By Olubanke King-Akerele
Let me begin here by commending all the efforts underway by Government of Liberia (GOL) and its autonomous bodies, and general public to jointly tackle the worldwide pandemic and its potential impact here. We went through Ebola and beat it while losing some 4,000 plus of our people. We cannot afford another round.
It is in view of this that we call attention to the publication of the Hot Pepper newspaper. in particular that of April 3, 2020 entitled, “As COVID-19 threatens more lives globally, US signs Liberia’s death warrant.”
The substance of the article is serious and cause of great concern. Since the publication of the article on April 3, 2020, the gravity of this situation was brought to the attention of the relevant Liberian government authorities by others who saw the above-mentioned article and realizing its significance and implications thereof, urged action urgently. The article alleges that GOL-through Liberia Air Port Civil Authority, and the Embassy in Washington D.C. has signed a one year agreement with the US that they may return U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Liberian prisoners to Liberia at the US will, at any time.
If this is so, we need to know what has been signed. Is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) aware on what this is about, and what we signed? When was it signed-before or after the proclamation of the COVID-19 as a world pandemic? Was it in consultations with Ministry of Health? How often and in which span of time is the US being given permission to bring Deportees to Liberia?
This is particularly critical at this point in time with Coronavirus. Moreover, even if such an agreement has been signed, there has to be a review of the agreement and revisit the said conditions-of the return. For example (a)-the prisoners must all be tested for the Coronavirus; and those testing positive must be retained in the United States as Liberia does not have the resources to manage imported cases of the COVID-19 (b) the prisoners have to had completed the legal requirements establishing that they are actually Liberian citizens in the US to satisfy the requirements for repatriation. Many Liberian passports and identity documents have been stolen and/or sold to foreigners who continue to masquerade as Liberians. Qualified Liberian authorities must have an opportunity to establish that the deportees are actually Liberians and to ascertain their identity documents are not fraudulent; (c) If any of the prisoners are violent offenders who have yet to finish their prison sentences, they need to be excluded from coming to Liberia as we do not have the resources to contain them in Liberia for the USA, who are far more equipped to incarcerate them; (D) moreover, the US in the past in returning prisoners to their respective Country (in some Latin American and Caribbean Countries for example) usually provide financial means etc. for the said Country to hold their nationals in the Country and assist the resettlement.
I am particularly attuned to this issue since, at one point as Minister of Foreign Affairs when the US wanted to return prisoners to several West African Countries, (including Nigeria, I recall, which refused to accept their deportees), I had to deal with this issue with the US Embassy near Monrovia. We had to insist that they completed the required paperwork.
We insisted on the US Embassy letting us see the Files on each prisoner to be returned. I had 3 Liberian Legal Counsels, including the Legal Counsel of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Legal Counsel of Ministry of Justice undertake the analysis of the Files and came out with a position on that situation and the conditions under which we would accept our prisoners.
Moreover, Liberia did not have the capacity or capability to receive the prisoners. This was during the period of my Leadership as Minister of Foreign Affairs, (Sept. 2007-Nov.2010).
If that was then, how much more critical is this issue today with the threat of Coronavirus which can rack havoc across our nation. Further, understanding that most deportees have not necessarily committed any violent crimes in the United States but have overstayed their visas, the US should be more humane in this pandemic as they are aware that Liberia does not have the health care system to handle an influx of non-tested, possibly corona infected deportees at this time. Thus Mme. Minister of Health, at this critical time of the COVID-19 pandemic and State of Emergency, it is the Minister of Health who is, the right hand to Mr. President and his Principal Adviser, given the health pandemic: Not the Minister of State; not the Foreign Minister; not the Minister of Justice, but you! It is imperative and we urge you to bring this matter to cabinet on an urgent basis for national action. The Ball is in your court-you are the right hand to Mr. President.
Whoever has signed whatever on behalf of the Government of Liberia, it needs to be revisited. There is provision for this internationally. It can be put on the “back burner.” We, as a nation can only gain from this.
Please, please find out more on this matter. Please ensure that no plane from the US is sent here at this time with Liberian prisoners until these issues have been resolved.
We must receive the dossier of each prisoner. We must have the Coronavirus test taken by the prisoners and we must postpone the implementation of that agreement signed with the US, under the circumstances. Liberia is not refusing acceptance of her nationals, but this is not the time for it under these pandemic circumstances that will further burden an already stretched health care system, crippling it so that the majority of Liberia’s citizens are unable to fight this virus. We are one nation, and all of us must do all that we can to contribute to the health of our mama Liberia during this pandemic. We support our government! Do your part!
Olubanke King-Akerele is former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Liberia and a Liberian patriot.