Liberia’s Oligarch and his Quest to Lead his People

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Liberia’s Oligarch

For more than a decade he lived under the feet of the United Nations and firmly confined to one location. The wall around him was sealed up and the doors locked with strict instruction: do not leave Liberia. His sin was nothing but his association with his friend and the President of his native country that he has served.

For 11 unbroken years, Benoni Urey, now Liberia’s leading influential businessman and politician was under a glorified house arrest when he and 10 former officials of the Charles Taylor administration were hit with the United Nations sanction.

The world body had imposed a traveling ban on Urey and others for their association with Taylor who was then facing a war crimes trial and perception that they could destabilize the West African sub region. For any affluent Liberian this would no less be an unforgettable punishment with no good memory. Since it would deny him the luxury of flying with a world class airline to a world class tourist destination such as the Bahamas, Dubai or Miami Florida that can be found nowhere in a broken country like Liberia.

The story of his sanction years perhaps draws parallel with that of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi except that the Burmese was placed under house arrest in Rangoon for her fight against misrule while Urey was left in the open to only roam Liberia’s savanna grass and vast rain forest.

Instead of falling to trauma during those traumatic years, Urey developed courage and translated his misfortune into happiness. He peacefully lived with his people, understanding and sharing their plight and shaking hands with misery and despair – two of the many uninvited social guests that have invaded the homes of the country’s rural and urban poor.

In the end it’s all good news for Urey. The UN has lifted the sanction imposed on him and in the eyes of the world body he is a clean and clear man who has contributed to Liberia’s economic growth and empowerment and is committed to the country’s democratic process.

This week, in an exclusive interview with The African Standard Urey reflected on his sanction life and narrated how it positively impacted his life and afforded him the opportunity to help his countryman and the kind of entrepreneur he is today.

“I’m not really excited by traveling. I have a lot to do in Liberia and for me Liberia is a priority than just jumping on a flight and leaving Liberia. Life has not really changed because mentally I blocked the negative about this travel ban and I look at the positive.

“I rededicated my life to doing more meaningful things for myself and for my people. I invested more. I got involved in farming, construction and commerce. So it kept me occupied.

Though grateful to the United Nations for exonerating him, he holds the conviction that visible political hands were behind his undue negative portrayal.

“I always said that at the appropriate time the truth will prevail and people will look at me positively. You know I was punished because people saw me politically as a threat. I believe that the international community was misinformed, he said while reflecting on what he considers the misconception that banned him from traveling.

“The international community had me for two things: onward ties with Mr. Charles Taylor and the other thing was that I gave instruction for the transfer of US$627,000 for purchase of two MI2 helicopters

“MI2 helicopters are ex military helicopters and you and everybody in Liberia know that those helicopters came here and were used by both the police and the special security service and on some instances when there was emergency even the UN used those helicopters to transport sick people from up country because at that time the UN presence was not here.

“So basically there were two things: that I ordered the payment of the six hundred and twenty seven thousand dollar, that’s what they said “he was involved in the purchase of arms” there was no purchase of arms. It was the two helicopters. But I got instruction from the Finance Minister that the President has instructed that I order the money transfer. I wrote my Comptroller and I said by directive of the President through the Finance Ministry you are hereby instructed to instruct our agent [maritime] to pay. I was never accused for financial impropriety, never by the government, never by the international community or anybody. I have never been accused for financial impropriety.

Urey indicated that Liberia has made considerable progress relative to peace and democracy sustainability but more was required and implored Liberians to move ahead and protect the peace given the number of sacrifices and pains they have endured over the years for the full democratization and development of the country.

Socio economic conditions in the West African nation he declared is ‘extremely appalling’ and urged President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to take more proactive steps to arrest the situation for the betterment of Liberians. With respect to corruption he said the country has lost its sovereignty to the menace and blamed it on all Liberians but pointed out the President as one who bears the greatest responsibility.

Mr. Urey: “You know we been through war, we been through hell. But what we have today still needs a lot of improvement you will agree with me but it is a step in the right direction. Now, many more positive steps have to be taken.

“A lot of what we have today is credited to Madam Sirleaf. She done well but she could still do much more and especially where we find ourselves. We find ourselves in an extremely appalling condition. I believe personally the President has to take more control and do much better that what she’s doing but she has done pretty good but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

“To be honest with you, we lost our sovereignty to corruption. Corruption has eaten the very fabric of our society. The name Liberia is attributed to corruption, nepotism, and all the ills that hinder the democratic process. Once you talk about Liberia anywhere in the world they will say ooh! that corrupt country.

Urey has set his sight on Liberia’s presidency and he’s truthful “to what he says on paper” about government, then those who view public service as an easy route to wealth acquisition should disregard being a part of his administration.

“I don’t need a salary. I’m devoted to helping the less fortunate Liberians. I’m already during that now; I used ten percent of my earning helping people. And I will continue to do this as long as I have the strength and the blessing of God and passing it on to my people,” he said.

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