By: James Thomas-Queh
Justice Gladys Kiawion Johnson
At the current Symposium: “Reviewing Liberia’s National Symbols
to Renew National Identity”- Justice Gladys Kiawion Johnson spoke on the
topic: “A Critical Review of Liberia’s National Symbols” (www.theperspective.org/2014/061820140.php).
In that presentation, she made many assertions to which I have opposing views,
especially if our intend is to appease and reconcile ourselves.
But before going any further, let me say that the theme of the Symposium brings back old memories of our generation of 1968 (the last restless youth of the Tubman era). In 1969, just fresh from high school earlier, no means to continue to college, but only with a dream to leave Liberia (because right or wrongly we thought then that only those who went to school abroad –mostly children of the settler ruling class-were privileged to lucrative jobs, and not the poor indigenous youth who struggled through our nation’s higher institutions of learning), I promptly become an history teacher at an elementary school in the rural mining town of Bomi Hills (now Tubmanburg).
And once a 6th grader threw this very embarrassing question at me: “How come ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’ is our national Motto when all our parents’ tribe people were already in Liberia before the settlers landed?” Believe me, if the ground were to open, I would have gone through, knowing that the wrong answer to this very sensitive political question could have landed me straight into one of Tubman’s gulags -the BTC or Bella Yalla. But this question, naively asked by an innocent student in rural Liberia, was the sign of how deep the exclusive and discriminatory nature of our national symbols were perceived then by the emerging indigenous intellectuals and the mass of de-culturalised, unemployed urban youth. Additionally, by the time I was ready to leave Liberia in early 1970, Tubman’s infamous Executive Order was already enacted. All self-sponsored students (meaning again mostly the poor indigenous youth) wishing to travel abroad for higher studies were required to deposit US$500.00 at the Monrovia Chase Manhattan Bank before a passport could be issued. But bad laws usually produce adverse consequences. As a result, the absolute absurdity of this Executive Order only created the first big passport racket at the Passport Division of the then State Department (now Ministry of Foreign Affairs). So I bribed the passport officials, obtained a passport and left Liberia to become a free man at last.
This brief life confession is a testament of how the issue of changing our national symbols haunts the minds of our generation. But time has passed –almost half a century- and with experience serving as a guide, I have long become a fervent defender of our national symbols (see http://www.liberiaitech.com/theperspective/2008/0105200801.html). And once again the arguments raised against by Justice Johnson, have offered me the opportunity to expand my defence on this very important debate which does not seem to attract much attention both at home and in the Diaspora.
First, I will begin my exposé on those arguments of Justice Johnson which I consider as being anti-national reconciliation, if not purely anti-Congos; and then I will move on.
“The history of our country began with contradictions of purpose, direction, aims and objectives, and identity, and has continued in that vein for the past 167 years, including the decade that followed the coup d’état of 1980 and the recent 14 years of anarchy that nearly ended our existence as a sovereign state. It is therefore a welcome decision to have these inconsistencies or contradictions removed through this transformational process.”
If this assertion was true, Liberia could not have survived 14 years of civil war and then celebrate today 167 years of independence. Those settlers who landed on those shores in 1822 had a clear sense of purpose, direction, aims and objectives, and identity. Or else how could we now be so obsessed on the continuous impact and the purported identity crisis of a group less than 10% of the population of country?
And I will take my argument even further. Whether we accept it or not, Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society (a philanthropic NGO), and not the government of the United States. And if this humanitarian NGO was not farsighted enough to have associated the name of US President James Monroe to our national capital – Monrovia, and the flag and constitution crafted after those of the United States – probably there would not have even been a Liberia. France and Britain would have certainly absorbed our tribes into their protectorates. So there are no inconsistencies or contradictions, but mere pragmatism, farsightedness and common sense that we seem to lack today in finding for our nation a sense of direction and purpose.
Or, in what would historical contradictions differentiate Liberia from the rest of Africa today, if not the same bad governance, rampant corruption, mass poverty, under-development, etc – all germs of instability and civil conflicts?
“Were the settlers refugees? On the surface the answer is, no. They were freed slaves, originally Africans taken into slavery and made to suffer one of the most egregious violations of human rights the world has ever known. Now that they were returning to the land of their ancestry, one would expect their purpose for returning to be more succinctly expressed than it currently is. For instance, how about saying “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Home”, not Brought Us Here? After all, “Here” could be anywhere. “Here” lacks conviction, commitment, and attachment, while “Home” says it all.”
Now, if more than 250, 000 innocent people were killed, and an entire nation destroyed only to change “Here” to “Home”, then we “Country People” have no ideas and vision to move our country forward. Okay, so we change “Here” to “Home” and later some foreign person would ask: “Where were you ‘Country People’ before The Love of Liberty Brought Your Home?” Oh yes, then we will say: Cape Mount, Sinoe, Bassa, Lofa, and the rest. No. The message or the power of our Motto is that “Love of Liberty” that brought back to Africa some of our courageous brothers and sisters to establish a nation – Liberia. And instead of negating our rich and unique history, it should now be our turn to uphold that wonderful symbol with the utmost pride and dignity, and vow that never again will a tyrant, a dictator, or an imperial/autocratic regime walk over our Liberty and Freedom.
“Let us now revisit the Liberian flag – the only flag in the world that resembles the flag of the United States of America except that the Liberian flag has only one star. The one star according to Liberian Civics represents the only republic on the African Continent at the time. Today there are fifty-plus independent nation in Africa, and most, if not all of them, are more developed than the first. Do we still unfurl our flag with pride, claiming that we are the only republic on the Continent? When concepts become obsolete or irrelevant they should cease to exist. Let us therefore create a new flag of our own that will stand the test of time; a flag not patterned after any other country’s flag, but one based on our own history and values; a flag unique to and representative of all Liberia of today, tomorrow and forever.”
Well, if the resemblance of the our flag to that of the United States is a reason to change it, then it is high time that we also change our entire system of government to a traditional Liberian/African model. Furthermore, Justice Johnson suggests that we pattern the new flag based on “our own history and values.” What is this to mean, that even today our so-called “own history and values” are different from those of the Congos? Are we really serious, just when we have all passed for Congos, families and homes in the United States and a vast Diaspora around the world? Which one of us could have ever thought that today Liberians would be living in the United States and at the same time working in Liberia.
Let’s forget it; we are miserably out of touch with time. And if you should change the Liberian flag, you would have changed Liberia off my own children in Europe.
“Since the establishment of this nation of contradictions a nagging question remains unanswered: Who are we? Are we Americans transplanted here or Africans who returned to Africa and settled in Liberia? This identity crisis remains a problem. The settlers must make up their minds about this. Too long have they perceived themselves as Americans or Americo-Liberians or Congos, never rally acknowledging their African or Liberian roots per se. Are they Americo-Liberians, Children of the Pioneers, Congos, or what? It is high time they decided upon a true identity. This identity crisis is partly responsible for the problems we continue to face as a nation. It stands in the way of unity, nationalism, and self-acceptance.”
If I were a Congo, I would have taken a serious exception to this accusation by another compatriot, that my purported “identity crisis” is partly responsible for the problems we continue to face as a nation; and that it stands in the way of unity, nationalism, and self-acceptance. Or does Justice Johnson want to convince us that were the descendants of the Americo-Liberians or Congos (probably less than 10% of the population , and out of power since 1980) -to get on the airwaves and say: “Fellow citizens, from today we consider ourselves as true Liberians and Africans” – then our identity crisis is partly resolved. Ridiculous.
Can we open our eyes and minds to see and know that what we are now referring to as problem of “identity crisis” of one sector, is in effect, a general, deep cultural vacuum or deficiency of our country since its founding? Can anyone tell me how many volumes of books have Liberians written since 1847? Have we ever had anything to be called a decent library or museum in our counties or schools? In my view, this is one of most serious threat to our national progress and unity. And to solve this chronic deficiency the burden is squarely on the government (which I believe is not America Liberian or Congo), but whose first acts was to destroyed the famous National Cultural Center – Kendeja – for a 5-star hotel. The proof that dancing, boozing and womanising (and now other sexual vices) have long been our most powerful cultural traits.
“Frankly speaking the “Country People” have no identity problem of the sort. They know their names, their huts in the villages, their poverty, way of dressing, their dialects and customs that are neither Americo-Liberians nor Congos; they know that they are just Africans. The identity crisis lies within the minds and ways of the descendants of the freed slaves that settled in Liberia nearly two centuries ago. These descendants are still unsettled about who they are. In order that they may solve this identity problem, they must begin by acknowledging the fact that they are Africans because that is who they are, and no stretch of the imagination can determine otherwise. Their ancestors who were born on American soil and therefore could have become American citizens, gave up that privilege when they moved back to Africa, and established their own Country on the African Continent – land of their ancestors. They must therefore accept Liberia and take on the Liberia identity because they are Liberians.”
Frankly, for a nation yarning for unity and national reconciliation, this passage is a total affront to the Americo-Liberians or Congos – those men and women who sacrificed their lives to create the oldest Republic on the African Continent. Really, for us to insinuate that the Americo-Liberians or Congos have the identity problem and not the “Country People”, simply because the latter know their names, their huts in the villages, their poverty, way of dressing, their dialects, etc is an absolute travesty of our history and disregard to one group of our people. Monrovia, Careysburg, Bentol, Buchanan, Edina, Robertsport, Greenville, Lexington, Harper, etc, etc, are cities and settlements belonging to who? Are we still harbouring rancour that this “papa’s land” was confiscated from us, and just when we the “Country People” are auctioning our villages to concessionaires and the villagers as slave wage labourers? Oh, then I prefer to pass for an Americo-Liberian or Congo. Because at least when they were in power our natural resources were preserved; and our villages were protected and in peace, just as their settlements were protected and in peace; the Sapos and Krus cohabitated in perfect harmony, just as the Krahns, Manos, Gios, and all the other tribal groupings..
Or, if at all there is an identity crisis in Liberia, then it is we the “Country People” that have that problem. Because has Justice Johnson rightly reminded us, we the “Country People” served the settlers as wards, country names were changed up to the 1970s to be assimilated or “civilized.” And if we have no identity problem, how come it became the fashion in the 1970s to change our Congo names to become the Queh, Tipoteh, Twen-Wleh Mayson, and the list goes on.
What we the “Country People” do not want to admit now is the fact that we are today the undisputable Masters, but with the same characteristics (complex slave/ward mentality) as the settlers in 1847. Additionally, anyone who has read the real history into the founding of Liberia will know that the rapport between the settlers and those they left behind in the United States had always been circumspect and not cordial, just as the relationship today between the “Country Masters” and those left behind and abandoned in the villages. As a result, those left behind in the United States abandoned the adventurer settlers, just as those we abandoned in our villages have no trust and confidence in us. Thus is one of the aspects of our current national dilemma. The other aspect, even more important, is that the minority Congo grouping has succeeded in imposing its culture and values on the majority “Country People”; and these same “Country People” - now in power - are incapable of imposing an alternative or even improving what has been inherited from the former Masters. It is for this reason, I assume, that the Americo-Liberians or Congos continue to refer to us as the damn “Country People”, if not idiots – just as we used to refer to them too as the damn “Congo People” who exploited us. And until we can prove to be any better, reconciliatory and magnanimous , we will continue to be the damn stupid “Country People”- with no clue of leadership and any sense of direction.
Lastly, according to Justice Johnson: “To say now that all Liberians who do not belong to any of the 16 tribes are Congos is a distortion of historical fact. We know from our history that the Congos were not freed slaves. The name Congo was assigned to those Africans from the African region called Congo who were en route to slavery but, thanks to the Abolitionist Movement, never reached their destination. The diverted vessels released them on Liberian shores. Those whose ancestors came from slavery in North America and the Caribbean cannot now claim to be Congos. I often wonder why descendants of the freed slaves prefer to be known as Congos – false label – than to be known as one of the 16 original tribes of Liberia. For example, why can’t a person with settler background born in Maryland be a Grebo, or one born in Sinoe, be a Kru, or in Grand Bassa, be a Bassa, or born in Cape Mount, be a Vai or Gola? Why Congo? Is it because it is better to belong to anything but a Liberian (African) tribal grouping? Why must the slavery connection be glamourized, preferred, and sustained even after so many generation of freedom from slavery?”
First, the assertion that the Americo-Liberians preferring to be called Congos is a “false label” is far from the truth; the denomination Americo-Liberian was the real false label. By acceptance of the label “Congo”, it was to manifest the desire of the Americo-Liberians to assimilate into their African roots. And how could we question that when the Congos were their first important African immigrant community, with whom they had more affinities than the 16 hostiles tribes on the ground. In fact, our history has proven all along that the Americo-Liberians have assimilated other African immigrants much more easier in order to reinforce the strength of their tribal grouping vis-à-vis the other existing 16 tribes. And this a normal survival instinct in the pioneering of nations. So Liberia has 17 distinct tribes (well, unless the Liberian Congos object to be classed a tribal grouping).
Astonishingly too, Justice Johnson wonders “why can’t person with settler background born in Maryland be Grebo, or one born in Sinoe, be a Kru ,or in Grand Bassa, be a Bassa, or born in Cape Mount, be a Vai or Gola? Why Congo?”
It ponders my mind why such a question will be directed only at the Congos and not the other tribes. Almost every tribe in Liberia has a large migrant community area in Monrovia; so what tribal identity a child born to parents of that community should carry? Or, what is the rational that a child born to a Vai parents in Sinoe should become Kru and not Vai? Further, should a naturalized Ghanaian who lives in Cape Mount be made to declare himself a Vai? Absurd. Why couldn’t he just be a Cape Mountainian and Liberian?
The Tribal Symbols Supplement the National Symbols to Forge Liberia’s Existence
I have observed that most symbols destroyed in revolutions were soon to be restored. I will not go into the psychology that accounts for the reversal, but will only deal into what Justice Johnson perfectly said about symbols: “Symbols have gravitating powers. They must therefore be carefully designed and made to convey good, positive, uplifting messages; and not crafted to convey such unwholesome, negative messages as exclusion, discrimination, and other divisive ideas inimical to national cohesion.”
Well, to accuse our national symbols of conveying unwholesome, negative messages as exclusion, discrimination, etc, ideas inimical to national cohesion”- is to ignore that our indigenous symbols too have these identical characteristics (exclusive and discriminatory); and both symbol groups were not divisive considering the context in which they were created. That is, in the midst of real or perceived adversities, fear, insecurity, uncertainties, etc – these symbols were crafted by each tribal grouping to facilitate protection, unity, social/political cohesion or control among their distinct peoples. No outsider can be initiated into the Poro and Sande fraternities, just as an outsider is forbidden from the Masonic fraternity unless its very rigorous requirements are meet. But more important, the harmony of co-existence of these symbols or their powerful gravitating powers among our 17 tribes have facilitated the birth and the existence of Liberia for 167 years. In short, it could have been the Vai, Sapo, Gio, Kru or any other tribal symbols that ushered Liberia into the state-hood, but it happens to have been those of the Congos. And this is an undeniable historical reality to cherish and preserve to know from where we come, before we know where to go.
Why All Previous Attempts to Change our National Symbols Have Failed?
The first real attempt to change our national symbols came in the early 1970s, under the Tolbert administration. We harassed the President, ignoring that by this demand we were asking directly the undressing and demise of our own indigenous symbols and the gradual collapse of our national order and social fabrics. One can only imagine what would been the fate of a traditional chief who had the audacity to put into public the secrets of the Zoe Bush or the fearful Country Devil. Well, that was what happened to our reformist President, Dr. William R. Tolbert jr.
When President Tolbert established the Commission to review our national symbols in the early 1970s, he underestimated the consequences of the resentment from his own Congo tribal grouping. And that was among the reasons for which the recommendations of that Commission never went beyond the renaming of the “Front Street” to Chief “Sao Boso Street” and abolishing of the famous “Matilda Newport Day” (December 1st ). But even with this minimum gesture, the damage was already done; the confidence of his own group was gone for exposing them to ridicule . And were we thoughtful and objective then - as we still not today - we would have known that the Matilda Newport myth was serving mainly to honour the courage and bravery of all the women of Liberia. And without this myth, how could the hegemony of Liberian women be at the helm of power today?
That said, no other President after Tolbert had dare to touch on the issue of our symbols. President Samuel K. Doe, the first indigenous leader who, with all the unlimited military and state powers, could have changed anything with the scratch of a pen, but he did not do so. Instead, he only hastily drafted a new constitution in which the essential was either ignored or left out - just as we now intend to do with our Motto. Integration or paradox, the “Country President” was inducted into the Masonic craft as Grand Master. At the other extreme, Charles Taylor, the warlord-turned- President who took on a “Country” name- “Ghankay” , was promptly initiated into the Zoe Bush. Contradiction perhaps, but these two tyrants, at least, had the common sense to know that Liberia had long since transcended the question of changing our national symbols.
Preserve our historical National Symbols, but Cleanse our Minds into a Positive Future
In a country with 17 tribes, hardly recuperating from 14 years of civil war, jobless and hopeless, weak state and social institutions, a dysfunctional political system, and nothing else for the people to fall back on, but only God and their national identity – frankly, tearing down its remaining physical national symbols to which the people have adhered for 167 years - is an absolute madness and a futile intellectual exercise to disguise our failures. It will only aggravate our already confused minds on our established national identity and undermine reconciliation, unity and peace. After our Revolution of 1980 and its results, it is about time that we put an end to the negation of our national historical facts.
If I may conclude, our national symbols are not the problem; it is our the lack of will and honesty to cleanse our minds, hearts and souls to transform our tribal differences into our national strength. And to the “civilized Country People”, we must get out of our psychological blackout, be our real-self, proud of our own past, origins, protect our people, villages and cultures, so that united we all stand, to push forward positively the “one nation, indivisible” legacy of our founding pioneers. We must do away with that typical African mindset, always blaming slavery and the former colonial powers eternally for our woes and failures. We must have confidence in ourselves; we must respect ourselves; we must be honest with ourselves; we must have a genuine commitment to our nation and people, and then all other things shall get into place: national reconciliation, unity, peace and patriotism.
And this is the transformation that Liberia needs and not a renewed identity. Liberia already has an identity as old as 167 years.
But if we are so conscious of the impact of our symbols, then we should establish our own additional national symbols to depict our proper national struggle for political reforms since the 1970s – knowing, too, that symbols are essential elements of history.