It is certainly one of the largest, if not the largest of all Liberian communities in the United States. Before I traveled there for the Trade & Investment Symposium organized by the Liberian Government in September 2007, I always wondered why anyone coming from the warm climate of Liberia would ever move into a state known for its cold. After the few days I spent there, I learned why: the land may be cold, but the people are warm and friendly. And Minnesota is certainly one of the friendliest immigrant destinations in the nation, with scores of Somali, at least some 50,000 Liberians according to calculations and now a wave of Iraqi refugees being resettled away from the war in their country.
Liberians in the US have organized themselves in closely knit associations, based on ethnic, religious, county, sports or even neighborhood affiliations. It seems that the farther they are from Liberia, the more they want recreate a semblance of home. Once humans stay together, they tend to organize leadership schemes. Liberians are no exception. From the largest association of community organizations called ULAA (Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas) to the smallest at a church level, every leadership is hotly contested everywhere. Sometimes, it is difficult to fathom why people would go to such an extend, spending money and social capital to run organization on a pro bono basis.
Reading the campaign literature from the Minnesota elections for the leadership of OLM (Organization of Liberians in Minnesota) slated for this weekend, one would think that the lucky winner would move into a Mansion and run a real government, with jobs, money and favor to distribute. The campaign is filled with negative attacks on candidates, to the point where one wonders how the same people would ever live together after the ballots had been counted and a winner had been declared.
My attention was drawn to this negative ads when, early in October 2007, long before the start of the campaign and even the declaration of official candidacies, a website popped out in my mailbox. There was a set of pictures of former Liberian warlords, from Charles Taylor to George Boley. And it the midst of it all, there was a picture of Kerper Dwanyen, a young man from Nimba whom I got to know while working with the Interim Government in the 1990s. In the next few issues, the same pictures appeared, sometimes along with photos of mass graves and starving children. In a later publication on the same website, the authors asked Liberians in Minnesota not to vote for a “rebel leader.” Obviously, Kerper was the target, being the only one among those whose pictures were published to be running for the leadership of OLM.
The caption and the characterization of Kerper Dwanyen as a rebel leader were as negative as campaign can be. It was a distortion of historical facts that many of us who worked close to Interim President Sawyer still remember. One needs to know the context to understand. Although one cannot reveal everything that went one in those days, we can write that Kerper coming on the air on BBC to announce that a new group of Nimba people were ready to redeem their brothers and sisters from the claws of the Taylor killing machine was the best news that had come from Nimba in many years.
By the time the name of the Nimba Redemption Council (NRC) hit the airwaves, most people from Nimba were categorized as “supporters” of Charles Taylor, no matter where they stood. I remember clearly a meeting with a West African president who asked if there was nobody in Nimba County to stand up to Taylor, to break his hold on the children of the county. The leader, who had fought a civil war in his own country, said that the best way to weaken people like Taylor was to find a different voice in their strongholds. When the strategic decision was made to create the Nimba Redemption Council, Liberia was stranded in a desperate situation.
When people in Monrovia heard that there was a new group called the NRC ready to take on Taylor, it was as if a breath of fresh air had blown all over the city. Nobody wanted war but the thinking was that if Taylor was bent on taking power at all cost, he must first be weakened on his own turf. Kerper Dwanyen took a big risk in taking the leadership of the NRC. This was at a time when the tentacles of Charles Taylor reached all corners of the world. He had cronies and killers circulating everywhere. Even in the US, people were afraid to speak negatively about him. Desperate circumstances make heroes and the difficult situation the nation faced in those days turned the Nimba Redemption Council into a heroic movement. The mere fact that Taylor, even for a week or so, worried that there was a group of men and women from Nimba ready to fight him somehow forced to negotiate. The few pronouncements made by Kerper resulted in many young fighters leaving the bush to either flee to Monrovia or go to refugee camps in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
Theories abound why the Nimba Redemption Council never got off the ground. ECOMOG was not as united as it seemed from outside. The Interim Government also had its share of divided loyalties. It is no secret that Côte d’Ivoire was an open territory for Charles Taylor and his NPFL. Therefore, the Nimba Redemption Council became a still-born baby, another casualty of the war. However, Kerper did what he was asked to do and if the strategy had been followed to the end, the war would have taken another turn and Liberia would be a different country today. Notwithstanding, NRC achieved its psychological effect.
A few weeks ago, while in Monrovia, I ran into Harry Yuan, who worked with the Interim Government in the 1990s and knew much about the Nimba Redemption Council. I told him about the negative publicity people are making about the NRC and Kerper. He said politics was a dangerous game, adding “Kerper is like a son to me, if he were here today, I would welcome him with open arms and we would sit down and trash out our differences the old fashion way. I know him to be a very descent person. His father was one of my best friends.” I asked him if he could say something about the true nature and intentions of NRC and Kerper’s role to stop the negative publicity. He said, “That is their local politics. He is a strong young man and I am sure he will fight it through.”
Over the many years since we met in Monrovia, I have had sporadic contacts with Kerper. When I saw him leading the local Minnesota group working to organize the Liberian Trade & Investment Symposium, we rekindled our old ties. The symposium turned out to be one of the most successful in the whole series of conferences. He later told me that he wanted to run for the leadership of OLM and bring to it the same sense of organization and efficacy he brought to his own business, “a service oriented organization,” he said. Will he succeed in doing so? Everything will depend on how Liberians in Minnesota will vote on Sunday, December 2, 2007.
The debate about Kerper’s involvement in the war reminds me of what candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf faced during the 2005 elections. Our campaign strategy was then to let people talk about the war while we focused on economic and social development strategies for the future. Every campaign has it own dynamics and at times, it seems as if Liberians in the Diaspora are still fighting the war, more so than those at home, who are faced with daily survival issues.
© 2007 by The Perspective
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