The Justification For War

By Bushuben M. Keita

The Perspective

February 20, 2002

I have recently sat and pondered over what particular actions of a regime such as the one in Liberia today would necessitate its forceful removal or removal by means other than constitutionally mandated. I have had to think over this in response to allegations of renewed hostilities in northwestern Liberia between a group called LURD and the government of President Taylor. Is the Taylor government illegitimate? Has it been imposed on the Liberian people or has it imposed itself in an illegal faction? Is an illegitimate ascension to power the main basis of opposition to the government or is it the policies, which the government has adopted which are so repulsive that the forceful removal of the government has become necessary? In the succeeding paragraphs, I intend to explore in a limited way the ways by which I believe the forceful or unconstitutional change of government may be justified. And the ways by which I believe such a move is itself a useless time consuming exercise in futility.

I believe that Mr. Taylor and the erstwhile National Patriotic Front of Liberia came to the forefront of Liberian politics over the past twelve years through their invasion of Liberia from the Ivory Coast with the expressed intent of overthrowing the government of President Doe by using their armed forces. If this had succeeded as intended, the NPFL government would certainly have been born out of illegitimacy and would be automatically de facto. But developments in the first five years of their efforts saw the establishment of an interim government, the arrival of an international peacekeeping force, and the establishment of rival militia groups, all of which prevented the forceful takeover of the country by the original invaders. Compromise solutions to the conflict led to successive transitional governments. The culmination of the intervention efforts and fighting across the country was the holding of a special elections in 1997 to elect members of the legislature as well as the President. My question is, did the special elections held in 1997 establish the NPP government as a government de facto since there is no provision for special elections under our laws, or did it established a government de jure since it was established by elections held under international supervision and consisting of the willing participation of all of the major political and military factions.

In arguing that the government is de facto and therefore illegitimate, one only needs to examine the Liberian constitution which prescribed the manner and time for the holding of elections by which legitimate governments are established in Liberia. The special elections of 1997 did not abide by those constitutional provisions. Can that be explained by the extenuating circumstances, which prevailed at the time? Is the setting aside of expressed provisions of the constitution by the holding of special elections acceptable because the country was recovering from a devastating civil war? Why didn't the negotiators hold elections for a government, which would conduct constitutional elections probably within two years as is being proposed in Afghanistan? On the other hand, I have also wondered who amongst the present crop of politicians can legally challenge the legitimacy of the government which results from the process in which they all participated or gave their encouragement? Is the legal principle of estoppel a compelling argument for those who claim that the government of the moment has no legitimate basis? On the other hand, one can also argue that elections fairly conducted by the parties themselves, or under international supervision, and in which there was an equal opportunity to participate is in fact the proper basis for the establishment of legitimacy. This is especially true where all but one of the political parties accepted the elections results as being fair and accurate. If the circumstance, which gave rise to the government is considered legitimate, is the government therefore not de jure and does it not have its basis in the constitution which it has sworn to uphold?

To return to my original premises, my point is that one does not really need much of an excuse for challenging a government, which is de facto and has its basis in an illegal takeover of power. If that is the justification for armed hostilities then the rebellious forces would take satisfaction in the fact that no valuable explanation is needed to justify their continuous act. On the other hand if the government is legitimately established and has a de jure base and acceptance, then armed hostilities against it must have a more justified basis. Mere allegation of corruption or abuse of power cannot suffice to justify war against a government duly established by a legitimate process. The method favored by the constitution is the periodic holding of elections by which act the people get to renew their confidence in the elected leadership by re-electing it to office, or show their displeasure by electing some other leadership. Finding this method unsatisfactory says more about the opponent than it does about the legal process for the challenging and transfer of state power as constitutionally established.

To take a middle course, can we conclude that it is legally acceptable to have a government established de jure removed by unconstitutional means because it has lost its claim to legitimacy on account of mismanagement and bad policies? In other words, is a general dissatisfaction with the policies of a government such as exists in Liberia today sufficient to seek its violent overthrow? By what yardstick would our general dissatisfaction be measured, and by whom? Is LURD for instance a proper gauge of the current mood of the general populace who are now determined to replaced the government by bad policies with the government by de facto takeover? Is this the intent of our legal system of government that the policies of the government must not cause hardship to the masses and that where such hardships for the masses occur between election cycles a party of interested Liberians shall have authority to overthrow the government so that the suffering of the people can stop?

I can only conclude otherwise. Regardless of our differing opinions as to the legitimacy of the government of the NPP as it exists in Liberia today, a system of expressing our dissatisfaction through the use of arm can only be worse. Assuming that armed insurgents should succeed today in fighting their way to power, are we assured that the policies, which they will adopt, will be in the general interest of the populace always? Would we have to go down the path of insurgency again to remove it if we are not satisfied? My argument would be that we must establish a system of legal transfer of power through the holding of free and fair elections. Some may believe that the present government is illegitimate, but too many of us participated wholeheartedly in the process, which brought it to power and we accepted it as such. We must be prepared to allow it a fair run of the allotted time. I also do not agree that bad policies of a government on their own are a justification for war. Members of the opposition are not expected to agree with the policies of incumbent leaderships. The more negative and repressive the policies are the better the chances are for the opposition to win the next elections. If all political disagreements were settled by mortal combat where would democracy be. Imagine the great democracies of the world battling it out over gun rights, global warming, foreign intervention or the likes.

On the other hand I agree that the failure of the incumbent leadership to hold free and fair internationally supervised elections, or the failure to accept and publish the accurate results of such an elections is grounds for the de-legitimization of that government, and a justified cause for it removal by whatever means possible. This is because the usurpation of power denies democratic forces the opportunity for expression of their political will, and allows a de facto leadership the freedom to rule where no such right exists. I know a lot of politicians who believe that the elections, which should take place in 2003, will not be free or fair. Some believe that it may not take place at all. But as we say in Liberian parlance 'let the man break his own neck'. Let's not suppose ourselves into constant battles for acts yet to be committed. Let's work within the legal frame work until it is no longer a logical option.

© The Perspective
P.O. Box 450493
Atlanta, GA 31145