A Conversation with Dr. Amos C. Sawyer

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 2, 2003

Dr. Amos C. Sawyer
Dr. Amos C. Sawyer
In 1979, as a professor and Dean of Liberia College at the University of Liberia, Dr. Amos C. Sawyer posed the greatest challenge - both legally and politically to the one-party system of the True Whig Party by presenting himself as an independent candidate for the office of Mayor of Monrovia. The contest never took place because of the Samuel K. Doe military coup of April 1980. He is a founding member of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) . In 1982, he chaired a commission to write the new Liberian constitution but after declining to be Samuel Doe’s running mate and creating his own political party, the Liberian Peoples’ Party (LPP), he was arrested and banned from public speaking. In 1990, he was selected as the president of the Government of National Unity of Liberia but relinquished power in 1994 to a second transitional government. He then starter a social and political research institute called the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE) that organized conferences and studies on many critical issues facing post-war Liberia. In 2000, President Taylor’s former fighters and militia attacked and looted his offices, beat him and since then, he has been living in the US, directing an African policy institute at the University of Indiana. We asked him a few questions on the future of Liberia in the aftermaths of the Ghana Accord that led to the creation of a new transitional government, the 5th such interim arrangement since 1990.

What is your reaction to the Accra Peace Accord recently signed and bringing a new transitional government?

Dr. Sawyer: I feel a sense of relief. There are those who believe that Liberians are so distrustful of each other that they would never reach an agreement. I can understand the skepticism; however, after the departure of Taylor and the arrival of some peacekeepers, those participating in the conference, particularly the armed groups, had no reason not to forge ahead to reach an agreement..

What do you think about the agreement?

Dr. Sawyer: Since IGNU, I have had my doubts about the viability of such power-sharing agreements; they typically require unpalatable trade offs. In this case, the very pattern of allocation of positions seems to betray the intentions of some of the actors. After 14 years of plunder, I hope we can now avoid further looting of the resources of the country. I had wished the agreement had contained more stringent provisions to curtail plunder and strengthen accountability. I had also wished the agreement would have called for a national conference to allow a broader spectrum of Liberians to discuss the future of the country and to agree on an agenda for recovery. Well, this is a beginning; it is better than having no agreement at all.

What contributions do you think you can make or would make to this transition?

Dr. Sawyer: Like all Liberians, I am interested in how we chart a course to move forward. If we step back a minute and ask ourselves the question, how did we get into this tragedy in the first place? One of the causes of the conflict quite obviously is the failure of our system of governance. If we admit this, our logical next step is to examine our governance system and correct its flaws. We spend so much time trying to find a good president but so little time examining the system within which our leaders are supposed to work. A flawed system may occasionally produce good results but cannot always sustain good outcomes. Instead of spending all our time looking for angels to be president and save us from ourselves, we should strengthen our system of accountability, broaden the base of participation and create other centers of power other than the president, give constitutional foundations to local governance so that local leaders can be accountable to local people rather than spending their time anticipating what the president wants them to do. There are many such reforms we need to undertake during this transition if we are to depart from the ways of the past. If we don’t address these issues before elections, we would have missed a good opportunity.

What about reconstruction?

Dr. Sawyer: Reconstruction requires a system. This is not simply a question of repairing buildings and bridges, important as these are and should be given priority. More important ultimately is what we do in those buildings. What capabilities do we have left in our society? How can they be properly deployed? How do we diagnose our problems and how do we address our challenges? For example, what kind of educational system do we put in place? How do we address the problem of child soldiers and the larger challenge of war-affected children since all of our children are war-affected children? Close to half of our population is under 18. We face a tremendous challenge with our youth. More than half of the population is under 25. There is a serious erosion of values. How do we instill an achievement orientation that is based on merit? How do we provide opportunities for entrepreneurship broadly defined? How are we going to run our economy, what kind of economic space are we going to open up for our people, 85 per cent of whom are unemployed? Not all of the challenges can be addressed during the two-year transition but we need a solid start. A solid start is to use this period to think these problems through and to agree on an agenda before elections. Such an agenda will constitute the core of the way forward no matter that becomes president. At least we would have an agreed yardstick against which to measure performance. Let me also say here that only a national conference can prepare such agenda. I am not talking about an agenda as if it were a technical plan prepared by a committee appointed by the chairman or the assembly. I am talking about an agenda as if it were a covenant agreed among the Liberian people themselves after much discourse and after reaching mutual understandings.

Are you planning to go home and reopen CEDE’s office?

Dr. Sawyer: CEDE’s office has remained open during my absence. We will continue to work on issues of empowerment in the areas of children, gender, governance and security. I will be a part of that effort.

Do you think Taylor should be brought to Freetown?

Dr. Sawyer: The issue of impunity is at the core of the problem of plunder and carnage in Africa. This problem worsens the higher up the ladder of authority. Leaders become the embodiment of state sovereignty and trample upon ordinary people who are left with no recourse. In the case of Sierra Leone, the atrocities were too gruesome to be ignored by the international community: thousands of limbs of people including children hacked off, large numbers of people mutilated and killed; diamonds and weapons being exchanged with Taylor allegedly being in the thick of it all. I think it is time that we in West Africa begin to address the malady of impunity. I think Taylor should be required to take advantage of the opportunity to exonerate himself.

Should Liberia have a war crimes tribunal?

Dr. Sawyer: I don’t know if I would call it a war crimes tribunal but I think we should have detailed investigations of all massacres and atrocities that took place during the course of the conflict. What kind of people would we be if we do not care to know what happened in our society and to our people? As a matter of fact, we should strive to discover what happened to every Liberian who died in the conflict, what were the circumstances of death? We don’t even know for sure how many people have died in this conflict. A country should care for and respect its people and should want to know what happened to them. How can we claim to want to reconcile people when we don’t even know in any significant detail what has happened to the estimated thousands who died? Who they are? How they died? Where they died? What are we to reconcile if we don’t even know for sure what happened? I cannot imagine how we can have meaningful truth and reconciliation without finding out the truth.

Thank you.