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

Liberia revisited (3)

Monrovia, Saturday, May 19

Much has changed, much is the same. This is my major observation when revisiting Monrovia, after 32 years. I left in the wake of the 1980 coup of master-sergeant Samuel Doe, I left a country where hope had received an enormous impetus with the ousting of the TWP oligarchy and the installation of the country’s first government led by tribal people, hitherto excluded from power and the fruits of economic growth.

I came back in a country ruined by a savage tribal war in which a quarter of a million people perished, the country’s infrastructure was devastated and a tropical gangster-president had turned the oldest African republic into a rogue state. After his departure in 2003, the country was even more divided than ever in its history. In the second half of the 20th century Liberia’s top priorities could be summarized as being national unification and economic development. Anno 2012, the country’s top priorities are reconciliation & unification, peace & political stability, and reconstruction & economic development.

Unfortunately, my short visit was limited to the nation’s capital though this had no negative impact on my excitement. While in Monrovia I met with a number of interesting people including high ranking officials of President Sirleaf’s Unity Party, former advisors and collaborators of former warlord and president Charles Taylor, academicians, a banker, representatives of official donor agencies and non-governmental organizations, returned refugees and one independent journalist – who according to an insider  is ‘the only Liberian journalist who is not for sale’  but I hope he was exaggerating. I also briefly spoke with two cabinet ministers. The conversations combined with my impressions while touring the city and its subsurbs inspired me to a number of reflections.

Reconciliation and Unification

On April 26, only a few days before my arrival at Robertsfield International Airport, the Special Court for Sierra Leone announced the conviction of former president Charles Taylor. It is important to note that he was convicted of crimes related to the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) and not for his role in Liberia’s civil wars (1989-1996 and 1999-2003). Up till now the only person convicted for crimes committed during the civil wars in Liberia is his son Chuck who was sentenced to 97 years by a US court. Former warlords walk free in Monrovia, the latest to join his former ennemies was LPC militia leader George Boley, expulsed from the USA. Former INPFL warlord who tortured President Doe to death Prince Johnson is a Senator for Nimba County, former ULIMO leader Alhaji Kromah was recently made Ambassador-at-large by President Sirleaf.

She also appointed several former cabinet ministers in the Taylor Administration to important, and well paid, positions. One of them is LeRoy Urey, Deputy Minister for Administration and Public Safety and a former Deputy Attorney General under Charles Taylor and one of his associates in arms trafficking according to an official 2001 UN report. LeRoy Urey was made Chairman of Liberia’s Human Rights Commission (INCHRL). The Commission is, among other tasks, responsible for overseeing and following up on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) but, as we know, the final report was shelved after publication in 2009. Human rights Chair LeRoy Urey also remained silent after the conviction of his former boss, Charles Taylor, which sharply contrasts with the tsunami of international reactions after the historic verdict of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Also the Minister of Interior, Blamoh Nelson, is a Taylor associate. His working relationship with Taylor goes back to the early 1980s when the two headed the General Services Agency (GSA) in the Doe Administration. Later he served as Chief of Cabinet in the Taylor Administration.  One of the Supreme Court’s Associate Justices is a former LURD rebel leader, Kabineh Ja’neh. It is interesting to note that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that some recommendations made by the TRC were unconstitutional, in particular the 30 year ban from politics imposed on  President Sirleaf and a number of politicians and individuals .

Charles Taylor still has many sympathizers and followers in Liberia, often former allies, collaborators and associates, and they seem to make more noise than the war victims whose number easily could reach half a million people. Early May it was announced that fifteen civil society organizations united to campaign for Charles Taylor’s release, saying that his conviction is a miscarriage of justice.

Some people hold President Sirleaf personally responsible for shelving the final report of the Truth and Reconcilation Committee recommending the prosecution of all former warlords. They qualify her policy as ‘reconciliation without justice’.

Picture: Temple of Justice, Monrovia, Liberia:
Motto: ‘Let Justice Be Done To All’
(courtesy of Move2Monrovia)

Peace and Political Stability

The United Nations Mission In Liberia, UNMIL, is crucial for maintaining peace in the country, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) being weak and the National Police Force (NPF) unreliable as was demonstrated in late 2011. The UN military force is omnipresent  in the capital where UNMIL’s headquarters are located adjacent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where President Sirleaf holds office. At strategic points in the capital heavily armed UN military personnel assures peace and hence political stability. However, the UN recently announced it will reduce UNMIL’s size from 16,000 to 8,000 whereas it will be further reduced in size to some 3,750 soldiers in 2015. President Sirleaf’s second term will end in 2018. Born in 1938, she will then be a 80-year old ‘Iron Lady’.

Hence, the question of her succession arises. There are indications that within her political party, the Unity Party (UP), ambitious politicians are already preparing for the foreseeable change. One of them is Varney Sherman, UP’s current chairman after the merger of his party, the Liberian Action Party (LAP), with the UP in 2009. But he of course is not the only possible candidate to her succession. Notably the younger generation has a number of promising potential candidates, one of them being Kimmie Weeks, an acclaimed human rights activist. I devoted a post on this remarkable Liberian in 2009. President Sirleaf recently appointed him to chair the Board of Directors of the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (LWSC). Though Kimmie Weeks has not (yet) indicated political aspirations, we are still far from the next presidential elections campaign (2017) and things may change rapidly. By the way, his background may be a serious disadvantage. Kimmie Weeks is the son of Rocheforte Weeks, former UL President during the Tubman Administration and former minister of Foreign Affairs under president Tolbert. Undoubtedly, the divide between the Americo-Liberians and so-called Congo people on the one hand and the tribal population on the other – far from being a homogeneous bloc as the civil war has  demonstrated – still exists. As long as this divide exists the peaceful future and political stability of the country are uncertain. Among Liberians there are growing concerns that President Sirleaf is more concerned about her international reputation than this internal problem and potential conflict, official declarations such as on the occasion of May 14, National Unification Day, notwithstanding. Rising accusations of favoritism and nepotism – some critics even compare her with former Presidents Barclay, Tubman and Tolbert – further feed a growing dissatisfaction with her internal policies.

Reconstruction and Economic Development

Unfortunately, my agenda did not permit me to travel outside of Monrovia but what I saw in the capital was impressive even though much remains to be done, notably in the interior as I was told. Roads are being rehabilitated, often with foreign – notably Chinese – funds, and plans are well underway to rehabilitate and expand the Mount Coffee hydro-electric plant in White Plains. The plant was looted and destroyed during the civil war. Almost ten years after the second civil war electricity in the capital is still mainly provided by private generators and only affordable by a few.

What impressed me most are developments in the area of education. Early May 55,000 high school students sat for their exams. Not less than 25,000 senior high school students from 380 high schools across the country and 30,000 junior high school students from 925 schools hope to pass the exam and thus secure a better future. Moreover, in the country’s 31 teriary institutions some 44,000 students are enrolled, more than half (24,000) at the University of Liberia. Nearly 2,500 students graduated for the academic year 2011/2012 at the University of Liberia. And today, on May 19, 25,000 candidates sat the UL entrance exams. It is expected that some 30 – 40 per cent will pass, adding another 8,000 university students to the existing numbers – only for the UL!

These high numbers both show the importance attached to education by the Liberian population but also the effects of the civil war since during the conflict also educational facilities and activities came to a virtually standstill. Everybody wants to make up for the time lost. Of course, these high numbers don’t say anything about the quality of education, which leaves much to be desired since less than a third of secondary school teachers is qualified, even according to Liberian standards. To make things worse, where will the 55,000 high school students and 2,500 university graduates find employment?

This brings me to my last point: economic development. In a country were an estimated 90 per cent of the population in the working age is unemployed, top priority should be given to labour-intensive economic activities. Only agriculture and agro-industrial activities may bring a solution. However, despite international objectives and commitments such as the 2003 Maputo Agreement to spend 10 per cent of the national budget on agriculture – adopted by the Government of Liberia  – public expenditures for agriculture are very low. In Fiscal Year 2010 the Government of Liberia only spent US$ 4 million of its $ 400 million budget in the agricultural sector – half of it went to Monrovia-based civil servants – disregarding here the support of the international donor community.

Like previous governments the Sirleaf Administration relies on foreign funds, both from public sources and from international investors. Among the president’s greatest achievements are the cancellation of the nation’s US $ 4.6 billion debt and the nearly US $ 20 billion in commitments of foreign investors: for agricultural activities – notably oil palm plantations – iron ore mining and oil production. However, although President Sirleaf and her main advisors, among whom Amos Sawyer, the powerful Chairman of the Governance Commission, and Togba Nah Tipoteh, the influential Chairman of the Committee elaborating the visionary 2030 document, are well aware of the lessons of the past with respect to the Open Door Policy – the policy to attract foreign funds and know-how for the exploitations of the country’s rich natural resources in exchange for substantial privileges such as tax holidays a.s.o. – Liberia risks to repeat the mistakes of the Tubman and Tolbert Administrations. Foreign investors like Sime Darby are given large tracts of land for economic activities, disregarding the rights of Liberians who have been owning and working on these lands since centuries and who depend on these land for a living, read: for survival. Liberia risks to repeat ‘Growth without Development’, a phrase coined by a Northwestern University team studying President Tubman’s Open Door Policy in the 1960s – unless something is done about it since it is not too late.

Crucial in a country’s development are politics, policies and politicians. Liberia’s 165 years of independence are a living proof of it. Nearly everybody I spoke to agreed that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the best person to guide the Liberian nation now: ‘Everybody else would be worse’ – and I agree with this statement. However, one of my sources seemed to be pretty sure saying: ‘History will not judge positively about her, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.’ If that’s true, only history can tell us. For the time being I will continue to closely follow events in Liberia.

Last but not least: ritual killings, a phenomenon older than the Republic. Every Liberian is well aware that these revolting crimes continue to happen, including President Sirleaf. From three different sources I was told of the continuation of these repulsive practices. According to one source a case of ritual killing occurred in White Plains in March of this year. Another source informed me about a failed attempt to kidnap a person who thus escaped from a cruel death. This happened last year, ‘during the elections campaign’, according to my source of information. The third case concerned a case of ritual killing, in Todee District, Margibi County, involving a tribal chief. The case was dropped given the status of the accused.

As I said in the beginning of this post: Much has changed, much is the same.

I look forward to my next visit.

Posted in Africulture, Alhaji Kromah, Amos Sawyer, Barclay, Blamoh Nelson, Charles Taylor, Chuck Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Debt relief, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Famous Liberians, George Boley, INPFL, Justice, Kimmie Weeks, LeRoye Urey, Liberia, Liberia Education, Liberian Demography, Liberian Economy, Liberian History, LPC, Monrovia, national budget, Prince Y. Johnson, Reconciliation, Ritual Killings, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Special Court, Tipoteh, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), ULIMO, University of Liberia, UNMIL, Varney Sherman, William R. Tolbert Jr., William V.S. Tubman | Leave a comment

Liberia revisited (2)

Monrovia, Wednesday May 2

To be back in Monrovia after 32 years is a great experience and a strange feeling. Much looks the same, yet is different. The sight of people walking in the streets is not much different from the 1970s when we lived here. Young boys in their ragtag clothes, schoolgirls in their uniforms, market women balancing their trading goods with great skill on their heads, and many, many men to whom I look suspiciously, wondering what they have been doing in the war.

At first sight the biggest difference is the traffic, much busier than before. Taxis are overcrowded all day long, not only during rush hours. It seems that a cab’s capacity is always one person more than one would expect. The numerous 4 WD vehicles are an indication of a bustling ngo-world. Nobody knows how many non-governmental organizations exist in the country, definitely more than one hundred though. Some well-informed observers estimate their number at between 300 and 500. Another remarkable difference with the calm years of the 1970s has to do with the numerous new buildings and construction activities. Monrovia clearly is recovering from the war. Led by Mary Broh, Monrovia’s energetic and ambitious mayoress, the nation’s capital is being cleaned and rebuilt, though much remains to be done.

Already on the first day of my renewed visit to Monrovia I unexpectedly had a chance to visit the campus of the University of Liberia - where I had been teaching economics in the 1970s. Chased by a power failure in our conference room we sought and found a better place at the UL. I was flabbergasted at the sight of the university campus. Many new buildings in addition tot the old buildings which I of course immediately recognized: the Science department building, the Main Building housing the president of the university, and – from far – the College of Business and Public Administration where I had been teaching.

I saw crowds of young people: students. When later that day I met the Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration he told me that there were now at least 24,000 students registered at the university, 9,000 of them were following courses at the Business College. Again I compared: in the 1970s there were 2,000 students at the University of Liberia and some 500 at the College of Business and Public Administration. Also, in the seventies there were only two universities in Liberia: the UL and Cuttington College, as it was then called, in Bong County. Now there are 9 accredited universities, most of them private, and the total number of university students is being estimated at some 45,000!

Despite this spectacular growth in the number of universities, most of the institutions are only universities in name, one Liberian expert told me. Only the University of Liberia and Cuttington University offer a – limited – number of post-graduate courses, the other universities only undergraduate courses. To obtain an MA Liberians students still have to go abroad.

Nowadays huge numbers of students are largely explained by the civil wars (1989-1996; 1998-2003) when life was disrupted and  hundreds of thousands of young people were prevented from attending classes in primary and secondary schools. Now, everybody want to catch up. Liberians are eager to learn but conditions are rough. The quality of the educational sytem leaves much to be desired. A recent USAID survey showed that 34% of Liberia’s second graders could not identify a single word! Reading speed of students is low, sometimes half of that of students in Europe and the USA. Improved teacher training is imperative – but where to start?

Posted in Civil War(s) Liberia, Cuttington University, Liberia, Liberia Education, Mary Broh, Monrovia, University of Liberia | Leave a comment

Liberia revisited (1)

Monrovia – Sunday, April 29

Today is a very special day: after 32 years I again set foot on Liberian soil! With my wife and two-year old son I left the country in the aftermath of the bloody 1980 coup that left President Tolbert dead and brought master-sergeant Samuel K. Doe to power, the country’s first indigenous  president. We crossed the Liberian/Ivorian border on April 22, 1980, the day thirteen government officials and True Whig Party leaders were savagely  executed on the beach of Monrovia.

The drive from Robertsfield International Airport where we landed this afternoon to the capital Monrovia was one with familiar scenes: palm trees everywhere, which immediately reminded me of the nearly-historic song ‘Precious Palm Tree’ of one of Liberia’s most famous singers, Mahalia Jackson Parker. The abundant green vegetation left no doubt: the rainy season had started. With a humidity of 77% the climate was bearable despite its 91 degrees F. (RealFeel 105).

Monrovia had become much more busy, compared to the 1970s when we lived here. No wonder, the population trippled between 1980 and 2010, mainly because of the influx of people during the civil wars that brought the modern economy nearly to a standstill and left nearly a quarter of a million people dead. The unemployment rate is shocking high: some 90 per cent of the population has no paid job. Tubman Boulevard, the capital’s main entrance coming from the international airport is now a four lane highway and we ran into a traffic jam caused by well-to-do Monrovians returning to their homes after a pleasant day at the beaches outside the capital.

Liberia always surprises. The US dollar is legal tender but also the Liberian dollar is used. The local banknotes are in the denomination of $5.00, $10.00, $20.00, $50.00 and $100.00. Just as in the USA, the Liberian dollar notes bear the effigy of past presidents. Three of the five presidents shown on the Liberian bank notes had a violent death: E.J. Roye, victim of the country’s first coup d’état (5 dollar note), Samuel K. Doe (50 dollars) and William R. Tolbert, Jr. (100 dollars). How many Liberians would know the history of these men who each stand for an important part of the country’s past?

Posted in EJ Roye, Famous Liberians, Liberia, Liberian Demography, Liberian History, Samuel Kanyon Doe, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

The conviction of Charles Taylor: A victory for justice – not an end to impunity

The Hague – The Netherlands, April 26 2012:

Five years after the beginning of the ‘Taylor trial’ and after having heard nearly 100 witnesses, the judges of the Special Court for Sierra Leone  announced their historic decision: the former Liberian president is found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes.

The warlord-turned-president is found guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for arming Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for ‘blood diamonds’ smuggled across the Sierra Leonean / Liberian border. According to the judges, Taylor played a crucial role in allowing the rebels to continue a bloody rampage in Sierra Leone during that West African nation’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002 with more than 50,000 dead.

Charles Taylor, once the most wanted man in West Africa, hears the verdict, apparently without emotion, but insiders know from the subtile movements of his hands and the way he looks behind his golden-rimmed shaded glasses that he realizes he is going to spend a yet unknown number of years in an English prison. The Dutch government had agreed that his trial would take place in The Hague, for this occasion seat of the Special Court for Sierra Leone – the official seat, the country’s capital Freetown, was not considered safe enough – on condition that if convicted another country would be willing to accept the convicted war criminal. The UK government had responded positively to the Dutch wishes.

The verdict is historic: it is the the first time since 1945 – the Nuremberg Trials - that a head of state is convicted. Ironically – Liberia continues to make history. The country is not only the first and oldest African Republic, created in 1847. Also, its President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first democratically elected female African president. Moreover, in 2011 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, another historic achievement. And now Taylor’s conviction, although a less noble accomplishment.

The conviction of former President Charles Taylor, once a warlord, then president, now a preacher, represents a victory of justice even though the victims’ grief and sorrow can never be compensated by his languishing in jail. The Special Court has scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 16 and the sentencing judgement will be delivered on May 30 next. Under the Special Court Rules, sentences must be given in a specified term of years. The  Court may not impose a life sentence or the death penalty.

By the way, the Taylor Trial cost about US$ 250 million….

No end to impunity

The conviction of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor does not mean an end to impunity in Africa. Taylor stood trial for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, not for his role in the Liberian civil wars (1989-1996; 1998-2003). In 2009, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in its final report recommended that all Liberian warlords be prosecuted: Charles Taylor, Prince Johnson, Roosevelt Johnson, Alhaji Kromah, George Boley, Thomas Nimley, Sekou Konneh and François Massaquoi. The report was shelved. Liberian warlords walk free in Liberia.

Former heads of state Mengistu of Ethiopia and Habré of Chad are internationally wanted for their crimes yet manage to escape from justice for more than twenty years: Haile Mariam Mengistu lives comfortably in Maguba’s Zimbabwe, and Hissein Habré in one of Africa’s most stable democracies, Senegal. Incumbent President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan is indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes but still at large and enjoying his freedom. And some heads of state, like Burkinabe president Blaise Compoare, are not even indicted for the blood on their hands.

Also criminal warlords Joseph Kony and Bosco Ntaganda are fugitives but not yet arrested. The accusations against them are well known: war crimes, abductions, enlisting child soldiers a.s.o

And what about the impunity of corrupt African leaders like Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of Equatorial Guinea, and his son Teodorine? Their compulsive kleptomania is almost beyond belief.

Concluding, the verdict in the Charles Taylor case certainly represents a landmark in international justice. However, though an important battle was won, not the war against impunity in Africa. Let’s face it.

Posted in Liberia | Leave a comment

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sworn in for a second term

(AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

Monrovia, Liberia. January 16, 2012 was neither a day to look back with regret or anger nor to look forward with anxiety or doubt. Rather it was a day to rejoice and celebrate. At 11:00 am President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first – and until now only – democratically elected woman president, was inaugurated for a second six-year term. By the time the 73-year old ‘Iron Lady’ will have completed her second term, in 2018, she will be Liberia’s longest-serving President since 1971.

In 1971 the country’s longest-ruling President ever, William Tubman, died. He ruled for 27 years and laid the basis for a modern economy. His successor, William Tolbert, was brutally murdered in a bloody coup d’état staged by enlisted men of the Liberian Army led by master-sergeant Samuel Doe (1980). President Doe – who became Liberia’s first president of tribal descent – was savagely murdered too, in 1990. Two extremely violent civil wars followed. At least 200,000 Liberians lost their lives, many more were wounded and traumatized. The wars resulted in at least one million displaced people and wrecked the modern economy. In 2003, Liberia’s president, dictator and former warlord Charles Taylor, was arrested on charges of war crimes and human rights violations in Sierra Leone and handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. At present, Taylor awaits his verdict in The Hague which is due soon.

In 2005 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defeated in the second round of the presidential elections soccer star George Weah and thus became Africa’s first democratically elected female president. In November last year she again won the elections in a second round which was boycotted by the main opposition party led by Winston Tubman, nephew of the former president, and George Weah. On the eve of Sirleaf’s inauguration they both made a U-turn and accepted theit defeat and promised to co-operate with the new Administration.

As a World Bank expert and Harvard educated economist, President Sirleaf’s experience and international network helped her with numerous achievements during her first mandate: cancellation of the country’s staggering US$ 4 billion debt, successfully negotiating foreign direct investments in the agricultural and mining sectors totalling over US$ 13 billion, and maintaining a fragile peace – aided by a United Nations-led military mission in Liberia, UNMIL.

However, Liberia and Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf face numerous challenges. UNMIL’s US$ 524 million budget for 2010/2011 exceeded that of the Liberian Government for the same period. Yet, it even was worse a few years earlier. When President Sirleaf took office, in 2006, the national budget amounted to only US$ 80 million (yes indeed, eighty millions US dollars). Over the years, Sirleaf has managed to substantially raise the budget and the Liberian Legislature voted a US$ 550 million budget for FY 2011/2011. Not much for a country of 3 million people and a war-wrecked economy. Fortunately, President Sirleaf’s international reputation has resulted in Liberia being one of the world’s most popular donor darlings. International aid to Liberia was estimated at about US$ 1 billion in 2010, including UNMIL.

Liberia’s problems are numerous: unemployment, illiteracy, corruption, lack of infrastructure, a poor health situation. Perhaps even more important are the need for National Reconciliation – Liberians still struggle with the emotional consequences of the civil wars – and National Unification, a legacy from former times, going back as far as the country’s creation in 1847 by freed slaves and free-born blacks from the United States – who liked to call themselves Americo-Liberians – and whose descendents ruled Africa’s first republic without any power-sharing with the tribal population until 1980.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is well placed to handle these problems though alone she will not be able to overcome them. As the granddaughter of a Gola chief and raised in an Americo-Liberian family she may make a difference. Internationally she is admired, she won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. At home she can boast of impressive achievements though her star has started fading in recent years culminating in political tension and even deadly violence during the November elections. In her Inaugural Address she promised to work for jobs, to give Liberia’s youth the skills they need to prosper, and to fight graft.

Liberia’s political stability and economic progress depend on jobs, jobs and jobs. Lacking the funds needed to finance the necessary investments, the country can’t move forward without foreign investors and donors. Without UNMIL, internal peace is fragile and not guaranteed. As one of my Liberians friends told me: We need foreign funds to develop and foreign troops to keep the peace.

During the Tubman Administration (1944-1971), Liberia experienced an economic boom, with a double digit growth rate. Yet, it was Growth without Development, as a Northwestern University team labelled Liberia’s economic success story. Today, with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the steering wheel, Liberia has the potential to do better. Already, the country is experiencing an impressive economic growth rate – which though should not surprise as the country comes from far.

National unification and reconciliation are among Liberia’s top priorities. This means power-sharing, equal opportunities for all Liberians, and justice for all.

Economic justice, as President Sirleaf calls it, seems to be as important: job creation, education & training, notably for Liberia’s youth, and the fight against corruption.

There is a time for celebrations, there is a time for hard work. The party is over. The time to work hard has come.

Posted in Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Debt relief, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, George Weah, Joseph Boakai, Liberia, Liberian History, Nobel Peace Prize, Samuel Kanyon Doe, William R. Tolbert Jr., William V.S. Tubman, Winston Tubman | Leave a comment

Africa’s Winners and Losers in 2011

It’s been an extra-ordinary year for Africa. The biggest losers were the North African leaders Ben Ali (Tunisia), Mubarak (Egypt) and Gaddafi (Libya). All three clung to power. Mubarak and Ben Ali had ruled some 30 years, Gaddafi even more than 40 years. Whereas the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders survived their ousting, the Libyan ‘Guide of the Nation’ was executed without a trial.

It is too early to tell who the winners are in these North African countries. In Tunisia democratic elections have since been held, won by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, but political developments don’t stop after elections. In Egypt, with well over 80 million people the most populated country of the three, the new military rulers are reluctant to hand over power to democratically elected political leaders. Libya is a ‘powder keg’. It is uncertain what the outcome will be of the internal power struggle. The country is small but has vast oil and gaz reserves. Will the country remain ‘united’? For geo-political reasons (Egypt – playing a pivotal role in the Middle East conflict) and economic-strategic interests (Libya – oil and energy supply to the USA and Western Europe),  developments in 2012 will be closely watched by the international community. But above all, the people in these countries deserve honest and democratically elected leadership.

For the biggest winners in 2011 we have to turn to West Africa. The biggest winners here are two Nigerians, Lamido Sanusi and Aliko Dangote, the Gambian Fatou Bensouda, two Liberians, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, and the former Cape Verde president Pedro Pires.

Ex-President Pedro Pires won the prestigious Mo Ibrahim Prize, a USD 5 million
governance prize for exceptional African leadership. Mohamed Ibrahim is a Sudanese
mobile communications entrepreneur and billionaire, who created this Prize for democratically elected former African heads of state to reward democratic leadership and the peaceful transition of power. Liberian President Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically
elected female President, and peace activist Gbowee were honored with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, an achievement widely covered by news media all over the world.

The Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda will succeed Luis Moreno-Ocampo as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). She will thus be a key actor in the trial of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, one of the biggest losers in Africa in 2011. Gbagbo refused to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara after losing the presidential elections in 2010 causing a violent four-month conflict. He was handed over to the ICC in November of this year, indicted of crimes against humanity and is held responsible for murder, rape and other crimes allegedly committed by his backers as he clung to power.

The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country with 150 million people, Lamido Sanusi, was named by Forbes Africa Person of the Year 2011. Governor Sanusi has played a key role in masterminding and supervising extensive reforms in Nigeria’s banking sector. His compatriot Aliko Dangote is a succesful multi-billion businessman, who in 2011 overtook Mohammed Al Amoudi and Oprah Winfrey as the richest person in the world of African descent. The Dangote group owns subsidiaries in six African countries and employs over 10,000 people. Nigeria’s ambition is to belong to the group of 20 most important economies in the world in 2020 – nowadays it is Africa’s biggest economy after South Africa – and with people like Dangote and Sanusi I have little doubt that the country will succeed.

Another West African country deserves mentioning. Ghana is among the region’s leaders, being in 2011 the second-best performer in Sub-Saharan Africa on the Rule of Law Index of the Washington-based World Justice Project. Ghana was also the best performer among the group of 66 low-income countries world-wide, covered by the Index. The country also continued to do well economically, in 2011.

The Republic of South Africa was the best African performer on the Rule of Law Index. South Africa also remains Africa’s biggest economy, but has reasons to fear Nigeria as a serious competitor.

Election Year 2011

In the beginning of this year I published a series of posts on ‘Bullet or ballot propelled changes in Africa’ focusing the political future of African countries and particularly the multi-party presidential elections that were to take place in 2011. See my posts dated March 1 and March 8. Out of 53 African countries – including the Republic of South Sudan which joined the community of African nations in July of this year – 18 countries planned to have presidential elections in 2011 (with 9 countries also holding legislative elections), an unprecedented high number. What was the outcome? Who were the winners? Who were the losers?

Well, of the 18 planned presidential elections two have been postponed (in Madagascar and Zimbabwe), one was cancelled because of a people’s revolution (Egypt). In the remaining 15 countries , 11 incumbent presidents saw their mandates renewed. As I stated before, African presidents don’t like to give up power. Only in four countries the oppositional candidate won the elections: the West-African island-nations of Cape Verde and Sao Tomé & Principe, Sahelcountry Niger in West Africa, and Zambia in Southern Africa.

Central Africa
In Central Africa four incumbent presidents managed to stay in power: Paul Biya, nick-named ‘The Gaddafi of Black Africa’ in Cameroon (ruling the country with an iron fist since 1982) ; Chad’s Idriss Deby (who chased dictator Hissein Habré in 1990 but has since remained in power), former army chief of staff François Bozizé in the Central African Republic (president after winning an internal power struggle in 2003), and Joseph Kabila who in 2001 succeeded his assassinated father.

Kabila was recently inaugurated after disputed presidential elections which the main oppositional candidate Thsisekedi claims to have won. Only one president attended Kabila’s inauguration, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and the Obama Administration has raised doubts over the legitimacy of his re-election. The situation in this vast country, big as Western Europe, risks to deteriorate and an Ivory Coast like scenario is feared.

East Africa
The three presidential elections were all won by the incumbent presidents (between brackets the year of coming to power): Museveni in Uganda (1986), Ismael Omar Guelleh in Djibouti (who succeeded his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon in 1999) and James Michel of the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago (2004).

Southern Africa
As already mentioned, elections were postponed in Zimbabwe and Madagascar, and won by the opposition in Zambia. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is one of the longest ruling African leaders: since the country’s independence in 1980.

West Africa
In Nigeria, ‘southerner’ Goodluck Jonathan was elected in his own right, after assuming the Presidency following the death of the ‘northerner’ Yar’Adua in 2010. The political tension between the north and the south of the country remains one of the most dangerous threats to Nigeria’s political stability and hence its economic aspirations. In neighbouring Benin, President Yayi Boni (2006) was re-elected whereas also Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf obtained (2006) a second mandate. Finally, in the tiny republic of The Gambia dictator Jammeh (1994) won elections which hardly deserve the name.

Is there a conclusion that can be drawn from the foregoing?

Despite the demonstrated tendency of African presidents to remain at all costs in the presidential palace, I am optimistic that 2012 will bring (more) positive developments. Overall, African countries are economically not performing badly, despite the global economic crisis. Mobile telephone, internet and the use of social media have become major instruments for the dissemination of information. Events in North Africa have demonstrated that the people’s will to remove their power-thirsty and corrupt presidents can prevail. Strong people in West Africa have gained world-wide admiration and recognition. Of course, people like the Sudanese president al-Bashir have managed to avoid arrest, with the protection of certain fellow-presidents, but the day will certainly come that he also will face justice before the ICC in The Hague. May Gaddafi’s summarily execution and Gbagbo’s fate in The Hague serve as a deterrent for the dictators and human rights violators that Africa unfortunately still counts.

I wish you all a prosperous, happy and healthy 2012!

Posted in 'Mo' Ibrahim, African Politics, Aliko Dangote, Arab Revolution, Ben Ali, Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde, CAR, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Djibouti, DRC, Egypt, Elections in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Fatou Bensouda, François Bozizé, Gaddafi, Goodluck Jonathan, Guelleh, Hissein Habré, Hosmi Mubarak, Idriss Deby, Ivory Coast, James Michel, Jammeh, Jospeh Kabila, Lamido Sanusi, Leymah Gbowee, Libya, Madagascar, Museveni, Niger, Nigeria, Paul Biya, Pedro Pires, Robert Mugabe, Sao Tomé and Principe, Sata, Seychelles, The Gambia, Tshisekedi, Tunisia, Uganda, Yayi Boni, Zambia, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

A bittersweet victory for President Sirleaf

Last month, in October, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had every reason to be happy and optimistic about the future. On October 7, she was awarded the prestigious 2011 Nobel Peace prize, together with Leymah Bowee and Tawakul Karman. On October 11, presidential elections were held and she came out Number One. And on October 29 the ‘Iron Lady’ celebrated her 73rd birthday, in good health. 

Growing political support for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

The first round of the presidential elections was won by the Unity Party (UP) candidate, incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with 44% of the votes. Not enough for an outright victory since that would have necessitated more than 50% of the votes. Second came the presidential candidate of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) , Winston Tubman, with 33% of the votes. Number three was National Union for Democratic Progress (NUDP) leader Prince Johnson (12%) and number four Liberty Party (LP) Standard Bearer Charles Brumskine who seized 6% of the votes.

In the run-off elections of November 8, President Sirleaf faced Winston Tubman, the number 2 of the first round. Since Liberian politics is a near-family affair, they know each other well. In her autobiography ‘This Child Will Be Great’ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf describes how Winston Tubman and she attended the same  meetings of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), a grouping of progressive Liberians in the United States of America, way back in the 1970s. Furthermore, both are Harvard educated and have worked in international organizations, the UN and the World Bank. Moreover, both are septuagenarians with firm roots in Liberia’s political establishment, traditionally dominated by the Americo-Liberian elite. So what exactly was the difference between the two candidates and their political programs?

Frankly speaking, I don’t know. The campaign for the Executive Mansion was more about characters than contents.

Both Sirleaf and Tubman were seconded by ‘silent partners’: Sirleaf by Vice President Joseph Boakai – relatively little is known about this man from Lofa County who from 1983-1985 served as Minister of Agriculture under President Samuel Doe. Tubman’s running mate was football legend George Weah, who had been defeated in the 2005 run-off elections by Sirleaf. It is interesting to note that Winston Tubman also served under Samuel Doe, as Minister of Justice from 1982-1983. In 2005 he unsuccessfully ran for president for the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), the political party of the murdered president Samuel Doe. For the 2011 elections he joined the Congress of Democratic Change (CDC), Weah’s political party.

Already one week after the first round, Prince Y. Johnson, Senator for Nimba County, former warlord, ally of Charles Taylor before forming his own warring faction, and responsible for the murder of dictator Samuel Doe in 1990, announced his support for President Sirleaf in the second round. His motivation? ‘She is the lesser of two evils’, he said. However, there were rumors that a financial sum was involved. Three days later presidential candidate Winston Tubman was suddenly flown to Ghana, for medical treatment. It was unclear whether it was exhaustion or a severe malaria crisis. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s chances to win a second term were increasingly good.

October saw more political support for President Sirleaf. Presidential candidate Charles Brumskine, also a close ally of Charles Taylor before he broke with him, declared his support for Sirleaf during the second round of voting although the two had over the years seriously clashed. Ellen is better than Tubman said Brumskine. Monrovians allege that he was offered the ECOWAS Vice Presidency which Liberia had assumed the previous day. There is no proof to support this, only future developments may tell.

Another presidential candidate Togba-Nah Tipoteh, a political old-timer and uncle of George Weah, endorsed the Unity Party presidential candidate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Tipoteh, also a septuagenarian, served under Samuel Doe, as Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs from 1980 till 1981, when he fled to the Netherlands, fearing for his life. He is considered one of the most independent politicians. More support for the incumbent President came from Moses Blah, from Nimba County, and another former ally of warlord-President Charles Taylor. Vice President Moses Blah briefly took over the presidency after Taylor’s forced resignation in 2003.

Tubman, Weah, CDC increasingly dissatisfied and isolated

Thousands of international and national observers monitored the October 11 elections and found them free and fair. Notwithstanding the foregoing, some irregularities did happen, as was also acknowledged by the observation team led by former US President Carter. Most of these ‘irregularities’ concerned the CDC, the main opposition party.

The CDC claimed elections fraud and substantiated this with facts and pictures. Then followed a game of threatening with withdrawal from the run-off elections unless certain conditions were met, actual withdrawal, reversal, Winston Tubman declaring he was not informed about the conditions for participating or boycotting. In the end, one of the CDC conditions was met – the resignation of the Chairman of the National Elections Committee (NEC), James Fromoyan, accused of being too pro-UP – but still the CDC announced it would not participate in the run-off elections. The new boss of the NEC, Elizabeth Nelson, however, ordered the run-off elections to continue, with two parties and presidential candidates competing – the UP/Sirleaf and the CDC/Tubman – since the ballot papers had already been printed.

On the eve of the run-off elections, a peaceful demonstration held by CDC supporters ended with at least five people shot dead by the Liberian National Police. Why they did not fire rubber bullets to disperse the crowd but fired live ammunition killing demonstrators is mind-boggling. To make things worse, the Government of Liberia ordered the closure of several media outlets, radio and television stations, perceived to be pro-opposition, and accused of a hate campaign. Was it a panic-driven decision, a conscious disregard for the freedom of the press, or politically motivated?

The violence and fear of more violence plus the CDC appeal to boycott the run-off elections resulted in a low turnout of voters. Many voting boots were almost empty, all day long. A sharp contract with the first round when many people patiently waited outside the voting stations for their turn to vote.

A bittersweet victory

Provisional results of the run-off elections show us that less than 700,000 votes were cast. This means a turnout of about 38%. With almost 100% of the votes received (97% – as of November 11) more than 90% of the votes counted were in favor of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Winston Tubman received less than 10% of the votes. Some 580,000 people had voted for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The objective of the CDC opposition was to undermine the legitimacy of the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. To a large extent, it has succeeded doing so. Nevertheless, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will be Liberia’s president for the next six years. The international community, generally speaking, will be satisfied with the result. However – and maybe more important given Liberia’s fragile peace and political stability – Liberians clearly are divided about the outcome of the presidential elections.

Challenges

The above means that President Sirleaf faces more than ever the challenge to unite and reconcile Liberians. She will not only have to perform good in the eyes of the international community – who rewarded her with a Nobel peace prize, the cancellation of the country’s 4 billion dollar foreign debt, and with 13 billion dollars in committed foreign investments. She will also have to convince Liberians that she takes their complaints about the rampant corruption in the country seriously. She needs to avoid the impression of nepotism, putting relatives and confidants in high ranking positions, as now is the case. She may need to prove accusations of economic empire building to be wrong. Maybe above all, she will have to give hope to all Liberians that their future will be better than the past years. I am afraid that if she would fail to meet these expectations she will face serious difficulties during her second term.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has won this battle, and I sincerely congratulate her with this achievement. However, she has not won the war. Her victory is bittersweet.

Posted in Charles Brumskine, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, George Weah, James Fromoyan, Joseph Boakai, Liberia, Moses Blah, National Elections Commission (NEC), Nobel Peace Prize, Prince Y. Johnson, Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), Samuel Kanyon Doe, Tipoteh, Winston Tubman | Leave a comment

Elections in Liberia: The Long Walk To Democracy in Africa’s Oldest Republic

On October 11 presidential and legislative elections will be held in Liberia. Incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf faces 15 presidential aspirants who share one goal: unseat Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Liberia’s Iron Lady, however, is with her 72 years ready for a second term.

Liberia comes from far. Africa’s oldest republic celebrated its 164th independence anniversary earlier this year. Yet the country classifies among the 48 poorest countries on earth. Health conditions are appalling, illiteracy widespread and unemployment sky-high. Whereas fifty years ago the Liberian economy was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the civil war that raged between 1989 and 2003 destroyed everything that had been built up during the previous century.

After the resignation of warlord-president Charles Taylor in 2003 the country had to start from scratch: rebuild the economy, regain the confidence of investors – both foreign and domestic – and reconcile the population. The ‘classical’ divide in the Liberian society, between descendants of the 19th century settlers (‘Americo-Liberians’) and the tribal population (‘Afro-Liberians’), had been complicated by a civil war based on tribal identity and alliances.

In the runoff election of November 8, 2005 two competitors competed for the presidency: veteran politician Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former soccer star George Weah (‘King George’). The Iron Lady won, with 60% of the votes. Africa’s first democratically elected President is a Harvard educated economist with an extensive international network, has tribal roots, and an Americo-Liberian background.  Whereas the first two characteristics  have much helped to regain the confidence of the international community, her internal political position is not undisputed. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged supporting  Charles Taylor in the first phase of the civil war – for which she later publicly apologized. In 2009 Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) recommended in its final report that she be banned from public office for thirty years after the expiration of her presidential term. The TRC report’s recommendations, however, were never subject of an official political debate. Another reason for her low popularity among many Liberians is the high level of corruption in the country, notably among civil servants. It can hardly surprise with an annual budget of only 550 million US dollars (fiscal year 2011/2012), even if the Minister of Finance recently announced that the minimum salary of civil service employees will be raised to 100 US dollars a month. In addition, according to unconfirmed rumours membership of Sirleaf’s Unity Party (UP) has become a prerequisite for government employment – a phenomenon common in many African countries.

Sirleaf’s main competitor in the race to the Executive Mansion also is a Harvard graduate. The 70 year old Winston A. Tubman is a politician of Americo-Liberian descent. He earned a degree from Harvard Law School in 1966, then established his own law firm in Liberia. He also has extensive United Nations experience, most recently as the Secretary-General’s representative and head of the United Nations Political Office for Somalia, from 2002 to 2005. He belongs to one of Liberia’s most influential families, the name Tubman is well known to all Liberians. Winston Tubman’s uncle was William V.S. Tubman, Liberia’s longest ruling president (1944-1971). Winston Tubman served as Minister of Justice under dictator Samuel Doe and in 2005 unsuccessfully ran for president on the ticket of Samuel Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL). In the October 11 elections he is the presidential candidate of George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).

Perhaps the most important opposition politician is Counselor Charles W. Brumskine, the leader of the Liberty Party. He ended third in the 2005 presidential elections. In the 1990s Brumskine was an important ally of Charles Taylor and in 1997 became President Pro Tempore of the Senate. He fled Liberia after he broke with Taylor and his political party. Allegedly, Charles Brumskine had ties with Gus Kouwenhoven – accused of arms trading for Taylor during the civil war.

Sirleaf, Tubman and Brumskine are the main contenders although there are thirteen more who want to become Liberia’s next president. One of them is millionaire Dew Mayson, once a progressive politician, later serving under Doe, and allegedly rich because of his involvement in the sale of arms and his relationship with Dutch arms dealer Gus Kouwenhoven.  Another presidential aspirant is former warlord Prince Yormie Johnson, who led the I-NPFL faction in Liberia’s civil war and tortured President Samuel Doe to death in 1990. Veteran politician Togbah Nah Tipoteh may have the cleanest record of all candidates. He has a firm reputation of being uncorrupt and principled, and is one of the few leading Liberian politicians who stayed in the country throughout the civil war period. This even made him one of the most serious candidates after a referendum was rejected which maintained the constitutional ‘residency clause’ for presidential candidates at ten years. However, not surprisingly, the Chairman of the National Election Commission (NEC), James Fromoyan, hastened to declare that the formulation of the clause was vague and ambiguous, and hence did not hold. Fromoyan was subsequently accused of being pro-UP, the political party of President Sirleaf.

National and international observers will monitor the October 11 elections. Whatever the outcome of these elections, Liberia needs political stability and peace if it wants to develop and improve the living conditions of its population. This week it was announced that ArcelorMittal has begun operations at it mining site in Yekepa, Nimba County, where half a century ago the Swedish-Liberian LAMCO mining company contributed to the double digit growth of the Liberian economy. On October 11 the people of Liberia will not only vote for a president but also for progress.

Posted in ArcelorMittal, Charles Brumskine, Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Dew Mayson, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, George Weah, Gus Kouwenhoven, James Fromoyan, Liberia, Liberian Economy, national budget, National Elections Commission (NEC), Prince Y. Johnson, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Tipoteh, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), William V.S. Tubman, Winston Tubman | Leave a comment