Liberian National Reconciliation: Time to Get Beyond Mere Verbiage

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 11, 2002

If you ever visited a Liberian internet chat room and seen the exchanges amongst so-called educated Liberians, you may logically conclude that national reconciliation in Liberia is a far-fetched dream! But talk to a few Liberians, young and old, who survived the civil war and escaped to a foreign land only to find out that the pasture is not always greener outside one’s homeland, and you will soon detect their nostalgia to return home. So, after all, there is some glimmer of hope for peace and national reconciliation in Liberia if this group of Liberian civil war survivals can grant us any solace. But talks about national reconciliation will have to be elevated from its present verbiage and politically-correct posture to a more serious and mundane examination of the factors and circumstances that induced Liberians to strike at each other’s throat.

Reconciliation, as a word or public policy tool, is synonymous with understanding, tolerance, appeasement, compromise, and settlement. But unlike reconciliation talks in a corporate boardroom between management and labor after a hostile takeover, strike action, or mass layoff, the ramifications of reconciliation talks at a state or national level are more far-reaching. No amount of generous offers by the government will be enough unless the citizens are convinced that the perpetrators of harm to the body politic have sincerely exhausted every effort to acknowledge guilt and atone. The government does not have the luxury of the “take it or leave it” proposition available to corporate executives. And this is true because a state or country cannot unfold on a whim and cease to exist due to uncontrollable political and socio-economic problems as any business entity could do as a result of huge financial losses. So there is a delicate interest. And this delicate interest demands that all parties to the conflict must measure any talks of national reconciliation in terms of concrete actions.

National reconciliation talks will crumple at the outset the very moment each party feels justified in its action against the other. True reconciliation is a “give and take” proposition, and neither the victor nor victim (aggrieved or aggressor) can be seen to be adamant in its negotiating position. For instance, a man who suffered eviction and demolition of his home in a land dispute cannot be expected to reconcile with the new occupants of the land whilst he and his family sleep in the street or live with relatives. For reconciliation to take place, it is incumbent upon the new occupants of the land to be willing to either share portion of the land with the old occupants, or compensate the old occupants to acquire new property elsewhere. Equally, it is incumbent upon the old occupants to accept the offers of the new land occupants and move on. Otherwise, the resultant conflict and its associated circles of violence and retribution will continue endlessly, and peace and reconciliation will be an ever-elusive goal. And this is exactly where the Liberian national reconciliation process stands at the moment!

At least every major Liberian politician, opinion leader, or political, social or civil group sees Taylor as the key to Liberia’s current socio-economic and political problems in the same way Doe was seen by civil and political groups to have embodied these vices. Like Taylor’s NPFL rebel group advocating the overthrow of Doe and ruling out negotiations with the Doe government, another rebel group, LURD, is now steadily advancing toward Monrovia, and similarly advocating the overthrown of Taylor and ruling out any negotiations with the Taylor government. And like the Doe government, the Taylor government is equally adamant in fulfilling its constitutional role as guarantor of peace and security in Liberia, and ruling out any direct talks with the rebels. What an irony! Or is this fate as some Liberians think! I think not, because the reasons for Liberia’s socio-economic and political turmoil may stretch far beyond Taylor and Doe, though the two men somehow contributed immensely to the situation. But key Liberian politicians equally contributed to the nation’s ongoing crisis by what they did, or did not do, during and after the 1985 general elections, the 1990 execution of the sitting president, and the 1997 general elections.

So let the reconciliation talks begin in earnest. Let the rebels, the government and the politicians seriously examine their individual and collective roles in the country’s socio-economic and political mess, and resolve to find a common solution to the problem for the sake of the quality of life and welfare of the Liberian people, irrespective of any personal or group ambitions. Scores of Liberians are languishing in foreign refugee camps and internally displaced in their own country. Liberians are equally dying in droves every day from malnutrition, infectious diseases, depression and other ailments, and each day that passes without relative peace and security undermines the very existence, development, and progress of the Liberian nation and people. But it is also unrealistic and hypocritical for those who once turned a blind eye on these very sufferings of the people in their quest for state power to tell others not to seek power in like manner.

Current Liberian power brokers will do well to heed the warnings inherent in the adage: “What Man Has Done, Man Can Still Do,” and negotiate in good faith in deference to the national interest. No single group should attempt to dictate the terms of any peace and reconciliation talks in the name of legitimacy, constitutional authority or liberation struggle. For if the last two decades of political upheavals and civil war have taught Liberians anything, it is the ability to read between the lines and differentiate fact from fiction. Liberians are also learning to be more assertive about their basic human rights and civil liberties as evident by the growing number of Liberian advocacy groups now monitoring rights violations in prison, in community life, in government, and in the security and communication professions. And I do not think Liberians are willing to let the government or the rebel off the hook so easily this time around. So I think the best option in resolving the current crisis would be for the government to engage the rebels and the opposition politicians into a series of dialogues leading to some form of power sharing and amicable resolution of genuine grievances. Any other option may be a recipe for disaster!

And I am not foretelling a doomsday scenario here! But I will submit that any reconciliation talks that border on trifling issues and political correctness (shifting blames), and not serious efforts at examining and correcting the country’s socio-economic and political woes will only prolong the suffering of the Liberian people and perpetuate the country’s international isolation.

By the history books, Liberia is Africa’s oldest independent republic, and the only country in West Africa that was never colonized. Liberia is also founding member of several international organs including the United Nations, and played a pivotal role in the independent liberation struggles and causes of many modern African nations, but that seems to be as far as the country can boast of its international standing in Africa. Liberia is not a genuine democracy despite its century-old linkage to the United States, the world’s foremost democracy. Liberia cannot boast of modern roadways and passenger rails, adequate telecommunication networks and postal services, adequate public and private apartment housings, nor basic radio, television and telephone services throughout the country.

Worst still, Liberia was only a democracy on paper but a totalitarian state in practice. If anything, Liberia experienced its first real multiparty democracy in 1985 when parties contesting the national elections that year were free to campaign throughout the country and opposition parties were granted licenses by the sitting government, whose head was also a contestant in the elections, to publish their own newspapers and magazines to espouse their viewpoints and economic and political agendas and platforms. Even the 1997 national elections leading to the much vaunted “democratically-elected” government in Monrovia cannot compare in degree to the 1985 national elections in terms of the unity of the country, the freedom and cohesiveness of the voters, and the ability of opposition parties to propagate their messages. But it appeared that in 1985 Liberian opposition politicians had been suppressed for so long that they could not fathom the slow pace of the transformation from a one-party totalitarian rule to a pluralistic multiparty democracy. So passions flared, and the result was the seven-year civil war and the present precarious state of the Liberian nation, and the abysmal lifestyle of the Liberian people.

But the genesis of the Liberian crisis is far remote from the 1980 coup, the disputed 1985 national elections, or the 1989 civil uprising. These events simply manifested the inequalities and class and political warfare that began as far back as the 1820’s between Liberian pioneers/settlers and the aborigines, and later consummated between children of the Liberian settlers and indigenes. So the scars are deep-rooted in Liberian history. And any talks about national reconciliation must address substantive issues and real grievances by either group. And this means that children of Liberian pioneers/settlers and children of Liberian aborigines must examine their actions against the other while at the helm of state power, and show a willingness to admit guilt and atone by redistributing power and wealth if national reconciliation must have any lasting impact on the Liberian society.

Liberians politicians must heed the example of former president Mandela who saw the cohesiveness and unity of the South African nation as more important than retribution for the many years of inhumane treatment meted out against him and other blacks by white South Africans. Today, South Africa has emerged as a dominant political, economic, military, and democratic force in Africa, but there is no telling what the country might have been had Mandela sought to exact revenge on the whites. So it will be foolhardy and dangerous for either group of Liberians to think about returning to the “good old days” when one group of Liberians dominated the other in every walk of life.

Liberians must revisit the reasons that led to the founding of the Liberian nation, and understand that personal security, freedom, justice, and fair play are the impetus for national unity, peace and reconciliation. Liberians have seen too much bloodshed in the last two decades. And a once proud people are now reduced to beggars in their own homeland and in foreign countries. A whole generation of Liberians have been exposed to such gruesome killings, rape, torture and displacements that their futures now hang in the balance, and the likelihood of them ever becoming productive citizens is bleak. Basic pipe-borne water and electricity are in short supply or non-existent, and food, clothing and housing are scarce. Roadways, sewer systems and telephone services are in deplorable conditions and unreliable, and the problem goes on and on.

Indeed, the problems facing Liberia are enormous. It will take huge financial and human resources, as well as the collective efforts of all Liberians to rebuild the nation. Roadways, bridges, telecommunications networks will have to be rebuilt. New housing, health, and education facilities will have to be built. Internally displaced Liberians will have to be resettled, and Liberians in refugee camps abroad will have to be repatriated home and resettled. Government ministries and agencies will have to be raided of chronic partisans and replaced by professional cadets of civil servants. The judiciary and legislative branches of government will have to be independent of the executive as enshrined in the constitution. And the list goes on to include the issues of personal security, restructuring of the national army and the elections commission, along with related grievances contained in the communiqué issued by Liberian politicians and civil leaders at the March 2002 Abuja conference. And in all probabilities, the reconciliation ball is squarely in the court of key Liberian politicians, LURD and the government! And it remains to be seen whether the government or the rebels will take the moral high ground to move national peace and reconciliation efforts in Liberia from mere verbiage to concrete actions.

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