Liberians are no strangers to fraught transitions. We’ve had three transitional or interim governments – temporary mechanisms to oversee the reset of our disrupted political system. And, from our experience, we’ve attached an understandable stigma around such structures. Here’s the timeline of the circumstances that triggered these interim governments, all of which were tied to Charles Taylor’s sense of entitlement to power.
1989 – Taylor starts a war he cannot end, as his forces split, and other forces arise to check him.
1990 – ECOWAS facilitates formation of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) with Amos Sawyer at its helm. Other warring factions agree to work with IGNU, but Taylor flouts it and keeps fighting.
1992 – Charles Taylor launches “Operation Octopus”, an all-out military assault on Monrovia intended to drive out ECOMOG and seize power. The assault is however repulsed by ECOMOG after intense fighting lasting more than 5 months.
In July, 1993 the NPFL, ULIMO and the IGNU sign a peace agreement following talks arranged by ECOWAS, the AU and the UN. The agreement provides for the formation of a government of inclusion and a three-man ruling council composed of proxies of the warring factions.
March 7, 1994 – A new transitional government composed of representatives of the warring factions is sworn in.
But the agreement unravels and in September 1994, Gbarnga, Taylor’s wartime capital, falls to rival ULIMO and LPC forces as fighting continued.
1995 – Warring factions call a truce (Abuja I Peace Accord) and Taylor agrees to a five-man transitional government composed of leaders of warring factions.
The Peace Agreement unravels in 1996 with the outbreak of fighting in Monrovia with combined NPFL and ULIMO-K forces battling against ULIMO-J and LPC forces.
1996 – An ECOWAS brokered truce is called and a new Peace Agreement (Abuja II) is signed in Abuja Nigeria calling for disarmament and elections.
Following international support for disarmament and special elections in 1997, he succeeds in clinching the presidency. Many Liberians choose him, holding their noses, just to stop him fighting over sour grapes.
2003 – Another transitional government forms as Taylor steps down from ruling amidst unrest, and warring factions sign the Accra Peace Accord. Charles Gyude Bryant leads Liberia until Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election and 2006 inauguration.
Why did we need each? Because Taylor wanted power and sought it through illegitimate means, to the devastation of his homeland. And secondly because, pseudo-democratically elected as he might have been, Taylor and his entire stable of appointed officials were rank with the stink of blood and graft. When real peace came, they all had to go.
Well, we sense that it is springtime again in Liberian politics, and we must assess the need to clean house. Perhaps we’re picking up the scent of impending sanctions against George Weah’s government from across the Atlantic. The US Congress has apparently revived its interest in enforcing the Magnitsky Act of 2012 and is reportedly coming for Weah among dozens of his officials. Its list of the most serious violators of human rights and economic governance may cite leaders across Africa and beyond.
So, what happens if the lion’s share of this government gets Shermaned? We’re talking Weah; present and former members of his Economic Management Team; some in his security apparatus; half the Senate; a handful of the House; and maybe a few jurists. Then, what?
Of what use is a President – and a Vice President… let’s not rule Chief Jewel Howard Taylor out of this – when no other state in good global standing, and no multilateral body, can respectably recognize him or her?
Of what use are public officials when they are international pariahs officially accused of violating the law and Constitution they swore to uphold? Not much, especially given our increased need for development assistance due to self-imposed economic decline.
Once the US imposes even personal sanctions against these figures and presents its evidence, it may be difficult for Weah’s best friend, French President Emmanuel Macron, to maintain his friendly posture towards him.
Who then will go abroad to negotiate development assistance in grant or credit? Foreign Minister Dee Maxwell Kemayah? On whose respected authority? After all, when your popular friend that has helped you begin to filthy your name in public, you’re finished. What street outside the black market will buy you then?
Yes, sanctioned officials can do what the remnant members of Taylor’s regime did after the war: quietly sit out their decade on the no-fly list. For some in this government, laden as it is with Taylor’s loyal partisans, this may be a second go round.
Perhaps they’ve mastered the art of staying home, minding their business and scraping by without their frozen assets. Each one can teach one newly sanctioned soul. They can all take the hit together, keep calm and carry on misgoverning as they wish.
But what would our continued tolerance of them in office say about us as a public? Everyday we’re yelling at Weah’s government to bring back our money; stop rape and declare it a national emergency; stop the violence against female and opposition politicians; investigate this alleged and apparent murder; prosecute officials for graft, etc.
That’s step one in Liberian style activism: make plenty noise. Step two when government, as usual, ignores us: report them to the US Embassy, as if America is our Ma. We forget that the US is our STEP Ma, God is our Father, and he has given power to the people.
That’s democracy! America will act whenever and however she deems it in her interest to do so. She is not necessarily moved by the noise we make. That is the same right of sovereignty that Liberia bears.
Step three: we wait for the US Embassy to make a statement.
Step four: If the US does not make a statement, the whole momentum all but fizzles out. If the Embassy does react, it is sometimes strong and clear, and sometimes leaves us scratching our heads at a Kroll report.
US reaction triggers Step five: activists declare victory since our Step Ma has spoken. We have our “closing march” and go demanding that the President receives our list of petitions.
Step six: we go home or stop in Sinkor to complain, over drinks, about the way things are.
Step 7 for some: go privately hustle the big, big people whom we’ve just decried in public, and thus deflate our own influence. “Ehn you know, Papay, da Pro-Poor time now…”
Step 8 for those who make the most noise to gain notoriety: run for office, win, and go do the SAME thing they were making noise over. Eight, incidentally, is thought to represent new beginnings, and so the cycle continues. Correct us if we’re wrong.
It is time for the Liberian people – and the prominent voices who claim to speak for them – to urgently entertain the following stream of questions: How do we define instability? Is it characterized only by shooting over our heads, or does it now come quieter with a whole government being internationally shamed for the criminals we know them to be?
Once sanctions are announced, will they be directed at individuals only or at the economy? Either way, how will these developments affect the value of our currency and thus the price of our rice? How long will monetary policy tools artificially maintain price stability in the face of those sanctions?
If sanctions are personal, how will the culprits interpret our silence? Will it embolden them to do worse because they believe we do not care or are too afraid to challenge them? What of our activism, will public dissent push them toward more blatant abuse of our rights? How long will we wait to act? Until our situation becomes dire? What will we do when we can take no more of the political and economic strain, and the hungry faces of our children? What are our options to change course, whether constitutional or established in international law? Finally, if we choose to act out of anger and desperation rather than forethought, will we at the end be pleased with what we have done?
History bears us witness that neither in 1979 nor a decade later did we ask ourselves similar questions. The result needs no description.
We The People have heavy decisions to make and must include our international partners in the discussion. It would be more peaceable to consider the answers early on before emotions and ambitions muddy the way forward. The answers will become apparent as we consider the following options on what concrete measures to take, as we anticipate the announcement of sanctions:
Option Zero: Do nothing and prepare to suffer silently, letting the Weah administration rape and pillage until 2023, leaving us to start over in 2024 with nothing.
Option One: Take immediate action to preemptively (and retroactively in the case of Senator Varney Sherman) demand the resignation or impeachment of every official that ends up on that sanctions list.
Option Two: Begin a public discourse on which public figures, not currently affiliated with the opposition, should lead an interim government if the sanctioned persons include all those in the line of Presidential succession – or simply too many officials for the public’s taste. The sooner we start talking the better, preferably under the auspices of a non-partisan civil society organization.
We envision this strictly as an informal or semi-formal public discourse, perhaps backed by a credible polling mechanism that gauges opinion on the names of potential trusted leaders, timeframes for transition to elections, etc. Just so the people come to terms with what they want if it comes down to that. It may not.
The international community, for example, might deem it unwise to tread those waters, and they might be right. But what if?
Option Three and last resort: Develop decentralized strategies for peaceful activism, if government ignores public calls for accountability. Persist in this posture indefinitely. Stay wisely and fearlessly engaged publicly or privately, actively, financially or in kind. Then, show up en masse and vote their hides out in 2023.
A word to the Opposition: now is the time for political aspirants to look beyond their ambitions and see our nation’s future. Pick a woman who can win and lead. Put her at the top of the ticket with a credible female or male candidate. Support her selflessly and campaign for her like our lives depend on it. Start that process now.
We would be open to hearing from our readers of other constructive and peaceful options beyond this. We can publish the most popular and viable feedback on what our course of action should be.
We conclude with an acknowledgment that there is a constitutional process to replace leadership that misses the mark.
The administration of that process is in the hands of a Legislature currently laden with officials who can easily be suspected of perpetrating or aiding and abetting human rights abuses and economic crimes.
Do We The People really trust that pot to call the kettle black and hang it over the fire?