War Crimes and Warlords

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Monrovia, Liberia

August 12, 2002

In his latest article, our colleague Paul raised some interesting points in his recent article (Liberian Leadership Conference: Deception in Bethesda - http://www.theperspective.org/deceptioninbethesda.html), but reached sweeping conclusions about lot of things. He said the Bethesda conference was a deception, without having attended the meeting or spoken to a single person from that conference. He accused the participants of usurping the titles of leaders when nobody in Liberia has given them such positions. There is no need here in going into details about the personality issues raised; the brother is entitle to his opinion. One does not however throw away the baby with the bath water. The conference had lot more participants than the three or four people he disagreed with. Those people were participants just as any other of the 35 people who took part in the conference. Some participants came from Atlanta, others from California, and Abidjan and others from Liberia. Whatever the ambitions and determination of these people were, they came to talk about Liberia and propose solutions. They were not here to receive money or be appointed to any position. The majority paid $100 a head to participate in the discussion.

Paul raised issues with the fact that the conference called for the indictment of Charles Taylor for crime in Sierra Leone, when others who were supposed to submit to the same treatment and are as guilty as Taylor were parading around, ennobling themselves in the company of others. There is lot of guilt in our history to go around. Of course, we all remember the most recent problems. Let’s therefore look at why some Liberians may accept to sit with the Kromah, Boley and Johnson while calling for a war crimes indictment for Taylor. To understand this, one must look at the history of the peace process.

In 1993, in Geneva and subsequently in Cotonou, the warring factions and the IGNU negotiated a peace accord that granted all combatants an amnesty for acts committed in combat. That clause in the accord sort of took everyone off the hook. It was also decided that leaders of warring factions would not be allowed to take part in the transitional governance but would be free to contest the general and presidential elections that was supposed to take place 18 months later. Of course, nothing happened. Disarmament never took place. In the accord, the interim government insisted on the insertion of the term “concomitant”, meaning that no transition government, comprising representatives of the warring factions (ULIMO and NPFL at the time) would be installed unless verifiable disarmament had concluded. In tandem, ULIMO and NPFL worked through the same civil society in Monrovia, carrying out a campaign, through some civil society representatives, using the office of Gordon Somers and general Opande now in Sierra Leone to force IGNU out. IGNU left and the heads of the warring factions, using the same connections and “control” forced their way into the Council of State. Whatever its faults, IGNU was committed to total disarmament. If that meant that some people were using it to stay a bit longer in their jobs, the greater good was for the common good. But Liberians in Monrovia were impatient, because every warlord had promised a new era of plenty money and peace…

After the April 6 war that opposed the NPFL-ULIMO and AFL-ULIMO/LPC, the parties met again in Abuja. A few people floated the idea of either banning the warlords from taking part in governance or even arresting them. The civil society that was supposed to campaign for this issue became divided. The leaders of the factions danced around in Abuja, spending money while the civil society was fighting amongst themselves. Some wanted jobs in the new transitional government. Heads of warring faction let it be known that they would dropped Sankawulo - the most innocent man in the Council – and that they would pick a new head. This started a scrambling for the position. Some in the civil society were trying to have Oscar Quiah removed from the Council of State as the other civilian member. His ‘open” seat became another reason for a fight. He owed his survival to Alphonso Kawah and Conmany Wesseh. In the meantime, everybody forgot about the possible banning of the warlords from national politics. It is was the first real chance of Liberian civil society to take control of the peace process, but it slipped away.

The 1997 elections allowed everyone to take part in the beauty contest. By allowing warlords to run for president, Liberians, in essence, were forgiving them for all crimes committed during the war, be it economic or otherwise. This is what has come to protect the warlords in the eyes of the international community. This is why they were all able to come here and seek refuge. Liberians may decide at anytime to go after them, for the money they stole and for the people they killed. That is another story and someone would have to make the case. People who have lost friends and relatives to any of the warring factions can take them to court, in US or in any country of the European Union. There are precedents set on both continents. Pinochet would never again travel to Europe and Mugabe has been found guilty in US courts for rights violations committed in his country. Can Liberians muscle the same will and carry out a concerted effort in that direction?

Why Taylor and Taylor alone? Again, one has to look at the significance of 1997 elections. Liberians were in essence saying, “let’s bygones be bygones,” as we like to say. The sanctions against Taylor and the call for indictment all stem from violations of human rights and the killings that occurred since 1997. The Dokie murder, the Camp Johnson Road massacre, the illegal detention and torture of journalists and human rights advocates are the reasons behind his worldwide condemnations. The call for the indictment of Taylor by the Sierra Leone War Crime Tribunal is a consequence of his involvement in the human rights abuse and arms deals in that country’s war. Some organizations are working seriously on this issue. What would Liberians do once they have an indicted war criminal for President? The problem is that there is no UN mechanism to go arrest a sitting president. So far, besides condemnations and complaints, Liberians do not have a plan. Liberians are waiting for something to fall from the sky. Countries are not built by miracles.

Those who are now saying that indicting Taylor without indicting all other political criminals in Liberia may be doing Taylor a great favor. That is the type of confusion he wants and he would nurture. In 1996, the warlords should not have been allowed back in Liberia or on the Council of State. In 1997, they should have been disarmed and forced to sit out the first elections. But rather, the members of the civil society fought among themselves and allowed the bigger guns to win.

Now we find ourselves in the same situation. Are we going to work together and put an end to the military dictatorship? Are we, or do we have the means to force a change in our political system? Should we confuse ourselves as to the current situation?

Besides war crimes, there are other crimes of economic nature that were committed and those must also be investigated and brought before justice when the dust settles. But for all of us, the most urgent thing to focus on is the removal of the inept and sanguinary regime that has taken the country hostage. Can we change Taylor and turn him into a better president? Should we throw him out? Are arms the solutions? Is there a possibility of peaceful transfer? Are elements in the NPP capable of helping to make a transition to a better era? All these questions need to be answered and those who have a stake in political power are most likely the ones to answer them and we must encourage a dialogue among them in order to end the confusion and find a way forward.

Liberian problems are much deeper than the personality of Taylor. Many who advocate a peaceful solution say that we must not look at Taylor alone. Maybe Taylor is not personally responsible for all the crimes committed in Liberia since 1997, but he is the president, he was given the mandate to lead the nation out of war and if others use his presidency to commit crimes, he does nothing about it, he must be held responsible. After Idi Amin, Abacha, Bokassa, the dictatorships collapsed. A person can give a signal to what kind of system he wants. When the whole city has no drinking water and the first priority of a newly elected president is to build himself a swimming pool, he sends a signal to others around him.

The Bethesda meeting was the first gathering of Liberians to call publicly for the indictment of Taylor. There were many more people than Brumskine, Kromah, Wotorson and Johnson-Sirleaf. It would be an injustice to many by just selecting a few and castigating a doubt on a meeting. I have written on the dynamics of that meeting, which brought together people, who for the first time since 1997, sat together for two days and talked about Liberia, without the presence of cameras or international facilitators who have created more confusion in our peace process than bring solutions. It was in the same logic that it was decided that there would be no press coverage. It was meant to be a small group discussion. Maybe the name leadership sounded arrogant, but then again, this is politics, real life politics and people give themselves titles. Since 1997, no single conference has brought together so many parties leaders. Where we go from here is another issue. But the conference was far from a deception.

We have a naïve tendency in Liberia to be always looking for saints when we are talking about politics. Maybe we need to understand that people who want power are human beings, with corrupt souls like the rest of us, with tendencies more pronounced than the rest of us, with contradictions deeper than the rest of us. And that is what makes them political leaders. There is a good reason why we only know one Mahatma Gandhi, one Nelson Mandela and one Martin Luther King in the recent history.

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