For too long, I have struggled with a question that has loomed ever since I wrote my last book entitled Ethnic Tensions in Liberia’s National Identity Crisis: Problems and Possibilities in 2007. It was not until the dual citizen debate emerged with new vigor this year, that I thought to go back and revisit this question. I have asked myself repeatedly, “Why is it that Liberian society does not have national heroes and heroines?” The emphasis here is on national heroes and heroines. But then again, if you mention heroes or heroines, you must mention “villains, even scoundrels” as well. The latter is just as important as the former because together, they offer us a full slate to gauge where we have been and where we are going as a nation; and which virtues to emulate and which vices to cast-off.
Who are national heroes and heroines? They are individuals and groups of people who display extraordinary bravery and valor by performing principled acts and/or enacting ingenious creativity and innovation in politics, music, education, peace building, science, etc. Nearly every society that I have visited acknowledges the moral courage and constructive attributes displayed by its citizens so as to spur others to similar noble deeds, thus setting the pathways to ongoing national development. Through this, the whole society awards these individuals a unique place in history with national honor. It can take the shape of naming a monument, street, library, hospital, school, scholarship, holiday, and others in their honor.
But in Liberian society, many of its citizens who have set new records in their fields of practice, earned notable commendations at home and abroad are seldom celebrated in our history books, least to say, recognized nationally. If you were to bring together a diverse segment of Liberians and listed an array of actors from different spheres of life: politics, the academy, arts, law, music, literature, business and more, and then begin to ask them to pinpoint national heroes and heroines, you would possibly get varying answers pointing to people who only serve their parochial interest, rather than the national interest. By that I mean people will point to names that have served their political party, county, clan, village, tribe, etc.
It would prove difficult for the crowd assembled to point to a national hero because since Liberia’s birth as a nation state, a certain negative tendency has gripped our character and bogged us down. We have found it difficult to pride ourselves on each other’s accomplishments or to own theirs as ours collectively. The “tribal” bug, has bitten us, meaning the ethnocentric antagonism has divided us so much that it is too hard for Liberians, most of us, to become gleeful about the positive contributions of each of us to national development, whether at home or abroad. Argue as hard as you may for empirical evidence, but the answer lies in the negative and derisive vibes that emanate from radio and other media outlets daily about one another. We hear slews of outlandish comments from professed leaders moaning peers and other citizens. It is so difficult to hear positive statements coming out about our leaders and people who herald one act of patriotism by our leaders are cowed into silence by declaring them paid agents without evidence.
If there is anything that has bedeviled and haunted us from our past and threatens to derail us from noble accomplishments in human history, it is the envy, jealousy, and adamant resentment we have toward one another reminiscent of self-hate. No Liberian is good enough to deserve national acclaim, many tell themselves. We must find something wrong, a blot on their character so that such award, if any, must look undeserving. Sadly, it appears such tendency also finds its way in the recording of our history – we cherry pick who makes history depending on the author of the document.
There are some keen observers of Liberian History who reflect on the beginning of the state as the place where the seeds of this tendency was planted. Although it just did not stop there. It has gone on for time in memorial. These observers note that Liberians are steep in symbolism. We have very hard regards for symbols. We go all out to destroy the symbols of those other Liberians that we do not like. The Americo-Liberians or Settlers destroyed the symbols of the indigenous people. They changed the likes of Dozua Island to Providence Island. Dugbor (Bassa) and Ducor (Kpelle) was changed to the City of Christ and later to Monrovia. The former honored the Christianizing and civilizing mission. The latter honored President James Monroe of the Settler’s sending nation – the United States of America. As these symbols were changed without the consent of the indigenous populations who considered them sacred and/or significant, resentment and disenchantment arose. Unfortunately, those who came on the Christianizing and civilizing missions did not know or refuse to acknowledge that God was in touch with the other cultures. Therefore, to them, it was important for them to facilitate God’s entry through their Christianizing and Civilizing missions. Clearly, these missions misunderstood the social context, and the ambitions were misused by uninformed people who set the foundations the systematic undermining of efforts on all sides to build an integrated and inclusive society.
The de facto one party state seemed ready for an implosion since the Americo-Liberians monopolized access to the nation’s resources and controlled political power while suppressing the indigenous majority. After 133 years of settler rule, in 1980, when the indigenous soldiers, descendants of those whose shrines and sacred places were desecrated in the name of the Christianizing and Civilizing missions took power forcefully and violently, and they too revenged. They broke down monuments of those who referred to themselves as the “Pioneers of Liberia.” They cancelled holidays that represented the heroes and heroines of the Americo-Liberian rule and replaced them with a singular statute: the Statute of the Unknown Soldier. The Revolution of the 1970s were interrupted by a ragtag army which carried out “another garden variety of African coup” interpreted the moment as that of instant prosperity, jobs for their families and friends, big vehicles, seizure of the properties of those that they overthrew, hence, a sense of entitlement sowed, thus spiraling the nation toward chaos. When the Doe regime fell, the statute of the Unknown Soldier was destroyed by the succeeding warring faction and/or government. This orgy of mutual antagonisms has caused Liberia much in terms of reconciliation, unity, peace, and progress.
We have systematically destroyed the image of Africa’s oldest Republic, Liberia. It did not just happen by destroying physical monuments. In many instances we have become antagonistic towards one another and allowed our personal interest to suppress the talents of others who could certainly serve Liberia so well. For example, Liberia is the founding member of the United N. Vice President Clarence Simpson was in San Francisco, California, where he signed the Charter of the UN on behalf of Liberia. The UN has had several Secretary Generals from many countries, including Kofi Anan of Ghana. And yet, 60 years later, no Liberian has ascended to that position. This has happened not because we have not and do not have qualified people, but people in authority, often would not second fellow Liberians who are qualified for these kinds of high level international positions. Could it be the fear that if these Liberians get outstanding international acclaims, they would later emerge on the domestic scene as national leaders to replace those who recommend or second them?
I interviewed former Minister of Information, Emmanuel Bowier, while researching this article. He recounted a story which illustrates the culture of envy, unsophisticated thinking, and sheer antagonism that underlies the lack of national heroes and heroines, which is the theme of this article. Dr. Rocheforte Lafeyette Weeks, Sr – former President of the University of Liberia, served as Secretary of State, now dubbed Foreign Minister under President William R. Tolbert. Weeks’ brother Anthony owned Auriole Enterprises, the producers of schools uniforms and importer of furniture, and even an engineering business. The brother of President Tolbert, Steven owned Mesurado Group of Companies. There emerged a fierce competition between the two companies. It even led to a protest article against Mesurado Group of Companies for wanting to swallow other businesses by the journalist and activist, Albert Porte entitled: Liberianization or Gobbling businesses? Rocheforte Weeks, according to Bowier disclosed to some close friends, while abroad on official business that he would resign as Foreign Minister because of growing tension that attended to his family business, which he would later lead as Managing Director of its Engineering component. That information went through the grapevine rapidly and reached the President. The system monitored the Foreign minister’s movement in the US until he boarded his flight back to Liberia. Soon thereafter, while still airborne, the President of Liberia, William R. Tolbert announced Weeks’ dismissal for lack of confidence. Weeks who had obtained a Master of Law degree from Howard University in the US had previously served as Assistant Attorney General of the Republic prior to becoming President of the University of Liberia.
Shortly after Weeks’ dismissal, the International Court of Justice announced a vacancy for a judge. Weeks applied. As it is the custom, he had to get the endorsement of his country of origin for consideration. The Government of Liberia, under President Tolbert recommended him highly. What happened in the interim was that Auriole and Mesurado mended fences because the stakeholders in the conflict came from Crozerville and Bensonville, two Upriver settlements whose people fell in the category of “newcomers” – those that came several years after the original landing of the Elizabeth the Mayflower in 1822. Through a network of family connections, fraternal associations, and religious linkages, Auriole and Mesurado seemed to have reconciled, leading to the endorsement of Weeks to serve on the International Court of Justice. Dr. Weeks’ application for the position was rejected. Other contenders, notably from African nations used the announcement – the press release from the Executive Mansionreferring to Weeks as being dismissed for lack of confidence as an issue of integrity. And that was the end of that situation.
Perhaps one of the reasons that we do not have national heroes and heroines is that we individually and collectively undermine one another. We find it hard to acknowledge the good in one another. Sometimes, we inadvertently destroy people’s careers for selfish reasons by tarnishing people simply because the individual failed to fulfill a corrupt deed. Which of our leaders are we willing to allow to be highlighted in history as one of Africa’s greatest heroes? What would it take away from each of us if that occurs? Which of our intellectuals would we honor for their exceptional brilliance, even if they are not your kinsmen or kinswoman? Are ethnic bias as well as personal and political prejudices standing in the way of us honoring our notable sons and daughters?
In recent times, the concept of Liberian “citizenship” has featured heavily in our public debates largely in connection with the dual citizenship of Liberian nationals (former refugees) after resettlement who gained citizenship status in their host nations. This debate places us in the throes of queries regarding some big questions: What is Liberia? Who is Liberian? What is Liberian identity? What forces and factors unify us as Liberians? When a force, natural and man-made threatens the landscape that we call Liberia, what will bring us together as a collective unit, a congregate and aggregate to defend us as a common core? Do we have a Liberia that we all would die for? What is that Liberia?
Here is the important point. For the entire life cycle of this nation, we Liberians have seen one another through the lens of ethnicity, class, gender, place, vocation, etc. We have not valued the person outside of these narrow confines, the tribal system. If come 2017, we elect a President solely because of his or tribal affiliation or other parochial identities, even selfish reasons – to get a job as a minister or enrich oneself, we would have failed the generations to come so miserably that it will take generations to recover. As a people, we now require a leader that will transcend these divides and emerge as a national hero that all of us can own and embrace because they represent the Liberian mosaic. We want a person that will help us evolve a sense of citizenship that is inclusive and integrated. We want a genuine national hero to emerge come 2017, who will help us overcome our suspicion of one another and in doing so, reconcile us one to another.
The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the President and CEO of the Center for Liberia’s Future, an independent think tank based in Duazon, Liberia.