Liberia: In Search of Leadership

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 20, 2003


After much drama, the Liberian peace talks, which started back on June 4, 2003, with the indictment of Charles Taylor, is now in its final act. The cease-fire signed on June 17, 2003 between the warring parties and the government and broken in July is now holding, thanks to the very visible presence of ECOMIL and the US Marines; Charles Taylor is in exile in Calabar, Nigeria, far remote from the political scene; and the Liberian political parties and civil society representatives have submitted to the warring parties the names of 3 persons to be considered for President of the Interim Government and 3 other names for the post of Vice-President.

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

The first person to be selected among those vying for president was Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a leading voice in the opposition and standard-bearer of Unity Party. She was elected to the Senate in 1985 but did not take her seat because her party said the elections were rigged. In 1997, the Harvard-educated and business leader came second to Charles Taylor after only three weeks of campaigning in much-disputed elections. Right from the beginning of the peace talks, she was perceived as the leading candidate for the position of interim president.

The other two candidates selected are Mr. Rudolph Sherman, Chairman of the True Whig Party and Mr. Gyude Bryant of LAP (Liberian Action Party). For the post of Vice-President, the parties submitted the names of Mr. Wesley Johnson, who wrestled the United People’s Party UPP); Mr. C. Gbollie of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Hodo Merriam, the Chairman of the National Demoncratic Party of Liberia (NDPL).

Today, the three warring factions will make the final decision and come up with one chairperson and one vice-chairman for the new transitional government to be installed on October 15, 2003, to replace the Taylor government.

All things being equal, the lines are drawn. The choices are clear to all those who want to move beyond the war era to usher in a new administration where accountability, justice and healing would take precedence over the old ways of corruption, intimidation and nepotism.

When we spoke to the Chairman of the National Patriotic Front (NPP) Mr. Cyril Allen about the position of his party regarding the candidates, he said that he supported the candidacy of Mr. Rudolph Sherman. He said: “people say he is weak and corrupt but maybe in a transition era we need somebody who is weak, because that would allow the international community to do its job. Maybe a man like Jacques Klein would want to have free hands to do what he wants and somebody like Sherman, one of our own, would not stand in his way.”

When asked why he was opposed to Mrs. Sirleaf, Mr. Allen said that he had received “information to the fact that while she was in the United States and in Europe in July, Mrs. Sirleaf had called for the institution of a war crimes tribunal, something that would go after all of us, and specially LURD.” He however added: “I have nothing against her and I think she would make a great leader if that’s what the Liberian people want. She has the managerial capacity and the international contacts needed to put this country back on track… But we have issues with her...”

Regarding other candidates, Mr. Allen said that he hopes “the vetting committee would ignore many of the names we have heard. Some of these people were involved in criminal activities while others are just puppets of other politicians. We may be opposed to Mrs. Sirleaf for certain reasons but we don’t want to turn the country to weaklings who would further jeopardize our recovery and reconciliation process. This country has gone through enough and we need people with character and good track record to make it work.”

When asked if she had indeed been instigating the setting up of a war crimes tribunal to go after warring factions, Mrs. Sirleaf responded: “nothing is further from the truth. I challenge anyone to provide one instance where I asked that a war crimes tribunal should be set up to put warring factions on trial. Of course, and I said this to both Mr. Sekou Damateh Conneh [Chairman of LURD] and Mr. Nimley [Chairman of MODEL] and I stand by this, justice must be done. I believe in justice. I think someone whose parents have been slaughtered has the right to ask that the killer be brought to justice. Crimes have been committed and justice must be done. We will have and will seek justice for those who have been victimized. How this will be done, is not up to me but to the Liberia people."

Mrs. Sirleaf, who said she holds no grudges against anyone, continued: “When I was in the US and Europe, my primary concern was to get US involved in Liberia and get the United Nations to speed up its efforts so that the killing and shelling of innocent people would stop. This is why I temporarily withdrew from the race. I could not sit here in Accra campaigning while our people were dying. I went to look for help and that is all I did in the US, Europe and the sub-region. And thank God our appeals have been heard and the country is now quiet.”

Mr. Rudolph Sherman, who Mr. Cyril Allen says is a weak person, was quoted many times by writer Tom Kamara as saying that the True Whig Party would support anyone who takes care of them and their families, “we would vote for those who ask us how is the family.” His selection by the warring parties would signal a vindication of policies of the past. It would mean that LURD and MODEL fought for other reasons than for a true change. As the leader of the oldest political of the nation, Mr. Sherman certainly has many qualities. But are those qualities the ones needed to heal the nation and put her back on track?

The NPP leadership can and must join the rest of Liberia and the international community in pulling the country out of the abyss it has sunk in during the last 20 years. The NPP must and can show that it can go beyond petty personal politics and look at the greater good of the nation. The 1989 uprising was about giving Liberia a new direction and it is not too late to keep that promise. The NPP members should accept to move on and look ahead and give Liberia a chance at a speedy recovery.

One of the greatest disasters of the 1990s peace process that culminated into the current situation was the surrogate system used by warlords who picked weaklings and put them in the Executive Mansion. This led to the disastrous chairmanship of the likes of Sankawulo who sat by and watched Monrovia burn down while his “bosses” carried on their follies. It also led to the ineffectual chairmanship of Mrs. Ruth Perry, who, with all her good heart and good intentions, had no control over “the boys”. Under her watch, disarmament was turned into a masquerade and elections were a joke, while the national coffers were simply emptied.

The three warring groups charged with responsibility of making the final choice for the leadership of Liberia all have thing in common: as we were told, each of them started a war to liberate Liberia from fear, corruption and nepotism. The NPLF in 1989, LURD in 2000 and MODEL in 2003 - all claiming that they came to fight injustice and abuse of human rights. Now they have a chance to make the right choice to provide a leadership to Liberia that can not only manage the healing and restructuring process, but would have enough credibility in the international community to garner the needed assistance.

A member of the ECOWAS negotiation team who spoke to us under the condition of anonymity, said: “After so many failures, we hope the three parties would make an easy choice for a strong leadership that would make all of us proud. But then again, Liberians are known for making the wrong choice at times. Who they choose [today] matters to all of us in Africa and in the sub-region and we will hold everyone of them responsible for any choice they make today.”

This is a historical day for Liberia. This historical day that must not be allowed to become the beginning of another nightmare because of bad leadership. Those who are ready to spend millions of dollars and put their children at risks for the attainment of lasting peace in Liberia and in the sub-region demand a credible leadership from the warring parties. And the choices are clear.