Rwanda and Liberia: How Patriotism, Focused Leadership and “Culture of It’s Our Time” Shaping Progress and Retrogression (Part 2)

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By James S. Shilue 

The Liberian war ended in 2003 and the genocide in Rwanda came to an end on July 18, 1994. Optimism abounded with the cessation of hostilities in both countries as these countries embarked on post- war recovery trajectory. However, despite suffering more human casualties than Liberia, Rwanda post war reconstruction process is evidently succeeding than Africa’s oldest republic. There are different hypotheses why some of Africa’s bloodiest and most brutal wars do not easily end and as we have seen in the two scenarios, the Liberian crisis was not underpinned by any ideological principle but underpinned by quest for political power, culture of dependency and personal wealth accumulation.

Unlike Liberian leaders, Kagame who is described by Tony Blair as a “visionary leader”, by Bill Clinton as “one of the greatest leaders of our time”, by Clare Short as “such a sweetie”, wanted to end colonial bigotry, culture of dependency and the systematic elimination of ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu’s in Rwanda. The crisis in the two countries has proceeded at an uneven pace but taken various contradictory forms. Whilst the leaders and combatants in Liberia did not  have any fundamental ideology and clear goals but to capture cities, plunder resources, dismember innocent people, rape and engage into all forms of human rights violations, the “rebel” leader in Rwanda was not interested in plundering and stealing but to stop ethnic cleansing and unite Rwandans. These contradictions and realities beg the following questions: What are the underlying factors for Rwanda success? What role does effective leadership plays in post-war reconstruction? Would political governance in Liberia ever improve so that Liberia takes prime and central place than indulging in the practice of seeking the interest of political patrons and partisans?

Responding to a moderator who asked President Kagame at a conference what was the secret of his country’s impressive recovery, President Kagame responded in three words: “determination, focus and stubbornness”. These three words make me to conclude that Liberia’s underdevelopment is due to the lack of a visionary leader and our state of mind as a people. Let accept Kagame’s theory for the sake of argument that a nation’s success and productivity is dependent on the leadership’s ‘determination, focus and stubbornness’ or being able to persevere. President Kagame has managed to cultivate a sense of real patriotism in the minds of his people while our leaders have only been concerned about personal wealth, patronage politics, power and authority. The Rwandan leader and his allies have clearly developed ‘dignity and self-worth’ in their folks based on their ugly experience but our leaders have not only accentuated the culture of “it is our time and among my mother children, I love myself the best” but have also continued to push the country down the ‘conflict trap’,

Liberian leaders have made Liberians to  become very accustomed to begging and relying on external support and relief aid such that the general mind set is ‘living one day at a time’ without undertaking personal initiatives to become self-sufficient. With such mentality, there is little or no desire to control or change what shall happen in the future but to be contend with the status quo. Complacent disposition enables our leaders to perpetuate those vices that do not allow rational and critical thinking by the majority of its citizens but rather aid diversionary and pseudo strategies that don’t address the fundamental problems but fuel divide and rule while at the same time enriching themselves at the expense of the ordinary people.

President Kagame’s answers to his country’s recovery success compels me to look beyond the usual excuses offered by our previous and current leadership concerning Liberia’s backwardness and underdevelopment. The question is do post war Liberia leaders lack determination, focus and stubbornness? There is no clear cut answer because Taylor was a stubborn leader but not determined and focused. The late Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant was determined but not stubborn and could not resist the wishes of the various faction leaders that formed the echelon of the interim leadership. President Sirleaf was undoubtedly determined and focused but not stubborn enough to allow rule of law takes its course.

As for President Weah, some would argue that it is a bit early to judge him but signs are emerging that show that his determination to score goals during his days on the football field has not positively transcended to the political arena. The political theatre is complex and very volatile with many competing interests. Weah seems to so soon lose focus as it is becoming evident in the way he is handling things. Further, I am not sure if he is that stubborn leader who is capable of challenging the status quo to get Liberia out of the abyss of backwardness. Leaders should have clear goals and live by example, which are some of the positive attributes of Kagame but most of post war Liberia’s leaders live a double-life and never definite in making major decisions that affects the country and Liberians.

For example, setting up a TRC was one of the outcomes of the Accra Peace agreement. As such, President Sirleaf commissioned a TRC, which was mandated to investigate crimes and human rights abuses committed from 1979 until 2003. The TRC was assumed would help heal the wounds from the 14 years civil war given the legacy of the crisis, especially the massive and widespread human rights violations perpetuated by various groups that caused the death of 250,000 people. Lots of Liberians who suffered the death of loved ones or personal attacks and other crimes, want to see those who committed these crimes to be punished. Recently, a group calling for the establishment of ‘war crimes court’ took the conversation forward by producing a simplified booklet to educate Liberians on what constitutes ‘war crimes court’. However, former President Sirleaf and even President George Weah do not support prosecuting those who committed atrocities. In Liberia, the establishment of the war crime court is even difficult because some of those people who committed these atrocities during the war are decision makers, lawmakers and even government functionaries.

What makes Liberia’s situation even daunting is the apparent lack of cooperation and coordination between the country’s dual legal systems. Most of the statutory authorities want to maintain their supremacy despite the weakness of the Liberian state, mostly in rural Liberia. A vast majority of Liberians rely on the customary system for their everyday justice needs. The customary justice institutions and practices of justice are resilient and survived the civil war and even remain active in virtually all of Liberia’s rural communities yet do not enjoy cordial working relationship with formal justice system. Unlike the statutory system that is retributive, the customary justice is restorative contrary to the adversarial relationships between plaintiff and defendant, winner and loser, innocent and guilty that are maintained through the procedural practices of formal justice.While the importance of local actors in Peacebuilding has been acknowledged for the last two decades, most apparent in the concept of “local ownership” the most successful Gacaca genocide tribunals in Rwanda proved to be a particular catalyst for the burgeoning interest in traditional systems within the framework of conflict resolution, justice and reconciliation.One of the major Peacebuilding challenges currently facing Liberia is the lack of a commission or a court to judge those who committed heinous human rights violations during the 14 years crisis.

Compared to Liberia, Rwanda set up a Justice and Reconciliation Commission after the war to trial those who were involved in committing human rights violations. Records show that 150,000 perpetrators needed to be trialled in order to bring about justice and reconciliation in the country. But in the past 20 years, only 71 people generally the most severe offenders – have so far been convicted by the UN’s international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. Unfortunately, like Liberia, the formal justice system in Rwanda does not have the capacity to trial such huge number of perpetuators so President Kagame government creatively decided to work together with the customary justice system called Gacacas in order to address the deficit within the justice system. The majority of the perpetuators especially those who were living in rural areas, among those they have killed, confessed and pleaded their cases at Gacacas. The system is so unique that with strong encouragement from the government, survivors across the country accepted the perpetrators back into their communities.  As a result, Rwanda enjoys sustainable peace whereas in the case of Liberia, our leaders are not only against the establishment of a special court but most former war lords are the decision makers and some justice practitioners are not ready to work with customary authorities believing it is a debasement of their noble profession thus pushing Liberia far from obtaining durable peace.

Rwanda developed strategy that addresses its post war reconstruction and because the country’s leadership was focused, determined and stubborn, its international partners, especially the E U prioritised what the government put forth as its development agenda. Example, Rwanda prioritised the Agriculture Sector and therefore the E U supported this sector by contributing millions for sustainable use of land and water resources, value creation and contribution to food security. However, in the case of Liberia following the war, the international community poured billions of dollars of aid into the country. For the period 2003–2009, the European Commission made a first tranche of €50 million available to support Liberia’s peace process and fund post-conflict rehabilitation and capacity building. After the inauguration of the President Sirleaf in 2006, an additional €68.4 million was disbursed of which €12 million was earmarked for the education sector. In all, €256 million was disbursed for the provision of basic social services, the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure and institutional support. Although Liberia has seen relative progress in some sectors, the county continues to face considerable challenges in restoring basic services to its people. To be continued

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