On September 22, 2015, President Ellen Sirleaf sent a letter to our National Legislature calling for, amongst other things, the establishment of an “Extraordinary War Criminal Court” to try and mete out punishment to those considered to have borne the greatest burden for atrocities committed during Liberia’s horrific civil war.
The Legislature should not give this letter a second’s thought. It is political opportunism of a mischievous kind. Mrs. Sirleaf has been sitting on the throne for 9 years and has not shown the slightest inclination to call for this. Why now, in the twilight of her reign, when she knows she will not have to deal with the potentially destabilizing effects of such a court, does she call for this?
The answer is simple. She is pandering, playing to the gallery—the gallery of holier-than-thou souls in the international community and the Liberian Diaspora, who, from the comfort of their armchairs, secure in the knowledge that they will not have to endure the consequences of any social upheaval that might follow in the wake of any attempt to resurrect the ghosts of our fratricidal civil war, want us to play Russian roulette with the tranquility of our fragile political order.
Mrs. Sirleaf was at the peace talks in Accra in August 2003, lobbying mightily to be chosen as head of Liberia’s interim government. Those marathon talks, from March to August, were superintended by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, former head of state of Nigeria, ably assisted by military and civilian representatives of the African Union, ECOWAS, European Union and US Government.
I was there too. I had been selected by the representatives of political parties and civil society organizations to serve as chairman of the ad-hoc election commission that was established to conduct elections for Liberia’s interim head of state. With limited resources, E.C.B. Jones, Mobutu Nyepan, Abraham Mitchell, Cole Bangalu and I organized, within the space of 72 hours, elections that led to the selection of Gyude Bryant as chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia. Alhaji Kromah, a warlord who participated in those elections, described them as the freest and fairest he had ever participated in.
The matter of a war crime tribunal came up during our deliberations. But the warring factions made it abundantly clear that should we go down that road, the war would not end. They would continue the carnage. So, we decided to adopt a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an alternative to a war crime tribunal, not as a supplement to one.
For President Sirleaf to now call for the establishment of a war crime court is a despicable breaking of our collective word, an inexcusable going back on a solemn undertaking. She has thus once again demonstrated that she has no word, that she cannot be trusted. I was no warlord. I was not singled out as one of those who would be caught in the war crime web anticipated in the TRC report. So, I have no axe to grind here. But I am strongly of the conviction that, as a leader — whether of a business, an NGO, a political party or a government — your word is the most valuable currency that you have to trade. In dealing with you, people have to know that when you give your word, they can take it to the bank that you will not renege on your word at some later date in order to gain some real or perceived advantage.
I am not a lawyer but training as an accountant in Her Majesty’s Kingdom in the 1970s; I had to imbibe a goodly dose of contract law. A contract presumes that both parties to the contract will use their best efforts to negotiate the best deal each can for his/her side. A contract is a solemn undertaking. It cannot be voided simply because, down the road, one party feels that he/she did not negotiate as good a deal as he/she could have. That is why, if I were president of this nation, I would not entertain for one nanosecond the thought of renegotiating concession agreements or government contracts.
If each succeeding administration decides to re-negotiate contracts entered into by its predecessor, where would that put us? Which company would consider us a trustworthy partner? The only circumstance under which re-negotiation of a contract might justified is if there is prima facie evidence of fraud or corruption surrounding the transaction.
Contrast President Sirleaf’s actions with those of Gen. Obasanjo, former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. When as we sat in the Accra Conference Centre awaiting, with bated breath, the opening of the peace talks, Mr. David Crane, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), slapped then-President Charles Taylor with an indictment, all hell broke loose. The assembled African leaders — Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, John Kufuor of Ghana, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and ECOWAS Executive Secretary Mohammed Ibn Chambas — decided that rather than endure the spectacle of a sitting African head of state being carted off in handcuffs to an international tribunal, they would craft a dignified exit for President Charles Taylor. Thus, he stepped up to the podium, told us that, if he were the obstacle to peace, he would be willing to step down from office. President Obasanjo later offered him asylum in Calabar, Nigeria.
When asked in many subsequent interviews if he would turn Charles Taylor over to the ICC, President Obasanjo made it crystal clear that he would not turn Taylor over to the ICC or any other authority, only to an elected Liberian president if he/she so requested. And President Obasanjo stuck to his word, despite enormous pressure from the European Union, the US Government, the United Nations and other quarters. It was only when President Sirleaf, subsequent to her election, requested Taylor’s extradition that President Obasanjo obliged.
Now, that’s leadership for you; that’s statesmanship. President Ellen Sirleaf would do well to take a leaf out of President Obasanjo’s playbook.
The writer is a certified public accountant and a businessman. He can be reached at (email@example.com)