Is a War Crimes Tribunal an Immediate Priority for Liberia?

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 27, 2003

Liberia’s interim-chairman-to-be, Mr. Gyude Bryant, has already created a controversy – even before he actually takes the seat. Although we have not the slightest idea what his government’s agenda is, he is already being criticized because of what he says he’s not going to do: namely, he has no intention of establishing or requesting for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal. As far as many critics are concerned, that makes him a hypocrite and a Charles Taylor closet supporter.

The point these critics seem to be ignoring is that the arrangement that thrust Mr. Bryant unto the spotlight was not a regular election. Mr. Bryant did not go to the polls to win a popular mandate from the people. For reasons beyond some of us, the political parties and other civilian organizations, as well as the so-called international arbiters, gave the warring factions too much power – too much latitude in grabbing the spoils of war.

Although Mr. Bryant will hold the distinguished title of “chairman”, the real power will elude him, and here’s why: Out of Liberia’s 21 government ministries, the warring factions (LURD, MODEL and the Taylor government) will name and appoint 15 ministers including two deputy ministers in each ministry.

Imagine this: Bryant will preside over an administration where he will have no say over who runs such powerful ministries as Justice, Finance, Defense, Internal Affairs, just to name a few. The ex-combatants will get to control about 72% of Liberia’s ministries – that leaves Bryant and the other political parties in control of 28%. Any way you do the math, the reality is he will end up with very little control.

Let’s scrutinize the numbers a little further. There are 22 public corporations in Liberia. According to the agreement, the former rebels and the former government get to control 12 – this time they get 55% and Bryant and the other stakeholders will control 45%. However, Taylor’s government retains such powerful corporations as the Liberian Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), the Liberian Petroleum Refining Corporation (LPRC) and the Liberian Electricity Corporation (LEC).

LURD also gets the Liberian Telecommunications Corporation (Telecom), the National Port Authority (NPA) and the Liberian Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC), while MODEL gets Roberts International Airport, the Forestry Development Authority and the Agriculture Cooperative Development Bank.

Most importantly, the Legislative branch will be composed of 76 members, 36 of whom will be appointed by (you guessed it) the ex-combatants. LURD, MODEL and the Taylor government will have the privilege of appointing 12 members each and each of Liberia’s counties will send one member to “represent” their interests. All that will be required for a veto over the chairman will be a swing vote of three. No matter what one’s political or ideological leanings, it is clear to see these arrangements don’t favor Bryant at all.

Mr. Bryant will definitely not have the power to initiate a controversial agenda such as the war crimes tribunal. He simply will not have the numbers, legislatively or otherwise, to pass such an explosive issue. To attempt to do so will be suicidal, literally or figuratively, take your pick.

We all agree it’s no secret that the Liberian war goes down as most horrendous and catastrophic both in terms of the cost of human lives as well the destruction of physical infrastructure. We are also aware of the tragic consequence of human resource flight or brain drain.

Yes, we are all aware of the plight of our dear Monrovia – left standing in a dark corner among the world’s capitals- without running water and electricity for over seven years. The rest of the country badly needs roads, clinics, hospitals, schools, etc.

What’s about the thousands, probably tens of thousands of child-soldiers abused by the government and rebel forces to fight merciless wars while drugged as animals? Who’s going to rehabilitate them, and when?

Whose going to address the issues of children left as orphans and women left widowed? Who’s going to address the issues of families whose bread winners were snatched from them?

It is my view that these social problems created over the years should definitely have priority over the issue of a war crimes tribunal. Mr. Bryant and his interim administration should first address these immediate issues. We should be cognizant of the fact that Liberia’s coffers are empty. We will have to rely on the goodwill of the international community to provide funds. Let’s use these funds to benefit the most needed.

This is in no way an attempt to downplay the importance of a war crimes tribunal. But since the statute of limitation covering the Liberian war crimes is not due to expire any time soon; my suggestion is that issue should form the core of the debate as we prepare for elections. Presidential candidates should go on record articulating their stance on the issue.

Many infer that this issue of a war crimes tribunal will garner popular support among Liberians. If that is the case, we should hold a referendum – that is the democratic way. The issue should be taken up by the next elected government, not this interim government that doesn’t have the power, time or resources to finish the job.

I think Mr. Bryant made a critical error when he dismissed the idea of a war crimes tribunal. He should have somehow conceded that the issue may far be beyond his authority; after all, nobody chose him to be an emperor. We still have a constitutional form of government where the president does not have to make all pertinent decisions. He should have, therefore, deferred the matter to the Liberian people.

Mr. Bryant will have his hands full with immediate problems demanding his attention. Yes, this issue is important but it should not be given the utmost priority. And as has been shown, he will have very little power, anyway. This matter will clearly be beyond his authority. Therefore, let’s support Mr. Gyude Bryant. If he fails, Liberia fails. Let “the people” decide the big one.