By T. Q. Harris, Jr
In Psalm 90:12 Moses prayed: “[Lord] teach us to number our day that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Today, we say this prayer for you – fellow compatriots - as days have turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years; and the years have become decades. Now we must use the lessons of time to create a better world for future generations. Never again must we put an individual above the state. Let us place our trust in God; He will restore all that the locusts have eaten.
When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in her speech to the joint session of the U.S. Congress that, “Liberia could become America’s success story in Africa,” she no doubt was looking in the right direction, but for the wrong reasons.
Given the strong historical ties between the two nations, a successful Liberia will undoubtedly reflect positively on America. But Liberians themselves must be in the vanguard of any transformation and believe it is for their own benefit. There needs to be a burning desire to excel and to prosper, as well as the drive to become the best. Liberians must believe they deserve better and are willing to take the necessary steps to improve. And it is the leader who must layout a vision – a dream that inspires and motivate so when the story is written it shall tell of how the people rose to the occasion, and through their love, hard work, their sacrifices, and dedication created a thing of beauty.
For far too long this nation has looked outside for solution to its problems while underutilizing and ignoring its own resources; as a result, generations have taken comfort in mediocrity and complacency. Now there is the general belief only strangers can inspire success. One need look no further than the headlines in the daily papers: Arab Businessman Plans To Invest In Liberia; American Billionaire Set To Invest In The Reconstruction; World Bank President Visit Will Jumpstart The Economy; Mega Global Corporation To Create Thousands Of Jobs; Chinese Investors Headed For Liberia; French Investors Arrive; George Soros Promotes Liberia; Donors Meet To Fund Reconstruction; Debt Relief Is The Solution; and so on and so on.
These screaming front-page headlines further illustrate Liberians lack of confidence in their own abilities. There’s hardly a mention of the role Liberians themselves must play in rebuilding this nation. Even the President has spent more time rousing peoples in distant lands rather then rallying Liberians across town. We must disabuse ourselves of this 19th century African mentality, which in large part is responsible for the general lack of patriotism.
Anyone who for the past 30 years has followed the politics and means well for this nation would agree legislative and presidential elections should not have taken place in 2005. The dynamics did not favor a positive outcome. Allowing the warlords to dominate the transition doomed the process. Combatants were never demobilized and properly accounted for, giving the impression the negotiators were dealing with the wrong people. Failing to account for and disarm the real combatants has made it extremely difficult restoring law and order in the immediate post-war era. Furthermore, thousands did not take part in those elections due to internal and external displacement. And, the elections were further compromised due to the absence of a mechanism to exclude individuals known to have committed outrageous human rights abuses. As a result, the current make-up of elected officials presents an obstacle to reconstruction; as some within the international community are hard pressed to invest in a government headed by the very people responsible for the destruction.
Though the evidence was abundantly clear, selfishness got the better of us. Hundreds declared their candidacy and the country was rushed into elections ill equipped to deal with post-war challenges. As the consequences of this misstep have become ever present, there are increasing signs of disillusionment. The President herself echoed this sentiment recently when she said, “Things are much different on the inside than they looked from outside.”
The President’s potent enemies
Barring a major reordering of priorities, a change in thinking, and the overhaul of key institutions, it is highly unlikely this nation will experience any significant progress within the next five years. This rather gloomy prediction is based on the fact Liberian leaders in general have been unwilling to make the hard decisions that will create the proper foundation for viable nation building. Many have spoken eloquently about Liberia’s potential and possibilities while at the same time nurturing a culture of injustice, impunity, immorality, and dependency. Thus far, President Sirleaf seems headed in the same direction.
It is obvious Madam Sirleaf for whatever reason is finding it difficult to provide the type of leadership this country needs at the moment. Even though she’s aware reconstruction depends largely on support from the international community, particularly Liberia’s traditional allies, the President has been less than cooperative in a number of areas. She has yet to comply with the UN request to freeze assets of persons known to have fueled conflicts in the region. Calls for judicial reform seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Also, the failure to aggressively attack corruption and place high priority on healing and reconciliation has many wondering as to whether the President is aware of the current danger that exists. And it appears the international community is unhappy with some appointees. Their concerns have to do with past behavior of these individuals. Liberians generally tend to ignore such things because they have an uncanny ability to forgive even to a flaw. Forgiveness is important; however, doing the same thing over again is the definition of insanity.
Additionally, the President has made a number of critical errors that have negatively impacted the recovery; among these are: 1) her reluctance in the early stages to request Charles Taylor’s handover to the International Court; 2) her comment that “Charles Taylor is not our problem.” This shows ungratefulness for the sacrifices others have made on behalf of the Liberian people. 3) impugning the integrity of the Special Court by demanding a fair trial for Charles Taylor; 4) floating the idea of the government paying Charles Taylor’s legal fees; 5) refusing to seek prosecution of persons accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity; 6) failing to act against the posting of a billboard in Monrovia declaring Charles Taylor innocent while his victims are ignored. This is tantamount to celebrating Adolph Hitler in post-Nazi Germany; and 7) ignoring the Supreme Court ruling by appearing before renegade legislators in the City of Virginia.
As the President continues to demonstrate weakness and a lack of resolve, her opponents are gaining momentum. Left unchecked, they will win the day by inciting mass protests, ultimately
rendering the country again ungovernable. This no doubt will adversely affect recovery and prolong the misery. We hope madam Sirleaf understands that in the absence of bold audacious leadership this nation will again relapse into chaos, especially in light of widespread poverty.
It is an open secret President Sirleaf has many potent enemies – people who claim to know her personally; the vast majority are individuals with whom she collaborated during the Doe era. They believe Madam Sirleaf is unethical and lacks the integrity to hold the office of president, because supposedly she betrayed them. Initially they accepted her leadership in bringing down the Doe government. But as her character came into question and the group became uncomfortable, she began to sabotage the mission. Her actions, they claim, prolonged the fighting.
In questioning the President’s character and leadership ability, her opponents often cite decisions she has made in the recent past. One such decision was her support for a UN takeover of Liberia at the height of the crisis. They consider this as yet another illustration of Madam Sirleaf’s selfish nature. Because when it appeared she would not replace President Doe, Madam Sirleaf then opted to give away the country. They also make references to her vigorous campaign in Ghana to secure the chairmanship of the transitional government knowing full well the position would last only two years and bar her from seeking the presidency.
The Locust Generation
Although the argument is compelling, Madam Sirleaf’s opponents have yet to proffer a viable alternative. Rather, they have merely exposed the types of rivalries that brought this nation to its knees. This is the story of the past 30 plus years: small groups of individuals constantly fighting amongst themselves only to deny the other, and in the process inflict massive injuries to the population. Should the President’s opponents succeed in forcing her out of office, she and her followers will invariably turn on them and the cycle will continue. Innocent people will die and this nation will further disintegrate.
One generation has been denied the chance of a decent future. Another has been deprived the opportunity of serving and giving back to the country. And there is yet another - deserving of derision – whose legacy shall be that of destroyers. This was the generation of promise - successor to the Tubman/Tolbert generation. It was by far the most educated, well traveled and sophisticated. No one could have imagined they would turn out to be so violent and destructive. Since coming of age, they have wrecked their entire inheritance and destroyed everything of value. Charles Ghankay Taylor exemplifies the character of this generation: No respect or trust for one another, incapable of compromise and will stop at nothing to gain personal wealth and recognition. Their true color is often displayed in leadership contests. On these occasions they become vicious and unyielding, showing absolutely no concern for the consequences of their actions. Despite numerous proclamations and expressions of disgust and anger, they could not forge a unified opposition against the vilest regime this nation has ever known. The selfish nature of these individuals renders them incapable of supporting any effort to unite Liberians unless they are in the lead. And when given the opportunity to lead, they often create strife and division. “If I cannot have it no one else will”; this is their mantra. They are best described as the Locust generation.
To halt the cycle of violence, supporters and non-supporters of President Sirleaf must in the interest of this nation begin collaborating for the purpose of strengthening what is undeniably a weak regime. Failing to do so will leave open the door for anti-progressive forces to again divide
the country, pitting brothers and brothers. And as things fall apart they will again flee and watch from a distance. Peace-loving Liberians of all stripes must make it clear to the President that we are ready to support her administration if she is willing to implement those measures that are critical to the revival of this nation. However, should she fail to act decisively, we will have no other alternative than to embrace someone else in order to avert yet another catastrophe.
We must not allow this country to revert back to violence on account of weak ineffective leadership. The people are becoming anxious; there is no time for delay. President Sirleaf must take the necessary steps to strengthen this regime – regardless of how uncomfortable it might be, or face the possibility of being dislodged by her opponents.
A moment of unparallel opportunities
By becoming Africa’s first female head of state Madam Sirleaf has earned a permanent place in world history. However, we believe she could further enlarge her stature by bringing this nation solidly into the 21st century. The efforts to accomplish this feat shall be no less daunting then that which she exerted on her journey to the Presidency. But the rewards are incalculable. By taking the bold steps necessary, Madam Sirleaf could excel where her predecessors have faltered by changing the destiny of a people. Guiding Africa’s first republic into its full potential is a natural fit for the continent’s first female head of state. After all, what value is this title if the nation she heads is backward and insignificant? Perhaps this is the moment generations have longed for. Is it possible Madam Sirleaf could finally set Liberia on the path to becoming a true success story? Only time will tell.
The following must form part of any serious plan to transform this nation:
1) Begin by drafting a truly Liberian Constitution. As lawyers and scholars supervise, ordinary citizens must drive the process. The people must be given the opportunity to put their heart and soul into this esteemed document, knowing full well that someday they or their children might have to defend it at the peril of their life. A new Constitution must be ratified within the next 12 months.
2) Revise the requirements for citizenship. It is abominable to make race a requirement to become a citizen of this country. Anyone without a criminal background, who meets the minimum residency requirement and willing to abide by the laws of this country, should be considered eligible. Also, a natural born citizen must not under any circumstance lose his or her citizenship.
3) Overhaul the entire justice system. Do away with the two-tier legal system. Women must have equal rights in marriage - traditional or otherwise, and receive equal protection under the law. There must be a system-wide improvement of prisons. These facilities must be modernized and manned by professionals who at all times shall be accountable. Rather than a dungeon, a prison must be a place for reflection and rehabilitation. And the rights of children must be protected under the law; even parents and teachers must be held accountable for any injury inflicted upon a child.
4) Create a special independent Land or Real Estate Court that will handle all disputes relating to real property and issues of this nature. In the aftermath of the brutal war and prolonged displacement of the population, there is an urgent need to establish this court.
5) Request assistance from the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses, torture, as well as other crimes perpetrated against civilians during the war. This long delayed process must be fast tracked by expanding the mandate of the Special Court for Sierra Leone to include Liberia. Limit prosecutions to persons bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. And for the others, there must be a formal process (a truth commission or a religious/paralegal forum) where the accused must acknowledge their offenses and apologize to the victims. In certain cases, the guilty shall be required to pay reparation and be placed on an extended probation.
6) Freeze effectively immediately the assets of individuals whose names appear on the United Nations list. And, enforce travel restrictions against affected persons.
7) Form a committee at the earliest to create a new official Seal and Motto for the Republic. Again, this exercise must involve people from all walks of life assisted by experts. The new Seal and Motto must be adopted prior to ratification of the new Constitution.
8) Create a National Security Plan to include recruiting, training, equipping, and building of the infrastructure to support the adequate number of police and immigration officers for deployment throughout the country. If necessary, divert funds from the Army to support these endeavors. Police and immigration services must be at full strength nationwide within 36 months.
9) Commence at the earliest paramilitary training for all citizens – male and female - between the ages of 18 to 25. Create standing units throughout the country to which these young patriots shall be assigned. Training exercises must be mandatory and held periodically. Draw from the pool of retired soldiers for the planning and organizing of these activities. The youth paramilitary corp shall fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.
10) Form a committee to review and submit recommendations regarding the National Flag and Anthem. Again, this committee must include people from a cross-section of the society assisted by experts. Any proposed changes to the Flag and/or Anthem must be approved and adopted prior to ratifying the new Constitution.
11) Prepare at the earliest a comprehensive economic recovery plan, which shall include detailed steps for debt reduction/elimination, job creation, and infrastructure development. The plan must also take into account the possibility of issuing reconstruction bonds, as well as other government-backed securities. This presupposes that the justice system shall have been completely updated, strengthened, and made compatible with international standards; and that Liberia has become a nation of laws.
12) Launch effective immediately a nationwide grassroots food production campaign with emphasis on small-scale (individual and family) farming. Encourage every Liberian citizen to plant a garden. The government must provide seeds as well as the basic implements for those wishing to participate. Also, the government must offer incentives ranging from a few dollars to automobiles as well as other durable goods. All efforts must be made to significantly reduce the nation’s dependence on imported food.
13) Break the bottleneck now. Those who have held key leadership positions in government and other government-related institutions within the past 30 years must give way to a new corp of technocrats. This nation cannot progress as long it continues to marginalize its youths, denying them proper training while recycling the old. Effective immediately begin recruiting and grooming young professionals who will assume leadership positions in all areas of government. These young men and women must be exposed to the inner workings of government and given access to executive level management. It is essential that a viable succession strategy be put into place now. This will ensure continuity with a high degree of efficiency. With 30 being the median age, it is critical that leaders of this generation are given an opportunity to earn the respect of their peers. If the Europeans are able to recruit a Liberian in his thirties to fill the position of Auditor General, we can with a little effort find competent young men and women to head government ministries as well as other key institutions.
Capitalizing on the lessons of history
In a few years from now this nation will observe the 32nd anniversary of the infamous rice riot, which set into motion the calamity from which we have yet to recover. Remember where you were on that fateful day in April 1979? I can recall vividly my precise location when word of the mayhem reached me. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the current population has absolutely no knowledge of this tumultuous event? These young people – many of whom actively participated in the war - were not yet born. The violence of the past 28 years has devastated an entire generation, and gutted the soul of this nation. Amazingly, in spite of the glaring evidence visible in every facet of this society, there are some in denial. Downplaying the extent of violence perpetrated against defenseless civilians, they pretend all is well and this nation could easily rebound.
How do we move on without addressing the rape and abuse of our mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters? How do we move on without knowing why entire villages were exterminated? How could we so easily forget the gruesome murders of those five Catholic nuns whose only crime was helping the victims? How can we dismiss the cold-blooded murders of 250,000 defenseless men, women and children? How do we live with ourselves? Where is our humanity?
It is often said those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat their mistakes. Let us for a moment reflect on the events that forever changed this nation. It began in the 1970s with President Tolbert’s mishandling of the economy and the charged political atmosphere that existed at the time. His loss of control precipitated the bloody rice riot, which resulted in a high number of deaths and mass destruction of property. A year later almost to the day, President Tolbert was executed in a coup d’etat. The coup makers and the intellectuals collaborated in forming the new government. But rampart corruption, greed, and gross incompetence made it possible for MSgt. Samuel Kanyon Doe – the coup leader - to ascend to the presidency. However, President Doe’s constant fear of being overthrown kept the country on knife’s edge. Eventually his fears materialized. He was captured and detained for several hours during an attempted coup. Following his escape, President Doe in retaliation launched a vicious assault against his perceived enemies, primarily the Gios and Manos.
Presenting themselves as liberators, Charles Ghankay Taylor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Amos Claudius Sawyer, and others in 1989 ignited a deadly conflagration in an attempt to remove President Doe from office. The so-called liberation struggle soon devolved into a deadly contest for power where more than five armed factions battled for control of the country’s resources. Caught in the middle were defenseless civilians who suffered the brunt of the fighting that claimed upwards of 250,000 lives, mostly women and children.
The Ellen-Ghankay war in effect lasted fourteen years, halting only temporarily in 1997 with Charles Taylor’s election to the presidency. Shortly thereafter, fighting resumed with yet another incursion by the LURD forces across the Liberia-Guinea border. This next round of fighting lasted well into 2003 when Charles Taylor was forced into exile.
The need for the people’s government
What have we learned? In assessing the past 160 years there is one thing that is abundantly clear: Liberians ought to know by now how not to build a dysfunctional nation. This knowledge should prove invaluable if we commit to pulling out of the current quagmire and getting on with serious nation building. The debacle has provided an excellent opportunity to finally get it right. All the sacred cows and taboos have been obliterated, and those bankrupt customs have crumbled under their own weight. We now have a chance at a fresh start. So rather than seek the downfall of the Sirleaf government, let us resign ourselves to make the next 5 years the most productive ever.
Hopefully, Madam Sirleaf realizes that voters in the last elections placed their trust directly in her, not a political party. Therefore, to succeed she must adopt the concept of a People’s Government; rather than behave as though the mostly illiterate electorate purposely chose the Unity Party whose ideology they know nothing of. True party loyalty in earnest does not exist currently.
Madam Sirleaf herself provides proof of how easily Liberians often move from one party to the next. After being denied the standard bearership of the Liberia Action Party in 1997 she did not delay to move over to the Unity Party. Now she has been chosen to heal this nation, her administration must reflect the diversity that brought it to power. Thus far, she has not done so. Subscribing to the notion that this nation at this critical stage can be governed by a single political party to the exclusion of all others is dangerous and a serious miscalculation.
This may be Liberia’s last chance
The international community must be convinced Liberians are ready to work together in order to take seriously our appeals for debt relief and assistance to jumpstart the recovery. Perhaps the first step is for President Sirleaf to show she has a definite agenda that is widely supported by a cross-section of Liberians in such numbers that it is highly unlikely her detractors could succeed in undermining her regime. Liberia Contemporees and others are prepared to assist in creating this dynamic. However, the President must provide leadership and act fast.
The Security Council has sounded the alarm. United Nations troops in any significant numbers will not remain in this country much longer; and even then, they will not involve themselves in an intense confrontation. Therefore, it is imperative that priority be given to reconciliation and the search for justice; otherwise, Liberians can anticipate a gloomy future. In light of this possibility, the President must use this period of calm to build consensus and cooperation. She must not rely solely on the use of force to govern, because it will take some time before a homegrown force is capable of containing a major uprising.
This latest decision taken by the UN is a wake-up call for the President as well as the people of Liberia. Apparently, the international community is unhappy with the performance of this government, and rightfully so. Why should anyone support this country when its citizens, particularly the leaders, are unwilling to improve their own condition?
We believe you are reading this document because of your love for Liberia. But love cannot survive where there is no sacrifice. Therefore, we must put aside differences and work to end the cycle of violence. There’s no doubt President Sirleaf means well, but she needs help. The hope is she will seek the assistance of others who are committed to the development to this country. The strain of war has taken a heavy toll on this nation. No leader can succeed without Liberians emasse rallying around them. If we fail to support this government, it most likely will fail. And failure is not an option. Because there’s no telling when we will again have this opportunity.
Regardless of her past activities, President Sirleaf is now the elected leader. All peace-loving Liberians must rally around her to ensure the march toward lasting peace proceeds uninterrupted. This nation cannot withstand yet another aborted regime and the chaos that is likely to ensue. However, for peace to have a chance the president must change tactics, prove her opponents wrong, and bring Liberians together.
In a word of caution during those turbulent weeks following Charles Taylor’s departure, former U.S. secretary of state Gen. Colin Powell remarked, “This may be Liberia’s last chance.” We hope everyone was listening, especially now that support for reconstruction has waned. Liberians have remained parked in limbo for the past 28 years as the world moved forward. Time has taken its toll; you no longer look the same. Glancing at the mirror, you ask, who is this person? It’s you. What will be your legacy? Because the issue now is not about Liberia’s last chance, rather, is it my last chance?
The Author: Mr. T. Q. Harris, Jr. is currently the General Chairman of Liberia Contemporees United Patriotic and Strong (Contemp UPS) and a former vice presidential nominee. He can be reached by phone in the U.S. at (562) 787-1429, in Liberia (231) 652-4295, or email him at email@example.com.