The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Associated Press (AP) Correspondent Jonathan Paye Layleh, who fled the country nearly a month ago, following an outburst against him by President George Manneh Weah, returned to the country last Sunday.
Paye Layleh became shocked at President Weah’s response when, during a press stake out with United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, Jonathan asked the Liberian leader whether he would establish a war crimes tribunal. President Weah, to everyone’s surprise, in the presence of his guest, Deputy SG Mohammed, told Jonathan that he had been “against” him (Weah).
“You were one person who was against me when I was advocating for peace and human rights in the country,” the President told Paye-Layleh. Such a bold, direct accusatory remark against a journalist in the presence of a top UN official was, in Jonathan’s perception, beyond threatening. He immediately wrote to the President seeking clarification, but got no response. Shortly thereafter, Jonathan left the country and later surfaced in New York City.
The President’s remark against Jonathan took the entire Liberian and the international media, too, by complete surprise. In Liberia, no journalist could afford to take this lightly. As we used to say in the 1980s, during the regime of military dictator Samuel K. Doe, when the entire Liberian media lay under siege, “If they come for you in the evening, they’re coming for me in the morning.”
We all learned during that period that under such a dangerously repressive regime, no one could take anything for granted. Jonathan clearly wasn’t taking lightly this totally unexpected encounter with Liberia’s most powerful person, the President of the republic. So Jonathan immediately fled the country.
But the Daily Observer newspaper, where as a typesetter, he learned the craft of journalism, immediately published an Editorial urging Jonathan to return home, contending that he had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” quoting American President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
President Weah, meanwhile, invited the Liberian media to a conversation at the Executive Mansion. It was a free and frank exchange, when many journalists, including President Charles Coffey of the Press Union of Liberia and the nation’s oldest practicing journalist, Observer Publisher Kenneth Y. Best, told President Weah in no uncertain terms that he should welcome Jonathan back home to reassure the Liberian media that they are NOT under siege.
The President responded forthrightly by stating that he had nothing against Jonathan Paye Layleh or the Liberian media. “The BBC Correspondent asked me a critical question and I gave him a critical answer,” President Weah noted, then proceeded to recall his personal relations with several Liberian journalists, including Paye Layleh. Weah said he had shared with many of them his hospitality in Liberia and Ghana, some of whom he had even given lots of money.
And though the President maintained that he had evidence that Jonathan had been undermining his (Weah’s) efforts, he encouraged the BBC Correspondent to return home without fear. We strongly believe that Jonathan’s return gives the President an opportunity to kick-start Liberia’s reconciliation process. First, he should invite Jonathan for a conversation to make peace and reassure him and the two organizations with whom he is associated — BBC and AP — that all is well.
We think it is important to begin with the media because it is we who have the responsibility to publicize and promote any reconciliatory initiatives the President makes. Heaven knows that this deeply divided nation needs to be reconciled.
The past administration downplayed reconciliation first by ignoring the Report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and by failing to organize a single “town hall” meeting President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf promised. As the public noticed on page 11 of the Daily Observer last Tuesday, the families of the 13 top officials executed by Samuel Doe’s People’s Redemption Council (PRC) are still hurting, longing for some kind of national gesture to console and reconcile them.
There are also the relatives of the brutally murdered ELBC/TV broadcaster Charles Gbenyon and eminent Liberian artist R. Vanjah Richards, the over 600 persons hacked to death in the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on 14th Street, Monrovia on July 29, 1990 by President Samuel Doe and his henchmen; the truckloads of holy innocent children from Nimba County and elsewhere who, en route to the Children’s Village in Congo Town, Monrovia disappeared in 1990, some say buried alive on the beach in Schiefflin on orders of Samuel Doe; the massacres on Du Port Road, Paynesville and in Firestone and the murder of the five Roman Catholic nuns in Gardinersville, all on orders of Charles Taylor; the murder of pop singer Tecumsay Roberts, banker Phillip Bowen, Forester Melvin Thornes, Samuel Doe and his fellow PRC members eliminated at the Free Port of Monrovia and elsewhere and so many others on the orders of General Prince Y. Johnson; the elimination of Jackson Fiah Doe, Samuel Dokie and his family and thousands of others on orders of Charles G. Taylor and his henchmen.
The list goes on. President George Weah was elected, among other reasons, to reconcile Liberia, to end poverty in the country and to jumpstart national development. Reconciliation is first on the national agenda, and it should begin with Jonathan Paye Layleh.