Greed and lack of good governance are the root causes of Liberia's Problems, Says US Official

(Remarks By Walter Kansteiner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 13, 2002

Editor’s Note: While E. Reginald Goodridge, chief purveyor of the Taylor regime’s propaganda, has been making the media circuits trying to deceive the world community in rehearsed monotone, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner testifies before the U.S. Senate about Liberia.

Appearing before the Subcommittee on African Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 11, 2002, Sec. Kansteiner made the following remarks:

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, it gives me great pleasure to appear before you today to pursue the topic of failed states in Africa. Today you have asked that I focus on Liberia, West Africa’s most failed state. I would like to review briefly how Liberia came to its present nadir as well as how the decline in Liberia’s fortunes has affected the sub region and created an opening for international criminal and terrorist activities. Then I would like to address what the United States and others in the international community are doing and I believe will need to do to bring Liberia back into the fold of democratically well governed nations.

Greed and lack of good governance are the root causes of Liberia’s descent into its present deplorable state of affairs. Up until the early 1980s, a government representing primarily the interests of a privileged minority of Liberians pursued to excess the enrichment of a narrow class. If you wanted to send your child to school, you had to buy textbooks imported by a relative of the president. If you wanted to operate a taxi, you had to buy the yellow paint for it from a company owned by a close associate of the president. Rice, the staple food, was imported and sold by another government monopoly. One night, a group of non-commissioned officers put an abrupt end to that government, but unfortunately, despite significant U.S. assistance, did not bring about an end to narrow interest governance. The new Liberian leader, Sergeant Doe, slowly eliminated most of his original compatriots, hijacked an election and created a narrow ethnically-based government. Within nine years of taking power, he faced an armed insurgency led by Charles Taylor. Though Doe lasted less than a year after Taylor launched his bid for power, Liberia suffered a six-year civil war. That war had such tremendous humanitarian consequences, with at least 750,000 persons driven out as refugees, one million IDPs and estimates of up to 200,000 killed, and so threatened the stability of the sub region that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) dispatched a military force to try to restore order.

The unprecedented regional military intervention did bring about a cessation of fighting, but the subsequent disarmament and demobilization program it oversaw was far from complete and the elections that followed were held under the threat of a renewal of violence if Charles Taylor were not elected. Many observers believe that the people of Liberia voted for peace, not Taylor.

Like Doe before him, Taylor had an opportunity to provide Liberians the good governance they deserve. USAID support for Liberia during the early Taylor period focused on the country’s transition from emergency assistance to sustainable development. We tried to strengthen democratic institutions, reintegrated IDPs and invested in the rehabilitation of social and economic infrastructure. The opportunity of this period was squandered. Instead of good governance and reconstruction, Taylor devoted Liberia’s resources to supporting the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) continued efforts to seize power in neighboring Sierra Leone. After five years in power, Liberia’s capital still has no reliable electric supply or running water. Instead of investing in Liberia, Taylor divested Liberian assets to support his broader ambitions in the region, to enrich his cronies and to ensure the loyalty of hired security forces. While hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) returned home, Taylor’s government made no real efforts to foster development and recovery to build on the investments the international community made through reintegration assistance. He stopped servicing Liberia’s debt and the country fell under Brooke sanctions.

To fund his regional ambitions, Taylor went beyond diverting the resources of the Liberian state. He created new sources of revenue through trade in illicit diamonds. He provided the conduit around international sanctions, for diamonds mined in RUF-controlled areas of Sierra Leone to pass through middlemen based in Liberia to world markets. The middlemen brought in by Taylor and his cronies have certainly operated outside the legitimate diamond trade and may, though we cannot confirm the press allegations on this, have dealt in diamonds with persons affiliated with international terrorist groups. Taylor also contracted with the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and other foreign logging firms that have exploit Liberia’s hardwood tropical forests. Global Witness and others have done an excellent job of documenting this atrocious raping of Liberia’s irreplaceable natural resources. Possibly worse, there are reports that after signing a forestry protection agreement with an international conservation group, Taylor has allowed logging operations in the Sapo National Park.

Taylor has used revenues from diamond smuggling and reckless exploitation of Liberia’s rain forest primarily to buy weapons, to fuel conflicts in neighboring countries, and to arm his proliferating internal security forces. To obtain these weapons, Taylor has violated successive United Nations arms embargos (UNSCR 788 of November 19, 1992, UNSCR 1343 of March 7, 2001 and UNSCR 1408 of May 6, 2002). He dealt with gray and black-market agents, such as Victor Butt, to procure and transport weapons into Liberia. Thus, both on the resource generation side and on the expenditure side, Taylor has taken up company with those on the fringe of and outside legal operations.

The international community reacted slowly to Taylor’s regional destabilization activities and even more slowly to his malgovernance of Liberia. The United States and the rest of the international community failed initially to provide the backing ECOWAS needed to continue its peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone. Faced with a disengagement of ECOWAS forces, the Government of Sierra Leone negotiated a power sharing agreement with the RUF. Encouraged by Taylor, the RUF repudiated the agreement and took as hostages several hundred UN peacekeepers who had gone to Sierra Leone to oversee its implementation. Only intervention by British forces in May 2000 prevented the RUF from seizing power in Sierra Leone. In July 2000, the United States gave Taylor an overdue ultimatum, cease supporting the RUF and destabilizing the region or face serious consequences. In September 2000, the Taylor-supported RUF invaded Guinea. We replied with unilateral travel sanctions on Taylor and his cronies. A few months later UN sanctions on diamonds, arms and travel were instituted.

Despite the RUF’s reversal of fortunes at the hands of the Guinean military and under pressure from an ever stronger and more determined UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, which led the majority of the RUF to unconditionally agree to disarm and demobilize, Taylor remains recalcitrant. He has welcomed into Liberia those elements of the RUF who refused to disarm and demobilize, and has ensured they remain armed and dangerous. This potential threat to peace and stability in the region led the UN Security Council to renew sanctions on Liberia last month.

The reluctance of the international community to address the internal affairs of Liberia is beginning to crumble, as ECOWAS has begun urging the Liberian government to talk with the rebels of the group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). On March 1, Embassy Monrovia issued a press statement that clearly laid out what we expect of the Taylor government, both in terms of its actions in the region and within Liberia. We called on Taylor to: 1) discipline members of the security forces who have threatened or have used violence against political or civil society leaders; 2) to grant amnesty to all political opponents; 3) to respect the freedom of the press, cease harassment of members of the press and allow independent electronic media to broadcast AM, FM and short wave throughout Liberia; 4) to fully address the security/safety concerns of political and civil society leaders; 5) to reach agreement with all peaceful political movements and parties on the specific nature of guarantees and mechanisms required for the conduct of open political debate and free, fair and inclusive elections; and 6) to respect fully the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

Using the pretext of a threat posed by an armed group calling itself, “Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy” (LURD), the Taylor government responded to our calls for greater openness with a ban on public gatherings, closure of an independent newspaper, harassment of human rights activists, and recruitment of new undisciplined and unpaid militias to protect itself.

Mr. Chairman, Charles Taylor has set Liberia on a course towards ever greater hardship and suffering of the Liberian people. He waged war to gain power, but has failed to govern justly and wisely and now faces an armed revolt. The United States government does not condone armed insurrection in Liberia nor do we support the LURD. In fact, we have pressed the government of Guinea not to support the LURD. Although Taylor blames the LURD for the rampant insecurity in the countryside, in fact, his own poorly trained and unpaid troops are mainly responsible for the looting and fear that is generating tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Liberians displaced by the depredations of Liberian security forces are resettled by Liberian government authorities in areas where they are vulnerable to further depredations by armed forces. Taylor blames the international community for not responding to the plight of these IDPs. The reality is that these people need protection from their own government and humanitarian suffering will go on to some degree as long as Taylor’s lack of good governance persists. Nevertheless, the United States government will do its part in addressing the humanitarian needs of Liberian refugees and IDPs.

ECOWAS has also recognized that the growing instability in Liberia demands an outside response. ECOWAS, at its recent meeting in Cote d’Ivoire, issued a call for ceasefire and talks between the Liberian government and the LURD. Although Taylor’s spokesman initially rejected the proposal and his government has since equivocated about how it will respond, we are encouraged that ECOWAS has asked Nigeria’s President Obasanjo to pursue this. ECOWAS has also tried to facilitate a dialogue between other political factions and the Liberian government. This is the type of action warranted under the peer review provisions of NEPAD.

Mr. Chairman, let me conclude by attempting to address the questions I believe most interest you: how can a failed state such as Liberia recover and what role can and should the United States play. First, it is important to recognize that the Taylor regime is unlikely to change its manner of governance or its ambitions. Given the monster of undisciplined security forces it has created, it is questionable whether the Liberian government could survive if it sought to change the way it governs. That leads to the question of what happens next. Chaos is a possible scenario. Since a state in anarchy is fertile ground for international criminal and terrorist activity and since restoring order out of chaos is a tall order for the international community, our focus must be to ensure there is a plausible alternative scenario.

A starting point is the widespread Liberian desire for peace and stability. That popular will must be given more concrete direction by leaders who are able to craft a widespread common vision of a new Liberia. Political and civil society leaders focused on a common vision rather than internecine squabbling is a prerequisite for rebuilding a peaceful, democratic and more prosperous Liberia. Due to the historic relationship between the United States and Liberia, many Liberians still look to the United States to help lead the way to a better future for Liberia. As a first step in helping Liberia recover from its current circumstances, the United States can facilitate discussion about the shape of a new Liberia, but the vision of a new Liberia must come from Liberians themselves.

A united opposition should contest Liberia’s 2003 elections. With the right support from the international community the elections can either be made free and fair or exposed for the sham they easily could be. The key to elections being free and fair is ensuring that the Liberian people feel they can vote for their preferred candidates without the risk of renewed violence. Securing this condition while Taylor’s security forces remain unchecked is unlikely to occur. Perhaps the answer is an outside force, possibly an ECOWAS force to ensure security.

However change may occur, no political leadership can succeed if the armed thugs running rampant in the countryside are unchecked. Experience in Eastern Europe, East Timor and Sierra Leone suggest that an armed outside force, perhaps another ECOWAS force in Liberia’s case, will be needed in order to protect a nascent government, disarm and demobilize the willing, and marginalize and hunt down as criminals those who persist in living by the gun. Disarmament and demobilization can only succeed if there is a new life for the former fighters. Some can be retrained and reformed into a new Liberian Armed Force; most will need to be provided retraining and real opportunities for successful integration into civilian life.

First and foremost, the Liberian people want to see peace and feel secure again. But for urban populations in particular, they will soon want to see some improvements in the quality of life. With few resources at its disposal, any post-failed state government will depend on help from the international community. Of paramount importance is ensuring an adequate food supply until commercial mechanisms can be restored. Visible progress in restoring basic infrastructure and public services such as water and electricity is likely also necessary to generate popular support and the legitimacy such support confers. The United States should play a lead role here along with other international partners, such as the World Bank, European Community and ECOWAS. Efforts must begin very early to develop national consensus on a new political framework, to strengthen independent media and civil society. Technical assistance and funds to rebuild institutions from the courts to the civil service will also be critically needed. To staff these rehabilitated institutions, Liberia will need its best and brightest to return from abroad.

Two things are certain, Liberia will need our help recovering from its present deplorable state, and the timing and circumstance of any change is not predictable. We will need to remain flexible, prepared to act quickly, boldly and generously if Liberia is to make a success of a third opportunity to succeed.

Thank you.

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