It was with great sadness that I learned of Charles Gyude Bryant's death on April 16, 2014. Gyude Bryant was head of state during Liberia's National Transitional Government (NTGL) era (2003 -- 2006), the interim period between the end of the long 14 years of two civil wars in Liberia and the democratically elected government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was a challenging, intense and precarious time. In Bryant’s honor, the Liberian flag stands at half-mast as a sign of a nation’s mourning. The government ceremonially escorted his body from the hospital where he died to the funeral home. A modest man, Gyude Bryant did notwant a state funeral. His family respects his wishes and limited remarks and tributes to the Episcopalian church and family members. It is unfortunate Bryant felt this way and unfortunate for Liberia, the beneficiary of his efforts. The government didn't accord to him during his lifetime the support, dignity, respect and honor he so well deserved.
Gyude Bryant was my client and friend, but I'll not dwell on the personal side of this loss. The sadness I feel—perhaps we all should feel—goes beyond that. It is the sadness one feels upon learning of the loss of an unselfish, honest, and courageous person who made great sacrifices for his country and set it on the road to peace and democracy only to be reviled, indicted, and jailed. In addition he was denied his right to executive immunity under the governing Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), publicly embarrassed and humiliated, and deprived of pension funds to which he was entitled as well as a valuable contract he had fairly and legally won in a bidding contest. This is the essence of the story I wish to tell, for it needs to be told.
After all these years of civil war, mainly between three powerful warring factions (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and the elected government of Liberian President Charles Taylor (GOL), now serving a 50 year sentence for crimes against humanity imposed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, UN, EU and the USA pressured the warring factions to agree to a ceasefire and a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which included a structure and terms for an interim government.
Bryant was a prominent businessman, campaigner against warlords and the use of children in warfare, respected Episcopalian churchman and leader of a small political party. The political parties nominated him for the chairmanship of a new transitional government under the CPA. Current Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also nominated and ran. Bryant, however, was not affiliated with LURD or MODEL and had been critical of Taylor's government, making him acceptable to all three of these major warring groups. He was selected as Transitional Chairman in 2003. One condition of the chairmanship under the CPA was not to "contest for any elective office" during the 2005 Liberian elections which the chairman was duty bound to prepare and conduct. By losing the "chairmanship," Johnson Sirleaf's political future was not so restricted.
As chairman, Bryant and his transitional government had several major tasks: 1) maintain the ceasefire agreement, 2) begin a reconciliation process between the warring factions, and 3) prepare and conduct elections for the inauguration of an elected government in 2006. From a practical standpoint, he had to disarm thousands of young fighters spread over Liberia, encourage thousands of displaced Liberians to return to Liberia, and seek reconciliation within a nation that had suffered the loss of hundreds of thousands of its citizens during a particularly vicious and long civil war.
During the ceasefire negotiations, several significant groups of young still armed warriors had been promised, but had not received, compensation for their arms and other matters. Unhappy and restless, they were on the verge of renewing hostilities. The transitional legislature, composed primarily of representatives from LURD, MODEL and the Taylor government, had neither the political will nor available funds to pay and disarm these warriors. On Chairman Bryant's instructions, about a million U.S. dollars belonging to government-owned Liberia Petroleum Refining Corporation (LPRC) were withdrawn surreptitiously and distributed to these warriors in exchange for their weapons and to fulfill other promises made to them. This brought an end to these threats to the ceasefire agreement. On another front, a number of Liberian refugees in a neighboring country were also unhappy and causing financial and other burdens on their host country. Some groups were encouraging both the country and refugees to attack Liberia. Under Bryant's leadership, funds were again withdrawn and used to ameliorate both the country and the refugees, again avoiding an attack and destabilization of the NTGL. As one can imagine, Liberia lacked an established "accounting infrastructure" to keep track of all these transactions. Bryant once remarked, "... securing funds from LPRC to implement the mandate of the CPA was not an unusual request as these monies were to be paid back later."
In general, Bryant made the decisions necessary to fulfill his responsibilities under the CPA. Not letting "insurmountables" get in the way of carrying out his mandate, Bryant maintained the ceasefire agreement, kept hostilities from resuming, began and continued reconciliation efforts, conducted a democratic election for national offices in 2005, in which a president chosen and inaugurated in 2006, thereby legitimizing a new government and realizing the primary goals of the CPA. A number of members of the transitional government urged Bryant to postpone the elections on the ground that Liberia wasn't ready. Bryant resisted this, and he stuck to the schedule set forth in the CPA.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf assumed the presidency in January 2006, the first woman head of state in Africa and a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient for her work in empowering women. One of her administration's professed goals was to eliminate corruption within the government. To this end, the then Minister of Justice Philip Banks indicted in 2007 Bryant along with four others for embezzling funds withdrawn from the LPRC and using them for their own personal enrichment. A year later, the Solicitor General was still seeking evidence that these funds were diverted to Chairman Bryant's personal accounts. None was found. As Bryant himself said: "My decisions as Chairman were never intended to or did in fact result in personal financial gain." Ironically, during this same period, the Berlin based watchdog Transparency International in 2007 ranked Liberia's government as among the most corrupt nations in the world.
Bryant's attorneys in Monrovia sought to dismiss these charges on the ground that, as head of state, Bryant enjoyed the right of executive immunity under Article 61 the Liberian Constitution. Eventually the Liberian Supreme Court, composed of Johnson Sirleaf appointees, ruled he was not entitled to immunity since he had not been elected pursuant to the Liberian Constitution and because the transitional legislature had removed his executive immunity by requesting the new government to look into corruption during the transitional era.
Believing his immunity was based on the CPA, which had incorporated provisions from the Liberian Constitution not related to political power, including the executive immunity article, Bryant decided that this dispute over the immunity of the NTGL chairman must be ultimately resolved by ECOWAS. In other words, the Liberian Supreme Court was not the ultimate judicial authority. On his behalf, I filed an application with ECOWAS seeking an interpretation of the CPA with regard to this issue. Within a week, the Liberian government, apparently angered by his effort to move his case to an international organization, set one of the two pending embezzlement charges for trial. On Bryant’s behalf, I asked his Liberian lawyers to formally inform the trial court that his case was now before ECOWAS and all proceedings should be suspended pending ECOWAS' resolution. These lawyers refused to do this on the ground that the Supreme Court would suspend their license to practice law. They also said it would be very dangerous to come to Liberia to present such a motion. A number of Bryant's friends and advisors suggested he leave Liberia and go to the United States. His response: "I'm a son of Liberia, and this is where I'll stay." And stay he did. The trial proceeded for 135 days, and the jury acquitted him with a unanimous verdict. Church bells rang throughout Liberia.
The trial was not without a price, as shown by Bryant’s letter to Dr. Mohamed Chambas, President of the ECOWAS Commission: "I close on a personal note. This matter continues to be a very serious physical, moral and financial burden on my family and me. Frankly, we cannot remain in this position much longer. Even if I am eventually acquitted of all criminal charges, there is ruin, not only for my family and me financially, but also for the principle of executive immunity incorporated in the CPA, for the reasonableness of relying on ECOWAS brokered agreements in the future, and respect for the rule of law. All of which, I have prayed, would be my legacy and contribution to Liberia and West Africa."
There was still one indictment pending, and the situation was confusing. President Johnson Sirleaf seemed to support him. She gave him some funds to help with legal expenses, invited him to sit with her in church, and visited him on his last birthday. Dr. Chambas did not want a track record of interfering in the domestic affairs of Liberia. Nonetheless, through an intermediary he received a number of my memos, dealt diplomatically as he is so capable of doing with President Johnson Sirleaf and presented the arguments. In the end, President Johnson Sirleaf directed her Minister of Justice to dismiss all charges against Chairman Bryant. For the first time in several years, the Chairman was a free man.
Bryant tried to resurrect his business, supported a fellow political party member for the presidency in the 2011 Liberian elections, and made no effort to cozy up to President Johnson Sirleaf. His business successes were modest at best, his health was suffering, and Johnson Sirleaf was reelected. He never received full compensation for his tenure as chairman of the NTGL and received pension funds only after the last case against him was dropped. He needed hip replacement surgery but could not afford to travel abroad or to South Africa for the surgery. Had Bryant stashed away public funds for personal use as the government had claimed, he surely would have pulled out a few dollars for necessary medical expenses. Instead, his family helped him financially. Without the ability to move, his general cardiac condition deteriorated. His successful bid to win a tugboat contract was impaired by the government, resulting in another big disappointment. And he suffered a massive heart attack.
A New Dawn Liberia editorial entitled "Charles Gyude Bryant: Leading the road to peace" captured the spirit of the moment: "As tolerant, as patient as he was, he did not get what he deserved when he was alive. When many opposed the idea of a legitimate government in the shortest period of time, he was very firm and continuously advocated for it, and at the end of the day, he was the one who could be relied upon. Unfortunately, we did not give him 'flowers' while he was alive."
John D Gorby, Contributing Writer