One reason those who reject punitive justice as the way to peace and reconciliation are right is that the intrigue and the path of the Liberian conflict are so deep-seated, so mutually suspecting, and so convoluted that one Liberian’s hero is another’s evil-incarnate. But that does not mean that choosing the “bygone-be-bygone” path is not an elusive trap, even though it remains tempting. Yesterday, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf fell into that trap when she attempted to reconcile the Does and the Quiwonkpas, staging the latest drama in Liberia’s search for peace and reconciliation. The Analyst, reports.
The Executive Mansion, yesterday, announced that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has successfully reconciled the widows of slain President Samuel K. Doe and former army commanding general, Thomas G. Quiwonkpa, who fell in an attempt to overthrow Doe.
The two widows, Nancy Doe and Tarlor Quiwonkpa, are at the head of the most mutually blaming families in the Liberian conflict, and some say for good reasons, perhaps the most feuding families the Liberian conflict has produced.
Troops loyal to President Doe allegedly killed Mr. Quiwonkpa in action when he led a crack commando force into Monrovia from neighboring Sierra Lone in 1985 to dethrone the Doe government, which he had accused of abusing human rights and practicing tyranny.
Since that incident, Mrs. Quiwonkpa has not forgiven President Doe as well as those, including Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (then political activist), whom she said threw her husband into harm’s way for their own political benefits.
Mrs. Nancy Doe, on the other hand, has not forgiven the Quiwonkpas for “betraying the cause the People’s Redemption Council” and siding with the enemies of the state thereby stirring up a campaign of terror that eventually led to the slaying of her husband in September 1990.
Both women, at least from their public utterances and articles in Liberian newspapers and Diaspora news outlets, have blamed President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for reaping the presidency on the corpses of their family breadwinners.
Piecing the intrigue and the line of blame-shifting, analysts say the President is firmly in the circle of suspicion several members of the Doe and Quiwonkpa families hold to their chest, even as they hold one another accountable for the fate of their families.
An Executive Mansion statement signed by Press Secretary Cyrus Badio said it was these two women – who critics say have no genuine reasons to be bitter given their husbands’ roles in the Liberian conflict at various times beginning with the slaying of President William R. Tolbert in April 1980 – that the President has reportedly reconciled.
“But just how was she able to achieve this so fast and so effectively without getting her hands seared?” is he question observers are asking.
The Executive Mansion statement provides an answer that beats the imagination of observers:
Peace Executive Mansion style - how far reaching
“President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Thursday, August 26, convened a meeting between Mrs. Nancy Doe, widow of the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe, and Mrs. Tarlor Quiwonkpa, widow of the late Brigadier-General Thomas G. Quiwonkpa, former Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia and member of the erstwhile People’s Redemption Council,” the Executive Mansion statement declared.
The statement said having praised the two women for honoring her invitation to reconcile, President Sirleaf prevailed on them to “bury their differences and work together for the growth and development of the country”.
This, the President reminded the women, was because “All of us can hold together and make this country better.”
“We can be a part of one family to hold our country together for our children and grandchildren,” she said, further reminding the widows of the crucial roles their deceased husbands played in the service of their country.
Whether those roles were ones that edified the nation or drove it into the ditch, the President preferred to avoid that route, but she told the women that it was the duty of all Liberians – victims and suspected perpetrators – to ensure that peace prevailed throughout the nation by engaging in healthy ventures rather than seeking revenge.
The sincerity of the President’s message, according to the Executive Mansion statement, resonated with the two widows who immediately agreed to put years of suspicion and feeling of being robbed and betrayed behind them and beginning anew.
It said Mrs. Quiwonkpa and Mrs. Doe welcomed the reconciliation meeting and commended the President for the initiative.
The statement noted that the two women, in separate remarks, recalled the ‘close bond between their husbands’, and hoped the meeting between them would help to further reconcile the people of Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties.
“We are all one people,” the statement quoted Mrs. Quiwonkpa saying, as she reportedly struggled to contain her emotions.
For her part, the statement said Mrs. Doe reflected on past events and told the peace meeting that it was time to reconcile and set bitter memories aside.
“I have nothing against anybody. It was the will of God. When He signs something, nothing can stop it,” Mrs. Doe, who had met in similar meeting with the President, was quoted as saying.
It said she recalled that Messrs Doe and Quiwonkpa were “very good friends” from the mid-70’s before things went awry.
“The enemy went between them and we lost them today,” she reportedly said, urging Liberians whose lives God spared to work together in peace and harmony.
She then thanked the President for organizing the first-ever meeting between Mrs. Quiwonkpa and her since the death of their husbands.
“You are the mother. You put us together. We will always be with you,” the Executive Mansion statement quoted the former First Lady as assuring the Liberian leader.
During the meeting, which was attended by Rep Zoe Pennue of Grand Gedeh County; George Wright, a cousin of the slain president; and Vorga Geh, a maternal aunt of General Quiwonkpa, Ms Geh reportedly praised President Sirleaf for always responding to the needs of the Quiwonkpa family.
She recalled the President’s assistance in the burial of her sister and described her as a “mother” for organizing the meeting, which she said, would go a long way in the healing process amongst all Liberians.
Thursday’s discussion followed a meeting on Monday, August 23, between President Johnson Sirleaf and Mrs. Quiwonkpa during which the President emphasized that reconciliation remained a priority on her national development agenda since infrastructural development could only be meaningful and sustainable if it were built on a foundation of freedom, peace, and unity.
At that meeting, the President reportedly encouraged Mrs. Quiwonkpa, who is based in Minnesota, in the United States, and other professional Liberians in the Diaspora to consider returning home to contribute their quotas towards national healing, economic empowerment, and infrastructural development.
Acknowledging the President’s “many humanitarian contributions to the Quiwonkpa family over the years,” especially since the death of her husband, according to the Executive Mansion statement, Mrs. Quiwonkpa expressed satisfaction over what she called the marvelous infrastructural development projects the President has undertaken in a short period.
Mrs. Quiwonkpa also reportedly welcomed the President’s decision to run for a second term, and expressed her willingness to return home during the 2011 elections to help mobilize votes for the President’s re-election.
The Dramatic Irony
President Sirleaf may have managed to bring together the voted heads of Liberia’s feuding families for the first time since 1983 when their husbands, who until then were the power towers of the military junta, fell apart.
But observers say it still remained to be seen how far what they reportedly achieved in Thursday’s drama would go in reconciling the citizens of Nimba and Grand Gedeh, and yea Liberia.
They said it was important to go beyond the glare of the cameras and the glamour of the Office of the President and look at what they did on Thursday because several questions remained unanswered, specifically regarding the President’s role in the peace equation, which was supposed to be triangular.
By setting herself aside as peacemaker while apparently overlooking the suspicion with which both women were regarding her, observers say, the President has deliberately or inadvertently, staged the most peace drama in the nation’s question for peace and reconciliation, since Prince Y. Johnson “reconciled” with the Doe family at a Nigeria church sometimes in 2004.
“This is a dramatic irony at its best, even if the results will hold,” said one observer.
Without underrating or discrediting the President’s efforts, he said, what happened at the President’s office yesterday was at best that “the women were cowered into playing to the chord of the presidential drama”.
“Here’s why. These women are not ordinary. They are holding the President variously responsible for the slaying of their husbands, and they are not shy about that. Mrs. Quiwonkpa is holding her for sending her husband into harm’s way unprepared; and Mrs. Doe is holding her for sponsoring a war that eventually led to the slaying of her husband. Both women have not withdrawn their statements at least as far as the nation knows. Now how in Heaven can one say a meeting, which did not allow for direct confrontation, allegation making, confession exacting, and forgiveness giving result into permanent peace?” the observer wondered.
In order for the President to make such headway as the Executive Mansion statement claimed, he said, she must first have met each of these women, ironed out the suspicions, and reconciled with them before bringing them together in public forum to make the declaration of peace of the sort announced by the Executive Mansion.
Another observer, who had been following Mrs. Quiwonkpa’s rating of President Sirleaf, agreed, noting that as bitter a woman as the widow’s utterances have indicated, it was doubtful that she would make such about-face, unless she wanted to avoid a brush with the President while in the country.
“Integrity and credibility are very important in leadership. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf lacks the credibility to lead Liberia because of her failure to level with her past,” Mrs. Quiwonkpa once told The Perspective magazine’s Winsley S. Nankpa in September shortly before the 2005 presidential elections in October.
That “past”, the Perspective September 27, 2005 article noted, has to do with the death of Quiwonkpa and the support of Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia to overthrow the Samuel Doe government vis-à-vis Thomas Woewiyu’s open letter that also attacked candidate Sirleaf’s credibility at the time.
She told the magazine at the time that of those she was holding responsible for her husband’s death, only Mr. Harry A Greaves Jr., made a “condescending reference” to her letter.
She wants the President to explain what she, Harry A. Greaves, Jr., Harry Yuan, Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh, and others “know and when they knew it”.
The President has confessed to initially supporting Taylor’s war efforts and withdrawing her support when the NPFL resorted to unconventional war tactics.
She however, have not said whether she was connected with Quiwonkpa’s September 1985 invasion, which came a month ahead of the presidential elections of that year in which Mrs. Sirleaf was candidate for senator.
But the silence has not perturbed Mrs. Quiwonkpa’s suspicion that she betrayed her husband to his death at the hands of Doe’s death squad.
“Mr. Woewiyu’s letter clearly establishes the link between the destabilization of Liberia and Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf. [She] has to take personal responsibility for the destruction of Liberia, and she has to also be held accountable,” she reportedly told The Perspective magazine.
In the “Open Letter” to the President, Dr. Sawyer, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, and others dated August 9, 2005, however, Mrs. Quiwonkpa sounded a bit conciliatory without necessarily appealing to the “bygone-be-bygone” illusion.
“One of the primary reasons for this open letter is to help bring final closure to the emotion and agony surrounding the death of General Thomas Quiwonkpa. As I have reflected on my husband’s death, I still have many unanswered questions. I have waited for 20 years for the people who were closed to my husband, including his best friend, Harry Yuan, whom he considered his brother, to tell me the untold story about his death,” she wrote.
The “untold story” was yet to be told, up to yesterday’s Executive Mansion peace conference that produced such resounding results.
The closest the President had come to reconciliation with any section of the country, which may have problem with her role in the Liberian conflict, was the statement she made during the recent TRC Thematic public hearings.
“If there is anything that I need to apologize for to this nation is to apologize for being fooled by Mr. Taylor in giving any kind of support to him. I feel it in my conscience. I feel it every day,” the Liberian leader said.
That generalized apology and disclaimer however seemed to have fueled Mrs. Quiwonkpa’s suspicion.
“Since the President is proclaiming to be innocent of the 1985 coup and was busy with ‘the world organization’, has anyone wondered why she continued to affiliate herself with individuals named in my open letter? Also, if the President alleged to have been fooled by Mr. Charles Taylor, in what way and by what means? So, did Taylor outsmart her following the killing of Jackson Doe, who should have been the one to be sworn as president if the “enterprise” was successful?” wondered an article titled, President Ellen Johnson Is Heartless and Deceptive.
A Tarloh wrote the article based on a BBC story dated February 9, 2009. Whether that “Tarlor” is Mrs. Quiwonkpa, remains a puzzle, but it reiterated her 2005 position regarding the President’s leadership credentials.
She said she requested a meeting with President Sirleaf back in 2005 when she perhaps soliciting campaign finances in the US but that she “left before we had a chance to talk”.
Whether there had been any other opportunity to meet and iron out differences prior to yesterday’s meeting is not clear.
But she revealed that as candidate, President Sirleaf secretly asked for forgiveness from her step children. She did not say how the secret meeting ended, but alleged that President Sirleaf “coerced her stepson Jlateh” during a 2005 campaign tour in Nimba to say that she had no hand in his father’s death.
In all these campaigns to present her husband as victim and bring Mrs. Sirleaf’s credibility into question and perhaps deny her the presidency, not once had she responded until perhaps yesterday when she brought the bitter Tarloh to reconcile with Mrs. Doe, two widows whose impression of each other had not been a matter of public knowledge.
“That’s the dramatic irony of the Liberian peace process in which the public knows much and expected much from the meeting with widows of Mrs. Doe and Quiwonkpa, than the President was able to pull together,” said another observer.
The bitterness of the two widows seemed to be about politicians, of whom they say the President is the leader, sacrificing their husbands by pitting them against each other in a bullfight for their political benefits.
“They believe the President and others owe their present privileged positions to the blood of their husbands without acknowledging the sacrifices through reparation to their families,” said another observer.
Analysts say if that is the issue, then President Sirleaf may have to do more than she has done if, in her words, “Liberians must work together to build a better Liberia”.
They however say doing more required knowing exactly what to do lest the administration opened a Pandora Box of apologizing to the families that many other Liberians families see as the perpetrators of violence and mayhem upon their family members.
“When that happened, it will start a spiral of blame game in which each apology will spark up allegations of conspiracy,” said another observer.
By pushing aside the grief the two widows hold against the President and instead focusing on the less intense probable bitterness between them, analysts say, the President has, also deliberately or inadvertently put the cart before the horse.