Resisting the Tune of Popular Speeches during Liberia’s 162nd Independence Anniversary!

By: Tibelrosa Summoh Tarponweh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 14, 2009


The annual tradition of Liberia’s Independence Day celebrations since July 26, 1847 is upon us. This is the moment when during official and other observances, Liberians showcase their bright and the brightest as newsmakers in a convoluted national journey. During the 1970s, it became even more common place as a stage for current and future governmental leaders to be invited to speak. More importantly, with the president and senior officials sitting under the pitch of their voices, the speakers did their absolute best to impress their audiences and were eventually rewarded with assignments and promotions in government. The habitual two to three hours long speeches for crying out loud condemned the founders of the state. Expectedly, following the shrewdly delivered speeches, they were invited to officialdom to help correct the ills of society.

But what were they saying? Ironically, they desired everything which illustrated settlers’ footprints and domination, be changed to mirror indigenous values. Example of the proposed changes entail the national motto, flag, names of cities and the list is endless. Few had the guts to oppose the song of familiar view which screamed for changing national symbols. For it was popular and engendered a wave of curious political stampede. It almost seems urgent that if the changes were not made, Liberian independence would cease to exist; and that it would be solely responsible for the cruelty of Liberians toward other Liberians.

This sort of speech making continued unabated during Independence Day and other national celebrations up to August 24, 1981, when the national speaker and former Deputy Justice Minister Wolor Topor declared as others before him, that the “Liberian flag is a symbol of domination and replica of the United States flag; and therefore must be changed to reflect Liberian identity”. A young and militant Henry Boima Fahbbulleh as Education Minister retorted during remarks and dismissed Topor’s recommendations as “naïve and irresponsible”. Dr. Fahnbulleh reminded his audience, most of whom were students in the auditorium of the E.J. Roy building on Ashmun Street in Monrovia to focus more on their mind-set and actions in the service of their country to exemplify true independence. He cautioned them not to relent in the fight against corruption rather than fascination to change a flag, amid cheers and battle cries.

Many commentators, including newspaper editorials, proclaimed Fahnbulleh the winner of the debate with Dr. Topor. But here comes the jaw dropping bombshell! Somehow, the ageing Fahnbulleh nowadays has made a stunning about face from his previous position, adopting the position of the then ageing Topor (probably, age makes a difference in one’s public life). During his August 5, 2008, appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Fahnbulleh referred to the Liberian flag as a ‘symbol of domination’ and called for its change. The question that instantly came to mind was why he publicly opposed Topor as he barely left the podium only to adopt his (Topor’s) position decades later? Fahnbulleh, like anyone is entitled to change his views on any issue. However, as a public servant he must at a minimum repudiate his former position and articulate why he opted to join the politically popular parade of the speakers’ club which favors changing national symbols.

Of late, these calls are saturating Liberians yet again. Liberians need to stand up to these intellectuals and resist the air of popular although insignificant speeches which offer nothing more than superficial recommendations to tackle the nation’s manifold problems. Our brothers and sisters have refused or at least unwilling to see beyond the 1800s. It is one thing to talk about and learn from history to gain inclusive appreciation of the country’s current conditions. However, it is entirely another to use these scholarships not only to score political acceptance but to suffocate the nation’s conscience into believing that when names and symbols are amended, all roads will lead to growth and development. I could not disagree more. Calls to change names and symbols akin to changing furniture in Liberia given all of the challenges, is intellectual demagoguery and manipulation, as well as misplacement of national priorities.

In 2008, the national orator during Liberia’s 161st independence Day anniversary, a Liberian based professor in the United States, Sakui Malakpa suggested that the name Monrovia, be changed to reflect Liberian history, including renaming some places such as Newport and Gurley streets, and Bushrod Island. He also wants government to look at national symbols like the flag and seal so that they reflect Liberia’s identity. I’m tempted to say there we go again! Professor’s Malakpa further mentioned in his oratory that President James Monroe, the fifth U. S. President in whose honor the nation’s seat of government was named, “regarded black people as dangerous” to society and proposed their transfer to Africa.

With all due respect to Dr. Malakpa and members of the speakers’ club, Liberia has walked this path before. Subsequent to the murder of President William Tolbert and some members of his government in 1980, almost all statues, symbols and institutions that honored their names, were changed. I’m left to surmise whether the changes which were put into action also had anything to do with reflecting true Liberian identity. If that was the goal, may I humbly ask - where did that lead Liberia? No sooner did Liberians realize that it took more than cosmetic changes and popular speeches to assert bona fide independence.

In fact, others believe and perhaps justifiably so, that having presided over an inept and murderous regime in the 1980s, the late military dictator Samuel Doe is not worthy of any admiration let alone naming a boulevard and a national soccer stadium in his honor as is currently the case. The point is maybe Liberians ought to take cue from an adage which instructs that “when you pull a rope, the rope will pull bush”. The essence is, what goes around could easily come around and the saga will be endless, as if it has not already been established. That is why it is vital since Liberians know from where they cometh, discussions about Liberia must be elevated from the inconsequential to a futuristic strategic holistic renewal agenda. All that can be accomplished while not diminishing the much talked about settlers’ past painful legacy - nevertheless more resolute to building an all-encompassing, equitable and prosperous society.

What does changing motto and seal has to do with the fact that the nation’s most important resources – human resources- are walloping in illiteracy because of the lack of educational opportunities, thereby succumbing to the whims of supposedly enlightened yet profoundly egocentric politicians? What does changing national symbols like the flag, and renaming cities and streets has to do with the callous disregard of laws by state functionaries and neglect of the governed? What does changing national symbols has to do with impunity, nepotism, greed and miscarriage of justice in Liberia? What does renaming the city of Monrovia has to do with the fact that public institutions are in effect paralyzed by endemic corruption and a proverbial race by public servants to get rich hastily in the service of their people? What does renaming Gurley and Newport streets has to do with the fact that if the international community did not shine its lights on Liberia, demonstrated by the presence of fifteen thousand troops, Liberia probably would be in identical spot as Somalia with no central government since 1991? And what does changing a design and color of piece of fabric called flag has to do with the fact that Liberia’s economy is donor dependent and fiscal budgets are supplemented by the United States government, not to talk about the recently renovated legislative offices on Capitol Hill in Monrovia?

The elephant in the room which speakers were unmindful of is echoed in all of the above questions which if addressed honestly through forward looking policy recommendations and outcomes, will represent true independence to a demoralized people. Even as many are eager to give voices to national debates, few seek to bestow character to nationalism. So, those who are invited to speak during the impending independence anniversary celebrations must be challenged and pressured; possibly resisted to digress from the customary well-liked ‘change the flag’ speeches. Our people have endured unimaginable situations not to be fearful to hearing what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear. Such apathy will be a direct result when people get tired and hold the line by refusing to make concessions to those who have no interest in anything that is difficult but everything that is easy.

Lastly, there is no reason to think past speakers were insincere in their beliefs when they spoke to changing national symbols. I simply believe their unanimous policy recommendation was not, and still is not a major concern. If Monrovia should be renamed because its honoree, President James Monroe regarded blacks as “dangerous to society”, well, why not rename Liberia since Liberians have proven to be their own worst foes as substantiated by the senseless fourteen years bloodbath? By the way, President Monroe allowed federal funds to be spent in order to support the American Colonization Society (ACS) and the settlement. On the other hand, when Liberians are given the chance to lead their people, what do they do, and how do they behave? You be the judge. As we are about to celebrate Liberia’s 162nd birthday, its finest days are yet to come if only we are prepared to change our self- serving and self- destructive attitudes and behaviors; and not the changing of symbols. At that time, will then Africa’s oldest republic claim its rightful place. Happy Independence Day anniversary and God’s speed!

© 2009 by The Perspective

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