Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I will not sit

By: T. Q. Harris, Jr.

As we head toward the next Presidential and Legislative elections you will find me standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women who have said enough is enough. I stand because Liberians have lost countless opportunities by being silent even when the situation demands that we speak. I stand because it is painful to see the country of my birth – Africa first republic - in such a horrible condition. Also, I stand because the slave culture nurtured by our leaders dating back to the 1800s must be eradicated. I stand because only Liberians themselves can deal effectively with the enemies within our midst. And, yes, I stand as the son of a Gio man whose father was sold by his government to work the fields of Fernando Po and also as the son of an Americo-Liberian woman whose great grandmother was born on a ship bringing the freed slaves to this land. It is no coincidence that I was born a Liberian. So, today, I stand because it is my duty.

My decision to enter politics as well as the desire to inspire a new generation of leaders is borne out a firsthand experience interacting with leading actors in the Liberian political arena. Nothing I have seen in the past 19 years has given cause for optimism, as it relates to long-term stability and sustained growth. The fact is Liberia as a nation is frozen in time, unable to move past the Tubman era and unwilling to shake off the American slave culture. And, sadly, the Tubman-generation-leaders are in denial. It’s time for a new vision, new focus, and a reordering of priorities. Moreover, we must begin to repair the damage caused by decades of immoral leadership.

As it relates to my personal evolution, life took a dramatic turn for me on that fateful day when I saw the depressing photograph next to the word LIBERIA on the page of an international newspaper. The year was 1990. And the picture was the usual: Africans on the move, carrying large bundles with children in tow. But this time these were Liberians. My initial reaction was, this can’t be real; not my people, not Liberia! Then next I asked; how could I help? Politics was the farthest from my mind. After all, I left Liberia in December 1978 as a young man with no previous involvement in government or politics. And though my leaving was due to circumstances outside of my control; it turned out to be in many ways a blessing from God, because Liberia’s debacle began in 1979.

There is no going back

Most Liberians seem dubious of the fact this nation could suddenly turn for the worse and become a Haiti, Somalia or an Afghanistan due to prolonged mismanagement and antiquated laws. With illiteracy and unemployment well into the stratosphere, rule of law nonexistent, poverty and corruption deeply entrenched, and the infrastructure in shambles; the chance of a complete collapse has never been greater. Clearly, the individuals Liberians have relied upon to manage the affairs of state, including the current president, have not been up to the task. Perhaps well-intentioned, but collectively their actions have produced one disaster after another. Had it not been for the UN Mission, violence would have yet again erupted. The question now is this: Will UN Troops remain in Liberia indefinitely; if not, what does the future hold?

Liberians themselves rather than the international community must effect the change this nation needs. And it must begin with the 2011 elections. The message coming out of these elections must be clear and unequivocal: Liberia has turned the corner and there is no going back. Because there will be no meaningful progress under Tubman-generation-leaders (TGLs), and the civilized world will not tolerate their recklessness.

As it relates to the senseless violence that devastated this nation, the United States has made its position abundantly clear: (1) Chuckie Taylor has been sentenced to a 97-year prison term by a US court for torturing Liberians; and (2) President George Bush, during his visit to Liberia, did not give the Sirleaf administration a dime. You will recall it was President Bush who in 2003 boldly declared that “Charles Taylor must leave the country.” How disappointed he must have been to see Liberians replace an indicted war criminal with a war crimes suspect? Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s ascent to the presidency is no less disturbing than this infamous chant: You killed my ma…you killed my pa; I will vote for you.

The participants generally were combative

After reading the newspaper’s account of the devastation caused by the war, I began searching for Liberians in the US with information on how to assist displaced families. This would mark the beginning of a 19-year odyssey. Through it all I have come to realize what often is seen as the cause of Liberia’s failure might very well be symptom of a larger problem. Liberia’s creation just might be the cruelest social experiment in recorded history. Is it possible that a people who for generations lived under an extreme form of slavery and even made to believe they were less than humans are able to lead - without guidance or proper instructions - the building of a wholesome functional nation? Absolutely not!

This explains why Liberians in general, after 162 years, continue to exhibit attitudes of slaves in America. Were I to chronicle in detail my personal experiences as a philanthropist and subsequent transition to a political figure it would fill volumes, but I won’t burden you. However, please indulge me in this brief narrative which I hope will help change the thinking of those who believe living conditions of Liberians can improve without personal accountability.

After parting company with Charles Taylor, Charles Brumskine invited me to participate in a teleconference he had organized for the purpose of determining the best way forward in dealing with Charles Taylor’s rogue regime. Participants included Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Alhija Kromah and Cletus Wotorson among others. But nothing meaningful was achieved because the participants generally were combative and cantankerous. However, in the closing moments we agreed to organize a meeting in Washington DC where Liberians would elect individuals who will serve as the voice of the opposition. Cletus Wotorson and Charles Brumskine were made chairman and co-chairman respectively of the organizing committee. On the surface it seemed like a great idea, but the level of mistrust and downright hatred between the various personalities made the stated objectives unrealistic.

Realizing that personal differences had doomed the teleconference, I proposed in an email to the group that we meet prior to the Washington DC event at a private venue where we could relax and become better acquainted. This I reckoned might ease tension and help redirect the focus toward the critical issues at hand. But no one responded. For the next 7 days I sent out a number of follow-up emails soliciting a response. Finally, Mr. Wotorson commented by saying, in his 60 years he had never heard of such a thing…in essence, the idea was ludicrous. Days later I commended the group for their efforts and informed them that I had no intention of participating in yet another exercise not likely to produce any real benefit for the Liberian people. It is interestingly to note no one else in the group commented on my proposal.

On the day of the event, a host of Liberians as well as representatives from the UN, the US State Department as well as other major entities converged on Washington DC. Cletus Wotorson was chosen to lead, assisted by Charles Brumskine. But, within forty-eight hours, Charles Brumskine resigned. A week later, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Amos Sawyer were at it again, organizing yet another conference to be held this time in Burkina Faso. While Ellen and Sawyer did the planning, Harry Greaves touted the conference as the final train…anyone not on board will be left out. Again, T. Q. Harris did not attend. Within less than 60 days following the event in Washington DC, the Ellen-Sawyer show in Ouagadougou produced a new opposition leadership team.

TGLs nefarious campaign severely undermined LURD leadership

Behind the public fa├žade, Tubman-generation-leaders (TGLs) - including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – were secretly maneuvering to become the leader of LURD. Money as well as other resources was used to achieve these objectives. They infiltrated the LURD leadership with paid agents who pressed their case and discredited rivals. Their nefarious campaigns constantly undermined Sekou Konneh’s leadership and severely weakened the organization.

How do I know this? Long before there was a LURD, T. Q. Harris was a fearless, vocal opponent of Charles Taylor – the thug who murdered women and children. My resentment of the warlords in general was no secret. I even campaigned against them for the Presidency in 1997 while they were armed and feared by many. Later, I would realize someone was taking note. This was confirmed by the calls I received; one of these calls came unexpectedly from a man who introduced himself as Eddie. He said, we were with the General in Monrovia…after he was killed we fled the country and have regrouped in Freetown. I’m calling because we intend to carry out his dream. And because you were chosen to lead, we’d like you to become involved.

I had never met the former AFL General, but we spoke once by phone. The conversation was brief. He got straight to the point: We are tired of this Charles Taylor nonsense, he said, and are about to take him out…it will be done right here in this town…we’re not starting anything from the border. And because we are military people, not civilians; we would like you to head the government that will replace Charles Taylor. I would have preferred we meet in person, but this will attract attention. Can you meet with my men in a nearby country? They will brief you as to the details. Unfortunately, circumstances did not permit me to meet the General’s men nor did I have the opportunity to ask why they had selected me.

A week following my talk with the General, his men arrived in the nearby country. However, on the day of their arrival, Charles Taylor forces launched a massive assault on the Camp Johnson Road community. The General was killed. Considering the timing, it is likely he and his men were victims of a betrayal.

My investigation of Eddie proved his story was accurate. At the time Eddie, Vamba Kanneh, Lavala Supuwool, and others were in Freetown seeking support to launch an offensive against the Taylor regime. According to information received, those willing and perhaps able to help demanded that they present a leader. Several names were submitted. However, T. Q. Harris was selected. Within days of the decision I was given a number to call. The contact person was the special assistant to a key military officer in the region who told me his boss was quite familiar with the situation in Liberia and very unhappy with Charles Taylor’s treatment of the Liberian people. Also, that he had been instructed to give me all the assistance I need.

Apart from intense lobbying by TGLs such as Vamba Kanneh, Lavala Supuwool and a few others, plans to drive Charles Taylor out of Liberia were progressing quite well until a group headed by George Dweh arrived. They came from Nigeria with promises of cash as well as other resources to support the operation. Money they brought was used to buy influence, including naming the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). But soon they realized, though T. Q. Harris had never set foot on the ground, his leadership was endorsed by key elements, particularly the fighting men. It was then they requested to speak with me.

I placed a call to George Dweh from my residence in the US. It was our first contact ever. He acknowledged I had broad-based support; yet demanded that I remit $100,000 in order to retain the leadership position. I responded by saying, I won’t give a dime for this purpose! As it became clear I wasn’t giving in, he lowered the amount to $25,000 and explained how quickly I will get the money back once I become president. Again, I restated my position. He then suggested that I think it over. This conversation for all intents and purposes ended my relationship with the group, as it was clear our priorities were not the same.

After facing a number of setbacks in Freetown the group transferred to Conakry where they languished until Charles Taylor made perhaps his worst tactical error by attacking a major border town in Guinea. This made it possible for LURD to receive the resources it needed. However, support would be funneled only through the husband of the president’s spiritual advisor.

LURD operational problems

In May 2003 I received yet another unexpected call from a man who identified himself as V. Marshall. He was sent by his colleagues in LURD to inform me that they were gearing up to take the fight into Monrovia. But before launching, they wanted “a leader more acceptable to the Liberian people”. So the various commanders held a vote and T. Q. Harris was elected. Now they want to know whether I would accept the position. Knowing full well LURD already had a leader in the person of Sekou Damate Konneh; I told Marshall that I will have to get back with them later.

My investigation of V. Marshall showed he was genuine. This was also confirmed by a LURD insider who said Marshall was one of the fighters who didn’t often leave the bush…therefore it must be important.

However, before I could get back with Marshall, we received a call from yet another LURD operative who introduced himself as Abbey, a military advisor. He said LURD Military High Command had sent him to ask me to serve as chief negotiator in order to end the war. According to Abbey, the decision had been taken “because too many little children were dying in the bush while the politicians in LURD were fighting among themselves for power…we want to end this war,” he concluded. I then informed him of the message we had received earlier. He recognized V. Marshall and was happy to learn the fighting men also had contacted me. It immediately became clear LURD had serious organizational problems. So I proceeded to inform Abbey that the request will have to be presented in writing.

Several days later, I was given a number to call the LURD Battlefield Commander who identified himself as Prince Seo. He thanked me for being willing to serve as chief negotiator and asked that we help him with communication. Cell phones were sent to Freetown for both Seo and Abbey. The following week LURD Military High Command presented the statement as requested.

Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by officials of both the UN and the ECOWAS. Encouraged by the statement, a top ECOWAS official commented that it was an extremely significant development. But the so-called politicians in LURD, on the other hand, saw it differently. They reacted violently, even speeding up the attack on Monrovia without a plan to govern. This in large part was the work of paid agents who believed the ensuing chaos would strengthen the position of their benefactors. The strategy worked. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did not become the leader of LURD; but after failing in Ghana to obtain the top spot in the transitional government, she succeeded in gaining the presidency.

More than enough reason to stand

Regardless of our differences some things are indisputable: (1) More than 200,000 of our fellow compatriots were killed in the carnage and neither the good guys nor the bad guys have been identified; (2) Tens of thousands Liberians have lost their entire inheritance and are now living in abject poverty; (3) The national debt exceeded 4 Billion United States Dollars and there is nothing to show; (4) The nation’s electricity, water and sewer systems were destroyed by the warlords and their accomplices; and (5) A generation has been denied education and proper discipline. How much more must we tolerate?

In a recent interview, Jewel Taylor – wife of the indicted war criminal Charles Taylor – intimated that her husband is a hero, and if he were to return to Liberia and participate in the 2011 elections he would win the presidency hands down. If this is remotely possible, what does it say about Liberians in general? What does it say about you as a person? It says Liberians are morally bankrupt, an ungodly, unprincipled human eating people. And it is through this prism the world now sees us.

This is why I will not sit until a new generation of leaders takes control of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government beginning in 2012. I will not sit until those who have been wronged are given redress. I will not sit until our friends and loved ones who were murdered in cold-blood receive justice as well as the proper respect. I will not sit until the yoke of mental slavery is broken and my people experience true freedom. I Will Not Sit!

The Author: Mr. T. Q. Harris, Jr. is currently the General Chairman of Liberia Contemporees United Patriotic and Strong (Contemp UPS) www.contemporees.org and a former vice presidential nominee. He can be reached by phone in the US at (562) 216-3177 or (562) 824-0385 or by email him at liberia1@charter.net and visit the Friends of TQ website www.friendsoftq.com

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