Government by Cooptation, for Gratitude, and
By Tom Kamara
Ties between former interim President Dr. Amos Sawyer and his friends at the "NPP-led Government" of President Charles Taylor have gone from the good, the bad, and now the ugly, that is if their current war of words is any indicator.
Part of the good times was when Sawyer saw light in Taylor's regime, praising the late notorious director of police, Joe Tate, for "improving public safety" despite spreading harassment around the country. Sawyer's verdict generated immense satisfaction for Taylor and his team at a time when the government was under siege for escalating human rights violations. Taylor was even more accommodating when Sawyer announced that the problems in post-war Liberia were not of Taylor's making, but the work of his loyalists. And when Dr. Sawyer strangely discovered that children in Liberia face the same problems as children elsewhere in Africa, he was embraced as a true Liberian patriot so desirous of reconciliation, a champion of peace in a sea of distasteful detractors. Whether Liberia is listed by the UN and other world organizations as one of the centers for the production of child soldiers, that did not count in Sawyer's hailed assessment. UN figures put the number of Liberian children that died from the war and its related causes as 45,000. So Taylor saw Sawyer's equation of Liberian children with those around the continent as a vindication of his Small Boys Unit, teenagers below the ages of 9 -10 or younger who served as cannon folder for the warlord during his quest for power and now abandoned.
What matters now is that the ugly times are here. Biting the hand that feeds can be a disastrous gamble, particularly when the feeding- hand demands loyalty and silence at all times for continued food supply. This is the case with Dr. Sawyer's recent speech claiming, among others, the monopoly given to Lebanese merchants to import key commodities, the culture of fear prevailing in the country, the need for reconciliation, along with his observation that Liberians are afraid of each other. These views have generated rebuke and anger from Taylor's political soldiers. Sawyer was immediately charged with ingratitude, a far lesser charge compared to the treason indictment slapped on Opposition leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for allegedly committing the same crime by asking Taylor to appear before an international tribunal to defend himself against allegations of Sierra Leone diamond theft, and for denouncing the president's backing the ruthless RUF rebels while questioning his leadership style. Similarly, former Taylor ally, Dr. Fahnboy Dakinda of the Labor Party, appointed Minister of Health and then fired, would probably fare better with a charge with ingratitude instead of treason. But he, along with about 19 others, has been indicted on treason charges for questioning the Government's policies. But the public charge is that they are members of the dissident group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), now at war with the Liberian government. Ironically, LURD spokesman, Joe Wylie, is not amongst those indicted.
So Sawyer is the blessed one. Ingratitude is not a crime deserving punishment, although it is a moral one, and can have far-reaching effects depending on who is making the charge. In the war of words on who's responsible for Liberia's horrors, Dr. Sawyer has challenged the government to establish a truth commission with responsibility of determining the culprits in the country's nightmare. "I had responded to such charges once before by calling for a national truth commission or an appropriate forum where all such charges levied against everybody can be examined."
But this is an empty challenge because, as the President has ruled, "Liberia is too small for a truth commission." It is better move ahead, he said, since, in his "wisdom", the search and need for the truth in crimes is only for bigger countries. The President has repeatedly linked any idea for a truth commission to treason, a crime involving the overthrow of a government. Reconciliation to him is throwing crumbs to former foes in the hope of buying their loyalty. Asked in July 1997 if the instant departure of many Liberians that followed his election troubled him, Taylor answered "no". He said those that remained he would "take care of", and he did, with summary executions, arrests and detentions, endless treason and other political trials, now culminating in an armed rebellion rekindling the ugly memories of the war.
But whatever one may say of the Liberian President, he is cunning and street smart. Taylor is convinced that a truth commission would unearth evidence of so many heinous atrocities that could lead to his overthrow. The exposure of the truth behind the execution of many allegedly on his orders (men like Jackson F. Doe, Moses Duopu, Gabriel Kpolleh, Stephen Yekeson, and hundreds of other leading native politicians from all ethnic groups) is something Taylor will resist to the end.
So, indeed, a truth commission is a treasonable commission just as he believes that any trial of Sierra Leone rebel chief Foday Sankoh is a "threat to Liberia's national security". By rejecting a truth commission, Taylor is rejecting the massing of damaging evidence against him that could tell the real story of his ethnic cleansing and other crimes such as looting of banks, and theft of national resources. To avoid this South Africa innovation of unearthing the truth to reconcile both the victims and the architects for forgiveness and repentance, he decreed that reconciliation in Liberia would follow the intrinsic "Liberian" pattern.
So, the "NPP-led Government" has "reconciled" the country by co-opting like-minded loyalists from opposition parties, many of them now known to have been underground operatives who served the interests of his rebel faction during the war. Bedfellows like the United People's Party's Blamo Nelson, Milton Teahjay, Johnson Gwaikolo, and Lofa Defense Force head Francois Massaquoi, etc., were paraded as symbols of reconciliation. Now, suddenly, Sawyer is questioning the prime foundations of this "reconciliation" by contending that these individuals, among many others, were possibly recruited without the approval of their parties and therefore only represent themselves.
In such a case, Sawyer contends, the Government cannot be called a coalition or "NPP-led" government because coalition entails parties, not individuals in this case. "...Were they (the positions) the outcome of inter-party discussions out of which agreements were reached between them or among the parties? Or were they the result of direct - cooptation by the NPP or the President and individuals who happen to be members of other parties?" This is a forbidden question because it removes the façade behind the hyphenated "NPP-led Government".
Sawyer further disputed the Government's claims of allocating 60 % of jobs to the "Opposition" because, he argued, the positions in question are civil service posts that should be filled in accordance with tenure and conditions laid down by civil service regulations and are not subject to political manipulation. But this is an area of trouble within a society chronically influenced by patronage. There is hardly anything called Civil Service in Liberia. Every position, down to office messenger or clerk, is politicized. Every aspect of life, including such things as garbage collection or the release of an autopsy report, is handled by political commissions appointed by the president. For instance, instead of just releasing the promised autopsy report in the questionable death of his vice president who was believed to have been flogged to near-death, the President has appointed a political commission. Instead of institutionalizing the collection of garbage swallowing Monrovia, Taylor believes a political commission with the Catholic Archbishop Michael K. Francis included will solve the problem.
Taylor's loyalists, furious over Sawyer's "ingratitude", also announced they have been "accommodating him" (paying his rent) for three years. But their fury is that even after being so kind to the former president, he has decided not to remain silent. Sawyer did not however deny the "NPP-led Government" payment of his rent, but contended:
"I am not sure whether the President took the necessary steps to propose to the Legislature or otherwise enshrine in law an entitlement package for former leaders. What I do know is that Presidential gesture designed to accommodate me or anybody else for that matter does not constitute a national policy. National reconciliation cannot proceed as personal gestures to be extended or withdrawn at the pleasure of the president or other leaders of the ruling party."
Taylor's memorandum of understanding regarding what constitutes reconciliation and "positive contributions" is silence, and Sawyer has violated this cardinal rule. Impressed with their inactivity, the President recently praised opposition political parties for their "maturity" in remaining silent since the end of elections. But the UN Special man in the country, Felix Dowes-Thomas, in an unusual frankness, has questioned the dormancy and silence of political parties over so many issues and developments impacting on democratization. Nevertheless, many opposition figures, such as Cletus Wortorson of the once vocal and active Liberian Action Party (LAP) and Baccus Matthews of the United People's Party (UPP), have in effect merged with the NPP. Wortorson is "advising" the President on minerals while Matthews is PR officer for the controversial Oriental Timber Company. That they are silent is therefore understandable because as members of the Government, they makeup its policy formulation team. Those parties that are not silent risk arrests and detention, if not treason charges (as in the case of the Labour Party's Dakinda and Unity Party's Sirleaf, among others) or disappearances.
Here is our democracy, a government based on cooptation, followed by gratitude, and ending in silence. Sawyer may be discovering that accepting gifts can lead to loss of other rights in Taylor's Liberia.