A conversation with Dr. Tipoteh
By Abdoulaye W. Dukule
Editor's Note: His name is synonymous with the political renewal in Liberia. Back in the early 1970s, with a few friends namely Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dew Mayson and others. He came into the political scene in Liberia by posing a challenge of enormous weight to the True Whig Partys political oligarchy. Since then, nothing has been the same in Liberia. For good or bad, the political culture of the country, with its social and cultural consequences changed for ever. After the coup d'etat on Samuel Doe in 1980, he was among the first to join the junta as Minister of Economic Affairs and he was among the first to be thrown into exile where he would spend ten years. When Samuel Doe was overthrown by the Taylor war, he returned home and took part in the 1997 elections, as candidate of the Liberia People's Party. It was a bad year for LPP. Dissentions, miscommunications and accusations of misconduct led to a split in the party. Dr. Amos Sawyer, Conmany Wesseh and others were expelled. Dr. Tipoteh received a low percentage of the popular votes. The aftermath of the 1997 elections did not bring peace and reconciliation at the national level. Conditions turned up bad, may be worse than those that push Dr.Tipoteh into exile two decades ago. This time he has decided to stay. He is currently the only one among the presidential candidates of 1997 to be in Monrovia, besides G. Baccus Matthews, now a public relations officer for the Oriental Timber Corporation. Abdoulaye asked Dr. Tipoteh a few questions in Washington, DC.
During the past months, you have raised many issues, including the elections commission, the re-structuring of the national army and finally last week, you spoke of meeting of political leaders to reach political reconciliation....
I want to give you a background to all this. These were not separate issues that I just decided unilaterally to float around. During the 17th anniversary celebration of the LPP, we have called for a level playing field, if at all we are going to have elections. One of the most important issues in that regard is the question of the elections commission, which now, has lost all credibility. The elections commission is letting the government create party cells in state institutions. They allow the NPP - the governing party -to run a continuous political campaign. Mr. Taylor was on at least [two] occasions petitioned to be president for life. Things like these are ongoing occurrence and the elections commission says nothing. How can one speak of free and fair elections when the elections commission is at the mercy of the ruling party? We also need transparency in the funding of political parties. When the NPP says that it had received $100,000 from Taiwan or 10 scholarships from Cuba, we need to know if our political parties can legally receive funds from external sources or if those "gifts" were intended for the
country and not a particular political party...
The second issue, concerning the restructuring of the military and security system is also a very important issue. After a devastating civil war like the one we have seen, the last thing people need is having ill-trained gun-totting teenagers all over the place. It is not good for our feeling of security, it is not good for creating an investment climate and it is not good for farming and production. These young men and women should be in schools, learning trade or working on farms. It was Mr. Taylor who first approached the Nigerian President Obasanjo on the subject. He told us that he had asked the Nigerians to help restructure our military and they had accepted. And then, for a long time, we never heard anything again. So when I went to Nigeria, I raised the issue and they are ready and waiting. So it was a way of reminding the president that we need to start working on this...
Regarding the reconciliation meeting, as you may know, the opposition political parties have a functioning body called the CPP. We constantly meet in Monrovia and discuss important issues. We are of the view that the country does not need another war. We strongly believe that the ballot box must provide the solution to any political problem we might have. Now, all the presidential candidates of 1997 are now in exile, some of their own will, others because they fear for their security, and reasonably so. Therefore, we think it is important that we all meet Mr. Taylor and reconcile our differences to work together.
Do you think such a meeting should take place in Abuja?
Well, it is not really about where the meeting would take place. What is important now is to launch a process leading to a lessening of political tension in the country and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect. We can start talking in Abuja and end-up in Monrovia or we could start in Monrovia and end-up in Abuja, in the framework of ECOWAS peace process. What matters really is that the dialogue start.
Do you think President Taylor is ready for serious dialogue leading to a changed political climate?
If we want to work seriously for the good of the country, we must work together with the belief that every one is genuinely committed to the process... In July, when he announced the release of some political prisoners as well as lifting the treason charges on others in exile, he started the process and we must keep pushing to go forward. We are not doing this to please or displease Mr. Taylor, we are trying to create a climate of peace where we all feel free to move about, feel free to speak and feel free to do whatever we want in our country.
Have you made any contact with the people fighting in Lofa?
It is our view, in LPP and also in the CPP forum that the solutions to our problems must come through the ballot box. I must say here that the current war in Lofa is very unpopular with the folks at home. There is no way we can reach a political settlement through force. We hope that those who have taken credit for the fight in Lofa will join us at the conference table and iron out our differences.
Those fighting in Lofa might think that Mr. Taylor will never commit himself to a peaceful arrangement ...
As I said, we have to go to these talks with an open mind and I am convinced that we can reach an understanding that would be beneficial to the whole country, not just one segment of the population. Again, I want to repeat this, Liberia cannot stand another civil war and we must find a way to solve our problems without shooting at each other.
In practical terms, how would you go about organizing such a meeting?
There is lot of activities on the ground. Groups like the Mano River Union women network, the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia, the up-coming ECOWAS Youth Summit in Monrovia are all occasions and opportunities where dialogue can be started and cultivated and we will make use of every chance we get to bring people together, to talk and give primacy to dialogue. These are all confidence building instances that would mount pressure on those who are still resisting dialogue.
The LPP suffered from internal dissentions during the past elections, how are relations among the leaders of your political party?
Well, I must say that I have very good personal relationships with Amos Sawyer and Conmany Wesseh, and others who have been expelled. We are an organization with rules. When people do things that are contrary to the operating rules of any organization, they are sanctioned. After the problems we faced during the 1997 elections, we have started to talk and we are trying to mend fences. It is good to talk about national dialogue, but one must start in his back yard. We are involved in a dialogue where we hope to solve all these problems, and the doors of LPP are wide open, to all and specially
our founding members who were expelled...
The doors are open but have you extended invitations?
I will say again that the doors are open, wide open. Dr. Sawyer and I talk every chance we get and we will work things out, with him and others. We are involved in this process and we will reach an understanding...
How are the sanctions affecting life at home?
First, I must say that the sanctions were not imposed on the Liberian people, but on a few people in the government who were perceived to be benefiting from the diamonds and guns issues and their involvement in the war in Sierra Leone. The government has circulated lot of propaganda. They made people at home believe that the sanctions were imposed on the Liberian people. And this is another problem we are faced with. The ruling party controls the only news media operating in the country. It has become harder for anyone to voice an opinion contrary to what government wants people to hear. This is why we are insisting that the rights to broadcast of Radio Veritas on short wave be restored. But all in all, that negative propaganda has somehow created a psychosis in the society and the sanctions are now affecting people at all levels. Merchants have taken the opportunity to raise prices, and even in the markets, people selling potato leaves have raise their prices, blaming everything on the sanctions.
Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf organized a meeting recently in Abidjan. Did you participate in any shape or form?
No and here is why. I received an invitation - I think it was on a Wednesday - to take part in a meeting over the weekend in Abidjan. It was difficult for me to just drop everything to take part in such a meeting. First, I had a problem with the venue. As we talk about reconciliation and creating an atmosphere of trust, I don't think Liberian political parties should meet in Abidjan to discuss our problems, we should meet in Monrovia. The CPP [Collaborating Political Parties] meets regularly in Monrovia and the party of Mrs. Johnson is an active member of CPP. Therefore, I believe that any such meeting should be organized by the CPP. The second issue is a bit more personal. If I have to be part of a political meeting of the sort, as leader of a political party, we must participate in the formulation of the agenda. We can't just go into a meeting without knowing what it was about and why it was being organized in Abidjan... But when Mrs. Johnson came to Monrovia we had a meeting and held discussions on many issues.
As we speak, there is crisis opposing the legislature and the lawyers, what is your reaction?
We have called on the legislators to release the lawyers immediately and we again want to emphasize our call. The lawmakers should be the last to break the law. Here we see lawmakers trampling on the very constitution they are supposed to defend. It is not make sense. This is the kind of lawlessness that does not help anyone. How do you expect investors to have confidence in our system when even lawyers can be thrown in prison without due process? We have condemned this act. We call on the lawmakers to release the lawyers unconditionally.
Are you in contact with other opposition leaders, beside the people involved in the working of the CPP on the ground?
Yes, I am in contact with many people and I will attend a meeting of former presidential candidates this week in Philadelphia and my message to them will be that we need to work toward a peaceful settlement of all political issues. I would encourage them to take part in an internationally brokered peace conference that would allow all of us to bring to the table our grievances and our solutions. I think this is the only way we can save Liberia. I know it may be hard for some of them to come to Monrovia and live there under the current circumstances but that also will be part of the confidence building process. I think we can all work together to create a level playing field for the next elections in 2003. We must not relent. The future of our country depends on it.
Looking at the upcoming elections, how do you see your own role, as a presidential candidate or ...
For now, I am really focusing my attention on the creation of a level playing field that would allow every Liberian to participate in the formulation of the leadership of the country. This is very important to me. We cannot sit and let one party take control of our lives. We must do this through the ballot box and peacefully, with the firm belief that Liberia belongs to all of us and it is the only country we have. I am not planning to go into exile again. As far as my personal role is concerned for the upcoming elections, I am a member of a democratic political party. Our party was not built for or around one person. We have a Congress, a National Committee and an Executive Committee, all of these institutions are involved in our decision making process. I am a member of the party and will go along with whatever decision is reached. My personal role or ambitions now are less important than the need for creating an atmosphere of peace and understanding where all Liberians feel welcome to play a role in nation building. We must all work together to create an atmosphere of participation. The former divide between Americos and tribal people has somehow disappeared. Now what we are faced with is the divide between those who want everything for one small group and those who believe that the country belongs to all of us. We have to reach a point where every one is involved and every one feels part of the process and this is where I see my role in the future of Liberia.