Tarponweh’s Antics Against Kofi Woods – A Rejoinder

By Alphonso Nyenuh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 22, 2008


On 11/23/08 Mr. Tilberosa Summoh Tarponweh wrote a letter to Frontpageafrica titled: The Curiosity of Minister Wood’s Appearance before the TRC. In that letter Mr. Tarpponweh criticized the timing of Minister Woods’s presentation before the TRC as well as Woods’ support to the TRC. He also questioned what he (Tarponweh) perceived as Woods’ opposition to a war crimes tribunal in Liberia.

Mr. Tarponweh’s letter is a piece riddled with misrepresentations of the minister’s positions. It also rigs with a lack of understanding of the concepts of war crimes tribunals versus truth and reconciliation commissions and when it may be appropriate to apply one and not the other in addressing abuses, and the role that each plays in the process of transitional justice.

Tarponweh also appears to be driven by overzealousness to criticize and score political points where there are none to be had, so much so that he wants to focus the debate not on the issues raised by Woods but on the timing of Woods’ comments; a timing that the TRC, not Woods, selected, and impute reasons why Woods advanced the positions that he advanced.

WOODS’S STATEMENT BEFORE THE TRC: During his testimony before the TRC, as reported by Frontpgeafrica (FPA), Mr. Woods said the following about the ongoing reconstitution and training of a national army:

“As we advance the reconciliation agenda, I offer a debate [note he says debate] on whether or not Liberia needs an army or probably should we wait and postpone the investment in the army until such time [when] we are ready?” [FPA, 11/19/08].

Woods is concern about reconstituting the army at this time when the mentality that led the previous army to become an instrument of suppression and brutality has not been addressed. He fears that the same mindset may creep in again if that mentality is not addressed before or during the reconstituting process. The mutiny (rather than a lawful approach to advancing their grievances) by some of the newly trained soldiers in Septemberis a classic case for concern.

Woods also questioned whether the investment of US$200 million in training and arming an army at this time was a good investment when in fact other critical services such as education were wanting in support. He then opined that investing the US$200 million in education and other empowering initiatives that would make Liberians stakeholders in their country, and thus limit any urge to make wars would have been a better investment.

TARPONWEH’S UNWARRANTED ATTACKS: Though Mr. Tarponweh does not disagree with Woods’ position on the issue of investing in an army at this time, he still finds reason to criticize and castigate Woods, by arguing that the debate should not be about whether or not investing in an army at this time was a good investment (as Woods intends it to be), but rather why didn’t Woods criticize the training of the army 3 years ago.

“At issue is the confusing tenor and timing of Mr. Woods’statement? Not only that, he has been a cabinet member from the inception of the current government. What did he know and when did he know about the re-establishment of a military as a senior government official? Is it a case of a disgruntled official who did not get the benefit of consultation prior to implementing such a vital public policy? Or an official who simply is grandstanding to belatedly create a perception of a dissent within official ranks?” (Tarponweh, FPA, 11/23/08)

Firstly Mr. Tarponweh, Woods’ statement before the TRC is not the first time that he has commented on the issue of a national army. I know this because I worked with him for years and participated in discussions on this subject with key national and international stakeholders. I have also been aware of Woods’ position for years because he has expressed this position numerous times in public statements and speeches. So he is not a newcomer to the debate; in fact his outspokenness on the issue arguably outdates and outweighs anyone else’s (I stand to be corrected)

Tarponweh’s insinuation that somehow Woods is criticizing the reconstituting and training of the army at this time to create the impression that the government accepts dissent when in fact it may not or because he may not have been consulted by the government before the process was started, is ludicrous and shows that he does not know and has not followed Woods’ positions over the years. Woods is such a fiercely independent person who has built a very strong credibility due to his independent and fearless stance on issues that such charge by Mr. Tarponweh may be due either to him not knowing who Woods actually is or is simply blinded by the penchant to criticize Woods by all means. Tarponweh’s use of phrases such as “the human rights activist turned minister” (insinuating that Woods has abandoned his activist position) underscores this penchant to criticize.

In spite of his position as a government official Woods has maintained his independence and remained vocal to the point that he has even been dubbed the “activist Minister.” All one has to do to discover this fact is to read the papers and internet postings such as Frontpageafrica. And the fact that Mrs. Sirleaf accepts this is a tribute to her leadership.

TIMING OF WOODS’ STATEMENT: Mr. Tarponweh, Woods raised the issue of the National army at the time that he did because he was invited by the TRC (as they did many others) to discuss issues that he believes contributed to our national catastrophe, the ills currently affecting our society and to advance suggestions on how we can use these as guideposts as we seek to build a new nation-state; not because he is disgruntled or wants to present the government in the light that it is not. The TRC invited him and the TRC set the date for his appearance so your “curiosity of Minister Woods’ appearance before the TRC” is at best misplaced.

The issue here Mr. Tarponweh, is not when Woods first criticized the investment in the army because he has been doing so many, many years ago,

WHAT THE ISSUES ARE: The issues at stake here are: 1) was the use of $200 million to train an army at this time a wise investment, 2) should we find a way to insert safeguards that will ensure that the army that is being trained does not become the army of the past; 3) going forward, should we be guided by the mistakes of this decision as we set our national priorities so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future, 4) should we call on the government to ensure that a mechanism is put into place to monitor the training of the army by the private contractors to ensure that they don’t squander the grant on themselves in big fat salaries and fringe benefits?, etc. Those are the issues, not when Kofi Woods first commented or what his motivations might be.

WOODS OPPOSED TO WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL IN LIBERIA: Tarponweh’s diatribe about Woods being opposed to a war crimes tribunal in Liberia is at the height of his ignorance of Woods’ work on the issue. Woods took on the issue of war crimes trials and the general issue of accountability in Liberia when the subject was not fashionable; at a time when warring factions, vehemently opposed to war crimes trials controlled the country, and he did so at great risks to his life.

If Woods came across during his TRC appearance as not being supportive of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia at this time then maybe he is only being pragmatic. Maybe he has come to the conclusion that advocating for a war crimes tribunal at this time might be a lost cause, given the passage of time and our current national realities.

Tarponweh also questioned Woods’ “true reasons for supporting the TRC process,” imputing unholy or other motives. Mr. Tarponweh, Woods supports the TRC process because of its true potential to help us identify the ills that led us to where we are today and to build a society will do away with those things and that will be just, peaceful and prosperous. You should also support the TRC process if you still support war crimes prosecutions because the TRC presents a good opportunity to achieve that.

THE TRC-THE LAST CHANCE FOR WAR CRIMES PROSECUTIONS: Our last chance to see prosecutions for war crimes abuses in Liberia is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That is the reason why, in addition to its other accountability and reconciliation benefits, Woods supports it. The Act establishing the TRC gives the commission the authority to pursue prosecution of individuals who bear greatest responsibility for the worst abuses of the war. That is why I think we should all support the TRC process because it embodies a win-win situationfor all – those who are bent on seeing war crimes prosecutions and those who are interested in just the truth telling and reconciliation aspect.

Truth commissions and war crimes tribunals are both post conflict, transitional justice instruments. Whether one and not the other is applied in a particular post conflict situation has a lot to do with the nature of the conflict and the society, including the culture and preference of the people.

Liberia did not take the path of war crimes tribunals for many reasons, prominent among them being that the Liberian people did not want war crimes prosecutions. When the Liberian people elected Charles Taylor (a war criminal in-chief) as their president in 1997; and when they subsequently (10 years later) elected Prince Johnson, Adolphus Dolo, Isaac Nyenabo, and Saah Gbolie, just to name a few, as their lawmakers they were essentially closing the door on a war crimes tribunal.

With the central government in the hands of people who bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes, with the legislature saturated with people who actually perpetrated the crimes, who was going to pass or ratify the law to prosecute or who was going to make the financial appropriations to fund the process?

Another factor that undermined a war crimes tribunal in Liberia is the manner in which the Liberian peace process was conducted. The chief perpetrators of war crimes were the architects of our peace agreements, and time and time again they rewarded themselves not only with political power but also with immunity from prosecution for the crimes that they committed and guest what? The Liberian people sanctioned their actions by voting them in as leaders.

Coupled with this was the fact that the international community was not willing to support the concept of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia, including funding of a war crimes process. And why should they, especially after the Liberian people have demonstrated a disinterest in the process.

Given this situation, a truth and reconciliation commission was the best and only alternative for addressing the abuses of the war. Through this process it is hoped that people who committed abuses will account for their actions through a public process of atonement and forgiveness, as well the prosecutions of the most serious offenses.

To Messrs Perkins and Gray: May I also use this opportunity to respond to Messrs Sam Perkins and Remie Gray regarding their comments on the army debate. Gentlemen, Woods is not saying that there should not be a national army at all, at any point in our national existence (though it is doable- Costa Rica, for example does not have an army, it has a strong police force instead). His purpose here is to start a national debate as to whether we need it, whether we need it now, how should it look and function if we decide we need it, and how can we ensure that it performs in the way we want it to, not as an instrument of abuse against the people? Can we constitute a small army that performs civic functions in times of peace, that may participate in peacekeeping functions, and that can provide the first layer of defense in times of need before our external partners can come to help us? Woods is not even putting the blame squarely on the soldiers for the excesses of the past armies. And none of you, in your reactions have argued that the army did not play a counter-productive role in the decades in which it has existed. It was the army that was used to torture our people in the 18th and 19th centuries to pay taxes that did not benefit them. It is the army that was used to suppress political dissent, it is the army that was used by past administrations as death squads to kill perceived enemies, etc. to the point that the army became known not as the national army (the people’s army) but as the “congo people army”, Tubman army,” “Doe army,” nokos, etc. And if we decide that we need an army in the new Liberia that we are trying to build then these concerns must be addressed before or during the process of reconstituting an army; that has not happened. LET THE DEBATE CONTINUE

By Alphonso Nyenuh anyenuh@yahoo.com

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