Liberia Journal


The flight from Ghana began almost four hours late. It was the SLOK Airline, a new company. About seven months ago when the airline – owned, I am told, by a Nigerian politician who had it tactfully registered in the Gambia – started operations it was different. It arrived and flew on time, or almost. Now it had settled into normality, and in this region that means that it must miss schedules by several hours.

I had booked a seat in it a week earlier. I wanted to visit Liberia once again. Once again because I had been there three times before since a massive UN intervention in October 2004 signaled that the ravaged republic was finally getting peace; and once again because my trip was unplanned, and in that sense almost purposeless. One felt intensely drawn to the place, the result of a long and intimate interest in the country and its very unhappy recent history.

The weather was wretched (it had been raining all day), the in-flight food bad, and the passengers, having spent such a long time at the small Kotoko Airport, were sulky. I tried to read a book but was distracted. Liberia, for anyone familiar with the republic, induces strong anxieties. Will there be surprises this time? What will be different in this trip? In spite of myself – I am thoroughly familiar with situations almost exactly like Liberia’s, and very much with Liberia itself – I was full of nerves.

Mercifully, the flight was brief – lasting for about two hours. The Robertsfield International airport of Monrovia was just the way I had left it six months earlier: the white UN helicopters, a couple of planes, airport officials looking oddly busy, a withered and degraded landscape, the main terminal building still a shell without roof as though to give one notice of greater ruins lying ahead. But a difference soon emerged. A neat, almost new, bus arrived close to the airport exit, and we all boarded it to the immigration area. I saw a similar bus parked confidently as we got close. A small sigh of relief: there is a little change.

When it was built by the Americans years back, Robertsfield was a near-elegant, imposing structure. It was at the height of the Cold War, and the Americans, eager to keep the volatile region under close watch, had reinforced their traditional presence in Liberia – founded as a settlement for freed American slaves in the nineteenth century – using it as a CIA listening post as well as setting up the VOA relay station for the entire region there (much the same thing). Liberia was then in the blood-stained grip of President (formerly Master-Sergeant) Samuel Kanyon Doe, who came to power by staging a coup in 1980. The US gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Doe, and urged their Israeli allies to beef up Doe’s murderous security forces. So impressed were the Americans with Doe’s performance that President Ronald Reagan invited the almost illiterate dictator to the White House, and there referred to him, one could only sense affectionately, as “Chairman Moe.”

On Christmas Eve in 1989, a group of about 150 armed dissidents invaded Liberia’s Nimba County from Ivory Coast. They were led by Charles Taylor, formerly a senior official in Doe’s government. A colourful speaker with an even more colourful past, Taylor, who studied in the US, had escaped detention from a Massachusetts jail, where he had been held pending his possible extradition to Liberia for allegedly stealing $900,000 from Doe’s government. Now, he claimed he wanted to free the country of the depredations of Doe.

I happened to have visited Liberia shortly before Taylor’s armed incursions. The country was then, unlike some of its neighbours, reasonably well-functioning: Monrovia had electricity and running water, its shops were full, civil servants received their salaries on time, and Monrovia’s nightlife, so seedy, had a faintly American echo, with its brawly bars and bad beers and the anxiously bohemian feel. But it was also a grim place. Doe, a paranoid and near-psychotic, had brutally rigged elections in 1985, carried out ethnic massacres against perceived supporters of his regime’s opponents, murdered political opponents, and was gearing up for yet another nasty assault on the democratic aspirations of Liberians in the form of elections to be held in 1990, elections in which he would run and which he would undoubtedly rig. Drunken gun-totting soldiers roamed about the streets of Monrovia – a city that was, in spite of its vibrancy, so bare and lacking in grandeur – terrorising people in bars and other public places, and there were reports of ‘disappearances’. Although this may sound absurd, given the background, the atmosphere of Monrovia sometimes felt as though a chapter from Kafka was being enacted in this crummy little republic.

UNMIL’S LIBERIA

That menacing feel, so visceral then, is no longer palpable: from the ramshackle airport on, Liberia seems to be dominated by UN soldiers and police officers, giving the place a reassuring atmosphere. Reflecting the ambient anxiety, however, the infrequent visitor will inevitably ask: how long will this last?

I put this question a few days after I arrived in Monrovia to Major General Joseph Owonibi, the Nigerian commander of the UN force (UNMIL) in the country. General Owonibi is a handsome and articulate officer, one of those with whom one feels comfortable discussing military strategy as well as politics. I had a copy of a paper on the UN mission in Liberia he had presented at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, where I had been Senior Research Fellow, months back. The paper, entitled “Translating policy planning into on-the-ground realities,” gave an insight into the enormous challenges that the mission faced, particularly in dealing with the unrealistic hopes and expectations of ex-combatants, most of whom were opting to be trained for professions that the Liberian economy would simply not support even in the medium term.

 â€œThis is difficult to say,” General Owonibi said in answer to my question. “Putting this country together, building up a functioning system, is not going to be easy. The destruction was immense. We have completed the disarmament process, with over 100,000 militia people going through it. We had earlier thought we will be dealing with slightly over 30,000. That is what this mission planned for. This has impacted immensely on the reintegration process, which is not going on well. There is a lack of funds, and the ex-fighters are restive. They occasionally riot, and this is a bad sign.”

How bad it all is can be easily gleaned from the statistics. Of the more than 100,000 disarmed, 40,000 were targeted for reintegration. Of these, 20,000, all teenagers or pre-teenagers, were sent to school, and the other 20,000 are now undergoing different kinds of vocational training (tailoring, carpentry etc.) What about the 60,000 not targeted? General Owonibi said that some of them have formed themselves into co-operative societies with the aim of starting self-help enterprises. The danger with that, however, is that the command structures of the various militias will then be kept intact, because ex-militia commanders control these co-operative societies, the General added. “The challenge is to infiltrate them and diffuse the command structures, and the NCDRR (the UNMIL-related National Committee for Disarmament, Reintegration and Reconstruction) is well-placed to do this,” he said. It is not hard to connect the budding co-operative societies to the series of occasional riots by ex-combatants in recent weeks.

Abdullah Dukuly, the editor of The Analyst, one of Liberia’s better papers, sees it in more dramatic terms. The day I met him for lunch – in a fine Monrovian restaurant: the briskness of Liberian restaurant staffers contrasts sharply with the studied clumsiness of their cousins in places like Accra and Freetown – his paper had carried a page one story grimly warning that “Lurd’s Death Squad Lives On.” The Lurd was one of the factional militias that had been supposedly disarmed, and some of its leaders are now in the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) headed by slick businessman Gyude Bryant. The Analyst was reporting that a “death squad” within the Lurd was out to ‘eliminate’ one of the Lurd’s ex-military commanders, Sekou Conneh. “Will UNMIL and NTGL act in time to prevent bloodshed and loss of life in ‘peace time,’” the paper asked, unctuously.

Was this alarmist, as so many of the country’s papers normally are? “No,” Conneh responded. “We are in fact being very restrained. We know that the disarmament process was largely a sham. Many of those disarmed were not even fighters, and some of the real fighters are out in the forests regrouping. There are still armed militias, loyal to Charles Taylor, in Gbapolu, and they are terrorizing people in those areas. There may be over 500 armed men in the rubber plantations in western Liberia, stealing and terrorizing civilians. They include Kamajors from Sierra Leone. But of course all Unmil now wants to talk about is the elections in October! The country is simply not prepared for elections.”

Unmil’s head of Civil Affairs Peter Tingwa suavely dismisses such reports. I met him two days after I arrived in Monrovia. Tingwa is a genial civil servant who also worked in the UN’s Sierra Leone mission Unamsil. “The disarmament process here was very well done,” he said. “You are never going to have a complete, 100 per cent disarmament anywhere. People were saying the same things about the Sierra Leone process, but where are the RUF [Sierra Leone’s arm-chopping Revolutionary United Front] arms now? In the last major riots, the ex-militias used machetes, knives and sticks. There were no guns. Armed robbery is minimal. The process here was as comprehensive as can be possible in the circumstances.”

Not all the 100,000 disarmed were fighters, Tingwa conceded. Some of them were camp followers or ‘wives’ of the militia fighters – this innovation is a potential UN ‘best practice’, the result of ‘lessons learnt’ from the Sierra Leone process where only the armed fighters were targeted, leading to criticism by rights groups that abducted women and children were ignored by the UN.

With over 1000 civilian staff (local and international) and 15,000 troops, Unmil is the UN’s biggest and most expensive peace mission, costing over half a billion dollars per annum. The mission began full deployment in September 2003 after the country’s corrupt and destructive despot, Charles Taylor, was forced out by agreement and went into self-exile in Nigeria. By end of 2004, Unmil declared that it had completed disarming the various factions, and announced that it will now restructure the Liberian national army by demobilizing a large number of the soldiers. The 14,000-strong army is made up of 9,000 hastily recruited conscripts and 5,000 regulars (that is, supposedly professional soldiers who have been serving in the decrepit force for years). The plan is to demobilize the 9,000 and retrain and equip the remaining 5,000, but this process is seven months behind schedule. The US, which should spearhead the process – as the UK did in Sierra Leone – is largely lukewarm about it, preferring indirect involvement (providing some cash and hiring private security companies to do the job.) In such a delicate nation-building effort, it simply cannot get messier than that.

ELECTIONS BLUES

The tragedy is that in Liberia today, some of these fundamental issues are overlooked. The talk is about the forthcoming elections in October, the milestone of the UN’s involvement in the country. Both the UN officials and Liberian politicians appear desperate for the elections. This is partly a reflection of the poor esteem in which the National Transitional Government (NTLG) is generally held. Made up of recidivist warlords and a sprinkling of respectable civil society leaders, the deformities of NTLG was evident from the start, but no one can say that the Bryant-led government has made much of what little they had to start with. The government has already been accused of entering into shady deals with mining corporations and of embezzling public funds; and Bryant is in the habit of frequently traveling abroad with large delegations at state’s cost. There has been no attempt to restructure any of Liberia’s many war-damaged public buildings and basic infrastructure (there is still no treated water supply, let alone electricity).

Apparently the government’s only saving grace is its legislature – or, if truth be told, a lone senator representing civil society, Conmany Wesseh. A sophisticated and urbane longtime political activist, Wesseh returned from exile in Ivory Coast in 2003 (where he had been living for years after Taylor’s thugs raided the offices of Centre for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), which he co-founded with the well known academic and politician Amos Sawyer, beating both men up and threatening to kill them), and became a member of a revamped Senate as nominee of Liberia’s fledging civil society movement. Against great opposition, Wesseh introduced and helped pass the elections bill (some of the NTGL members were opposed to it because they preferred a deferment of the polls), and, in June, finally convinced his colleagues to pass the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Act, and Bryant to sign it into law. “It was a struggle,” Wesseh said, talking about the TRC Act. He was laconic. I later learnt that many of Wesseh’s colleagues, formerly members of militia factions, had bitterly opposed the bill for obvious, and understandable, reasons.

I first met Conmany Wesseh at a conference in Canada in 2000, and was in touch with him during the difficult struggle to get Taylor out of power and to face justice for his many crimes. During this trip, however, Wesseh, usually ebullient, appeared very reticent. He delicately did not find time to grant me an interview about his legislative work or about Liberia’s coming elections, although he took me around to meet other people. One such meeting we went to was that of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in downtown Monrovia. The keynote speaker at the meeting was Medina Wesseh, his wife.

Mrs. Wesseh, an elegant and articulate woman who was a lecturer at Ghana’s Institute of Journalism, spoke about the future of Liberia’s youth. Liberia’s youth (between 15-35 years of age), she said, constituted the core of the militias; a staggering seven per cent of them fought in the war (to put this into perspective: the figure was less than one per cent in the case of Sierra Leone). During the war, she said, there was “a breakdown of family structures…fear and mistrust created, and the usurpation of traditional authority by wayward and vagrant youth.” This is now, she said, the ‘past’ which should “guide us on the way forward, although we must not dwell on it.”

From the look of things, Mrs. Wesseh is being understandably optimistic. For the outsider, Liberia (not the US) could seem like what James Baldwin had in mind when he spoke about history being a nightmare from which no one can awaken. “People,” Baldwin, the great African American writer, said, “are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Just how badly trapped Liberians are trapped in their history could be seen from the way the electoral process has been unfolding.

The process effectively started with registration of voters, which was completed in June. According to Ray Kennedy, an American who is in charge of Unmil’s elections wing (in effect running Liberia’s National Electoral Commission), the process, which started in April, registered 1.34 million voters, of which 671,519 were women and 671,379 were men. The average age of voters is 35 years, but those 27 years and younger constitute 40 per cent of the total. The internally displaced Liberians constitute 59,671 or 4 per cent of the total, and of that 70 per cent chose to register for county of their origin, Kennedy, who had arrived in country from Afghanistan (where he helped organize that country’s elections) three weeks before I met him, told me with some emphasis.

I thought the number of internally displaced voters too small, and I thought the 70 per cent bit a little creepy. The point is that the whole issue is of potentially momentous political importance in Liberia. The voter-registration was not based on a national census – there has been no national census in Liberia for the past 20 years or so, and no election in the country has been based on a national census. The war caused huge displacement of particularly the rural population, and Monrovia’s population may have more than doubled during the war years. This demographic shift, likely to be altered slightly as the country becomes more stable, has potent political implications.

Liberia’s traditional fault-line has been the divide between rural residents (so-called natives) and those in the coastal city of Monrovia and adjacent towns (mainly Americo-Liberians, as descendant of the freed American slaves who colonized the West African state in the nineteenth century are called.) The coup of 1980, which marked the beginning of Liberia’s descent into anarchy, was spearheaded by ‘native’ NCOs promising to put an end to the more than century-old Americo-Liberian hegemony, but it very soon went septic. The bloodthirsty Doe junta employed much the same reactionary and divisive tactics as the old discredited elite he had overthrown, demonstrating in bold relief the congruent corruptions of oppressor and oppressed which is such a marked feature of Third World politics. The destructive war may have helped, in some measure, to wipe out any vestigial privileges that the old elite held – and educated Liberians are quick to play down the old divide, rather like their cousins in Sierra Leone more convincingly do – but there is no doubt that this is  a factor.

Why all this? Liberian has 15 counties, and representation in the National Legislature is determined on the basis of the registered voters in each county. There is, however, a threshold of two senators for each county. But there are 64 seats to be filled, and the mandatory two seats for each county add up to only thirty seats. The rest will have to be filled on the basis of the number of registered voters in each county. It is representation based on electoral district, and it is hugely confusing. On the electoral map, Montserrado County, which includes Monrovia and is the traditional domain of the Americo-Liberians, has by far the largest number of registered voters, 471,657. This is partly because of the massive movement of people from places like Lofa (which has only 85,659 registered voters) into Monrovia during the war years; and partly because many people in that county, as well as in others like Nimba, were unable to vote because of the sheer logistical constraints (bad roads, inaccessible villages, poor security).

True, there was a lot enthusiasm among Liberians for the voter-registration exercise – indeed, in some cases, over-enthusiasm. (New Democrat newspaper, 23 May 2005: “Voter registration in the once-mining enclave of Bong Mines ended in chaos Saturday, forcing elections workers to flee…cutlass-wielding youths…stormed the registration centre demanding to register.”)  But these were mainly in relatively accessible areas. The logistical nightmare will be compounded by the time of elections in October – the end of the rainy seasons, when the decrepit roads, where they exist, would have been washed away by the torrential rains – and this will adversely affect the polls. (Unmil has put in place an elaborate community outreach – spearheaded by its ever-resourceful Public Information Unit – which includes the performance arts, media releases, and debates in high schools. I attended one of such debates, at the Len Millar High School, and was somewhat amazed at the articulateness of Liberia’s young people.) After the elections, which will cost the UN mission $18 million, Liberians will likely be surprised to find that places like Montserrado has by far the largest number of representatives (about 20 senators). Thoughtful politicians like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a presidential candidate, are demanding air-transport facilities from Unmil for the candidates during the campaign period.

Johnson-Sirleaf, so capable and experienced and elegant, is put ahead of eleven other leading presidential hopefuls (there are at the moment nearly 30 hopefuls) by a recent poll by the Liberian Institute of Public Administration. (Full disclosure: I first met Johnson-Sirleaf in Ivory Coast, where she had fled to escape Taylor’s depredations, in 2001, and has followed and admired her work ever since. I interviewed her for this report.) The other contestants include an inarticulate football star, several lawyers and businessmen and bankers. There is something a little unnerving about a place, Graham Greene wrote about Liberia in the 1930s, “where every other man is a lawyer, and the next a banker.”

BY WAY OF AN EPILOGUE

For obvious reasons, Unmil officials are quick to play down the importance of the forthcoming elections in October, claiming that they will merely be transitional. But for that very reason, they are hugely important. The UN has to get this right – and in Liberia, the plain fact is that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It is easy to make fun of the earnest UN officials; of the former political head of the mission, Jacques Klein, who would respond to any criticism of his frantic leadership style by stating that his mission was busy feeding thousands of Liberians each day. But then one remembers the sheer sacrifices and heroism of serving in a country so bare and potentially dangerous, where over 50 UN staffers have died of preventable or utterly curable diseases since the mission started because of the lack of basic health care or the infrastructure that could sustain the minimum standards of modern comfort. And looking at it more closely, the Liberian mission, so high-minded and difficult, could seem genuinely inspiring – in spite of the haphazard reintegration process and the pedestrian politics and the dollars, always the dollars. Liberia is very expensive. Although there is the Liberian dollar – a picture of the thuggish dictator Doe adorning the 50 dollar note – the US greenback is preferred, even by beggars. A decent meal costs at least twice as much in Monrovia as in Accra, and ditto accommodation…

To think about current Liberia, the heroisms and the pathos, is confront a mystery: how come such a fun-loving, God-fearing (many Liberians are conspicuously Christian), and friendly people would carry out such destruction on themselves? The Liberian war was not short-lived. It went on for over a decade. The violence and destruction was sustained for many years, and there were dedicated people and organizations, all Liberian, carrying them out. There was a whiff of millenarianism about the war’s early and late manifestations, but it was madness with method. Clearly, then, to understand the Liberian problem one has to confront something much more than mercenary violence and corrupt leadership: one has to look at the way the state was founded, how it progressed over the years to the point that by the 1980s it had become overtaken by scum politics, where people would think that serious structural problems would be solved by simply eliminating the ‘right’ people.

James Youboty, a Liberian journalist, has provided his own, unique insight. The Liberian problem, he writes in A Nation in Terror: The True Story of the Liberian Civil War (2004), “could be partly blamed on the segregational way in which the ex-slaves from America founded the country and kept the majority of the native population benighted for more than a hundred years. All these disparities in the society set the stage for Satan to take advantage in brutally turning brothers against brothers.” Even Taylor, Youboty writes, is like most Liberians – among the “most generous people on the face of the earth.” “But Satan, the devil, came from hell and corrupted the minds of the peace-loving Liberian people to start killing one another for no good reason.”

As I rushed to the airport to catch the plane that would be late, I thought about these words – and, in spite of myself, I still feel unable to disagree with Youboty…

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