The majority of Liberians in the Diaspora and back home in Liberia greeted the news of the impending Conference with enthusiasm. However, it was not long after the Steering Committee sat down to do business then problems arose. The manner in which those problems were managed led to calls for the resignation of the chairman. Soon the committee became factionalized, and for several weeks the committee’s work of planning the conference was set aside as the chairman and his supporters sought to avoid his removal. When they did not succeed and the chairman was voted out, the chairman and his supporters broke away. The chairman, refusing to accept his removal, took along six members of the original steering committee to form the core of his new steering committee. The remaining organizations, including all the county organizations, elected a new chairman and resumed the work of the committee.
The news of the split in the original steering committee was received in the Liberian community with disgust and disappointment. Liberians were proving once again that they cannot work together, and were, therefore, giving the international community more reasons not to take them seriously. Liberians of goodwill, including the Liberian Ministers Association, intervened to bring the two groups together. After several weeks of negotiations, consultations, and pleading, it became clear the divide could not be bridged. Everyone is now resigned to the idea of holding two conferences in the United States.
I write this piece not to analyze the causes of the conflict or to apportion blame because I am not a neutral observer in this matter. I actively participated in and supported the decision to remove the chairman. I write this piece to share some observations on two issues highlighted by the conflict, namely, the issue of neutrality and the nature of our discourse.
Neutrality not viable option
The split on the steering committee presented a dilemma for several well-intentioned Liberians because they are concerned that associating with one of the two groups, or attending one of the conferences would be construed as repudiation of the other. And this is a message that many are reluctant to send. During these past two weeks, I repeatedly heard the frustration of several fellow Liberians who find themselves struggling with this decision. Some have said to me, You know, I have friends on both sides... Others have outrightly said, “ I don’t want to choose side in this conflict and so I don’t think I will be attending any of the conferences."The real smart ones have decided to straddle the “fence” they will be attending both conferences to prove their neutrality.”
Taking unequivocal stance on issues has not been one of the things for which we Liberians are known. Unless we are directly involved in a conflict, we, including even many of our spiritual leaders, often straddle the fence. We do so either out of fear of offending a friend, or in the hope of benefiting no matter which side wins. By straddling the fence we also position ourselves to criticize when things go wrong. This “playing spider” has created more confusion in Liberia and must be cited as one of the reasons for many of the country's problems. We often sheepishly hide behind the “neutrality” veil to avoid confronting wrong-doers, even when we are convinced about the rightness and wrongness of the issues. We cannot continue this practice if we hope to reform Liberia.
In the case of the two All Liberian National Conferences, serious Liberian community, political and religious leaders, as well as opinion makers cannot sit on the fence. They must exercise their best judgment and choose one of the conferences to attend. For it is only when enough people stand up against what they truly believe to be wrong that they will be able to shame the architects of the wrong into changing course and acting differently in the future.
I believe that the challenge posed by the two All Liberian National Conference is a foreshadow of things to come. While Liberians are unanimous about the need for change, we are far from unanimity about the methodologies to be employed, or even the nature and timing of the change. And so, disagreements are certain to arise on several fronts as we debate the country's future. At every step of the way, each Liberian would be required to make decisions and take various actions. These decisions and actions may sometimes adversely impact relatives, professional colleagues, tribesmen, etc., but they may be decisions and actions that must be taken to move the country forward. Unless we have the courage to make these decisions and take the attending actions, the hope of a New Liberia would remain only a dream. Neutrality and straddling the fence will never be viable options in the quest to change the country.
Having served as President of the Grand Gedeh Association now for almost four years, I have learned a thing or two about the sort of battles that must be fought to institute democratic changes. While battles fought in organizations such as the Grand Gedeh Association are certainly minuscule in comparison to the ones that would be fought in Liberia to combat corruption, move the country away from failed leadership styles, and promote hard work, they have the same characteristics. Many of these battles have very little to do with objective analyses and rational debates about issues and all to do with preserving privileges and holding on to power. But I have also learned during these almost four years the value of transparent, objective, courageous, and consistent leadership. While changes threaten and challenge those who benefit from the establishment, they are welcomed and supported by the ordinary people. It is this partnership between the governors and the governed that will transform Liberia.
Reforming Liberia is not some future task that we wait to undertake when we get to Monrovia, or the Executive Mansion. We must begin to change Liberia by changing ourselves right here and now, where we are. Our every interaction must be an opportunity to unlearn bad habits from the past, and develop a new mind-set that is consistent with our desire for a better country. Those who truly desire to change Liberia cannot be spectators in this effort.
Nature of our Discourse
The second point of this article is the way we talk to each other and about issues. My decision to support the removal of the original chairman of the Steering Committee was based on my conclusion, after a careful consideration of the issues, that removing the chairman was consistent with the facts of the issues. The decision was also consistent with my own desire to encourage those who intend to lead in the New Liberia to begin now practicing what they preach. My decision had absolutely nothing to do with the person of the chairman or anyone associated with him.
By coming to the conclusion to support the removal of the chairman, I entertained the possibility that there may be some of my colleagues who will not share my assessment, or even my desire. Thus, I was prepared to accept the view of the majority. Unfortunately, anyone who has followed the conflict knows that the debate quickly became personalized, and people who were once good friends began exchanging demeaning emails on the Internet. One of my professional colleagues on the committee even put our relationship on ice because we found ourselves on opposite sides of the issues. This was someone who was excited to finally make contact with me after several years. He called our home after the first teleconference of the Steering Committee to talk to my wife and me. After the split, he will not respond to my emails or even return my calls. The split on the steering committee resulted in a “split” in our relationship.
It is this nature of discourse in the Liberian community that does more to dim my hope for the future of our country than the issues over which we disagree. We, even professional Liberians, don’t yet seem to understand that we can disagree over issues without necessarily becoming enemies. We don't even entertain the possibility that we might agree on some issues in the future even though we disagree on an issue now. We quickly impute bad motives to colleagues with whom we disagree, and easily destroy valuable relationships developed over many years because of a single disagreement. In the 70's it was progressive to label those with whom we disagree as anti-people, or "non-progressives". We’ve come so far and yet have changed very little. Effecting the changes required to reform Liberia will require building coalitions, coalitions that would no doubt involve give-and-take. To succeed we would need to learn to disagree without necessarily becoming enemies.
The All Liberian National Conference is vital not only because I think it would provide an opportunity to begin a conversation about the future of our country, but also because it might be the beginning of a process that compels each of us to consider what personal changes we would need to make to help bring about a more civil and peaceful Liberia. We don’t help the process by being “neutral”, or just criticizing.