FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

Liberia: Sanctions Lifeline for Urey - UN Verdict Could Boost Potential Quest for Presidency

Photo: Liberia Government
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addresses the UN General Assembly (file photo).

Monrovia — Light appears to be at the end of the tunnel for Benoni Urey. The erstwhile former head of the Liberia Maritime Authority during the Charles Taylor era, who has been languishing on the United Nations Travel ban and assets freeze ban for years, may finally be on the verge of having limitations on his movement restored with calls for the UN to relax sanctions imposed on prominent figures from the Charles Taylor era, by the United Nations Panel of Experts.

Urey, whose relationship with the ruling Unity Party government was strained in the wake of the 2011 presidential and legislative elections because of his support for the opposition Congress for Democratic Change, was left in the cold last July when the UN Security Council dropped several of his peers from the Taylor era off the list of 17 Liberians which included the ex-wives of former President Taylor: Agnes and Jewel, former Senator Adolphus Dolo, once a key Taylor military ally, former minister Reginald Goodridge and Taylor's former economic advisor, Emmanuel Shaw, who was accused of organizing arms deliveries, had a travel ban and assets freeze lifted. John Richardson, a former security advisor, also had his travel ban removed as was Chief Cyril Allen. The sanctions list once contained over 55 names.

Flirting with CDC

The panel's recommendation if implemented could boost Urey's reported presidential quest. Speculations have heightened in recent weeks that Urey is contemplating a run for the presidency and has been flirting with the opposition Congress for Democratic Change. It is unclear whether the move points to a marriage with football legend George Weah or a political play to gain CDC's support. Urey was recently given a prominent speaking spot at the CDC's membership drive.

In its latest report, the panel said evidence collected by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and reviewed by the Panel has shown that, while serving as Commissioner of Maritime Affairs, Urey authorized payments for arms purchases from Serbia from the accounts of the Maritime Bureau in 2000. The accounts were set up to disburse payments in late 1999; the first shipment of arms arrived from Serbia in 2001 or 2002. The evidence indicates, however, that in approving the funds Urey was acting on the orders of Taylor.

Urey, according to the panel, currently serves as the Chair of Lonestar Communications Corporation, which is one of the largest taxpayers in Liberia. He owns 20 per cent of the company's shares through PLC Investment Limited, a Liberian company that is in turn owned by IDS and Nexus -- two other Liberian companies established in 1989 with anonymous bearer shares.

He 'Clearly has the resources'

The panel notes that Urey has also invested in residential housing, hotels, a car rental company, radio and television stations and several newspapers. He is one of the wealthiest citizens of Liberia. On 1 October with anonymous bearer shares. "Urey has also invested in residential housing, hotels, a car rental company, radio and television stations and several newspapers. He is one of the wealthiest citizens of Liberia. On 1 October 2009, President Sirleaf appointed Urey to serve as mayor of Careysburg, but removed him from this position when it became clear that Urey would not back her re-election bid in 2011."

The panel noted that Urey clearly has the resources and the leadership capacity to command support and undermine peace and security in Liberia if he chooses and explained that the animosity that exists between him and the Government of Liberia has led some ranking officials in President Sirleaf's Government to speculate that he might have the motivation to do so.

"The Panel attempted to investigate Urey's extensive assets to determine whether they are being used to support groups seeking to destabilize Liberia and the sub-region. Urey's assets have not been frozen or fully disclosed. The Panel relied on information provided by confidential sources, the Government of Liberia and Urey himself. The Panel did not have information suggesting that Urey was involved in activities that would destabilize Liberia and the sub-region."

The panel concluded that It is difficult to assess Urey's intent. "During the presidential and legislative elections of 2011, the Government of Liberia alleged that Urey used his radio station, Love FM, to broadcast inflammatory anti-Government statements. Officials saw this as evidence of Urey's seditious intent. The Panel interviewed Urey on 15 March and 27 September 2013, a day after Taylor's conviction was upheld. During the interviews, Urey stated to the Panel that his radio station was a commercial outlet and that it granted both government officials and opposition figures paid airtime to broadcast their views, without censorship. The Panel has confirmed that this is the case and that Love FM is not unique among Liberian radio stations in airing inflammatory anti-Government statements. Urey, in turn, has accused the Government of involvement in the subsequent burning of the radio station's offices because he was a financial supporter of an opposition political party, the Congress for Democratic Change."

According to the report, in the interviews with the Panel, Urey insisted that, as a civilian who had been appointed to the position of Commissioner of Maritime Affairs by Taylor, he did not make any war-related decisions. "Urey further informed the Panel that he was contemplating running for President of Liberia in 2017, as an independent candidate. Urey's business activities, and the profits gained from them, would appear to suggest that civil conflict in Liberia would have a significant negative financial impact on him."

Urey informed the Panel that he had submitted a delisting request to the relevant focal point in the United Nations Secretariat. Urey also provided the Panel with a letter dated 6 September 2013 and signed by the President of Liberia supporting his petition for delisting.

The Panel notes that Urey has been accessible to meet with the Panel to reply to its queries and provide the information sought of him throughout its mandate. The Panel is of the opinion that Urey's apparent commitment to the democratic process, albeit in opposition to the current ruling party, does not threaten to destabilize Liberia.

Politicized by the government'

From interviews with officials of the Government of Liberia, journalists and civil society activists, the Panel concluded that some of the designated individuals would almost certainly have moved their assets out of Liberia had the measures, in particular the travel ban, not been in place. "Furthermore, individuals subject to the sanctions measures are constantly reminded by the investigations and reports of the Panel that they are under close international scrutiny and are vulnerable to more effective measures should they act in ways that could undermine the security and stability of Liberia and the sub-region. The Panel believes that this has had a positive effect on the behavior of these individuals and has contributed to the stability, however fragile, that Liberia currently enjoys."

The Panel noted from local media commentaries and discussions with civil society activists in Monrovia that the assets freeze and travel restrictions have been politicized by the Government of Liberia. The prominent Liberians on the list have associated openly with the political opposition to the governing Unity Party.

Others who had changed allegiance and now support President Sirleaf, like Emmanuel Shaw, who is a business partner of Benoni Urey and used to be an associate of former President Taylor, have been removed from the list. The apparent politicization of the local climate with respect to these lists has made it difficult for the Panel to verify information and assess whether designated individuals who do not join the ruling party are attempting to destabilize what has always been a highly centralized State.

The call of relaxing of sanctions come as Pakistan's UN Ambassador Masood Khan, in his capacity as head of a 15-nation body's committee on Liberia, proposed that the sanctions imposed on Liberia in connection with the civil war be scaled down progressively as the situation there was improving.

"As the situation in Liberia moves towards relative stability, the fundamental issues to be considered at this juncture include how to consolidate the achievements made so far, sustain the momentum of the progress towards peace and stability, and consider the future role and nature of sanctions in this process." said Masood Khan, chairman of the committee mandated to oversee the relevant sanction measures slapped on Liberia by the Security Council as part of the efforts to end the devastating civil war in the country which ended in 2003.

"There is a general sense in the committee that time is ripe for winding down sanctions measures," he said in a briefing to the Security Council. "But", he added, "We should do so in a manner that still prevents a relapse and ensures that gains made so far are not reversed or wasted. "Scale back, but don't lower your guard."

The panel was first appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in July 2007 to renew investigations on whether the sanctions were being enforced. The Liberian civil war ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2003 and the exile of President Charles Taylor in Nigeria.

In his remarks, Ambassador Masood Khan stressed the need for a broader regional and sub-regional strategy to help steer Liberia and its neighboring countries towards stability. "Such a strategy would promote cooperation, foster national ownerships and build resilience in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone."

AND WHAT ABOUT...

YEATEN STILL A THREAT

Benjamin Yeaten, a notorious commander of the Anti-Terrorist Unit under former President Taylor, is on the assets freeze and travel ban lists. The Panel noted in its final report of 2011 (S/2011/757) that Yeaten recruited Liberian mercenaries on behalf of FRCI to fight in the Ivorian post-electoral conflict in late 2010 and early in 2011 (S/2011/757, paras. 77 and 148). Yeaten reportedly conducted this operation from Côte d'Ivoire. The Panel received persistent rumours in 2012 and 2013 that Yeaten was involved in recruiting Liberian mercenaries in Nimba county to fight against FRCI, and also to undermine stability in Liberia, but has not been able to independently verify this information.

The Panel has not obtained any information concerning Yeaten's assets. However, because of his activities to recruit mercenaries in Liberia, the assets freeze pertaining to Yeaten should be maintained. The Panel has been informed on multiple occasions, in 2012 and 2013, by several high-ranking officials of the Government of Liberia that Yeaten resides in Togo. The Panel has sought further details on cerning Yeaten's possible residency, but has not been able to verify such information independently. The Government of Liberia charged Yeaten with murder in absentia and issued an arrest warrant for him in 2009; it still considers Yeaten a threat. The Panel concurs with the assessment that Yeaten remains a threat to peace and security in Liberia and the sub-region.

MOMOH JIBBA IN 'DISSOLUTE STATE'

Momoh Jibba, who is subject to the travel ban measures, served as a senior aide-de-camp to former President Taylor. During that time, he was a notorious enforcer for Taylor, allegedly conducting assassinations on Taylor's behalf. Jibba was, in a sense, a victim of the Liberian civil war, having been recruited as a combatant in the NPFL in 1990, when he was still a teenager, which makes him one of the first child combatants of the war.

The Panel met with Jibba in Monrovia on 15 March and 27 September 2013. On both occasions, he was in a dissolute state. The Panel found that Jibba was abusing alcohol and drugs. With Taylor's conviction upheld by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Panel is of the opinion that Jibba, who commands no following of his own, is no threat to Liberia and the sub-region.

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