The July Monrovia "Peace" Conference: True Reconciliation or Another Fiasco?
July 9, 2002
For nearly one year, the Liberian government of President Charles Taylor has been toying with the idea of hosting a national peace and reconciliation conference in Monrovia later this month. The meeting is supposedly aimed at bringing together Liberian opposition politicians, civil, religious, opinion leaders and government functionaries to harmonize their differences and reach some level of agreement in mapping out appropriate strategies for resolving Liberia’s recurring socio-economic and political problems.
But as lofty as the goals of the Monrovia Conference might be, the continued deteriorating security situation in Liberia and pre-conference statements by various officials of the Taylor government, especially conference chairman Roland Massaquoi, seem to raise serious apprehensions as to whether the July Monrovia Conference will yield any substantive results at all. Alternatively, it could simply fold up into oblivion as the much-heralded Vision 2020 Monrovia and Chicago Conferences of 1998, and the Abuja Conference of March 2002.
"If you think this conference will be inviting you as a special guest to your home meeting then you are making a mistake," Massaquoi told journalists in Monrovia June 26, 2002, apparently alluding to calls by exiled Liberian opposition politicians for the government to relax the state of emergency imposed last February, and improve general security conditions in the country as a pre-condition for their participation in the July Conference.
Massaquoi then continued with a series of contradictory statements such as "we are inviting every Liberians of resource to contribute," but the July Conference will not be "a political lagoons as usual.” He also said “The Liberian government has assured security for everyone who will be attending the conference and that the security will be at international standard, and that technical people from every sector including lawyers, judges, politicians, bankers, engineers, teachers, doctors, marketeers, journalists, human rights activists and representatives of several other associations, as well as representatives of local communities, the UN, OAU, ECOWAS and other international organizations will be invited.”
But behind all the fuss about whether or not the government will provide security guarantees for exiled Liberian politicians interested in participating in the so-called Peace and National Reconciliation Conference scheduled late July in Monrovia is a price tag of US$2.8 million to be borne by Liberian tax payers, most of whom live in abject poverty with no safe drinking water, electricity, adequate housing, health, and educational facilities. Even civil servants working for the NPP-government have not been paid for months due to the government’s claims of revenue shortfalls and security cost overlays. Yet $2.8 million is available to host a conference whose purpose seems misdirected and outcome remains uncertain.
However, the government feels contented in its ability to manipulate political issues, and is pressing ahead with hosting the so-called peace and reconciliation conference to prove a political point, even if exiled politicians do not attend, and even if Liberian civil servants do not get paid for the next year or two. The $2.8 million price tag for the conference will be taken from the public coffers if projected private donations fell through, in the same way as the NPP-led government seized over $20 million from the public coffers to pay for rebel activities under the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The NPFL is forerunner of Taylor’s ruling National Patriotic Party (NPP).
This one-man show of governance without checks and balances has contributed to the regime’s inability to restore basic services such as pipe-borne water, electricity, sewer, health, and sanitation for the Liberian people since coming to power in 1997.
In order to safe face, or to counter the LURD’s threat, or both, President Taylor and his NPP-government sought the help of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. of the National Rainbow Coalition/PUSH, in a public relations scheme intended to win sympathy for the Taylor government amongst U.S. policy makers. But the government’s domestic policies and cross-border activities in neighboring states left much to be desired. So the PR effort, the so-called Chicago Conference on Reconciliation on Liberia, which was convened in Chicago on April 15-16, 1998, soon faded away for very obvious reasons.
First, the planners - the National Rainbow Coalition/PUSH were overly careful in selecting participants to the Chicago Conference. Instead of partnering with the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), the umbrella organization of Liberians in the United States, the PUSH planners only invited a select group of Liberians in the U.S. who were seemingly pro-government. In fact, most Liberians got to know about the Chicago Conference by word of mouth and the Internet.
Regrettably, Rev. Jackson’s introductory remarks during the conference established whose interest he was representing. "It's morning time in Liberia. It's morning time. …We have come to reconcile our differences. We understand there are those in this hall who label themselves the opposition, or adversaries to the Taylor administration. If there are any adversaries who are not ready to reconcile, please leave the room,” Rev. Jackson said. Also, he warned Liberians to stop using the Internet to embarrass the Taylor government. "The international community frequents the Internet and takes note of whatever information is disseminated on the Information Superhighway; so, please stay off the Net", he said.
Instead of Rev. Jackson serving as a reconciler, the civil rights activist sided with the minority by condemning the interest of the majority. And when President Taylor addressed the participants at the conference via telephone, he pitched the same PR line that Rev. Jackson had established: "We want America to forgive the debt, and encourage the private sector to come here, re-engage in Liberia by assisting us to restructure our security forces, help us rebuild our economy, and invest in human resources. There is a moral obligation America has to get Liberia going again."
But, unlike Rev. Jackson’s lovefest with the Taylor government, President Clinton’s Special Envoy to Liberia, Ambassador Howard Jeter, said in no mincing words that "The government of Liberia must convince every Liberian by deed and action that today and tomorrow can be better day than ever existed in the past... Liberians must rebuild Liberia."
Based on the deliberation at the Conference, the questions that persisted in the minds of most Liberians were: “What did the Chicago Conference achieve? Was this a reconciliation conference? Who were reconciling?” Of course, one clear answer is that the conference achieved its unstated objective of providing Taylor with the publicity he desired in the U.S., thanks to Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
And in his article, “Of Promises And Reality: Putting The Chicago Conference In Perspective, One Year After:” M. Tarnue Mawolo, writing for The Perspective, described the Chicago conference as a “public relations supremo”, and noted that “Be that as it may, the conference was held. But one year after Chicago, this crazy expenditure of meager dollars is yet to be justified. Liberia is still a divided nation caught in the awesome burning fire of a grotesque tyranny and the callous disregard for the dignity of life and the rule of law. Due process has taken to flight. The judicial system is undoubtedly a showcase of ineptitude and executive manipulations…The law no longer proceeds on inquiry, nor does it hear before it condemns. In Taylor's ‘big dream’ Liberia, the presumption of guilt is the rule, as justice is dispensed according to the whims, caprices and sheer benevolence of an imperial President and his host of bodyguards; the press is bamboozled, intimidated and muzzled, key opposition figures are murdered, while others are thrown into exile”.
Indeed, it was a sad commentary for a conference supposedly devoted to national peace and reconciliation in Liberia as the Chicago fiasco to have ignored discussion of the many ills pointed out by Mr. Mawolo. But it seemed Chicago was just the beginning of fruitless peace and reconciliation conferences.
Nevertheless, conference organizers are quick to make clear what will and will not be discussed at the Monrovia conference. “The government had agreed in principle to lift a state of emergency imposed in February 2002 to allow exiled Liberian politicians to attend a government-sponsored national reconciliation conference…A number of exiled Liberians, including opposition politicians, had already been contacted for the meeting…aimed at asking Liberians for a way forward. It was not meant to discuss elections in 2003 with leaders of Liberia's 17 political parties but to give them an opportunity to discuss and resolve national issues”, chief conference organizer Massaquoi said.
Similarly, many people, especially Liberians, are skeptical whether the scheduled July 2002 ”National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation” in Monrovia will be any different from the numerous peace conferences that the Taylor government has either sponsored or attended. If results of past conferences are any indicators, then we should not expect anything meaningful about the scheduled Monrovia Conference.
The government’s recent behavior has made it clear that Monrovia is not a safe place for many exiled politicians to return to at this time. Besides, Mr. Taylor is not interested in genuinely discussing vexing issues crucial to true peace and national reconciliation.
Civil liberties and fundamental freedoms are at risk in Liberia. Violating the constitution in the guise of enforcing the law is the main staple of the Taylor regime. Assaults against freedom of speech, the press and movement continue unabated and unpunished.
It’s our view that any reconciliation conference that does not address the issue of accountability and removing those who have committed crimes against the people from power is a meaningless exercise, and disingenuous. Reconciliation should heal Liberia’s national wound, not foster, any individual’s political goals. This is why we are reluctant to endorse the Monrovia sideshow. A genuine reconciliation conference in Liberia should have been under aegis of an independent body comprising individuals from all sectors of Liberian society, not sponsored and controlled by the regime which is a party to be reconciled.
Due to these and related issues, Liberians abroad will not be willing to attend the scheduled conference. Yet, Liberians are asked, "Let us try to workout a formula to solve the problems." But how in the world can this be done, when each time the press points out the problems, their offices and equipment are either seized or destroyed, and their reporters and editors are arrested and jailed?
In point of fact, almost six years after coming to power, little if anything, has changed in our devastated homeland except the transformation of guerrilla warlords to new masters of the Liberian state to perpetuate terror and plunder cloaked beneath a thin veneer of legality and officialdom. Indeed, in Liberia today, its simply business as usual. Poverty and deprivation rule supreme as babies cry, go to bed hungry and die in their misery and lack of care. Worse still, there is no promise of things getting better any sooner as long as the status quo remains the same. The promise of reconciliation and healing has evaporated in thin air leaving behind nothing but a litany of empty commissions and panels that serve very little purpose besides creating offices and staff for more bureaucrats in a society that is becoming increasingly less busy with matters of substance.
Above all, Charles Taylor and his goons seem to have decided that it is in their best interest to keep things that way. Why not, any way? Can there be a better policy for a regime that thrives on violence and chaos, and rules by a combination of hate and a strategy of divide and conquer? No doubt, in an organized society where there is peace and the rule of law, the people are bound to demand accountability from a government that does not have the vision, foresight and capacity to deliver. Definitely, we are confronted with this burning prospect; Taylor and his cohorts cannot do otherwise than to keep the Liberian people divided and in a state of perpetual crisis and turmoil. This is certainly a nightmare scenario involving what Samuel Kofi Woods II, former Director of Liberia's Catholic Justice & Peace Commission called a stranded government and a "stranded people."
The fact of the matter is that nothing has been achieved from the numerous so-called “Peace and Reconciliation” Conferences. Rather, we have been given empty promises of reconciliation, prosperity and peace. And the fatigue of a whole nation battered by war, ravaged by anarchy and destituted by institutionalized thievery, can be seen in the confused faces of displaced Liberians. “The people of Liberia are tired with dishonesty and those who want to continue dealing dishonestly will have only themselves to blame for their early peaceful downfall. This vicious cycle of promising baskets only for a privileged few to enjoy must come to an end NOW and it will end not through bullets but through ballots."
IN SHORT, it is about time that the Liberian people join in partnership with the international community to empanel a war crimes tribunal to bring Liberian war criminals to justice. This will help Liberians disburden themselves of the agonies and pains they feel inside. In fact, such a demonstration for justice will be therapeutic for all concerned. It will contribute to a healing process that is desperately needed. The trials will be a deterrent for future war. More importantly, such action will be the basis for genuine peace and reconciliation. It will also discourage indiscipline and related vices that have permeated the moral fabric of the Liberian society.
FINALLY, we call on the Liberian people, African leaders, the United Nations, the United States government and the European Union to exert their necessary leadership by making sure the architects and perpetrators of crimes against humanity, some of whom now wield power in Liberia, are brought before a court of international jurists to account for their actions. If this is not done in Liberia, then the civilized community will have lost an opportunity to restore credence to its pledge of "never again", and to contribute to lasting peace in Liberia and the entire West African sub-region.