Liberia's Politicians Blinded
by "The Ground"
By Tom Kamara
Sept 25, 2000
Isolated, demonized and despised for their role in the Sierra Leone war and related diamond theft, among others, Liberian politicians are now claiming that their image woes are linked to a conscious misrepresentation of prevailing developments "on the ground." The claim however falls apart when placed against continued clampdown on free speech and media institutions seeing events "on the ground" wearing different lenses in interpreting events. This has left "the ground" uncontested for the interpretation of events. The arrest, imprisonment and torture of Britain's Channel 4 documentary crew sent a clear message from the ground that Liberia's ground for the fertilization of views is barren.
At home "on the ground", anarchy has consumed the country's PR machinery. Ministers, anxious to please the president as they violently compete for foreign PR trips, are at perpetual war with one another, reigning allegations of who is trying to "bring down the Government." Information Minister Joe Mulbah, a long-time Taylor confidante from the war years, and his deputy Milton Teahjay, a mercurial and opportunistic demagogue of the opposition United People's Party, have become comedians on radio talk shows, insulting and challenging one another to duels. Both men are said to have misused state telephone facilities to the tune of about US$300,000. This is not particularly unusual, considering the fact that their idea of an information system is endlessly picking up the phone to call the BBC's Robin White for airing reactions, or traveling to the BBC's London studio for shouting contests. To compound the anarchy, Police Director Paul Mulbah, who rose from insurance broker, butler to Alhaji Kromah of former ULIMO-K rebel faction, to Police chief, threatened to arrest the talk show host for facilitating Teahjay's broadcast claims of his boss' alleged duplicity and treachery. Teahjay told listeners that his boss has "terribly damaged the image of the country". And as if to distance himself from the core of Taylor's Government who earned their positions through the use of the AK-47, or by justifying its redeeming values, Teahjay clarified, "I am not an armed man, I am not a former fighter, I do not belong to any faction and I am not in cohort with anybody."
The disarray, now common in a government noted for ministers' frequent fistfights, comes when there are concerns of silence among opposition politicians on ongoing abuses and corruption, leaving the Government without opposition except for the impoverished and cowed media. The UN's Representative in the country, Felix-Downes Thomas recently lamented this paralysis and silence of Liberia's opposition parties "on the ground" on key issues. But Thomas surprised many because he has been one of President Taylor's most ardent defenders since arriving in the country about three years ago. Hence, he was quickly reminded by one of the country's newspapers (The News) of his significant contributions to the hopelessness and paralysis of the Opposition by justifying abuses where he can, and remaining silent where justifications are difficult to find.
However, long before Thomas' diagnosis, signals of the Opposition's withering were on the wall. Immediately after the elections, Taylor assured loyalists of plans to ensure that power remains far beyond the reach of the feeble and destitute opposition leaders, as they "get old, senile, and frustrated without ever smelling the Presidency. I will sit here like a Porcupine and see who will move me," said Taylor. He reaffirmed his president-for-life-plan last month to a foreign journalist by promising a greater landslide victory come elections scheduled for 2003, while loyalists warned they are in power for the "next 20 years."
This campaign against what they regard as misrepresentation of progress on the ground is waged at a time when the Government is innovating its PR by transforming the entire government into roving image builders. Senate President Kekura Kpoto, former chair of Samuel Doe's junta party who switched loyalty to Taylor during the war as Doe was mutilated, on a PR mission along with scores of other officials, told a gathering of Liberians in New York during a PR campaign that:
"We are now fighting a new kind of war. The gun has ceased, but the weapons we are using are stronger than the guns. The pen is mightier than the sword. Right now we are using the pen. This is a war that will be difficult to win. If you kill one man (in Liberia) through the pen, there are thousands who are going to die, because there are some people, believe me, when they put things down, people are bound to believe"
But except for state functionaries from the ground, wearing tainted lenses, the consistent views of professionals and ordinary people coming from, and on the ground depict extortion, corruption, Government's insensitivity, and general lack of purpose. Says Samuel Divine, a banker, apparently after a recent visit:
"They thought hunger was a thing of the past; the war is over, isn't it? Instead, it is still much a thing of the present. People cannot afford to buy rice. The government says it is strapped for cash. They notice several new security groups in various uniforms that appear well armed.
"What about all those luxury cars? They see some very creative plates and meet some of the owners whose only claim to fame is being one of the many girlfriends of various married "Bossmen" who are "the people." Jokingly, the men in the group consider whether it is time for a sex change. They've GOTTA get themselves a new BMW or Benz. Some of their new acquaintances brag about having more than one luxury car and offer to show them. All other luxury cars are those of the bossmen themselves.
"What about the government's attitude to business? They
see the closure of Star Radio, Radio Veritas, as well as the seizure
of one of the most popular, and maybe the only 100% Liberian-owned-banks
in the country. Interesting! How can they be assured that if they,
as journalists, bankers, and other professionals came home and
opened businesses they would not be subject to these actions?
As professionals, their goals are to perform their professional
and patriotic duties free from worries that they could be shut
down without any notice..."
Such are the "misrepresented views" on the ground, which the Government is determined to counter. But being conditioned to a given situation, such as the acceptance of theft and terror as normal in country like Liberia, can lead to the blindness in seeing their ugly effects. And to determine the rules in this theater of the Government's declared "pen war," Taylor's disciples present physical presence on "the ground" as evidence of truth and reality. This must be because since assuming office, they have ensured that only like-minded followers remain on the ground to view and interpret events. Critical journalists have been driven into exile while independent and probing media have disappeared. About 20 Liberian exiled politicians are officially barred from returning home. They are wanted on the dubious charge of treason. Long, laughable and windy treason trials, which commenced one year after elections, continue in place of reconciliation. Thousands of Liberians in the US and other places are filing for political asylum due to deteriorating security and therefore economic conditions. Disappearances of suspected opponents on the ground continue, sending a message to many that the ground can be a horrifying place.
In the midst of fear and compromise tied to, in most cases for personal benefits, some Opposition politicians have joined the Government in advancing the contention that knowledge of evolving events in the country is possible only when you are "on the ground." Not to be "on the ground" is not to know the tremendous progress pursued and spearheaded by Taylor. Not to know the "renaissance" unfolding is not to understand the historic and giant steps taken towards development and democratization.
Although we are in the Communication Age, living in a Global Village that is shrinking rapidly due to the swift flows and innovative information techniques, fast and frequent movements of people, the Government claims its problems are the making of its detractors, including scores of foreign journalists, refusing to see what is on the ground. Unfortunately, this dictum is spreading as Taylor suffocates the very instruments that elevate the ground for facilitating a clearer view of the surroundings. His primitive war against institutions of free speech such as radio stations and newspapers, is intended to obscure seeing what is actually prevailing on the ground, an impossible dream in this Communication Age. Media institutions have been intimidated, with the President threatening to "personally be ferocious" with journalists at the New Democrat, now-in-limbo, for views he opposed. He warned staff at the paper that he would personally attack them without the help of his thuggish security forces. Other papers circulating have either adopted a savage form of self-censorship or have been co-opted through financing from the President's pocket to wear his lenses. The objective in this crude and primitive censorship is to create a single flow of information from Taylor and his mostly illiterate propagandists. So, in the absence of independent channels for balanced information that various media such as Star Radio provided with their worldwide Internet reach, Taylor and his crew now wear the lenses which they believe give them the monopoly of seeing what is "on their ground." The intensity of this campaign indicates that this strategy is a well thought out, but feeble one of diversion.
House Speaker, Nyudueh Morkonmana, while on a PR campaign in New York, recently, set the tone of this strategy. Nyudueh, one of the firebrand activists against Liberian governments in the 1970s, confessed and regretted his past pro-democracy activism because, he told an angry and disdainful gathering, it was based on the "wrong information" he was getting "from the ground." He said upon returning home in the 1980s, he discovered "on the ground" that President William Tolbert, whom Doe assassinated that same year, was indeed leading tremendous socioeconomic progress, contrary to views held by exiles, including him. He emphasized that his thoughts and actions formed in the US defied the realities "on the ground." In his home area of Grand Kru County, Nyudueh now laments, he was shocked to see the infrastructure he never expected. But despite this starling repentance and discovery "on the ground", Nyudueh, Taylor, and many other violent self-proclaimed champions of change and equality became loyal members of the military junta, and helped to corrupt it. Asked by one angry exiled Liberian if Liberians, after a gruesome war that left 250,000 dead in the name of change, are now better off under Taylor than under Doe and Tolbert, an overly agitated and angry Nyudueh answered, "I will not tell you that because it is not so". But he added amidst thunderous boos warranting the intervention of the moderator for restraint that, "The first thing the Liberian people got was a democratically elected Government that was not interfered withWe have the vision to do thingsIf you give us the opportunity, we will do better" Using former US President Jimmy Carter as his reference, he said Liberia's 1997 election was "the best in the world, better than (any) US election." This led to loud and angry protests ("kpooooo", one woman exclaimed in disgust and disbelief) from the audience with the moderator pleading for calm since, he warned," emotions were high."
The message in Nyudueh's confession of getting "the wrong information on the ground," while he was an exile in the 70s is clear: those Liberians now not "on the ground", are misrepresenting developments "on the ground". Like him, they should repent and see the glory unfolding. And because they are not "on the ground", their perceptions of Taylor's Liberia are flawed. They cannot see the tremendous "progress" made since Taylor became President three years ago, progress, he said, such as the rehabilitation of all former fighters, vicious killers who propelled them to power and now abandoned.
Although the song of "truth coming from the ground" is widely held by many politicians, Nyudueh is one of the few to release it in public, setting the tune for others to follow. Key politicians (names withheld since they have not yet made their confessions public) have already begun making secret confessions of how they, too, misrepresented events on the ground, and thus made incalculable misjudgments that sparked the continuing horrors. The stampede to confess is leading to a cult of "on the ground" converts. One prominent politician has reportedly confessed his sins, revealing that his activities against Samuel Doe's military junta were misguided because he was not "on the ground" to see the truth, the progress led by the junta leader. Never mind that this particular politician was amongst those imprisoned and had to flee the country. Never mind that he was witness to, and opposed several draconian policies, (while physically on the ground) that contributed to mounting disenchantment upon which Mr. Taylor rode in his brutal quest for power. By extension, this politician, now in the comfort of Taylor's household, insists that the perceptions about the President and his cronies circulated by those outside the country defy actual happenings "on the ground," just as he misrepresented progress under Doe, something he now terribly regrets. The underlying message again is clear: Taylor is performing wonderfully. The problem is that those who are not on the ground are spreading lies, "gutter politics" about this well-meaning man. As Kpoto puts it, "You should not castigate Liberia because you want to live in America".
The hypocrisy in this dance with lies on the ground shamelessly buried in the fallacy of truth coming from "the ground" is that many of the regime's politicians and loyalists, on foreign visits, are consciously circulating two brands of events in the country, using two different types of lenses. In contacts with foreign officials who hold the purse for donor aid, they use the deceivingly bright lenses, which paint progress, democratization and stability. In talks with others not tied to funding organizations, they use the truth-bearing darker lenses of horrors, tyranny and mass theft. One such politician, during an interview with the Dutch Foreign Ministry publication, painted a glossy picture of events without even considering the possibility that the journalists he was talking to had more access to daily information and confidential documents contrasting his deception. (One of the files I was shown by a foreign colleague depicting connections deals among various actors in the war had me sleepless for nights.) This is what happens when one is on "on the ground." Being "on the ground" can color or block your views in seen afar, particularly when you lack the benefit of "height". But no matter how tall you are, you need an elevation to broaden the scope of your view. If not, optical illusion comes in. And then there is the element of fear. Only the insane would portray the true picture of events in Liberia publicly and then return with expectations of living in safety. Dozens of those on the ground, who courageously used different lenses in seeing the ground, have either been killed or compelled to flee.
Moreover, the indications are that many politicians, living in a depressed economic situation in which the President determines who eats and who goes hungry, are wearing different lenses to see what is on the ground. With such lenses, they see promotion and adherence to human rights, even if there are volumes of independent reports telling horror stories of summary executions, as in the cases of the Dokies and hundreds of Krahns, among many others. From "the ground," they see good governance and empowerment, even if the then President of the Senate (Charles Brumskine) was forced to flee for wearing different glasses to view Liberia's implication in Sierra Leone theft linked to the President. They see an emerging culture of human rights, even if the state commissioner for human rights was arrested by Police, severely flogged, and forced into exile. They look and find democratization, even if media institutions are closed down or forced to shutdown. Their lenses focused on the "ground" let them see accountability, even if theft is the rule of the game. They look and see "on the ground" an emerging economy, even if resources are squandered and surrendered to dubious investors in the name of development. Their lenses allow them to see reconciliation, even if key opposition figures have been murdered while many have fled.
Liberia's politicians simply are blinded "on the ground" to the level of not being able to see how crime is made official policy despite limitless reports in world media. For example, an American, James Robert Level, is one of the latest victims in the criminal empire killing investment that our "on the ground, politicians" cannot possibly see. Level recently revealed that prior to the 1997 elections, he was invited to Liberia by Moussa Cisse, one of Taylor's confidantes, for a deal that would have landed him with a diplomatic appointment, rights in diamond mining and a pharmaceutical business. Level says he gave Cisse $150,000 based on a letter Taylor allegedly signed guaranteeing the deal. Of course, Taylor's public affairs minister, Reginald Goodridge, now denies that the signature on the letter is Taylor's, a not surprising denial considering the fact that Taylor himself is known for disputing his own signature, as was the case when he disputed his signature witnessed by presidents and prime ministers during the signing of a peace agreement in Abidjan to end the Liberian war. Level lost the total of $250,000, believing he was about to gain from his investment. Says the pro-Government newspaper Monrovia Guardian:
"The American (Level), who now appears destitute with holes in shoes, says he was a few months away from getting his medical degree before coming to Liberia, and that bankruptcy charges in the United States have stripped him of his home and other property in that country, and prevented him from completing his studies." Cries Level according to the paper:
"Tragically, my mother, having lost everything we ever owned, has attempted suicide twice and is presently an invalid without money for a decent funeral, thanks to a scam by Senator Garlawolu, who just happens to be Moussa Cisse's legal counsel and partner in crime," the paper quoted Level as saying.
The Opposition (if one can really call it that) has long lost its own glasses to view and translate events. Faced with a deteriorating image problem, Taylor dispatched a team of "on the ground" Opposition" politicians to Washington and Europe with a mandate of convincing donors on how well he was doing in the areas of democratization and accountability, all with the dream of receiving millions of dollars in aid. Their arrogance and ineptitude were laid bare when they actually took the assignment in the bizarre belief that they held the keys to the truth because they were "on the ground". In this Communication Age, both the US and Europe have teams of representatives in the country with alternative means of collecting and verifying information which escaped these self-appointed messengers from "the ground".
Since then, many opposition figures have compromised themselves into oblivion by accepting Taylor's gifts, and therefore baptizing their own silence in adhering to the rule of not biting the hands that feeds. Some politicians have been lodged and fed, with reminders by one of the country's most notorious crooks now chair of Taylor's National Patriotic Party, Cyril Allen, that they should find jobs and get off the President's "largess". With uncertain prospects in this marriage of convenience, some opposition figures have come to loathe Taylor privately, only to praise him publicly. Now, many politicians, past exiled critics of successive regimes, have belatedly discovered that after all, they, merely by being "on the ground," can better see and interpret events as they hold the keys for truth.
However, what the "on the ground" prophets of truth are telling us is the real reasons behind the clampdown on free speech and independent media. Star Radio, among others, was feeding the outside world with daily information outside the network of the Ministry of Information. But one cannot fight an idea whose time has come, as someone warned long ago. Let them stay on the ground and be blinded. Being on the top of the ground gives one a better view.
Beauty, indeed, is in the eyes of the beholder, just as the
beneficiary of Evil sees no evil in it.