The Perfect Game

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 11, 2002

Time flies when you are having fun, the saying goes. It also flies when you keep putting off major issues that need to be taken care of. October 2003 is almost here and Liberian political pundits are at lost as to how they got here so quick. Just yesterday, in 1997, after the humiliating defeat at the first post war elections, Liberian political leaders vowed to never again repeat the mistakes that cost them political power in 1985 and 1997, the only two elections in recent times that they could have influenced or won.

After digesting results of 1997, political leaders through the CCP in Liberia and the CLPP started to put together a framework for unity and a road map to wrestle power from Charles Taylor, the winner of the 1997 elections. Taylor’s victory had come as a shock to a few people but to many, it was a fait accompli because of three major factors that gave Taylor an edge. The fear factor, the financial factor and the name recognition combined to pave Taylor’s road to victory. After he occupied the seat, the incumbency became an added advantage. For the opposition to swing voters in their corners, they would have to work against every one of these factors and turn them into negatives for Taylor. After five years and with the country on the last stretch to elections, there is a need to look at those various factors and gauge how they might play for or against Taylor. As the late Ambassador Brewer put it, one can only defeat an adversary only if you know his or her weaknesses and overcome them.

1. The Fear Factor: The NPFL of warlord Charles Taylor would certainly go down in the annals of history as one of the most brutal guerilla movement to ever exist anywhere. The amount of death and destruction caused by the fighters of the NPFL were such that they traumatized the entire nation, sending everyone running. Degradation, humiliation and murder were used to unsettle the population and put fear at the heart of every living soul. Those who survived the carnage had but one wish: give Taylor what he wanted and avoid any possibility of ever facing the same situation again. After gaining the presidency, Taylor used the same tactics to run all perceived opposition out of the country. The killing of Sam Dokie, the beating of Amos Sawyer and Conmany Wesseh, the arrest and torture of Tiawan Gongloe, Hassan Bility and many others as well as the search of the home of Dr. Tipoteh are all part of a calculated policy of fear. At this point, with only twelve months left to elections, rather than being diminished, this fear factor has multiplied in many folds. In 1997, the fear factor really only touched the common people, who had been exposed to it at checkpoints, in refugees and displaced camps. The political class had been either in exile or in power in Monrovia during most of the war and therefore was shielded from the violence. Since 1997, however, the NPFL made no secret about its intention to “rule” Liberia according to the tenets of the most abusive form of dictatorship. It therefore attacked everywhere, killing, jailing, torturing and sending into exile anyone who disagreed with the Taylor mantra but wanted to stay alive. At the present, the simple thought of going to Monrovia in itself has become a major political challenge, and campaigning anywhere in Liberia sound also like a suicidal enterprise. If the political leadership succeeds in bringing a “stabilization force” – and this would only take place under conditions set by Taylor - there is no guarantee that elections would be conducted in any atmosphere of peace: Taylor had 5 years to create a situation of total control that could withstand any form of outside security. There is also no guarantee that the “stabilization” force would be any different from ECOMOG in 1997.

The fear factor has also gone beyond Liberia’s borders. Guinea, under pressure from the Taylor government, expelled Alhaji Kromah and Conteh is still wary about a possible return of armed dissidents. Sierra Leone recently refused to grant a license to a radio station that would have beamed messages of democracy to Liberia. In Ghana, when Liberian exiles met with human rights groups in that country, the government went on the air and said that they could not use Ghana to destabilize Liberia. During the recent events in Abidjan, the Gbagbo government at no time dare point the fingers to Monrovia. Back in 1990, Eyadema and Taylor reached a truce and armed dissidents from Togo who worked for NPFL “evaporated.” Taylor has the mind and means to destabilize any country and his colleagues know it.

After 5 years in power, Taylor has perfected the spread of fear as a political theory and practice. It is serving him well, because now, in Liberia and in West Africa, nobody doubts that he has enough money and rebels to create havoc at will. Nobody in the history of Liberia has ever dared to threaten to arrest an US ambassador. Cyril Allen got away with it and is still Chairman of the NPP.

2. The Financial Factor

General Victor Malu, the Commander of ECOMOG in 1997 is known to have said, looking at one of the "prominent candidates" running for President: "Ah, is this man serious? He wants to be president and he does not even have gasoline for his car?" Some candidates did not have cars and rode taxis to go from one place to another; they did not have money to print more than a few dozen T-shirts. Many candidates never left the city of Monrovia to campaign. While other candidates were struggling to shuttle their staff in taxis and buses, Taylor was hovering over the country in helicopter, with a fifty-luxurious-car convoy moving him from town to town. While other candidates could hardly feed their campaign workers, Taylor had truckloads of rice going from village to village. After winning the elections, Taylor has all but turned Liberia into his personal and family enterprise, where all things, money belong to him and into his coffers. Rumors have it that he is a billionaire. Whatever the truth maybe, it would be difficult for anyone to compete with him in 2003. The $1.5 million promised by the US government to support democracy may make Taylor laugh out loud. He could easily spend that much to create and finance political desperados who want to see their names on the ballots and be perceived as "credible politicians”. It is an old game in African politics where despot financed" opposition parties” to make elections look credible. The $1.5 million promised by the US is, in a way helping Taylor, providing a semblance of fair elections.

3. Name recognition

The name recognition that helped him in 1997 - many in the countryside had been accustomed to calling him President Taylor for years - has now a new layer, that of the incumbency. There is nothing as precious as running a campaign while in the presidential seat. For Taylor, the fact that he owns and operates the only working media outlet in the country is an added advantage. No opposition party or political leader has made any attempt to invest or encourage the creation of independent media in Liberia. Political leaders in the opposition have remained silent when the independent media was being threatened, shut down or locked-up. On the other hand, Taylor has his picture everyday on front pages, on television screens and on the airwaves. His omnipotence as the most recognizable face and name in Liberian politics has become even greater in the absence of any real challenger on the ground. The few opposition leaders still in Liberia are playing safe and make sure they are as invisible as possible. Any successful candidate would have to face this factor. When Taylor says that the issue of political leadership for this generation has been solved the day he got into power, he meant that nobody in his generation would be close enough to wrestle power from him.

Short Steps of the Opposition

From Abuja to Bethesda and Ouagadougou, the opposition put together many documents and a framework to move forward. However, what was missing, as an underlying binding force, was a common belief in one objective: while Bethesda pushed for war crimes tribunal and an indictment for Taylor, both Abuja and Ouaga called for “cooperation” and the lessening of tensions in Monrovia to allow the holding of “free and fair elections”. But whatever camp they belonged to, few ever believed that there would be free and fair elections in Liberia in 2003. President Taylor may not even need to rig the elections given the background exposed above, unless the opposition comes up with a clear plan of action, lots of money and surmount its fears and disunity. The issue of disunity is certainly the most important hurdle to overcome. The question is whether there should be unity to force the government to create an atmosphere conducive for the holding of free and fair elections or unity to unseat Taylor.

Whatever the answer to these questions may be, elections in 2003 are already in serious jeopardy. The 1997 elections are yet to be completed at the local level for lack of funds. If the Taylor government remains under UN sanctions, how could the world body force it to undertake "free and fair elections?" If the US refuses to engage the government, how could it channel money to opposition parties for electioneering without being accused of "involvement" in the internal affairs of a sovereign country? Any engagement on the part of the US or the UN at this time would be done only under terms acceptable to the Taylor government. More than a year ago, we wrote here that the US should not disengage and leave Liberia in the hands of the NPFL government. Now it would be difficult to go back and find any middle ground of cooperation.

The UN sanctions and the LURD war have in the end guaranteed to a certain degree the reelection of Taylor. These are the two factors that were used as a basis to scare off the opposition. Every opposition political leader has been accused of either badmouthing the government or calling for the imposition of sanctions or for supporting the LURD rebel group.

This picture of the road to the 2003 elections sounds very depressing. It is and it is meant to be. Taylor played a perfect game, using as sparing partners the Liberian civil and armed opposition, the US and the UN. In the end, the Liberian government may be under sanctions but Taylor is more president than ever, the country may be bankrupt but Taylor is richer than ever and more fearful than ever. The alternative to an appeasement would be violence, something nobody wants, with Cote d’Ivoire already in flames next door. Although the US never closed its embassy in Liberia even at the worst moment of war, the various administrations in Washington relegated the country on the backburner, with low-level bureaucrats glancing from time to time on this former old ally. It might be too late for the US to do anything substantive without playing by the rules of the game according to Taylor. As in 1990 after Banjul, 1992 after Octopus and 1996 after the April fracas, Taylor seems to have outplayed all his opponents and surmounted all the odds… Unless someone comes up with a joker!

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