LURD and the Curse of Leadership in Liberia

By Ousman Martin Tamba

The Perspective

March 1, 2002

It seems there is a curse that perpetually haunts the Liberian state, and this curse stubbornly lingers on from year to year; never going away. Just when you think things ought to change for the better, the danger simply resurfaces. The frightening part is this curse seems to get progressively worse with time and with every passing day. It is the curse of leadership.

Let me say why I reached this conclusion. It all started recently when a guy named Sekou Damante Konneh burst onto the international media airwaves proclaiming himself as the leader, Supreme Commander and “Commander-In-Chief” of LURD Forces. In a lamentably poor interview, Sekou projected his vision of a post-Taylor governmental structure of which he vowed to be the head. What a tragedy?

In all fairness, it is a great thing that the interview was aired so we know sooner the magnitude of what to expect before it gets too late. Listening to him, Mr. Konneh was a total contrast to Charles Bennie. He came across as a guy starved of attention and was in desperate search of the public limelight. He got one, and we got the opportunity to hear what he had to offer in exchange for Charles Taylor, a lumpen turned President. In response to the interviewer’s question regarding a post-Taylor political arrangement, Konneh explained that he will form a government to replace Taylor’s and that he will be Head of that government, which will then proceed to organize elections. In essence, he had crowned himself king and had made himself the alpha and omega of the process. A Western diplomat and security expert at an embassy in West Africa simply got it right. He told a friend of mine that Konneh’s interview was a “disaster”. There can be no better description.

In Konneh’s message, his tone and his mannerism I immediately sensed the arrogance of power and the show of ignorance that in time past has consumed many Liberian leaderships. In the shadow of experience, things began to sound coldly familiar. An eerie sense of Déjà vu seems to be descending upon Liberia once more. I suddenly realized that we were again bearing witness to the tragic melodrama of history repeating itself. Better stated, history is once again beginning to make fools of men who fail to digest its critical lessons.

My initial sense was to let Sekou Damante Konneh and his ambition face the inevitable judgment of time since it is only commonsense that people who repeat the mistakes of history are doomed to pay the critical price of their foolhardiness. Sadly, however, we have learned from our past that these lessons taught to men of vanity do not come without great setbacks for good causes and tragic consequences for ordinary people. This is a fact; for we all know now that the acquiescence or failure of many to see the vanity, danger and callousness inherent in Taylor’s war-time utterances led in part to the surrender of Liberia to the international criminal enterprise Taylor represents. Now armed with hindsight, the duty is ours to stop danger in its track before it happens.

We can recall that in 1990, riding on the wings of a popular national resentment against the Doe regime, Taylor unleashed a war that in the end degenerated into a vindictive campaign of graft and terror. What we missed in those early days was the clearly declared diabolical and criminal intent of Taylor. The intent and motivation were present in his endless press interviews. That year, Charles Taylor was interviewed in the port city of Buchanan by British journalist, Mark Huband, then of the London Times. Asked about the reason for his rebellion, Taylor replied matter-of-factly that he was waging the war to “avenge the death of the thirteen (Americo-Liberian) men” executed in 1980 following the military coup. Taylor was further asked as to how long he planned on holding to power if he were to kill Doe and ascend to the presidency. Remember now that Doe was only worth being dead. Again, his answer was straightforward: “two to five years and after that I may be uncomfortable to turn it over”. Oh, what an admission!

But in the euphoria of the day and being unaware of Taylor’s true political and criminal credentials, these statements were overlooked. But time has proven that twenty years after 1980, Taylor orchestrated a systematic campaign to murdered every indigenous leader of consequence he could lay his hand on, and he’s bent on recreating the old, outdated settler hegemony and dominance of society. Like he told Mark Huband, not only has he been in power for five years, now he feels “uncomfortable” to leave. In the tradition of old fashioned African dictators who get wedded to power, we can safely bet what the end will be - till death do them part.

So you see, Taylor, a previously political unknown and a federal prison escapee burst onto the political scene to fill the void created by the dereliction of the established Liberian political class. In the euphoria of the day, we failed to analyze his utterances and hold the agent of vengeance accountable. The result: he has dragged us down the path of a pariah nation and a criminal state. In the midst of it all, another political unknown has emerged to lay his own claim to national leadership. This time he is called Sekou Damante Konneh.

The critical question now being raised is who is Sekou Damante Konneh? To be fair, I do not know him (and I have been around long enough to know most notable and less notable political actors). I have neither met nor interacted with him. There are people who have but their impressions are not positive either. So, who is Sekou Konneh? The Taylor government has been quick to seize on to Konneh’s flaps and has provided an answer to this question. They portray Konneh as a petty hustler, a used car peddler who was last imprisoned n Monrovia for questionable used car deals. They say he is the son-in law of Guinea President, Lasana Conte. But the story of the Taylor gang does not impress me either. They have an axe to grind plus, in Taylor’s Liberia anyone can be arrested and jailed without cause, including a former Chief Justice. Besides, for a criminal enterprise to brand someone a petty hustler is simply laughable. Being in used car dealership is an honest and honorable living, far superior to the kleptomania that Taylor is.

But hearing Sekou Damante Konneh in two separate interviews on the BBC and VOA has left me totally unimpressed about his intellectual and mental credentials for leadership. It is, therefore, an insult to the national integrity when such guys lay claims to the national leadership. I may be wrong but even the interviewers got that point. They grilled and belittled him like a child. He clearly lacks the rigorous political and judgmental acumen needed for such demanding assignment except if his only goal is to seek an ego message by being on the BBC and being heard. That may be all fine and good to convince himself that he is important. But his misguided utterances only serve to do harm to the movement he claims to lead.

If the Liberian government’s claim that he is the son-in-law of the Guinean President is true, then Sekou needs to shut up. If not he runs the risk of diplomatically embarrassing the Republic of Guinea, which denies supporting LURD in any fashion. How can the President’s son-in-law be the leader of a group he claims to disavow? When is the last time the President saw or spoke with his daughter who lives in Guinea? I still concede, though that Guinea should have no shame in supporting an uprising against the Taylor madness. It is simply a just cause. There is nothing illegal about supporting those that seek to topple a criminal. If it is, then all cops are guilty. But clearly Sekou Konneh’s escapade is not helping the process. If anything, it is a political drawback. I must say that it is not for me to determine the nature and quality of LURD’s leaders and their leadership. If it were a private corporation, I would care less. Their bottom line could testify to the leader’s stupidity. But it is not a private enterprise, and it is our right as Liberians to question those who seek leadership and impact the future of our people. We don’t seek perfection in this regard, but we seek probity, political correctness and vision. To the extent that this is true, we will not let it be a spectators’ sport; for we have seen too many times the gruesome tragedy of failed leadership.

Let’s take for instance some events of the recent years. In 1995, Alhaji Kromah and his ban of wig-wearing, mostly tribal vigilantes convinced themselves that power and privilege were within their grasp, and that the perks and glamour were theirs to take and keep. They then made a bid for the leadership of the then Liberian collective presidency, and swore to hell it was their entitlement. Fellow ULIMO chieftain, Gen. Roosevelt Johnson, disagreed. Dr. El Mohammed Sheriff, a reputedly decent man, was caught up in the center of the whole mess. Relations strained, and the two groups of ULIMO went through a nasty divorce. Bloody battles were fought with tragic consequences, as Kromah was banished to the Voinjama hinterlands. Despite proclaiming that he had formed ULIMO to fight and stop the Taylor menace, Kromah and his men, still on an ego trip to power, and in a bid to get even with Johnson, later connived with Taylor to burn what remained of Monrovia. Thousands die in the process. What a tragic twist of irony? That was April 6, 1996. Gone are the years but the memories and scars still remain. This is what vanity, stupid ambition and the poverty of leadership breed.

LURD has been a crucial catalyst in the eventual downfall of the Taylor tyranny. No doubt about it! It is no arguing that men of Taylor’s mindset foreclose all avenues to reasons and leave good people with no choice but the use of force to compel compliance. That is our current national reality. It clearly takes courage, life and limbs to come as far as LURD has come. But such progress so far may be undermined by the poverty of political leadership that Sekou Damante Konneh represents. It strikes me that LURD can produce better political face than they have so far shown. But if what Sekou Konneh represents is all that they have, then they had better shape up or will be compelled to ship out a logical sequence of history’s judgment. I hope not.

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