The Challenges of Peace and Reconciliation in Liberia
April 9, 2002
Few weeks ago a group of leading Liberians, including politicians, business executives and civil society representatives, along with Taylor regime's delegation, met in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The purpose of the gathering was for Liberian opinion leaders to dialogue among themselves aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to their country's intractable political and security problems.
At the end of the three-day meeting, they issued a statement, which contained a set of proposals that - if adhered to and implemented -could provide a real chance for genuine peace and stability in Liberia. While these proposals are not intrinsically a panacea for the mosaic of problems that have besieged the nation well over two decades, they however, offer some hope that even Liberians can overcome their competing interests for the greater good of their country.
And we must salute the men and women who have invested time and energy to make the meeting possible. For many years ours has been the only persistent voice in the wilderness, calling for a truth and reconciliation commission, restructuring of the military-security apparatus, holding people accountable for their actions and maintaining law and order within the framework of the constitution.
We had written numerous articles imploring the United Nations (UN), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and leading world powers, including the United States, to apply the same standards in Liberia that were used to bring peace and justice to other troubled spots. But our pleas were unanswered and, of course, Liberia sank farther into chaos and squalor.
As a result, war criminals that ought to be facing war crimes tribunal currently pollute the Liberian government with the master predator at the Executive Mansion in Monrovia. Today in Liberia, those who terrified women by killing their sons and raping young girls are given various security jobs. What is different today is that these terrorists are sanctioned by the state, using public fund as a reward for their criminality. They continue to abuse the citizens with impunity.
Western indifference or inaction to our plight should remind us that only we as Liberians are the only trustees of our own destiny. We cannot totally depend on others to do that which we as citizens must do to rescue our country from the forces of evil. It is time that we stop looking up to other people to solve our problems. And for many years we had used these pages to sound this alarm to our fractured political leadership to get its act together in order to coordinate a clear, coherent and unified alternative vision to the regime.
The Perspective believes that in order to maximize our own resolve and savage the pieces of our wrecked homeland, we must realize that the United States does not have an African foreign policy. Most conflicts in Africa are considered a non-strategic matter at the State Department especially so since the end of the cold war. U.S. foreign policy is designed to promote American interests and not to necessarily help any victims. This is why when conflicts break out in Africa we're bombarded with the refrain that the "United States cannot be the world's policeman." We must recognize that revitalizing Liberia is in our best interest, not anyone else's. Liberians cannot consign that task to others.
Had Liberia's opinion leaders heeded our calls, we might have been able to coalesce a collective national demand on the international community. And maybe, just maybe, our situation would be different today. But it's better late than never.
No doubt there will be difficulties ahead. The enemies of peace and democracy will be relentless in their efforts to thwart any meaningful peace initiative. The Perspective sees three main challenges that pose a serious threat to the survival of this initiative. One is within the coalition that signed the position statement in Abuja. Our second concern is about those political leaders and other stakeholders, both in and out of Liberia, that were not a party to the Abuja conference, and the third and perhaps the most formidable challenge is, of course, President Taylor.
The worsening security and economic conditions in Liberia and Mr. Taylor's inability to provide effective leadership to adequately address these critical issues compelled exiled politicians and others to forge a coalition. And we welcome this effort. But we are afraid that the group might not be able to sustain itself as a unified force. There are too many competing interests, egos and a history about Liberian politicians that do not augur well for unity.
Besides, most of our politicians are primarily focused on the presidency in Liberia. So as we move closer to the next election circle there is high probability that this alliance of convenience will begin to crack. Each politician will claim to have a broad based support of the people and therefore should be the dominant figure. Some of these claims and counterclaims are legitimate; others are sheer lame and illusive.
But obsession with the presidency without adequate attention to the toxic environment on the ground - the lack of democratic culture and institutions, a regime of terror and a vulnerable, mostly politically unsophisticated, citizenry - would work to Mr. Taylor's advantage and against the coalition. In other words, there are more chiefs and fewer Indians, and in our case, more presidential aspirants for a single vacancy.
Our second concern is about those political parties and other entities in and out Liberia that were not present in Abuja. How can Liberian opposition mount a serious effort to change the prevailing political dynamic in the country if it cannot muster a will of unity within its ranks? Should we read into this to mean that there will be more than one opposition group at a Truth and Reconciliation conference in July 2002 in Monrovia? If there is disagreement between the signatories to the Abuja statement and other opposition groups that did not attend the Abuja meeting, are any efforts being made to bridge those differences? These questions should be addressed before the Monrovia conference.
The third, and perhaps the most significant aspect of providing a workable set of paradigms to our tragedy, deals with the man at the center of Liberian instability, President Charles Taylor. In the past, he had shunned all meaningful efforts that would have improved the political situation and given some relief to the suffering citizens. Unfortunately, Taylor views every measure that would empower the ordinary person as an attempt to oust him from power.
From the outset, he had relied on violence as strategy to gain power and he has not hesitated to use it as a means to stay in power. The core underpinning of the regime's policy is to hold the country and its people hostage. Like most tyrants, Taylor loathes democratic tenets, especially those that advocate the individual's right to choose; to freely express his views without intimidation; and his right to life and liberty. For him, staying in power is first and foremost, even at the expense of the country. And he has demonstrated this callous disdain for life and country over and over again. No doubt, this tyrant is prepared to administer the coup de grace to the dying Liberian nation.
Evidence of his obstructionist strategy has begun to surface at the government's propaganda website, Allaboutliberia. Many of its writers have started using their familiar tactics of avoiding the merits of the issues at hand, in this case, the proposals presented by exiled opposition politicians at the recent meeting in Abuja.
Instead of dissecting the proposals and looking at all aspects of the whole package then taking a position whichever way, these writers have opted to launch personal attacks against various signatories to the statement. As a hard copy and Internet based magazine with a critical eye to spotting political opportunism, The Perspective greatly values the individual's right to take any position on the Liberian crisis in any way anyone chooses. But what's disappointing with these regime's hired hands is that they don't present any logical argument why they think certain proposal or disposition is wrong and why their point of view is correct.
In our view, Liberia is at a crossroads in which we as citizens are presented with two choices. 1) A departure from our current way of conducting national affairs, that has brought us a failed state status, with a pariah leadership forbidden to make foreign travel and condemned as a terrorist. 2) The second option is despite our individual differences, political and otherwise, the death of our nation is taking place right before our eyes. We believe Liberians, including President Taylor and his supporters, have an opportunity within their grasp to save their country by engaging in serious give and take discussions.
One would have thought that the dire economic and political strait that our country is in would give rise to serious debates about these proposals in the Liberian media. Unfortunately, however, the regime chose to give them to its propagandists whose writing is not seen by Liberians at home.
Sadly, the fact that Mr. Taylor has unleashed his hired pen brigade to go after proponents of the proposals is ominous sign that we are headed for another futile exercise. But we must not give in to a gang of scoundrels who make their living at the expense of our people by supporting a ruthless regime that depends on violence to keep it in power.
As proponent of a peace and reconciliation in Liberia in April 1998 to be modeled after the South African experience, The Perspective welcomes the efforts being made by opposition politicians and others to find a final resolution to the Liberian crisis. We're skeptical but hopeful that Liberians will finally take their future into their own hands. We call on both sides to put Liberia's interests and its people first.
Without delving into the details why Liberians must seize the opportunity to shape our own future, a few points would be necessary to set the record straight. First, our national interests are not the same as those of other West African States. Leaders of many of these states are autocratic and undemocratic and the manner in which they rule their own people is inimical to and at variance with democratic practices. Naturally, their sympathies and support are with Mr. Taylor, whose misrule is similar to theirs. Their interest is to preserve the status quo. Trusting them to help democratize Liberia is like asking the hawk to watch over the chicken farm.
Surely, we are grateful to our West African neighbors for the assistance they gave us and the human and material sacrifices they made to end our civil conflict. We love them and appreciate their understanding in the true African sense that we are inter-related, and what affects one country has a spill over effect on the rest of the region. Liberians could never forget their brotherly determination to save us from destroying ourselves. Hats off to ECOWAS, hail to OAU!
But it is high time that Liberians grab the bull by the horn and run with it by setting our own national priorities. And this is why we are ambivalent yet cautiously optimistic that even President Taylor will put national interest above personal enrichment as he is in the fifth year of a six-year term. The process that is being advanced is not about ousting him from power before the end of his term. It is about the future of Liberia beyond Taylor's years. It would be a progressive course that is open to all citizens.
Inasmuch as we are excited about the prospect of the democratic process in Liberia, we want to sound a note of caution. Autocratic rulers not only dislike processes in which the people are free to make choices, often they are prepared to use violence to silence the will of the people. Ours is a case in point. We're confronted with a daunting task.
Because of all the reasons given above, we would like to reiterate the points we made in July 2001 when news of a possible meeting between the regime and former warlords and opposition leaders broke in the Liberian press. At that time, we outlined three simple ideas that could be part of such a reconciliation process:
1. That a key condition for an initiative be that Mr. Taylor is not the central and controlling figure in the reconciliation process, in that his government is not allowed to dictate the terms and peace mechanisms that will evolve from the process.
2. That the international community, particularly the UN, ECOWAS, the European Union, international donor governments, and financial institutions, provide their full backing and support to the future implementations of all peace mechanisms that will be obtained from the reconciliation process. This is necessary to ensure and provide confidence to all parties that such mechanism will be enforced, and Mr. Taylor shall in no way abrogate such peace arrangements in the future.
3. That Mr. Taylor be required to drop all bogus treason and sedition charges that he has liberally leveled against his political opponents and allow them to return to the country without molestation; and that he should release all political prisoners who have been languishing in prison simply because of their ethnicity.
In addition, we propose that any Truth and Reconciliation Commission should include members of the Inter-Faith Religious Committee, prominent citizens of national stature, chiefs and ordinary citizens, who would have subpoena power. We suggest that the commission be mandated to go around the country to talk to the victims and perpetrators and submit its findings and recommendations within a year.
Finally, reconciliation is a process in which the perpetrator confesses his wrongdoing and asks for forgiveness. It's not an event. This is why it would be prudent to give the aggrieved citizens the opportunity to air their pains in a public manner; punish those who committed heinous crimes, because peace and justice are two sides of the same coin. We cannot afford to do otherwise!
© The Perspective
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