The Unwanted Liberians

The Perspective
March 29, 2001

Reports of violent clashes between Liberian refugees at the Budumbura camp outside Accra and Ghanaians, leading to several arrests, indicate one of most important aspects of Charles Taylor's failures since he became President four years ago. The optimism that hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered around West Africa and elsewhere would return en masse after elections has turned to despair, and signs are that their misery may not end soon.

The estimated 20,000 refugees at the refugee Bumdumbura camp, living a life of uncertainty, have been there for over a decade. Many fled there in 1990 as Taylor's rebels reigned terror on the civilian population. Taylor's intransigence led to the emergence of multiple rebel factions who in turn targeted the civilians, resulting into greater exodus. The Government of JJ Rawlings provided a piece of land outside Accra, with UN agencies providing tents. With no signs of returning home soon, the tents were transformed into mini one-two bedroom concrete houses. Sources say the refugees' Ghanaians neighbours, now wanting these house, have turned on the "foreigners" with all the fury. Over the years, there have been several reported mysterious deaths in the camp. This trend has continued, resulting into open confrontation with machetes.

But the desire to return home has always been contingent on personal and collective security, something West African rulers, in the rush to crown Taylor, totally ignored in imposing their solution and therefore creating permanent refugees. Many refugees returned home by 1995 due to the security environment existing in the capital Monrovia.

The exodus out of Liberia intensified in 1996, one year later after Taylor and other warlords were made "collective presidents" as an incentive for peace. Tens of thousands returned to the squalor and inhospitality of Budumbura and other refugee camps when Taylor, along with the leader of another armed faction ULIMO-K ,Alhaji Kromah, ignited a war in Monrovia that led to over 3,000 deaths. Any available boat, including leaking ones, was used to escape from the burning city, with their West African owners charging penniless refugees unbelievably enormous prices. Refugees who had abandoned their huts in Budumbura gladly returned in the midst of xenophobia. On a radio call-in-program, a number of callers warned the Government not to allow the unwanted Liberians. Cote D'Ivoire, which had supplied territory and other forms of military support to create this sea of unwanted Liberians refused to allow the leaking ships docking rights. The Ghanaian Government accepted the refugees only after donors promised funding.

With Taylor's election, many rightly refused to return. News of summary executions, disappearances and the general lawlessness of Taylor's crude rebels now serving as legislators, administrators, soldiers and policemen, etc., simply served as a warning to refugees who had encountered the rebels during the war that home was no longer home. They remained in Budumbura, with some of the girls turning into prostitutes and posing serious competition for their Ghanaian counterparts. Their situation has been made worst by the cutting-off of UN and donor funding. Like in Guinea, hospitality had run out. The locals intensified their anger on them. The name Liberian became anathema in Accra, leading to violent attacks on Liberian entertainment spots on the allegation that a serial killer loose in the city was a Liberian.

Expectations that the Liberians would return home were however unwarranted. More flooded the camps from Taylor's Liberia in search pf security. The camp's pre-election population has quadrupled, with more new comers reported periodically.

But the irony about West Africa and the interrelationships, are that prior to the war, and even now, thousands of Ghanaians lived and worked in Liberia, many of them in key political and administrative positions after assimilation. The current President of the University of Liberia, Dr. Ben Roberts, who recently unleashed thugs on University students with Taylor's backing, is said to be a Ghanaian. The former President of one of the country's once prosperous companies was a Ghanaian. But a refugee, in today's world is non-person.

In Dante's Paradise, we are told: "You shall be forced to abandon everything that is most dear to you. This is the first arrow from the bow of exile. You shall taste the bitterness of bread of exile and learn how to walk the stairs of others." Plato may have urged that: "The foreigner isolated from his fellow country and his family should be the subject of greater love on the part of men and of the Gods." But a refugee in Africa is a life of the living dead. With no employment and other opportunities, refugees are forced to rely on international aid agencies, who in turn rely on donors. When the donors get fed-up, the aid worker loses interest, for there is no incentive to give aid.

In an interview with the BBC, a representative of the Liberian refugees said 15 of his countrymen and women have been arrested. He said according to reports, they have not been given food and that their condition was deteriorating. He said they have no means to hire lawyers and that they have contacted UN agencies. Those who parade the halls of hypocrisy beating the drums of an African Union and Pan Africanism must have a conscience. Said former High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Sadrauddin Aga Khan:

"The refugee is a product of our errors, his predicament an indictment of our conduct as peoples and nations. He exists for our education and as a warning."

The continued presence of hundreds of thousands of Liberians refugees around the world, refusing to return and selecting to endure humiliation, is an indictment of West Africa's solution imposed on a helpless people. But soon, like Sierra Leone and now Guinea are showing, every West African is a potential refugee.

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