Have Liberians Squandered Opportunity to Reconcile their Nation? (Guest Commentary – A Reprint) By: James W. Harris

flag1The international community has been extremely generous to Liberia since it ended its brutally fratricidal wars in 2003. As the matter of fact, donors have been really patient, considerate and supportive in helping Liberians to revive their fallen nation.

For just this 2013 fiscal year (FY) the United States alone has proposed spending another US$169M mainly to professionalize Liberia’s badly demoralized military and civilian security forces, promote transparency and accountability as well as good governance, among other critically needed reforms. According to the Financial Tracking Service (FTS), total Humanitarian Funding to Liberia for the FY 2013 is estimated at a little over US$13M as of June 7, while another report for FY 2012 said the U.S. Government had committed US$205M toward the war-battered country’s development efforts.

As lately as in 2010, the Global Humanitarian Assistance organization reported that total aid to Liberia was put at US$488M, including US$30M in humanitarian aid and US$525M specifically earmarked for the support and upkeep of the United Nation’s (UN) multilateral peacekeeping force dubbed UNMIL to secure the country while it recovers from years of turmoil . UNMIL, the acronym for the United Nations Mission in Liberia, was established on September 19, 2003 under Security Council resolution 1509 (2003) to basically prevent Liberians from killing each other.

Let us hope that the country’s General Auditing Commission (GAC) come up soon with its own audit report on Donors Funds so that Liberians and the world can finally get to know exactly where all this money has gone. It would be very interesting to know how these funds were spent and what was really accomplished.

The main reason why all this money has been pouring into Liberia was to give Liberians the chance and time to sort out their longstanding differences as carefully outlined in the now disbanded Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) 2009 final report. From 1989 when now jailed former President Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast, to the signing of the final peace agreement – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Ghana in 2003 – Liberians under the various warring factions were at each other throats with no end in sight. But unlike other countries where wars were fought on the basis of principles or even for love of country, Liberia’s civil wars were simply about greed on the part of a few lifelong opportunistic Liberians that are presently serving in the Sirleaf government.

Donor objectives

If the objectives of ongoing aid to Liberia (humanitarian and otherwise) were to accomplish the following at least from the U.S.’s perspective, (1) To professionalize the country’s military and civilian security forces; (2) Consolidate and sustain democratic progress; (3) Build the capacity, transparency, and accountability of governance institutions; (4) Promote broad-based and environmentally-sustainable economic growth; (5) Improve access to high quality educational and health services and (6) Responding to the emerging problem of narcotics trafficking in West Africa then current results are highly disappointing.

Let us just take the first objective as an example.  After spending hundreds of millions of dollars training and retraining personnel of both the Liberian military and security forces, it is highly doubtful that these institutions can actually stand their own ground in the absence of UNMIL.   According to UN resolution 2066 (2012) extending UNMIL’s mandate until September 30, 2013, Liberia’s security situation remains stable BUT (my emphasis) fragile.   The key word here is “fragile”.

And there is a good reason why the security situation remains fragile after more than seven years under the Unity Party (UP) government led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – many Liberians simply do not trust their government anymore.

Even though the TRC blacklisted Sirleaf among 50 others as political leaders and financiers of the various warring factions, Liberians voted overwhelmingly in 1985 and then again recently in 2011 to elect her as not only the president of the Republic of Liberia, but the first ever woman to have been elected president of an African country. Many Liberians at home and in the Diaspora had their last hopes pinned on her despite allegations that Madam Sirleaf had personally contributed about US$10,000 towards Taylor’s war chess. Wrote professor Patrick L. N. Seyon on the once popular Liberian website, the Perspective back in 2002, “She (President Sirleaf) and others, who financed Taylor’s war, are as responsible as the warlords for the hundreds of thousands who died in the war,” when he tried to set the record straight on the US$10,000 allegation.

Two recent incidents

While resolution 2066 does paint a somewhat hopeful picture of the present security situation in the country, two separate incidents of late involving two top security officials close to the struggling Liberian president say a whole lot about governance in Liberia under the Sirleaf administration.   The first incident involved Defense Minister Brownie J. Samukai who threatened to use non-lethal force combined with all the might of the Liberian military to stop a planned protest supposedly organized by local activists to register their collective disappointment in the ruling UP government.   He was quoted as saying, “To demonstrate my seriousness at the Ministry of Defense, I shall be ordering a section of the armed forces of Liberia [to] be on standby at the Barclay Training Center to make sure that those who want to cause trouble understands the seriousness the government places on this matter” (FrontPageAfricaOnline, April 4, 2013).

The other significant incident involved some silly but equally threatening remarks made by the head of President Sirleaf’s elite security detail, Othello Daniel Warrick, when he addressed the full press in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, ironically on World Press Freedom Day in May. For his part Warrick was quoted as saying, “Be careful in questioning the integrity of Liberians. Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns. And if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians, like myself, we will come after you,” and then boldly referred to some Liberian journalists at the event as “terrorists” (FrontPageAfricaOnline, May 9, 2013).   Does this sound familiar? In direct response to Warrick’s remarks, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), after consulting with its members, immediately placed a complete blackout on the Executive branch of government including all its security apparatuses for at least 15 days.

Tight lipped

What is even more disturbing is that President Sirleaf has been tight lipped since in regards to the reckless remarks made by her two trusted confidants. Her silence is remarkably deafening for a person that won the coveted Nobel Peace prize in 2011 along with two others (Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen) supposedly for her part in fighting for women’s rights worldwide. Well, what’s about the rights of all Liberians, Madam President? Rights to jobs, quality education, health care, safe drinking water and unpolluted environment, among others?

Strangely, Liberians seem to be the only group of people on the planet earth that forget so quickly. It was just a couple of years ago that they were hearing the same kind of sickening rhetoric from their supposed leaders and now come Sumukai and Warrick with their egos flying sky high, taking Liberians for granted once again. The fact that these two senior government officials could alter such fighting words and still feel secured in their respective jobs speaks volumes about the severely corrupt Sirleaf administration as well as Liberians themselves. Such provocative remarks would not have been tolerated in many parts of the world without serious consequences, but this is Liberia where citizens have become increasingly complacent with their status in life. It would appear that Liberians have all but accepted their fate of grinding poverty, visionless leadership, illiteracy and lack of opportunity, among others, as their masters treat the country’s coffers as their personal piggy bank.

So in effect, if the objective of aid to Liberia’s security sector, including the military, was to “professionalize” those distrusted institutions then the untimely outburst from Samukai and Warrick were hardly good examples of professionalism. Is it not true that the police and the Ministry of Justice are supposed to take care of civilian matters like demonstrations, while the military focuses on protecting the nation’s borders and other external security threats? Or, was this not part of their training in democratic governance paid for by various aids funding packages?

The examples set by these two senior government officials proves undisputedly that Liberians have not learned any lesson from their immediate past. What if the protesters had gone ahead in April to fulfill their constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble and demonstrate peacefully? The result is predictable based on utterances from the Defense and Executive Protection Services (EPS) bosses.

Police still unprepared

It goes without saying that if the Liberia National Police (LNP) cannot handle a protest demonstration by a few hundred civilians and have to call in the military then something is dismally wrong, especially with the kind of money invested in training and rehabilitation for security personnel in recent years.

If we were to further examine each of the other objectives being supported by ongoing donors funds to Liberia, we would find that there really is not much to show in terms of tangible progress just as in the case of the security sector.

For example when it comes to how much has been accomplished as far as objective three (building the capacity, transparency, and accountability of governance institutions) is concerned, Liberia under the Sirleaf regime again falls short. According to the most recent report from Transparency International (TI) covering the year 2012, Liberia ranks a pitiful 75 from a list of 176 countries and territories with a Corruption Perception Index (CPI) score of 41 meager points out of 100.

Low rating

With this kind of low rating combined with the fast growing disparity between the rich and poor in Liberia today, one could only be fantasizing about the country finally turning the corner. The true test of Liberia’s stability will soon come as UNMIL draws down and the international community grows weary about spending resources it can no longer afford just to keep propping up a nation that seemingly is incapable of resolving its own internal problems.

Unlike years gone by when donors had a lot of cash to throw around, the recent downturn in the global economy has forced them to cut back on humanitarian and other kinds of aids. They no longer have the luxury of wasting their taxpayers’ money just because they can. Donor nations and other contributors have their own internal problems to deal with these days, therefore, the need for Liberians to take full responsibility for their own broken country. For too long Liberia has been on the receiving end with dependency syndrome, practically begging its way through. Indeed, times are changing rapidly while Liberians are still of the illusion that the international community will always be there for them.

Although President Sirleaf can be credited single-handedly for restoring Liberia’s lost image primarily because of her previous connection with the World Bank, she as well as Liberians has squandered the opportunity to fully reconcile their country. Exactly ten years after UNMIL put their boots on the ground, the security situation in Liberia still remains unstable. The ongoing disputes about land rights in the country appear to be the one thing that may bring Liberia crashing down soon again if the Sirleaf administration does not begin to play a more proactive role in settling longstanding disputes.

Missed opportunity

As for Liberians, they too have squandered the opportunity to revive their country at a time when the international community was able and willing to lend them a helping hand. While peoples in other parts of the world are taking to the streets and demanding a fair share of benefits from their country’s valuable natural resources, Liberians seem to be contended with the good life – if you consider sexually exploiting under aged young girls and sharing a bottle of beer or whatever as living good. And in the case of Liberian women and girls, selling their sacred bodies for just pittance to survive or dress up to feel good.

When I asked a good friend recently what he thought would happen to Liberia if UNMIL were to end its mission and pull out, he looked me straight in the eyes and said,  “Those people will not leave because they are enjoying Liberia too much.” Let us hope that he is correct. If it turns out that he is wrong, then the lack of will power on the part of the Liberian people to pressure President Sirleaf to fully implement the TRC’s final report – which should be the basis of any move toward genuine reconciliation – would be the main reason why Liberia may not enjoy permanent peace in the long run. It is unthinkable that Liberians would condone their government spending millions of dollars on the TRC just to shove its final report under the rug. What kind of sense does that make?

Regardless of how much physical development the UP government may be able to bring to the country in these last few years of the Sirleaf administration, one fact remains crystal clear – nothing (absolutely nothing) can replace the need for Liberians to reconcile amongst themselves. And it starts with seeking justice for all those that were slaughtered mercilessly at the hands of Liberia’s so-called warlords. As the saying goes “No justice, no peace!” That is why it is very important for the Liberian people to insist now that the TRC report be taken from under the rug or wherever it has been buried all these years and implemented promptly for the sake of lasting peace and reconciliation in the country.

The best opportunity Liberians will ever have to reconcile and seek justice is now while UNMIL is still on the ground providing security for all. But as the September 30, 2013, tentative deadline looms, this opportunity is fast slipping away to Liberia’s sad detriment.

About the author – James W. Harris is a U.S.-based journalist and communication professional. He is a longtime contributor to various Liberian online websites and earned a BA degree (Magna Cum) in Journalism from the Prairie View A&M University of Texas and an MA in Public Communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jimiharris@comcast.net.

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About Cholo Brooks 13344 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.