Liberia’s Security Dilemma: Addressing the Root Causes Rather than the Symptoms

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Sept 6, 2007


Dr. Emmanuel Dolo made some interesting observations and compelling points in his recent article titled: “The Future of Race Relations in Post-War Liberia”, which was published in the August edition of The Perspective. In that article cited a White woman who published on her blog the following:

“… My security briefing for this year as well as last year was to never walk on the streets at any time. Our complex is on the main drag, Tubman Boulevard. It is not considered safe for us to walk even during the day… We have numerous drivers available to us from 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night. They become your best buddies and know where everyone is and what is going on. We are all connected by radios also. Everyone has a cell phone; they cannot be turned off for security reasons. My cell phi\one is permanently attached to my right hand – I go nowhere without it. I’ve been practicing text messaging”, she wrote.

This lady is either employed as an expert with one of the NGOs or a UN employee. Whatever the case, she might have gone to Liberia to render some service to the Liberian people. I see something terribly wrong here! Someone who was chosen on the basis of his or her expertise to go to a place, to provide ‘critical’ service to a people, yet cannot interact with them for fear they might harm her, need not be there in the first place. As an expert, she needs to find a way in solving the problem for which she was selected to go to the country. Instead, she provided what is referred to as “armchair” solution(s).

While I may agree with the assessment made by Dr. Dolo regarding the White lady’s paternalistic approach or as he puts it – “racism”, personally, I will place most of the blame on Liberia’s elected leaders. As you may recall, not too long ago, the leadership in Liberia were elected to “fix” the problems in the country. During the 2005 campaign, many of them made promises such as, “My administration will be tough on crimes”; “I will fight corruption”; “If elected, I will employ the most qualified individuals as opposed to employing only my supporters and family members”. You know the rest or as they say, ‘the rest is history’.

Instead doing what our elected officials promised, they are shifting the responsibilities to so-called international experts, some of whom are afraid to provide the services for which they went to Liberia. It is quite disturbing to read in Liberian newspapers both at home and on the Internet websites the solutions prescribed by Liberian leaders to address post civil wars crimes and other social maladies in Liberia. For 14 years, the Liberian people including the West African sub-region experienced the kind of banditry that the region has ever known. Yet, very little has been done in post civil wars Liberia to address the trauma caused by this experience. Are the leaders aware that unresolved trauma experienced by perpetrators of crimes or those who witnessed their loved ones raped, brutalized and killed cannot be resolved only by financial assistance they received or by providing them with such items as clothing, medicine, food, clean water?

How can the government, including well-meaning Liberians and the Justice Ministry not consider the root cause(s) of these acts of banditry and total lawlessness such as hi-jacking, killing, maiming and broad day armed robbery that has become a common practice in Liberia? Was the Justice Ministry’s call the early part of this year to organize community vigilante groups to “protect themselves from these predators” known as the Isakaba Boys the best solution it can offer the Liberia people? If violent begets violence as the adage says, then what do we expect if organized vigilante groups become the enforcers of laws in the country? The government’s attempt to finding solutions to the crime wave in Liberia, has to factor in its solutions the condition or atmosphere that created the problem. Questions such as, how did we get from a law abiding people to a violent prone society? These are questions that come to mind when I think of the many problems the Liberian people and the West African sub-region experienced during the 14 years Liberian civil wars.

In addition, it makes me wonder how could a people described as having an African consciousness and whose common expression regarding relationship is found in the phrase, “poor no friend”, arrived at this level of lawless and crimes?

The Liberia that I was raised in had “… a clear recognition that what one is as human being is the all-important criterion and not the possessions one might accumulate. Things are of value in so far as they promote the well-being and the purposes of the person and not the other way around. Family lineage and relationships are of extreme significance because they provide the precise location of the individual within the human group. And society, the human environment takes absolute precedent over the values of the physical environment. Thus there arises a most intricate web of interpersonal rights and obligations. The culture is mark with very precise rules of politeness, etiquette and protocol. Person-orientating obligations take priority over abstract and economically oriented duties. The individual dependence on and service to the community is clearly perceived, acknowledged and lived. For the Liberian as indeed for most African cultures the appropriate saying is not ‘poor, no money’ or ‘poor no job’, or ‘poor no car, or T.V.’, nor any other such thing. Rather, the African consciousness finds its spontaneous and most adequate expression in the phrase, ‘poor no friend.’ Likewise, a very strong condemnatory and rejecting attitude is expressed when one would say of another that ‘he is rude’ or ‘he does not know how to talk to people.’ There is here, an extraordinary appreciation of respect for the human person and human society”, says Father James Christopher Hickey of the Society of Africa Missions (SMA), Liberians is. (“A Land Both Old and Young”, A Keynote Address delivered at the 14th Annual General Conference of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) in Newark, Jersey, July 3 -5, 1987)

Again, I wonder what happened to the Liberian people that Father Hickey spoke so eloquently about! One does not have to be a nuclear scientist to arrive at the root cause of the lawlessness that is taking place in Liberia, today. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf correctly identified the cause when she said, “…Our boys, full of potential, were forced to be child soldiers, to kill or be killed. Our girls, capable of being anything they could imagine, were made into sex slaves, gang-raped by men with guns, made mothers while still children themselves”. If that is the case, what has the government done to address the problem? By addressing, I mean to rehabilitate these traumatized victims of the two Liberian civil wars.

Based on my observation, these traumatized individuals and child soldiers are left to fend for themselves the way they know how. Instead of rehabilitating and detraumatizing them, they are placed in the position to engage in what they were taught – to get whatever they want by the use of ‘force’. Moreover, most of the post civil war programs put in place – addressed only the symptoms of the problem and not the root causes. This is what is wrong with the approach!

History teaches us that the outgrowth of any civil war is the proliferation of criminal activities. One classic example is the U.S. Civil War. At the end of the civil war there were gunfighters and outlaws that resolved conflicts with guns - the same guns used in the civil war. For example, some of these men who became accustomed to violence, lost their lands or fortunes during the civil war; as the result, they used guns to reconcile scores and resolve disputes. In addition, these individuals used guns to rob others as their means of survival.

According to some American Civil War historians, about a third of these gunmen died of "natural causes," but many died violently by lynching or legal executions. Their average age of death was around 35. However, those gunmen who used their skills on the side of the law lived longer than those that lived a life of crime. Prominent among those outlaws was, Patrick Henry McCarty aka William Henry Bonney, popularly known as Billy the Kid.

Since history serves as reminder of our past and present experience, it is safe to say that the current crime wave in Liberia is no exception but rather a fact of history. In the absence of credible rehabilitation program in Liberia, there will be disorder in the country. For example, Liberians who resettled in the United States without the benefit of rehabilitation and detraumatization programs have begun to engage in criminal activities too. Some of them have taken to crimes to satisfy their materialistic habits. They want to wear named-brand fashion and ride the latest expensive cars. Many of them are employed but hardly attend school to obtain education or trade. One of the reasons attributed to this behavior is the 14 years civil wars. The 14 years civil wars robbed these individuals of the basic experience of early education as well as the proper socialization alluded to as, “...a vibrant African culture of immense antiquity, of extraordinary intrinsic value and of remarkable inherent attractiveness and binding force. Its profundity strongly resists the shallow allurements of other cultures, with their emphasis on things rather than persons,” which Father Hickey described as our Liberian value.

Many of the individuals that fall in this category came to the United States with their ages adjusted for reason I find difficult to fathom. An individual, whose numerical age is 30, migrated to the U.S. as an 18 year-old, and when he or she is placed in the classroom with 18 year-olds, that individual finds it difficult to cope with his or her American counterparts. This has resulted into embarrassing situation for the Liberian emigrant.

Another practice these new arrivals adopt is, attempting too hard to fit-in; becoming Americanized quickly - by developing a style of speaking called “Sceree”, which is an awful sounding form of Ebonics. Those who speak “Sceree” do so in order to appear hip. Today, many of these resettled Liberians have been deported. Recently as August 15, 2007, 22 Liberians who were deported from the United States arrived in Monrovia. They were received by the Liberian Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. It is alleged that these deportees were involved in various criminal activities in the United States. Moreover, a sizable number of them are incarcerated in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, Minnesota, Rhode Island, etc.

The practice of committing crimes emanated from the December 1989 uprising launched by Charles Macarthur Taylor, whose uprising violently overthrew the government of Samuel Kanyon Doe. This uprising brought about the destruction of properties, carnage, mayhem, massacres, and the displacement of Liberians across the continent and to many parts of the globe seeking refuge. As a direct consequence, children under the age of 12 were drugged and conscripted as child soldiers by all factions involved in the conflict. These child soldiers and their factions killed innocent citizens, raped girls, mothers before their children, destroyed homes, burnt down churches, mosques and desecrated other religious and traditional institutions for no just cause.

These senseless violence and the use of drugs, transformed a once “peaceful people” into violent criminals. The Isakabas Boys and other criminal gangs that exist today in Liberia are the creation of the senseless Liberian civil wars. Those who committed these atrocities were not born criminals; they were introduced into committing violence and to take up criminal lifestyles by warlords who forced them into criminal activities – with the aid of drugs and guns given to them. The robberies and violence that is rampant in our society today is the symptom of what the civil wars created. In other for us to address these maladies, we must treat the root cause, which is the trauma experienced by these victims – including many of us that were affected one way or the other.

If history is any guide to understanding the root causes of a people’s problem and how such problem must be reconciled or addressed, then the suggested resolution to form vigilante groups leaves much to be desired or appreciated in Liberia.

The Reintegrating Efforts of Ex-combatants
It has been four years since the conclusion of the Liberian civil wars; however, the Liberian government is still grappling with the issue of the reintegration of ex-combatants into Liberian society. The reintegration process was expected to begin soon after disarmament and the demobilization of combatants; some programs started but were abruptly interrupted. The United Nations’ Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) initiated a bridging project that was responsible for training ex-combatants in several various vocations and equipped them with technical skills. Unfortunately, the program was halted when its main source of funding, the United States withdrew its support. As a result, less than one-third of the population of 33,000 combatants was reintroduced into society and the dilemma fell into the hands of the government of Charles Taylor.

A year later, the government’s delayed response to the dilemma was to establish a Special Presidential Commission, the National Ex-combatants Commission whose mission was to provide assistance and opportunities to all ex-combatants in hopes of aiding the reintegration effort. Although it was established by the government, commission was intended to be a self-governing body. It consisted of a secretariat that functioned as the administrative arm, and commissioners who were to serve as supervisors, ensuring the mobilization of resources for the commission’s programs.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many government-established commissions, the National Ex-combatants Commission received little government support. Furthermore, the Commission did not receive the much needed external support because donors usually demand to see evidence of a commission’s autonomy as well as a stable political environment, which was not present in Liberia.

In the absence of credible reintegration programs, the vast numbers of displaced ex-combatants pose numerous complications. Many of them were located in Monrovia and the majority of them were homeless and disabled. The National Peace Academy stated in a report that a “…case of 4,006 former child soldiers also presents a special problem. Having failed to benefit from full reintegration, they suffer from social maladjustment, often refuse to go to school, and resort to crime.” (Augustine Toure, The Role of Civil Society in National Reconciliation and Peacebuilding in Liberia, April 2002, pp. 22-23)

There has to be genuine efforts on the part of the present leadership to resolve the problem society face by adopting a therapeutic (rehabilitative/detraumatize) approach rather than punishing those who took to crimes as the result of the civil wars. Liberia is not an exception to having criminal gangs after a civil war! Organizing vigilante groups to provide security in the country is not the ideal solution. Moreover, for a group who call themselves Youth for the Promotion of Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Administration (YOPMEJOSA) to accuse the opposition in the country as the perpetrators or responsible for these criminal activities, without first providing credible evidence is rather troubling and divisive.

I see in the horizon the resuscitation of the Tubman era’s PRO; correctly named – “People Reporting Others.” During this era, opportunists and gravyseekers whose preoccupation it was to tell lies or "tote" (carry) news on perceived enemies of the state or individuals they personally have had issues with, victimized individual like Didwho Twe, Edwin J. Barclay, S. David Coleman, Paul Dunbar, S. Raymond Horace, Nete-Sie Brownell; J. Gbaflen Davies, Booker T. Bracewell, Thomas Nimene Botoe (aka Botoe Nimene), Teah Jlay Tor, S. Othello Coleman, etc. Later on in the 1960's, those also victimized included former Army Chief of Staff, General George Toe Washington, a law student named Frederick Gibson, Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Sr., and scores of others too, became victims of this Gestapo scheme.

It is this type of atmosphere that is about to re-emerge in Liberia. The accusation leverage by the YOPMEJOSA against Liberian opposition parties as Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh correctly states, placed opposition politicians in danger as well as undermined the essence of the President’s U.S. and European tours, which was intended to portray the unity that prevails in the country.

The Way Forward
I believe the way forward is to address the root cause of the problem - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This problem is not only affecting former child soldiers, it is also affecting the entire society, including the police chief, who at one time called for Muslim women not to wear veil in the streets of Monrovia; the Chief Justice carried out the laws as he saw fit; the Deputy Minister of Defense for Operations, it was alleged narrowly escaped death when some aggrieved members of the demobilized Armed Forces of Liberia reportedly flogged him at the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real and destructively unconscious, psychological behavior. The longer individuals are exposed to the trauma of war, the more pervasive, irreversible and incurable post traumatic symptoms become. This is a mental health issue that was hurriedly addressed for the purpose of having “democratic” elections.

“Hurry, hurry” disarmament and two to three weeks trauma workshops by foreign and local NGOs are not sufficient to relieve individuals who are affected by PTSD caused by 14 years of civil wars. The trauma identified here is defined as any circumstance that is psychologically or emotionally overwhelming in which escape is preferable but not possible, cannot be relieved in the manner in which it was done in Liberia. Today, the crime spree in Liberia is the symptom caused by the lack of proper treatment, coupled with unemployment and displacement, which might have led these individuals in a psychologically and emotionally overwhelming state in which escape is preferable but not possible. Their problem or condition needs to be addressed properly!

To overlook this fundamental problem of traumatization and victimization is to trivialize the psychological complexities facing our so-called “civil wars veterans” (former child soldiers), some of whom might be associated with the Isakaba Boys and other criminal gangs.

The unresolved trauma of perpetrators of crimes and those victims who witnessed their loved ones raped, brutalized and killed, and who today suffered from deep emotional and psychological wounds that past memories of injury, insult, humiliation, loss, fear and hatred rekindled, deserve proper treatment; because unresolved traumatic experiences caused traumatized individuals to search for threats and a sense of danger even when none exists. Hyper-aroused suspicion pervades the psyche of these individuals; minor circumstances of misunderstanding can take on the intensity of intense danger. Most importantly, unresolved trauma has the potential for these individuals to engage in violent behaviors as their only viable options.

Based on historical evidence, Liberia as the therapist represents a political system in which the people (the clients), i.e., the various ethnic groupings have not existed amicably. Conflict has existed between them because the government has been unable to address their palava with Genuineness, Caring, and Understanding as suggested by Carl R. Rogers, the American psychologist who made significant contributions to understanding psychotherapeutic relationships. According to him, these qualities, Genuineness, Caring, and Understanding must be present in a therapeutic relationship if positive change is to occur in a client. Since it is the civil wars that have created Liberia into a dysfunctional society, it is my recommendation that the government form partnership with opposition parties to work together in developing a better treatment approach to address the problem presented by the Isakaba Boys and other gangs. The government can select to use the Sudanese’s National Trauma Awareness and Education Program model to address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that the civil wars brought about, which is the main contributing factor for these criminal activities in Liberia.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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