Taylor and Cote d'Ivoire: "What goes around..."

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 2, 2003

Venance Konan came to Liberia for the first time in 1991. He was the most widely read journalist in Cote d'Ivoire at the government daily Fraternite Matin. When the Interim Government wanted to let the people in Cote d'Ivoire understand what was happening in Liberia, we invited him. During his visit, I contacted Joe Mulbah, Taylor's spokesman at the time in Gbarnga. Venance went and spent a few days in "Greater Liberia". In the subsequent articles, he said that one image that stood out in his mind had to do with a picture. There was a gigantic billboard, with the picture of "President Taylor" at the entrance of Gbarnga. The billboard was so big trees were cut to make space for it. But the most bizarre thing about it was that Taylor's head was too big for the frame and went beyond it, standing out an extra 30 inches.

Life in Monrovia

After that first visit, Venance visited on a regular basis. Two weeks ago, he visited Monrovia again, the first time since Taylor became president. He said that after 7 years of war and five years of Taylor Presidency, Liberians were on their knees, living off handouts, spending their time in line waiting for money transfers. Monrovia has turned into a city of vampires, pimps and prostitutes. The lighting of the Christmas tree at the Mansion gave a window into the Taylor government, how everything and everyone is closely connected to the one man, surrounded and closely guarded by a very small group of people. Taylor and his four wives. Taylor and his inner circle all related somehow.

When he first landed at the airport, Venance said he was almost "kidnapped" by a Lieutenant Colonel of the Immigration who forced himself on him. The Officer said he had to follow the journalist downtown Monrovia to know where he was going to stay for "national security reasons." When they reached Monrovia, he found out that the officer was doubling as agent for a hotel owner at the airport. There are very rare visitors in Monrovia so hotels compete for clients. The best way is, of course, to 'hire' a menacing immigration officer at the airport. The immigration or security officer says to the visitor that for "security reasons", they have to accompany the visitor in town. Somewhere between the airport and downtown, the officer tells the visitor that one of his friends has a great hotel. After settling his hotel bill, the Immigration officer invited himself to dinner with Venance, proposed his services as bodyguard and promised to find him "good and clean girls for a good price."

The day after his arrival Venance went to the Ministry of Information. He ran into a young female journalist who advised him to get an accreditation. More than one person "volunteered" to help. He got the paper after paying US $50.00. The same day, he met an assistant minister, Jeff Mutada who went into a fit of rage, not because they made his "friend" pay money for something that is free but because someone else had pocketed the money. For a whole day, he couldn't get Mutada to do anything until he found the guy who took the money. In the meantime, Venance said he bought almost a dozen meals for Evelyn the journalist who seemed to be always hungry, eating and drinking at every chance she got. When he asked her why she ate so much, she replied that hunger was the most common thing in Monrovia. She said, "you see all these people in nice suits and beautiful dresses every day? Sometimes we go without food for two days!" Everywhere he went, people asked for a beer, a meal or offered a 'young, clean girl at a good price.'

Minister Goodridge

Finally, he managed to have an interview with the minister. Minister Goodridge denied that the Liberian government was behind the rebels in Western Cote d'Ivoire. Venance confronted him with the fact that the two leaders of the two new rebel groups, Felix Doh and Guillaume Gbato have admitted that they had undergone military training in Liberia at the Gbatala military base near Gbarnga. The Minister could not deny the information and simply said: "Honestly, I don't know..." When asked if Liberia was closing its borders as the Ivorian government had asked, the Minister used the same words Houphouet Boigny used ten years ago when ECOWAS/ECOMOG asked him to close the Ivorian borders: "We have a long and porous border... We cannot close our borders for humanitarian reasons... we abide by the ECOWAS protocol of free movement of people... the war in Cote d'Ivoire is a problem between Ivorians..." These were the very same sentences, almost to the word that Houphouet Boigny used.

Venance said that he learned a lot about the level of involvement of Liberian government in the Ivorian conflict. He met people who said they had been hired by Guei and trained in Liberia. He saw truckloads of looted goods coming into Monrovia every night from rebel-controlled areas in Cote d'Ivoire. Many rebels returning from fighting in Cote d'Ivoire made no secrets about where they had been. Just like twelve years ago, the sleepy city of Danane became a booming commercial center thanks to Liberian loots that came in by the truckload. People used to go there to buy cars for ... two hundred dollars from drunken rebels.

Venance last observations on Monrovia were that life had come to a standstill, with people not having taken pay in 11 months, widespread hunger, and insecurity in a country on the verge of collapse. He saw the ATU fighters at work, returning from the battleground, taking gasoline and food without paying, beating up people and saying loudly that they respond to nobody but the pappy.

The Ivorian journalist said he learned from many sources that Taylor intended to "take back" western Cote d'Ivoire, all the way to Man and down to San Pedro. As fate would have, Venance said that without anyone bringing up the subject, Minister Goodridge made the remark during their interview, saying that Western Cote d'Ivoire was once part of Liberia and that French colonialists had taken the land away.

Finally, when he thought he had seen everything, an Immigration Officer at the airport told him he couldn't leave the country without a stamp on his passport from the Immigration Office downtown. He had to choose between being driven to Monrovia to get his passport stamped and giving US $20 to the Immigration. Considering that the highest paid Minister in the country, the Minister of Finance makes $28 a month, the Immigration officer made a good deal.

Taylor wants Man and San Pedro

On Monday, December 30, Fraternite Matin, the leading newspaper in Cote d'Ivoire and where Venance works, revealed that according to information received from Monrovia, the western rebel groups, which are now believed to be nothing other than covers for Taylor's militia were ready to attack Tai and Tabou. Two days later, in its Thursday, January 2, edition, the news broke that indeed the rebels had attacked and seized Tai and Tabou and were headed for San Pedro. The rebels were said to be under the leadership of Siafa Norman, an ATU officer.

Taylor and the Constitution

Taylor likes to say that he is a "constitutional animal" and that he would abide by it no matter what. He said he would have elections in a year, even if war were raging on the doorsteps of Monrovia. Just a week or so ago, he came up with the 10 year clause in the constitution. It is just another way of trying to keep the opposition off balance. But the argument does not hold.

First, the constitution was suspended for 1997 elections. It was put into practice after the seating of the government. This government, who, in the words of Sheikh Kafumba, was elected democratically elected but not constitutionally, cannot enforce the 10-year clause.

Secondly the 10-year clause would not preclude any of the candidates that could give Taylor the run for his money. Most politicians have been in exile only since 1997 and therefore they could only be excluded from participating in presidential elections in 2007. Mrs. Sirleaf, Cllr. Brumskine, Mr. Alhaji Kromah, Dr. Sawyer all went into exile some time after 1997 and therefore cannot be excluded from the 2003 elections.

Almost two years ago, we wrote here an article titled "Desperate Taylor: the next War." It is coming to past. President Conteh was right about the NPFL. Ivorians maybe making the same mistake ECOWAS made in handling the NPFL. The irony in all this is that Moise Lida Kouassi, the Defense Minister President Laurent Gbagbo fired after the breakout of the rebellion, was the one helping Taylor and Blaise to buy arms...

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