Struggling Against The Sword
By Tom Kamara
March 26, 2001
The winds of intolerance raging over Liberia since its founding in 1822 by freed American slaves, continue to blow with devastating effects despite a coup d'etat over 2 decades ago in the name of change, followed by a war of terror in the name of justice. "I came to get the dictator off the Liberian peoples' back," Taylor the ruthless, marauding warlord promised a decade ago. But the handwriting was all along on the wall, for even the blind, that he came to climb on the people's back for implanting a more debased tyranny. "I will sit there like a porcupine and see who will remove me," he clarified later.
And indeed, he has. The recent brutish armed assaults on students and teachers at University of Liberia indicate that certain things don't however simply change, and this includes an in-built value system of a people.
Successive Liberian regimes, adamant in their politics of exclusion and obsessed with theft and plunder as political gains, lived and ruled by the sword, and those who naively expected a departure from this value system under a man who reduced the country to utter primitive levels for the presidency, determined to win power by all means and at all costs, grossly showed their ineptitude in defying history and ignoring reality. As before, in this war against ideas opposed to totalitarianism, the University remains a "legitimate military target." Its President, a Taylor protégé and key participant in the war in which child soldiers died in their tens of thousands, Dr. Ben Roberts, decreed after the bloody assault that the University is not a "place for political agenda." He proceeded to "discipline" the students by suspending their leaders from studies, vowing to continue the purge of ideas in Taylor's name. But Men like Roberts defy history because his predecessors had used the same scripts of intolerance only to regret their war against ideas in the service of a myopic tyrant. He will be no different.
The historical reality is that from its inception, the Liberian state was built on brutality and exploitation, all in a crusade of politics as means of personal wealth. "There is an open system of acquiring wealth here", Taylor recently defended his plundering regime as his benefiting cronies clapped. Thus, Liberia has always been a state erected on the pillars of Tammany Hall politics, rewarding its adherents with beastly power and therefore material wealth in a sea of poverty and illiteracy. The novelist Graham Greene noted this during a visit to this enclave of primitivism sold as civilization. "Almost every other man is a lawyer and every other man politicianCorruption does not make for simplicity as might be supposed. It may be all the question of cash and printing presses and armed police, but things have to be done with an air...," the British man wrote in Journey Without Maps over 60 years ago. Nothing has changed since then, only that these values are now more cemented than imagined.
In the preservation of loot, brutality against opponents is a measurement of personal power, something appreciated by most sectors of the society as a proof of actual manhood against "weaklings". Doe's challenge to his opponents was ("let's measure pricks to determine who is more of a man." Taylor vows to chase his opponents in their "mothers' wombs", always reminding them that, "I am a tough guyy'all know me" In such a setting, it is not intellect that counts. Ideas are offensive. What matters is how a "strongman" humiliates opponents. In 1996, as Taylor and Kromah prepared to burn down Monrovia in a show of power, the former angrily warned:
"They are writing 'Angels of Death.' Look, I am no Angel of Death and I am going to prove it in this town. I am very serious, me, Charles Ghankay, I will prove that I am no Lord of War and I am no Angel of Death. If you don't respect this [collective] presidency, you'll respect it or I am going to lock horns with some people here one on one. They think ECOMOG here to support their nonsense and their talks. ECOMOG will not stop me. It's almost reaching now that we will make sure that different processes; due processes of law maybe, and in some cases, the laws of the jungle to bring things under control in this town. You know Charles Taylor, we will straighten things out", writes Kenneth L. Cain in his moving account of events in "The Rape of Dinah: Human Rights, Civil War in Liberia, and Evil Triumphant."
A few days after this psychopathic ranting, Taylor dispatched his loyal child soldiers to hunt down G. Baccus Matthews who had declared him and his followers "Angels of Death." Matthews, now a Taylor-appointed PR officer for the Malaysian timber company Oriental Timber Company accused of indiscriminate deforestation, was only saved by West African troops who ferried him into hiding as the warlord's child soldiers looted his home, wearing his underpants and daring him to show head out. In a recent speech, Taylor praised Matthews because, he said, unlike others, this leader of the opposition United People's Party, known as one of the fathers of political confrontation, is "no longer talking nonsense." He has accepted " reconciliation," Taylor told followers, adding that others who have not would be chased "in their mothers' wombs."
Said John T. Richardson, NPFL spokesman also known as Octopus because he allegedly masterminded the bloody invasion of Monrovia code named Octopus that left thousands dead and destroyed most parts of the city:
"What the journalists have failed to point out is that this time, unlike previous fighting in Monrovia, the civilians have not really suffered. . . . In the past, fighters would rip out people's intestines and use them to string up roadblocks, or cut off people's heads. This time there has been none of that", Caine wrote. Richardson, now a comfortable businessman in Taylor's household, was referring to the 1996 war in Monrovia, which left over 3,000 dead, according to figures released by the UN. Tens of thousands jumped on leaking boats for refugee camps to leave the city to the Angels of Death, with the Archangel Taylor in command.
But the ruthless contest over the state and its meagre resources has left most elite families incapacitated and in the wilderness of despair. The two last presidents - William Tolbert and Doe - were killed in gruesome rituals. Properties of elites, including once plush homes and sprawling farms worked by underpaid, sometime forcibly recruited native workers, are derelict or have simply disappeared. Most members of the ruling elites now live out of the country, unable to return home. Hence, Liberia has no museums of its past, no reminders of being, and nothing to point to yesterday's glory. Everything has withered in the fury of bloody competition. And yet, Taylor and his new set of the most unscrupulous of cronies and thieves actually believe they are creating a resilient politico-economic environment that will survive them for the better when all signs are that theirs will wither with the clouds.
On the other hand, what decades of exclusion did to the psyche of many Liberians of non-Americo-Liberian origin, the so-called "natives", were to reduce their minds into accepting the caste system that convinced them to infinitely endure their pre-determined place in society. So, many "natives", although exposed to the egalitarian concepts of Western democracy via Western liberal education which taught that all men (and women!) are equal, actually held protesting students and professors at the University of Liberia, amongst other institutions, responsible for all the social evils all because they consistently challenged and opposed the Americo political establishment and its monopoly of politics, therefore the economy. It is a case of slaves unshakably believing that their lot rests with preserving and defending their slave master's status and economic interests in society. The extent of this acceptance of this informal caste system is that if a referendum were held amongst native Liberians today, most would probably crucify their protesting compatriots at the University for all the country's social ills while vindicating the oligarchs. "You people caused all this trouble", is a common verdict heard among native Liberians against their rebellious brethren, and this has been Taylor's strength. At least when "things were good", the servants now reflect on their glorious years of servitude, they served as well-fed houseboys, civil servants, policemen and lower rank army officers under grossly unqualified and incompetent Americos whose only credentials were the name and therefore the attending political connections. For instance, as Sawyer's interim government rolled into sad Monrovia in 1990 to provide a semblance of civil administration for West African peacekeeping troops, a number of native technicians, now happily answering "yes sir!" to Americos, felt belittled answering "yes sir" to fellow natives. It is South Africa in reverse, or the case of African-Americans and other blacks who roam around proudly proclaiming, "My best friends are whites", failing to realize that no matter how hard they try, as the musician Michael Jackson indicates, they cannot be white. In Liberia now as before, the satisfied servant feels redeemed. At least there is a warm place to sleep and a daily meal from the master's table. Life is fulfilled!
In all this mayhem, what many commentators on the country have since failed to grasp is that its recent war, just as its coup of 1980, is a continuing, bitter struggle over material resources by competing sectors of society believing that political power, and rightly so, means economic power. The level of looting and destruction of personal property, the bestiality against civilians and propertied classes, provided sufficient evidence that this was not a war for change, but one over the scramble for state resources. Every professional, anyone who looked prosperous, all that represented prosperity, were seen as a future threat in the contest for things and therefore executed. With incentives (such as one dead head for one house), the war had to be won. The underclass wanted the homes of the other classes, and this would be impossible if the owners were alive. Unfortunately, it took the ruthless plunder of neighbouring Sierra Leone's diamonds, the use of child soldiers and child labour to extract the stones, to see this face of Liberia. Even if Charles Taylor, like Samuel Doe before him, had wished to depart from this value system of theft and brutality, it was utterly impossible. An individual does not change merely by acquiring titles such as, "President, His Excellency, Dr." It is therefore not surprising to those who appreciate history or rely on the past to interpret the present, that Taylor has gone back to the basics of Liberian political culture - a ruthless clampdown on dissent where material privileges of the ruling clique are threatened.
In this never-ending contest for increasingly scarce resources with rising population, one set of rulers must exclude the other once in power. In this life and death scramble, one set must flee, if lucky, to America while another plunders until they are violently killed or removed for the other players-in-waiting to return in the game of plunder. It is as if this is the agreed criterion. But this endless scramble for power and resources, and the dichotomy between Amricos and natives, are carefully avoided by political elites since it is subject with imbedded sensitivity. Better pretend the non-existence of the division in the, "we all are one" fallacy than work against the inequalities.
However, not everyone believes in this so-called oneness. Former President of the Senate Charles Brumskine, who worked fervently for the Taylor presidency, would proclaim, "We want our country back", reminding members of his National Patriotic Party never to forget the "people of the of the 70s", the same people now under siege as the University assault shows. But it would be wrong to accuse the Americos of opting for disunity, for this is not the case. For decades, there was a policy "Unification", but unification only on their terms. Hence Taylor claims to be leading a nation in unity, suggesting to outlaw discussion of the ethnic division even if he carefully targeted dozens of African-Liberian politicians and academics and eliminated them during the war.
Many, if not nearly all-key players in charge of the current
plunder, and in charge of Sierra Leone diamonds and gunrunning,
the forests, were all residents-in-waiting in the US while the
Doe junta ruled. Taylor is one of the few exceptions, although
he had lived in the US for years until he, too, was recruited
as a shinning member of the junta's plundering team. But along
with Europeans like the Dutchman Gus Kowenhouven and many others,
Liberia's new plunderers entrenching tyranny to safeguard their
plunder were all in on the line in America until Taylor called
them home to reap the rewards of the war they financed. Now, they
are politicians, lawyers, "businessmen," until a new
group takes over and calls in their loyalists from American cities.
This is the revolving door that has allowed anarchy, mediocrity
In this scramble, striking similarities between Doe and Taylor are revealed daily. One year in office, 1981, Doe turned on the University, arresting, imprisoning and banning student leaders because he said they were socialists. In 1984, his troops invaded the University, the same institution that initially welcomed his rule as a hope for change and participatory democracy. From then onwards, the University became a bastion of opposition against his brutish and corrupt politics. Of particular target were the same targets Taylor has selected, student belonging to the campus political Student Unification Party or SUP. This is so because the University has always been a microcosm of the larger society with clearer social divisions. SUP is mainly made up of student from the poorer society, meaning native Liberians. Students from families of the oligarchs and those who admire their value system and politics, have been SUP's traditional opponents. But since poorer students are in the majority, with ethnicity and economic divisions as factors, SUP remains the most popular party, winning nearly all elections. Like Doe, Taylor detests SUP. And like Doe, his support base at the University is built around students from the oligarchy and their native assimilados, always in the extreme minority despite the financial and other support they from successive corrupt regime. Since even Lucifer has his fanatic followers, a new student opposed to SUP and advocating Taylor's agenda has emerged, named the Student Action Group. Composed of former rebel fighters, it helped in launching the thugs' attacks on the students.
Both Taylor and Doe hated ideas. Both men loathed intellectuals. Like Doe, Taylor is intolerant of competition, always wanting to be the shinning star and seeing others as mere disciples to carry out his orders and nothing more. And like Doe, he is extremely brutal with total disregard for the law and life, except his own.
And like Doe, his success has been tied to the value system prevailing in the country. Doe's first casualties when he came to power were the students while the rest of society largely sat back, in some case blaming the students for being perennial troublemakers. He arrested a number of student leaders, charged them with treason, and set an execution date. When he finally announced a pardon to send lesson he should never be questioned on how state resources are used, Monrovia rejoiced in uproar. After that, with the advice of members of the oligarchy and their native allies then firmly at the helms of power, he turned on his former allies, the University progressive intellectuals at the University, slapping them with "communism and socialism", charges during the Cold War that meant justified death or honourable exile if one was lucky. After that, it was everybody's term, everybody that questioned his regime of theft and brutality. In the end, as his once sycophantic advisors abandoned him and crossed carpet to a new chief of general staff in death and theft, he fell, leaving a legacy of intolerance as a political tool for his disciples, key among them Taylor.
Except for the confused or the opportunistic, it was foolhardy believing Taylor's promises of democracy. The man loves violence, naked power, always anxious to portray himself as first among equals even if last among equals, ruthless, bestial, greedy, adventurous, deceptive, and simply a thief. The ambivalence of society encouraged his thieving terror. When he clamped down on the Krahns killing 300 and exiling over 18,000 in 1998, many in Monrovia rejoiced against "evil Krahns." Family members and friends were barred from claiming bodies later dumped in a mass grave. The Mandingos were next in line. He has now focused on the University, and after it, it is everybody's turn. And like the Krahns, only those who wished to follow their dead would publicly talk about the students allegedly killed during the recent raid.
The old scripts, which equate demands for justice with opposition politics, have returned. That a student rally of solidarity with detained journalists is a "political party agenda" indicates the minds of those running the country. The hypocrisy comes when violent men use the University for their brand of politics and see no contradiction. Doe wanted an honorary doctorate degree from this institution to enhance his standing, but the leaders of the university then, with some "class", refused to grant his wish. Here again, it all depends on one's conception of "class" because the same University would present an honorary degree to Taylor, the single and best-known individual in the destruction of schools and educational institutions along with looting and unimagined brutalities that make Doe looks a saint.
Thus the sword of tyranny and brutality remains squarely in place, hanging over a conquered people now commanded by child soldiers grown into men, mindless killers, knowing no values other than those of their recruiter. In such an environment, institutions for carving minds of reason are incompatible with the value system of a thieving warlord.