Open Letter to President Bush

By Jerry Gbardy

The Perspective

March 4, 2002

Mr. President: I am taking this time to write to you Mr. President, because I am confident that you will read it. I believe in and trust the American political culture. This is the country where individual civil liberties are highly respected. Whether what I have written makes sense to you or not, I believe you will read it and give me a feedback. This letter has a hundred percent chance of reaching you, unlike in my own country, Liberia, a letter addressed to the president has a 0.05% chance out of hundred of reaching him. But first let me begin by thanking the American people through you for all the material and food assistance many Liberians received and continue to receive in refugee camps in West Africa. Most of the food items bear the inscription, “Gift from the people of the United States.” All through out my refugee life in Siera Leone, I was fortunate to be a direct beneficiary of this kind gesture.

The founding of Liberia as you know, is a result of an American experiment to repatriate freed American slaves back toAfrica. Thus one can not adequately discuss the history of Liberia without mentioning the African American connection. This has led to a special relationship between the two peoples as was beautifully summed up recently by Ambassador Robert Perry, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs to a Liberian audience: “Liberia and the United States have a ‘special relationship’ resulting from historical ties...We have a common language, similar constitutions and bill of rights, a common form of government, a similar flag, and for many of us, a common heritage.” The Ambassador could not have said it any better.

Because of this special relationship, Liberia has stood behind the US in every major foreign policy issue especially during the Cold War era. One clear example that stands out is Liberia’s boycott of the International Olympic held in Moscow in 1980 because the US led the boycott. Due to the historical ties, Liberians learn more about the US than any other country in the West. We read American books (history, literature, English) in schools, watch American movies, listen to American music, follow American presidential elections, and most important of all, depend on the US PL480 rice, which is our staple diet, for survival. To be successful in any career in Liberia, present an American academic credential, then you are good to go.

The US has given economic support to past Liberian governments. We even adopted the US currency much to the envy of other African countries until 1984/1985. Before the 1989 civil war, ask a Liberian to select between visiting the US where he will have to buy his ticket before traveling, and another European country where he will visit free of charge, he/she will choose the former. This is to demonstrate the degree of our obsession with the US. When the September 11th incident occurred, many Liberians here and back home, treated it as if it happened on the Liberian soil. We empathized and sympathized with the American people. We shared the American people’s grief. What more can we do as a people to draw your attention to our plight?

Mr. President, I cite this little background information to give you an understanding of Liberians’ positive attitude toward the United States. However on the other side of the coin, the US betrayed us when we needed her most. I am referring to the civil war that decimated the country from Christmas Eve 1989 to present. The US abandoned Liberians in 1990 at the eleventh hour when hundreds were dying of hunger and bullets from armed men in Monrovia, the capital. What is mind-boggling is the fact that a US Marines gunboat was stationed off the coast of Monrovia with the Marines watching the carnage go on in Monrovia without intervening. All they did later was fly over the city in helicopters to rescue stranded Americans. Some Liberians sought refuge at the Gravestone Compound near the US Embassy with the notion that the compound being US-owned, would have been a safe haven. That did not deter armed men from going in the compound and picking up innocent people for slaughter. That war resulted in the death of more than 250,000 Liberians and production of a large refugee population. Another war is raging again as I write this letter.

By intervention, I don’t mean the Marines getting involved in the fighting, but creating a safe haven in the Mamba Point District near the US Embassy to shield non-combatants (The Marines landed one afternoon and set up roadblocks thus raising the hopes of civilians but before dawn, they were gone). In another light, the US would have played an active diplomatic role by calling on France and its former colony, the Ivory Coast to stop destabilizing Liberia.

There is a common saying, “If you can’t help a man don’t hurt him.” The Marines stationed off the coast of Monrovia could not help quench the blazing fire in Monrovia but when Nigeria sent a gunboat to intervene, according to the BBC radio monitored in July 1990, the Marines blocked their passage. The Nigerians were told to go back. And

they complied, which gave rise to the formation of a West African peacekeeping force,

ECOMOG. But several weeks passed before the peacekeepers arrived by which time

hundreds had already died. Many Monrovians, including former vice-president Moniba

owe their survivals to the peacekeepers.

Mr. President, please allow me to further expound on this issue lest the intention of my letter be misconstrued as blaming the US for the fratricidal war and our own inadequacies. We see the US as a big brother owing to the historical ties, as such we expected the US to play a crucial role during the difficult and trying moments of our nation’s history. The US government under George HW Bush’s leadership did not do that in 1990. The arguments advanced by most US foreign policy experts including the US Ambassador to Sierra Leone in 1991, whom I had the opportunity to talk with when I was a refugee in that country, were that, it is only Liberians that will solve their own problem and that Liberia was no longer of any strategic importance to the US after the Cold War.

I could not and still can not comprehend the politics of “strategic importance” when civilians’ lives are at stake.Under the auspices of the UN, the United States intervened in Somalia in 1992 not because of any strategic importance issue. The Marines’ mission was solely humanitarian as the world was told. The Somalis’ situation was not different from ours. It was a civil war like Liberia’s. A lot of innocent Somalis died of hunger and starvation even though there were warehouses filled with relief supplies in Mogadishu. Ambushing of relief convoys by armed gangs of rival factions of Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohammed was the order of the day. Somalis had lost all hope for survival. They lived at the mercy of armed gangs. It was incumbent upon the US to do something to prevent the already astronomical humanitarian catastrophe from further escalating. So the US launched “Operation Restore Hope.” Within a few weeks, hope was restored to many starving Somalis. Not only were the Marines protecting relief convoys in distribution of food supplies, the Marine Commander Johnston was actively, I mean actively involved in brokering a peace deal between warlords Aideed and Mohammed. The US could have done that for the sake of the suffering Liberian civilians.

Let’s also briefly revisit the case of Haiti in 1994. The US wanted the military regime of Rauls Cedras out in order to restore the civil administration of President Aristide. The situation in Haiti was an internal problem like Liberia’s that triggered a mass exodus of Haitian boat people. The US did not wait for Haitians to solve their own problem. All it took was a battle-ready Marines gunship stationed off the coast of Port-au-Prince and the negotiation of then Joint-Chiefs Chairman Powell to scare the hell out of Cedras into abdication without a single shot fired. The “boat people” issue has been settled.

What the US did for other countries but could not do for Liberia was what Britain did for Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leonean war which is an offspring of the Liberian war was

responsible for committing widespread artrocious and gruesome acts against common Sierra Leoneans. Britain did not sit idly by and let the mayhem continue in Sierra Leone. Prime Minister Blair sent in a handful of British Marines in Sierra Leone who, to a greater extent, are credited for the restoration of absolute peace and stability in that country.

The socio-economic and political problems besetting Liberia today can be attributed to the Liberian warlord-turned-president’s quenchless greed for personal power and wealth. Unemployment rate in the country stands at a humongus 85%. Save for Taylor’s inner circles, the average Liberian worker takes pay twice a year, July 26 Independence Day and Christmas celebrations. Life in the country is horrendously deplorable. The average Liberian is a virtual refugee in his own home and would rather be out of the country in refugee camps. He lives in tattered penury. If the distance on the Atlantic Ocean between the US and Liberia were short and easily sailable by boat, US Coast Guards and INS officers would have been working 24/7 dealing with Liberian boat people.

Taylor was elected president because Liberians and the international community were war-weary. Liberians wanted an end to their suffering since indeed the warlord would have settled for nothing less than the presidency. He threatened to go back in the bush like Jonas Savimbi of Angola if he did not win. So they gave him the benefit of the doubt. That was a terrible mistake. Consequently, from 1989 to now the agony and frustration of Liberians continue unabated. His involvement in Sierra Leone in what is referred to as diamond smuggling and gun-running led to the imposition of sanctions on Liberia by the UN. Thanks to the US and Britain. But this is not enough. Due to the fact that trading of diamond from Liberia has been outlawed by the international community, the Monrovia regime shifted its attention to timber trade, which only benefits the president and his bunch of cronies. The beautiful virgin forests in Liberia are being depleted to gargantuan magnitudes without any reforestation efforts.

The Liberian civil strife has reared its ugly head once again. Scores of innocent people are being butchered and others turning into refugees in their own homeland, a situation reminiscent of the 1990s. Elections are slated for 2003, but with the imposition of the state of emergency in Liberia by Mr. Taylor, the idea of holding election is a goal believed to be a million of miles from reality. Taylor only imposed the state of emergency in order to clampdown on the press and opposition perpetually. Therefore Mr. President, please do not turn your back on Liberia as previous administrations before you have done. Majority of the Liberian people want Mr. Taylor out in order to restore total

peace and tranquillity in the country as well as restore her place among the comity of nations. We want you to please add your voice to the numerous voices of Liberians in the Diaspora and those at home who can not speak out for fear of retribution, to call on Mr. Taylor to step aside.You may probably be occupied with the Taliban/al Qaeda and the “Axis of Evil” issues that Liberia may not be a priority. But make no mistake, according to the November 2, 2001 edition of the Washington Post, the regime in Liberia has an al Qaeda connection.

Therefore Mr. President, please permit me to close this letter with a story. There is a story of a person down stream plunging himself in the river to save people floating down stream from drowning. As soon as he saved one person, then down came another from up stream. He got exhausted from saving people time and time again. So what he did in the final analysis was to go up stream and fix the problem that was responsible for throwing the people in the water in the first place. Once he did that the problem stopped.

This approach called the upstream approach was what the US did in Haiti. The US helped to make conditions favorable for Haitians in their home so they do not need to get on decrepit boats, rafts and inner tubes to go to the States again. This upstream approach can be applied to Liberia also. Liberians want to go back home but can not do so as long as Mr Taylor is still chasing people out.

Thanks for your time Mr. President.

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