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Liberia - No More War, May 2005

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A Political Survivor: Interview with Daniel Chea

Daniel Chea

Daniel Chea
How do you explain Charles Taylor's reign in Liberia?
Charles Taylor took this country [in a] frenzy. To appreciate the Charles Taylor story, one must first of all understand our history. There's a general state in this country where people are more or less separated from government. There's a great deal of suspicion between people in the government because of past abuses. When Taylor came, people saw him as the new breed. People saw him as a symbol of genuine change, and he was embraced.

But what happened later during the course of the war following the [1997] elections is really hard to explain. Perhaps because he did everything to win favor with the locals, his policies did not go down well with the international community. He did not receive a lot of assistance ... there was a rumor that the Liberian government was involved with the RUF [Revolutionary United Front] in Sierra Leone and subsequently in Ivory Coast. That was the turning point. ... He was singled out as the most destructive element within the region and perhaps it was best for him to leave. ...

The fight for us was that this man was very popular. In the history of elections, he is the only individual to have won with more than 85 percent -- unofficially. If his exit from this country was not done in a proper context, it could ripple into some devastating circumstances. The international community understood that very well. Led by the United States and the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States], a lot of negotiations went on behind the scenes, and finally we saw an exit of Mr. Taylor from this country.

What kind of a leader was this man who was elected by such a wide margin?
Initially, he was worshipped. A lot of people had high hopes for his administration. They thought that he could change things around for this country. But Mr. Taylor had his own problems, his own suspicions, and one of those suspicions -- and I thought this was a big mistake -- was his suspicion of the military .... Because of his own suspicion of the army, he decided to transfer most of the responsibility of the army into militia groups. I thought that was a mistake. And, of course, when the militia groups began to act disorderly the people began to reject them -- they rejected the whole idea of not empowering the armed forces, which is a constitutional entity, and instead Taylor empowered militia forces. ...

You also have to understand that he [Taylor] had his own alibi. He created a wall around himself where he repeatedly denied his own involvement. I remember on many occasions when we met with American diplomats who told him, "You are involved." He said, "I am not involved. If you have proof, bring it."

The Ministry of National Defense [Chea] did not get involved in the policies of other countries. We were involved in the defense of our own corridor. President Taylor had his own disjointed militia that he ran from his own mansion....

On the Ivorian issue, when I realized that militia forces from Liberia were involved, I talked to him one day, and I said, "Look, before going into one area, you must have an objective, either military or political, and in this case, we have none. We have our own issues; we are under attack by LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] forces." And he said to me, "Well, Dan, sometimes there are things that you do not understand. There are too many things happening in this region, and sometimes you get consumed. And you can be assured that whatever it is it will get under control."

In most African countries, if you are assured by the head of state that he's in control, that he knows what he's doing, if he tells you, "Look, I will never do anything to harm my nation," you have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Why did you choose to stay in Liberia working under Taylor?
I knew that we were going to get to such times in this country as we did in May, June and July of last year [the three last battles of 2003 were so horrific they were dubbed "World War I," "World War II" and "World War III" by the Liberians]. At that time, we needed someone levelheaded to be in control. ... Even though it caused me some embarrassment and some frustration as minister of defense, sometimes things would happen that I did not know, but I felt a compulsion to stay on board and that the time would come when some kind of control mechanism would have to be introduced to save the day. I have no remorse.

If we had left, there would have been a total breakdown. LURD forces would have [crossed], the Liberian people would have been slaughtered in the midst of all these forces. ... And don't forget in those last days, Taylor could not get out of his compound, I was the only one in the streets -- the streets that are going to be virtually lawless, and it was going to be anybody's game. Thank God we didn't get to that. It nearly did. But it didn't.

As the minister of defense, and as Taylor's friend, weren't there times when you questioned his actions?
I don't like to talk about myself and what I did. But if you recall, sometime in 2002, I was placed under house arrest. A lot of Liberians don't know, but I will take this opportunity to tell you why. One time I came from Lofa [County] and I asked him [Taylor], "I'd like to talk to you as my friend, as my big brother," and I asked him two questions. One of the questions was simply put: "Why do you think that you are the only one in this country who is right and everyone else is wrong?" The other question I won't tell you.

The day after, he said I was being arrogant and he ordered me under house arrest. I was placed under house arrest for 72 hours. Of course, there was a lot of intervention, and he reinstated me.

Everybody else was like, "If he puts his own defense minister and friend under arrest, there's no telling what he would do to those he didn't know."

... If only for once he had stopped in his tracks to recheck, his government would still be here. Even today, there is a popular belief in this country that Charles Taylor had the ability to turn this country around. He just let the people down. ... If you talk about smart presidents that we've had in this country, he would be written among them. But he made all the wrong decisions -- put himself at loggerheads with the international community, with his own community. You just can't fight on too many fronts. We don't have the resources. We are fighting the international community; we are fighting civil disagreements. We had our own disagreements with the United States, with the United Kingdom -- we just opened too many fronts that we could not keep open.

Did you ever consider quitting?
No, I never thought about quitting. I always felt that quitting would have been disastrous. In the midst of all this disjointed militia command, he [Taylor] needed a levelheaded person. If I had decided to quit, it would have been over an ego problem .... "I'm minister of defense, why don't I know this, why don't I know that?" ... I could have said to him one morning, "Please, I'm gone." But it would have been a negative impact, so I stayed on. I played a role that I always envisioned. ... In the final analysis, someone with a level head had to be around, so I look back now and I'm glad I stayed on board.

There were protests when you were named the defense minister of the transitional government because you had held the same post under Taylor and were a friend of his. What do you say to the people who are critical of your role in this government?
You are right, there are a lot of criticisms -- "Daniel Chea is still beholden to Charles Taylor." I don't know why. My loyalty has always been to this country. Sometimes it landed me in trouble with Mr. Taylor; sometimes it landed me in trouble with friends. As a man, you should be able to speak your mind on issues, whether your views are accepted or not. I am here for one thing, for peace. Enough is enough. This country has seen enough war. And clearly we do know that war is not the answer to our inherent problems.

What are you doing personally to improve the situation in Liberia?
The situation is very simple, and our message has been consistent. We must now take Liberia back for the better. It was a stupid thing in the first place to fight, and we realize the folly of our actions. Let's change. There is more to gain from a peaceful Liberia than a warring Liberia.

We have disarmed to UNMIL [United Nations Mission in Liberia], and we have to give Liberians a chance of peace so that opportunities will happen for them. And they know that. Like I say to most of them, "If fighting a war would make anybody rich, a lot of us would be millionaires by now." But what have we reaped from years of fighting? Deprivation. Degradation. Poverty. I have a few of them [ex-combatants] now who are in the program -- having gone through disarmament and demobilization. ... I have three or four kids who now live in my house. I make sure they go to school. When they come home, I make sure they're doing their work. I want that to serve as an example, and I wish other commanders and other officials would do that because there has to be a mental transformation. You are looking at kids, some of whom were only 5 or 6 years old when the war started in 1989. Fifteen years later, some are in their 20s. No formal schooling. They have only known one former life, that of violence. It will take a lot of work to transform them.

How would you qualify the overall state of the union in Liberia today?
We are getting there. It may not be at the pace that some people would love to see, but then, nobody said it would be easy. Especially after 14 years of war, of misunderstanding, confusion, tribalism. It's going to take a while to put this country back on course. But you were here last year, and you have to state the fact that where we are today is a lot different than where we were last year.

What about the security situation?
The security situation I think is good. We are working around the clock with UNMIL. The armed forces are going through restructuring. We have our own intelligence working with other members of our joint security. ... We definitely know that attempts have been made to get former combatants to take interest in what is happening in Côte d'Ivoire [to recruit Liberian mercenaries to fight across the border]. We are totally opposed to that ... and as soon as we get that person, we are going to turn him in to UNMIL. We are trying to demilitarize the minds of our young people. ... Anyone who tries to encourage [combatants] into another war situation is an enemy of peace. ...

When UNMIL first arrived in this country, they told us they were here to disarm an estimated 40,000 people ... I told them be prepared to disarm twice that number. The reason is very simple: The disarmament of 1995 was a fiasco. There was no disarmament. ... It was a haphazard attempt. Unofficially, they [the United Nations] will tell you that their own program was a big disappointment. And I think they learned a lot of lessons, and this time around, I think they came quite prepared. And the program drawn up by the UNDP [United Nations Development Program] is quite outstanding. We'll use it as a model for other places in the future.

At the end of the day, this country must be totally disarmed so that the peace we are building with the help of the international community will be sustained.

Can you tell me what you think of Force Commander Daniel Opande and the quality of the work he has done here?
My answer to your question could be a little bit too personal because Opande and I have known each other since the first war. I think he's a first-class gentleman and a soldier, a real soldier. And if you ask him, he'll tell you he came to visit the first time because he's always been concerned about Liberia. He was a little disappointed that things didn't go the first time as he would love to have seen them go.

I remember on one occasion he traveled back from the States, and on his way back to Kenya, he stopped by Monrovia at my office, and I said to him, "General Opande, I was in Sierra Leone a few days ago, and they are having a problem with a commander, the force commander there. ... I was wondering why they didn't give you, someone with your experience, your background in this region, the opportunity." He said, "Well, I don't know." Two weeks later he told me he has been offered the job in Sierra Leone. And while he was in Sierra Leone, I kept in contact with him.

One day I said to him, "It would be unfair for you to leave prematurely because this thing is not over until we usher in a new government." Unfortunately, his contract runs out in December [2004]. It's not just me; I think a lot of people in this country will miss him. Opande has a unique way of dealing with a situation. This new assignment given him by the Secretary General was a great decision because he brought a lot of experience to the command. He knew the players. He knew the terrain. He knew a little bit of Liberian politics. He knew a little bit of the culture. And these are things that all make the mission a lot easier.

What remains to be done to make Liberia secure?
The international community should try to accentuate the need for a comprehensive security sector reform. All of what we are doing in this country, the success, will rest on how well we restructure our armed forces, how well we train our police forces, our immigration. These are the security forces that will take over when UNMIL leaves here. So unless they are properly trained and given the right incentives and the right tools to work, we are going to go back to square one.

Historically speaking, there has been this distrust between public and security forces because of improper training, where security forces overstepped their bounds ... we want to use this opportunity to train our forces properly. ...

There are 50 persons trying to become president of this country and not one of them has mentioned the need for comprehensive security reform. And I think they are making a serious mistake.

For some reason, during the donor's conference meeting in February [2004], the only type of security that was highlighted was the DDRR [Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration program]. But I used the opportunity to remind them that the DDRR was an event -- a onetime thing. You disarm, demobilize them, reintegrate and they are back in society. But these different security agencies are a continuous business. They are to carry on the mandate of peacekeeping, of providing security once the U.N. has gone. And it would be a deadly mistake for us not to recognize that and do something seriously about the restructuring of our different security forces.

I was here to witness the return of popular soccer player, George Weah, who just announced his bid for presidency. Although he is incredibly popular with the Liberian people, some say that he lacks the political experience and the education to run this country.
Weah is a bona fide Liberian. There's no doubt in anybody's mind that he enjoys popular support. But there are issues that will be highlighted when the time comes. It's so far-fetched. Weah is a footballer who has done a lot of work, who has placed Liberia high on the mark internationally. He is credited as an individual who has a great deal of likeness for this country. And for that he has a lot of support, especially among the young people. I believe that when it comes time for a discussion of those real political issues, Mr. Weah, and other candidates who have expressed their desire to become the next leader of this country, will be given a platform to articulate their view for the future of this country. And then people will decide.

NEXT: The United Nations Mission: Interview with Jacques Klein

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