Talking Points For Abuja
By: Bushuben M. Keita
Posted March 13, 2002
I have failed to find meaningful grounds for the meeting, which I have heard about, apparently to be held in Nigeria, between the Liberian government and the Liberian opposition. I am sure that the international peace brokers mean well by attempting to mediate a resolution to the ongoing Liberian impasse. But what is there to negotiate? The idea may sound good, but can there be practical benefits? Here is how my mind runs:
1. Are the opposition participants hoping that Taylor will resign? Let's disabuse them of this idea right away. The man is fixated on the presidency. According to veteran Liberian broadcaster Steve Macondo, Charles Taylor mentioned his presidential ambitions to President Tolbert before the 1980 coup. He led an invading force into Liberia where his mother and father and siblings resided. His father died, he did not stop. His brothers died, he did not stop. 250,000 people died, 90 percent of them non-combatants, he did not stop. Peace talks after peace talks were held by all of the important places in West Africa, at the OAU and at the UN to no avail. Do you really believe that he will step down in a meeting with the opposition? I doubt it.
2. Can Taylor be persuaded to hold fair elections, allowing the opposition to establish an independent press and allowing free movement about the country? In answering I say observe Mugabe in Zimbabwe and their current election fiasco. Did Savimbi accept defeat? The trend among leaders who know that they are unpopular is to cheat. They try to avoid elections as much as possible and then cheat if they must hold it. Those meeting with Taylor must know that there is no freedom to establish a free press or independent short wave radio stations for those who can afford to establish them, and that the local and foreign press cannot go about their business within all practical legal limits. How would free elections be guaranteed?
3. What about the elections commission for 2003? To present the argument that the elections commission needs to be restructured with opposition representatives on board will meet resistance from the government side. They will argue that that course is illegal under Liberian law since the appointing power lies with the President and he can choose whomever he pleases, and they will be right. A practical solution could be to demand that the elections commission be monitored by a non-decision making international body of election observers with access similar to that which the Taylor appointed commission has, in order to observe them cheat and possibly stop them before it is too late. At least if they cheat the representatives will be certain to know. Will Taylor accept that?
4. How is the security arrangement going to be handled for those who need to campaign across the country in 2003? Or even just go there to vote? Certainly not by Taylor's men who continue to discredit themselves even as we write. Members of the opposition will not be allowed to hire private security escorts as they go about their business, although this is necessary because even if the escorts are not armed, they will serve as a deterrent to the kind of random violence in which the local security forces specialize. At least there could be witnesses to atrocities or intimidation. Taylor will likely interpret this as undermining his authority as a sovereign.
I therefore do not see much that the opposition stand to gain from the proposed meeting with the Taylor government except to negotiate for the enjoyment of their constitutional rights. If they have already committed or feel that there is a real chance of something happening, let them try. Maybe they can use some of the foregoing as talking points.
My point of view continues to be that the Liberian opposition needs to put aside their differences for the time being and meet together with the purpose of forming a united political front that can make demands of the government based upon rights guaranteed in the constitution and laws of Liberia. There is nothing to go begging about. You ask for concessions or favors when you are doing or have done something illegal. But organizing or participating in opposition political activities is not a negotiable item. It is a right that is fundamental and inalienable. It is to be demanded and not negotiated. To go groveling before Taylor as if he is the one to decide how much rights and freedoms Liberians can have is a continuation of a series of bad concessions made to the man over the years.
Politics is about working things out in all ways realizable. So the opposition can negotiate and settle on something. And then present that to the government and people of Liberia and see what results. They need to try. The world will back a united opposition. There are many interests that want to see a change of government, but Liberians have to show in real terms that they are serious. The government does not have to attend a meeting to give it validity. Respectable Liberians can achieve this. They have to give it a try.
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