Opting for Refuge over "Honour"
By Tom Kamara
October 3, 2000
The coveted dream jobs in Africa for which wars are waged and societies sent in flames---the presidency and accompanying ministerial posts---are becoming a burden in Liberia, where ministers are preferring American refugee-life over their ministerial appointments. Leaving no doubts about their choice, President Charles Taylor's Director of Cabinet wants the presidential ultimatum, compelling ministers and other officials to bring their families home from America or be fired, rescinded. If they are forced to make this choice, the head of the cabinet informed the BBC, many might choose refugee-life in America over being power figures in today's Liberia.
The preference is particularly a betraying one because government posts, with their associated trappings of uncontrolled theft of public resources, were the main impetus for the war, which took 250,000 lives and left the economy in ruins. Taylor, recruited by Liberia's former military junta from the refuge of America, and given a job as head of the state-purchasing agency, soon discovered the enormous personal financial benefits tied to Liberian government posts. He was indicted for allegedly stealing over $900,000, escaping from prison in Boston, USA, to ensure his place in government at the top by overthrowing his former junta employers. Thus the drive for his rebels was to create as many "vacancies" in the Government before it fell to them. In this way, they (the rebels) would occupy the positions of the dead once their leader was president. To achieve this objective, the rebels' prime targets were government officials, more so if they were of African-Liberian origin as opposed to Americo-Liberians, descendents of freed slaves who have ruled the country since 1822.
There were no exceptions in the crusades of executions waged against suspected government employees. From janitors to ministers, once caught, death was nonnegotiable. Now, ministers' diminished roles in a hyper-corrupt regime, with access to cash limited to the president and his cronies, have changed all that. Unlike its predecessor, the current government is nowhere benefiting from the millions of dollars pumped into a corrupt state, millions that saw officials sending wives and concubines on weekend shopping sprees around the globe. Expectations of the glorious days, when a government post was synonymous to quick wealth, are lost in incessant global accusations against the President for stealing Sierra Leone diamonds in return for weapons supply for that country's rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Jobs in once highly lucrative areas of electricity, light and water supply have become unattractive since these utilities are now virtually non-existent. Taylor's rebels blew up the hydro power plant in the early 1990s in their bid for power. The telecommunication facilities have broken down, requiring about $2 million to get them operational. Ministers have been accused of misusing international telephone lines, and a case in point is the over $300,000 telephone bill incurred by the quarrelsome minister of information and his controversial deputy before they were transferred to the President's office. Many ministers are said to have transformed their offices into private international telephone booths available to anyone with the required fee. The European Union still trucks water to residents of Monrovia since the water plant was one of Taylor's legitimate targets of war. One minister was dragged before court last year for allegedly squandering employees Christmas bonus (a few thousand dollars) donated by the president to various ministries. With salaries unpaid for almost a year, such alleged callousness can constitute a heinous crime. But President Taylor has justified these activities by defending his ministers and blaming the international community for making them corrupt in denying him millions.
Hence, the ministers' preference of life in America is not a surprising one. Historically, including the ghastly years of the war, Liberian politicians prioritize buying homes and educating children in America as opposed to Liberia, despite all the nationalist rhetoric. "My family is in the states" is an enviable status symbol. Key players in the civil war, including Dr. Amos Sawyer who served as interim president at the height of the catastrophe, have homes and their families in America. When the picture of his American home was printed in the local press, a furious Sawyer threatened a never carried out legal action against the paper, insisting that he had honorably bought the house by taking a mortgage. Questions were however raised as to whether a mortgage can be granted to one with no viable employment in the country of home purchase. Nearly all President Taylor's top loyalists have kept their families in the safe confines of the United States despite the Government's pleas for Liberians abroad to return home. Few Liberians with the economic means (almost always acquired through political connections) have families living in Liberia.
Since the ultimatum and the Cabinet's plea for mercy, silence has prevailed, and there is every indication that like other presidential ultimatums, this, too, was just meant for the media. Taylor has fired all his cabinet before only to rehire them following pleas for mercy. He has issued many unfulfilled ultimatums. This, too, will come to pass. Says a source within the Ministry of Planning:
"I believe the ultimatum was the result of anger and frustration. We have looked up in vain at the Americans for our development needs. We have tried to impress them, but the more we try, the more they demand. Now, all of a sudden, they have come up with a visa ban on the Government, the first of its kind in memorable history. The President has realized he made a mistake by issuing an ultimatum because when push comes to shove, many will indeed jump to the US instead of remaining in a government in which there is no job security. What happens if you are fired tomorrow? Where will you turn? So what is happening is that the President needs a face-saving way out. The Director of the Cabinet has provided that in the form of an appeal. Magnanimity will prevail and the President will be seen as forgiving his flock as he did when he fired all of us for not praying with him"
The battle lines on the ultimatum have however been drawn. Opposing the Cabinet's appeal is the chair of the National Patriotic Party Cyril Allen who, according to sources, has his family living in Monrovia, unlike cabinet director Blamo Nelson, whose family reportedly lives in the US. The two men recently took to the airwaves propagating their views, but many ordinary people are insisting that families of officials join their husbands or wives in power. Says a former university student now a refugee in Germany:
"What is happening to Liberia is an unpunished crime. The University of Liberia is in shambles. Except for a few schools in Monrovia, rural schools that once provided competitive education to young people are gone. The Multilateral high schools in Grand Gedeh, Lofa (Counties) now lay in their remains, our gift from Taylor's rebels. Teachers are not paid. The quality of professors continues to fall since the best ones have left the country. Yet, despite all the promises, leaders of the country have neglected education. Why blame them? Most have their children out of the country in quality schools while they subject children of the poor to illiteracy, which they call education. President Taylor does not have any of his children in a Liberian school. The same goes to many of his cronies. If the Americans want to help us, they can do so by sending all the families of the politicians back to Liberia. All the US dollars in this world will not make a difference in our plight. No light, water or telephone. Only pressure to ensure justice, such as sending all the beneficiaries of our resources back so that we all can face the problems will help. Any other option is a crime against humanity."
Apart from America, many of the current officials have reportedly bought plush homes in Accra, Ghana, where their children are in school with huge fees paid in US dollars. Many have allegedly also opened huge bank accounts in the Ghanaian capital due to their unease with America.
"Jerry Rawlings (Ghanaian President) was no fool when he at last backed Taylor's bid for the presidency. Remember the dozens of Ghanaian state buses sent to Liberia during the campaign. Also remember that Rawlings was the first President to visit Taylor after the elections. In Monrovia, Rawlings promised Liberians development assistance, a laughable promise when the Ghanaian economy needs all the promises it can use. But Liberia is instead offering the development assistance as our officials trek to Ghana with their loot. A number Ghanaians are also linked to diamond syndicate", claims a Liberian businessman with long ties in Accra.
But what the American visa ban has done is to remove the veil of security in the country, exposing the deep fears of those in government. With ministers opting for life in America, the current exodus of ordinary people is obvious. Insecurity is the bedrock of the cabinet ministers' decision to maintain their families in America while they rule Liberia. Lacking confidence in their Government, ministers and other officials are taking no chances in determining that an American visa is worth more than a ministerial post.
All this is happening at a time when Liberians have become pariahs around the region and chased out of many countries. In Guinea, Liberian refugees are no longer allowed in the city. Many have been encamped in secured refugee camps. Liberians in the Ivory Coast have been implicated in mercenary activities, forcing many to flee across the border. In Senegal, they were accused of fueling the ranks of the Cassamance rebels. A visitor quoted Taylor as saying "Let them give me 10 years and I will control this region, " an indication of the determination for more troubles to come.
It is one of those ironies---fanatically desiring to rule a country and yet deeming it unfit for one's family. But Liberia is Africa's oldest republic. It is again making history.