Friday, April 25

Today is World Malaria Day. I think it has been a good idea to draw people’s attention to this awful disease. Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. It kills each year between one and three million people, the most vulnerable groups being small children and older people. More than 500 million people suffer from the disease!
Compare this with HIV/AIDS: about 40 million people are affected by the hiv-virus (more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular Southern Africa). About three million people die from it each year, of whom two million in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Liberia, malaria is the number one killer. It accounts for 18% of all deaths. This week it was disclosed that Liberia has the highest rate of malaria in West Africa. Liberians no longer die from bullets. Nowadays the mosquitoes that transmit the disease are the greatest enemy.

The coastal zone of Liberia is one of the most humid regions in the world, as a result of the yearly rainfall which varies between five and six metres. Malaria is common and widespread. However, preventive measures are possible, in particular the use of nets during the night, and those who can afford it can take preventive medicine to reduce the risk of infection. Once infected, the sick person may take antimalarial drugs, such as quinine and artemisinine derivates, to treat the infection, but the poor of course cannot afford it whereas in the greater part of Liberia there are no pharmacies. And it should not be forgotten that Liberia has only 30 medical doctors for its population of about 3 million people, resulting in one of the lowest ratio in the world.

Malaria is among the most feared diseases I know. When in Liberia I got infected, despite the use of prophylactic drugs and being well-fed. Fortunately, I could afford to buy quinine to treat the infection. In Liberia, malaria is rampant during and shortly after the rainy season. I just read that the rainy season has started in Liberia. It will last until October, at least. I am afraid that this year again many Liberians will not survive the rainy season. Is it inevitable?

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Saturday, April 12
‘April 12’. This day ranks among the top three of historical days of Liberia, the first being of course July 26, Independence Day. I would not know the third one. Maybe ‘Flag Day’, somewhere in August, but who knows the exact day by heart? On that broiling hot day in August, 1847, the Liberian flag was hoisted for the first time by a small group of colonists who came from overseas. No, I rather think that April 14 is among the top three. On April 14, 1979, tribal Monrovia rebelled as never before in the country’s history, also known as the ‘rice riots’. During the forbidden demonstration of April 14, 1979 the Monrovian Police Force killed hundreds of people, many more were wounded. Widespread looting followed. Demonstrators asked fellow-Liberians to identify themselves by speaking a tribal language.

One year later, almost on the precise day - also on a Saturday like today -I woke up in Monrovia and heard shooting. Surprised and curious I turned on the radio and soon heard the historical words: ‘God is tired. After 133 years the enlisted men of the Liberian Army led by Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe have toppled the Government because of rampant corruption and continuous failure of the Liberian Government to effectively handle the affairs of the Liberian people. No plane is allowed to come in. No plane is allowed to go out.’

We all know what had happened the night before. We all know what followed. The killing of President William R. Tolbert was only the beginning and the military coup d’état of Liberia’s first president of tribal origin turned out to be the start of a nightmare. As early as 1947 the American author Raymond Leslie Buell had predicted what could happen once the tribal population no longer tolerated the domination of those who considered themselves superior to Liberians of tribal descent. In those days I wrote that ‘The Land of Privileges and Poverty had turned into a Land of Hope and Glory. Whether this hope is justified, only future developments will tell.’

I was right to be careful in my assesssment. I could never have thought, however, that a quarter of a century later Liberia was to recover from one of the most tumultuous episodes of its history, facing three major tasks: to form a nation, to develop the country and to unite its people.

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Recommended reading:
Raymond Leslie Buell, ‘Liberia: A Century of Survival 1847 - 1947’ (New York, 1969; originally published 1947).


Thursday, April 3
At the end of a two-day official visit of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to Ivory Coast, the Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo announced his country’s decision to join the Mano River Union (MRU). President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf actually is the chair of the MRU.
What is it, that African presidents try over and again to establish, keep going and, if necessary, revive regional organizations, even though they haven’t had any success for decades?

The Mano River Union, aiming to create a customs union, was created in 1973 by then Presidents Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone and William Tolbert of Liberia, and named after the river which starts in the Guinean highlands and forms the border between the two countries. In 1980 Guinea (Conakry) joined the organization. The organization was still-born. Both economic underdevelopment, political instability and the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia prevented it from achieving its objectives. In 2004, then Presidents Conteh (Guinea), Kabbah (Sierra Leone) and Chairman Bryant (Liberia) reactivated the union. Now, a fourth country, the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, joined. Will the union fare any better now?

The economies of African countries suffer from many weaknesses, one of them being a small domestic market. This partly explains the continuous attempts to establish regional economic groupings which may overcome this obstacle. The combined market of the four MRU-members totals well over 30 million people. About fifty percent of them are Ivorians. Moreover, the economy of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire is more robust than those of the other three member-states - but maybe I should say, Ivory Coast’s economy was much stronger than those of its neighbours. Like Sierra Leone and Liberia, Ivory Coast has been confronted with political instability which resulted in a civil war. Actually, the country is divided in a government-controlled southern part and a rebel-hold northern part.

Guinea is the only country that has escaped, so far, from the civil war virus in the region. However, many people in the region hold their breath because of the ailing health of President Conteh of Guinea, in power since 1984, and the signs of a forthcoming power struggle between his supporters and opponents.

Maybe the Mano River Union, a regional organization aiming at economic integration, will prove to be more important as an organization that fosters political stability. For that reason it may deserve our support. Its big sister in the region, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), is a shining example. Created in 1975 it has achieved very little, in terms of its main objectives – etablishing an Economic Union - or looking at the standard of living of its population in the 15 West African member-states. However, its contribution to political stability in the sub-region is undisputed, even though it is mainly due to its most powerful member, Nigeria.

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Monday, March 31
Today it is exactly two years ago that former president Charles Taylor was arrested in Nigeria and transferred, first to Sierra Leone, then to the Netherlands, to stand trial.

His trial, which had started in the second week of January 2008 and was interrupted for a two-week recess mid-March, resumed today. The morning session started with a direct examination of prosecution witness Isaac Mongor, also known as ‘Colonel Isaac’. Mongor, a Sierra Leonean who grew up in Liberia, told the Special Court for Sierra Leone that he has been abducted by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia and became part of Charles Taylor’s Executive Mansion Guard before being sent by Taylor to Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. In the course of his testimony Mongor made a number of allegations about Taylor’s role in the civil war in Sierra Leone.

As I wrote earlier, I do not envy the judges. How reliable are witnesses, how consistent their testimonies? It will take many more months before the Court will bring in a verdict. The Special Court’s prosecutor has estimated that Taylor’s trial will last between 12 and 18 months. ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’, to quote Oscar Wilde.

The fight against impunity not only is a long one, it also is a costly one. The budget of the Special Court for Sierra Leone surpasses US $ 100 million. So far, the Special Court convicted less than ten accused among whom three leaders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and three leaders of the former Civil Defense Forces. The indictments against the leader of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, Foday Sankoh, and his Deputy-Commander, Sam ‘Mosquito’ Bockarie, were withdrawn because of the death of the two accused. The case of Bockarie particularly is interesting. He was killed in Liberia in 2003 during a shootout with Liberian forces. Persistent rumours in West Africa have it that Taylor sent his troops to kill Bockarie, rather than to arrest him, since Bockarie’s testimony at the Special Court for Sierra Leone could have implicated Taylor.

It may be interesting to assist at one - or more - of the sessions of the Special Court. The SCSL convenes in the building which houses the International Criminal Court in The Hague; it’s address: Maanweg 174, Voorburg, the Netherlands. The trial is being conducted Monday through Thursday in three sessions (9:30-11:30, 12:00-1:30, and 2:30-4:30). There is usually no afternoon session on Fridays.

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