What Do Liberians Really Want?

By James W. Harris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted April 22, 2002

In the Diaspora (the United States and other places abroad), Liberians are certainly talking about a lot of things, including, the forth-coming 2003 presidential and general elections in their country [IF they should ever occur]. But whether or not they'll be given the opportunity to participate in them, as they should, is completely a different matter.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, particularly, in the war-ruined capital city of Monrovia, they are talking mostly about, and preparing for, the so- called National Reconciliation Conference that's scheduled to be held this coming July, with President Charles Taylor and his morally bankrupt National Patriotic Party (NPP) government presiding.

And in other parts of the war-ravaged country, especially, in the North, where the so-called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels are said to be battling the hardened government troops off and on, one can only assume [but safely] what Liberians in those areas, such as, the once agriculturally prosperous Lofa County, are talking about - ending the senseless war that has brought them so much misery and despair. They also want the chance now to somehow reconstruct their badly shattered lives.

Unfortunately, in the midst of all of this, Liberians, as a people [collective group], clearly seem to be grossly undecided or thoroughly confused at best, about how they would like to proceed from this point going forward.

On one hand, they say that they definitely want democracy, meaning, the opportunity and chance to chart their own course or destiny through a government that they hope to elect freely someday soon. But so far, as much as they would prefer democracy to any other form of government today, it is highly apparent that Liberians are not yet ready to make the necessary sacrifices that would make this goal very much possible.

Or, could it be the lack of "LEADERSHIP" [I mean, REAL leadership] that has caused them to be so complacent or indifferent to their own sad plight to the extent of not demanding change in unison to the status quo? It must be, or else, why in the world would they want to keep suffering miserably under this pathetic and sorry NPP government? Can someone PLEASE explain this to me, because I just don't get it!

On the other hand, it is absolutely fair to say that by voting overwhelmingly in 1997 for Mr. Charles Taylor in a so-called democratic election, in spite of his brutal wartime record, Liberians did indeed decide who they wanted to lead them - and that's their God-given right, which I sincerely hope, no one would ever take away from them.

But here is the tricky part. Because they chose him (Taylor) from amongst the other presidential candidates, wouldn't it also be fair to say that Liberians too should be liable for their government's dismal failure? Why not? In fact, who were those Liberians that "overwhelmingly" voted for Mr. Taylor and his NPP in 1997? Are they still around today? Would they vote him in [again], knowing what they know now? Most of all, are they willing to live with the direct consequences of Mr. Taylor's alleged "criminal" activities for si" more years? If not, why are they dead silent and not publicly giving him a vote of "NO CONFIDENCE"?

Taking the above into account, and from my own vantage point, it seems like Liberians surely “want to have their cake and eat it too”. It would appear like they want Mr. Taylor as their President (no matter how incapable he has proven himself to be), but not necessarily the consequences [sanctions, embargos, etc.] due to his alleged “criminal” hands in neighboring Sierra Leone and the entire West African sub-region. But they certainly cannot have it both ways, can they!

Recently, it has become increasingly clear that, sooner rather than later, they would definitely have to make a choice - either they continue to live hopelessly under the heavy burden of sanctions, embargos, isolation, etc., or find a way [preferably, peaceful] to get rid of this highly corrupt and inept pariah government. It is evidently their choice, if ONLY they could learn from the peoples of the Philippines, Madagascar, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, among a few others, that have said a resounding NO to all forms of dictatorships!

As the result of the Taylor regime’s proven inability to bring peace and stability to the country, which he ‘personally’ helped to wreck, Liberians generally would once and for all want to put the past behind them and move forward rapidly, except that the international community can’t figure out exactly what they (Liberians) really want. But who could blame them! You see, knowing Liberians, I’ve come to one conclusion about their behavior - that they always take things for granted; if it’s even something that’s life threatening. And if I’m wrong about this, then could somebody please correct me! But really, such a “sick” attitude definitely will take us no where, especially at a time like this when the international community is looking for a clear signal from us as to which direction we want our country to go.

Highlighting the kind of frustration [or what I call, the ‘Liberian fatigue’] that’s presently being experienced by the international community, a recent headline on a Reuters news story said it all: “World can’t decide what to do with chaotic Liberia”. Isn’t it a pity!

“The approaching expiry of U. N. sanctions against Liberia for fomenting war in West Africa forces the world to confront the future of the pariah state, but analysts say nobody really knows what they [Liberians] want to do”, the lead paragraph in the story read.

But if you thought that the above quote is not chilling enough, let’s consider the following observations in the same story: “A presidential election due in 2003 might [and I emphasize, MIGHT] offer an opportunity for the world to make a stand on Liberia, although Taylor’s opponents say [that] he may use a state of emergency declared in February to delay polls indefinitely. But even if the election takes place and is fair, a DIVIDED opposition looks far from forming a common front.” Please take note of the key words here, “might” and “divided”!

To me, this surely is a clear indictment of the Liberian opposition [or whatever they want to call themselves] by the international community and should be considered as a grave embarrassment to all of those persons that find themselves in that category - REALLY! Like someone jokingly asked me the other day, “who do Liberian politicians really represent?” Indeed, this is a very valid question. Yes, just who do they represent? I wish someone could tell us!

Honestly, the biggest problem that I see with the so-called opposition, and Liberians in general, is that they don’t EVER learn, no matter how many times they make the same silly mistakes. Yet, they expect to resolve their differences and move on. Well, it just doesn’t work that way, I’m sorry! If they were learning from their past experiences, as everyone should, then they should have known from the very beginning that the meeting planned recently in Abuja, Nigeria, by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was destined to fail [as it obviously did, in terms of reaching a binding agreement on all sides regarding the menacing Liberian conflict]. Notwithstanding, some Liberians felt [wrongly] that it was absolutely necessary for them to have attended it, despite their previous dealings with the regional organization, particularly, its Executive Secretary, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas.

But if we were to give “credit to whom it is due”, then we must say that at least two prominent Liberians, who have been on the political landscape for quite sometime now, Messrs, Cletus Wotorson and Chea Cheapoo, Sr., respectively, proved that they had learned their lessons well, and as such, were not buying into the ECOWAS bait any longer.

In a rather frank letter to the Executive Secretary, Mr. Wotorson recently wrote: “Permit me, Sir, to register my utmost disappointment in what appears to be a political misjudgment in denying participation of the political parties as institutions in the referenced meeting [Liberian Reconciliation], which, some of their members had conceived and in consultation with the political parties sought ECOWAS support in hosting it.”

After expressing his disappointment about the way in which he was contacted about the meeting [“in the absence of a formal invitation, a telephone message from an unidentified person, devoid of an agenda and an objective was totally inadequate”], he further wrote: “While a two-day meeting may give conveners something to celebrate about, it is most unlikely to create [the] ample opportunity for frank, honest and fruitful dialogue by and amongst Liberians.”

And for his part, Mr. Cheapoo, as his usual self, came out more bluntly. “As a Liberian concerned about the welfare of my country, like all other Liberians should hopefully be, I am surprised to have learned that with all the effort[s] you have made as a Ghanaian diplomat under His Excellency former President Jerry Rawlings, you are still naïve to think that ECOWAS and not Liberians should decide the future of my [our] country - whether in peace or at war.”

“It is with this naïve pre-occupation that you selected who should attend the recent Abuja meeting or even allowed the recalcitrant party (Taylor and his henchmen) to dictate who should or should not attend”, he blasted.

But despite their apparent frustration [just as the international community] about the nagging Liberian quagmire, these two prominent Liberians too seem to be far apart about what’s best for their country, or worse yet, how to go about bringing the fractured opposition together in order to make a difference in the people’s lives. The fact that both men did not speak with one voice in addressing Secretary Chambas on the same issue shows disappointingly how deep the continuing rift is between key Liberian opposition figures, even today.

What’s even more disturbing is that Liberians generally can’t comprehend why the opposition keeps faltering so badly at a time like this when their nation is craving for sober leadership. I mean, no one has emerged so far that could be considered seriously as the dominant opposition figure that could possibly unseat Mr. Taylor in a “free and fair” election. But credit should be given to the politicians that are based at home, if not for anything else, for having the courage to remain there physically despite the definite risks to their personal lives.

Certainly, they and others could learn some ‘instructive and relevant’ lessons from the former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, Jr., who said at the end of his bitter fight with George W. Bush for the Presidency: “Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our UNITY of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”

And putting his personal ambition aside as well as preparing Americans for reconciliation with each other regardless of how they felt individually about the outcome of the presidential election, he said in a very honest tone: “Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution. And each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully [and I emphasize, PEACEFULLY] and in the spirit of reconciliation. So let it be with us. I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our LOVE OF COUNTRY [emphasis mine].”

The question then is, could any Liberian or African, for that matter, give up his personal goal or ambition to become President [in this case], as Mr. Gore did, in order to save his or her country from plunging deeply into turmoil? History is not on our side regarding this one, I’m afraid! But I guess, we just have to keep learning from others what it really means to love one’s country. I frankly hope that Liberians would not find excuses with the former Vice President’s approach, because they are very good at that. Instead, we should all try to learn from his [Gore’s] experiences as it regards “patriotism” and/or “nationalism”. Maybe it’s just what the so-called opposition needs to pull themselves together, putting aside their petty differences and selfish ‘individual’ desire for state power at the expense of Liberia’s war-weary population.

For a remarkable change, it would be good to see our opposition leaders, civic groups, the media [mainly Liberian], etc., travel frequently to refugee camps in neighboring countries, like, Danane [the Ivory Coast], Buduburam [Ghana], Kola [Guinea] and Jendema [Sierra Leone], for example, to solicit the views of Liberians in those places. For some bizarre reasons, no one seems to be interested in knowing what they think or how they feel about the present situation at home. This is absolutely unacceptable, because they are all an integral part of the Liberian whole.

Moreover, any politician or group that would court Liberians in those places, starting now, would probably be getting a head start as far as their future prospects of capturing national elections is concerned. The reason being that many of these people, once the security situation improves, would be glad to return home and rebuild their broken lives. And as such, they would more than likely remember, especially during elections season, all those who identified with them physically during their most difficult days in forced exile. Don’t you think? I bet, no Liberian opposition leader has ever thought about this.

Finally, what do Liberians “really” want? Nobody apparently knows, but we’re all still trying to figure this one out. Whatever the outcome, I hope that Liberians would finally learn to put the supreme interests of their dying nation first, above all else, including, tribalism, ethnicity, party affiliation, social status, etc.

Because it is only then that we would be able to unite as a people and tell the world what we “really” want as Liberians - democracy [as in free and fair elections; individual freedoms, etc.]. Right now, it seems like we are all just a rotten bunch of totally confused people - and that’s not good for a country that once showed others the way!

That is why we must be determined, more than ever before, to close ranks, put our heads together, and find a “peaceful” resolution to our country’s present leadership crisis as well as other crippling problems. Or else, we could all perish as fools, even with the help of our ‘good-ole’ friends. Even worse, our collective dream of building a vibrant democracy in Liberia, and Africa as a whole, for that matter, could well remain sadly unfulfilled. Now, that’s something to think seriously about as we try to determine what we really want!

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