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The Undelivered Message from Freetown

By: James Kokulo Fasuekoi (September 27th 2005)  

"... Like the former People's Redemption Council (PRC), it remains a wonder how Taylor succeeded in killing most of those who propelled him to power including former Vice President Enoch Dogolea and former Chief of Staff, Gen. Prince Johnson before being forced out of Liberia in 2003....”

When I joined a team of journalists to Freetown, Sierra Leone in March 1998 to cover the triumphant return to power of exiled president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, one particular question haunted us. In every corner we visited, Sierra Leoneans wanted to know why we (Liberians) voted Charles Taylor president. What perplexed me was that the query didn't only come from adults but from teenagers as young as twelve who pressed for an answer to this embarrassing question.

They could not understand why a man whose war rendered our people destitute should be rewarded with the nation’s highest office. They have long come to conclude that such a known “criminal” who for 14 years robbed his country of happiness with deaths and destruction deserves nothing but spite and malice.

President Kabbah, who came to power after his Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), won the 1996 elections, had fled to Guinea a year earlier following his overthrow by Major Johnny Paul Koroma’s AFRC/RUF military junta. While in Guinea, Mr. Kabbah rallied international support for a response to the coup. In exactly ten months after the coup, Kamajor Warriors fighting alongside ECOMOG forces drove the AFRC/RUF rebels from Freetown and reinstated the former government.

But before we departed for Liberia, the Sierra Leoneans had an important message for the Liberian people: "Go and tell your people that it will never happen here in Sierra Leone," meaning, they would never reward killers with the presidency and other higher government jobs. Nearly nine years after our visit, for some reasons, I have not been at peace with myself for failing to deliver this message. True to their words, Sierra Leoneans proved it during the country's post war elections in 2002 when they shunned parties with rebel connections and overwhelmingly re-elected President Kabbah.

Thus another dark chapter in the country's history ended.

Kabbah's landslide victory (70.1 % of the total votes) came as no surprise to the world because he is one of the few with respect for human dignity and democratic values in the sub-region. The fact that parties led by rebel camps received the lowest votes ever (1.7% and 3.0%) further indicates that there is no place for the rebels in that society. Apparently, the elections were heavily influenced by the unimaginable suffering and lifetime scares of war brought by a decade old crisis. Voters may have pictured the brutal and barbaric images of a war that consumed many loved ones.

However, in Liberia, it was the opposite when majority voted Taylor as president, a man who from the onset of his rebellion showed no respect for human rights or democratic principles. Obsessed with power, Taylor left a trail of innocent blood from the Nimba jungles to the Executive Mansion and soon turned into the most brutal dictator Liberia has ever known. And for sure, history will certainly judge him harshly for those uncountable lives crushed by his rebel army just to gain power. Notable among Taylor's victims (before his ascendancy to power), included the six Senegalese peacekeeping soldiers, the Harbel massacre of more than 600 civilians and the orchestrated April 6, 1996 Monrovia street battle in which several thousands died. Yet, Taylor’s diehard supporters ignored past realities and went ahead to place powers into his hands.

Even after the war-stricken Liberians awarded him the highest office as an appeasement in avoidance of a new war, Taylor still had a surprise for them. As if he had been cursed by the “gods” Taylor settled scores with those he regarded as foes. The first to fall victim was former rival opposition leader, Sam Dokie, along with his family.

An appraisal of his six years’ reign of terror (after elections), again revealed his rigor and utter abuse of power. His killing spree continued unhindered. Often, there were horrific and ghastly murders of whole families. Other times a family member was killed which would agonize and traumatize the survivors. Like the former People's Redemption Council (PRC), it remains a wonder how Taylor succeeded in killing most of those who propelled him to power including former Vice President Enoch Dogolea and former Chief of Staff, Gen. Prince Johnson before being forced out of Liberia in 2003.

Taylor's killing adventure and lust for power and wealth, also took him to Sierra Leone with the sole intent to kill the people and loot their minerals. Already backed by Sierra Leonean dissidents like Sam Bockarie and Foday Sankor, Taylor succeeded in ravaging that poor country. Today, Taylor, along with many who benefited from what is dubbed as the country's “blood diamonds” are being sought by the world's community to face trial in Sierra Leone. But the world being what it is Taylor, amid political bickering remains in Nigeria under "protective custody."

While Liberians were being held hostage by Taylor and his rebel army, some warring factions emerged and jumped in the fight under the guise of “Liberating the Liberian people." It turned out; all of them were in it for power and wealth which caused them to fail to remove the NPFL. However, 14 years after Taylor launched his war and became president, a disgruntled resistant rebel group called LURD fought and eventually accomplished what some five factional groups failed to achieve.

During a Liberian national Peace Conference held in Washington D.C. few years ago, a iberian Bishop lamented how Taylor's obsession for power prevented the staging of an AIDS Awareness Program to mark the annual December 1st AIDS day campaign in Monrovia. How insane! What followed due to his gross human rights violations was the forceful mass exodus to foreign parts, by some of the country's best brains in the areas of medicine, law, journalism, politics, business and the economy. Due to the trauma endured, it is unlikely that many professionals will return anytime soon to help revamp the country.

Some, however, claimed they voted for Taylor for fear of a re-turn of another war if Taylor lost in the last elections. For some, Taylor's personality, flamboyant and charismatic life style was enough to earn their votes. Then, there were those who thought that Taylor should be given a chance at "rebuilding" the country he ruined. Merits and good judgment had no part to play in their decision making. What happened thereafter is that their misguided actions certainly legitimized the rule of a “criminal” government and thus plunged the country into total despair. But again, this is a clear example of what sets in when people are overtaken by illusions. In any case, it revealed our true but dark characters of Liberians.

The lesson learned from the Taylor saga teaches us that an ill-fated but collective action by the majority would compromise the very survival of our nation. Armed with such a bitter experience with Taylor, the question that comes to mind is: are we (Liberians) prepared to entrust the highest office to another former warlord? Will we take the Sierra Leonean people's message seriously? We hope we do; for rebels everywhere in the world are all the same--they don't know the word REFORM, and the people they previously suppressed do not benefit from their war booties either.

While it is difficult to make sense of what led to Taylor's 1997 victory, part of the answer may well lie in an observation made by a former Councilman, Mr. Dexter Taryor, who once questioned whether we actually knew what we wanted. It was in reference to our rejection of the Doe regime as well as the demand for changes of successive regimes during the dark days. Taryor said, "Liberians are people who like new things and are unsatisfied with what they have." Taryor's remarks seem to hold water today.

With just few weeks to go into Liberia's second post-war general elections, it is worthwhile that we bring this issue into the public’s view with the hope many would pause and soberly reflect on the mistakes that led us to our doom. We should briefly reflect on our pains and sorrows under the various rebel factions and must scorn their bid for the presidency. In the interest of peace and security, a civilian candidate would be the best way to go, because unlike a civilian president, a former warlord won't bow to pressure, should he tamper with the rights of others. When that happens, we would have moved a giant step forward towards rebuilding a civilized society and that all those who lost their lives would not have died in vain!


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. Mr. Fasuekoi presently resides at Whitehall, Pennsylvania.

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