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

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