The Need for a Common Agenda and Approach
(Open Letter to Liberian Opposition Leaders)
By Cletus Segbe Wotorson
April 12, 2002
Let me begin by stating that this contribution is in neither way intended to portray my political colleagues as being less nationalistic and blindly selfish, nor doubt their proven individual commitments and true love for our common patrimony. Rather, my objective is to challenge us all with the reality that, at this point in time, our success in safeguarding the values of our people greatly depends on how united we are in purpose and agreeable in approach.
Since the advent our national crisis, nearly twenty-two years ago. with the violent overthrow of the Tolbert administration on April 12, 1980 and the subsequent onset of the NPFL initiated 7-year civil conflict from late December 1989 to mid-July, 1997.Liberians have generally depended upon the sympathy, goodwill, initiatives and leadership of mostly non-Liberian personalities and institutions to conceptualize, organize, coordinate and manage the multiplicity of meetings and conferences for the ostensible search for “lasting Peace in Liberia.” After a number failed meetings and missed opportunities, in the search for genuine and lasting peace during Liberia’s civil war, the combined forces of international fatigue, African conspiracy and our own acquiescence as the Liberian political class, bequeathed to the unsuspecting Liberian populace “special elections” arrangement, under a proportional representation system, which presumably would serve as the “bridge” to political normalcy. The political compromise achieved in Abuja after enormous sacrifice by the sub Region recognized the state of security as pivotal and incorporated a mechanism for a restructured, trained and disciplined military and paramilitary units to guarantee the general and physical security of the population. Reneging on that provision has been a major breach of trust and has also raised apprehensions in every quarter. The integration of selected quotas from the former armed factions into the national army and security forces, as the case seems to be, does not reflect geographical and factional balance, thus providing sustenance to the filigree of uncertainty that pervades the entire country.
To say that Liberia is experiencing serious difficulties is euphemistic. Most of our people remain emaciated and have lost hope. The country has been isolated regionally and internationally. A general state of insecurity pervades the country. The country is besieged by a state of war and continuous judicial proceedings. Our Government has been subjected to UN Security Council travel restrictions and sanctions. Underpinning this state of events is the massive and unprecedented flight of most of its important resource, the trained and experienced manpower that were the spokes that kept the wheels of the engine of the economy and government running. A case of frustration and endless unfulfilled dreams engulf even those who remain to brave the storms. Those who left, apparently did not do so by their own volition, but were influenced by compelling forces of political and economic realities to do so. Most of the recent political developments we read about do not provide any reassurance. Irrespective of the justifications for the continuing saga of conflicts and incarcerations, news of this nature does little to improve the image of our country.
Liberians are now faced with two choices: To try to do something to rectify the situation or to do nothing and let our country continue down the path of self-destruction. Regrettably, that path is made more treacherous by our inability to frame and pursue a common agenda. An inclusive meeting therefore of committed Liberians and amongst Liberians, would provide a unique opportunity to honestly and frankly examine the root causes and offer mitigation to these problems. Because in the final analysis, permanent peace, a more conducive, wholesome and democratic socio-political society has to be created from Liberians jawboning, disagreeing, expressing grievances, maybe shouting at each other, and at the end holding hands and singing the National anthem, not because that makes good international photo opportunity, but because they will be pleased that they have found common grounds and a way to march against the mountains of problems overhanging their country.
It does require a nuclear scientist to define the problems in Liberia and identify those who perpetrate them, beyond dispute. All Liberians know Liberia’s recent history and it is much familiar to the International community and our African brothers and sisters. It has been a history of violent change without agenda and direction culminating in a saga of missed opportunities. The fact that Liberians entertained the notion of convening a Leadership Forum in another African country confirms that there are some serious problems that require urgent and sustainable resolution. Rather than dwell on our usual national complacency and assumed impotence, Liberians must make a new and sincere commitment to devising radical and unorthodox approaches to dialogue for solutions in the supreme interest of the country. That requires a new order of tolerance and respect for each other and reoriented conception of political opponents as partners with divergent views, and not necessarily enemies. The political maturity and objectivity exercised in such a dialogue will ensure that everybody is on board, minimize the mistrust among us and exclude any possibilities for other undesirable options.
Against this background, recent suggestions by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the then Executive Secretary of ECOWAS, on the initiative of some of Liberia’s political party leaders to convene a Leadership Forum of Liberian political, civic and government leaders towards the serious business of reversing the marginalization of our common patrimony, healing the wounds in our society generated by our deeds and omissions, and creating an enabling sustainable democratic environment, could not have come at any time more opportune than now. The justification for a Leadership Forum was informed by the events, partially outlined above. The objective of the proposed Leadership Forum, dubbed as a “fresh beginning”, was to reach some binding agreement between the leadership of the Liberian Government and the governed on actions that were inimical to arresting the deteriorating conditions in Liberia and carve a new political map and mechanism for timely implementation.
After having said all of this, let me place in perspective some concerns that I entertained and which have been re-enforced by the results of the recently concluded meeting in Abuja, when the idea was first introduced to me. My reaction to the concept of a meeting amongst Liberians, particularly amongst “opposition political leaders” was one of cautious but optimistic pessimism. My pessimism was developed against the background of the continuing euphoria for presidential sweepstakes, and the most recent experiences among the political parties in the 1997 elections, in which, even after great consultations, we did not hold together to the disappointment of our citizenry. Without any sincere efforts to retrace our mistakes and work on how we can avoid a recurrence, could we genuinely collaborate on issues that impact the quality of life of those we claim to represent? It is my sense, that our inability to reconcile amongst ourselves and heal the wounds of disunity sacrificed the covenant of trust and fractured the bond between us as political leaders. And that in-cohesion remains a grave impediment to comprehensive and frank discussions.
Our recent political experience has taught us that until political leaders all over Liberia can mutually collaborate for the common good of all, the political environment will continue to be characterized by distrust, hypocrisy and hatred, ultimately impairing our chances of effecting any desirable changes. Regrettably, burdened with this major political liability, we rushed to a meeting for which we had undertaken no adequate preparation. The results of the meeting can best attest to the relevance of an intra-party reconciliation meeting that seeks consensus for a common agenda and approach, prior to committing to a meeting of national reconciliation. Suffice it to say that the meeting in Abuja, which was suppose to initiate the framework for reconciliation, ended with a wider polarization than before, making it compelling for the Collaborating Political parties to regroup and recommit to those objectives they initially conceptualized
Five years after our elections should have provided adequate opportunity for the Collaborating Political Parties to recognize and appreciate the governing objectives of the party in power. The Party in power has constitutional responsibilities, which they must legally assume. Whether it is fulfilling the expectations of the electorate is another matter. However what is not defined is what the opposition political parties, as the custodian of the democratic voices of rectitude, want. What is it that we would like to see happen and how? This determination is as important as the deteriorating situation in Liberia, because lasting peace, stability and security for all Liberians would depend on how successfully and inclusively we do what needs to be done. Our success to meaningfully arrest the situation that we now find our country in is within our own control.
Our disunity robbed us of the fruits of leadership forum that the political parties initiated; which on solicitation by Mrs. Sirleaf, Dr. Tipoteh and others, ECOWAS accommodated in recognition of the incompleteness of the implementation of the tenants of the 1994 Abuja Agreement, that resulted in the election of the current government. Owning to political misjudgment, regrettably, ECOWAS also denied participation of the political parties as institutions in the referenced meeting. Unfortunately, our fall for the bait of the false sense of self-importance over the cause of our country that the invitation tended to engender, are disturbing signals which seem to suggest that we, the opposition political parties are pursuing an approach that mimics the same missteps of 1997, that led us where we are today.
It is tempting to view as example of political selfishness, the most recent attendance of some leaders of the political class a meeting in Abuja, which denied participation by institutional representation. Even some of those who attended did so in contradiction of and over their own signature on a letter of protest submitted by the Collaborating Political Parties, to ECOWAS. In solidarity, no party should have honored the invitation. The claim that they attended in their personal capacity as individual political leaders leaves much to be desired. Honoring a listing of participants whose origin was surreptitious, to say the least, not only threatens our efforts of cohesion, it re-enforces suspicions. Rather than rush to it, as some of us did, we should have resisted the manipulation, which was intentionally designed to plant cracks amongst our ranks and marginalize the political parties. I can appreciate and accept attendance of a few individual members of our parties who had initially introduced the concept to ECOWAS. The origin of this list, which is shrouded in political cunningness, was adequate reason to boycott the meeting and send out the appropriate and proper message. My dear colleagues, we must strive to play our role; obviously not any role that renders you irrelevant or jeopardizes you and your family. Oh, my brothers and sisters how quickly we forget. I am of the opinion that President Obasanjo would have noticed our absence and requested an explanation.
Political dialogue is always the preferred channel, but dialogue under certain acceptable parameters. Don’t you feel that it is about time that we tell our benefactors what we believe is in our country’s best interest than what they think we should do? Ironically, our perennial lack to evolve a collective consensus on the future of our country continues to significantly contribute to our loss of respect, corresponding solidarity and support of the International Community.
No matter how well intentioned the leaders of ECOWAS and our International benefactors may be, the ultimate responsibility of reversing the erosion in our country is our primary obligation to the country that provided us opportunities. Until some form of enlightenment comes over us political leaders, that we need to step back a bit, and realize that without certain basic changes within a framework of a common agenda, all these political ambitions would be misguided and our hopes dashed, forcing the International community to reluctantly accept the status quo in our country. I hope sooner, rather than later, this recognition will dawn on all of us.
An opportunity missed is not necessarily an opportunity lost. We therefore should not relent on our joint efforts to seek redress on relevant issues, which address the lives and concern of our people. After this mistake, I still envision and would like to propose, that we revisit the convening of a true leadership meeting that would be implemented on two levels within the parameters as were originally conceived. The first would be a two to three-day workshop amongst the political parties, where we would settle issues of mutual concern, regain our trusts and develop consensus on unsettled national issues that must be addressed. This would be a meeting that focuses on genuine reconciliation, peace and stability for Liberia. The issues that garner consensus would essentially form the baseline from which resolutions would be extracted to contribute to a future conference working documents. As we have seen, when we rush to any such meetings without a leverage of unity, consensus and clarity, allowing the sub-region to impose decisions and actions, the outcome is best left to the keen eyes.
The timetable for the meeting with the benefactors should accommodate comprehensive discussions of the issues. A two-day meeting might give the conveners and benefactors something to celebrate about, as was the recent case, but it is unlikely to create ample opportunity for dialogue by amongst Liberians.
All stakeholders should show a demonstrative commitment by approving a binding mechanism of enforcement. We should guide ourselves by the Indian adage, which says: White man fool me first time, shame on white man, but white man fool me second time shame on me”. I sincerely hope that these concerns that I raise will help in facilitating a recommitment for an effective campaign of change within a framework of a common purpose and agenda.
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