Dangers Ahead In the Transition

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 4, 2003

Once again, Liberia is stranded in that era of doom for weeks, just as it has been so many times in the past 20 years. Uncertainty, dashed hopes and ruined lives have become part of the Liberia recent history. Every now and then, there is a flicker of light suddenly blown away by the stormy winds of violence.

Since 1980, when guns entered the body politics of Liberia as a means of resolving the many tenuous problems, life has been the most uncertain. In 1990, there was hope that the overthrow of the brutal and corrupt regime of Samuel K. Doe would open the doors to a new era. That era became awful, making many to wonder if life under a corrupt and semi-literate dictator was not better than life under an educated, con artist and sanguinary Charles Taylor. Now he too is on his way to oblivion. For those who doubt the fact that he would leave by next Wednesday, let them rest assured: he would leave. Taylor would go off the radar by midweek next week. There are so many ways for him to leave now: he could get on that plane or he could find himself where Samuel Doe found himself, when he refused the offer of asylum.

Without much fanfare, negotiators in Accra are about to put the final touch to the peace document. As usual, many were impatient. But rather than just an exercise to pick the leaders of the interim government, the process should be viewed as an exit out of 20 years of bad politics. The compromise solution allocates the vice-presidency, the speaker and deputy speaker positions to the fighting forces. There already an outcry in many communities about “rewarding killers.”

Why the battle for the Freeport?
According to credible reports from Monrovia, the battle for the Freeport of Monrovia that led to the continuous shelling of the city has no other strategic, nationalistic or otherwise meaning than the fight for material. Once he has accepted to leave power, president Taylor is said to have put all his belongings in containers and stored them at the port. He also ordered things from abroad to take with him. The containers are loaded with every imaginable things Taylor possesses, from car to televisions to even cash. The president mostly dealt in cash and it seems that much of that cash is in a bulletproof presidential car in the port. This is the reason children are being sent to die. This is why Taylor insists so much on the arrival of peacekeepers before he leaves. Because once the peacekeepers arrive, they would take control of the port he can claim his “stuff” and leave. So, the Taylor’s final act is as much as about the same as his first act: was about: money and material possessions. Between August 4 and the 11, he would have enough time to negotiate and regain control of his “stuff.”

Thank God For ECOMOG, Welcome ECOMIL
The departure of Taylor and the return of the gallant men and women of ECOMIL under the leadership of Nigeria may be the easiest part of the transition. These are the only two certainties of the near future. West Africa would deploy forces in Liberia, again, under the leadership of Nigeria, to the great shame of those who engineered and called for the departure of ECOMOG before its mandate was completed six years ago.

Again, Liberians lined the streets to welcome back ECOMOG. The change in the name to ECOMIL does not mask the fact that these are the same West Africans who restored sanity to Liberia when every one else had abandoned the country to its doomsday heroes. Of course, under their watch, little small monsters were given birth. As the first regional peacekeeping force in Africa and later simulated the world over, ECOMOG made mistakes. But all in all, while they were on the ground, Liberians felt safe. People started to put their lives back together and there was a hope that things would get better, until Taylor and his gang kicked them out. Now the country is about to enter another transition, a second chance to sanity, healing and nation building.

But the road is far from being clear. Rather than trying to pick on the past mistakes of ECOMOG, Liberians should rejoice and be thankful. The international community must come and do its share and ensure that West African peacekeepers are kept at the same logistical and material standards as any peacekeepers anywhere in the world. This is what was lacking in the 1990s. poor countries were left to support a military effort that should have been shouldered by the United Nations. The involvement of the US in the process is a welcome addition. Their moral and material support are needed and would be needed down the road, especially for the restructuring of the military and security forces.

Imminent Danger ahead

The first transition to peace in the mid-1990s turned into a disaster. Right from the onset, greed and blind ambition clouded every possible positive outcome. Warring factions came to town like kingpins. Since the end of the war, not a single former warlord has held a paying-job; neither did many of the ministers who held key positions. They robbed the national coffers, filled their bank accounts.

Some of these warlords want to come back and conquer what they lost to Taylor: They are parading in Accra, spending money, either putting their own name forward or pushing their surrogates. Since they are working with stolen money, no decent candidate can compete with them. ECOWAS facilitators have to set rules and criteria for the leadership of the interim government that would disqualify them.

The transition government is supposed to lay the foundation of a new democratic society, based on the rule of law and the respect of human dignity. Anyone, who has held a leadership position in any of the factions – and that includes the 1990 Doe regime, which had by then turned into a faction – must not be allowed to contest and should not be considered for this position. No Liberian is neutral but those who committed human right violations, commandeered murder or took active part in groups that committed murder of innocent civilians are known to all Liberians and should not be allowed near the presidency. As decent as some of these people may sound, it would be regrettable to take Liberia back to the 1980s, because then, there was no decency. The failures of the 1980s brought Liberia where it is now. Those who were too weak to voice their opinion in the face of corruption, dictatorship, and human rights violation must not be allowed to come back and run Liberia again. There are part of the problems and need to answer to the people, sooner or later.

The hustlers
There is however another group of hustlers in Accra, acting as surrogates for special interests. They have been receiving money from companies – construction, logging, hotels (where is Gus?), mining, cellular phone companies and airlines. They go around distributing sums of that money to potential voters in the selection process. They also have been receiving or demanding money from professionals vying for ministerial positions in the government. For example, Ministry of Lands and Mines (diamonds, gold, oil) is said to be on the market for $10,000; the Ministry of Justice $10,000; the Maritime Bureau $25,000 (only Benoni Urey could afford that much!); the Ministry of Foreign Affairs $15,000; the Ministry of State $20,000. The former OTC (Oriental Timber Company, Taylor’s pepper bush) contract is already for sale to international bidder for $500,000 dollars. A Ukrainian company is said to have advanced some money to one of those thugs in Ghana who says he controls the majority of the 70 votes. A Lebanese businessman and former Taylor partner has allegedly paid $65,000 to a group for the rights to decimate the Sapo Forest! This may sound like a bad joke but bad jokes come to be true in Liberia’s recent history. Liberians could wake up tomorrow and find one of those thugs sitting in the Mansion as President. But as usual, instead of blaming themselves, Liberians would blame Ghana or Nigeria.

As things are going now in Accra, any government that is set up in the current negotiations is bound to be corrupt because it will come into power indebted to so many special interests. Members of such administration will try to make the most of their investment in the shortest possible time and would sell out to their sponsors, the same shady investors who backed Charles Taylor criminal enterprise. Under such conditions, the task of laying the foundations for a new society will once again be pushed aside, just as it happened so many times in recent history.

Rather than allowing 70 odd-voters to pick the leadership of Liberia, Accra should be limited to picking up a short-term caretaker government that would facilitate the organization of a sovereign national conference. The national sovereign conference would bring together representatives of counties, professional organizations, and Liberians abroad, social organizations to hammer out a transitional process and elect a transitional government that would have a clear mandate to call national election.

Three months of negotiations amongst 70 people are not enough to pull Liberia out of the abyss. Many of the political parties are but empty shells whose membership does not exceed 10 people. These parties need to get back on the ground and work to prove themselves.

Regarding the leadership coming out of Accra, and since most decent political figures do not have the money to go against the hustlers, we would put forward the following:

Proposal for the Interim Leadership
Over the years, there is a group of Liberians that never spared any effort nor sacrifices in the search for peace. They traveled in and out of the country. They listened to all, never took party but constantly pushed for the common goal. Before anyone else, they were the first ones to put forward a peace plan that was adopted by ECOWAS. That peace plan still forms the cornerstone to any long lasting peace in Liberia. Members of this group never put themselves forward for any government positions and they never deviated from their commitment to the national cause. This group is none other than the Interfaith Mediation Committee now known as the Inter Religious Council. The second group that comes to mind is the Mano River Union Women Peace group. For the past many years, with their sisters of Guinea and Sierra Leone, they traveled miles and miles and spoke to all belligerents.

Our proposal is that a member of the Inter Religious Council is selected as President of the transitional government and a member of the Mano River Union Women Peace Group be selected as vice-president.

Among the many gigantic tasks that the transitional government would face, reconciliation, healing, and the setting-up of an impartial agenda toward the elections would be paramount and must not be left to chance.

Liberia is again at the crossroad. There is a possibility for genuine nation building on new solid foundations. The leaders of the transitional government would in charge of laying that foundation. Therefore, this position should not be left to warlords, thugs or so so-called political leaders with no proven records for the collective good.

This administration would then call and preside over a national conference and usher in a broader-base transitional government. Liberians are trying to correct mistakes that pilled up over 188 years and this cannot be done overnight and by a handful of people.