A Liberian Assesses His Nation's Troubles

MOST of the news coming out of Liberia lately has bordered on, if not actually fallen into, the tragic. As so often happens, however, most press reports have simplified the essence of the Liberian conflict, describing it as a struggle between two men - Liberian President Samuel K. Doe and leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, Charles Taylor. While the personalities, ambitions, and backgrounds of these two men certainly have an impact on the current crisis in Liberia, portraying the Liberian situation in these terms obscures the complexities involved and risks misleading the Western public.

A few commentators have observed that the roots of Liberia's present civil war go back to 1980 when President Doe staged the coup that brought him to power. In fact, the roots run throughout Liberia's 140-year history. Like most other African nations, Liberia, despite historically close ties with the United States, has scant knowledge of democratic practices. Ruled by an elite group of Americo-Liberians until 1980, the mass of Liberia's population acquired no experience in representative democracy.

President Doe, the first native Liberian to hold the country's presidency, was also the first to broaden the base of the government's legitimacy. In 1984, he established a new Constitution and the following year brought open, multiparty elections - the first-such elections in Liberia's history.

Granted, the results of these elections proved questionable, but I and other citizens of Liberia managed to install a president and a legislature. The same pool of votes that legitimized the legislature sustains Doe's claim to the presidency. On what legal basis, therefore, does the Liberian legislature contemplate asking Doe to resign? Is it because Amos Sawyer and Charles Taylor don't like him?

Well, I may not like him either, but that does not give me the right to dispense with the Constitution. Doe, in fact, holds the most legitimate claim to the Liberian presidency of any president in the history of the republic. My grandfathers, Quaye Slopoh Tarty and Gbalee Kuhn, never had the opportunity to vote for or against any of the Americo-Liberian administrations that extracted forced labor from them. Samuel Doe, Thomas Quiwonkpa, Thomas Weh-Sehn, and countless others put their lives on the line so that I would have the pleasure of voting against Doe.

Liberians with complaints against President Doe's government should strive for something more inclusive than circumventing the basic law of the land so that Charles Taylor can drive his Jaguars through the streets of Monrovia and Boston.

I find it particularly disturbing that the US is willing to allow Liberia to sacrifice its hard-won Constitution in the current crisis. Liberia has traditionally looked to the US for guidance, and the present situation is no exception. Unfortunately, the US government has remained largely silent, or worse yet, urged President Doe to negotiate with Charles Taylor and those who seek to disrupt the constitutional process, seizing the government through force.

If an American president is unpopular, he faces the electorate at the constitutionally designated time - and wins or loses the election, depending on the degree of his popularity. Don't Liberians deserve the same right to dispose of an unwanted president through mutually agreed upon means?

The US has no moral or legal obligation to intervene in Liberia. And most Liberians do not want direct US intervention. But a clear indication from the US government that it respects the Constitution of Liberia and believes that the people of Liberia should do likewise would be a welcome - and appropriate - gesture.

Democracy undoubtedly rests on fragile foundations in Liberia. Its fragility, however, does not suggest that Liberians should abandon it. On the contrary, we should seek to sustain and augment existing democratic institutions and ideas, however imperfect at present. Not until we learn to allow the Constitution to direct and determine our destiny without whimsical interference, will we achieve the goals that Liberia seeks as a nation.

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