Messengers Carrying the Burdens of Bad News
By Tom Kamara
Sept 18, 2000
The tragic comedy marring Liberian politics is manifesting itself through a bandwagon of loyalist messengers endlessly storming the United States to win hearts and minds by selling Government's agenda to exiled Liberians, themselves battling for legal status in making America their home. But the messengers' task is complicated by the prevailing cynicism amongst Liberians about the Government, along with the now accepted belief that Taylor is simply incapable of delivering on his multiple and continuing promises. To counter this image, revolving officials have been scouting the world to spread the word of changes taking place. But their encounter with US-based Liberians in August and September indicates enormous difficulties in selling a message many are not willing to hear or believe.
One obstacle in the salesmanship is that the salesmen's pronouncements are basically the rehashed of Taylor's established positions on key issues such as diamond smuggling, the clampdown on media institutions, chronic corruption and inefficiency paralyzing the country, and the terrible human rights situation. "They didn't have to travel here with the same messages we have heard from Taylor a million times", said one participant.
On the other hand, the encounters provided a rare platform for the venting of anger and frustration felt by many Liberians unable to return home since the end of hostilities, and condemned to the difficulties of living in exile in America and elsewhere with deportation hanging over them. For them, it was an opportunity to present a marathon of indictments against the Government, even if the chances of prosecution are nil. Throughout hours of exchanges, not a single participant acknowledged any achievement or progress since Taylor came to power 3 years ago. Charges, countercharges placed against defenses, laborious explanations of progress and future plans "to free Liberia from the scourge of bad governance" in "prosperity and freedom" characterized the rancorous meeting. It was the usual Liberian talk shop that ends in calls for more talk shops as an exit from serious political and economic paralysis inflicted by the war and now resulting in rage over the setbacks it caused.
"My protest is not against Liberia. It is not against the Liberian people. It is against Charles Taylor. If he loves himself, the people and the country, let him step down nice and easy. He might take it lightly, but I mean it. His abuses, the brutality, the disrespect for my people are too much. I helped to build [ministries and other facilities]. He brought rebels and destroyed everything. I am not going to stop until he exits.", said Mr. James Davies, an old civil servant who recalled his years when electricity was brought to Monrovia, the capital.
"In 1974, we abandoned school and protested against the government Mr. Nyudueh had the placards "Congo people don't like country people" All things I have been hearing about you [since he became House Speaker] I have not heard anything good All I hear is what you all used to do here stealing from the Association Charity begins at home and ends abroad. Stealing from Liberian Student, Community Association We never took none of you guys to court So you kept this habit at home and today you guys are notorious criminals The War is not over I mean it. Charles Taylor, the prescription I have for you now is to resign now and let the Liberian people chose the leader they want" Davies told House Speaker Nyudueh Morkonmana.
"Because you led a rebel group", said one embittered participant, "you think you have the right to do anything. There will be more rebel incursions Today it is Lofa [county] Tomorrow it will be Nimba [county]"
Several speakers, in angry tunes, recounted bitter experiences of security harassment during visits home, with one participant sending a message to Taylor: "Tell Taylor, I am not a foe..." He told the audience he was saved from pursuing security men only because his flight left on time. Others narrated frustrating experiences in establishing businesses in the country, detailing endemic corruption, incessant demands for bribes by government officials, as bottlenecks for attracting Liberians back home to live outside government jobs. Bitterness and despair poured from many participants who questioned the Government's commitment and capability, along with its record on human rights.
An exiled Liberian journalist, Isaac Bantu, recounted the execution of prominent Liberians by Taylor's NPFL, among them Gabriel Kpolleh, Jackson Doe, while others with links to the warlord through ethnic (Americo-Liberian) connections were protected. Another journalist, Jerry Wion, dwelled on Taylor's interference in legal matters, including the arbitrary closure of Star Radio and forced eviction of residents around the presidential mansion to provide room for security. Several speakers pinpointed the atmosphere of chronic and cancerous corruption and fear prevailing in the country since Taylor became President three years ago. Many called for his resignation to save the country from further horrors.
Providing hope through lengthy and overlapping explanations and justifications for many of the abuses were two officials: Blamo Nelson, Director-General of the cabinet, and one of Taylor's key confidantes who has been with him since their days at the General Services Agency (GSA) - corrupting GSA during the reign of Samuel Doe's military junta, was an articulate spokesman in the midst of doubting Thomases. Another, Harrison Slewion, senator in Taylor's National Patriotic Party and wartime comrade, was another assigned to convincing people who have basically made their minds up. "When the yana boys (peddlers) market women tell us things have improved in Liberia, we will believe," one participant remarked after Nelson's marathon sermon of achievements.
Where excuses were impossible to make, came severe admissions of ineptitude, and of not knowing what to do in government. Above all, the messengers portray a government deep in the woods and having no idea of how to get out. Craving for power is one thing. What to do with it is quiet another for many.
"The Government needs help We can't do it all by ourselves We are trying to find ways of improving the lives of the people Something is wrong. Something got to be wrong. If guns could do it, we wouldn't be where we are now The problems in Liberia are deep seated. This generation will have to find solutions. I don't know how we'll do it, when we'll do it," Nelson rumbled.
But Nelson found himself in some muddy waters in giving explanations for the current economic and political malaise that border on the mundane. To understand the spiral of extravagance and flamboyance amongst Taylor and his cronies as poverty spreads, Nelson pointed to the "ingrained Liberian character, the Liberian style." Liberians, he theorized, are extravagant by nature. "If a Liberian wants to build a hut, he builds a mansion" Accepting Nelson's analysis of the cancer of corruption eating the country, Liberia should then be inundated with mansions since the Liberian character is to build mansions, not huts. "Unfortunately", the director of the cabinet added, "we are a people who don't know how to be modestPeople in Government have their own life-styleIt is the normal display of the Liberian style"
But this is the bedrock of the Liberian sickness. It is not only that "people in government have their own life-style", the problem is that thieves have seized state resources to live this life-style. Both Nelson and Taylor were in charge of the General Services Agency during the reign of the military junta when it became a machinery for breeding corruption and justifying theft. Taylor and his former defense minister now senator, Tom Woewiyu, formed a bogus New Jersey-based company that supplied nonexistent goods to the government. Junta members were persuaded to change cars so often in order to justify the purchase of more cars at inflated prices and therefore the kickbacks. (Nelson told his audience this system will be reintroduced to cut down expenditure). The current leader of the senate, Kekura Kpoto, made his living by taking goods from state parastatals, selling them and pocketing the money. Since the exchange of the Liberian dollar was two to one, Kpoto, as chair of the junta political party, simply took his Liberian dollars to the National Bank of Liberia and exchanged them for US dollars in volumes. This is the "Liberian-style", now ingrained as policy with the highest thieves on top, that Nelson is theorizing, not that of the ordinary villagers, mass of urban unemployed outside the system.
Nelson also blamed the Legislature for the corruption because, he added, they were not scrutinizing the budgets. It is here that both messengers clashed because Senator Slewion disagreed, saying the Legislature "does not control the purse." And that is the fact of the matter, although even if the Legislature were to control the purse, corruption would still be endemic since that body is stuffed with thieves in the real sense of the word. But the system of a greedy warlord keeping the purse and disbursing funds to his disciples, which Taylor instituted during the war, has been entrenched in government. Cars for Legislators are "personally" bought by the president and presented to them, with his guidelines as to how to use them or be spanked like his kids (as they are). The powerlessness of the Legislature was made clear when Taylor reminded them two years ago to stop dreaming of being elected by the people. They were there because of his influence, not because the people wanted them, he warned when they questioned his budget. Thus, the sugarcoating of the essence of a Legislature in combating theft in a system tied around the whims of one man tells the glaring hypocrisy of the "subtle changes" soon to "impact" on the lives of the people that men like Nelson are spreading.
But Nelson made one vital revelation in the Government's new development strategy. He said they have now found out that the best way to foster development is to simply surrender natural resources to concessionaires in return for "development," leaving the task of carving our development projects to "investors." An example is the dubious Oriental Timber Company (OTC) which he said with immense pride has completed a 4-lane highway linking Monrovia with Greenville in the east, making it possible "for the first time in Liberia history", to do the journey in 5 and half hours. This development strategy, he said, will be extended to other areas. The only problem is finding natural resources to attract investors who will build roads, schools, and hospitals.
What an amazing discovery! Take the logs, rubber etc., pay no taxes, and determine how many roads you will build. Perhaps this was the accelerated development promised during the election. And "development" seen in a 4-lane mud high way mainly for the use of logging trucks is indeed an economic boost for people whose villages have been destroyed, farmlands reduced to wastelands, and unable to afford bicycles to ply the road. Those who doubt the imagination of our US educated Economist must change their minds in view of this new strategy for development.
On the vital issue of human rights and civil liberties so severely eroded, Nelson read from Taylor's prepared message, lecturing Liberians about his "unshakable commitment to democracy." But there was an important corollary, which Nelson read twice to ensure that the message was received. He emphasized the need to "orderly and peacefully bridge the gap between mere advocacy for these great goals (human rights) we share and compliance with practical requirements they impose on our behavior and character..." In other words, advocating for democracy must be in consonance with one's "behavior and character". It is the determination of the "behavior" and "character" that becomes a political minefield as we have seen since Taylor's election. For example, the President ordered a human rights advocate arrested and imprisoned for calling his government corrupt and a boys scout regime, because his "behavior and character" violated his advocacy for democracy as the President sees. It is one of those draconian rules, "constructive criticism", applied by dictators which in real fact means no criticism. Taylor is simply reminding his critics that he determines the tenets of democracy and will continue to do so no matter how hard they cry.
There were no shortages in promises to uphold press freedom. Nelson justified the shutting down of Star Radio, (among the many media institutions silenced or intimidated) by contending that the station was brought into the country to offset the monopoly Taylor had during the elections. The elections are over, and so there is no need for alternative information channels. This complements Taylor's defense that the radio was broadcasting "filth" to his people. But Nelson added that when the US Government decided to turn the station over to group of Liberian journalists, Taylor refused. "Wait a minute", Nelson said. "You have bridged protocol," they told the Americans, thus upholding their declared belief in the dissemination of information by competing channels as necessitated by democratic values which remain "unshakable" in their minds.
But it is their attempt to refute the diamond smuggling charges that was not only comical, but a sickening exposure of the lunatic dimensions of groupthink. Taylor had recently blamed his cabinet for not being aggressive enough in taking the world on for concluding that he was stealing Sierra Leone's diamonds. During a "special" cabinet meeting, he denounced the attitude of his cabinet ministers who, he blamed, respond to the diamond smuggling charge with, "Well we don't know, but we are watching". He wanted this attitude changed. So he called the meeting to develop and rehearse scripts to be used by cabinet members when asked about his (Taylor) diamond smuggling.
And it is changing. Officials are now more emphatic in defending the president against the charges, and this was evident during the meeting when competition amongst the officials was intense as to who could offer the best defense. . "If Taylor was smuggling diamonds, I would know. I am the chairman for minerals," declared Senator Slewion, holding Guinea responsible for the Sierra Leone's smuggled diamonds. The Guineans, he said in all seriousness, "smuggle diamonds in lanterns". Nelson then became impatient in advancing the senator's findings. "Why are people saying Liberia is smuggling diamonds? We are not!" De Beers, he said, have now corrected their mistake by discovering that the diamonds linked to Liberia are coming from elsewhere. The country's ambassador to the US then interjected, providing as evidence against the charges statements from Taylor's ministers of foreign affairs and mines. It was a hilarious show, with each official opting to find the best defenses even if the audience dismissed them.
The other group of messengers, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nyudueh Morkonmana and Senate leader Kekura Kpoto, also engaged other group of Liberians in New York. Again, it was a show of comedy. The Speaker told a laughing audience that Liberia's elections were the best in world. He blamed the US for Liberia's past, contending that his Government has done well in upholding the rule of law. He said Krahn leaders now imprisoned are there because they took up arms against the Government.
Kpoto, former chair of the junta's party who switched sides and began recruiting for Taylor's rebel NPFL in 1990, told the audience the dangers of Liberia's current isolation. He said although the violent war had stopped (despite the current war in the north), the war of the "pen" was hurting the country. He said Liberians were killing Liberians through the pen because, he added, "when some people put things down, people are bound to believe." Kpoto noted unity was important in fighting the current isolation making outside assistance impossible. Asked what he has done for the country since he is a perpetual servant of all governments dating from the Tubman till now, Kpoto recounted scholarships, which he has given Liberians and his agricultural projects. He said since he joined Taylor, he has not seen his check. It goes to the needy, he said, although he did not say from which sources he was getting his money.
The New York Town Hall meeting with Kpoto and Morkonmana was a microcosm of the confusion in Liberia. Both leaders of the Legislature found themselves in an environment of Liberians with little understanding of the issues. But they presented a litany of achievements---45% of schools renovated, increased rice production that will soon make rice importation unnecessary, improved health facilities.
"You are asking us to go home, but Taylor is giving our
children guns to kill us. Where can we go? You are asking [us]
to go home so that our children can kill us? Who are we going
to?" asked an angry mother.
A Nigerian soldier once expressed his astonishment after attending a series of Liberian peace conferences that Liberians are amongst the most amazing people he has interacted with. "They meet, have endless talks, hug and laugh, and then proceed to kill one another". The meeting between Taylor's disciples and members of the Liberian umbrella group, Union of Liberian Association in the Americas (ULAA), was a classic example. The gathering, characterized by laughing and sermonizing, also provided pathetic glimpses of the minds of men ruling the country with useful quotations.
An angry participant: "(You) people are apologizing for the behavior of Charles TaylorYour kids who have left the country and don't want to go back because of fearOnce guys from America or elsewhere get home, you seem to be threats to the GovernmentYou (Morkonmana) said you led demonstrations over here. I would like to know if you have supported demonstrations in Liberia if any. What are you doing to encourage people to go home? These are very, very angry people sitting here, can't express themselves because their family members in Liberia will be trapped when they get back. I don't trulytrust the Government, and you guysYou get angry every time people express themselvesYou (Kpoto) said you have educated people. From where did you get all that money? You talk about open door policy. Where does it end, in your pocket? I am totally frustrated with people convincing people to go home when they don't mean itAll you guys do is (cater) to Charles Taylor. Anytime he says jump you ask how high!"
Blamo Nelson: "We are not smuggling (Sierra Leone) diamondsLiberians are flamboyant by natureIt (flamboyance beyond means) didn't start with TaylorWe can't be defeated by the problemsWe are (a) smart peopleYou say you are for reconciliation but you bring guns There are subtle changes going on that will impact on the peopleThe problems are too bigWe can't do it by ourselvesULAA must go into the Zoe bush to find solution "
This is the new Liberia for the 21st Century. God help us!
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