Liberia's president, Charles Ghankay Taylor, is sure that "some powerful countries" are out to get him. But he does not want to name them, "because they punish you the more if you do". Yet, the names are all over in the streets of Liberia -- "USA and Britain", one freelance photographer told me, letting the names roll off his tongue like sweet apple.
Britain, after sorting out neighbouring Sierra Leone -- its former colony -- is said to be changing its policy on Liberia for the better. "But Washington is implacable", said one well-connected British expatriate in Monrovia.
Apart from the direct covert activities against Liberia, including arming arid funding a rebel war against Taylor, these "powerful countries" are also known to have used the United Nations Security Council to impose punitive sanctions on Liberia, including an arms embargo even as the country is under attack by rebels supported by Guinea which, Taylor says, is "under pressure by the powerful countries to continue supporting the rebels".
Calling themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), their leader Sekou Konneh is married to the adopted daughter of President Lansana Conte who has gladly given the rebels operating bases in his country, Guinea.
The objective of the whole effort appears to be to get Taylor's government sucked into the debilitating rebel war, lose focus, put whatever money it gets into the war and general security, and leave the people who voted Taylor into office with a thumping 75% of the vote in 1997, hungry and uncared for; and so make the government unpopular with the people, and eventually turn against it. Fortunately for Taylor, that has not happened yet, but who knows -- the way the people are suffering, anything is possible.
European expatriates working in Liberia agree that there was great optimism after Taylor's election in mid-1997. Businesses started to open, some investment trickled in, but since last year when the UN imposed the punitive sanctions on Liberia for "supporting the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone and handling blood diamonds on their behalf", everything has gone to pot. The businesses that opened after 1997 have closed and there is great suffering in the country.
Our editor, Baffour Ankomah, is just back from Liberia, and confirms the great human suffering in the country. The UN sanctions, and the blocking of access to international finance and assistance have hit the ordinary people hard, much more than the intended target -- the government and its ministers.
The problem has been compounded by the rebel war which is now in its fourth year. President Taylor firmly believes the war is the work of the "powerful countries" he would not name Interestingly, the rebels first struck in August 1999, three weeks after the UN had supervised the demobilisation of Taylor's former NPFL fighters and the public burning of their guns.
Now the war is three years old and still going strong. Sadly, it has led to sever dislocation of people and the economy in the affected areas, mainly along the borders with Sierra Leone and Guinea. The conditions in which they live in the refugee camps at Sinje and elsewhere, are just a disgrace to the world.
Ironically, the UN agencies and other NGOs operating in Liberia, perhaps forgetting that the UN has placed an arms embargo on Liberia, have been pressurising the government to provide them with security in the war-affected areas so they can continue with their humanitarian work. But, in the current Liberian situation, nobody can provide security without arms. And the UN has banned Liberia from buying arms.
A nation does not die, but Liberia is dying a slow death as a result of the UN sanctions, the covert activities of the "powerful countries", the rebel war, the blocking of the country's access to international finance and assistance, lad of foreign and domestic investment, and America's dislike of the man at the heat of the country.
Everywhere you look, there is decay Monrovia, once a sprightly capital city, decaying at an alarming rate. Unless the powerful countries" stoking the flames are named and shamed or made to stop their disturbing activities (and who will bell the cat?), it will be more of the same for Liberia and its long-suffering people. It is absolutely incredible that a nation that will be 155 years old as an independent sovereign state this July, has very little to show for it.
On 20 June, President Taylor talked extensively with Baffour Ankomah about some of these issues. Here is the full text of the interview.
Baffour: 1997 was the election year in Liberia, and you won with more than a landslide, in fact 75% of the vote. It is now 5 years since that victory. How has life been at the top, as the democratically-elected president?
Taylor: Life at the top has been very tough. It's been very tough because of several reasons. First of all I want to praise God, the Liberian people have been very good, they've been very understanding.
But when I say it has not been very good at the top, coming out of 7 years of civil crisis where there were some 20,000, 30,000 deaths, winning in fact more than 75% of the vote, we have not got any assistance from the international community in stabilising the country, this has been most unfortunate and has caused a lot of additional pain and suffering for the Liberian people.
Baffour: In 1992, almost 10 years to the day when I first interviewed you in Gbarnga, you had brought in experts from Africa, Europe, America and elsewhere to look at Liberia's educational system, the health system, agriculture, mining, the infrastructure, investment climate, etc, in preparation for the day when you eventually became president. But 5 years into office, Monrovia, the capital city, is still without running water and electricity, in fact the city is decaying, and a good section of your people (nor counting political opponents and critics) say the president hasn't delivered. But this is the same mar who run "Greater Liberia" and delivered I saw it in 1992. What is going on? Whai is there to show for the last five years?
Taylor: Why haven't I delivered?
Taylor: I will tell you. I have not delivered yes. And I have told the Liberian people that I have not delivered, and I have explained to them. Look any nation, in fact all nations, coming out of civil crisis, whether we go to as far back as World War II where Germany was rebuilt, Japan was rebuilt, you need assistance.
Liberia started off on a very terrible, terrible note. In the first instance, there was great opposition from some powerful countries to my being elected as president. Following my election, there were predictions that the government would not last for six months, and then it would not last for 12 months, and in fact on the famous [CNN] programme Diplomatic Licence, experts predicted that I would have been gone. As a result, everything has been don to stop this government from moving.
I will give you an example. Talking about water: When I took office I met no money in the coffers. My initial budget was US$12m. That was the sum total of maritime resources coming into the country. We started building, but water projects are capital intensive projects, electricity projects are capital intensive projects.
This nation from its inception to date has never been able to fund electricity or water projects. The United States under USAID and the Japanese Foreign Assistance Programme all funded electricity and water projects in this country. A hydro-electric dam was built, it was destroyed during the war, we've done feasibility studies, it is going to cost about US$50m to get it back going.
Let's look at capacity building after the war. Capacity building as far as re-training of our armed forces to help us to restructure our economy, getting it back on track, I mean, no nation, no individual is going to invest in Liberia unless he is assured there is security.
We have not had our army retrained, we have not had our security retrained, but every pressure that you can think of, through World Bank programmes, through IMF programmes, have all been applied. So it is impossible to deliver.
Next month, July, will be three years since we have been engulfed in a renewed state of crisis, where terrorists continue to attack us from neighbouring countries, fully financed and equipped by powerful states.
I'm using powerful states here because I don't want to get into calling of names, because each time you present them face to face with the facts, they punish you even the more. So little countries are frightened, even when they do wrong to you. You are frightened to talk about their wrongs.
Baffour: That's not right, is it?
Taylor: It's not. But that's the reality of the world now. It's like, when powerful nations begin to plan propaganda, lies and disinformation about you, every other little country begins to scramble for cover because you become a target. And so you are left out there hard and dry to suffer. It is very terrible, even against the point where the United Nations that you hope you could go to, for mediation and solace, becomes your whipping rod.
For example, this rebel war has led us nor to deliver to our people, yet we've been punished. In the first instance, there was an embargo placed upon us, sanctions placed upon us, our officials have been barred from travelling to even present our case. Thanks to you, you are here today. Our officials can r even travel to present our case.
The country has a national budget of less than US$90m, how do you deliver? There has been a conspiracy out there to destroy this country and our people. And we don't know why.
So, yes, we have not delivered, we've told our people, we are capable of delivering, we want to deliver, but our hands are tied, our feet are tied, and the propaganda machinery of these powerful nations are just overwhelming for us.
Baffour: From what you've just said, do elections matter? Right from...