By James K. Fasuekoi (September 1st 2005)
|"... During my tours with several political parties in the 1997 elections, I later gathered especially in former Taylor’s territories that, majority of the people there rarely had an idea as to what Democracy and Elections were about. In central Liberia, many were ready to enter into fistfight with opponents whom they viewed as intruders or encroaching on their soil. These Liberians had never known freedom for nearly eight years under Taylor. The few educated who exploited them including Taylor, deliberately played the game of silence during the campaign period...."
Reports from the Liberian capital speak of mob violence that has characterized the national election campaigns, which began recently with more than a dozen political parties participating. Compounding this situation, are earlier reports of a general atmosphere of lawlessness and insecurity that have lately engulfed the capital and the countryside where armed bandits roamed rural highways and robbed commuters off valuables and cash.
During the latest melee in Monrovia, according to The Perspective Web Magazine, some supporters of George Weah reportedly hurled stones at convoys of opponents, attacked and tore down posters belonging to their rivals. Serious as it was, a partisan of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party was reportedly flogged and disrobed while the windshield of a car in Madam Sirleaf’s convoy got broken from stone throwing by opponents. Appearing unstoppable, the hooligans said to be mostly youths, struck and destroyed a float in a Varney Sherman Campaign convoy headed to the stadium for a lunching.
These developments, though disturbing, are not new to Liberia’s post-war elections. The 1997 general elections saw widespread intimidation and mob violence mostly in rural settings against Liberians. This was due to the fact that Liberians living in then IGNU controlled Monrovia were generally perceived as enemies by Taylor and his followers. However, there were hardly any mention of such uncivilized behaviors on local newspaper pages in that many local editors and reporters were unwilling to venture into areas once known as “Taylor Land” where visitors were constantly harassed and arbitrarily arrested and detained once it became cleared they were from the “other side” of the lines.
The West African Peacekeeping Force, ECOMOG, charged with providing security was stressed and as a result, it focused largely on Monrovia. Notwithstanding, there were hundreds of toothless UNOMIL troops dispatched to the various polling stations across the country. This however left the rural areas vulnerable to chaos, and at the same time gave an edge to Taylor whose NPFL faction had exercised enormous influence and control over 99% of the country during the war. But even the heavy presence of the Peacekeepers in Monrovia didn’t make the “Safe Heaven” immune to the violence.
In this piece, I shall attempt to share some of my experiences and observations from the 1997 general elections centering on insecurity and lawlessness. We shall also look at past voters’ awareness programs and the needs for more voters’ education programs now and in the future in order to curb such ugly situation, which threatens the very democracy, we are struggling to build.
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF LAUNCHED CAMPAIGN IN SANNIQUELLIE
When my colleague, a New York Times Photographer, Robert Grossman and I set out to travel with the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Unity Party Campaign team to Sanniquellie, Nimba County, a region widely sympathetic to Taylor’s “revolution”, we didn’t expect things to go all too well. Neither did the “Iron Lady” expect her party to be welcomed by bulk of those who fought Taylor’s war. Ellen had initially supported Taylor’s war efforts, but later broke away due to policy differences. This apparently placed her in a black book with not only the rebel leader, but also hundreds of thousands of Taylor’s sympathizers who saw her as a traitor. Her plans thus to launch her political campaign in the heart of Nimba was seen by NPFL turned NPP supporters as a pure defiance and another declaration of war! The NPFL/NPP supporters had dared see Ellen step in their former territories to canvass for votes.
As it happened, it was like fighting an enemy inside his or her own house. For the nearly two hours our convoy drove between Kakata and Suakoko, Bong County, boos sprung out from roadside towns and villages intermittently. But the prelude of what was to come became evident at the Phebe Lutheran Hospital near Gbarnga, the erstwhile NPFL stronghold. A group of civilians once seeking refuge at the hospital in 1994 were massacred during one of the biggest fights in central Liberia between the NPFL, ULIMO-K and a coalition force comprised of five warring factions.
Ellen had briefly stopped by to greet the staff some patients but the moments were fiercely seized by a fifty plus ex-NPFL guerrillas who suddenly appeared from behind the fences and hospital walls. They chanted anti-Ellen Johnson slogans and sang praises to their lord, Taylor. We were however whisked off by our cracked ECOMOG team and were happily landed in the hands of then UP’s Vice Presidential Candidate, Peter Baima at the party’s Gbarnga headquarters. As our convoy drove through Gbarnga, headed for Sanniquellie, we encountered a human chain of nearly a mile long in a ninety-degree heat from the sun that jeered at us and staggered back and forth.
At one point, amid stone throwing and the banging on vehicles, they almost succeeded in breaking our convoy, but ECOMOG drivers at the head of the fleet, tactically maneuvered and penetrated, thus allowing the rest of the cars to go through. Along the way to Sanniquellie, we again saw locals indoctrinated by Taylor singing praises to their messiah and at the same time spitting unutterable words at us.
In Sanniquellie, another group, mostly made up of thugs and positioned near the church where the ceremony was to take place had awaited our arrival. They stood few yards from the church; brandishing silenced weapons threatened to set the church on fire once the program began. As they made their threats; from a white Land Rover Jeep, came tow of Ellen’s securities, followed by tow huge fierce looking black dogs.
The tow men appearing very calmed and confident moved few steps towards the crowd as they patted the dogs that grew hungrier for attacks. “Oh! They brought dog en...all, they really serious.” Some shouted. “We will first cook your dog in soup and eat them before killing your,” they threatened! Their attention soon turned to the tricks performed by the dogs while the ceremony went on. That night, as campaigners strategize how they would take their platform to outlying towns and villages in coming days, my colleague Robert and I managed to hurried to the capital in order to beat the deadlines. But it didn’t happen without incident. The first vehicle that drove us out of Sanniquellie, owned by one of Ellen’s PR men know as Kona, broke down along the way near Gbarnga.
While few struggled to re-start the old Japanese Toyota truck, Kona, for fear of being attacked by opponents, first ripped the Ellen Johnson Campaign Posters off the truck. Not satisfied, he took off the Ellen Campaign T-shirt he was wearing. “They might kill us here tonight or not give us help if they realize we are for Ellen,” he said nervously while advising Robert and I to hide our cameras. We later got help from a stranger traveler who took us to Monrovia. It is not known whether Kona ever recovered his vehicle.
My next journey with the Ellen Campaign group took me to Western Liberia. By then, Robert had left for New York. Residents of this region appeared very neutral and receptive to almost all that went by begging for votes. This was probably because the region changed hands several times between four warring factions during the war. None of the conquerors left a deep impact on the inhabitants. Besides, there was also reason for joy for Cape Mount is said to be the home of the UP’s Presidential Candidate. At Senji and Robertsport, elaborate and colorful ceremonies were staged in honor of the presidential aspirant who promised better living standards for residents. An array of traditional female mask dancers turned out in full. It was something worth seeing for those deeply attached to African Cultures and Traditions.
SECURITY THREATS HAMPERS ALLIANCE OF POLITICAL PARTIES’CAMPAIGN IN BUCHANAN
Persistent reports of serious security threats along the Monrovia-Buchanan Highways nearly halted the initial launching of Cletus Wortorson’s Alliance of Political Parties (APP) in Buchanan in 1997.
For long hours hundreds of partisans camped at the party’s headquarters near the Monrovia City Hall and awaited a green light from their party boss to move to the Seaside City with their campaign. But Mr. wortorson, a former geologist who appeared visibly worried kept receiving mixed security reports from their agents placed along the route about the safety of the convoy. One report alleged Taylor’s men had set an “armed bush” along the road.
Despite the heavy ECOMOG presence along the highways and inside Buchanan couple with an ECOMOG cracked task force back by Armor Personnel Carriers set to accompany the convoy, the geologist remained hesitant and apprehended. And by the time he and his men (which included former Liberian-Israeli trained SATUs) decided to make the journey at noon, the reality was that the time spent by partisans in Buchanan was far lesser than the time wasted at their headquarters in Monrovia. At a snail pace speed lasting several hours, we arrived to this once beautiful city without any incident.
Buchanan, like Western Liberia had changed hands several times between former NPFL and the LPC and probably a bogus Bassa Defense Force. Everything went well and even the near collision of both Alhaji Kromah’s ALCOP and the APP that were campaigning the same time on Buchanan’s main street, triggered no fight. But the usual profanity that goes along with the singing, clapping and dancing in Liberian politics was loud. Earlier, as our convoy slowly drove through the city center, A frightened Cletus Wortorson, worried for his safety, occasionally waved a white handkerchief in response to greetings from jubilating supporters. His party Vice President, Alaric Tokpa, known for his political activism stole the show. From his opened-top car, Tokpa jubilated and warmly greeted partisans throughout the visit.
KROMAH’s ALCOP GANTA CAMPAIGN ENDS IN VIOLENCE, SOME WOUNDED
Like Ellen, the move by former warlord Alhaji Kromah to stage a political campaign in the heart of Nimba County, home to his former NPFL rivals, was a big challenge and many Liberians eagerly waited to seen the end.
Former guerrillas of Taylor’s rebel NPFL who lost their precious Gbarnga stronghold to Kromah’s ULIMO during the war had returned home and patiently waited in Ganta, Nimba to settle scores with former rivals. The ALCOP rally in Ganta indeed presented the right moment.
Scores of Kromah’s supporters got seriously wounded and with some hospitalized after ex-NPFL combatants attacked them with blunt objects during a rally in Ganta Nimba. There were unconfirmed reports of one death. Later in the capital, attempts by Kromah’s ALCOP to stage another rally in West Point, a notorious Monrovia suburb, was cut short amid stone throwing by thugs believed to have link with Taylor’s NPP. One report said that a stone narrowly missed the party standard bearer, Mr. Kromah when he rose through his jeep’s sunroof to acknowledge greetings from supporters.
POOR VOTERS’ EDUCATION MAY BE BLAMED ON ELECTION VIOLENCE
By all indications, lawlessness or mob violent behaviors during the 1997 Elections could be attributed to the lack of vigorous voters’ education programs. Unlike now where there are many volunteered networks helping ECOM with mass voters’ sensitization programs through dramas, the 1997 voters’ education failed due to three main hurdles: Time factor, lack of funds and will power on the part of Liberians.
For the 1997 Elections, things were even worst for the fact that Liberians had just come afresh from a brutal civil war and barely had time to adjust before going to the poll. Besides, Taylor, uncertain about his chances to win the elections, resorted to attacking positions of rival warring factions close to the start of national disarmament.
His NPFL simultaneously attacked ULIMO-K in Lofa, ULIMO-J as well as the Greenville Headquarters of the defunct Liberia Peace Council led by George Bolley. There were even reports of skirmishes going on in remote parts of Liberia when the country was preparing to enter election season.
All of these unwarranted behaviors by Taylor plus many more, commended the attention of both ECOMOG Force and the war weary population, thus down playing efforts aimed at promoting healthy aspect of the elections such as conducting mass voters’ education. This led many to conclude that the “Playing Field” wasn’t level for elections to take place. But the Nigerians and donor agencies who for years shouldered much of the burden grew wearied and insisted on staging elections with the hope such would end the bloodbath. It turned out every thing worked in Taylor’s favor.
WHY THE NEED FOR VOTERS’ EDU. PROGRAMS BY ECOM, UNMIL, OTHERS
In May 2003, few weeks before LURD’s final assault on Monrovia, the United states Embassy near the capital had initiated a meaningful project geared towards preparing the local masses for the next elections that was to take place perhaps under Taylor. Besides serving as sponsor, the US Embassy in closed consultation with outstanding Liberian theater and dramatic groups such as Flomo Theater and Balawala International developed and staged voters’ sensitization dramas at displaced centers around Monrovia.
The awareness campaign proved to be more effective in preparing voters towards elections. Its overwhelming response from thousands living at Internal Displaced Camps, IDCs during the first few weeks made the embassy to extend the program to the counties. All however came to a standstill when the war struck the capital. With the pending general elections in October 2005, various local cultural and dramatic groups have begun similar awareness programs, dubbed as UNMIL Community Outreach Programs and sponsored by the United Nations Missions in Liberia, UNMIL in collaboration with the Liberian National Elections Commission.
So far, about five groups, namely, Balawala International, Flomo Theater, Liberia Traditional Theater and Ambassador Juli Endee’s Peace Crusaders plus few directly under ECOM are working against time dramatizing voters’ rights and elections procedures which are quite healthy to the October elections. Considering the present election campaign violence that has taken over the capital, it would be of enormous importance if this worthy project could add one more theme: “Elections Freed Of Violence.”
I think in order to host a free and fair elections we must place emphasis on a none violent campaign otherwise, the “Playing Field” may turn uneven.
As mentioned earlier, the only remedy to ending most campaign/elections violence is through vigorous mass voters’ awareness programs. Performing arts in the form of dramas have proven to be the cheapest and effective means in this endeavor when one considers the huge illiteracy rate couple with the poor economic standard of our war weary people, many of whom can hardly afford the price for a daily, let alone money to buy a TV or radio to monitor news.
During my tours with several political parties in the 1997 elections, I later gathered especially in former Taylor’s territories that, majority of the people there rarely had an idea as to what Democracy and Elections were about. In central Liberia, many were ready to enter into fistfight with opponents whom they viewed as intruders or encroaching on their soil. These Liberians had never known freedom for nearly eight years under Taylor. The few educated who exploited them including Taylor, deliberately played the game of silence during the campaign period. Like the NPFL media, Taylor did nothing to prepare his “greater Liberia people” for what was to happen.
As a result, the majority was left doomed and not having much clue to unfolding events in terms of campaign. Understandably, for those poor souls in “Taylor Land”, the idea of a political rival ever leading hundreds of fellows Liberians from the once enemy zone to pose a challenge to Taylor was just inconceivable.
Their persistent question: “Who told your to come here?” Often made me laughed. This ignorance was largely due to their lack of adequate information regarding elections and campaign guard lines. Insecurity has also shown that people can resort to all kinds of means to provide personal protection if they feel unsafe as clearly experienced during the last 1997 general elections at which time pets were for the first time introduced to beef up security in some troubled parts of the country. Whether this trend will continue with the use of dogs and probably other animals in future elections will depend solely on the general security obtaining in the country.
It’s therefore a binding duty on ever citizen and the Liberian Government to work assiduously in order to create a save country that will encourage many to return. Based on past experience with Taylor, (though belated), it is now time that the Liberia Government along with NGOs pressure the disbanded warring factions such as LURD and MODEL to undertake campaign and voters’ awareness programs in old territories, especially so if there are personalities from those ex-factions running for the presidency. In the same vain, the government's legal arm which is the Justice Ministry must be prepared to work with the Elections Commission in order to enforce the necessary penalty to those who may engage in election violence as a way to vent their emotions at opponents.
About the author:
James Fasuekoi is a Journalist and Cultural Artist. Prior to the war, he worked for most of Liberia’s leading independent dailies as reporter-photographer. He also worked as a stringer for the Associated Press during the war. He presently resides at Whitehall, Pennsylvania.