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Lessons and Reflections on the Past Present and Future from Liberia

 

The Jimmy Carter Factor  in Liberia

By Alhaji G.V. Kromah

 

Posted July 26 2008

 Written  Oct 2002

 

 

\The Atlanta-based CNN television evening news  wanted to do justice to the Atlanta-based Jimmy Carter in citing the activities that earned the former American President the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. When it came to Africa, CNN, as a Western news organ, characteristically pointed to HIV/AIDS as the only area of concern for Mr. Carter. But Liberians know that the American leader's involvement with their country had nothing to do with virus. 

The ex-Presidentís ĎCarter Centerí folded its branch in Liberia late 2000, having operated in the country, with some lapses, since 1991. It  was set up in following Mr. Carterís bid to intervene directly in the Liberian civil war, which began with the  invasion of Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast by the rebel forces of Charles Taylorís "National Patriotic Front of Liberia." After the elections of 1997 that brought Taylor to power, the center adjusted its focus from peace mediation to democracy building.

From all indications, President Carter and his NGO were prepared to help build institutions of democratic governance. In its own account, the Carter Center headquarters  said its post elections work in Liberia included the establishing of an independent printing press, developing training programs for Liberian journalists, the strengthening of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, and providing financial and technical support for Liberian human rights NGOís.

Fate of Rights Commission

Perhaps more important in the Carter democracy building initiatives was the former Presidentís vision about a human rights commission that had interestingly been formally set up by Charles Taylor several weeks after his inauguration as President of Liberia. Officially, the Commission was supposed to monitor the conduct of government, advocate commitment to human rights, and  receive and deal with report of violations against individuals and organizations. An erudite judge, Hall Badio, was appointed to head the new institution, described by the government as independent. The establishment of the commission was to demonstrate to the world that indeed Liberia was now on a new course of dutifully upholding the rule of law and the other tenets of democratic governance.

President Carter was not only enthusiastic about the prospects of the commission, but was also passionate. In my 1998 meeting with him in Atlanta shortly after I began the exile experiment in the United States, Mr. Carter told me he wanted to help the commission function indeed independently and efficiently. He hoped it would  enhance the rule of law, genuine reconciliation and honest national reconstruction in the embattled West African nation.

As  I have  indicated on pages elsewhere, I was particularly touched by the manís resolve to pursue his humanitarian goals in Liberia. At the same time, I somehow felt sorry that here was a former President of the only superpower left on earth bearing such an intense sense of optimism for democracy in Liberia under Charles Taylor, when the omen was just simply bleak. Judging from Taylorís track record, I concluded that Mr. Carter was unrealistically optimistic about the growth of democracy under the Liberian pariah, the truth of which the Carter Center was to realize frustratingly when it folded its offices two years later and left Liberia. The center said it was packing its bags in protest of continued government gross human rights violations. By then, the rights commission had become practically non-existent. Judge Badio kept crying for an operational budget, and one Commissioner had to flee Liberia for attempting to question government malpractice. It was disheartening to witness the departure of the Carter Center, which had fastidiously endeavored to illustrate it was possible to succeed with its objective even under a Charles Taylor regime.

Knowing my former colleague Taylor when we both served as members of the Interim Presidency at the Monrovia Executive Mansion, I thought it was only fair during my meeting in Atlanta to caution Jimmy Carter against building monumental hopes in his democracy building drive in Liberia. I had given the same observation to Carter when he was in Liberia for the 1997 elections. Carter and his NGO successfully  prevailed upon me and other presidential contestants to accept the results of the elections, which had become  dangerously controversial.

The Carter center considered the event relatively fair, despite it said it had representatives at about only 10 percent of the elections centers, and it observed deficiencies such as lack of published registration lists at the time of the election and "an unevenness of candidates' access to campaign resources." Mr. Carter said the fact of the matter was that the world was simply suffering from "Liberia fatigue," and it was in nobodyís interest to engage in a long drawn-out protest against the declared outcome of the voting. I remember telling Mr. Carter in Liberia that it was my sincere hope that, if even out of guilt, Mr. Taylor would redeem himself through bringing normalcy to  the nation. But having keenly observed his  profile during the conflict, accepting his inauguration was like postponing a war. For he would soon create extreme conditions that would incite armed insurrection, as it has now turned out to be anyhow.

The American leaderís intervention helped to avert at the time  a major political crisis, which could have necessitated some form of military action from the West African Peacekeeping Force, ECOMOG. In the particular case of  my party, the All Liberian Coalition Party (ALCOP), which had officially filed a note of protest to the Elections Commission, the Carter plea blended with admonitions of party elders and former President Nicephor Soglo of Benin. Soglo hosted the 1993 groundbreaking Cotonou Accord, which consummated the concept of the Council of State (collective presidency) that broke the impasse on how to carry on the interim government structure that ended with the elections.

Cues From Soglo, Nyerere

Initially, ALCOP had decided to take the matter to the Supreme Court, even though the election rules craftily put together from the Nigerian capital of Abuja to orchestrate the election results provided that no protest could prevent the President-elect from being inaugurated. From our own records from the voting centers, poll watchers said that our party had performed reasonably well, given the multi-ethnic dimension of its leaders and partisans.

For me, the behind-the-scene interventions to dissuade ALCOP from an all-out challenge were climaxed when a call came in from a renowned African leader who had led his East African countryís independence struggle. By sheer coincidence, I had breakfast for several days with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, founding President of Tanzania in Cataegna, Colombia during the Heads of State Summit of the Non-Aligned Countries Movement in 1996. As the representative of Liberia and a toiling student of African history, it  was an honor to have been sitting at breakfast with this great man who eschewed all the trappings of power during his presidency. Also present those mornings was the then President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, whom many of us were already dealing with in the Liberian peace process in his capacity as Current Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, the Liberian peace brokers. Up to the week of the elections in 1997, I had kept my new senior friend, Elder Nyerere, abreast of what was happening in Liberia via phone, and when I detailed out the pieces of information my associates and I had gathered about the falsification of the election results, he calmly but profoundly said, "Listen to your elders, Soglo, Carter and what the others are saying in the interest of peace. Maybe things will be different."

Here was a world leader, who honorably retired from his countryís presidency, was not known to have any direct interest in Liberia, showing such a passionate concern for the future of a country many thousand miles across the continent. Nyerereís plea only enriched the nobility of our West African elder peacemaker, Soglo,  and the former President of Liberiaís "traditional friend" in the West, Jimmy  Carter. Eventually, all of these elements led to the withdrawal of the ALCOP protest, not that the lack of the decision would have prevented the inauguration of Taylor. ECOMOG was determined to see Taylor installed. That was their instruction from Abuja. But perhaps minus the pieces of advice given us,  the inauguration would have had to be postponed for reasons detailed out in other pages of mine available soon.

Selective Perception

Mr. Carterís presence in Liberia for the elections had generated mixed feelings in some of us who had to rise up militarily to resist our unending decimation by the invading rebel forces of Taylorís NPFL starting 1990. It was only a matter of courtesy and in the spirit of the new democratic dispensation the nation had embarked upon that some ALCOP leaders and I played host to the former President and his delegation, including Mrs. Carter and Senator Paul Simon, at the Party Headquarters and  my residence. For at various times, we had associated Mr. Carter with Taylor, at whose request at the beginning of the civil war, we were told, the American leader got involved. This selective perception of Mr. Carter probably diminished his early chances of making a significant inroad in the conflict on all sides. I had done a couple of comprehensive writings on his administration, which was expiring in 1980 when I came to the United States for graduate studies. And I had thought that the former Governor of Georgia had an open racial mind,  judging by the role of Andrew Young and other African Americans in his government. But slightly more than a decade later in Liberia,  I thought he had been misled on the Liberian situation, and until his visit to my headquarters and residence in '97, I had seen him with  jaundiced eyes.

Our personal encounters and his indirect clarifications about his earlier initiatives revived my student day positive perceptions of him. The fact that Jimmy Carter remained in Liberia along with his family members during and after the elections impacted me considerably. The fact that foreigners were advising us Liberians to do everything possible and avoid the countryís returning to war was enough for me then, and has continued to be so now. When I cast my ballot as a Presidential candidate in Voinjama, headquarters of my home District in Lofa County, Carterís son, Chip, was there as an observer. And his conversations about the event will ever remain with me.

Dismal Performance

It was sad that the Carter Center with all of that history had to pull out of Liberia, apparently angry, disappointed and embarrassed with the dismal performance of the Taylor regime in the field of democracy. But it was heroic that Mr. Carter took action to send the appropriate message to the regime, Liberians and the international community by pulling out. He was not alone in his pain. Before  death caught up with him three years ago, Mwalimu Nyerere had also intimated his disappointment that "Liberians have not appreciated the abundance of opportunity to reconstruct their nation." He was even  more disappointed that my speculation that allowing Taylorís inauguration was just a postponement of the conflict had become a reality, apparently referring to the current war between the government and armed dissidents now in control of the north.

Watching President Carter on the CNN express his pleasant surprise at being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I felt in my heart that he deserved it, even if the CNN only talked about his concern for the ravages of HIV/AIDS as the only link that could be cited for Africa in that eveningís broadcast. Even if the Liberian public was unaware of what James Earl Carter, Jr., 78, former President of the United States, did to defuse a potential Liberian bomb in August 1997. Even if I felt as many others that he was a Charles Taylor sympathizer who came to face with the burden of such a move at such a time.

©  Alhaji Kromah Page