Finding Lasting Peace in Liberia: A Patriotic Duty of Every Liberian

By Tiawan Saye Gongloe

A presentation at the All Liberian National Conference of Liberians in Europe and the Americas held from April 14-16, 2005 in Columbia, Maryland ( USA)



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 27, 2005

First, I want to thank my colleagues of the Steering Committee of the All Liberian National conference for a great job, thus far, especially those who reside in Europe. In the planning of this program, our colleagues in France, Britain, Holland, Germany and other parts of Europe attended teleconferences at late hours and sometimes at early morning hours when they should have been in bed. They denied themselves of sufficient sleeping time to perform a patriotic task of planning with us, on this side of the Atlantic, for this historic conference on the search for lasting peace in Liberia. It is a rare display of love of country that Liberian history, certainly should not ignore. We must applaud them for this great demonstration of love of country.

I am also deeply grateful to my colleagues for selecting me to be one of the presenters at this historic assembly of the sons and daughters of Liberia dispersed by the lack of peace in their homeland. However, it is a gratitude that I express with caution because of the topic that I have been asked to make a presentation on today. Certainly, the topic ‘PEACE’ is the overriding purpose of this gathering. I express gratitude with caution because some in this audience probably came with the expectation that like a fetish priest, I will state concrete things that should be done or avoided for peace in Liberia. Others in this audience perhaps, came expecting that like a doctor, I will diagnose the problem and provide the cure. Yet, there are those who expect me to be a good salesman, ready to advertise my products as being the best on the market.
Let me clearly say that to their disappointment, I have come with no diagnosis, no solution, no prescription and not to promote the best choice for peace in Liberia.

My disposition is informed by the fact that the PEACE we all seek in our country is one that we have never had as a nation, from the founding of Liberia to the present. It is not the mere absence of sounds of guns, or the taking away of weapons of war, or the pacification of warlords and fighters, or the consolation of politicians and other contestants for political power. This is not the kind of peace for which any one Liberian can pretend to have a strategy or plan. It can only be realized through genuine collective efforts, consistently and persistently pursued.

I can take the risk of saying, in terms of description, that the search for peace that has gathered us here today and that will continue to bring us together to consult among ourselves until we find is lasting peace. In my view, lasting peace cannot be for any limited objective, like the ones I just enumerated. It will be ambitious and unrealistic for me to tell this audience that I have the recipe for lasting peace. My purpose here therefore, is to introduce the subject matter of PEACE in a way that will make our consultation here interesting and result-driven. Consequently, I have chosen to introduce the subject of peace under the broad topic: Finding Lasting Peace in Liberia: a Patriotic Duty of Every Liberian.

If there is one issue that should unite all and every Liberian, it is the search for lasting peace. In our daily personal reflections, in our interactions with other Liberians, whether informally or formally, and in everything undertaking, individually and collectively, the achievement of lasting peace in Liberia must be first. The attainment of lasting peace in Liberia must be an integral part of everything we say, write or do. Even our writings on the various internet services, including listserves, chat rooms and websites must be geared towards the attainment of peace.

We must individually commit ourselves after this conference onwards, to promote lasting peace in Liberia, as a demonstration of our ‘Love of Liberia’. Here, I am deliberately emphasizing individual, not collective commitment. Each Liberian must say what she or he can do to achieve lasting peace in Liberia. Under the shadow of collective commitment there are usually too much shifting of blames and excuses. Therefore, it is my argument that whilst the search for peace is a national agenda, the attainment of peace will come through personal commitment of each and every Liberian. As a symbolic gesture of our individual commitment to peace, I call upon you my brothers and sisters to stand up and say out loud, “I commit my life to peace for Liberia, from this day on”. Thank you; you may be seated.

Reasons for Lack of Peace
Although I have said that today, I am not going to give a diagnosis of the factors that have undermined peace in Liberia; I will point to some historical highlights that have frequently been the subject of discussions amongst Liberians in the past. It has been argued that the lack of peace in Liberia can be traced to the founding of Liberia as a state. The crux of this argument is that the formation of Liberia by agents of the American Colonization Society and resettled blacks from the United States was done to the exclusion of indigenous politicians, namely the kings and chiefs of the various ethnic groups along the coast and in the interior. The other side of this argument is that many of the chiefs and local leaders were not willing to cooperate with the new comers, and often conspired with predatory European businessmen against the consolidation of the Liberian state. There are all kinds of arguments on this issue of the seed of conflict being planted with the formation of the Liberian state.

The other set of arguments has to do with establishing a legal framework for the governance of the Liberian state, and the commitment of the state to respect for the rule of law and human rights. It has been argued that laws were made to benefit a certain group of Liberians and to harm others. For example, the Constitution of 1847 made the sale of land by natives void ab initio (null and void from the beginning, as though it did not happen). Yet the Declaration of Independence referred to the natives as the “lords of the land”. Is it possible that the logic of the exclusion was to prevent European businessmen from buying lands from the natives and thereby avoid a reduction of the amount of land available to the government? One can only guess, not being privy to the debates that influenced that provision of the Constitution.

Nevertheless, what this situation created is that most families from the settlements established by the ACS have legal titles to their lands, while most families in the rest of Liberia have no legal titles to lands which they consider their own by reason of first settlement. This last category of lands was the only one that was subject of several concession agreements throughout Liberia. Did the deprivation of people from their ancestral lands contribute to the lack of peace that we are experiencing today? Even as we meet today, steps are being taken to evict thousands of our Bassa brothers and sisters and their children, based on a Concession Agreement made in 1959, i.e. under the strength of the 1847 Constitution. This conference must give a good amount of time to this issue.

Another aspect is the issue of Rule of Law. Throughout Liberian history various dominant political forces have in one form or another, shown lack of respect for the rule of law in their effort to protect or control political power. Many times arbitrariness of the politically strong has prevailed over respect for the rule of law. The arbitrary removal of President E. J. Roye, the failure to properly conduct elections by the administration of President Charles D.B King, the promotion of forced labor by his government, the commission of murder and other crimes against political opponents by Presidents William V. S. Tubman, Samuel K. Doe and Charles Taylor.

It has been observed that the lack of respect for human rights by governments after governments since the founding of Liberia is at the core of the lack of peace in Liberia. Even as we assemble here from various parts of the world to consult among ourselves on strategies for lasting peace in our land, the government that was put in place to oversee the transition from war to peace continues the legacy of government’s abuse of human rights. The irony is that, although some US policymakers supported the establishment of Liberia as a solution to a domestic problem, most of the founding settlers of Liberia were motivated by the love of freedom and respect for human rights. The country’s name: Liberia, the Declaration of Independence of Liberia, our national motto and anthem memorialize this motivation for freedom and respect for human rights. Respect for human rights is the founding dream of Liberia. Yet in practice, respect for human rights was not the foundation on which the state was built. Is it therefore wrong to say that this dichotomy between our national dream and our state-building method contributed to our conflict?

The military regime and the Liberian civil war bear great responsibilities for the state failure and lack of peace in Liberia, but historically speaking they are consequences of state-building on a very weak foundation. A state built on such a weak foundation is expected not to be strong and prosperous in any respect. As I have said on a number of occasions, a nation that departs from its founding dream cannot prosper. Its progress will be seriously hindered by this departure. Against this background, there cannot be durable peace in Liberia, if the commitment of respect for human rights is not accorded the highest national consideration by the government and people of Liberia.

We are now where we are as a nation because we chose to build a weak state. What we have experienced over the years are results of the building of a weak state. The strength of a state cannot just depend on a strong military force and high economic growth. Respect for the rule of law and human rights are key elements of the strength of a state, without which state failure is eminent, no matter how long it takes. In Liberia, because of the lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights, our court system, and the legislature have been weakened by corruption and manipulation.

Our economy has not been developed and managed in ways that alleviate poverty. Governments, even before the military coup and the civil war did not provide basic social services for all throughout the country. What the building of a weak Liberian state succeeded in doing was to create mass discontent and a reserve army of the discontented, ready to be mobilized for the destruction of the Liberian state. The mobilization of that army did not only destroy the Liberian state, but transformed it into a bad neighbor in a neighborhood of weak states. Consequently, the civil conflict in Liberia extended to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and affected many other countries within the West African sub-region in various ways.

In dealing with the causes of the Liberian conflict, some Liberians have laid blame at the doorsteps of the pressure groups of the 1970s, including youth, student and civic movements for political change. Some have even identified specific individuals whom they blame for the military coup and everything that has happened to Liberia since then. Is it true? Well, if it is, then it supports the argument that the Liberian state has been a weak state. In a strong state there are shock absorbers and the actions of a few people may have a negative impact, but such impact cannot be so huge as to lead to the collapse of the entire state. In a nation where there is respect for the rule of law and human rights, such state collapse is not so easily possible.

Some Liberians have blamed the Liberian conflict on mass illiteracy and poverty. It should be noted that mass poverty and illiteracy are consequences of bad governance. In states where respect for the rule of law and human rights constitutes the foundation of governance, citizens cause their governments to improve their social and economic conditions.

The other argument that has been made is that the conflict in Liberia was influenced by the memories of past tribal conflicts amongst the various ethnic groups. Is this true? If it is true, then why is it that none of the conflicts among the various warring factions started with the attack of one tribal town or village by another tribe? Is it not true that the civil war was largely a violent battle for political power in which ethnic grievances were exploited? Those who emphasize the ethnic nature of the conflict have greatly contributed to the concept of collective guilt. They often point at and refer to people of some Liberian tribes as wicked. As I have said before no Liberian tribe is inherently wicked. When people are placed in a position where they are made to see their survival tied to the survival of one strong man or woman, they do things which they feel are necessary for the protection of that one man or woman. However, members of various ethnic groups who committed crimes must be identified and made to account for these actions, instead of indicting any Liberian ethnic group. Collective guilt is not healthy for peace.

Of all the challenges to lasting peace, it appears that acceptance of defeat or succumbing to the democratic will of the Liberian people may become a major stumbling block to lasting peace. History has shown that Liberian politicians are ever ready to celebrate victory but are totally unprepared to accept defeat. The E. J. Roye crisis was intensified by the defeated candidates of the Republican Party. The Fernando Po crisis was brought to the attention of the League of Nations, largely through the efforts of T. J. R. Faulkner, only after his defeat, howbeit fraudulent, by the incumbent President of Liberia, Charles D. B. King. That election is recorded as the most rigged election in world history. Following the 1985 elections, all the four parties that participated in the election claimed victory, although it was widely believed that the winner was LAP. Following the 1997 elections, some claimed victory, in spite of the wide margins that existed between the NPP and the other parties. Subsequently, various other claims were made. One which is still being made is that ECOWAS arranged Taylor’s victory as a way of ending the conflict and that the actual numbers were not in favor of Taylor. One opposition figure who later joined Taylor’s government said the election was fair but not free. Once the government was inaugurated, he began to look for job by arguing that the government was not inclusive. Interestingly, his argument for inclusion ended with his inclusion and he became a better advocate for Taylor than any of Taylor’s NPFL confidants.

The fact that Taylor won elections in Monrovia, just less than one year after the end of the April 6, 1996 crisis, leaves me with no doubt that he won the elections in other parts of the country. Let’s face the facts, by 1997 Taylor had succeeded in intimidating the entire nation and people for good reasons. They felt that if he did not come to power he would start another war. In fact, he openly made that threat many times in different forms. For many years, Taylor had had control over large portions of the mineral, timber, rubber and other resources of Liberia; hence, he had more money to spend on the population impoverished by him than any other candidate. He was the only candidate that had a media conglomerate of TV, radio and newspapers to spread his propaganda and therefore his name was well-known. His propaganda was spinning everything to make him look good and make his opponents look bad. Also, according to many observers, Taylor’s party was the only party that was represented at every polling station in the 1997 elections. The opposition, in the presence of all these factors working in favor of Taylor failed to unite and many of them came into the game too late to obtain victory or make a significant impact. We hope that for the forthcoming elections, the National Elections Commission will do its best to conduct the elections in the most transparent manner, in order to deny losing candidates of all arguments that could undermine peace, after the results are announced.

The issue that has the potential of introducing a greater conflict in our country is the idea of Liberia being a Christian state. Many Christians have made this statement and it has often served as a source of great concern to many Liberians who are Moslems. I want to state that there is no legal or statistical basis for this statement. In both the Constitutions of 1847 and 1986 there is no mention of Christianity or the name of Jesus. The name of God is mentioned in those documents, not Jesus or Mohamed. The same observation can be made of our national anthem and our motto. Religion was meant to be a private matter, even by the founding fathers. They took this position because at their arrival they met the Moslems already in Liberia. By 1900, it is reported that of Liberia’s population of two million at the time, about 300,000 were Moslems and 40,000 were Christians. The remaining over 1.5 million were either members of African religions or non-believers of any organized religion. The statistics on religion has not significantly changed in a way to declare Liberia a Christian or Moslem state. We are better of not trying in any way to compete for a religious state in Liberia.

In a state where over 300,000 people have been killed for political power, can we have peace when we permit an elected president to stay 6 years in power, a representative 6 years and a senator 9 years?

These are some of the issues that must be decided before the ensuing elections. No sitting president will spend any time on reducing his or her tenure. If it happens we will be happy; but we know that it is a difficult thing to do.

The way forward
As I said earlier, I have no prescription. The purpose of this conference is for us to collectively find the way forward to lasting peace. Let us examine how we got where we are, but most important, let us work on our own prescription for attaining lasting peace. Others have done a lot for peace in Liberia, beginning with the intervention of ECOWAS in August 1990 and 2003, followed by the intervention of the United Nations through the International Contact Group on Liberia in October 2003. They have done their part; we must do ours. We must identify strategies for lasting peace to which we can commit our lives. Ownership of the peace process by the Liberian people is quite necessary for lasting peace. For example, do we want to bring to justice those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia? Do we just want truth and reconciliation? Do we prefer to let bygones be bygones and move ahead? What do we do about those who have transformed the transitional government into a predatory institution, a Kleptocracy?

When Liberians honestly decide to provide a solution to their problems, their choice will be respected by the rest of the world. In this regard, it is important to note that what later became known as the ECOWAS Peace Plan, which called for a ceasefire, the formation of an interim government not to be headed by a warlord, and whose head is not eligible for election, was a plan put together by Archbishop Michael Francis, Shiehk Kafumba Konneh and other religious leaders under the auspices of the Interfaith Mediation Committee of Liberia. If their formula had received the required support of the world in 1990, perhaps Liberia would not have been where it is today. In one form or the other, their wisdom remains an integral part of the peace process.

If we honestly decide at this conference to put Liberia first, and freely and openly discuss the way forward for lasting peace, we will succeed as our religious leaders did in 1990. Let as find the courage to do so. Let us leave this place with a firm commitment to lasting peace in Liberia. We must work for the day when Liberia will be synonymous with peace, freedom and justice. On that day we will all together, joyously sing, “Long live Liberia, happy land, a home of glorious liberty by God’s command.”

Thank you.