A Rejoinder To Theodore Hodge's “What’s On My Mind: When Diplomats Forget Diplomacy”
By Benjamin G. Seah
Foreign Minister Ngafuan
Intellectual tolerance will be lent any Liberian who chooses to express divergent perspective or simple disagreement on any issue and with anyone, government official or not, provided said disagreement is kept within the province of respect, void of caustic descriptions and expressions meant not to enlighten but to squarely impugn the prized records of illustrious leaders of our times. But one thing must be made clear, not an ounce of intellectual leniency will be spared on individuals, the likes of Theodore Hodge, who pride themselves on endeavoring, however unsuccessfully, to etch a dent in anything good that emerges out of Liberia. Maybe by demonizing others, they conceive themselves as being on a hero making crusade, inanely misconceiving Liberians as simple-minded as to applaud them for pelting invectives and diatribes against people who have distinguished themselves for all the good reasons. However, by doing this, Hodge and his likes, bring out the naivety in themselves because the Liberian people know who their real friends and leaders are and will stand on their side in spite of the downward-pulling they are exposed to from vainglorious enemies of progress..
In his lazy article of September 30, 2014; “What’s On My Mind: When Diplomats Forget Diplomacy,” ostensibly written to brutalize the hard-earned image of the Foreign Minister of Liberia, Hon. Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, Theodore Hodge writes: “It is used to be said, “Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way”. He continues, “Problem is that nobody ever sent that memo to Liberia Chief Diplomat, Foreign Minister Ngafuan. He simply didn’t get it. When given a chance to say the nicest thing he could about a terrible situation in our country, he opened his mouth and fouled up the environment; he said the most grossly offensive thing that could be said under the circumstance.”
Hodge was referring to the Clinton Global Initiative’s (CGI) panel discussion moderated by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria during which, when responding to Fareed’s question: “Minister Ngafuan explain to us what is happening on the ground with the health system. Liberia is a developing country, a poor country, with a rudimentary health system. What do you think could be changed to make the problem to be addressed more quickly”? In the full version of the answer aired on ELBC, Minister Ngafuan said to Fareed, “We are a small country with our own history of difficulties. For upwards of 14 years, we were embroiled in one of the worst civil conflicts on the African continent that decimated our small population. We have a four million population; we lost more than 200,000 of our people during the war. Since 2003 we have enjoyed peace and stability, thanks to all of our partners, the UN, the US, everyone has contributed materially to the peace. We were rebuilding; we were experiencing growth averaging about 6-7%; and we were dealing with the some of the challenges of a post-conflict fragile state. Ebola attacked us at the very time we were taking off and our health system was not as robust as we would have wanted it because we had competing challenges – the road sector, the energy sector, and every sector. Now, we are a traditional society. Our people have clung to cultures for the ages. Ebola is not a deadly disease, but it comes in direct contradiction to our culture. In the Ebola environment, a mother is told not to touch a sick son or a sick husband because she will get infected. In the Ebola environment, burial practices that our people have clung to for ages, they cannot continue because in some of our environments, when a person dies the ritual would entail that they wash the body and some family members would have to was their faces with the water with which the dead was washed. That’s part of the practice. Now they are being told they cannot do these things, so it’s taking sometime for our people who got used to ingrained culture to back-peddle from it. So it’s one of the challenges. We are enlisting the support of everybody in society, government officials, politicians, the imams, the pastors, everyone with influence, Liberians in the Diaspora, to call and talk because we can do everything, but our people will have to start to know that the challenge requires us changing the culture a little bit.” This was the full assertion made by Minister Ngafuan during the panel discussion, a portion of which was telecast by CNN. Without trying to put the Minister’s assertions in its full context and perhaps refusing to comprehend some aspects of the Minister’s answer, Theodore Hodge fired his insulting rant against the Minister with the sole purpose of trying to drag his hard-earned character in the mud.
So when I heard that Minister Ngafuan would be appearing on Patrick Honna’s Bumper Show on ELBC which was simulcast on FARBRIC FM, I, like thousands of Liberians were glued to the radio. And again, the brilliant Ngafuan lived up to character- he was simply impressive. What was even more interesting is that different callers from different parts of the country called to speak about various aspects of Liberian culture as relates to burial. And guess what? Many callers confirmed that burial rites required bathing the dead and not only washing the faces by some family members, as Ngafuan said, but also involved drinking the water. Others, speaking about burial practices in Rivercess, even went as far as saying that the dead is made to stand up and shake hands with the living before being finally put to rest. Frankly, for an urbanite like myself, if someone had informed me about some of the burial practices that were narrated on Monday’s Bumper Show, I would have been surprised (although I would have never allowed my ignorance of the facts to publicly deny the existence of such practices as Hodge did)
On the Bumper Show, I gathered some insightful facts from Minister Ngafuan with regard to his appearance on CNN, which I will attempt to summarize hereunder:
1. The Clinton Global Initiative’s Panel Discussion actually lasted for 30 minutes but for viewing purposes was truncated to 10-minutes by CNN. Therefore even Minister Ngafuan’s answer to Fareed Zakaria’ss question was condensed; taking away some of the contexts that went into the comment on burial practices (See the longer version above versus the one in Hodge’s diatribe).
2. There was a back-stage discussion among the moderator, Fareed Zakaria, and the three panelists – Minister Ngafuan, Chelsea Clinton, and Paul Farmer, a medical doctor – in which the various causes of the spread of the Ebola disease were discussed. Tradition, especially traditions relating to burial, was deemed to be one of the many causes of the spread. Therefore, in the back-stage discussion, it was agreed that Ngafuan, being the closest to the issue, would highlight the role of tradition/burial practices in the spread of Ebola. This backstage discussion was also meant to ensure that the conversation flowed seamlessly and that there was no undue repetition of aspects of an issue already addressed by a previous panelist. Ngafuan was the third to be asked the first round of questions. Therefore, while also speaking to some challenges enabling the spread of the virus, the Minister also brought out the issue of tradition/burial practices as one of the challenges that was being confronted and would need to be changed, albeit temporarily, for a successful battle against Ebola. As evidence that a back-stage discussion was held, Ngafuan narrated on ELBC that Fareed even got pre-approval during the backstage discussion from Chelsea Clinton to ask about why Chelsea and her husband decided not to ascertain the sex of the child Chelsea was carrying (the panel discussion took place four days before Chelsea delivered).
3. Contrary to what Hodge and some social media writers had projected, Ngafuan did not blame the spread of the virus wholly and solely on tradition or burial practices. He instead said, it was “one of the challenges”. After narrating Liberia’s history of war and devastation and the challenges posed by being a post-conflict fragile state, Ngafuan told Fareed that “the health system was not too robust” (many completely chose not to hear or read this other aspect of the Minister’s answer.) For me, this statement by Minister Ngafuan that the health system is less than robust was an admittance that when Ebola struck Liberia, the health system was not where the government had desired it to be. In any case, can any well-meaning Liberian dispute that since Ebola emerged in Liberia, burials have been producing burials because of different forms of burial rites? Can anyone deny that burial practices are one of the challenges in the fight against Ebola?
4. Ngafuan did not say that washing the dead followed by washing the faces of members of the family with the water was a universal practice in Liberian culture. He only cited one example of the rich, diverse, and multiple burial practices that exist in Liberia. He said “in some (not all) of our environments” and also “some (not all) family members would wash their faces with water used to wash the dead.
5. On why he chose to cite a cultural practice that some (especially like Hodge and his likes) would find offensive on a global stage like CNN, Ngafuan was even more poignant and splendid in his response. I heard him say that as a proud product of the culture, he can never ever demean or denigrate our rich culture; and all he did was to convey the unfairness and treachery of Ebola- coming to contradict our culture thereby constraining us to tell our people to stop practicing what we had practiced for centuries. He said that the negative attacks on his person (from Hodge and his likes) only reflect what in Psychology is called “Projection,” a defense mechanism whereby someone who harbors in his subconscious mind something uncomfortable, negative, or denigrating, would, as an attempt to cope with such negativity, project it onto another person or accuse that other person of harboring such negativity. This part of his answer was truly poignant and inspiring. “If they say I disgraced the culture, then subconsciously they are the ones who regard the culture as disgraceful and denigrating, and feel that we would do ourselves well by being hush, hush about it or only talk about it in our closets, not on CNN. But I beg to differ because I don’t think my culture is disgraceful or denigrating such that it would represent an abomination to refer to an aspect of it on CNN. If the westerners can go on CNN, go to the UN or other platforms and openly talk about some practices in their culture that some Africans or Liberians would consider disgraceful or abominable; and the westerners are trying to even universalize these practices by elevating them to the level of human rights or civil rights, and are even attempting in some cases to condition the granting of aid to poor countries on the acceptance of such practices, why should I, as a proud black man, be ashamed to cite an aspect of my culture or tradition on the same CNN? This negative attack on me only reflects what Bob Marley called “mental slavery”, from which some of our people need to be emancipated. Some black people have subconsciously accepted the flawed logic that what is black is bad; and what others say is good is good.”
6. Ngafuan did not reveal on CNN any aspect of our culture that is secret. Most burial rituals in Liberia, including the one cited by Ngafuan, are performed openly with the participation of women, men, elders, youth, and children. The two notable secret societies in Liberia are the Poro and the Sande societies. Had Minister Ngafuan revealed any aspect of the practices that occur in those societies, as is usually done by others with regard to a practice in the Sande society, I would have openly condemned him for betraying his culture.
But let us here forgo the larger context of Minister Ngafuan’s statement and deal for a while with Mr. Hodge’s charge that, “He (Ngafuan) simply didn’t get it. When given a chance to say the nicest thing he could about a terrible situation in our country, he opened his mouth and fouled up the environment; he said the most grossly offensive thing that could be said under the circumstances”, since he chose to pin the Minister’s entire statement to this. By “fouling up the environment and saying the most grossly offensive thing that could be said under the circumstances”, Mr. Hodge was implying that any discussion of some aspects of Liberian or African culture whether sub-cultural or mainstream is so objectionable and distasteful for CNN and other western media institutions. That is why I disagree with him because I concur with the minister that we as Liberians or Africans in general do not have to go into our closets or hide ourselves to discuss aspects of our culture. Rather, when we openly discuss these things on the CNN, BBC, ABC, etc, we enlighten the world of the rich and intricate nature of African culture and enhance its acceptance, just as the white man has succeeded in doing and will continue to do As a matter of fact, in most traditional African cultural settings, when an individual dies that individual is considered by the community not to be totally dead but as to have “crossed the river”. That is why communities in traditional Africa still pour libations to their dead in reverence to them.
I am not surprised by Hodge’s contempt for African culture. It is people like him Malcom X might have referred to as Uncle Toms, the ones who behave whiter than the whites. This could be the reason why he referred to the Minister as a yokel (an unsophisticated person of rural background) letting known his preference for the tail coat and top hat people- people reputed for looking down on people who take pride in their “negritude” or “African-ness”. Barack Obama as a proud son of a blackman from Kenya has never stopped referring to his Kenyan background. Throughout his campaign for the US presidency, he felt proud to refer to his Kenyan heritage, thereby making the typical American to accept that aspect of his personality. I know Hodge and many other Uncle Toms felt disgraced or were scared for Obama whenever he referred to his Kenyan heritage during the 2008 US presidential elections. The African man must make the Westerners get used to the “crude” aspects of African culture as Africans are being made to co-exist with the crudeness of western culture.
Now let us turn to Hodge’s failed attempt to brand Minister Ngafuan as an incompetent individual who has accomplished nothing substantive for the Liberian nation and people. It is either that Hodge has his head buried in the sand or he’s riding very high in the skies on an allegorical horse. Did he want Minister Ngafuan to lie to the world about what’s happening in Liberia? Or did he want the Minister to misinform the global community that people are not dying in Liberia from Ebola also because some of our people continue to subscribe to their time-honored burial rites that are proving to be very dangerous during these times? As the most senior minister in the Cabinet, Minister Ngafuan’s first responsibility is to defend the interests of the Liberian people, which he well did very well in that panel discussion and has been doing ever since Ebola emerged in Liberia.
Interestingly Minister Ngafuan’s enormous achievements for his country predate his being Foreign Minister. This was the same Ngafuan who as Minister of Finance successfully led Liberia through the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative and paved the way for the cancellation of Liberia’s nearly $5 billion external debt burden. From negotiations with members of the Paris Club, to the World Bank, the IMF and other institutions and countries he proved himself worthy of being called a good negotiator. If this did not require some diplomatic savvy then what did it take, Hodge? In his capacity as Governor of Liberia at the African Development Bank (AfDB), Minister Ngafuan was one of three Finance Ministers in Africa selected by AfDB President Donald Kaberuka to assist the AfDB in consultative meetings for the 12th replenishment of the resources of the Bank and competently performed prompting Kaberuka to write him this letter, an excerpt of which I saw in the Images magazine: “The timely and succinct interventions you made during our meetings helped the Bank present a strong case….With your assistance, ADF Deputies agreed on replenishment level of US$9.5 billion over the next three years (2011-2013), a 10.6% increase. We remain convinced that beyond this mission, which you accomplished so admirably, we can continue to count on your wise and valuable counsel.” This is the person that Hodge calls “stupid”, “bonehead”, “yokel”, etc.
Quite recently, I was simply thrilled when I watched the video of Minister Ngafuan addressing the UN Security Council. His brilliant speech made me feel very proud as a Liberian. (Click on the following video-link to view the speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ce0Z6Fo6HUA). I also remember when several countries including Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire suspended flights of their national carriers to Monrovia; Minister Ngafuan announced on state radio that the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had addressed diplomatic notes to countries that had adopted reclusive postures against Liberia asking them to rethink their policies. He went to an extraordinary summit of Foreign Ministers of the African Union in Addis Ababa in early September and called on his counterparts to, in the spirit of African solidarity, not to isolate and stigmatize Ebola affected countries (Click on this link to get the full text of the statement:
http://www.mofa.gov.lr/public2/doc/Statement%20by%20Minister%20Ngafuan%20at%20AU.pdf). He also made a very exceptional case for Liberia at the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly when he, amidst intermittent applause, explained Liberia’s case to the world, thanked friendly countries and international organizations for their assistance to our country thus far and called on them to do more to engender a quick and decisive response to Ebola (Click on the following video link to view the eloquent delivery from Minister Ngafuan:
http:// webtv.un.org/watch/liberia-general-debate-69th-session/3812462558001. Click on the following link to read the full text of the address:http://www.mofa.gov.lr/public2/doc/FOREIGN%20MINISTER_S%20UNGA%20REMARKS.pdf).
It is because of the excellent diplomacy of Minister Ngafuan and his Foreign Ministry team that Kenya airways and Air Cote d’Ivoire will soon resume flight to Liberia and and that Liberian students who were once denied entry into Kenya have now commenced their studies in Nairobi, Kenya. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs under this dynamic minister has also been engaging with and coordinating foreign assistance to Liberia during this Ebola period. So you see, Mr. Hodge, Minister Ngafuan is far from being the incompetent and ordinary foreign minister you tried to make him appear as he has achieved more during his administration than those whom you had wished would occupy this position.
As a sophomore student on the University of Liberia in 1998, I remember when we elected the astute Ngafuan as President of the University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU) and the dynamism and intellectual depth he brought to student advocacy during that era. In the same 1998, I remember when Black History Month should have been celebrated in Liberia but had to be taken to the Senegal, Ngafuan wrote a poetic piece he titled ‘Why Walk With Head Bowed, Blackman?’ in which he celebrated the achievements of the black race and enjoined black people everywhere not to the debilitating notion that their race is inferior. The piece was read on BBC and captivated Africans across the continent, prompting authorities from a high school in Botswana to contact Ngafuan (through the BBC) for permission to widely disseminate and teach the inspiring poem to their students. Since then and over the past few years I have been serving as social worker both in Liberia and many countries abroad, I have followed his development and have traced his excellent educational records which I didn’t think would be very important mentioning here, but for sake of information to Hodge, will slightly provide. Ngafuan graduated Summa Cum Laude (the highest academic distinction) with a BBA Degree in Accounting and Economics from the University of Liberia; he holds an MBA in Finance and Economics from the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester; a certificate in Public Financial Management from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; Ngafuan also earned a Certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) from the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, California State University, USA in 1999, and in 1998 earned a certificate in Democratic Leadership from the African Leadership Forum (ALF) founded by the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo..
The young Ngafuan also graduated as Valedictorian from the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) in Kakata, Margibi Country in 1989, emerging in the same year as one of three students who topped the West African Examinations Council (WAEC)’s exam administered across the country to high school seniors.. His literary skills were internationally tested and proven when in 2001 he was Runner UP (number two) in the BBC Network Africa yearlong Poetry Competition for his famous poem, “The African Teacher.”
I know the next thing Hodge would say is that Ngafuan comes from a financial or economics background and does not have a formal degree in Political Science or International Relations to serve as Foreign Minister. My simple answer to this is to ask you, Hodge and your likes, to check the academic backgrounds of some of the Foreign Ministers of Liberia in the past - Rudolph Johnson, Bernard Blamo, Yaya Nimely, Toga McIntosh, Olubanke King Akerele, etc. Also, it would interest you to know that like Ngafuan, the current foreign ministers of Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, Morrocco and many other countries were once finance ministers and come from financial or economic backgrounds.This is increasingly becoming the new trend because Economics is increasingly driving foreign relations.
Ngafuan is a truly transformative Liberian public leader because everywhere he served, he did so with a touch of excellence – from the University as Liberia as President of the Student Union; to the Central Bank of Liberia as Head of International Banking; to the erstwhile Bureau of the Budget as Director General; to the Ministry of Finance as Minister and now at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Minister. If you want to get details on the profile of this humble, professionally astute and multi-dimensional Liberian called Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, I would suggest that you click on the following link to read his profile and interview as captured by Sando Moore’s Images magazine (Horatio: provide the web link here).
Ngafuan is a truly transformative Liberian public leader because everywhere he served, he did so with a touch of excellence – from the University as Liberia as President of the Student Union; to the Central Bank of Liberia as Head of International Banking; to the erstwhile Bureau of the Budget as Director General; to the Ministry of Finance as Minister and now at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Minister. If you want to get details on the profile of this humble, professionally astute and multi-dimensional Liberian called Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, I would suggest that you click on the following link to read his profile and interview as captured by Sando Moore’s Images magazine.
Finally, let it be hammered home again, Hodge, that Ngafuan is not in your league and does not need any affirmation from your kind as to whether he is a real diplomat or not. I am sure that his many achievements will vouch for his competence. And coming to your statement of “fouling up” environments when Ngafuan opens his mouth, all I can say is that Ngafuan” opened his mouth” and “fouled up his environment” and a reputable, continental body like the the AfDB benefitted from his “wise and valuable counsel”; he “opened his mouth” and “fouled up the environment” at the recent African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, when through his incisive speech, put forth Liberia’s case and engendered a change of attitude among African countries in their treatment of people from Ebola affected countries; he fouled up the environment with his statement at the UN Security Council, dubbed by many as a classic diplomatic piece; he “fouled up the environment” for twenty minutes at the UN when he delivered his address, interspersed with applause, to the UN General Assembly on September 29, 2014; he certainly “fouled up the environment” at the Clinton Global Initiative when he uttered his last word during the panel discussion moderated by Fareed Zakaria and generated a standing ovation from the audience. I think Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan needs to continue “fouling up the environment” so that Liberia and the continent of Africa can continue to make some tangible progress.
The author’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org