Friday, October 1, 2010

Conflict and Reconciliation Must Be Contextually Defined in Traditional Liberian Terms

Joseph Tomoonh-Garlodeyh Gbaba, Sr., Ed. D.
Exiled Liberian Playwright & Poet-Laureate


I begin my argument in this document by defining conflict and reconciliation in traditional Liberian terms to enable me establish a foundation for my line of reasoning regarding why certain crucial cultural steps and decisions must be taken in order to attain genuine reconciliation in Liberia. These terms are defined in a narrative and creative manner to better explain my argument that genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace, security, and development, cannot be attained unless we restore the tenets of our traditional justice system (namely: rule of law, law and order, due process, retributive and restorative justice) in post-war Liberia. Besides, it is also being assumed by peace brokers in the Liberian peace process that reconciliation can be attained without a price; but on the basis of “Let bygones be bygones,” which has no legal basis. Therefore, the definitions and corresponding arguments provided in this text are intended to give readers the contextual meanings of conflict and reconciliation from the Liberian point of view so that we may seek and use methods of conflict resolution and reconciliation that are contextual to our Liberian cultural and political experience. Subsequently, this may lead us to genuine reconciliation that may ultimately serve as the pathway to sustainable peace, security, and national development in post-conflict Liberia.

What Is Conflict or “Palava” as Per the Liberian Civil War?

Conflict or palava implies disagreement or war as explained in the following passage:

About twenty-one years ago some influential Liberian politicians, warlords, and their supporters took the law into their own hands and created civil disorder and bloodshed throughout the length and breadth of Liberia without due respect to the foundations of our democratic and justice system. Of course, they could have used non-violent and democratic means to express and pursue their dissent; but instead, they chose to use violence and lawlessness to project their hidden agendas. Therefore, their basic reason for doing this was because they felt that a non-violent method of overthrowing a military dictator would not be successful. So, they made their first attempt by invading Liberia from Sierra Leone in November of 1985 and they failed miserably. Then the second time around Liberian warlords and their supporters lobbied international support from Washington, Paris, London, Tripoli, Ouagadougou, Abidjan, and from other nations of the world, in order to succeed in their onslaught on the Liberian people.

Consequently, they purchased weapons of mass destruction and waged a senseless war on innocent and unarmed Liberian and foreign civilians, women, children, and the elderly from the Ivorian-Liberian borders. In the process of waging their war, they also used children as child soldiers and combatants and deprived Liberian children of their inalienable rights to free and efficient education, as well as their right to a happy life and safe environment. As a result, more than two hundred and fifty thousand Liberians and foreign nationals were massacred for no apparent reasons other than the fact that they were Krahn, Mano, Gio, Mandingo, Congor, Christians, Muslims; or that they were Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans, Gambians, Guineans and nationals from troop contributing West African countries. In addition, Liberians were killed because they were members of the Armed Forces of Liberia, the National Police Force, or because they were American citizens, and so forth. Subsequently, Liberia’s entire infrastructure was destroyed, thus sending us back more than a century in national development. In brief, the Liberian civil conflict or palava can be defined as such.

What is Reconciliation?
Reconciliation means settlement, understanding, compromise, or appeasement. It suggests that two or more people who are involved in a conflict or disagreement may bargain in order to reach an understanding or peaceful settlement through dialogue and hopefully not by force of arms. For an example, Liberian terrorist warlords and their fighters and supporters held the Liberian people and the international community hostage in their pursuit to overthrow the Doe government. In this light, Liberian warlords were asked to reconcile—to give and take—when it was observed by Liberians and the international community that the ploy of Liberian warlords to overthrow President Doe had taken a more destructive course of action than was expected. Against this backdrop, Liberian warlords demanded government positions in order to lay down their arms and the Liberian people agreed to grant them their wish. In return, the Liberian people asked Liberian warlords to bow out of public service/politics for thirty years after their first term of office was over so as to restore law and order and due process in post-war Liberia. Mrs. Sirleaf even made a promise during her campaign that she would not run for a second term of office and the Liberian people took her word in good faith because they wanted a sustainable and peaceful end to the Liberian conflict.

This bargain, of course, was reflected through the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report because the continued presence of Liberian warlords in positions of public trust in Liberia sends negative signals to the world: (1) it contravenes the Constitution of Liberia and international human rights and humanitarian laws regarding the people’s rights to freedom, liberty, justice, rule of law, self-preservation, and the sanctity of human life; (2) it sends out a negative message to future generations of Liberians and Africans that those who massacred their fellow countrymen and women did so with impunity in Liberia and also under the watchful eyes of UN, AU, and ECOWAS peace negotiators; (3) allowing Liberian warlords to participate actively in politics without being screened by the Elections Commission not only threatens the national security of Liberia; but rather, it further threatens regional security as well. An example of this dilemma was the spill over of the Liberian Civil War to neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, respectively. Hence, in order for Liberians to attain real reconciliation and walk on the path of freedom, respect for rule of law, and restore national security, certain traditional Liberian precepts must be restored.

What Does the Word “Precept Mean?

In this text, the word “precept” infers a rule, an instruction, or a principle that guides the Liberian people’s actions, especially as it relates to their moral behavior. Therefore, finding solutions to the unlawful and destructive behavior of Liberians over the past two decades rests on the precepts that guided their lives prior to the event of the civil war. Obviously, this does not rule out the use of other well established and effective state-of-the-art peace education and conflict resolution best practices in order to derive more meaningful and culturally sensitive outcomes in the Liberian peace process. Hence, some basic cultural precepts that underpin the traditional model of conflict resolution and reconciliation may include but are not limited to: (1) the concept of a traditional sacrifice called “Slah” during which human or animal sacrifices are made. The word originates from the Krahn language; (2) the concepts of law and order and rule of law; (3) retributive and restorative justice; and (4) the concept of due process in the traditional model of conflict resolution and reconciliation.

“Slah” or traditional sacrifice.

“Slah” literally means, “Traditional sacrifice” in the Krahn language. In short, the concept demonstrates traditional Liberians’ spiritual belief in making human and animal sacrifices to appease God and the spirits of our forefathers. This is something they inherited from the beginning of Old Testament time from their Patriarch, Abraham, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac; but then God mysteriously replaced Isaac with a lamb. In New Testament time, God used his only begotten son to reconcile us unto Him. Here, sacrifices are either made before we begin a new adventure that requires God’s blessings and the approval of the spirits of our forefathers; or, we might make sacrifices after we have sinned against God and man; or after a successful farming year or after a disaster has occurred (such as the Liberian Civil War), in order to renew our covenant with God. In essence, “Slah” is a basic spiritual component of peace enforcement in the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation model. It is carried out to seal a covenant between parties to a conflict and it binds all parties to the decision that is made by the council of elders, chiefs, and zoes.

In this direction, a truce or ceasefire called the “Doe-dee accord” is sometimes negotiated or successfully navigated between warring parties to a conflict before a “Slah” is performed. “Doe-dee” means: “From the same mother” in Krahn. Hence, it infers brotherhood and sisterhood among all Liberians/Africans and it translates as meaning that all mankind are brothers and sisters from the same ancestry. That is why in the African/Liberian cultural setting we are all expected to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in accordance with the “Slah” or “Doe-dee” traditions. Today, there are several examples of “Doe-dee accords” among many Liberian ethnic groups. For instance, the Krahns, Krus, Greboes, Bassas, Gbis, Gborhs, Bellehs, and Dewions are traditional “Doe-dees.” Descendants of these Liberian ethnic groups are spiritually and co-sanguinely related. In this light, it is forbidden for “Doe-dees” to shed one another’s blood. Also, the Krahns, Manos, and Gios are “Doe-dees.” They are related through marriage. However, in the event where any of these ethnic groups engage in hostilities against one another and shed blood, then it is traditionally customary for a “Slah” to be made in order for us to appease God and the spirits of our forefathers for breaking the traditional law that prohibits “Doe-dees” to shed one another’s blood.

“Slah” is usually done by slaughtering cows, sheep, goats, chickens, etc.; and by preparing and eating together a sacred meal called “Gbowah” in the Krahn language. Unfortunately, this traditional Liberian custom has not been enforced or performed since the Liberian Civil War was waged more than twenty years ago. A basic reason being that those who are spearheading the Liberian peace process (Liberians and aliens alike) do not have the slightest idea of how important the culture of Liberia is in resolving the current political bottleneck in which “Doe-dees shared one another’s blood in violation of their respective “Doe-dee accords.” And, unless a national “Slah” is administered by the traditional chiefs, zoes, and council of elders to wash away the blood of our dearly departed loved ones, the curse of national insecurity, mayhem, and human carnage will forever remain on our heads as a nation and people.

Law and order and the rule of law.

Here, by law and order, I mean the strict enforcement of the law, such as the enforcement of the Constitution of Liberia or the traditional customs of the people of Liberia, as well as the maintenance of social stability. Also with respect to rule of law, it can be defined as an authoritative principle set forth to guide the behavior or actions of Liberians. In traditional days, Liberians were ruled by very powerful kings, queens, council of elders and sometimes by military dictatorships. However, in modern times, the roles of traditional Liberian kings and elders were minimized especially when the Western governance structure that calls for a republican and democratic form of government was introduced in the Liberian society since the early 19th century. Against this backdrop, traditional Liberian elders strictly adhered to the traditional laws of the land and they made sure that justice was meted out to all individuals without favor and irrespective of the statuses of those who breached the law. For an example, President William V. S. Tubman used the traditional council model to resolve many national and traditional disputes during his administration; even though he was faulted with interfering in judiciary matters as Chief Executive of Liberia.

Retributive and Restorative Justice.

Further, the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation process is based on retributive justice wherein something is done or given to somebody as punishment for something he or she has done. For an example, Liberians who were guilty of murder back in the day were put to death through the gallows—by hanging—during the Tolbert administration. Hence, by so doing, restorative justice was also achieved for the relatives of those who were murdered and it helped to reduce “Gboyooism” or the wanton murder of one Liberian citizen by another. In view of this, traditional Liberians clang on to the retributive and restorative justice system overtime because firstly both methods of justice seek to find out who breached the law and then secondly mete out punishments based on the magnitude of the offence committed by the individual culprit. Thus, the decision taken by the Government of Liberia to curb murder in our society at that time subsequently set a good example for all members of society to emulate and it ensured the strict enforcement of the rule of law and due process in Liberia.

Due process.

Due process means fundamental principles of justice as opposed to specific rule of law. It refers to a citizen’s right to justice—the entitlement of a citizen to proper legal procedures and natural justice. Further, the traditional justice system emphasizes the fact that there are consequences for our actions and justice is meted out when undesirable human behaviors are exhibited and when appropriate and approximate consequences are meted out in order to punish or reduce or stop undesirable behaviors in society. For instance, examples of traditional due processes may include but may not be limited to: (1) court proceedings; (2) traditional sassy wood; (3) palava hut arguments heard by heads of family households, council of elders or chiefs, and (4) under the palm wine tree deliberations. In all four traditional conflict resolution and reconciliation processes there is always a binding and impartial verdict reached by peace negotiators to determine who is right and who is wrong based on traditional customary laws and beliefs. In this manner, not only does this traditional Liberian justice system assure all citizens of their right to due process but it also assures them of sustainable peace, reconciliation, security, and ample room for national development. Some examples of consequences may include: (a) the death penalty for committing capital crimes such as murder or treason; (b) a $40 fine when a man sleeps with the wife of another man; (c) corporeal punishment for minor crimes committed, such as stealing, and other folk methods of meting out justice and behavior modification, including but not limited to beating a thief in public and singing the “Thiefee-thiefee, jan-ko-lee-ko” song when a rogue is caught; (d) by rubbing ashes and dressing somebody in old rice bags and wasting cold water on him or her when he or she continually pees in bed, such as the Bassa custom of “Soe-nee-doh; Gbay-mon-dohyon” to punish the habit of peeing in bed; and (e) the famous twenty-five lashes of whippings we received from our parents when we did something wrong during our childhood days.

Differences between the Traditional Model and the UN Win-Win Model

In view of the foregoing, there are differences and contradictions between the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation model and the UN, AU, and ECOWAS peace model because of the following reasons: (1) the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation process is based on rule of law; law and order; due process; retributive and restorative justice. Whereas, in the UN peace model for Liberia, peace accords are written and signed by parties to the conflict but they are not executed or implemented as agreed upon; (2) there are consequences for our actions in the traditional model but there are no consequences in the UN peace context because they contend that nobody is to be blamed; (3) the traditional model requires perpetrators to rehabilitate and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation; whereas, in the UN, AU, and ECOWAS peace model (a) nobody takes the blame for the mayhem and carnage that took place in Liberia; (b) there is a so-called win-win situation whereby nobody “gets best” (c) those who breached the laws of Liberia are rewarded with the leadership of Liberia and they are subsequently entrusted with the security of their victims by partial peace brokers; and (d) due process is solely secured to protect the offenders and perpetrators of heinous war crimes and to subjugate their victims to continued duress and human degradation.

The Dubious Roles of African Regional Organizations and Peace Negotiators
In addition, I would say that another basic reason for the continued dubious and passive UN peace model in Liberia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is because peace negotiators of the African Union, ECOWAS, and other regional organizations in Africa are themselves very foolish and crooked or warped in resolving conflicts on the continent of Africa. They do not assert themselves as genuine representatives of the African people. Instead, they get caught up in corrupt practices and sell their birth rites to foreign negotiators who profit heavily on the tomfoolery of African bureaucrats and so-called intellectuals. In Liberia, we usually say, “If your own house does not sell you, outsiders will not buy you.” In this light, Liberians in particular and Africans in general are being sold by their own Brothers and Sisters and bought like “two-for-five” lappas by the UN and the outside world because of the cheap propagandas and jealousies of self-centered African peace negotiators and bureaucrats who do not want Liberians or Africans to prosper as a sovereign nation and people. As a result, they gamble with the lives of their fellow Africans just for a few “Benjamins and Lincolns!”

On the contrary, this is not the case on the continent of Europe where the European Union takes full control of conflicts on that continent and resolves them with full speed in the greater interest of all Europeans in particular and mankind in general. Hence, unlike the Liberian or other African experiences where warlords are hailed and set free to roam the corridors of power, Europeans did not reward war criminals in Bosnia with positions of public trust. Instead, war criminals were indicted and tried at war crime tribunals to provide retributive justice for war criminals and restorative justice for those who were victimized by the atrocities of Serbs and Croats. Consequently, both Serbs and Croats were indicted and convicted of systematic war crimes, while Bosniaks were indicted and convicted of individual ones. Some high ranking political leaders of Serbs (Momcilo Krajisnik and Biljana Plavsic) as well as Croats (Dario Kordic) were convicted of war crimes, while some others are presently on trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (Radovan Karadzic and Jadranko Prlic). Also, the European reconciliation process succeeded because the regional body (European Union), along with Europeans and the United Nations, spoke with one voice. This is also unlike the Liberian experience where some Liberian civilians are still singing to their Liberian warlords: You killed our mas; you killed our pas, but we will still vote for you!

Some Strategies to End the Political Impasse in Liberia

Against this end, the best way to end the Liberian conflict is for every Liberian to get actively and positively involved in the resolution of the conflict. Accordingly, it is important that every Liberian living in Liberia and the United States of America write his or her county Senators and Representatives in the Liberian Legislature to pressurize them to enact the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report as a legal document and to establish a war crime court in Liberia to indict and prosecute Liberian war criminals for the atrocities and mayhem they committed against Liberians and humanity. Also, Liberians living in the United States who are U. S. citizens and permanent residents are required to write their State and U. S. Senators and Representatives requesting them to pressurize the Liberian Government to implement the TRC recommendations by establishing a war crime court to try Liberian war criminals and to screen political aspirants to make sure would-be candidates do not have past or present criminal records before they can be approved to contest the 2011 presidential and general elections. In my opinion, this is the surest and fastest way Liberians can help themselves to resolve their own conflict without being pulled into a drawn out peace process by the UN, AU, and ECOWAS. In the final analysis, this may assist Liberians attain legitimate reconciliation that may serve as a pathway to sustainable peace, security, and national development.


In this document I began my argument with the need to contextually define conflict and reconciliation in traditional Liberian parlance or terms so that Liberians and the international community may grasp a clear understanding of what needs to be done in order to achieve sustainable peace, national security, and development in post-war Liberia. In effect, I asserted that the Liberian conflict and genuine reconciliation may be achieved if Liberians restore the tenets or precepts of their justice system, such as: rule of law, law and order, due process, retributive and restorative justice, “Slah,” and “Doe-dee accords.” Accordingly, I further advised Liberians to stop relying on UN, AU, and ECOWAS peace accords to resolve their twenty-one year old civil conflict because these so-called “peace accords” are intended to keep the UN, AU, and ECOWAS in lucrative business while the Liberian nation and people continually suffer under the cruel leadership of their tormenters and warlords. Against this background, I provided narrative and culturally relevant definitions of traditional Liberian cultural and legal precepts and I explained where we presently stand with respect to how the Liberian Civil War began and where we are with the stalled reconciliation process.

Next, I explained the need for a traditional sacrifice called “Slah” in the Krahn language, as well as the renewal of our traditional “Doe-dee accords” in order to finally resolve our conflict the traditional way. In this light, I also explained what law and order, rule of law, due process, restorative and retributive justice actually mean and how important they are in successfully managing and resolving our national crisis. Based on the premise above, I cited differences between the traditional Liberian peacekeeping model and the UN win-win peace model to emphasize that the UN peace concept contradicts our traditional Liberian mode of peace enforcement. Here, the UN peace model states that nobody is to be blamed for the atrocities that were committed, thus the basic reason why today Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and other Liberian warlords have not been indicted for crimes they committed or abetted in Liberia. Whereas, from the Liberian perspective, somebody “gets best” when two or more individuals are engaged in a conflict based on the rule of law, due process, as well as retributive and restorative justice.

In addition, I cautioned Liberians about the continued dubious roles of UN and African regional organizations and peace negotiators because they betray the trust their own African Brothers and Sisters repose in them just to gain quick wealth—thus prolonging and subjugating African peoples to economic and human degradation in cohort with African warlords and international peace “gold diggers.” Against this backdrop, I cited the good example of how the European Union as a regional organization on the continent of Europe continuously protects the best interest of Europeans and the rest of mankind who live in Europe from the yokes of neo-slavery and economic depravation. Hence, Europeans continuously achieve this level of success because they speak with one voice unlike the Liberian situation where we still have Liberians we are still singing the “You kill our mas, you killed our pas but we will still vote for you” song.

Finally, I stated that all Liberians need to speak with one voice in order to peacefully and successfully resolve the Liberian conflict and in order to attain genuine reconciliation which involves a give-and-take process for all involved in the conflict. In this light, I suggested that all Liberians living in the United States of America and those living in Liberia actively engage their lawmakers in the Liberian Legislature and the United States Congress to pressurize the Liberian Government to implement the TRC recommendations with full speed before presidential and general elections are held in November, 2011. Further, I also called for the establishment of a war crime court in Liberia. In view of the foregoing, I rested my argument on the premise that Liberians may attain sustainable peace, security, national development and reconciliation if Liberians restore the tenets of their justice system and contextually define conflict and reconciliation in traditional Liberian terms.

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Everyone is a genius

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – A Einstein

Drawing the line in Liberia

Crimes sponsored, committed, or masterminded by handful of individuals cannot be blamed upon an entire nationality. In this case, Liberians! The need for post-war justice is a step toward lasting peace, stability and prosperity for Liberia. Liberia needs a war crimes tribunal or some credible legal forum that is capable of dealing with atrocities perpetrated against defenseless men, women and children during the country's brutal war. Without justice, peace shall remain elusive and investment in Liberia will not produce the intended results. - Bernard Gbayee Goah

Men with unhealthy characters should not champion any noble cause

They pretend to advocate the cause of the people when their deeds in the dark mirror nothing else but EVIL!!
When evil and corrupt men try to champion a cause that is so noble … such cause, how noble it may be, becomes meaningless in the eyes of the people - Bernard Gbayee Goah.

If Liberia must move forward ...

If Liberia must move forward in order to claim its place as a civilized nation amongst world community of nations, come 2017 elections, Liberians must critically review the events of the past with honesty and objectivity. They must make a new commitment to seek lasting solutions. The track records of those who are presenting themselves as candidates for the position of "President of the Republic of Liberia" must be well examined. Liberians must be fair to themselves because results from the 2011 elections will determine the future of Liberia’s unborn generations to come - Bernard Gbayee Goah

Liberia's greatest problem!

While it is true that an individual may be held responsible for corruption and mismanagement of funds in government, the lack of proper system to work with may as well impede the process of ethical, managerial, and financial accountability - Bernard Gbayee Goah

What do I think should be done?

The situation in Liberia is Compound Complex and cannot be fixed unless the entire system of government is reinvented.
Liberia needs a workable but uncompromising system that will make the country an asylum free from abuse, and other forms of corruption.
Any attempt to institute the system mentioned above in the absence of rule of law is meaningless, and more detrimental to Liberia as a whole - Bernard Gbayee Goah

Liberia's Natural Resources
Besides land water and few other resources, most of Liberia’s dependable natural resources are not infinite, they are finite and therefore can be depleted.
Liberia’s gold, diamond, and other natural resources will not always be an available source of revenue generation for its people and its government. The need to invent a system in government that focuses on an alternative income generation method cannot be over emphasized at this point - Bernard Gbayee Goah

Liberia needs a proper system
If Liberians refuse to erect a proper system in place that promotes the minimization of corruption and mismanagement of public funds by government institutions, and individuals, there will come a time when the value of the entire country will be seen as a large valueless land suited on the west coast of Africa with some polluted bodies of waters and nothing else. To have no system in place in any country is to have no respect for rule of law. To have no respect for rule of law is to believe in lawlessness. And where there is lawlessness, there is always corruption - Bernard Gbayee Goah

Solving problems in the absence of war talks

As political instability continues to increase in Africa, it has become abundantly clear that military intervention as a primary remedy to peace is not a durable solution. Such intervention only increases insecurity and massive economic hardship. An existing example which could be a valuable lesson for Liberia is Great Britain, and the US war on terror for the purpose of global security. The use of arms whether in peace keeping, occupation, or invasion as a primary means of solving problem has yield only little results. Military intervention by any country as the only solution to problem solving will result into massive military spending, economic hardship, more fear, and animosity as well as increase insecurity. The alternative is learning how to solve problems in the absence of war talks. The objective of such alternative must be to provide real sustainable human security which cannot be achieved through military arm intervention, or aggression. In order to achieve results that will make the peaceful coexistence of all mankind possible, there must be a common ground for the stories of all sides to be heard. I believe there are always three sides to every story: Their side of the story, Our side of the story, and The truthBernard Gbayee Goah


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