October 6, 2003
It was a balmy Sunday afternoon in late November 1993, in Virginia, Liberia. It was the kind of weather that only Liberia can offer, no clouds in the skies, perfect temperature and sea breeze. We were swimming in the Africa shaped pool of Hotel Africa. The UNOMIL military leader, General Daniel Opande came to our table, picked up my then 8-month daughter Aisha and asked me to walk with him to the bar for a drink. While we waited, he asked me if the interim government (IGNU) was going to continue to block the peace process because of jobs.
The Cotonou Accords was signed three months earlier in the sort of emotion-filled ceremonies that only Liberians can display. Surrounding President Nicephore Soglo, Chairman of ECOWAS, Dr. Sawyer of IGNU, Alhaji Kromah of ULIMO and the late Enoch Dogolea of the NPFL sang the national anthem and sipped champagne to celebrate the end of tedious negotiations that had started in June in Geneva, Switzerland. Once the accords were signed, the issue of cabinet posts started a new set of bargaining. Somewhere In the process, ULIMO suddenly broke away from IGNU and partnered with the NPFL.
After more than a month of negotiations, the talks stalled on two cabinet positions, the ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Contrary to the spirit of the accords, ULIMO and the NPFL ganged up and voted amongst themselves to allocate the cabinet positions to the NPFL. IGNU refused to go along.
The second issue that blocked the peace process was that of disarmament. Disarmament and the seating of the new government were to take place “concomitantly”. As usual, there were many interpretations of the word and it became part of the Monrovia lingua. “I want my rice concomitantly with my fish.” “I want my money concomitantly with my…” Some prominent lawyers like Varney Sherman and human rights activist Benedict Sanoh organized media events and sponsored a conference at Monrovia City Hall to explain the meaning of “concomitant.” Warring factions were impatient to take their seats on the government but were not ready to commit to disarmament. The leader of ULIMO went as far as making threats in newspapers “Sawyer must step down or else,” he said in one his interviews. Opposition to IGNU blinded many to the real issues.
It was during those perilous days that General Opande and I met around the pool at Hotel Africa. “You guys need to take a leap of faith, and trust that Taylor and Kromah have this country at heart as you do.” He was arguing that if we allowed the warring factions to come and take their seats in the government, the disarmament process would move on smoothly. I told him that we had no qualms about the warring factions coming into the government and that we had started the process back in Yamoussoukro but we didn’t think they should be allowed to control the ministries of defense or be part of the transitional government without starting the disarmament process. He argued that the warring factions didn’t want to start disarming until they had been in the government. As far as the issues of ministries were concerned, he thought it was not important who held Defense or Justice, because in the end they would be no NPLF or ULIMO.
General Opande said that he had spoken to the leaders of warring factions and that they were eager to submit to disarmament. He said he trusted ECOMOG on carrying out its mission as soon as the transitional government was put in place. He said that as sponsor of the peace accords, the UN would make sure that the disarmament process took place.
I kept repeating the IGNU mantra: we trust our Liberian brothers in the warring factions but as someone once said, there was nothing contradictory in trusting and verifying the actions of others. We had witnessed first hand the deceptive capacity of the warlords over the years. Taylor had reneged on his signature on many occasions. ULIMO, after being carried around by IGNU, had suddenly found a new partner in the NPFL, with Maxwell Kabbah and Thomas Ziah running to Gbarnga on a daily basis. We knew whom we were dealing with and therefore insisted that the process of disarmament must start before we turned the government over to the transition. We said we would have no problem settling the issue of the ministries once there was a verifiable beginning of encampment and disarmament process.
Bouncing my daughter up and down, General Opande asked me what kind of Liberia we wanted for our children. I responded “one where they do not have to choose between taking up guns and dying, a country where they could go to Clay Ashland, Buchanan or Kendeja Beach on a bike without being shot or raped… “ Then he said, the most important thing to do was to trust one another. He could not understand why we – IGNU – had no trust ULIMO and the NPFL. We knew.
The warring factions ended up winning the argument. The international community and mostly the UN and officials at the US embassy in Monrovia made it a point to force IGNU out of power. General Opande and others said that ECOMOG would not stay forever and that Nigerian new president, Shehu Shagari did not have the same predisposition as Ibrahim Babanginda and that sooner or later, we would have to relinquish power. He said the international community was involved in the process and that it was time that we trust each other as Liberians.
In those days, only Bishop Michael Francis stood up against seating the transitional government without disarmament. As usual, nobody listened to him.
The general was following a formula that had become a way of solving African conflicts: create a government of national unity that includes all factions with the hope that a solution would develop. Under pressure from ECOWAS, the international community and a few vocal Liberians who had convinced everyone in Monrovia that IGNU was the problem, the transitional government was inaugurated in grand fanfare. The NPFL got the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the civil society got the Ministries of Defense and Justice and ULIMO got the Ministry of Finance. There was no disarmament and no encampment of fighters. The warring factions controlled the entire country and now had agents in Monrovia…
This was ten years ago, almost to the month when I had that conversation with General Opande, where he kept asking us to “take a leap of faith.” Since then, he has seen what happened in Liberia. He moved to Sierra Leone. There again, rather than disarm the fighters, UN brought Foday Sankoh and others into the government. We know the end result.
General Daniel Opande is now returning to Monrovia to take command of the 15,000 - troop UN peacekeeping force. It is his turn to take a leap of faith, by deploying peacekeepers in every village and hamlet in Liberia and disarming every combatant, including every man and woman in the so-called police and security forces. These are the same people he failed to disarm ten years ago. Members of the AFL, the police and the security apparatus need to be de-traumatized and sent back to school.
Walking the streets on Monrovia today, General Opande can clearly see the consequences of that “leap of faith” taken by Liberians in 1994 when they allowed warring factions to enter government while still holding their guns.
The mess has only compounded. General Opande has seen first hand the work of warlords in the past ten years. In a way, it is gratifying to know that he is the one coming to clean up the disaster. He knows the problem and therefore, will hopefully not repeat the mistakes of the past. Everyone hopes that he will take a take a leap of faith with civilians.
In the 1990s, with Gordon Somers who at the time represented the UN Secretary General, the mood was to entice warlords, with the hope that once they gained power, money and respectability, they would surrender their guns. That illusion cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
General Opande will be joining forces with Mr. Jacques Klein. Since his arrival in Liberia, Mr. Klein has made no secrets about where his heart lies. He has said and done everything needed to dismantle the diabolical killing machine of warlords. He has his heart and mind in the right place. With all the lessons he has learned in Sierra Leone and Guinea, General Opande will be a good addition to Jacques Klein and US Ambassador Blaney.
Aisha is now in America. She is 10, getting ready for 6th grade. She created her own website, she plays violin and can ride her bike to school. Her cousin, same age, was left in Liberia. She has never had a full year of school, and is struggling in 3rd grade. She has to fetch her bath water from the well down the road and can hardly read or write. She has no idea what a computer looks like. She has spent 4 or her tender years in displaced camps after she and mother were kicked out of their home in 1996, during the April Fracas.
Welcome (back) General Daniel Opande, Liberia is awaiting you. The mess is greater than ever. We need to take a leap of faith together, but this time, on behalf of the millions of Liberians who never took guns and never asked anyone to liberate them.
Like in 1994, Liberia is faced with dangers and opportunities.
Have the stakeholders and peacemakers learned from the mistakes of the past?