Remembering Tajudeem Abdul-Raheem And Pondering The Challenge Of Reconciliation In Liberia

Remarks By Amos Sawyer

At the Tajudeem Abdul-Raheem Memorial Program
University of Liberia Auditorium
On July 30, 2009

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 4, 2009


Comrades and Friends

Today, we in Liberia join thousands of pan-Africanists around the world who celebrate and have been celebrating the life and work of Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. Taju, as his friends called him, was one of Africa’s most distinguished public intellectuals and devoted pan-Africanist. Born in Nigeria, he transcended Nigerian citizenship—large and impressive as it is in West Africa, and became a citizen of Africa. He was a citizen of Africa in the truest sense of citizenship. He traveled widely throughout Africa and the African Diaspora, had a very deep understanding of the history and challenges faced by Africans throughout this continent and in the Diaspora, was in touch with the pulse of ordinary Africans everywhere and worked for their empowerment. Educated in Nigeria and at Oxford in the UK, he used his extraordinary power of analysis to unpack and clarify the problematique of Africa’s underdevelopment and quest for democracy. His analyses of power relationships in African society were remarkable and profound. He could meticulously analyze local-level social processes in virtually any part of Africa and link them analytically to the national, the regional and the global with brilliant simplicity. I am among those who were fortunate to have participated on panels at conferences with Taju and to have traveled on missions with him. His presentations were always insightful, rich with anecdotes and imageries and wholly entertaining.

Taju exuded an incredible optimism about the future of Africa. He deeply believed in the potential of the African masses and the struggle for their empowerment. He truly believed in the capacity of African people to become the engines of their own development. He was also fully cognizant of the fact that certain global forces militated against Africa’s development and that international actors do sometimes contribute to Africa’s underdevelopment. The existence of an unfair international trade regime, the promotion of aid over trade by Northern countries, disproportional voice in the councils of international affairs, selectivity in judging violations of human rights and other inequities in the distribution of values at the international level are among the ways in which the powerful countries of the global North have skewed the international order against Africa and the developing world.

But Taju was equally critical of African leaders not only because many of the political, civil society and business leaders of Africa are corrupt and lack integrity but also because of the relationship of dependency in which they are so comfortably ensconced. He criticized them for being too ready to settle for and unquestioningly accept unaltered and often inappropriate blueprints designed abroad to guide their development processes. He also criticized their failure to encourage the generation of knowledge and development strategies rooted in local experiences and to nurture empowered citizens who would be co-producers of development rather than subjects conditioned to receiving benefits from the government and the international community. He always lamented their failure to motivate, equip and provide environments for citizens of their countries to become producers of goods and services.

Dear Comrades and friends, Dr. Tajudeem Abdul-Raheem visited Liberia shortly before his untimely death on May 25, 2009. He was keenly interested in Liberia’s recovery and followed our progress closely. Liberia today has made enormous strides in its recovery from a quarter-century of conflict which included 14 years of civil war. We have made remarkable progress in the reconstruction of roads, schools and clinics and in the design of our governance institutions. Our success in establishing a solid macro-economic system has been recognized internationally. We owe this success to tenacious efforts of our government and skillful performance by our public finance managers and our president who, herself, is an expert in financial management, to the support of the international community and to the fortitude and ingenuity of the Liberian people. We are on our way to economic revitalization and political democratization. But we are still coming out of the woods; we are not out of the woods yet. We still face big challenges.

Today we face foundational challenges in the area of national reconciliation and peacebuilding. Initial reactions to the draft TRC report clearly demonstrate how deep the fears, suspicions, bitterness, treachery and sycophancy are in our society such that we could be standing on the brink of violent conflict were the security forces of UNMIL not present in large numbers. We are yet to confront ourselves and fashion for ourselves a national policy and strategy on reconciliation. There are many people in positions of authority who carry the baggage of the past; they are burdened by the hurt they feel from past periods and some of them are plotting and scheming to get even with those they perceive as enemies. There are individuals from the era of the Tubman Administration who carry scars of the tragic episodes of 1955. There are those who were hurt by the coup of 1980. Some of them are working, often not too subtly, to get their pound of flesh as they restore their treasure. Then there are those who suffered the losses, the pains and the agonies of our 14-year civil war; they are searching for answers and for perpetrators. And then there is the category of individuals of the progressive movements of the 1970s—the people of MOJA and PAL who those who feel the hurt of all eras love to blame for all woes of Liberian society and love to hate! They stand both apprehensive and defiant. In a way we all stand as both victims and perpetrators as the foundations of our tragedy are to be found deep in our history as well as in subsequent social processes.

Yet in the face of all of the prejudices, bitterness and suspicions, we seem to assume that if only we could develop the capacity to efficiently and effectively deliver public goods and services to the Liberian people and if only we could supply them with jobs we would heal their hurt and forge reconciliation. Well, this is not happening. In fact what is happening is that there are shifting alliances based on prejudice, bitterness and fear. These are being manifested in emerging political coalitions and in strategies for accumulation that could define a new oligarchy over and against those to be targeted and marginalized.

In the recent past, we have treated elections as if they are a miracle drug, a cure-all that would legitimize our institutions and transform the body politic. Now we are gearing up this time to treat elections as a substitute for reconciliation, to engage in torturous political combat in a body politic that is becoming more polarized and an environment that is becoming more fragile. We are proceeding as if our institutions are strong and our democracy is nature. At the end of the day after elections, we will have winners and we will have losers but we will all be battered, bruised and scarred. And in the environment of prejudice, bitterness and suspicion, we will resume our approach to confronting post-conflict challenges by resorting to conspiracy theories. Let us not lock ourselves in this vicious cycle!

After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, some of us recommended a transitional period of four years in which we would be able to design and implement a program to pursue reconciliation and lay foundations for governance transformation in an environment characterized by what John Rawls has called a “veil of ignorance,” a situation in which open and honest discourse with emphasis on fairness leads to decisions untainted by individual prejudices and preferences. This recommendation was rejected. Prior to the holding of elections in 2005, some of us again recommended the convening of a national conference to arrive at a national covenant on peace and reconciliation. We renewed this call after elections, this time, urging the convening of a national conference on reconciliation to be chaired by our President, building on the strengths of the 1998 national reconciliation conference and benefiting from its failings. This was not to happen. Two years ago, the Governance Commission proposed to undertake a two-year project on national cohesion and national identity with a view to coming up with policy recommendations and strategies for enhancing national reconciliation, unity and cohesion, and strengthening a sense of Liberian identity. Support could not he garnered for this project—not even from the UN Peacebuilding Fund here in Liberia.

Today we risk establishing institutions of governance as “castles in the air,” if we do not muster the courage and national will to confront the challenge of reconciliation—painful as this will be. We will continue deluding ourselves that we are becoming united in development. We will continue to be unable to understand the contexts and dynamics of our own social processes and when faced with situations we do not understand because of our incompetence and blind prejudice, we will continue to seek answers in conspiracy theories. When we are too lazy, lack discipline and are too incompetent to do proper diagnoses of our dilemmas, we resort to finding answers in conspiracy theories, theories of witchcraft or the proverbial acts of God.

No, my friends, God does not wish evil or rain misfortunes upon us; our misfortunes and missteps are not caused by juju nor by others who we believe do nothing but spend their time plotting our undoing. The tragedies and misfortunes we face are a result of grievous governance flaws, entrenched prejudices and suspicions harbored by ourselves, and barefaced, unadulterated corruption. The hard, cold and unimpeachable fact is that we cannot inflict harm on others without undermining our own aspirations and accomplishments. The only game that wins for any of us is a game that wins for all of us. This is the nature of our reality!

We have to rally for Liberia! We need a well prepared national conference on reconciliation. One in which we would employ strategies of peacebuilding and lay bare our souls to each other. One in which we would review inequities in our system of distribution and agree on approaches and strategies to institutionalize equity and fairplay for all. We need to come to the realization that wishing that by-gones will be by-gones and returning to business as usual is no solution.

And so as we remember Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem an honest and dedicated citizen of Africa, let us dig deep within our souls, let us deploy the best of our intellect and let us muster the moral courage to design and implement processes for reconciliation in Liberia. As Tajudeen and all pan-Africanists would say, “don’t agonize, organize; forward ever, backward never.”

Thank you. God bless.

© 2009 by The Perspective

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