see how Taylor would escape indictment. There is nothing anyone can do to avert a military coup. The advantage of this scenario is that, given the current international climate about military take-over, whoever overthrows Taylor would only be in power for a short period, two years at the maximum before being forced to call democratic elections. This could be the transition period some have called for.

But again, if all that fails, there is always that third side of the coin.