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"We wonna go home"! -The Liberian story

Fri, 29 Aug 2003 Source: GNA

A GNA feature by Nana Kodjo Jehu-Appiah)

Accra, Aug.29, GNA - "We wonna go home, we wonna go home," angry Liberian women yelled their hearts out to press home their frustrations for staying in Ghana for far too long as refugees. The foreboding women clad in white T-shirts and chanting a mantra for a quick return to their homeland, were at the Accra Conference Centre where a marathon Peace Talks started on their war-wrecked country on June 4.

The protestors, numbering about 50 were mainly from the Gomoa Buduburam Refugee Camp, in the Central Region where they have lived at the benevolence of their hosts and hostesses for 14 years. The demonic situation is too long to compel every Liberian to feel homesick.

Liberia had taken the protracted path of self-destruction making the one time safe haven for African Liberation fighters, a very bad example in the West Africa Sub- Region.

The cradle for freed Black-American slaves and also the oldest Republic in Africa had become a big slaughterhouse for the three and half million inhabitants.

Combatants in the long-drawn bloody civil conflict succeeded in killing an estimated 250,000 people and drove as many as 500,000 others into exile.

The exiled Leader of that country, Charles Taylor was accused of conniving with political dissidents to destabilized countries in the Mano River Basin, leading to political turmoil in neighbouring Sierra Leone, Guinea and La Cote d'Ivoire.

The war in Liberia is perhaps a payback time for the former warlord, Mr Taylor, as it is on record that the rebel groups that initiated the sustained armed conflict to topple his regime enjoyed overt and covert support from the these countries. The consequential humanitarian crisis and carnage was beyond description.

" It is simply too bad. Can you imagine human intestines being used as road barriers? These were some of the horrific things combatants have done to innocent lives in Liberia," a Liberian Journalist, recollected, almost in tears.

According to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Liberia is a dumping ground for over 50 per cent of small arms in Africa.

Child soldiers have replaced their textbooks and lesson notes with AK-47 assault rifles.

Killing with a gun is perhaps a substitute for the toys these child combatants might have missed in normal times. They have committed worse human right abuses like rape, maiming and killing of civilians but just too naive and young to understand the intricacies of armed conflict.

UN statistics also paints a gloomy picture for Liberia. 85 per cent of Liberians live in abject poverty, 70 per cent of the armed factions are children under 18 and school enrolment is less than 15 per cent.

The raping of women and children is endemic while the capital, Monrovia, is a city living without electricity supply for 10 years. Very determined and militant as they were, Liberian women mounted pressure on stakeholders at the ECOWAS-brokered Peace Talks throughout the 78 days of the closed-door negotiations to wrestle for their nation, the needed peace and stability.

United under the auspices of the Women in Peace Building Network of Liberia (WPBNL), the placard bearing women made their presence very conspicuous.

In one instance they held the warring factions hostage in the 'Trinity Hall' of the M-Plaza Hotel, where the Chief Mediator of the Talks, Nigerian former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar was holding meeting with them to end a stalemate over the endorsement of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The protestors sat at the main entrance to the Hall with placards some of which read: "Killers of our people no impunity this time"; " Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people stop!" and "How many babies do you intend to slaughter?"

This compelled security men at the Hotel to approach Madam Leymah Gbowee, Coordinator of the Network, to negotiate with her counterparts not to do anything to breech the peace.

Tearful Madam Leymah told the security men that she was prepared to face any consequence if it meant death, imprisonment or stripping naked to resist them.

She expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of commitment by the three warring factions - the Liberian Government; Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) to a comprehensive agreement they should have signed on July 17 as a follow-up to a fragile Ceasefire Agreement they endorsed on June 17.

Madam Gbowee said the rebels were being pampered by ECOWAS mediators hence their unwillingness to work towards the comprehensive plan.

"They are being kept in cozy rooms and being fed fat, how will they be encouraged to give peace a chance?"

The commotion compelled General Abubakar to come out from the conference room to negotiate for some sanity.

Dr Ruth Perry, Former Iinterim Head of State of Liberia, also associated herself with the numerous calls on the warring factions to give peace a chance.

Dr Perry who headed the transitional government that ushered in former President Taylor's administration in 1997 said in an interview with the GNA that war was not the option to serve the best interest of Liberians.

"What do we want? What is it that is so important that we are fighting for? If it is in the interest of the people then there should be no fighting," she said.

Referring to the mass exodus of people fleeing the conflict, Dr Perry said: "We have no where to go. It is not easy to live in another man's country but your own."

Media Coverage of the Peace Talks was without excitement, humiliation and embarrassment. There were daily hustles by Journalists to get a scoop, sometimes leading to confrontation with overbearing security personnel and tight-lipped ECOWAS personnel.

At one instance, MODEL official Spokesperson, succeeded in luring anxious Journalists striving to get the story for the day into a washroom at the Akosombo-based Volta Hotel for press briefing.

The attempted arrest of former Liberian President in Ghana at the inception of the Talks also made matters worse for ECOWAS mediators. ECOWAS Chairman, President John Agyekum Kufuor, Head of State of Ghana, and other Leaders of the African Region that witnessed the opening ceremony, had to do back-door negotiations to reverse the arrest warrant from the UN War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Ghana's Foreign Minister, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo described the attempted arrest of Mr Taylor as an embarrassing situation. Visibly shaken, Mr Taylor flew back home after the opening ceremony but that was not the end of the story.

MODEL and LURD representatives at the Talks made political gains with the indictment and insisted that embattled Mr Taylor should step down to face the Tribunal as a precondition for further negotiations for ceasefire.

Mr Taylor bowed to international pressure and emplaned to the port city of Calabar in South-Eastern Nigeria, where President (General) Olusengu Obasanjo has offered him asylum.

He handed over executive authority to Vice-President Moses Blah whom he had earlier sacked for allegedly plotting a coup against him while in Ghana to attend the Peace Talks.

The elusive search for lasting peace in Liberia came to an end on August 18, when the intensive negotiations for peace paid off. The Stakeholders at the Talks endorsed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra to pave the way for the establishment of National Transitional Government for Liberia (NTGL).

This was the by-product of compromises from all the major players. "Having suffered so much devastation and deprivation as a result of politically motivated conflicts, Liberians must now appreciate the danger of individuals and groups of persons, undermining national interest and individuals' human rights, through the barrel of the gun," President Kufuor said at the signing ceremony, attracting a standing ovation.

"Your own experiences over the past decade firmly establish that, truly genuine political power comes not by the gun, but by the will of the people, expressed through the ballot." This also attracted a prolonged applause from the Liberian refugees. President Kufuor gave an overview of the efforts ECOWAS had put into resolving the protracted Liberian conflict. These include the deployment of Nigerian led Inter-Positional Vanguard Force in Monrovia to stop the carnage, protect lives and properties and generally restore order to enable the search for peace in Liberia to continue.

General Abubakar, who was given a standing ovation for steering the Peace Talks had this to say: "I believe that with the signing of this Agreement Liberia will never again be plunged into another war. Liberia needed developers and nation builders.

"The international community is getting impatient with Liberia" he said, adding: "If Liberians believe that (Former President) Charles Taylor is the problem he has left, let no one else be the next problem."

Dr Chambas also cautioned the belligerent groups that further violence would lead to more killings, maiming and hardships. The Agreement he said calls for disarmament, de-mobilisation and reintegration of combatants and called for unity of purpose from all stakeholders to make that possible.

The endorsement of the Agreement by the major players was followed by the nomination of Mr Gyude Byrant of the Liberia Action Party as Chairman of the NTGL and Mr Wesley Johnson of the United Peoples Party as the Vice-Chairman.

The NTGL would manage the transitional process of the war-ruined country for two years to pave the way for general election in October 2005.

The elected government would assume power on the last Monday of January 2006.

Mr Louis Brown of the Government of Liberia, Mr Sekou Conneh, Chairman of LURD, Mr Thomas Yaya Nimely of MODEL and representatives of the 18 political parties endorsed the 27-page document. The Agreement provides for a general framework for the peace process including the composition of the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary.

The Transitional Government takes over from President Blah on October 14.

With peace taking the few bold steps in Liberia to the admiration of the international community, despite reported skirmishes between the regular Army and the rebel factions, it is only prudent for Leaders of the Sub-Region to listen to the cry of Liberian women and help fulfil their long cherished hope of going home.

"We wonna go home," should be replaced with, "Liberia here we come" and "home at last, sweet, sweet Liberia."

Columnist: GNA