Liberia’s Interim Leader put in power to shield warlords?

By Gabriel Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 18, 2003


Since Liberia’s brutal dictator and indicted war criminal Charles Taylor was forced to relinquish power and leave the country in August, hopes are rekindled that Liberia now has an opportunity to end 14 years of death and destruction and begin the process of reconstruction.

The deployment of what is to become the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world, which is supposed to reach full strength of 15,000 plus a few thousand police and other personnel, is a saving grace for the people of Liberia - for which the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States regional body must be commended very highly.

Even though it took the international community over a decade to recognize the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded in Liberia and spread into neighboring countries at the cost of nearly half a million lives, it has been recognized that a miserably failed state like Liberia is a breeding ground for terrorism and regional destabilization. The mandate of the recent United States-sponsored UN Security Council resolution authorizing the peacekeeping force and a more active UN involvement in Liberia’s affairs, underscored the international community’s recognition that Liberia must be rescued from the state of anarchy, if there will be lasting peace and progress in West Africa.

The Liberia restoration process include getting rid of the evil regime of warlord-turned president Charles Taylor, disarming and demobilizing all armed factions involved in the years of bloody power struggle with Taylor, and creating the enabling environment for peace, democratic governance and progress.

With indicted war criminal Taylor exiled to Nigeria awaiting his day in court, while the UN peacekeeping force is being deployed to take full control of security in the country, an interim Liberian government was inducted October 14 to serve for two years.

The power-sharing interim government is part of the peace agreement signed in Ghana by the various Liberian armed factions, aimed at ending 14 years of bloody contest for power. Charles Gyude Bryant, a businessman and so-called neutral person, was picked by the armed factions to head the interim government.

Bryant, a relatively unknown individual outside the Episcopal Church of Liberia where he is a prominent lay leader, was selected by the warlords because of his stated position that he would not support the prosecution of thugs and murderous criminals who have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people and looted the country beyond description.

Addressing the media one day following his induction, Chairman Bryant said he did not support the idea of setting up of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the human rights abuses carried out by the armed gangs, arguing that it would do nothing to heal the wounds from the 14 years of death and destruction.

Chairman Bryant’s opposition to the setting up of a war crimes court or a truth commission could very well be a fulfillment of his side of the bargain with the armed gangs that he would shield them if they picked him over individuals widely seen to be more qualified candidates, who voiced support for a war crimes court or truth commission.

More so, his comments are absolute rubbish and an insult to the Liberian people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of innocents who lost their lives in the senseless bloody contest for power.
This is not about retribution, but rather instituting a due process of law to bring about accountability, in order to end the culture of impunity that have enabled criminals to thrive while perpetrating atrocities and other acts of human rights abuses and looting public resources to enrich themselves.
Is Bryant saying that the United Nations was out for retribution when it partnered with the government of Sierra Leone in setting up the war crimes court that indicted Taylor and Sierra Leonean rebel leaders accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for the war that cost the death of an estimated 50,000 people and the amputation of the limbs of thousands of Sierra Leoneans?
Despite several articles that have been written criticizing how Bryant was selected to head the interim government, I had taken an attitude of wait and see, relative to how his pronouncements and activities would be upon taking office. But if Bryant’s first day in office is any indication of things to come, I’m afraid that Liberia may be headed for continued chaos and bloodbath. After challenging the wisdom of a war crimes court and truth commission, the man went on to announce advisors that are mostly from Taylor’s murderous regime.

Let’s not forget that less than three months ago, Taylor presided over what is now recorded in history as the fourth most brutal regime in the world, which was accused of collaboration with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and destabilization of all of the countries neighboring Liberia in order to plunder resources. Yet one of Bryant’s official acts on his first day in office was to announce that he was surrounding himself with advisors who included Taylor’s Minister of National Security, Director General of the Cabinet, and an ambassador at large who was responsible to help improve the brutal despot’s image abroad. These are men who have yet to give any account of their activities in one of the most brutal and barbaric regimes in the world.

I herewith call on Chairman Bryant to reverse his appointment of those advisors and other officials that were part of Taylor’s murderous regime or who are associated with the armed gangs. Since the criminal gangs already control majority of the positions in the transitional government, Bryant’s appointments should focus on experience, integrity, democratic commitment and respect for human rights as criteria. Liberia is endowed with abundant human resources, and there are thousands of qualified reputable Liberians whose expertise must be tapped. We must get away from the business of rewarding criminal, corrupt and incompetent elements with positions in government, if we are to discourage the practice that encourages people taking up arms to seize political power and wealth.
My optimism regarding recent positive developments in Liberia since Taylor’s departure from power has been tempered by fear that the Bryant-led government, dominated by criminals and those hustling for quick bucks, could add to the list of failed interim governments that eventually plunged the country back into war.

My fear is against the fact that the armed factions, including remnants of Taylor’s regime and the two rebel groups opposed to the now fallen regime - Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) – control 72 percent of positions in the government, including key ministries like Foreign Affairs, Finance, Justice, National Defense, Internal Affairs, Commerce, and Lands, Mines and Energy, as well as major public corporations including the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company. For the recent slaughter of thousands of defenseless people, the murderous criminals have been rewarded control over agencies that are the lifeblood of our country.

We should brace ourselves for a continuation of the rule of the jungle and plunder of resources, if there is no strong United Nations oversight. We have been down this road in the past with several interim governments dominated by warlords and headed by so-called "neutralists" to appease the armed gangs as a bargain for peace. Rather than the peace war-weary Liberians long desired, the country remained increasingly chaotic as the warlords did not hesitate to continue waging war to defend their turfs.

The armed gangs also have 36 seats in the 76-seat transitional legislature, and there are reports that a known notorious murderer representing one of the factions is positioning himself to be the speaker of the legislature. Taylor’s puppet remains Chief Justice of the very dysfunctional judiciary. There are reports of literally a stampede for government jobs that are being handed out to loyalists and the highest bidders, not necessarily on the basis of qualifications or individual integrity. Many individuals abroad who provided financial and other support to the various armed gangs have reportedly packed their bags and are rushing back to Liberia to claim their share of the bounty. Those are some of the very people who drained Liberia and made vassals of their fellow countrymen.

All things considered, a strong United Nations involvement in the affairs of the country is the only hope the Liberian people have in getting rid of those murderous criminals and their supporting casts. What we have in Liberia is a government that is nothing more than a realignment of the criminal gangs that have plundered the country for the past 14 years, in collaboration with political prostitutes who have ended up in bed with every government that come along. If past experiences provide any lessons, we should expect nothing better from rebels who have threatened to destroy our commonwealth. Rebels are rebels, who have demonstrated reckless disregard for human life and the rule of law, and their destructive activities must be ended. In the fullness of time, our past and present factional leaders will join Taylor as indicted war criminals.

Liberia is lucky to have UN Special Envoy Jacques Klein and U.S. Ambassador John Blaney serving in the country at this time. With the presence of such strong international representatives, the Liberian people are hopeful that their nightmare would be over, and the activities of criminals masquerading as Liberian government officials will soon be ended. I particularly salute Klien for taking relevant actions to stabilize the country and create the enabling conditions to bring about lasting peace to Liberia.

There is a very serious need for the United Nations to set up a war crimes court to prosecute all those culpable of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Liberian civil war. The need to also set up a truth commission cannot be overemphasized.

It must be made absolutely clear to Mr. Bryant that the Liberian people do not need his blessing for the setting up of a war crimes court or truth commission. There are many reasons why some people may be opposed to creating any medium to establish accountability for the crimes that have been committed in Liberia. There are many prominent Liberians, while publicly pretending to be neutrals, who have been closet supporters of the armed factions for political and financial gains, for which they are rewarded.

As I conclude this article, I’m not unaware that there are those who might feel that we are over reacting or unnecessarily attacking a government that has been in office just for several days. I remember people reacting similarly or attacking me as anti-government or a detractor when I published an open letter in the media drawing attention to certain ills in the government immediately after Taylor came to power in late 1997, which I felt would plunge Liberia back into war if not corrected. It was my considered opinion, as it is today, that after years of bloodshed and destruction due to bad governance, we would continue to experience chaos if we don’t change the way things have been done and begin to create the conditions for good governance. In a rebuttal article in the London-based New African magazine and a Voice of America interview, the then Minister of Information called me one of the self-imposed exile detractors who was spreading false news to discredit Taylor’s government. A fellow Liberian who had seen my open letter met me at a gathering and exploded in public, angrily saying how dare you people continue to sit in America eating hamburger while undermining the government that is trying to meet the needs of war-ravished Liberians by spreading falsehood. Those of us who took up the challenge to expose Taylor’s murderous regime came under increasing fire from its supporters and apologists.

Today, there can be no question that we were right on the mark in exposing the excesses of Taylor, now an indicted war criminal. We share an equal responsibility to keep Chairman Bryant’s government under scrutiny. At this crucial time in our country, we will not hesitate to draw attention to any ills of the interim government, notwithstanding the fact that Bryant and I are fellow Episcopalians and members of the same parish, Trinity Cathedral in Monrovia, where I was also an active lay member playing organizational leadership roles including editor of the Cathedral’s magazine before fleeing Liberia.

And this is not about impugning Bryant’s integrity, either. Judging from his selfless and dedicated services to the church, I know that he is an honorable and hardworking person. But services in the church or other areas can prove to be different from public service, let alone serving in the Liberian government. The Liberian political culture is so very dangerously corrupt and intoxicating that most well-intentioned people often turn out to be miserable failures or compromised once in power. The past decade of war and plunder have enabled Liberians to see the true colors of people who we taught truly had the interest of the people at heart and were expected to institute meaningful change once in power. Most of them turned out to be incapable custodians of the public trust, and they became nothing more than pariahs and vultures on the Liberian people.

Bryant deserves commendation for making some laudable pronouncements aimed at fostering the peace process, and taking actions like eliminating monopoly over the importation of certain commodities, including rice and petroleum. However, Chairman Bryant can rest assured that we will keep his feet to the fire to ensure that he does not betray the will of the Liberian people by instituting policies that mostly serve the interest of armed criminals who put him in power. Like in Sierra Leone, the murderous criminals in Liberia must be brought to book if we will end the state of death and destruction to control political power and plunder resources. Indications are that the bloody game is over.

About the author: Gabriel Williams is a journalist and author of the book, Liberia: The Heart of Darkness, which provides extensive and compelling accounts of Liberia’s civil war and its destabilizing effects in West Africa.