April 12, 1980 : A Personal Account and View

On April 12, 1980 I woke up by the sound of automatic gunfire. It must have been around  6 AM. I was staying with a friend who lived in the Sherman Compound, in Congo Town, then one of Monrovia’s outskirts. My first reaction when I heard the rattling sound of semiautomatic weapons and the sound of single gunshots outside was one of amazement, soon followed by disbelief. I immediately turned on the radio and what I heard gave me goose pimples and cold shivers down my spine despite the tropical heat and the humid air that characterizes April in Monrovia. I heard a news-reader who with a monotonous, nasal voice read the following text:

‘God is tired. After 133 years the enlisted men of the Liberian Army led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe have toppled the Government because of rampant corruption and continuous failure to effectively handle the affairs of the Liberian people. No plane is allowed to come in. No plane is allowed to go out.’

The military coup was a fact. The 18 plotters labelled themselves the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). For the first time in Liberia’s history the power of the Americo-Liberian elite was crushed. At least, that was what the conspirators, their followers and the majority of the Liberian people thought. Now, after 20 Americo-Liberian Presidents since the creation of the Republic in 1847, a Liberian of tribal descent assumed the Presidency: 28-year old Samuel Doe, soon called the highschool kid-President since he attended a night highschool, the Marcus Garvey Memorial High School, at the time of the coup.

However, things were, fast, getting wrong. Monrovians soon joked that PRC stood for People Repeating Corruption. Overall, by the mid-1980s people agreed: it was ‘same taxi, different driver(s)’.

We know the rest. The failed invasion of former PRC Co-Chair and former Chief of Staff of the Liberian Army, Thomas Quiwonkpa in 1985 – was Ellen really involved in this attempt to seize power?, as Tom Woewiyu asserts –, the creation of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) that started a violent uprising against Doe’s brutal regime – was Ellen yes or not a founding member of the NPFL?, as former President Charles Taylor claims?, the torture and murder of President Doe by Prince Y. Johnson, why was he never arrested?, followed by two cruel and devastating civil wars (between 1989 and 2003), the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and, finally, the democratic election of Africa’s and Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005.

Are Liberians nowadays better off than in the 1970s? Thirty-four years after the military coup that shocked the world – remember the Monrovia South Beach execution of 13 Americo-Liberian ‘big shots’ as important people are called in Liberia: former ministers of the slain President Tolbert and top officials of the once powerful True Whig Party – 34 years after that historic day of April 12, 1980, I still struggle with that question.

Posted in 1980 execution South Beach Monrovia, April 12 1980, Charles Taylor, Comprehensive Peace Agreement CPA 2003, Corruption, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia, Liberian History, Monrovia, Monrovia South Beach, NPFL, Prince Y. Johnson, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Thomas Quiwonkpa, Tom Woewiyu, True Whig Party, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

The mystery of the Kru or Grebo rings – Part I

The Kru speaking peoples of eastern Liberia

The official number of tribes in Liberia is 16 but an estimated 31 different languages are spoken in the country. They usually are subdivided into three language groups: the West Atlantic or Mel group in western Liberia, the Mande group in the north and northwest of the country, and the Kru speaking peoples, predominantly living in the southeast. Not surprisingly, in view of the creation of the republic by freed slaves from the United States, the official language is English, but most common in the streets and households of the main cities is Liberian pidgin English, usually spoken as a second language.  We focus here on the Kru and Grebo tribes of the Kru language group.

Each tribe in Liberia has its own culture, history, customs and traditions though only one, the Vai, living mainly in Grand Cape Mount County, had independently developed a script of its own, as one of the few tribes of tropical Africa. This may explain that the known history of many of the other tribes shows important gaps, as we will see below.

The Kru

The Kru are no exception to this blank page in tribal history. There exists very little information on the origin of this tribe. The first recorded documentation dates from the 1400s when Portuguese traders met with Kru people on what was subsequently called the Kru Coast, part of the larger Malagueta or Pepper Coast stretching from the Galinhas in the west to Ivory Coast in the east . The Kru Coast  then was inhabited by three related but distinct tribes: the Grebo, the Sapo and the Kru.

The reader may find it interesting to read more on this subject and for briefness sake is further referred to the blog ‘Trip down memory lane’ focusing on the Kru people: ‘Africa’s sailor tribe that refused to be captured into slavery’. The accompanying pictures are beautiful. Please note that part of this text was previously published by the present author on his website – ‘Liberia Past and Present’ - as ‘Ritual object or Kru money?

Kru or Grebo rings – a mysteryLiberianStudiesJournal1970

The illustration shows the cover of the Liberian Studies Journal 1970-1971, vol. III, number 1. The cover photograph is a brass ring, ‘use unknown’, collected 1965 near Barclayville, Grand Cess Territory. 10 1/2″ wide, 3″high, 27 lbs. (Sven Holsoe Collection).

The origin of these artifacts is not known with certainty, except for the fact that they were made and used among the Kru and the Grebo in southeastern Liberia. According to Siegmann, the Kru and Grebo believe these objects to be living creatures that can be found in creeks, rivers and lagoons. They call them ‘tien’,‘nitien’ or ‘Dwin’ meaning water spirits or ‘Gods of water’. A variety of powers are attributed to them including the ability to stop wars, found villages, heal the sick and guarantee fertility. They are also capable to catch people crossing these streams. The Kru and Grebo believe that the ‘tien’ live in the water but can be caught and brought to town where they may be enjoined to serve as protector or guardians (Siegmann, 1977, p. 82).

KruRingAField work carried out early this year – by a source known to me but who prefers anonimity – learned the following. It is important to mention that the information was told by a Grebo source, so we should be careful with attributing it also to Kru culture and history.

“The rings basically belong in a shrine, with the high priest or Kru ring 28 obverse side, 6.6 inches diagonally, 2.75 lbs.Bodio as the custodian.  It cannot be said how they are made; in fact, they are said to ‘appear’, traditionally from a sacred site on a stream or creek, in the forest.  The rings are said to appear from the deep bottom of the creak, ‘walk’ to a rock and are found by the high priest.  When the rings – usually in a pair – are emerging, the priest ‘hears’ the noise caused by the rings entangling each other and then collects Kru ring 92 obverse side, 10.7 inches, 12.07 lbs.them. The rings are normally stored in the home of the priest into which no ‘stranger’ is permitted entrance. At times, rings are placed at the entrance for males – never the entrance for women – of huts, which huts are round.

One known use of these rings by Grebos is proclamation of rules/law. When there is a dispute Kru ring 89 obverse side, 8.7 inches, 6.80 lbs.between clans, the priest is called and on arrival, ‘throws rocks into the air’: meaning that while he is in a town or village, all he says is ‘law’ and must be complied with.  Disobediance is punished.”

It is extremely difficult to collect information on these rings, be it from Grebo or Kru origin. Disclosure of information may be interpreted as revealing a tribal secret KruRingCand hence is punishable,  maybe even by death – reason why my source prefers to be not mentioned by name.

It is seriously doubted whether any of these objects have been made in recent times. A 19th century source described objects that resembled the shown objects. In 1845, Horatio Bridge, a US Navy officer who served on a cruiser sailing in the Gulf of Guinea, reported: KruRingOpen
“I have procured some of the country-money. It is more curious,
than
convenient.” And he continued that “the ‘Manilly’, worth a dollar and a half, would be a fearful currency to make large payments in, being composed of old brass-kettles, melted up, and cast in a sand-mould, the weigh being from two to four pounds” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed., 1845, p. 106).

Siegmann writes that Horatio Bridge in 1853 reported that he Kru ring 03, 8.2 inches diagonally, 5.4 lbs.had seen them being cast in sand-moulds on the beach near Sasstown in southeastern Liberia. Scott Shepperd, a well-known expert on these Kru or Grebo rings, finds this difficult to believe “(…) since these brass rings are not sand cast but produced through the lost wax process. (Besides), I don’t think it is possible to make a 3 D objet using a sand mould.” (source: correspondence between Scott Shepperd and the present author, FVDK). Siegmann/Bridge also describes how some rings were made by melting down old brass kettles, others were made using the so-called lost wax technique of casting.

Bridge must have seen more and bigger objects than in 1845 KruRingUnknownsince he mentions that their size varied from less than two inches to more than ten inches in diameter whereas a big one could weigh as much as twenty-five pounds. Some objects were solid brass, while others had a sand core. Most objects consisted of an unbroken circle with four knobs, but a few were open on one side. Siegmann, giving the impression he quotes Bridge, reported that these objects were called ‘Kru money’. (Siegmann, 1977, p.82).

Very recently, the American expert and collector Mark Clayton acquired a ring in Liberia and he had a radiocarbon testing carried out on it in a New Zealand lab that showed the following result.

The piece’s age range with the highest probability is 405 to 459 years old, the middle point of which is 432 years – meaning the piece that was tested dates from around 1580! Even, the outermost theoretical range was estimated at between 377 – 541 years. This means that some of these Kru or Grebo rings date back to the time of the early Portuguese traders!

True or not true?

This is a revised and updated version of a previous text published by the author on his website Liberia: Past and Present of Africa’s Oldest Republic (2005), ‘Ritual object or ‘Kru money’? In particular I want to draw attention to the name of the American collector – Mark Clayton – that has been included in the updated version (added on January 25, 2016). Also see Part II.

To be continued: Part II – Kru money or ritual object? See Post dated April 25, 2014.

Sources:

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (ed.), ‘Journal of an African cruiser’ by Horatio Bridge, US Navy officer (London, first edition, 1846; and 1853 edition).

Holsoe, Svend E. (ed.): Davis, Ronald W., ‘Ethnohistorical studies on the Kru coast’, Liberian Studies Monograph Series Number 5 (Newark, Delaware, 1976).

Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. III, number 1, 1970-1971 (Newark, Delaware, 1971).

Schwab, George, ‘Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland’, Report of the Peabody Museum Expedition to Liberia. With additional material by George W. Harley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1947).

Siegmann, William C., ‘Rock of the Ancestors: namôa koni’, Liberian Art and Culture from the Collections of the Africana Museum, Cuttington University College (Suakoko, Liberia, 1977).

Posted in agriculture, Barclayville, Culture, Grand Cess Territory, Grebo, Grebo rings, Horatio Bridge, Krahn, Kru, Kru Coast, Kru money, Kru rings, Language groups, Liberia, Liberian Studies Journal, Malagueta Coast, Mark Clayton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pepper Coast, Portugal, Portuguese traders, Ritual Killings, Ronald Davis, Sapo, Scott Shepperd, Siegman, Sven Holsoe, Vai | Leave a comment

The 1983 Planning and Development Atlas – a forgotten document?

click image to enlarge

By accident – I should rather say sheer luck – I recently acquired a beautiful copy of a Planning and Development Atlas that was prepared and published by the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs (MPEA) in 1983. The Atlas was realized in cooperation with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, GTZ.Cooperation, GTZ.

A friend-of-a-friend of mine who had contributed to it was at the end of 2013 going through some dusted boxes with old documents she kept in the attic and then rediscovered the precious document that had caused her and her German and Liberian colleagues so many sleepless nights in the early 1980s. Knowing my never-satisfied-hunger for old documents and records she contacted me if I would be interested in seeing it. To shorten a long story, just before Christmas she gave me the Atlas as a present – the best X-mas present I ever received.

The Atlas includes development maps with data in respect of population, resources, infrastructure etc. relevant for planning and development purposes. It is based on the censuses of 1962 and 1974. The document is impressive and not only because of its appearance – it measures 20 inch by 20 inch, is one inch thick and weighs 15 lbs! With 37 maps, 45 pages text, 68 figures and 104 tables it contains a wealth of information on Liberia in the 1960s and 1970s.

Liberia’s history of censuses

It is important to mention that the 1962 Population Census was the first national census ever held in Liberia – since 1847! – and showed a population of 1.1 million. According to the 1974 Census the country’s population stood at 1.5 million. The third and last national
census before the start of the civil war was carried out in 1984 and showed a total population of 2.1 million. The fourth National Population and Housing Census since the creation of the republic in 1847 – and the first after the end of the second civil war – was  held in March 2008, revealing a population  of 3.5 million.

There does not exist a comparable document to this 1983 Planning and Development Atlas, as far as I know. The Final Report of the 1984 census was never published. The manuscript and most of the data were lost during the civil war. I could only trace a 43-page Summary Report, published by the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs in 1987, available on the internet.

The post-war interest and support of many donor agencies made a very comprehensive Final Report of the 2008 Population and Housing Census possible. I will not elaborate on the details of this 358 page document. Noteworthy, in the Introduction of the Final Report it is mentioned that:

“(…) In addition, the civil strife in the last two decades made the situation worse by destroying national data banks. The demographic statistics from the censuses of 1962, 1974 and 1984 and socio-economic  surveys conducted prior to the civil conflict are either extremely scanty or completely lost. Furthermore, most of the demographic statistics that survived the civil strife are no longer relevant to the situation on the ground mainly because of massive population displacements and/or resettlements.(…)”

Certainly, the 2008 Census has resulted in a wealth of information on the present situation in post-war Liberia, but the results are presented in a static way showing the status quo. This in itself is very comprehensible since the comparison of the census results with previous demographic and socio-economic data constitutes an exercise of a quite different nature.

However, since there is no reference in the 2008 Final Report to the 1983 Planning and Development Atlas and also in light of the quotation above I cannot rule out the possiblity that the Atlas’ existence was unknown to the Liberian authorities and the donor agencies that contributed to the 2008 Census. I would even be surprised if a copy of the Atlas exists in the country. A quick search on the internet revealed that several libraries abroad have a copy.

A detailed look at a particular map of the 1983 Atlas

To conclude, it is interesting to highlight one particular map of the 1983 Atlas. Map 8 ‘Mineral Resources and Mining’ shows the country’s natural resources and the exploration and concession agreements granted to foreign investors and potential investors. In this respect it is interesting to read on page 23 of the Handbook Text under the caption ‘Hydrocarbon Concessions’:

“(…) A shelf of 9,266 square miles (24,000 square kilometers) which is considered potentially petroliferous has been subdivided into five blocks A, B, C, D and E from  the Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast borders. Exclusive exploration rights for blocks A, B and C were awarded to the Union Carbide Petroleum Company, Chevron Oil Company and the Frontier Oil Company respectively. (…) The remaining two blocks were awarded under non-exclusive exploration rights to Chrystal Oil Company and Aracca Petroleum Corporation. (…)”

click image to enlarge

Personally, I found it a revelation that the 2011 concession agreement between Chevron and the Government of Liberia, with a price tag of US $ 10.7 billion – an absolute record in the country’s history – goes such a long way back: at least some 30 years! I learn from it that economic research may give us insights previously unknown – provided one has the relevant documents and records….. That this is certainly not always the case in Liberia will be obvious after the foregoing.

Conclusion

I hope that the foregoing may inspire Liberian government officials, parliamentarians, academic researchers, journalists and civil society organizations to make better use of existing knowledge when analyzing the present socio-economic situation in Liberia and deciding what is the best for the country. Failure to do so may easily result in – to paraphrase Graham Greene’s famous book on Liberia – a Journey without Maps

Posted in 1962 Census, 1974 Census, 1984 Census, 2008 National Population and Housing Census, Liberia, Liberian History, Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, Planning and Development Atlas 1983 | Leave a comment

Will Charles Taylor end up being Africa’s only former president convicted of war crimes?

Yes, September 26, 2013 was a historic day. On that day the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) rendered its verdict in the ‘Charles Taylor trial’. In a packed court room presiding Justice George Gelaga King  announced that the six judges of the Appeals Chamber unanimously upheld last year’s conviction of former President Charles Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Appeals Chamber also affirmed the 50-year sentence imposed by the Trial Chamber last year.

The 65-year old former President will serve his sentence in Belmarsh Prison, a Category A men’s prison in south-east London, England. The Belmarsh Prison is often used for the detention of convicted terrorists but among the inmates also are dangerous psychopathic pedophiles and notorious child killers. At one time the prison also housed Ronnie Biggs, a famous English criminal, known for his role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery. Given his age and 50-year sentence Charles Taylor is not likely to leave this high-security prison alive.

Victims and political leaders will feel greatly relieved knowing that he, once the most wanted man in West Africa, will not be back in the region. In one way or the other, Charles Taylor was meddling in many West African countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Guinea-Conakry, the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, not to speak of Liberia where he started the civil war in 1989. It is important to mention that the Special Court for Sierra Leone found him guilty of aiding and abetting crimes committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the allied Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) against Sierra Leones civilian population. He was not convicted because of his subversive and criminal role in the other West African countries mentioned, in particular Liberia.

Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in its final report (2009) recommended the creation of an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia and the prosecution of the following Liberians for war crimes, human rights abuses and economic crimes: Charles G. Taylor, Prince Y. Johnson, Roosevelt Johnson,  Alhaji G.V. Kromah, George Boley, Thomas Yaya Nimley, Sekou Damate Conneh and François Massaquoi. Except for Charles Taylor, none of these notorious and feared warlords ever stood trial. They are as free as a bird and live in Liberia. During the recent celebrations of ‘10 years of peace’, in August, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf even awarded certificates to leaders of warring factions, ‘in acknowledgement of their contribution to peace’. Needless to say that this sparked widespread anger among victims of the two civil wars and their relatives.

The conviction of Charles Taylor is an important step in the right direction. Charles Taylor is the first former Head of State to be convicted for war crimes by an international criminal court since Neurenberg in 1946. But his conviction does not bring justice to other victims of heinous crimes committed by or in name of political leaders and even Heads of State.

Former President of Chad, Hissein Habré, ruled over this vast and oil-rich Central African country from 1982 to 1990. Habré, also called ‘Africa’s Pinochet’, is accused of war crimes and torture during his eight years in power. Human rights organizations hold him responsible for the killing and torture of maybe as many as 40,000 people, but the exact number is not known. He was deposed in 1990 and fled to Senegal. On the eve of his departure from N’Djamena, the country’s capital, he stole millions from the National Treasury. During seventeen years he managed to escape arrest, until 2007 when he was placed under house arrest. On June 30 of this year he was finally arrested by the Senegalese police and charged with crimes against humanity and torture.

Another former Head of State who manages to escape from justice is Haile Mariam Mengistu of Ethiopia aka the ‘Red Emperor’.  Mengistu also fled after losing power when Meles Zenawi’s TPLF forces entered the capital Addis Ababa. Mengistu was granted a comfortable place to live in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe, also a Head of State who considers himself above the law. President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan is wanted by the International Criminal Court but travels freely to neighboring countries challenging his prosecutors. Also in East Africa, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya is under fire. Both he and Deputy President William Ruto, a Kalenjin leader and former enemy, are accused of ethnic cleansing and murder in 2008, leaving some 1,500 people dead. Early September 2013 Kenya’s parliament voted to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Nonetheless, the trial of Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto on charges of crimes against humanity commenced on September 10. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trial is scheduled to start on November 12. 

In West Africa President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso rules since October 1987 after his friend and colleague Thomas Sankara was murdered. There is a persistent rumor in West Africa that Compaoré and Charles Taylor, who knew each other from  Gaddafi’s military training camps in Libya, had a secret deal: Compaoré would help Taylor to get rid of President Samuel Doe, and Taylor would assist Compaoré in eliminating President Sankara.

We know the rest of the story. Burkinabé military were with Charles Taylor’s NPFL when they invaded Liberia, from Ivory Coast, in 1989. A UN report established Burkina’s role in the shipment of arms to Liberia – despite a UN arms embargo – as was even referred to by the Appeals Chamber of the SCSL in its final verdict, on September 26. In 2010 Prince Johnson, Liberian warlord and comrade-in-arms of Charles Taylor before he broke with him in 1990, declared when interviewed by the French news agency AFP that he and other Liberian fighters had killed President Sankara in 1987 in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital, thus clearing the way for Blaise Compaoré.

President Compaoré has been ruling Burkina Faso for almost 26 years. The country is seen as one of West Africa’s most stable countries. For geo-political reasons the USA, France and other powers see no reason to isolate or alienate Blaise Compaoré, considered a reliable ally in an unstable region, notwithstanding the serious accusations. In neighboring Mali, Burkina is the most important outside mediator in the conflict between the central government in Bamako and the secessionist Tuareg in the north of the country.

I wrote on April 28, 2012, two days after the Trial Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone found the former Liberian president guilty of ‘aiding and abetting crimes in Sierra Leone’, that the conviction of Charles Taylor is a victory for justice, but not an end to impunity in Africa.

I see no reason to change my opinion. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Posted in African Politics, Alhaji Kromah, Blaise Compaore, Chad, Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ethiopia, Gaddafi, George Boley, Guinea Conakry, Haile Mariam Mengistu, Hissein Habré, Impunity in Africa, International Criminal Court ICC, Ivory Coast, Justice, Kenya, Liberia, Liberian History, Libya, Mali, Meles Zenawi, Nigeria, Omar al Bashir, Prince Y. Johnson, Robert Mugabe, Roosevelt Johnson, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Special Court, The Gambia, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), Tuareg, Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

How many Liberians will celebrate ‘July 26’ abroad?

July 26 is Liberia’s Independence Day anniversary.
On July 26, 1847 the independent Republic of Liberia was officially born, created by less than 1,000 men: freed slaves, free-born blacks and mulattoes from the United States of America. They called themselves ‘Americo-Liberians’ and picked as the new republic’s national motto: ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here‘.

We will never know how many people already lived on what was then called the Pepper Coast, but the tribal population outnumbered the new emigrants by far. By 1900 emigration to the Republic of Liberia had ceased. In all, some 15,000 African-Americans from the United States and some 300 from the West Indies had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better future.

We know the rest of the story: the Americo-Liberian one-party rule and the political and social exclusion of the African-Liberian population were abruptly ended with the 1980 coup of Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe, who became the country’s first president of tribal origin. But disillusion followed. Ten years of human rights abuses and dictatorship characterized Doe’s reign and in 1990 he was as brutally murdered as he had butchered his predecessor, the Americo-Liberian President Tolbert.

The two civil wars (1989-1997; 1999-2003) devastated the country, destroyed the little that had been built up since 1822 when the first group of settlers landed on Providence Island. When in 2006 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent’s first democratically elected female president, took over from her former ally-turned-into-enemy Charles Taylor the country had to start from scratch.

But by then many people had ‘voted with their feet’. An estimated 500,000 Liberians have replaced the Land of Liberty for another country to live in  – compared to 4 million who continue living in Liberia.

The United States

The largest number of Liberians abroad can be found in the United States, officially about 100,000 though some sources put this figure much higher, between 250,000 and 500,000, but  I want to see more evidence before believing this estimate. Most of these ‘Liberian Americans‘ are organized in one of the many organizations that Liberians have created. The Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas is the most important national umbrella organization with 23 local organizations in at least 13 states plus Washington DC. But based on research on the internet, I estimate that in each state Liberians can be found. The largest Liberian communities live in Rhode Island, New York, Washington DC, Virginia, Georgia, Minnesota and, recently, California.

The total number of Liberian organizations in the Unites States is overwhelming. The oldest and largest organizations are the United Bassa Organization in the Americas (UNIBOA), the National Krao (Kru) Organization in the Americas (NKKA) and the Federation of Liberian Mandingo Associations in the USA (FELMAUSA). But there also exist organizations of Liberians originating from the same county like e.g. the National Association of Cape Mountainians in the Americas (NACMA).

Other organizations are named after the city, state or region of the United States where Liberians reside like the Conference of Liberian Organizations In The Southwestern United States, the Liberian Organization of Piedmont, North Carolina, and the Liberian-American Community Organization of Southern California.

The largest Liberian community may live in Rhode Island or in Minnesota. The Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM) is one of the most active Liberian organizations in the United States and The Liberian Journal is a major Minnesota-based online group that earlier this year started a print version for the Liberian Diaspora in Minnesota and neighboring states. This year OLM’s preparations for the celebration of the country’s 166th independence anniversary are being overshadowed by the row over the invited keynote speaker, Liberia’s Finance Minister, Amara Konneh, who is considered responsible for the alleged diversion of US $ 13 million of European Community aid funds.

Europe

ULAA’s sister-organization in Europe is the European Federation of Liberian Associations (EFLA) with member-organizations in at least 15 European countries: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom. It is not known how many Liberians the national organizations represent nor is it known how many Liberians live in Europe. The recent wave of restrictive immigration laws in the majority of the European countries have forced many Liberians out of the official statistics making any estimate a futile exercise. Almost certain the number of Liberians in European countries does not exceed 50,000.

The Netherlands

Probably the largest Liberian community in Europe lives in the Netherlands. The main umbrella organization here is the Liberian Association Holland (LAH) and was created in 1991, no doubt by refugees following the start of the first civil war. The LAH is organized in local chapters and claims to have some 3,000 members but this may be an outdated figure. Other organizations of Liberians in the Netherlands are Liberians in Holland, the Liberian Association in Rotterdam and the Liberian Mandingo Organization in the Netherlands, Bengoma, to name but a few.

West Africa

Between half a million and one million Liberians fled during the fourteen years of civil conflict to neighboring countries in West Africa. After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2003 many refugees returned, sometimes aided by the United Nations (UNHCR), but an unknown number has preferred not to return to the Land of Liberty. Their number may even be as high as 100,000 or 200,000 some of whom have already adopted the nationality of their new home country.

July 26, 2013

‘July 26’ approaches again. 4 million Liberians will celebrate their country’s independence anniversary at home. Hundreds of thousands of political and economic Liberian refugees abroad will also celebrate ‘July 26’: in North America, Europe, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria or another West African country, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali. Most Liberians in the diaspora are well educated and the best trained people of their country. Overall, an estimated 30-40% of the educated Liberians left their country and will not return, lacking confidence in their country’s future.

Liberians are fond of jokes. It is being said that ‘The Love Of Liberty Brought Us Here but The Lack of Money Kept Us Here’.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Liberian diaspora yearly sends an estimated US $ 100 million to Liberia. Let us hope that these remittances will contribute to the miracle that has to happen to make Liberia a middle-income country by 2030, the official goal of the present Administration. Only in that case the number of Liberians celebrating ‘July 26’ abroad will diminish and the Land of Liberty again becomes the land that the pioneers in 1847 thought it would be, the Promised Land.

Posted in 1847 Constitution, African Politics, Americo-Liberians, April 12 1980, Charles Taylor, Comprehensive Peace Agreement CPA 2003, Conference of liberian Organizations in Southwestern United States (Colosus), Corruption, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, European Federation of Liberian Associations (EFLA), Federation of Liberian Mandingo Associations in the USA (FELMAUSA), Independence Day, Liberia, Liberian Association Holland (LAH), Liberian Demography, Liberian Diaspora, Liberian History, Liberian Mandingo Organization in the Netherlands Bengoma, Liberian-American Community Organization of Southern California (LACOSC), Liberians In Holland, National Association of Cape mountainians in the Americas (NACMA), National Krao (Kru) Association in the Americas (NKAA), National Motto, National Seal, Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), Pepper Coast, Remittances, Samuel Kanyon Doe, The Liberian Journal, The Liberian Organization of the Piedmont, UNHCR, Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), United Bassa Organization in the Americas (UNIBOA), Vision 2030, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

April in Monrovia

April is the hottest month in Liberia. The temperature easily reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. 32 degrees Celsius). The sky often is cloudy. Thunderstorms announce the  7 months rainy season. Air humidity will gradually rise and reach its maximum of 100 per cent in the coastal areas at the end of July. By then the air feels like a hot blanket.

April may also be politically hot. Sometimes steaming hot – like this year.

On April 14, 1979 the ‘Rice Riots’ took the government of then President Tolbert by surprise. In Monrovia, demonstrators protested against the announced increase of rice, the staple food, but the underlying anger had everything to do with the political exclusion of tribal people by the Americo-Liberian elite. The demonstration turned into an orgy of looting after the police fired live ammunition at the demonstrators killing hundreds of them.

Almost exactly a year later, on April 12, 1980, the Americo-Liberian President Tolbert was assassinated in a bloody military coup d’état that brought master-sergeant Samuel Doe to power, a Krahn from the eastern part of the country (Grand Gedeh County). Doe thus became Liberia’s first president of tribal origin since the creation of the republic in 1847. During the coup and for the first time in the nation’s history, Liberians in the streets of Monrovia were halted and asked to speak one of the country’s thirty tribal languages, a move directed at the identification of Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the founders of the republic.

Ten days after the coup – still in April – thirteen men were savagely and publicly executed on a beach in Monrovia, after a mockery trial. The former government officials and True Whig Party leaders were executed in a horrific scene, witnessed by a cheering crowd.

Sixteen years later another April month brought chaos, fear and death. The first civil war (1989-1996) was in its seventh year when on April 6, 1996 two warlords in  the power-sharing transitional government, Charles Taylor (NPFL) and Alhaji Kromah (ULIMO-K), orchestrated the arrest of another warlord, Roosevelt Johnson (ULIOMO-J), causing a flaring up of fighting resulting in the death of many and the displacement of thousands who fled the capital city.

In light of the foregoing it is very understandable that when opposition leaders announced an April 12 demonstration against the Sirleaf Administration, the government was not eager to let this happen. 35 civil society groups including the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL) wanted President Sirleaf to resign. The internationally acclaimed President because of her many achievements – notably in the areas of human rights and private sector development – was accused of corruption, nepotism and bad governance. Also reports that the police wanted to demonstrate on April 12 because of payment arrears contributed to a serious and tense situation.

Early April a leaked confidential document suggested that the April 12 demonstration was an attempt to topple the Sirleaf government. Financed by the Liberian diaspora in the United States 400 ex-combatants – mainly from the MODEL warring faction, allegedly Grand Gedeans –  were to carry out the operation. According to the document published by the Monrovia-based Heritage newspaper the alleged coup organizers accused the Sirleaf government of being mainly composed of sons and daughters from the regime of the deposed President Tolbert. Moreover, they accused the Sirleaf Administration of a vendetta campaign against Grand Gedeans (read: Krahn people). Grand Gedeans in the USA were quick to reject the Heritage newspaper article that quoted the unspecified security report and reaffirmed their commitment to peace in Liberia.

The existence of the leaked confidential document has never been proven but what is more important is that thus a tribal element was introduced in the politics surrounding the planned April 12 demonstration. Besides, President Sirleaf has never been popular in Grand Gedeh County where she lost two presidential elections to her main rival, George Weah, leader of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Last year President Sirleaf nominated George Weah as her peace ambassador, a nomination he accepted.

Three days before the planned demonstration Archie Sannoh, leader of the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL), called off the planned protest, causing a split in the opposition. Archiebego Doe of the GLN, Grassroot Leadership Network, immediately announced that the protest stood as planned. He accused the Coalition leaders of taking bribes. Later, the government confirmed that planners of the demonstration received money to call off the planned protest.

And the CDC – the main opposition party – and George Weah, what was their position?

Initially the CDC favored the protest against President Sirleaf but the party later withdrew its support. Also George Weah backed off. He said he was not willing to discuss any demonstration and he gave a very good reason for it: he was mourning his late mother who had died in Ghana. In an interview with Liberian journalists a few days later, he pleaded for peaceful protests and emphasized that we have to sit on the table and always negotiate.

So after all, in the end, April in Monrovia was not so hot as feared. The only victim of the cancelled April 12 demonstration might be Defense Minister Brownie Samukai. A few days before the planned demonstration he stated that he would resort to the use of lethal force to quell or disperse the protest and that government would employ all means available, including the deployment of units of the Armed Forces of Liberia to quell the protest. His statement was a reason for the Liberia Human Rights Campaign (LHRC), a Diaspora-based organization, to request President Sirleaf to release him from his post. It considered his threat not compatible with the democratic principles propagated by her Administration.

So President Sirleaf’s problems are far from over. Was her decision to introduce a moratorium on the exportation of unprocessed natural rubber on April 18 (‘Executive Order No. 50’) already planned months before or a strategic decision aimed to arouse more domestic support for her Administration’s economic policies? And what about her admitting that serious mistakes had been made in the Golden Veroleum Oil Palm Concession in Sinoe County – what she did on April 28? Does it show us a human president, willing to bow her head and to listen to the affected farmers and residents of Sinoe County, or a clever politician?

On top of all this came very serious criticism from the US State Department. It recently published its 2012 Human Rights report on Liberia that was embarrassing even devastating for the Sirleaf Administration. Government officials engage in corrupt practices with impunity, the report averred, and judges, magistrates and jurors were found subject to corruption and influence.

More on this report later.

Posted in 1980 execution South Beach Monrovia, Alhaji Kromah, Americo-Liberians, April 12 1980, April 12 2013, April 14 1979, Charles Taylor, civil society organizations, Civil War(s) Liberia, Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL), Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), Corruption, Coups in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Executive Order No. 50, George Weah, Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), Grassroot Leadership Network (GLN), Human Rights, Krahn, Liberia, Liberian History, MODEL, Monrovia, NPFL, oil palm plantation, Press freedom in Liberia, Rice Riots, Roosevelt Johnson, rubber, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Sinoe County, True Whig Party, ULIMO, ULIMO-J, ULIMO-K, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf received Honorary Doctorate Degree at Tilburg University

Posted in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf | Leave a comment

‘Vision 2030’ and the National Symbols

Dr. Elwood Dunn’s 2012 National Independence Day Oration and Dr. Evelyn Kandakai’s Flag Day Address have sparked a nationwide debate that fits well in ‘Vision 2030’ launched earlier this year.


‘Vision 2030’

On February 10 President Sirleaf launched ‘Vision 2030’, Liberia’s new development agenda for the next 18 years replacing the old Poverty Reduction Strategy document ‘Lift Liberia’. Two months later the National Vision 2030 Steering Committee Chairman Dr. Togba Nah-Tipoteh elaborated upon the concept of ‘Vision 2030’ in a workshop ‘National Vision 2030 – Transforming the Future’ that kicked-off further debate.

According to its web site, ‘National Vision 2030’ is an impartial, participatory process by which Liberians will build a consensus on the future of their country (thereby) setting the agenda to address the social, political and economic challenges over the next 18-years. The ‘National Vision 2030’ project is co-ordinated by the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs (MPEA) and the Governance Commission (GC) that embraces the National Vision 2030 Steering Committee.

Several rounds of consultations have been held since the launch of ‘Vision 2030’, both at the regional level in Liberia, and with Liberians in  the USA. Among the suggestions advanced by participants are changing the National Motto ‘The Love Of Liberty Brought Us Here’ to ‘The Love Of Liberty Unites Us’ and replacing the country’s National Seal. The seal shows a 19th century sailing vessel approaching the coast, a palm tree and agricultural tools. The ship represents the arrival of the colonists – freed slaves and free-born blacks from the USA – as does the superscription ‘The Love Of Liberty Brought Us Here’. The agricultural tools were brought by the immigrants.  Another suggestion concerns the granting of citizenship to people of non-negro descent. Since the creation of the Republic of Liberia in 1847 the country’s constitution forbids the granting of citizenschip to persons of non-negro descent who thus also are denied the right to hold real estate.

The 1847 Constitution started with the phrase ‘We the People of the Commonwealth of Liberia (….)’ whereby the word ‘People’ was not considered synonymous with ‘inhabitants’. White residents as well as native or recaptured Africans inhabiting the Commonwealth were excluded from citizenship. It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that ‘Congoes’ (recaptured Africans from intercepted slave-vessels) and tribal Liberians were granted citizenship. The – unfortunately, politically discarded – 2009 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) also mentions the political, social and economic exclusion of the majority of the Liberian population by the Americo-Liberian creators of the republic and their descendants as one of the root causes of the civil conflict (1989 – 2003).

The National Motto, the Seal, the flag refer to a divided people. The descendants of the ‘pioneers’ and the indigenous population have never been ‘united’ despite President Tubman’s much lauded ‘Unification Policy’ (since 1954) that proved to be sheer lip-service. National holidays, Providence island, the capital Monrovia, towns, streets, buildings, airports are silent but convincing reminders of Liberia’s past as an experiment in ‘black colonialism’. True or not, I was told that the words ‘Remember the Pioneers’ children’ are inscribed at the back of the president’s chair and that a mural in the Executive Mansion carries the same words.

The Flag Day Orator

In 1915 the Liberian Legislature adopted a law declaring August 24 of each year  ‘National Flag Day’ to be observed throughout the republic.  The Liberian flag is a replica of the national flag of the United States though with eleven red and white stripes representingthe number of delegates to the Constitutional Convention declaring Liberia an independent and sovereign republic and with only one star depicting Liberia as the first independent African republic. The date of August 24 refers to the first unfurling of the ‘Lone Star’ as the Liberian flag is called, in 1847.

In her Flag Day speech Dr. Evelyn Kandakai, a former Education Minister with more than 35 years of experience in the education sector in Liberia, called on Liberians to respect the National Flag as a patriotic national symbol that represents all Liberians. She praised the seven settler-women who designed Liberia’s first flag and urged Liberians to carefully observe the words of the National Anthem, lyrics written by Liberia’s 3rd president, Daniel Warner (1864-68).  Dr. Kandakai urged her audience to honor the flag by sustaining the peace in the country and adopting a National Vision for Development. Without mentioning it, she referred to ‘Vision 2030’. ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ she said.

The  Independence Day Orator

Dr. Elwood Dunn is without any doubt one of Liberia’s most distinguished historians and educators and a prolific author. He is Professor of Political Science at Sewanee, the University of the South, in Tennessee, in the United States. Before joining Sewanee, Professor Dunn was Minister of State for Presidential Affairs  under President Tolbert (1971-80). He was one of four of Tolbert’s ministers who escaped death by public execution, shortly after the 1980 coup of master-sergeant Samuel Doe. Then Finance Minister Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also was among the lucky ones.

Elwood Dunn was picked by his former colleague now President Sirleaf as the 2012 National Independence Day Orator. He proved to be an excellent choice – though it is important to note that opinions differ on this view. One author accused him of critical selectionism and of ‘sugarcoating 133 years of Americo-Liberian dominance’.

In the first part of his Independence Oration, entitled ‘Renewing Our National Promise’, Dr. Dunn reminded his audience of the ‘what, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’of the Liberian experience since the early 1820s. In the second part he presented his views on the role of values in the reconstruction of the nation-state after the devastating civil wars (1989-2003).

He referred to Liberia’s triple heritage in his analysis of the country’s past: the traditional African heritage, the heritage of Islamic civilization, and the Western heritage. Dr. Dunn did not hesitate to squarely mention Liberia’s historical divide between descendants of settlers and the indigenous population and also drew attention to another dangerous divide: between the majority of poor Liberians and a very small minority of people enjoying wealth and privileges. He stressed the need for mediation that addresses the growing polarization in the Liberian society and to overcome the social divisions. But solutions, he stated, are hindered by the ‘national values deficits’ that he named: empathy, solidarity, trust, justice, mutual goodwill, social responsibility, mutual respect, a sense of common identity, accountability, innovation, and tolerance.’ He ended his speech with a plea to build a stronger Liberia based on all national experiences and reflecting the triple heritage he earlier mentioned.

In an interview he granted the Daily Observer after his Independence Day speech Dr. Dunn became more precise. He strongly condemned the government’s reconciliation policies citing the ineffective Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) and the Independent Human Rights Commission as examples. National reconciliation should have been government’s first priority, he said.

He further stated that the nation’s security issues cannot be addressed by an army, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and he ruled out the need for a national army. ‘Liberia’s insecurity problem is more of a domestic issue than external. (…) Liberia does not need an army.’

He also revealed that he had refused to be conferred the nation’s highest honor by the Government of Liberia because it discriminates. ‘I told the government that I have been writing and making speeches against our national decorations and symbols on the basis that they do not reflect our oneness as Liberians.’ The honor is the Most Venerable Order of the Knighthood of the Pioneers (italics mine) with the grade of Grand Cordon. President Sirleaf immediately reacted and appointed him to head a small committee with the mandate to ‘initiate changes in the National Order’.

Notwithstanding the foregoing Dr. Dunn lauded the objectives and efforts of the Vision 2030 Steering Committee as well as the farsightedness of President Sirleaf to initiate a national debate on the country’s problems and priorities.

The Republic of South Africa

Elwood Dunn compared the national identity problems in post-conflict Liberia and post-apartheid South Africa. The dominance of the white minority before and during the apartheid era was omnipresent. Geographical names, national symbols and orders reflected this dominance. After the release of Nelson Mandela from prison a process of decolonization started. A decolonization of the mind but also renaming provinces, towns, airports etc. National symbols were changed and now represent the majority of the people. 80% of South Africa’s population is of black ancestry. The National Orator could hardly have ended the interview more provocative: ‘I’m saying these things for us to do for ourselves as Liberians what the South Africans did for themselves.’

I could not agree more. Of course, Liberia’s national identity problem cannot be solved by just renaming towns and streets and changing national symbols. A process of national unification should go hand in hand with national reconciliation. Also here a comparison with South Africa imposes itself. Policies of exclusion should give way to policies of inclusion: politically, economically, socially. However, it is important to mention that there is at least one and maybe a decisive difference between the two countries. Whereas South Africa’s economy is Africa’s biggest economy, Liberia is one of its smallest, its population one of the poorest in Africa.

‘Vision 2030’ aspires that Liberia reaches the status of Middle-Income Country by 2030. With the country’s abundant natural resources this is not impossible but only if the issues of national identity, unification and reconciliation have ceased to be a problem and national security and peace prevails in Africa’s first republic.

Posted in 1847 Constitution, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Elwood Dunn, Evelyn Kandakai, Flag Day, Flag Day Orator, Governance Commission, Independence Day, Independence Day Orator, Liberia, Liberia Education, Liberian History, Monrovia, National Anthem, National Motto, National Seal, National Symbols, Poverty Reduction Strategy Lift Up, President Daniel Warner, Reconciliation, Republic of South Africa, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Tipoteh, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), Vision 2030, William R. Tolbert Jr., William V.S. Tubman | Leave a comment

Liberia: 165 years of independence. Looking back or looking forward?

Every year, as July 26 approaches, I first get overwhelmed by joy, then get into a pensive mood. On previous occasions I have elaborated on the triple cause of my joy. Let me only mention the first reason here: Liberia’s Independence Day. This year’s ‘July 26’ marks Liberia 165th independence anniversary.

Nearly 200 years ago – 190 years to be precise, in 1822 – the first group of freed slaves and free born blacks from the United States set foot on West African soil, created a colony – with logistical, material, financial and military support from the United States – and declared themselves independent on July 26, 1847.  The first African republic was born. History was made.

The colony expanded, the settlers treated the indigenous population as subjects, not citizens, and the seed of discord, quarrels, even hatred was sawn. America’s stepchild in Africa, as Liberia was called, remained under US protection – even after the Americo-Liberian elite, as the descendants of the settlers or pioneers liked
to call themselves, had been forcibly removed from power and
replaced by Liberia’s first president of tribal descent, 133 years after its creation, in 1980. The assassination of President William Tolbert and the public execution of thirteen former government officials and political leaders on one of Monrovia’s beaches were world news.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s brought with it the end of the US protection and interest in the tiny West African republic, the size of Ohio. A coincidence? Perhaps. What followed was one of the most cruel wars that raged on the African continent. The 1989 military invasion that sought to remove Liberia’s first president of tribal descent, who had turned into an oppressive dictator, degenerated. Commonly referred to as ‘civil war’, the violent conflict in fact was a tribal war. It drew worldwide attention because of the atrocities, the child soldiers and the insanity of the war – like most if not all wars. Child soldierMore than 250,000 people got killed, more than 1.5 million displaced. In fact, the entire population of nearly 3 million people was affected.

One of the warlords - Charles Taylor – who had managed to get elected president was forced to step down, went into exile – in Nigeria – but was later handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Liberia again made history when former president Charles Taylor was convicted of arming, supporting and guiding a brutal rebel movement that committed mass atrocities in Sierra Leone and sentenced to 50 years in prison, the first former head of state ever to be tried and convicted by an international court since the end of World War Two.

Meanwhile his successor had also made history: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president. And last year Liberia again made history when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women among whom two Liberians: President Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee.

But, as an editorial in The Heritage, one of Liberia’s independent newspapers asked: ‘Liberia clocks 165, but what is there to celebrate?

The Heritage mentions Liberia’s role on the international scene: co-signer of the UN Charter in 1945, an active role in the 1963 creation of the Organization of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union, and staunch fighter against Portuguese colonialism and an oppressive system of apartheid in Southern Africa in the 1960s and 1970s – despite the economic and social exclusion and legal discrimination of the large majority of the Liberian people by a minority of less than 3% of the population.

The reality is that 165 years after its creation Liberia still lacks the infrastructure and capital needed for its development. The unemployment rate is 90% or even more. There are only a few qualified teachers and doctors. Most Liberians lack access to clean water and modern toilet facilities. Lack of drainages turns streets and alleys in Monrovia and the bigger cities in mud streams and nearly rivers, roads in the interior of the country become impassable during the heavy rainy season. Public electricity is scarce and virtually limited to government buildings. Monrovia is one of the few capitals in the world – if not the only one – without traffic lights.

So, what is there to celebrate? Freedom? Yes, indeed. In Liberia there are no political prisoners. There exists freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, freedom of association. Of course, there still are some bones of contention such as the rights of gay and lesbian people and the traditional practices of tribal societies such as circumcision in the Sande society. But compared to some other African countries Liberia does well.

Another positive judgement concerns the economic policy environment. Led by a Harvard trained economist with wide experience in international affairs, politics and banking and with excellent connections in international organizations – President Sirleaf – the standards set are high. It resulted in a debt cancellation of US $ 4.6 billion in 2010 and strong support of the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, and bilateral donors including the United States.

Unfortunately, corruption – never eliminated despite Sirleaf’s war on corruption announced after her inauguration in 2006  – mismanagement and increasing concerns of nepotisme threaten to destroy the positive assessment in the area of economic policies. But how good economic policies are, the resources of the government remain scarce. The proposed national budget for FY 2012/2013 amounts to a meagre US$ 650 million – with a public debt that already stood at over US$ 530 million in December 2011.

No doubt, a major achievement concerns the political stability and peace Liberians now enjoy, secured by an important UN peace keeping mission, UNMIL, and allowing the Sirleaf Administration to realize the septuagenarian’s political ambitions. However, the fragile peace is threatened and political stability jeopardized by the announced withdrawal of the UN troops, also because the country’s basic problems are not being addressed: reconciliation between perpetrators of atrocities committed during the war and their victims, and unification: bridging the gap separating the various social groups and tribal communities that constitute the Liberian society.

After the July 26 independence day celebrations Liberia and Liberians will again be confronted with the harsh reality of everyday life in a poor country – I should rather say: of poor people in a rich country, because Liberia is well endowed with natural resources: gold, diamonds, iron ore and – more recently discovered – oil, and has an important agricultural potential: rubber, palm products, tropical fruits, timber.

Reconciliation, an end to impunity and unification should be among the country’s top priorities, closely followed by reconstruction and economic recovery. It will be good to review the progress made in these areas on the occasion of the country’s 196th independence anniversary.

Liberia’s celebration of its independence anniversary will be held in Monrovia – for austerity reasons. The 165th Independence Orator is  is Dr Elwood Dunn, one of Liberia’s eminent citizens. I look forward to his reflections and message.

Congratulations Liberia and a happy independence celebration to all!!!

Posted in Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Coups in Africa, Debt relief, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, Liberia, Liberian History, Monrovia, national budget, Nobel Peace Prize, Press freedom in Liberia, Reconciliation, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Sierra Leone Special Court, UNMIL, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

A Tribute To Tom Kamara: journalist, fighter for press freedom, human rights, justice, democracy

While in Monrovia last month I met with Tom Kamara, the Managing Editor of the New Democrat, one of Liberia’s best known and independent newspapers. When we separated we agreed to meet again in the Netherlands, in June. However, we would never meet again. While travelling to the Netherlands last week, he suddenly collapsed at Brussels International Airport, went into coma and never recovered. On Friday, June 8 he was pronounced dead. He was 63 years old.

Who was Tom Kamara?

Tom Kamara was one of Liberia’s most outstanding journalists, independent, fearless, someone ‘who could not be bought’. He fought for freedom of the press, human rights, justice and democracy. His independent opinion and writings brought him into conflict with presidents, warlords and other powerful people. In the 1980s he was imprisoned by President Samuel Doe.  In 1990 he was shot by warlord Prince Johnson. In the 1990s his newspaper offices were set on fire by Charles Taylor’s forces. More recent, he displeased President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who even considered taking him to court.

Tom Kamara was a Kissi from Lofa County, in northwestern Liberia. He was born in a small village called Sodu, in the Foya chiefdom, Lofa County, where he attended primary school. He obtained his secondary school education in Tubman High in Monrovia, followed by the University of Liberia in the 1970s. He started as a reporter with the Liberian Star, one of the main newspapers during the Administration of President Tolbert (1971-1980). In 1981 he returned to Liberia from the USA where he had studied journalism at the University of Texas and became the editor of the New Liberian.

His criticism of Samuel Doe’s People’s Redemption Council and uncompromising writings led to his arrest but he managed to escape from prison of the National Security Agency, just hours before he was to be summarily executed by Doe’s henchmen during his transfer to the notorious Bella Yella prison. I remember the article in The New African, a leading magazine in those days, narrating his miraculous escape. Unfortunately I did not succeed in tracing an electronic version of this article. The orginal version is in one of the trunks filled with Liberia related stuff somewhere in my attic.

In 1985 Tom Kamara was in Accra/Ghana, where he, James Fromayan - the former NEC boss – and Charles Taylor were in close contact – four Liberian refugees living in the same place. The fourth person was Charles Taylor’s girl friend at that time ( ‘Agnes’). To avoid any misunderstanding: neither Tom nor James shared Taylor’s political ideas or were associated with his plans and undertakings. Charles Taylor had escaped from a US prison and arrived in Ghana with the help of Boima Fahnbulleh, a good friend of then Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings. James Fromayan confirmed me this story and even gave me some additional interesting information when we met last month. It again shows a major characteristic of the Liberian political system: virtually all important actors know each other well.

Tom later moved to the Netherlands, it is not known why and how. It is interesting to note that in the same period another major Liberian political player, Togba Nah Tipoteh, had been granted asylum in the Netherlands after he fled Liberia following the execution of the vice-chairman of the PRC, Thomas Weh-Syen in 1981.

When the first civil war raged the country (1989-1996) Tom Kamara was at home. He was closely associated with the Interim Government of National Unity of Interim President Amos Sawyer, a close friend of his.

In 1990 Tom, James Fromayan and some others were on Bushrod Island, near the Vai Bridge, when they met Prince Johnson, leader of the Independent National Patriottic Front of Liberia (INPFL) – one of the warring factions –  who was moving towards downtown Monrovia. I was told this encounter last month by both James and Tom. Prince Johnson questioned them what they were doing in the area and wanted to kill them, but they managed to escape though Tom was badly wounded. He was shot in his leg. He would never completely recover.

Immediate treatment in Monrovia was not successful due to the lack of qualified medical personnel.  Tom was evacuated to the Netherlands for further medical treatment, but the damage caused by the lack of immediate effective medical treatment was irreparable. He was hospitalized for many months in the Netherlands, followed by a stay with Dutch friends for further recovery. During his stay in the Netherlands he made many friends and often returned to this country that he considered his second home.

Back in Liberia he formed the New Democrat making the newspaper one of the  most popular and most informative newspapers in Liberia. His independent writing and criticism brought him into conflict with Charles Taylor. Supporters of the warlord looted and burnt down the newspaper offices in 1996. After Charles Taylor had become president he continued to harrass Tom and his newspaper team. In 2000 the Taylor Administration even shut down the newspaper and Tom’s life was threatened. Tom again went into exile, first to Ghana then to the Netherlands where he started an online edition of his newspaper. In 2005 Tom and his wife Rachel returned home where Tom continued his work for more democracy, more justice and more press freedom.

One would expect that during the Administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who strongly advocates freedom of the press Tom’ s work in Liberia would be smooth sailing. The reality is different. In 2010 the New Democrat’s website was brought down by hackers twice in one month time. The government brought multimillion dollar libel suits against the newspaper following reports on corruption by government officials. Even President Sirleaf once wanted to sue him, he told me in his Clay Street office on May 9, but he convinced her that he had used official sources for a publication that she disliked and the libel case was called off. Their relationship certainly was strained which though did not prevent him from contacting her occasionally by telephone, he emphasized. He was a true journalist, without any fear, independent, not ready for compromises and avoiding conflicts of interest.

In February this year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed Tom Kamara as a member of the Board  of the National Port Authority, an appointment that stirred much debate. Typically for Tom, he declined the offer that very likely would have been accompanied by an interesting monthly check. On March 1 he thanked the President, adding: ‘Kindly permit me to extend my humble appreciation to you for appointing me as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Port Authority. However, due to my current busy responsibilities, it is my courteous regret to inform you, Madam President, of my unavailability this time to serve in this position.’

Yesterday, friends of Tom Kamara in the Netherlands held a memorial service at St. Andrews Cathedral in the southern town of Heerlen where he spent many years of his life.

I will remember Tom Kamara as a great and independent journalist and an ardent defender of democracy, social justice, human rights and press freedom. His demise means that a great Liberian has moved from the present to the past.

RIP Tom.

                                            The New Democrat building, Clay Street, Monrovia
From now on without Tom Kamara, Managing Editor

Posted in Amos Sawyer, Bella Yella prison, Boima Fahnbulleh, Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Famous Liberians, Fromayan, IGNU, INPFL, James Fromoyan, Justice, Kissi, Liberia, Liberian History, Press freedom in Liberia, Prince Y. Johnson, Samuel Kanyon Doe, The Liberian Star, The New Democrat, The New Liberian, Thomas Weh-Syen, Tipoteh, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment