15 October 2003

Liberia: 'We Need to Understand Where We Went Wrong,' says Brumskine


Washignton, DC — Liberia's transitional government has been launched and Chairman Gyude Bryant has two years to set this battered country back on its feet. A compromise candidate selected as part of the delicate peace negotiations, Bryant was chosen to be a caretaker, not a politician. Formal political activity will only resume in the run-up to elections, in the final stages of the transition. Until then, would-be presidents like Charles Walker Brumskine, leader of the Liberia Unification Party (LUP), must wait on the sidelines.

Brumskine, 52, went into exile in 1998 after Charles Taylor's ruling party, the National Patriotic Party, forced him out of office as president of the senate in a vote of no confidence. He returned to Liberia from exile in the United States in January this year ahead of elections set for October. He had recently joined the LUP and was clearly angling to run for president. But as war between the government of Charles Taylor and rebels drew closer to the capital city, Monrovia, he warned that fair elections could not be held on schedule.

Now, with Charles Taylor gone into exile in Nigeria, the UN's largest peacekeeping force in place and a transitional programme under way, the prospects for peace are very different and Brumskine's political plans must be laid anew. One of the front runners for a top political post, he will probably run for president in 2005. Meanwhile, how does he see the present situation in Liberia? He talked to AllAfrica's Reed Kramer earlier this month about the transitional government's chairman Bryant, about Washington's obligations to Liberia and the next steps.

Q: What are you expecting from the new leader?

A: We expect Chairman Bryant to abolish all the monopolies, especially the rice monopoly and the fuel oil monopoly. It doesn't make any sense to get rid of Mr. Taylor and allow the monopolies that Taylor created to remain in force. We also expect Mr. Bryant and his government under the supervision of the international community to deal with Liberia domestic debt problems. Today Liberia is said to have a domestic debt totaling a billion dollars. We want a government who will use the scarce resources that are available for education, for health services, to pay the civil servants. So we expect our government to immediately declare a moratorium on the payment of all domestic debt, set up a commission to investigate and determine the legitimacy of the debts, and thereafter, and only thereafter, to enter an arrangement for a deferred payment of the debt. Maybe on a prorated basis, and government might want to consider having these debts converted into a bond situation redeemable some time in the future.

Q: Why do you say you think Bryant can succeed?

A: I know him. He has a way of dealing with, of including everybody. I hope his advisers around him let him be himself, because there is this everlasting temptation of one getting into power and losing sight of why he came to power to begin with. It's very common in Africa.

Q: According to the Accra agreement, the interim administration will run the country for two years before handling over the an elected leadership. What do you want to see accomplished during the interim?

A: I argued that the 24-month transition was unnecessarily long. But we have it now, so let's make the best use of it. Let's put markers in place that will lead us to a new day in our country. The elections can wait for two years, but the people of Liberia cannot wait. We must address their concerns now, and that will be a role of mine over the next two year period, both involving myself full-time in humanitarian work [and] also be providing counsel, very loud counsel, for my friend Mr. Bryant, as well as other members of the government. What we must do is insure that Mr. Taylor is the last president of Liberia to enjoy unlimited authority. We have to do everything we can to insure that democracy is in the making in our country.

Q: Are you surprised about the reports that Charles Taylor is continuing to try to manage the affairs of state from his exile in Nigeria?

A: I learned many years ago that Mr. Taylor can't help himself. He doesn't have the capacity to do that which is warranted or is in the best interest of the country. In this new order, one would expect that you would not have to deal with this kind of interference. Should he do it again, Mr. Taylor should be sent to Freetown to face trial.

Q: One of the first tasks is disarming the combatants. In previous Liberian peace efforts, disarmament has largely failed. Can it succeed this time?

A: Yes, disarmament certainly is a problem. One has to create an incentive to bring the guns to whatever center the UN will establish. But there is something equally as important as disarmament. We have seen over the last 14 years that, even with a partial disarmament, if you allow this pool of fighters-for-hire to remain idle, they will continue to be a threat to stability not only in Liberia but in the region. As the guns are taken away, [the ex-combatants] must be placed into institutions to insure that (a) they are not available to the next demagogue or troublemaker that comes along, and (b) that they have something to do, that they can begin to appreciate their own self-worth, where they can make a living other than killing people or preying on people. These are challenges that we have to deal with, both the Liberian people and the international community.

The Lurd came out of Guinea and one can understand that the reason the Guineans granted egress and ingress during the war was because Mr. Taylor was not only a problem for Liberians but was a problem for Guinea as well. Similarly with the Ivorians, with regard to Model. With Taylor out of the picture, I do not see any reason for Guinea or the Cote d'Ivoire to allow people to go in, get arms and come out to fight in Liberia. It should be easier to end this with Taylor out of the picture.

One way to move forward [with disarmament] is to divide the combatants into two groups. Combatants that are 18 years and over can be integrated into a restructured Armed Forces of Liberia. The purpose of the armed forces is simply as a regimented environment where these guys will be disciplined, a vehicle for them to acquire skills. Certainly you do not want them placed into any combat units, because these are people who should never see weapons again. They should be placed in auxiliary units such as the agriculture battalion, the engineering battalion, the medical corp. The important thing is that they be rehabilitated within a disciplined environment and that they acquire skills. At the end of the day, we will have a new set of plumbers, a new set of electricians, mechanics, farmers, medical assistants. That way they can make this transition to civil society.

The kids below the age of eighteen, you cannot put them in the armed forces. They must be kept in a very regimented environment so they don't go off again. The experts will determine whether they have the capacity to make the move onto the academic level or whether they go into the vocational institutions. But these things need to be done.

Q: After so many years of authoritarian rule and war, how does Liberia go about creating democratic institutions?

A: When I was leader of the Liberian Senate, I invited the National Democratic Institute of the United States to come to talk about the parliamentary process. How the budgetary process works, for example. We need experts from the NDI, the International Republican Institute, the Carter Center, and from similar institutions in Europe and Africa coming to provide training. We must start now with Chairman Bryant realizing that he cannot spend money unless it is appropriated by the legislature. And of course the legislature must be trained to know this process. And we must learn that if the legislature objects to the executive, it doesn't mean that they are at war with each other.

We borrowed from the great constitution of the United States of America and the framers of your constitution. When you read the federalist papers you understand that it was designed to insure that the friction among the various branches of government created the necessary checks and balances to make democracy work. These are not things that we take for granted in Liberia. We just don't know them.

Q: For the past 25 years or so, it has been rather hazardous for anyone to challenge the chief-of-state, whether it was Samuel Doe or Charles Taylor.

A: My tenure in the Liberian Senate was the first time in fifty years that the Liberian Senate showed itself independent of the executive branch. We had active debate on radio about legislation. Proposals submitted to us by the president were objected to and rejected. I say this not to say anything about myself but simply to make an example. This is what we need within the first branch of government, the legislative branch, to insure that the stage is set for a functioning democracy in Liberia, and the international community is bound to help us here to move forward.

It is not sufficient for people to talk about building roads and high-rise office buildings. You do not invest in the physical infrastructure without the necessary prior investment in the institutions that will sustain democracy or else we'll just destroy those things again. While we do need the four-lane highway from Buchanan to Nimba, it is more important that we invest in the schools, the health service system and into insuring that the court system works, that the legislature remains independent of the executive, and that, indeed, the executive knows what its calling is.

Q: Do you expect Liberia to get the level of support that is needed to rebuild the country?

A: This is not only a Liberia peace agreement. This is a product of the international community, including America, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, and Ecowas, . So, it's not going to be before, when the international community could say 'oh, the Liberians have failed again'. They have equal responsibility to insure that the process works.

Q: The warring factions have a major role in the interim administration. How is that going to work? Is it going to be a government of technocrats or is going to be a government with political and warring-faction participants primarily in control?

A: We were all hoping for the best, that is a dominant technocrat. That is the way it is supposed to be. The transitional period is not supposed to be a period of politicking It is supposed to be when the guys go in and make very difficult decisions and change the directions of Liberia. But having said that, politics is politics, I don't care who you put in what position .

This is not a coalition government. This is not a government of national unity. It is a factional government. Lurd is appointing so many ministers, Model, the Taylor people, and the political parties and civil society [are] appointing so many people. The challenge is to have Mr. Bryant as chairman step up to the plate and assume the role of a real leader. But to bring the factions together, he must resist the temptation to create a government within a government for the sake of efficiency, for the sake of getting his ideas accomplished. It's very tempting to bring in the outside experts and give them positions that do not exist. But when you do, you run into trouble. You antagonize the Lurd, Model, and Taylor people and you defeat the very purpose that you are trying to achieve. So, the thing would be to meet with these guys, bring them together, and let all of them feel as though they are part of the team. The role of a leader, that is the challenge facing Mr. Bryant.

Q: What role do you expect the United States to play in Liberia?

A: As a people, we've always looked to the United States. We have a long historical relationship with this country. The unfortunate thing about that relationship is that it is only spoken about in the context of freed slaves coming to Liberia from America. People do not know, and those who know tend to forget, that there is much more to the relationship.

There has always been a commitment on the part of Liberia, which I'm afraid has not been reciprocated by the United States. When World War I began, Germany was our greatest trading partner. We did more business with Germany than any other nation in the world. But when the United States requested, our government severed relations with Germany [and] declared war on Germany, not at the risk of a few sons and daughters of Liberia, but at the risk of our entire nation. We had no army to defend ourselves. Uncle Sam wasn't there defending us, and we survived as a nation only by the grace of God.

You know the story of World War II. The United States probably would not be the super power it is today, World War II would probably not have been successfully prosecuted in Africa or the South of Europe if you hadn't had Robert's Field in Liberia as a base and all the rubber our little country produced.

The Cold war came, and President Tubmann made the Cold War Liberia's war. He said to his neighbors: "You're welcome to be socialists; you're welcome to be communists, as long as you keep it within your borders." I'm paraphrasing, of course. But Liberia was used for everything the United States wanted. The VOA had a transmitter for broadcasting U.S. policy all over sub-Saharan Africa. There was the communications center used for U.S. diplomatic traffic. And when the Vietnam War came, we were there in the UN wherever Washington needed support.

When the Cold War ended, we rejoiced with the United States. . We had won! But Liberia lost. When Boris Yeltsin mounted that tank in Moscow in 1991, Liberia was well into its second year of a bloody and devastating war. Nobody looked at us. We became a posthumous casualty.

I'd like for our friends in the United States to realize this history when Liberia looks for assistance. We put a whole nation in harms way for you. What we're saying is, come and do something that should have been done many years ago: create an example of the American democracy in Liberia in Africa.

Q: You returned home to run for president, but the war intervened and the election was postponed. Are you running now?

A: My candidacy is certainly active, but for the next six months to a year I see myself engaging more in humanitarian affairs than politics. It's difficult to politick with people who haven't eaten for days, people who have no clothes to wear or shelter to sleep under. I'm associated with a number of humanitarian organizations, both here and in the United States and Europe , from whom we're trying to get medical supplies, food and clothing.

Once the disarmament process begins to take place, we will be helping internally displaced people relocate to their places of origin so they can restart their lives. The process will take a while and people will have to understand that even the two-year transitional period may not be long enough for us to accomplish everything that we wish to accomplish. But the international community must be made to understand that even after the elections they will be welcome to stay on in Liberia as it has done in Sierra Leone today. I never understood why Mr. Taylor didn't realize that, if the international community is willing to provide the necessaries for the security of the Liberian people and the region stability, why interfere with that?

Q: With the election now expected for late 2005, when do you expect to start active campaigning?

A: I hope to start active campaigning in the latter part of 2004 But like President Tubmann said: "One campaigns everyday of his life." While the actual start begins in the latter part of next year for me, I have campaigned for many years. One of the reasons I think the Liberians hold me in such high-esteem is because I've served in the government for 19 months, one of the worst governments, if not the worst government, our country has ever had. I left enjoying the confidence of the Liberian people because for the first time the people saw leadership in our country in the Liberian Senate. You have a lot of people coming into the race and our records will be examined. The people who have worked with governments much, much better than the Taylor government will have much, much less to show. It was good to be there at the time I was there to provide the leadership that I did.

Q: Do people hold it against you that you were a leading member of Taylor's party?

A: I guess my political opponents will raise it and I'll be surprised if they don't. But it's not going to hurt at all. As a matter of fact, I think it is the biggest political blessing that I have. During the 19 months I was there, as Leader of the Liberian Senate, I could have been as corrupt as I wanted. I could have made money for myself. But I decided I should step down and suffer the affliction of the Liberian people along with them, because I knew ahead there was a better day ahead that God had for us and that they would need leadership. I think you saw that at my arrival in Liberia for the first time since 1997. We had the greatest political rally upon my arrival. The Liberian people were saying "We appreciate the services you rendered to us before and we're looking forward to you providing leadership in the future."

Q: So you feel pretty confident about your campaign?

A: I certainly do. I think right now that the election is ours to lose, and we're not going to do anything stupid by the help of God and we will continue to work with the Liberian people and make our case to them for the renewal of our country.

This is not about the fulfilling a personal dream. This is about the renewal of our country. This is about knowing the history of our country, where we've gone wrong. Two hundred years ago, we sold our siblings and children into slavery. In 1822, before our independence, when the freed slaves came back, there was a dream to create a place where black people could call home, where we would allow enjoy equal protection under the rule of law. The dream was never realized. We woke up one morning in 1980 and there was an outburst of euphoria. Hope was in the air, but again hope eluded us as a people. During the Taylor regime we found ourselves exactly back where we were 200 years ago. Brothers were fighting brothers. This time we weren't selling each other into slavery, but into economic degradation.

Now, the vision is to have the dream realized, to have the hope returned. In 1847, the task was less challenging than it is today. Then it was the demarcation of physical boundaries for the establishment of a place for a special group of people. Today, my challenge is to build a community of Liberians from amongst strangers divided on ethnic lines. We must now live by our examples.

I look at my kids. One is a lawyer, the other is a third-year law student, and the baby is at Harvard. The only difference between my kids and those kids back home walking the streets without food, hospitals and schools is the grace of God. I owe something to these kids. The future lies in the hands of our children in Liberia.


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