Subject: God Will Not Come Down and Talk to You”
Dear Madame President,
Congratulations for the successful holding of the independence day celebrations in Lofa. Congratulations also to you, the people of Lofa, for your hospitality and above all for your demonstrated sense of maturity. I make this point Madame President because there were concerns that victims of the Konia and Voinjama civil disturbances would have mounted a public demonstration to call on the government to take actions to bring to heel those who planned, incited, instigated and took part in the mayhem. Then there was and still is the outstanding dispute over boundaries between Voinjama District and the newly created Quardu-Gboni District. Suggestions indicated in your Independence Day message that all was well were/are indeed unfounded.
The problems still remain unresolved.But, so much so for now about the unresolved problems in Lofa, Madame President, as I now draw your attention to a major point of concern which is the national economy and, on this note, I will take my cue from the national orator, Mrs. Garmai Korboi Calvins, who in my opinion, gave an instructive lesson in Liberian political economy. The orator emphasized the need for concerted efforts to train national manpower needs especially at the median level. How are local universities including the state owned University of Liberia responding to this challenge and what level of support is your government providing towards this end?
In this regard, let me ask what are the linkages, for example, between local universities, especially the UnIversity of Liberia (UL) which is the single largest national institution of higher learning and the various mining companies and now the oil companies? Little or no support from these companies go into research and training of national manpower needs. What, in similar vein are the linkages between the rubber industry and the mining conglomerates today?
Will Firestone for example build a plant(s) to produce all the rubber needs-tyres, latex gloves, etc required for the mining industry? Will a processing plant be built to produce animal feed from rubber seeds and thereby serve to enhance the growth of the animal husbandry industry? In similar vein will the latex from Firestone and other plantations find applications in the local paint industry? Or better still are Firestone and the rubber giants going to produce particle boards or furniture from the expired rubber trees for the Liberian market and West African market?
Going even further is Firestone with other rubber giants going to produce charcoal (from the expired trees) as a substitute for coke, for the steel industry, since both iron ore and manganese exist here in commercially exploitable quantities. Are we now going to see the production of at least steel rods (actually cast iron rods) to support the construction and building industry? Or are we going to see the construction of new and better homes for our people using cured bricks and other local materials as recommended by the national orator? Were any such considerations factored into the much acclaimed but now failed Poverty Reduction Strategy, (PRS)?
Regarding Firestone, do you realize Madame President that the rubber industry shall continue to remain underdeveloped as long as Firestone continues to maintain its stranglehold over the industry? Why was your government so much in a hurry to extend the life of the Firestone concession agreement when the country could have immensely benefitted from being owners or major shareholder in Firestone, Liberia? Are you content, Madame President to see Liberians remain forever as “hewers of wood and drawers of water in their own country?
In the same vein, are we going to stop spending precious foreign exchange on the importation of wooden light poles from Ghana and instead produce them right here? Or are we going to stop the importation of sand and crush rocks or even mineral water, from abroad since we have those resources here in abundance? Let me draw your attention to the Union Glass Factory, built by the Libyans sometime either during late 1970s or early 1980s.
The mineral used in the making of glass is silica, which is found abundantly in our beach sands, was mined right here. Then also is the mineral kyanite from which comes Kaolin (portor) which is required to sustain the very high temperatures required to smelt glass. That mineral is also found in abundant quantities right in the swamps of Gardnersville around Monrovia and was being and still is mined right here. Glass, especially glass bottles were being exported from here to countries in West Africa and further afield.
Today the Union Glass factory stands in ruins, and with Libya now in turmoil, there is no telling whether that factory will ever be restored. This is indeed very sad. These are the kind of forward and backward linkages to the national economy that I am referring to Madame President, and is one which holds greater promise for the generation of indigenous capital. Short of this kind of approach to development, Madame President, and as the experience of six years of your leadership has amply demonstrated, economic policies based on high growth rates that are highly dependent on the massive infusion of foreign capital will not lift ordinary Liberians out of poverty.
For, it is premised on the assumption that such high growth will have a trickledown effect which then can be spread around. Experience from Liberia and elsewhere shows that the little drips that come down from the tap are hardly ever enough to fill even the buckets of those standing in closest proximity to it (the tap). For those standing some distance away from the tap, they are virtually done for. The hard fact shows, Madame President, that in a primary commodity export driven plantation and enclave economy, prospects for real development are constrained by the absence of those forward and backward linkages between various economic actors since each entity operates as a virtual enclave unconnected to the rest of the economy. No value is added and this has been a hall mark of Liberia’s development strategy under True Whig Party rule and the same failed strategy is now being pursued under your leadership.
During the period of the 1970’s when you, Madame President served at very high levels of government, statistics showed that out of every dollar earned in profit by the huge mining companies operating in Liberia at that time, only about sixteen cents(0.16US$) accrued to the country. Under your leadership over a quarter of a century later, how has the situation changed for the better today? It should be noted that during that same period, Mauritania another iron ore producing country in Africa was at the time earning at least twenty-one cents (0.21US$).
Consider the fact that all the major investors in the country (from the rubber, iron ore, timber, gold and diamonds to the oil) put together, in 2009 contributed only 10 percent (about 35 million U.S. dollars) to the national budget of approximately 350 million U.S. dollars and, compare this to the country of Botswana where income earned from its resources contributed about 50 percent (about 1.3 billion U.S. dollars) to its 2.6 billion U.S. dollars national budget in the same year, 2009. Under your leadership today how much return is the country making on each dollar earned as profit in the iron ore mining industry? And likewise for rubber, how much is earned by the country for every dollar earned in profit by Firestone and the other biggies?
And by extension let me ask Madame President, how much is Liberia benefitting from the 16 billion in direct foreign investment or from the various concession agreements? The Sime Darby oil palm and rubber concession in Cape Mount and Bomi Counties that was heralded as a major achievement is now running into problems with local people complaining that they are being illegally dispossessed of their farm lands to make way for the planting of rubber. The thousands of jobs promised are still to materialize. From the evidence, Madame President, it is clear that the country is being shortchanged and it is happening under your leadership.
The same cry is being echoed in Grand Bassa where the rubber giant, LAC has been at the center of disputes with local people over the illegal sequestering of their ancestral lands to make way for the planting of rubber. And the story is the same or even worse in the Pleebo Sodoken District of Maryland County. Over two thirds of the district is covered with big concessions or large plantations belonging to big shot Liberians.
The people have virtually had no land on which to farm and they are not benefitting at all from royalties etc to compensate for their loss of farm lands. In the Pleebo district alone you have the Cavalla Rubber Corporation, the DECORIS oil palm plantation, the huge Tubman rubber plantation, the Liberia Sugar Corporation (LIBSUCO) etc occupying agricultural lands belonging to the people of Pleebo Sodoken district yet its people remain very poor living well below the official poverty line-landless peasants they have now become.
The recently signed SIFCA concession agreement for the oil palm plantation in Pleebo Sodoken district, hurriedly passed into law by the Legislature, was achieved through the payment of huge bribes to some law makers as alleged, by some members of that very body, is a case in point. It is my understanding Madame President, that representative Edwin Snowe was alleged to be your point man in this deal dishing out tidy sums of money (US$ 1.5 million total) to select legislators in order to secure their acquiescence to pass the bill into law.
It is my understanding also that one of your very close confidantes , Mrs. Clavender Bright Parker is alleged to have strong interests in this company called SIFCA and she (Clavender Parker) is said by Executive Mansion sources to be one of the driving forces behind the alleged bribery scheme at the legislature. Representative Boffal Chambers did indeed put up a strong fight, but to no avail as the lips of his colleagues appeared to have already been sealed shut with what some legislators have called blood money. I must remind you, Madame President, that these actions are like seeds-seeds of future conflict that you are sowing.
By those actions, Madame President, you appear not only to be undermining Legislative independence but also unwittingly creating an expanding class of landless peasants, peasants who as a consequence of the war were exposed to and suffered demeaning conditions of human existence and prolonged periods of violence. Add to this mix, a huge class of unemployed, uneducated youths most of whom are deeply steeped in a culture of guns, drugs and violence and:
Finally add the expanding ranks of the hoi polloi-that rotten mass of society, scumbags if you may call them who have nothing to lose but their own miserable lot and whose allegiances are ever shifting towards the highest bidder and what do you have? With all due respect to you, Madame President is this what you want to unleash on the Liberian people all out of greed for status, money and power? And do you believe for a single moment, Madame President, that there will be a safe hiding place for you, kith and kin, when calamity falls? I am afraid not.
Further, the orator talked about opportunities for local entrepreneurship. She noted that “business is all about job creation and growth. Under your leadership Madame President, local entrepreneurship has been virtually smothered by foreign competition posed by Lebanese, Indian, Chinese and other foreign owned businesses. All the gains for Liberian business that had been achieved under previous administrations for the development and protection of Liberian business have been wiped out under your leadership to the point where Lebanese and Chinese business people are now even selling retail cold water and ice.
The national orator of this year’s Independence Day program is indeed representative of an emerging class of young Liberian entrepreneurs seeking those same opportunities for expansion and development that foreign owned businesses are now enjoying under your administration. What are the opportunities available to her and other Liberians who see themselves as rightful and deserving players in the Liberian economy? Already, qualms are being raised about the allocation of oil blocks through sweetheart deals, that reek of corruption, to mostly foreign companies with little or no thought being given to the prospect of Liberian participation in this sector.
Look at the recent Ellenito deal virtually mortgaging our iron ore resources to a company that did not even participate in the bidding arrangements. Similar accusations are made about the award of the River Gee-Harper road contract to a Lebanese company that did not even participate in the bidding arrangements. Look also at the Oranto deal involving American oil giant Chevron and the purchasing of 70 percent shareholding in oil blocks awarded to Oranto for about 25 U.S. million dollars. Oranto then sells 72 percent of its holdings to Chevron and walks away with 50 million U.S. dollars in profit. In all of this Liberians are left to the sidelines as spectators rather than players in their own economy.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see how, under these stifling conditions for Liberian businesses, you are going to successfully create a Liberian middle class that you often speak of. A loan scheme to assist small Liberian business, styled the Bob Johnson fund or something like that, with initial capital of 1.5 million U.S. dollars has petered out into nowhere with only closely connected friends and relatives benefitting. I understand repayment of those amounts borrowed has been and still is a problem. The only way possible to create this middle class that you speak of, it would appear, is to allow your officials to continue to steal and illegally amass wealth to the point where they could emerge as a middle class – a lumpen middle class, leeches and parasites sucking away the lifeblood of the economy.
This simply says that rather than experiencing true development we are actually experiencing the development of underdevelopment under your leadership. As the acclaimed Harvard trained economist, have you not realized that the Liberian economy under your charge still manifests the most obvious feature of underdevelopment-gross structural dependence? For example, all the major means of production are foreign owned. Profits earned are repatriated leaving little or nothing for reinvestment, either in the industries concerned or in other local industries.
You would note that the achieved “rapid growth rate” of 6.5 percent per annum has resulted mainly from the export of primary commodities such as rubber, tree crops such as coffee, cocoa and forest products including timber with little or no value added. I do not need to remind you that the prices of primary commodities are subject to the ever changing vagaries of free market forces. Against this backdrop, can you say that such growth can be considered sustainable?
You would note that under your leadership the contribution of manufacturing (which would normally represent higher levels of production) to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is at best not more than one (1) percent. The production of electricity which is crucial to manufacturing/industrial production is virtually nil. The Chinese, realizing this as an impediment to our nation’s development, offered to rebuild the Mount Coffee Hydro-electric dam but, you spurned their offer because you said the Americans were going to do it. It has not been done till now. Yet you proudly declare that Liberia will need no foreign aid in 10 years when the country is not even producing sufficient electricity to meet the needs of just Monrovia alone.
May I just ask, Madame President, who are you fooling or pretending to fool? Is it because you do expect the oil will start flowing by or before the middle of the second term that critics say you appear to be so “desperately” seeking? If the exploitation of rubber and iron ore resources has in the past proven to be a bane rather than a blessing why do you suppose that oil will not be another curse? Consider the case of Equatorial Guinea, blessed with extreme oil wealth and a small population.
Yet, its people are amongst the poorest in Africa, while its leader, your friend, the extremely corrupt dictator Obiang who you have, since assuming office, visited more than twice, is filthy rich including his family and cronies. You even attended his inaugural ceremonies following elections in which he won at least 95 percent of the votes while his opponents were languishing in jail. Were you aware at the time that the man by whose side you proudly stood to take the salute during those ceremonies had his hands dripping with the blood of his people?
I am not sure whether you are aware of allegations that two of your sons along with an alleged business partner of yours, Steve Cashin, is involved in oil ventures in Equatorial Guinea. It may be farfetched, some may say but, with your little son Rob sitting on the Board of directors of the National Oil Company, it appears, in the eyes of well meaning Liberians that your second term quest is driven by a greedy desire to lay hands on potentially vast sums of money deriving from the exploitation of the nation’s oil and natural gas reserves. Perhaps if you could tell us from where Rob gets the cash he has been throwing around here on this and that community development project, there would be much less reasons to suspect that his appointment to the board of the National Oil Company, where sources say he calls the shots, is motivated by unworthy motives on your part.
This amount is roughly equivalent to 21.6 United States dollars per month. Translated into Liberian dollars at the conversion rate of 72 Liberian dollars to one U.S. dollar, it amounts to 2, 552 Liberian dollars per month. Now, according to government’s own statistics, 1.7 million people are surviving on less than 1 U.S. dollar or 72 Liberian dollars per day. Out of this number, 48 percent or 1.3 million Liberians are living in extreme poverty. Against this backdrop, it is clear that you are presenting a false picture of the reality in Liberia, Madame President.
The true picture is that a tiny group of people, most probably less than one percent of the population is accounting for this “phenomenal” rise in per capita income that you cite as a major achievement of your government. Indeed it is an achievement but mainly for relatives, friends, cronies and upper echelon government employees. How much for example does the ordinary police officer, Betty Karnwea, or the rank and file soldier , Flomo Yarkpazuah, earn monthly (100 U.S. dollars) compared to Maritime Commissioner Binyan Kesselly who is earning 12 thousand U.S. dollars monthly plus benefits ? How many bags of rice can they, (Flomo Yarkpazuah and Betty Karnwea) purchase from their take home pay? At the inception of your incumbency, you promised to ensure that at least poor families will beam with smiles when “Papa na Come” with his “Mind Your Business Bag” filled with goodies for his hungry and anxious children.
Under your leadership, those hopes you raised have all turned into a nightmare. Papa, still looking for a job, has failed to come and so, his little daughters have left the home and are now hustling-selling small items on the streets or selling their bodies. Look at the rising numbers of child peddlers in the streets of Monrovia and other rural urban centers and tell the Liberian people if this is the kind of achievement you have to boast of? Billions of dollars worth of foreign investment, high growth rates, high cash reserves, yet no jobs to show for it and your government continues to bask in the public limelight all the while proclaiming the false successes of what has become a failed Poverty Reduction Strategy.
But is this not the same kind of rapid growth, but without development, that we experienced under True Whig Party rule including during the 1970s when you served as Finance Minister? Next is the budget which according to your accounts has increased from 80 million United States dollars to well about 500 million based on current projections. This means that in this fiscal year, government will be spending some 500 million United States dollars on the provision of goods and services in the Liberian economy.
Let me ask you, Madame President, out of this amount of 500 million United States dollars, how much will Liberian owned businesses be accounting for? Is it not the Lebanese, Indians and other foreign nationals that will be accounting for most of this amount of 500 million United States dollars? And will not most this money be repatriated abroad through bank transfers, in suitcases, brief cases etc?How much of it will be reinvested in the local economy? Do you understand that continued marginalization of Liberians from meaningful participation in their own economy does have serious potentially negative implications for post conflict transformation?
The pursuit of such economic policies will require not only a large but also a very repressive security superstructure to suppress popular dissent which will be inevitable. When the workers of Firestone, Sime Darby, LAC or Mittal Steel, for example go on strike for better wages and working conditions, they will be met first at the barricades by police and or soldiers armed with live ammo. In the corporate board room, they are certain to be met by your party chairman, Varney Sherman, defending the interest of the corporations against the workers. And if when students stage protest demonstrations against government for not paying their teachers or for reneging on other responsibilities, is it going to be any different from the recent police handling of the G.W. Gibson student protest?
This (your) Unity Party chairman is legal representative for all the big concessions in the country. Is this not a blatant conflict of interest like it was under True Whig party rule? How come is it that you know and see these things yet you do nothing about it? Is yours a case of “you can’t beat them, then join them”? Why for example did you drop the case against your party chairman Varney Sherman who is on record for offering bribes to government officials in the criminal sale of the iron ore in Buchanan which was illegally bought by Lebanese business mogul, George Haddad? Today, George Haddad, a man formerly loathed and openly detested by you, has now become a darling of this government with record purchases of vehicles and other commodities including rice from his various business interests in the country. Well let us go back to the issue of the budget.
Out of the projected 500 million U.S. dollar budget, how much will be or is proposed to be reinvested in the economy? How much, for example, will be invested in health. With one Liberia having one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world (994 per every 100,000 births), yet you committed less than nine percent (as against the minimum required standard of 15 percent) of your national budget to health in the last fiscal year. That in itself explains why for example at the nation’s largest teaching and referral hospital, the JFK Memorial Hospital, charges are exorbitant and beyond the reach of the unemployed and average Liberian.
For example, it costs 2,500 Liberian dollars weekly to stay in the general ward. In the semi private ward with 2 beds, one is required to pay 50 U.S. dollars per day, and it costs 30 U.S. dollars per day in a room with 3 beds while, the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), admission cost is 150 U.S. dollars per week. If one relative expires in the hospital, all fees have to be paid before the body is released or the hospital disposes of the body in whatever way it sees fit.
Then how about agriculture which, according to your economic strategy, is to be the main driver of the economy? Current statistics show that only 2 (two) percent of the 2009/2010 national budget was committed to agriculture although agriculture, including forestry and fisheries, accounted for 61.5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the same period. The Libyan government in response to your plea for assistance provided a grant of 30 million United States dollars to boost the country’s drive for self-sufficiency in rice production.
I am sure you made this plea for assistance based on the fact that in 2007/2008 imported rice accounted for 42 percent of all rice consumed in Liberia. Again it is difficult to fathom how an acclaimed Harvard trained economist, and former head of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa would appear to lack a proper sense of judgment and misdirect such huge sums of money to private individuals of unknown or ill repute for the commercial production of rice, rather than to her country’s Ministry of Agriculture. Interestingly, the sum of 30 million U.S. dollars represents more than 5 times the allocation in the national budget for agriculture, and although your government says agriculture is or will be the mainstay of the national economy, after six years of poorly demonstrated commitment it has become clear that such lofty pronouncements were meant or intended as sweet music for the ears of foreign donors, nothing more.
As expected, the results of the Foyah Rice Project were not surprising-30 million dollars is gone into thin air leaving the people of Foyah District, Lofa County, angry for raising false hopes, being illegally dispossessed of their lands and disappointed in your lack or failure of leadership on this score to have those responsible account for their actions. I am sure you are aware, Madame President that the project has failed, however I am not sure you are aware of the deep resentment and residual anger the people of Foyah district feel at your blatant failure to have those responsible account, or have their grievances redressed accordingly. Tell the people the truth Madame President!
The poor peasant farmers of Foyah, Madame President, are ordinary and simple folks deeply steeped in time honored traditions of the value and power of the spoken word. In their frame of reference, your No must be your No and your Yes be your Yes. The people know better, they know that the Libyan provided project money was eaten up by your functionaries and, they know they have been shortchanged. No amount of platitudes from you of how the project has fallen on hard times because of the crises in Libya will help change their perception that the project money was stolen and that you have done nothing about it.
They have most probably heard from the grape vine, allegations that a son of yours along with an Ambassador Macintosh, reported to be of shady repute, was involved in the management of the failed project. Is it indeed true that one of your sons was actually involved with the Project? Interestingly your former cabinet colleague and friend of the Tolbert era, Agriculture Minister, Florence Chenoweth, whose agency of government is responsible for such matters, has been very reticent on the squandering of such huge amounts intended to boost the drive for self-sufficiency in the production of the national staple.
She is the one and same individual who as Minister of Agriculture under Tolbert had advocated for and stoutly defended the proposal calling for an increase in the price of rice. Her justification was the price increase would serve to encourage and boost production and increase family income levels. Today she rejects any suggestions that she supported the price increase. But I can attest that she did support the proposed price increase because I, in my capacity as chairman of national affairs of the University of Liberia Student Union, and leader of its delegation, made up part of the people’s delegation that the late Bacchus Matthews led to the Executive Mansion to discuss the issue. I was present when she spoke and, I remember clearly what she said. In the end she was fired by President Tolbert based on the recommendation of the Brownell Commission on which you did serve Madame President.
You probably do not realize, Madame President that in the cultural traditions of our people, there is no room for dishonesty, for impunity, but there is plenty of room for mitigation of harm, hurt, or loss through dialogue, acknowledgement of responsibility and then forgiveness and reconciliation or sanctions according to the degree of harm. And if I may add, this is also the way of Julijuah, your ancestral home area, Jawajeh, Zordee, Golodee, Senodee, Voogbardee, Sarpo Geeken, Kablakeh, Wologisi, Selega, Jenewonde, Zorgowee, Bo Geesay, Yenewan and even Clay-Ashland. In short, Madame President, this is the traditional way and this is the way of the “Palaver Hut”.
This brings me to the issue of reconciliation. You have gone on record to declare that national reconciliation is on track and that the National Palaver Hut program , as recommended by the TRC, is ongoing, although not with the vigor expected of it. I must disagree with you on this score for it appears like you are putting the cart before the horse. According to the recommendations of the TRC, the President is to issue an Executive Order establishing a National Palaver Hut Commission whose activities are to be coordinated by the National Human Rights Commission.
Structure, tenure and membership of the National Palaver Hut Commission are detailed in that section of the TRC report dealing with the Palaver Hut. To the best of my certain knowledge and recollection you have still not taken this all important first step. How then can you claim that the process of national reconciliation is on track? In the first place it appears that you have not actually read the report fully and are poorly advised on the subject or, your non actions are deliberate for reasons I will discuss in subsequent letters to you. Again this is not surprising given the hostility with which your government has reacted to the report.
I would suppose this has been the case primarily because, as some have put it, Commissioners had the temerity and insouciance to list the name of the President of Liberia among those sanctioned for 30 years. To begin with, it is worth pointing out that those individuals barred for holding public office for 30 years were so sanctioned either because they refused to appear or did not appear before the TRC for whatever reasons, personal or otherwise. And for those who appeared, it is either because they spoke half-truths, or because they were blatant in their falsehood (lied under oath), did not express regret or show remorse convincing enough to meet the criteria defined by the TRC for the waiver of prosecution.
And from that point onwards, support from government, hardly enough to begin with, became a begrudging affair demanding constant visits to either the Budget Bureau or the Ministry of Finance to clarify this or that request for funds. But that did not stop there. Attempt after attempt by operatives within and without the TRC, (some of who were closely connected to the Executive Mansion) to destabilize the work of the TRC became an almost daily affair. Threats of all kinds, including death threats against certain Commissioners began to surface. Gradually, it was being made clear to me and some of my colleagues on the Commission that a perception was developing in government circles that the TRC or at least some Commissioners on the TRC had become the enemy to loathe.
This was made clear when Law Reform Commission Chairman, then Justice Minister Cllr. Philip A.Z. Banks wrote the TRC a letter demanding copies of transcripts of testimonies of certain individuals who had appeared before the Commission. Prior to that letter he had written you, President Sirleaf, advising against your appearance before the Commission because, as he put it, there were few Commissioners who were bent on embarrassing you (the President) if you appeared.
We did not hear from you further. Commissioner Massa Washington and I even appeared on STAR radio to assure you not a single Commissioner had any intention to embarrass you as was being bandied about by some of your handlers, including then Justice Minister Phillip A.Z. Banks. He had prior to then written you a letter advising you against appearing before the TRC on grounds that a few Commissioners were bent on causing trouble for you.
It was even suggested by one of my colleagues that I excused myself during your appearance. Of course I dismissed such with a wave of the hand. It was during this period that I traveled to the Kingdom of Morocco to attend an International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) sponsored seminar on Reparations. Very shortly after I left the country, about a day or two after, your appearance before the TRC was confirmed. The rest is now history. But what is interesting is what followed before and after the release of the unedited version of the TRC Final Report.
In the run up to the release of the report, we were invited to lunch by the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, His Excellency, the Lebanese Ambassador to Liberia. Nearly the entire membership of the Diplomatic Corps was present. And it was all about the names of individuals who had been indicted in our report. Everyone, it seemed, was interested in knowing whether the TRC would actually name individuals in the report. And the choice of Commissioners invited to the meeting was revealing-Commissioners Oumu Sylla, Gerald Coleman, Massa Washington, Jerome Verdier and John Stewart, all with the exception of Commissioner Sylla, members of the report writing committee.
In my capacity as chairman of the report writing committee, I answered in the affirmative; but by then word was already out, through insiders at the TRC, that you had been named in the report and sanctioned. On reflection, I now realize that the true intent and purpose of that lunch meeting was all about you, whether it was possible to have your name purged from the list as had been the case with Mr. Harry Greaves Jr, whose name was inadvertently placed on the list but was later removed. In any case, the report was released-the unedited version that is. The United Nations Development Program had meanwhile arranged for the printing of the report. A Ghanaian firm was selected to do the job. I should inform you Madame President, that the TRC had no part to play in the selection of the printers.
We left for Ghana on 18th August 2009. Not long following our arrival in Accra, we learned that you had expressed interest in meeting with the members of the committee with the view to purging your name from the sanctions list. Maryland county senior Senator John Ballout was your interlocutor, who was having such discussions with Chairman Verdier. For my part, I ruled out coming to Monrovia to meet with you without having first completed our task for fear that such a meeting would have compromised our integrity and the integrity of the report as well.
Through Chairman Verdier, we made it clear that all those on the public sanctions list had recourse to redress through the Palaver Hut process, since it had the power to remit any charges save those falling under gross violation of International Humanitarian Law or International Human Rights Law. We advised you through Senator Ballout to follow this route. But as events would show, you had little interest in what we had proposed since you did not get the assurance you were seeking to have your name purged from the sanctions list. I do not need to tell you that offers of cash and other rewards were proffered by Senator Ballout as reward had we acted in compliance with your request. But we remained adamant, not realizing at the time that we were to pay a steep price for our intransigence, so to speak.
At the end of the 18-day period provided for by UNDP, we still had not completed editing, not having realized, both UNDP and ourselves that putting together a coherent report from over 15,000 pages would have required over 3 months. The shock came when UNDP deputy for program, Maria Therese Keating informed us rather curtly, via email, that UNDP had no obligation to the TRC beyond the 18-day period it had initially provided for. Faced with the prospects of being stranded, we made a decision to split up and have two Commissioners return to Monrovia and provide support working from the office.
As chairman of the committee and editor, I would stay put and continue with the work. Chairman Verdier would alternate between Monrovia and Accra.
At that point we had to decide whether it was indeed worth our while to suffer the undignified prospects of being thrown out in the streets with nowhere to go, while we were on an official assignment for our country. This was annoying especially when other government officials were taking it easy living on a flowery base of ease. I simply wrote back to Maria Therese Keating informing her that we were going to stay the course no matter what and that her disposition ran contrary to the true spirit of UNDP, having once served the organization myself.
To my mind, the message she appeared to be conveying was clear-your task is a national responsibility so let your government show and take ownership by underwriting the cost of your stay in Accra. But I knew her disposition was due to your influence as former head of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa (RBA) and your position as President of a country in which she was serving as an international civil servant with full diplomatic status. It was such overwhelming influence, I believe, that you had brought to bear on Ms. Maria Therese Keating. The Commission itself lacked any operational funds and could do little to help and so we found ourselves virtually in dire straits.
But for the mercy of God and that of a longtime comrade and friend who came to our rescue by agreeing to host us and provide working space, something which the government of Liberia under your leadership could not do or refused to do, we were spared the embarrassment of being thrown into the streets of Accra.
Apparently this was what it appeared that you and fellow indictees, especially the ex-warlords, had hoped for-an incomplete report, a shame that we would have had to face for the rest of our lives. Incidentally Accra was the venue of the Accra Comprehensive Agreement where the decision was taken to establish a TRC and, there we were, stranded in the very city that gave birth to the very peace process whose consummation in a way hinged on the outcomes of the TRC process.
By the time we returned to Monrovia, three and one half months later, we had come to realize that your hostility to the report had become more ingrained. By the time we met with you at your Foreign Ministry office, on 22 November 2009, the stage had been set for rejection of the report. A press conference was held at the Monrovia City Hall where an assembly of ex warlords, in the full glare of the media, condemned the report and threatened reprisals. As we came to learn, this conference was organized with inputs from the Executive Mansion.
And before long, members of the Legislature were being provided with generous amounts of money by the Executive to take the TRC report to their various constituencies for discussions intended to garner support for its rejection. The money provided was simply eaten up for, the Legislators proved unable to drum up local support against the report. The next step was to try to get the Traditional Council of Chiefs to condemn the report. That failed also. Then a meeting of witches from around West Africa was convened in Monrovia allegedly with tacit encouragement from the Executive Mansion, for what sources told us was to use spiritual power and forces to attack the report and cast harmful and evil spells on certain Commissioners, although an Executive Mansion spokesperson at the time dismissed any such claims.
Even that effort failed too. The next thing we heard was that an email emanating from the office of your personal assistant, Elva Richardson had been leaked to the media detailing steps being taken to get prominent personalities from around the world including South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu to rubbish the TRC report. Former U.N and U.S. diplomat Nadine Hack was mentioned in the leaked email as one of the individuals leading the crusade to condemn the TRC report. That effort also failed.
As it seemed, you appeared undeterred and as if to prove the point that you had actually trashed the TRC report, you at the occasion of the presentation of your annual message declared that you would be a formidable candidate in the upcoming elections in October 2011, thus laying to rest any lingering doubts about your counter disposition towards the TRC Final report. Meanwhile threats against Commissioners continued without abatement.
All our pleas for protection went unheeded. As a consequence, Commissioner Oumu Sylla had to flee the country to seek asylum in the United States of America. And Commissioner Massa Washington had to do the same likewise because she had death threats posted to her front gate. And to add insult to injury, Madame President, your Ministry of Finance officials who wallow in unbridled corruption and, who can not account for millions of dollars, according to GAC reports, decided to deliberately withhold payment of legitimate amounts owed Commissioners and staff as if in retribution for having sanctioned you for 30 years.
As I write you this letter, the government of Liberia is significantly indebted to me and other Commissioners (members of the report writing committee) as well as staff including statement takers almost two years after the end of the TRC process. What justification Madame President can you provide for such a grave travesty of justice? Is it the price we have to pay for having the courage to indict you for your prominent role in the Liberian civil conflict? But for me comparing this to the loss of cherished comrades who laid down their lives for the freedom that you now take credit for ushering into being; the denial of just compensation for work done is way too small a price to pay.
In addition to this unjust and illegal punishment, you have done all in your power to ensure that certain Commissioners are denied opportunities for employment in Liberia for the full extent of your presidency. The case of Chairman Jerome Verdier is a case in point. He was hired by the GAC after going through a competitive process involving the World Bank in which he emerged with flying colors. But true to form, you called then Auditor –General John Morlu instructing him not to hire the young man. But Morlu was unrelenting and hired him anyway. But you did not stop there and before long the World Bank had unceremoniously cancelled Verdier’s contract obviously due to your influence.
Not only have they (the World Bank) cancelled his contract, they are also withholding his pay for reasons they cannot explain. But Madame President, we know better for these are not strange methods. It is a pick from your regime’s book of dirty tricks. This illegal action taken against Jerome Verdier is indeed reminiscent of the tribulations yesterday suffered at the hands of the True Whig Party, which you were a part of and, which you faithfully served at the highest levels up to the time of its overthrow on April 12, 1980. It is our understanding, Madame President, that you are aware of the existence of a fully operational “dirty tricks” unit headed by some key players in your government. Is this allegation true?
And so now Madame President, in addition to placing a freeze on the payment of our legitimate due, what next are we going to see from your end? Are we going to receive visitations from armed robbers or suffer freak accidents? As one who has been in the “trenches and at the barricades” for years on end, I can understand the desperation of the ruling class, the “noblesse oblige” to cling on to power and privilege no matter the cost. In this regard, nothing can be considered too dastardly an act that will serve to ensure the entrenchment of power and privilege. Recently the publisher of Frontpage Africa, Rodney Sieh, openly complained that your confidant, disgraced former Public Works Minister, Willis Knuckles threatened to have armed robbers pay him a visit because he had been reporting in his paper (Rodney’s) about some unsavory business deals allegedly involving Mr. Knuckles.
Do you not consider this a dangerous path to tread? Do they have a monopoly on the instruments or use of violence? Do they forget that the spider can also get caught in his own web? Is the longing and thirst for wealth, power and privilege so extreme that they lose their reason and resort to violence to silence their critics? For me the answer is yes, they are indeed obsessed with power and they would resort to such means because they believe they can do it with impunity. If you would agree with me Madame President, the culture of impunity poses the greatest threat to our nascent democracy and the process of reconciliation.
This is what is undermining the peace in places like Lofa and elsewhere. Rather than dealing firmly with the perpetrators of violence and mayhem of the Konia and Voinjama incidents and what observers say are politically motivated ritual killings, you have instead chosen to paper over those cleavages and pretend that everything is alright when things are in fact just the opposite of what is happening on the ground. The Palaver Hut, had it been created, would have served as a pressure valve where issues of divisiveness, land and other conflict could be brought to the discussion table. But you have shown no interest for reasons that are obvious.
In one instance you would declare that your government intends to prosecute what you term major perpetrators , yet you yourself show no inclination at all to appear before the Palaver Hut. You have further declared during the Independence season, that the Palaver Hut program was up and running although not robustly as you would expect. This indeed is deceptive Madame President for it ignores the fact that it is yours to issue the Executive Order establishing the National Palaver Hut Commission and naming its members. So far, you have refused to do that so there is no basis for the claim that the Palaver Hut is up and running.
Also of concern, Madame President is the issue of Reparations. The TRC clearly outlined that in the face of the huge universe of victims of the Liberian civil conflict, community rather than individual Reparations, was the appropriate way to go in order to help enhance the process of reconciliation. So far you have only paid lip service to this. Bringing the family of the late President Tolbert to shake hands with Mrs. Nancy Doe and with the widow of General Thomas Quiwonkpa is the interpretation you have given to the issue of reconciliation. Reconciliation begins with accountability Madame President-the courage to speak the truth- having the courage to admit that past governments failed in their obligations to uphold the rights, civil, political and economic, of the people and, acknowledging their suffering as citizens and as bearers of rights that have been violated.
When for example you and others in the NPFL, made the decision to launch an armed uprising to violently unseat President Doe in 1990, I am sure you all were aware that general and Presidential elections were scheduled to be held in 1991, just 1 year down the road. And of course you all must have been aware of provisions in the Liberian Constitution on how a change of government can be effected. But you all decided not to wait and give democracy a chance, the Liberian people a chance to express their franchise at the polls.
Armed insurrection was instead chosen as your option to advance the quest for democracy that now appears to be, in the eyes of many, nothing more than a kleptocracy. In the process, over 250,000 lives were lost, more than 1 million sent into exile, more than 1 million internally displaced and millions of dollars worth of property destroyed. How then can you not feel a sense of remorse to at least, on behalf of the Liberian government which you now lead, acknowledge through an apology, the bitter sufferings of the Liberian people? The Liberian people still await your apology.
This is the charge that Thomas Jucontee Woewiyu put to you in his open letter of 2005. As expected you threatened to sue him but later backed down on your threat. The problem for you here, Madame President, is the people, ordinary Liberians believe What Thomas Woewiyu said in his letter. By declaring your candidacy at the time you did, you lost the historic opportunity to lay these charges and speculations to rest by failing to convene the Palaver Hut and appear before it to make your case to the Liberian people. Did you for example contribute more than the U.S. 10,000 dollars that you have admitted to contributing to the NPFL war effort?
Claims are you contributed about 500,000 U.S. dollars in total. Did you support and encourage the NPFL 1992 Octopus invasion of Monrovia? Did you play any part in the Flanzamaton failed assassination attempt against President Doe? Did you by commission or omission do or say anything that may have instigated the death of the late Jackson Fiah Doe while in NPFL protective custody, or even the late Moses Duopu? These were some of the issues raised by Thomas Woewiyu in his 2005 letter to you for which you threatened to sue. Was your threat to sue an attempt to silence and stop him from bringing out what may have appeared to be unpalatable truths or was it an attempt to actually expose his allegations as false?
The next issue of concern Madame President is corruption and your proven inability to tackle it head on. I need not remind you of your pledge made six years ago to treat corruption as public enemy number one. That pledge has since become hollow. Everyday, there are media reports of corruption on the part of your officials. For instance since 2006, the Ministry of Finance under the leadership of Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan has not been able to provide reconciled bank statements to the GAC.
Now your Finance Minister, one of our “nouveaux riches” whose personal wealth since becoming Minister is put at anywhere around 5 million U.S. dollars, is running around like a chicken without head bent on trying to disprove a report by Frontpage reporter Julius Kanubah that an amount of 45 million U.S. dollars had been uncovered in the budget. The fact is everyone knows that the Minister is lying through his teeth. For the past few years, the Ministry of Finance has not been able to produce a fiscal outturn report.
And as former Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh noted, her resignation stemmed mainly from continuous interference by you in budget matters, suggesting in a way that it is very well possible that big hands may be playing in the national kitty. The fact is that Legislators did indeed discover that amount of 45 million U.S. dollars cleverly concealed in the budget and they made no secret of it. Why were such funds being ferreted in such surreptitious fashion? Were the funds intended as a special presidential slush fund for electoral and other purposes?
You will recall Madame President that former Transitional Chairman Gyude was compelled by your government to submit to a legal process to absolve himself of charges of corruption which had been levied against him. I can imagine that those must have been very painful moments indeed for the poor man. And such a trial was unprecedented in the annals of Liberian history, for never ever before had any Liberian leader been made to account for his stewardship in a court of law. The doors to the stables were thrown wide open by you Madame President and the horses are running riot in the streets. With elections less than 3 months away, it lies very well within in the realm of possibility, Madame President that you could end up losing the elections and then also share Bryant’s fate somewhere down the road.
Perhaps your reelection as President could stave off or postpone that possibility. But if you ask for my take on this, I would say Madame President, the words of the prophet were written just a few weeks ago in the Paynesville Gobachop market when you were openly booed and jeered by marketers. Did that incident not remind you of the late President Tolbert in his last days when he was booed and jeered little school children? You must take this as a sign Madame President and slow down your chariot. God will not come down and talk to you. Your one-term pledge was a pledge from your heart. And my two cents advice to you is: Listen to your heart, follow your heart not your head and you shall fare well.
In my subsequent letters to you, I will deal with the issues around elections and will be revisiting the trashed TRC report, particularly those recommendations dealing with the Liberian Diaspora. That the proposals you advanced for the referendum did not include any provisions to extend voting rights to the Diaspora community that contributes so much to the national economy in the form of remittances was indeed disappointing and appeared to be self-serving, and seeking to narrow the bar of participation in an all-important national exercise.
In closing, Madame President, let me remind you of the adage that charity begins at home. Reconciliation cannot be on track when your government is remiss in the payment of legitimate obligations to TRC Commissioners and staff. If truly you intend to have the process on track, there are some first steps-settle your obligations first to Commissioners and staff; issue the Executive order setting up the Palaver Hut and name the members of the National Palaver Hut Commission; Set up the National Reparations Trust Fund, ensure the World Bank pays Jerome Verdier his just wages and last but not least, issue a national apology to the Liberian people.
Let me also leave with the words of Shakespeare in Julius Caesar…. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at the flood, leads on to success; omitted, all the voyages of life are bound to be in shallows and misery. Now is your tide-will you take it?
Finally, I thank you for your patience, Madame President, and please do look forward to hearing from me soon on other matters of national concern that lie close to my heart.
Very kind regards,
John H.T. Stewart Jr.
Freelance Journalist and Commissioner
Former Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia