Liberia: The Politics of Brute
By Tom Kamara
July 17, 2000
The ongoing dissidents' incursion into Liberia, the second since the "democratic elections" of 1997, points to a failed baptism of superficial forms of democracy in expectation of substantive changes. In the rush to settle the political question as a result of succumbing to the supremacy of terror, democracy became a casualty while reconciliation, so badly needed after seven years of bloodletting, was sacrificed on the altar of arrogance and vengeance. The hype that mere elections and national anthems are tantamount to democracy now leads us back to the basics, which means the biggest gun will triumph, again determining the political outcome however destructively. With this scenario, Liberia is plagued with a vicious cycle in this drama of anarchy, threatening its very survival as a state in the modern sense with serious regional implications.
Observers of the Liberian scene are surprised at the resurgence of violence. If anything, the surprise is that violence as a counter measure to violent policies adopted since the elections has been delayed. Let us take a brief look at some of the developments that have placed this impoverished country squarely with the grip of anarchy at the detriment of reconciliation needed for reconstruction.
Upon taking office or even prior to that as a warlord, Taylor co-opted his predecessor's (Doe's) definition of authority and power. As to Doe, Taylor views power in terms of the ability to humiliate, to inflict terror on one's opponent in forcing his or her to ignoble submission. While Doe frequently challenged his opponents to measure the length of their manly organs as a testament of strength based on length, Taylor printed a cap announcing, "Charles Taylor the man," a slogan reminding Liberians that he is THE only man in Liberia and no one else. Angry over criticisms of his policies, he issued warnings to Liberians as if he was disciplining his children. "I am the most mischievous man in this country. I am not kidding. Liberians are brave people. They see fire and get insideI am bad"
It is this culture of rule by intimidation, by waging terror on the opponent or his family that made violence a dangerous but convenient political tool. Opponents lacking the tools of violence must flee the country from a winner with the monopoly of violence. People of different political orientations cannot live together pursuing their different agendas without executions or threats. Left with no peaceful co-existence alternatives, losers or opponents wishing to live in the country or to return must therefore use the rule of the game: back to warlord politics and command of rebel factions.
To avoid a return to violence after an election that left so many people bitter and aggrieved, reconciliation became an irresistible mantra. But the lofty reconciliation pronouncements by the winners soon became a case of "Don't listen to what I say, but to what I do." Hence, the calls for reconciliation were lost in the stampede for strong-arm measures and intimidation of opponents, forcing many to flee. And despite widespread demand that a "Truth Commission" along South African lines was needed if not anything but to determine how Liberia got embroiled in this madness, the winners and their supporters denounced any talk of searching for the TRUTH as treason. They had their own "Liberian way" of reconciling the nation and there was no need to borrow from the traumas and experiences of Apartheid South Africa. The Liberian Way became summary executions and farcical trials on cooked-up charges, sponsorship of regional rebel groups, turning the country into a pariah state and blocking badly needed help from outsiders.
Nevertheless, most Liberians of goodwill, victim of war fatigue, continued to sing the forbidden songs of RECONCILIATION. This has to be because to the normal mind, it was only through reconciliation that the nation could again attempt putting itself together. Without reconciling the various divisive and wounded political and ethnic groups, it was clear that the bullet would shatter the ballot in all its frailty. But the problem was that those who believed that reconciliation, tolerance would form the pillars of the new political culture emerging out of the war forgot one unfortunate lesson: it was violence and terror that propelled the winners to the stage and it would be violence and terror they would rely on as determinants of their political continuity. Based on the code of naked terror so useful during the war, which ended in a "victory" for the NPFL perpetrators , the NPFL saw no alternatives and needed none. It was simply a matter of using your best cards. In this case, the NPFL's (now NPP) best cards were violence and intimidation. It worked during the war. It would work in "peace time" to put losers in their place.
The first act in this drama of fostering violence while preaching reconciliation was the holding of National Reconciliation Conference. In an act of extreme stupidity (or should one be more magnanimous to say unforgiving naiveté), the victorious leaders concluded that reconciling bitterly divided Liberians rested with sound bites like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Armed with hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly provided by Charles Taylor, Rev. Jackson (who during the civil war turned down a request from Liberians to give a speech in the absence of $10,000 fee) staged a fancy conference of Liberians in Chicago at which he lectured them to "leave the Internet alone." In a typical fashion of sound bites over substance that we see today, he announced that it was "sunshine time in Liberia" when all indications pointed to darkness. Clearly, one of the tenets of Mr. Jackson's reconciliation crusade was that Liberians should keep silent over events in their country. Instead of encouraging active discussions among Liberians to arrive at a common agenda, Rev. Jackson proposed silence as the mother of reconciliation and therefore nation-building.
The problem was that although the Rev. Jackson had called for silence, "keep off the Internet", Liberians could not afford to remain silent. Too many people had died, too much lost. Increasingly, Taylor and his friends see every comment posted on the internet against the government (or even a mere Liberian daily news) as a threat. To keep Liberians off the Internet as the Rev. Jackson instructed, the warlord banned Star Radio, the only internationally-financed station in the country with an Internet access that fed hundreds of thousands of Liberians (and friends of Liberia) out of the country with actual happenings at home
The Chicago-follow-up reconciliation conference was exported to Liberia. Like-minded Liberians, comrades of the winners in this disfigured game of democracy, were invited to Monrovia. There again, the Rev. Jackson was at his best, telling Liberians that it was peacetime in the destroyed country when the drums of war were beating. A few days after this charade ended, Taylor "reconciled" with the ethnic Krahns, the main targets of his war, by invading their quarters in Monrovia and butchering over 300 of them. His son, Chuckie Taylor Jr., led the attacks in which so many women and children were executed. Those who fled into what they regarded as the Godly cover of an Episcopal church were chased there and shot. Taylor would later provide money for the thankful Church to cleanup the blood and expel the "evil". It was evident that Liberia has no Bishop Desmond Tutus. Others who ran into the US embassy compound were pursued and shot. According to the US State Department estimates, over 18000 Krahns fled the city as Taylor's security hunted them down for execution.
The culture of collective guilt, in which the entire tribe is held responsible for the acts of one of its members, has been entrenched over the years and has taken deadlier proportions under Taylor. Krahns who never benefited from Samuel Doe's years of plunder paid the ultimate price. Mandingoes, who did not know Alhaji Kromah, had to die because he vowed to stand by Doe at the onset of the war. Taylor threatened Charles Brumskine not to turn the Bassa tribe against his Government because the now exiled President of the Senate disagreed with him. The Sapoe tribe, as a way of averting attacks by the indiscipline security forces on members of the tribe, quickly issued a statement dissociating the tribe for an interview given by one of its members in the United States on the current incursion.
Prepared to detach themselves from their kinsmen and advertise their loyalty to the winners, in the foolhardiness that such would spare them, Krahn leaders denounced their compatriots, now declared enemies of the "democratically elected" who were arrested, charged, convicted of treason and now languish in prison. But it was evident that once you're an enemy, you're always an enemy. Despite the denunciation, they were arrested and imprisoned. Others were tortured and shot under claims that they died in a gun battle to escape from prison, a claim refuted by the American State Department.
And, of course, the self-acclaimed father of Liberian opposition politics, Baccus Mathhews, had pleaded with Taylor to "use Executive Power" (meaning sole and unquestioned authority in Liberian political parlance) to smash the Krahns. Many of their opinion leaders who have opted to serve in the Government, believing that it was time to reconcile and move forward, but they were now paying for trusting a man who led calculated elimination campaigns against Krahns and Mandingoes in his drive for the presidency. To indicate that the trial was one of vendetta for the 1980 coup which interrupted centuries of Americo-Liberian (freed slaves who settled in what is now Liberia in the 1800s) rule, Taylor and his friends released a prime-time video of the 1980 execution of 12 Americo-Liberian political leaders deposed in a coup in which Taylor actively participated in staging and consolidating. In Monrovia, members of Taylor's inner circle, a clique of small but influential Americo-Liberians, were openly issuing threats that never would they allow the repeat of 1980 and that they were determined to hunt down all those responsible for the coup excluding Charles Taylor, their benefactor. This was a high display of dishonesty and callousness, for many of those now showing such a video and threatening a war of vendetta, were the very material beneficiaries of the coup. In this not-so-surprising drama, the inquisitors ("lawyers') in this inquisition were all African-Liberians.
But it is the attitude of the Liberian society in general, and of opinion leaders in particular, that was disturbing and disappointing. When EVIL in all its forms evolves triumphant as it has in Liberia, even normal minds see its "virtues," let alone its many ever-zealous concealed and public disciples. Immediately after the clampdown on the Krahns, Taylor gathered members of civil organizations, the church and political parties to "brief" them on his achievement in handling the "evil" Krahns. It was a sickening scene. The clapping and cheering for this man, responsible for the death of 250,000 and yet more killings, were clear reminders that the minds of many Liberians have been inundated by terror. To the exuberant opinion leaders, the Krahns represented trouble, and once they were out of the way through whatever means, they (opinion leaders and many Liberians) would live in "peace" to enjoy their new Liberia. Thus Liberian society found itself at peace with the horrors meted against the Krahns just as it lived and accepted the terror meted against the Gios and Manos, the enemies of the Krahns, now waging a war of vendetta. Had civil society, the Church shouted louder against this ethnic cleansing, the Government would have perhaps taken notice that such violent policies kill reconciliation and engender everlasting enmity among the victims of its war. But Taylor's onslaught against the Krahns was popular in Monrovia. "Let these Krahn dogs die. Pappy (Taylor) is right!" was the common endorsement in nightclubs and other places. Months later, Dr. Amos Sawyer commended the Police because "public safety" had improved.
With the Krahns now effectively silenced, albeit temporarily, the regime had to seek out new enemies because of its unfulfilled promises and dismal failure in addressing the needs of an impoverished population. The next group was the Mandingoes. Every dissident activity in the country was linked to this tribe. Taylor's political recruits from Lofa County soon played into his hands by assuring him that they backed his crusade against these "foreigners." They promised to organize "civil defense forces" against what they regarded as the Mandingo threat. In open forums, they called for war against the Mandingoes. Several Mandingoes were executed. Others were subjected to torture tactics so familiar with Mr. Taylor's war tactics - forcing victims to chew and swallow pieces of broken glass bottles. Mandingo students at the University of Liberia published leaflets for their cries to be heard, but the Liberian society, now at peace with itself and wanting no further troubles, closed its ears and eyes. Many Mandingoes fled the country. In Lofa, now a new battleground between Mr. Taylor's loyalists and the dissidents, Hell descended on earth as Taylor's unpaid soldiers raided homes of peasants in search of food and valuables. With no state institutions in the county, and with nearly all relief agencies out due to heightened insecurity, the people, including non-Mandingoes, fled to Guinea and other countries to become refugees, now numbering over 124,000 in Guinea and over 10,000 in Ghana.
These developments, which ignited the exodus of Mandingoes and Krahns, were reminders of the flight of Gios and Manos in mid 1980 during Samuel Doe's war of attrition against them. That the Gios and Manos, chased out of the country with no hope of returning without an AK-47 in hand, zealously formed the core of Taylor's NPFL was a useful lesson that escaped the new regime. Always of oblivious of historical lessons, tyrants find themselves buried by them.
Believing that his personal security rested with the elimination of his key opponents, Taylor ensured that all competing warlords who lost out in the political game left the country or were killed. Like the Gios and Manos were treated under President Doe, many of these warlords, along with thousands of their followers, absolutely had no hope of ever returning home as long as Taylor's "Democracy" swings. Here lies the foundation of incessant rebel incursions.
Thus failing to reconcile the population and consolidate the gains of peace, the regime, in extreme paranoia, relies on violence to remain in power, providing critics with evidence that Liberia remains a pariah state and a criminal enclave exporting violence to others within the region.
Within the region, again to ensure his political survival, Taylor has found himself serving as a godfather of dissidents from other countries operating under his protection. In 1999, he admitted that Liberians were fighting on all sides in the Sierra Leone war. But his real fear rests not with those fighting with the RUF, but those Liberians who have found themselves fighting in Sierra Leone to fight for their lives since an RUF's victory would lead to summary execution of all suspected Taylor's opponents in that country. The RUF is a virtual extension of the NPFL. Guinea has been constantly alleging that its dissidents are being trained in Liberia. The Ivory Coast after the coup is jittery about Liberia's intentions, with reports that Taylor is training pro-Konan Bedie dissidents to ensure his comeback. Senegal says Liberian and Sierra Leonean dissidents have joined its rebels in the Cassamance. The primary question now is if the current incursion gains momentum, what can we expect in terms of sub-regional politics and alliances?
In the case of Sierra Leone, Taylor's ties to the RUF are based
on two factors:
1) Diamonds to pay his war bill and maintain his luxury,
2) The RUF as a buffer army to protect his rearguard.
That he will relinquish control of his diamond colonies by ceding support of the RUF without a fight is unlikely. Says Africa Confidential:
"The end of diplomatic-speak between Monrovia and Freetown won't have an immediate bearing on the military situation. Neither side is ready for a massive escalation of the proxy war between Taylor's forces and Sierra Leone that has raged for nine years, two years longer than Liberia's own civil war. Of the two, Taylor's forces still have the means and the men to face down Kabbah's shaky coalition of pro-government forces in a border war. Liberian Defence Minister Daniel Chea is accurate in his claim that Sierra Leone could not, currently, win a war with its neighbour
Yet neither side is looking at the border, which is clearly and unarguably delineated by the River Moro. The real focus is the diamond country of Kono District, home to the rich alluvial deposits along the River Sewa (see Map). There, the RUF and its Liberian and Burkinabè allies are prepared to make their last stand. The RUF has been in continuous control of Kono since November 1998, when it attacked in flying columns (highly mobile guerrilla units) in tactics developed by ex-South African Defence Force Colonel Fred Rindle. Along with other tactical specialists drawn from the apartheid SADF (Rindle was a liaison officer for P.W. Botha's regime and Jonas Savimbi's rebels in Angola) Rindle trained and equipped the RUF units to operate alongside Liberian and Burkinabè fighters...
Rindle, who can be seen occasionally in Monrovia's Mamba Point Hotel andstyles himself as a mining engineer, won Taylor's confidence with the devastatingly successful 1998-99 offensive. The RUF and allies retook all of Kono District, before moving rapidly towards Freetown, where they took the West African peacekeeping force, the Economic Commission of West African States Monitoring Group (Ecomog) by surprise. By 8 January 1999, RUF soldiers were giving interviews to the BBC on satellite telephones from central Freetown: that invasion left more than 6,000 people dead and thousands more mutilated in less than a week
From the frenetic military activity, the arms shipments to rebel-held Kono and the radio rhetoric from Monrovia officials, another major Liberian military operation is in train. Irritatingly for Taylor's government, Kabbah's government and the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone now get good aerial reconnaissance reports of activity across the border. There is also far more human intelligence available from former Sierra Leone Army (SLA) soldiers who fought alongside the RUF and from some recent operations behind the rebel lines, we hear. All this clearly shows trucks loaded with weapons, food and medicine going from Liberia into Sierra Leone along the three major RUF supply routes. One report suggests that a helicopter lent to Taylor by Libya's Col. Moammar el Gadaffi to ferry UN hostages back to safety (500 were captured by the RUF at the beginning of May) had been used to resupply RUF forces".
Liberia's alleged military superiority is taken into account that Taylor's forces, along with its RUF, will be engaging only the Sierra Leone army. Faced with its own internal war and a crippled economy, the scenario could be quite the opposite. Moreover, the magnate that drew many young men and women into Taylor's war with Doe was the promise of a better tomorrow and the sanctity of looting. Between 1989 and 1993, food was plentiful in Liberia and so were material items. NPFL fighters were fed with a cow or two belonging to the German company each day in Bong Mines, for example. Every town, village and hamlet had bountiful harvests, goats, and other food supplies. The story is now dramatically different. There is nothing left to loot except properties belonging to the newly wealthy people around the warlord. We can therefore expect chickens coming home to roost. Without food and incentive of wanton looting, the enthusiasm of Taylor's fighting forces is daunted in any protracted war. And with the RUF under pressure from combined UN and Sierra Leone Government troops, crossing over into Liberia to defend their godfather as they did in 1999 is unlikely or counterproductive.
The situation with Guinea is dramatically different. Taylor's folly, despite his claim last year that "Guinea would lose" in the event of war with Liberia, is to risk war with Conakry. The Guineans have a cohesive force with long experience in Liberia where they served as one of the most feared units within ECOMOG. Liberia's rag-tag, unpaid troops will find it difficult matching the Guinean Army's numerical superiority along with professional experience.
On the other hand, Ivory Coast was indispensable to Taylor's rise to power. His military strength during the Liberian war was based primarily on his open access to Ivorian territory. It was said that Ivorian border towns and other points were virtual Taylor territory. He relocated members of his immediate family to the Ivory Coast, bought a large house in the border town of Danane and invested his looted millions in the Ivorian economy. Political and security officers stationed at border points got wealthy from the Liberian misery because they were key to Taylor's military operations. Mercenaries, weapons passed through Abidjan from Libya, Burkina Faso and other countries into Taylor's Liberia. Interviews granted to believing foreign media institutions were often given from Abidjan or Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso while the warlord claimed he was calling from the outskirts of Monrovia. Taylor had easy escape routes into the Ivory Coast whenever he was under military pressure. The Ivorian corridor, more than other factor, gave the NPFL a much-needed political and military muscle. Now, the political and military chemistry in the Ivory Coast has changed. The country itself is faced with greater spectre of instability as the Army becomes impatient for rewards in staging the coup that ousted Taylor's reliable allies in the Houphouet Boigny clan. Even without the chaos in Abidjan, the type of backing Taylor received from Houphouet's Ivory Coast is now inconceivable in view of the emergence of new actors on the political scene. Gen. Robert Guei, is said to be Gio, Taylor's allied tribe in Liberia. But not all Gios are friends of Taylor, and many consider the continued mysterious deaths of their kinsmen, along with failed promises, as reasons to keep away from the warlord. Moreover, the Krahns, Taylor's archenemies, are key in the Ivorian Army and security forces. According to reports, the main leader of the Christmas Eve coup in the country was a Krahn colonel. Thus, the unconditional backing Taylor and his NPFL allies received from 1989 to 1997 is now doubtful. Nevertheless, the importance of the Ivorian corridor is now minimized by the fact that Taylor can now fly in weapons and mercenaries directly from Burkina Faso into Liberia as he has been doing despite the UN embargo.
This brings into the picture Burkina Faso and Libya. Blaise Compaore admitted sending a battalion in Liberia to help Taylor defeat Doe and become President. According to Dr. Stephen Ellis and other sources, this was a way of Compaore repaying Taylor for his role in the brutal execution of President Thomas Sankara. Reports indicate that Burkinabe mercenaries and regular soldiers are still active in Sierra Leone and Liberia. To a significant extent, Taylor can still count on them to help in maintaining his grip on power. For how long is the key question.
With Libya outstanding debt (now periodically paid through a Western Intelligence monitored Taylor bank account, according to The Financial Times) in the hundreds of millions according to sources, Taylor's exit could mean an end of the payment. The collateral for payment was the presidency and Libya, through Abacha, ensured that Taylor got this all-important collateral requirement. Whether Gaddafi will risk military intervention in Liberia to protect his investment (Taylor's Presidency) as he did in Chad with ugly results remains to be seen. Gadaffi's intervention in the Tanzanian-Ugandan war on the side of Idi Amin ended in disgrace. Many Libyan soldiers were killed; others captured and sent back home by the magnanimous Tanzanians.
From all indications, the current incursion, and others that may follow, should be a convincing factor that defining strength to mean brute force against opponents is a two-edged sword. Indeed, he who lives by the sword must die by it. It can work either way. Taylor may be nearing in swallowing the dose of a medicine passed unto him by Samuel K. Doe, a man he announced was his friend.
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