Our Dilemma

By James W. Harris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 22, 2002

In just about four months from now, some Liberians will again be assembling in their war-ruined nation’s sea-side capital, Monrovia, for what the Taylor government has already started to promote and bill cleverly as the “Mother of all National Reconciliation Conferences”.

If such a conference were to accomplish just one thing - to put an end immediately to the continuing miserable sufferings and forceful displacement of the Liberian people - it actually would be something worthwhile.

But for various reasons, many Liberians doubt whether the upcoming conference too could accomplish anything of substance, given the stubbornness and sheer arrogance of the ruling National Patriotic Party (NPP) government.

Frankly, talking about achieving peace and reconciliation is one thing, but actually accomplishing the two is quite another. Notwithstanding, both could possibly be realized, and much more, provided that all the participants involved were honest and dead serious about what they would be trying to do at the forth-coming peace conference.

So far, Liberians have definitely shown their willingness to talk to each other about their many problems, but yet lack the total commitment and resolve to finally achieve lasting peace and stability in their war-ravaged country.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in Liberia is the dismal security situation there, which is being perpetuated mainly by the notorious Taylor regime. And without a “reasonably” secure environment, nothing could be accomplished, no matter what the government or anyone says. That’s the reality!

It certainly would be good [wouldn’t it!] were the conditions ripe in the country to the extend of enabling Liberians to freely move about without any kind of hindrance; discuss issues openly, regardless of how sensitive they may be, without fearing the wrath of Mr. Taylor’s dreaded security forces, etc. But the fact is that none of this is possible at the present time under this government, no matter how hard it tries to make people feel that way.

As much as I would like to give President Taylor and his morally bankrupt NPP government the benefit of the doubt, their usually contradictory pronouncements and actions have not been at all encouraging.

For example, no sooner had Mr. Taylor declared a state of emergency in the country as the result of alleged rebel activities near Monrovia by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) when his ruthless security men, including, his infamous Police Chief, Paul Mulbah, decided to arbitrarily arrest innocent citizens [civilians] for no known reasons. As prominent as she is, even former Chief Justice, Frances Johnson-Morris, who is said to have personally sworn Mr. Charles G. Taylor into office, could not escape their dragnet. She was disgracefully arrested by Mr. Mulbah himself and subsequently thrown into Mr. Taylor’s “lions’ den” amongst hardened criminals, who were, of course, mainly men.

“Can you imagine that a former Chief Justice [the first Liberian female Chief Justice, I might add] and director of a human rights program was arrested and detained on the [same] day [that] the whole nation was praying for peace and national reconciliation?”, asked a seemingly bewildered Counselor Tiawon S. Gongloe, a prominent Liberian lawyer, when he recently addressed the Senate on issues that are negatively affecting peace and stability in the war-weary country. This, frankly, was a fair question to ask, considering the Taylor regime’s consistently “poor” record on human rights, among other lawless practices.

The ugly incident involving Counselor Johnson-Morris, as well as other uncivilized and severely brutal acts by members of Mr. Taylor’s feared security network, have occurred despite the President’s “personal” assurances that the state of emergency imposed by his government was “not intended to violate their [Liberians] civil liberties as enshrined in the Liberian Constitution.” But haven’t we heard this before? What else is new?

At the recently ended Abuja (Nigeria) ‘dialogue’ conference that was sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), about 80 representatives from the war-devastated country’s various factions, except LURD [they chose not to attend], apparently were unanimous on one thing - that the senseless on/off war between government forces and LURD rebels must come to an immediate end.

But again, how in the world can the war come to an end when neither the Taylor-led NPP government nor LURD want to come to the conference table to once and for all settle their bitter differences? Pray tell me!

Instead, as Jonathan Paye-Layleh, the BBC correspondent in Monrovia, lately reported: “A fresh humanitarian crisis [and I emphasize, CRISIS] is unfolding in Liberia, following operations by government troops against rebel guerrillas in the North-West of the country.” Interestingly, this new warning [and that’s what it is] came just a few days after the Abuja conference had ended.

And unless someone brings both battle-hardened foes to the conference table, the security situation, which surely is the biggest obstacle to peace, and therefore, stability there, could continue to deteriorate. Once that happens, Liberians that really matter to the entire peace process, could justifiably decline to go back home to participate in the July conference, fearing for their lives.

What this would then mean is that Mr. Taylor and his NPP would go right ahead and hold their so-called peace conference without such persons, thereby, raising more doubts about the government’s total commitment towards genuine reconciliation amongst all Liberians.

Personally, I truly don’t think that Mr. Taylor is ready for total reconciliation, in spite of the fact that his government did send a rather large delegation to the Abuja conference. Frankly, what would he and his NPP government gain from reconciling, taking into account their naked greed for absolute power at all costs? Does anyone really believe that they would give up power voluntarily, especially to people who they claim helped them initially to destabilize the country, and for that matter, the entire Mano River Union (MRU) sub-region? Do Liberians really think that Mr. Taylor would allow someone else to completely dismantle and then replace his various military and Para-military groups as called for in the Abuja communiqué? Does the opposition really think that he [Taylor] would welcome the deployment of, as they call it, “International Stabilization Force (ISF)”, to provide security for the people in preparation for the 2003 elections? I seriously doubt it!

In fact, by continuing to play their game with the Liberian people’s lives as they’ve now become accustomed to, Mr. Taylor and his spineless cohorts would be guaranteeing themselves exactly what they’ve always wanted - absolute power and lots of material wealth.

In order to show his seriousness about national reconciliation and at the same time build some kind of confidence in his faltering government, he might as well go ahead and fire the ‘unprofessional’ Police Chief [Mulbah] as demanded by the Monrovia-based human rights organization, the Coalition of Human Rights Defenders as well as other prominent citizens and civic society groups. Again, that’s absolutely the correct thing to do. To remain mute without taking any sort of action against the nation’s top cop for his negligence in manhandling Counselor Johnson-Morris would be sending the wrong signal to other law enforcement officers in the country. An apology alone definitely won’t do in a situation like this, despite the Police Chief’s claim of “mistaken identity”.

As it is said quite often, out of every bad situation could come a good result. In this case, while it was highly appalling for Counselor Johnson-Morris to have been wrongly thrown into jail, the experience that she’s gotten since then have surely put her in a better position to advocate for defenseless Liberians. An example of this would be her recent advocacy for drastic improvement in Liberia’s inhumane prisons [I call them dungeons], which truly outraged her as the result of that experience.

Meanwhile, other inquisitive minds would also want to know the following: Why is it that only 32 Liberians, out of 80, were the only ones to have signed a separate statement following the Abuja conference, calling for the deployment of international peacekeepers and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission? Is ECOWAS handling the Liberian mess any differently than before when the regional organization was seen by some to have been tilting towards Mr. Taylor? Or, are individual members of ECOWAS benefiting directly from the present Liberian conflict? Do Liberians really trust ECOWAS compared to the United Nations (UN), the United States (US), the European Union (EU), among others? These are just a few of the mind-bugging questions Liberians are constantly confronted with and they have to be resolved at some point going forward.

As for the “weak” opposition and other well-meaning Liberians, they certainly must be naïve to think that Charles Taylor would give up power or his Presidential privileges just like that without a good fight. What they need to do, though, is to come up with some new and different strategies in dealing with this government that seems to be set in its ways.

Since the ordinary Liberians are evidently tired of war, taking up arms as LURD has done really isn’t an option today. The only other sensible option, therefore, would be for the opposition to galvanize the masses in the true spirit of “people’s power” just as in places, like, Madagascar, the Philippines, or even, neighboring Ivory Coast, should the NPP government renege on any new agreements or concessions. Because Liberians have generally rejected the use of violence to resolve their problems, the use of non-violent means, such as well-organized mass rallies, protests, marches and boycotts, to name a few, must be a part of the opposition’s new strategies at home and abroad.

But the gross inability of the fractured opposition so far to connect with the people and do just that seems to be our biggest dilemma. It’s still not too late, though. But first, they must demonstrate their ability to lead by putting aside their petty differences, pulling together, closing ranks and most of all, UNITING.

As one of my friends told me the other day: “Liberians talk too much and actually do nothing about their problems…It’s time for action not empty words.” His remarks could be true if the opposition can’t come together as they should during these tremendously critical times.

With the Abuja conference now squarely behind us and the participants’ recommendations in the hands of ECOWAS, we’ll just have to wait and see what the opposition is really up to this time, I guess. Hopefully, ECOWAS, with the help of the UN, the US and other interested parties, would be able to implement some or all of the conference’s recommendations, particularly, those regarding the general security of all Liberians.

And to tell you the truth, even though he has officially set up a Steering Committee to plan for the July reconciliation event, President Taylor seems to be envisioning that conference in another way. Here are his own words: “The national reconciliation conference, as we envisioned during our state of the nation message, is NOT about politics. It is NOT about economics, nor is it about political campaigning for elections… It is about the peaceful co-existence of the Liberian people, and the need to create a culture of caring and sharing.”

But just how Liberians can go about “creating a culture of caring and sharing” without first resolving their political, economic, ethnic, and other serious differences is anyone’s guess. And that’s another dilemma!

The bottom line is this: Unless or until something is done quickly about the increasingly deteriorating security situation in the country, the up-coming National Reconciliation Conference in Monrovia would be meaningless. Absolutely!

I sincerely hope that both Mr. Taylor and the opposition can prove me wrong.

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