The Murder Of Expatriate Bruno Michiels: What Lessons To Learn?

By: James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 1, 2007


We all condemn and deplore the gruesome murder of Mr. Bruno Michiels. We hope that the perpetrators of this cowardly criminal act will be caught and brought to justice as swiftly as possible, and that the real circumstances leading to the death of this man will be

Not too long ago a Chinese expatriate was also murdered, but perhaps for a different reason and under different circumstances. Nonetheless, this heinous crime did not stop the Chinese aid and investment to Liberia. Under the same token, we also expect that the murder of Mr. Bruno Michiels will not end the Western aid and investment to our country. Not surprisingly, for all our partners/investors Liberia is still considered a war zone; thus their employees sent in there are insured and paid commensurable to the risk.

That said, while the murder of the Chinese expatriate did not ring much of a bell in our sub-conscience, I am now wondering whether both the government and our partners/investors could draw some very useful lessons from this tragic death of Mr. Bruno Michiels. Because it is in the interest of all the parties that such criminal acts against expatriates do not become repetitive; thus tarnishing our hard-earned international image and dampen the investment climate.

The limits and challenges of the Partnership
This unfortunate murder of Mr. Bruno Michiels brings to focus the limits of this much publicised “partnership,” and the many challenges it still faces were it to come to fruition in the genuine interest of all the concerned parties. In this era of this “partnership” and knowing the persistent volatile situation at LAC, how come both of this company’s general and plantation managers are expatriates – a Ghanaian and a Belgian - two men without an iota of knowledge of the profound socio-economic and politico-historical realities of Liberia. If at least one of these men were a son of Grand Bassa county (and God knows the experienced and competent men are there), I have the certitude this tragedy would have been avoided. Or, probably there would not have been this land dispute in the first place. But from all indication, LAC has been in existence since 1959, when the colonial grip on Africa was loosening up, but not its deep-seated mentality of domination through proxies, if not unorthodox brute methods. So Liberians should be more submissive to a Ghanaian or a Belgian than a fellow Liberian. This fallacy is totally obsolete and very short-sighted, indeed. This was the practice I thought this new partnership policy had come to change.

This brings me down to other poignant interrogations: In a country still emerging from a civil war (and still considered a war zone by our partners/investors), and where the population has yet to find its sanctity –why was Mr. Bruno Michiels, a lone White man, surveying a controversial land without the full protection of the LAC plant protection security or an official representative of the Liberian government? Or, why would Mr. Michiels, a foreigner, be surveying land within the Republic of Liberia without an official surveyor of the Republic? Or, why is LAC – a company suppose to employ Liberians – does not have a Liberian surveyor among its cadres?

Just imagine, barely at the end of a devastating civil war in Belgium, an expatriate Black man, found him alone surveying angry farmers’ land in rural Belgium for his company back in Africa under the pretext to provide jobs for the farmers. Anyone in his right mind will surely see such a mission as suicidal; no sound Black man would have accepted such a risk unless where he grew up with the mindset of a dominator.

Nonetheless, I have observed, even as the world has changed, and so too is Africa and African mentality – most expatriates sent or volunteered to these poor, war-torn developing nations still have an embedded colonial mentality of superiority; they considered themselves as untouchables. The sentiments and legitimate concerns of the local people become meaningless once a government is constraint to sign them an agreement of this importance. They ignored that these peasant villagers are the same people who have gone through this type of exploitation before, but then find themselves coming right back to be subjected to the same – completely strangled and dispossessed, bit by bit, of their own livelihood and national wealth - a first degree human rights violation.

We may close our eyes, thus, but the exploitation of Liberians and their resources by our partners/investors have already made international headlines. Since the Ellen-Johnson government came to power, there have been several prime-time programs on Liberia on the French TV; the first two were very critical of the foreign exploitation of our resources and people, and the inability of the government to curtail the situation. One was on the Chinese exploitation of our fisheries with total impunity and disregard for our struggling traditional fishermen. And the second episode was on the near slavery condition of workers at Firestone and LAC. The French journalist who penned this latter could not even hide the fact that there was also a French connection to LAC. Coincidentally, a Chinese and a LAC expatriates have since then been murdered.

After each of these programs I got calls from my African friends to express their disappointment and disgust that Liberians were being exploited so early under a leadership many had already seen as a new hope for the future -not only for Liberia, but also for the entire African continent. Well, I was still defending the difficult position and efforts of the government until this additional murder of Mr. Bruno Michiels all came to prove me wrong. And the calls rained on me again to say how such desperate criminal acts could not be unexpected. According to them, it hurts terribly that the same people who demonize our leaders from morning until night for corruption, bad governance, under-development, poverty, and all the worst of this earth, are the same people screwing us up; put our backs against wall to pawn our national wealth under the illusion that they will provide jobs, schools, hospitals, roads, housing, and the rest. Of course, then why do we need a government at all; get one multinational to pay the civil servants, another to take care of our security, and so on - then all our headaches are over as a nation.

Never in my life have I heard so many countries and multinationals coming into Liberia to take over every single money-making industry and resources it possesses. In the past, and I repeat, we heard about these many joint ventures of the Liberian Government with the multinationals. And though it was still a façade, but it gave our old folks then the sense of being the masters over the control of their national wealth. Today, however, the notion of “partners/investors” is so vague that one gets the impression the only obligation it comes with is an open-line of credit and a promissory note to “provide jobs, schools, hospitals, roads, housing, and the rest we shall see later.” But almost two years on, the jobs are not coming as fast either, and the people still see the “Big Sale” written all over their country while they are mere suffering spectators.

True, as far back as my memory goes, Firestone, LAMCO, LMC, Bong Mines, NIOC, LAC, and all the others had schools, hospitals, paved roads, plant protection security forces, light, water, commissaries or provision stores, etc., all within the confines of their concession areas. There is no secret today that confined developments of this nature do not generate any significant national development; or else Liberia would not have been in its current situation. The confined developments simply create mini concession’s states within a state and total control and dependency of the work force. A meaningful impact on the national development is possible only where those thousands of workers were to live out of the concession confinement, with decent salaries to enable them build homes, maintain families, educate their children within a broader national perspective, pay taxes, and the rest.

Unless we have a national plan to turn an already failed situation – and now being replayed - to a successful one this time around, then telling our people anything to the contrary or seeking a scapegoat in this tragedy will not help us. We must look for the real culprit – he who pulled that trigger, and not he who made statements in defence of the rights of his people to their land. Because those who are defending their land today, are those who are also defend Our Land of Liberty of tomorrow. We are forgetting a little too soon.

Of course, this is just hard is our task today to convince our people; to concede that we have been trapped; then beg them, plead with them, and persuade them to bear with us as we swallow this very bitter pill to which there is no other alternative. In short, in these kinds of delicate and controversial agreements, patience should be the highest virtue of the national leadership to reach out to every concerned citizen, be it our political adversaries or otherwise. The angry voice of one or two eminent persons may surpass that of a million villagers.

In my view, thus, the murder of two expatriates already should wake us up; it is a message not to be ignored or taken lightly by both the government and our partners/investors. Between the heavy presence of UNMIL, partners/ investors, and NGOs roaming all over the country, and a government struggling as hard to cop with the situation – the majority of the people still can not see their way clear; they are suffocating, not seeing themselves as fully participating or being an active part in the distribution of their national wealth. And let me repeat here once more - despite all our troubles, we Liberians are deep-seated nationalists not to be underestimated; nationalism is encrusted in the foundation of our nation.

It is in the interest of all, therefore, that at a point Liberians must be given the chance to feel at home in their own country. Our partners/investors must have confidence in Liberians, train them, and use their competence, advices and expertise the most (not only as petit wage labourers). It is humiliating and even insulting that some of these multinationals are employing African expatriates as managers and not Liberians. What is more, we read that even this Ghanian general manager of LAC was already grooming his fellow expatriate – the late Bruno Michiels to succeed him (see www.FrontpageAfrica - 11/25/07). Realizing how difficult it is for any foreigner to do a business in Ghana without a Ghanian partner, one would have thought this fellow African (whose country has sacrificed so much for the stability of Liberia) would have been harassing his head office to groom Liberian managers instead of expatriates. Because Ghana’s plantations are managed mostly by Ghanians or owned by them, land disputes between government/concessions and villagers are hardly non-existing in that country.

But be as it may, we have a moral problem today that I never thought would have been on the conscience of my generation. I could not imagine that we would have signatured concession agreements today that include the displacement of our villagers – almost 80 years after President C.D.B. King and his Vice President Allen Yancy were chased out of power for an accumulation of similar acts. True, before then they had the Liberian Frontier Force to keep the situation under control. And in our case, however, we are still preparing the new army and strengthening our entire security apparatus.

And here lies our dilemma precisely as those before us. If we should fail to shoulder our full responsibilities in the interest of the people and also vis-à-vis the concessionaires – stricter control to guarantee our national interest – we could be confronted with further serious embarrassments. First, frequent labour crisis cannot be ruled, and that they could be harder and harder to bring under control. And second, these partners/investors in dire need of our natural resources and having invested could be tempted to transform their plant protection security forces into uncontrollable private militias. We have already witnessed the clash between the Free Port security and the National Police boss, and now come the complaints against the LAC plant protection security and the National Police Force in this recent case.

The fragility of our national situation merits a lot of dialogue, patience, and wisdom. At the same time all parties – government and partners/investors – must have a meeting of the hearts (even just half way) so that Liberians and partners/investors stand side by side as equals and steer to success the economic and political destiny of Liberia.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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