What were Liberians thinking? How did Charles Taylor win last month's voting by such a large margin?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THERE ARE many around the world, including quite a number of Liberians, who wonder how it was possible for Charles G. Taylor, the rebel leader who started the seven-year Liberian civil war in December 1989, to have won such an overwhelming victory in the country's July 19 elections.

Of the 621,880 votes cast, representing approximately 85 percent of the electorate, Taylor's National Patriotic Party (NPP) won 75.3 percent, according to the final results announced by the Election Commission. The consensus among local and international observers is that but for a few scattered incidents, the elections were free, fair and transparent. Taylor's nearest rival, the Unity Party's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank and United Nations Development Program official, won 9.57 percent. The third-place finisher, Taylor's warrior rival Alhaji Kromah of the All Liberian Coalition Party, won 4 percent.

Few underestimated Taylor's do-or-die determination to win through the ballot box what he failed to do with the bullet - the presidency - but they did not expect the Liberian people to endorse him so handsomely. After all, his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), early in the war, made itself notorious for indiscriminate and widespread brutality, looting and destruction. By the end of 1991, barely two years into the war, 150,000 people had been killed, more than 1 million Liberians had been displaced and the nation's fragile infrastructure almost destroyed. Yet Liberians gave Taylor a landslide victory, enough even to enable amendments to the nation's constitution.

Why? What were they voting for? Were they mesmerized by his charisma, or by his public largess in food, beverages, money and other material necessities offered to a populace impoverished, hungry and worn? Or were they frightened by his prodigious capacity to make - or continue - war?

From most indications, it is clear that the people had three objectives in mind when they went to the polls:

n First, they were voting for peace, indeed itself one of the paradoxes of the vote. For here was a man who had done more than most to frustrate, undermine and delay the peace process ever since 1990, when the first peace initiative was launched by the Liberian Interfaith Mediation Commission (IMC) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which in July 1990 took over where the IMC had left off, negotiated more than 15 agreements during the following six years, but Charles Taylor and his NPFL abrogated them all. Ironically, Taylor's intransigence delayed his rise to the presidency. It also led to the emergence of several other warring factions, unnecessarily prolonged the war, caused the collapse of the Liberian state, sparked killings that claimed nearly 200,000 lives, created more than 1 million refugees and left Liberia in ruins.

n Second, the people voted for Taylor out of the fear that if he did not win, he would, like Angola's Jonas Savimbi, return to the bush and resume the war. They knew that Taylor, having controlled, exploited and sold the nation's primary resources over many years - gold, diamonds, iron ore, timber, rubber, coffee and cocoa - had no shortage of cash, an advantage that helped him win so big. They also knew that Taylor, more than any other candidate, had some powerful international friends with lots of ready cash and arms, among them, Muammar el Kadafi of Libya, where Taylor's initial forces got their training and backing; the government of Taiwan, which Taylor persuaded the Liberian Council of State to recognize; and mining executives in South Africa, with whom, according to unconfirmed reports, he is said to have made some pre-election deals.

n Third, in voting for Taylor, the people were telling him: "You spoiled it, you fix it." And heaven knows there's everything to fix. There are the shattered lives and relationships, across ethnic and even family lines. There's so much reconciliation and healing to do. The war has left terrible scars on the people who cry out for urgent therapy and redress. There's peace itself. While the peace-keeping force was reasonably effective in disarming the warring factions before the elections, it is widely believed that many still have large quantities of arms hidden away. But, by far, the most dangerous possessions of the warring factions are the daggers of hate and rage in their hearts and minds, daggers that must be removed if peace is to return to the Liberian nation.

Can Taylor deliver the peace? Can he rebuild a military force that will be broadly based and united in the common purpose of protecting the citizenry within the country's borders?

Taylor must also fix the devastated economy. Many fear that Taylor and the people around him have grown so accustomed to commandeering what is not theirs that it would be difficult for them to develop an economic system that is accountable and able to lure the investment necessary to fuel growth and development. The Taylor government will be hard pressed to find jobs for a people who have not known steady wages for more than seven years. This will be critical, if the people are to be freed of idle time that would drive them to the devil's workshop.

Next on the new government's agenda will be rebuilding the infrastructure. The roads, bridges, schools, universities and hospitals and clinics have to be repaired or rebuilt; whole villages which were destroyed - especially in the interior, which experienced the most devastation - have to be re-established, and homes and office buildings, public and private, have to be rehabilitated. Serious and sustained emphasis should be place on education because the nation's youths have lost years of schooling. The government must also come up with incentives for agricultural, business and industrial concerns and work toward their re-establishment, growth and further development.

In a country where commerce and industry have been dominated for more than a half-century by foreigners, Taylor, while endeavoring to encourage foreign investment, must also look seriously and carefully after the interest of the people who put him in power - the Liberian people - and ensure that they begin immediately developing the capacity to enjoy their fair share of the country's economic and commercial activity. This goal is far more critical than it appears because people become frustrated and angry when they are impoverished. They do a better job of caring for their families and improving their quality of life when they know they have a fair stake in the national cake. If President Taylor can somehow find the guts and the means to develop a Liberian middle class, he would achieve something that none of his predecessors did. It is the middle class that can make a nation prosperous and strong.

In pursuit of all these goals, President Taylor is lucky that he has a number of advantages. First, he has the full mandate of the Liberian people. Second, Liberians are poor, but Liberia is rich. It is rich in human and natural resources that, if efficiently harnessed and mobilized, can enable the country to turn around in a short while. Third, because the elections were internationally recognized as free and fair, Taylor will have the backing of the international community. But there is one condition: They will wait to see how Taylor will govern. Will he conduct an open, transparent and inclusive administration? Will he respect democratic plurality and other democratic ideals that finally brought him to power?

If he is able to do all of these things, then President Taylor and his government can be assured of continued local and international support and assistance in the Herculean task to which he and Liberians have set themselves.

Kenneth Y. Best is the publisher of the Daily Observer in Liberia. The newspaper was closed five times by the regime of the late dictator Samuel K. Doe, and two attempts were made to burn down the office. The office was eventually destroyed by fire when Doe was captured and killed during the Liberian civil war.

Pub Date: 8/03/97

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