At Liberia’s establishment, the Congoe-Country divide placed ethnic identity over national identity. It fostered longstanding tensions between citizenship and ethnicity. The stratified citizenship or ethnic separatism was done at the expense of building a collective sense of citizenship and social cohesion throughout the population. The civil conflict reinforced social polarization and with the shrinking space of citizenship came threat to political stability – ethnic politics dragging communities into cycles of protracted enmity. In the aftermath of the war, these pressuresand/or rigidities have been straining and fragmenting the social fabric even with the presence of peace.
As one of many attempts to reexamine the organization of the Liberian state, this article undertakes an analysis of the nature and dynamics of heroism with respect to how it can be made relevant to the challenges of social exclusion, cultural tensions, and marginalization. It considers the bearingnational heroes and heroines can have on building an all-inclusive citizenship and forging social solidarity amongst all Liberians. It providessome general and particular questions to ask and perspectives to use in analyzing the topic with the hope of bringing new insights to the national conversation. Making national heroes and heroines is examined with the root drivers of the civil conflict in mind, mainly, the absence of nationalism and social cohesion. It is undeniable that promoting social integration in Liberia is indelibly constrained by political and social schisms and narrow loyalties, which undermine peaceful coexistence. This is true as manifested in Liberian public discourse, where we see more words of enmity and de-legitimization of “others” in the highly contested discourse on dual citizenship. This destructive tendency must be stopped, thoroughly uprooted, and addressed for the social fabric to heal. The cultivation of national heroes and heroines can spur the restoration of unity amongst various segments of society, including marginalized populations.
Phillip Zimbardo, the psychologist, defines heroes or heroines as people who display such attributes as “integrity, compassion, and moral courage” and have an enduring commitment to social action. He adds: that heroism is common, a universal attribute of human nature and not exclusive to a few special individuals. The heroic act is extraordinary, the heroic actor is an ordinary person—until he or she becomes a heroic special individual. We may all be called upon to act heroically at some time, when opportunity arises. We would do well, as a society and as a civilization, to conceive of heroism as something within the range of possibilities for every person.”The goal of this article is to make popular the concept of heroism and motivate each of us to pursue it with the focus on unifying the social fabric.
That heroism is within the reach of everyone, how do we make this manifest in our lives as Liberians? How do we build a society that addresses the root causes of the war? How do we build the cultural, ethnic, and religious mosaic that is compatible with the nation’s emerging pluralism? How do we reinforce bonds of civic unity and a sense of communal history? What will bind the various groups in Liberian society together and prevent the spread of mutual mistrust and conflict? How can “citizenship” achieve its dynamic “integrative” purpose, if we allow ourselves to remain separated along parochial lines?How do we stop “citizenship” from being yet another source of discord, rather than nurturing unity in the face of growing diversity? By making the answers of these questions real in our individual and collective lives, we are certainly able to make heroism possible.
Since the advent of the Liberian state, its history has been defined by large number of prominent personalities, among them, William VS Tubman to William R. Tolbert, Samuel K. Doe and Charles G. Taylor and now Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. If a definitive history of the nation were written, what legacy moments would historiansrecordabout these leaders? What characteristics of leadership during these periods would historians hold as exemplars of good or poor governance? How would each of these leadershave shaped Liberian society, noteworthy of being in the historical spotlight? What image of governance would remain forever sealed in the public imagination about each era? Which leaders from each period would be counted amongst Liberian greats and what would catapult them to such a stature?
In a country like Liberia, with its history of political and social upheaval as well as entrenched inequalities, where girls, women, and people experiencing entrenched poverty(overlapping groups) have continued to suffer exceptional levels of disadvantages, how far has the society come on gender equality and pro-poor policy? Has our fight for political equality been inextricably linked to women and poor people’s fight for social justice? Who are the stalwarts of women and poor people’s struggles for political, social, and economic change?
An opportunity to celebrate the lives and times of the heroes and heroines of our national struggle for democracy is an opportunity to reflect and reaffirm the intrinsic roots of our nation and the continuing relevance of nation building and social cohesion. Who are our national heroes and heroines? Could it be Ibrahim Seesay, Sao Boso, Sengbekeke Sims, Suacoco, Kpanagoba, Edward Frazier Gbessagee, Madma Mama Dukuly, Madam Weh Glapor Tetee or Chief Wrea Musu? Could they also be Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Nathaniel Brander, Berverly Page Yates, Stephen Allen Benson, Daniel B. Warner, James Spriggs Payne, Doris Banks Henries, or Suzanna Lewis? Which of these figures would be remembered for having spurred changes reminiscent of the French and American Revolutions within our history? Does the significance of each person mentioned above or those left out solely because of the scarcity of space go beyond that of their particular ethnic group?
It is established history that the Americo-Liberians, forcibly deprived indigenous people of land and natural resources, and there were indigenous people who stood up to fight for their right to self-determination and human rights. Although some of these indigenous people were labeled as lawbreakers, arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, has the democratic breakthrough since 2005 awakened all of us, both indigenous people and Americo-Liberians, to the fact that we are, after all, members of the same human community and a family? Have we realized that the only way we can be free is if all of us are free, equal and treated as brothers and sisters?True, this realization may not come like “manna from heaven” or in one instantaneous sweep, but hopefully, the brutality of the war and the liberation struggle, the revolutionary morality that underpinned it as well as the bloodshed and destruction we all enduredmeted out by both Americo-Liberians and indigenous people have taught us bitter lessons and the necessity to reunify and work together for the common good. We can look back and say that the revolutionary struggle did not only involve indigenous people, but there were Americo-Liberians who committed class suicide, and joined the pursuit of justice on behalf of the indigenous populace. Their “revolutionary”scruples must also be the bedrock and mainstay of our heritage and quest for stronger nationhood and social cohesion.
To prevent us from building the new Liberia on a weak foundation, even quicksand, these histories must be taught to all of young people, regardless of ethnicity, class, or gender. But the history that we teach of our heroes and heroines must bind us together and mobilize us to do good for one another, and ultimately for the country. In doing so, we must be able to draw distinctive principles and values of our national development and nation building project from such stories of our past.
The history of our nation is clearly not that one party or group of people, fought for change, but the story of us as a united front, in our refusal to never again surrender to the egotistical narrow-mindedness and selfishness that destroyed usfrom the dawn of the country through the coup making years to the warring period. Our history must be underlined by the inherent values of freedom, equality, and justice for all. This means that if there is a framework or structure that should guide our choice of heroes and heroines, it must be one that makes the salient point –citizenship is when individuals and communities recognize that they need each other, and each cannot claim to be superior to the other, but require harmonious, mutually reinforcing interaction.
Those who forge our social cohesion should then be registered as national heroes and heroines. The nation’s dignity depends on the discipline it uses to select its icons of history – those who muster the courage to speak against the pitfalls of history that we must avoid so that we should never return to the tyrannical and warring eras. Our national heroes and heroines are those who instill hope in the future by giving every Liberian dignity. By upholding democratic principles, cultural integration, and bold desire for change, we ensure that the peace for which we crave is sustained.
Who are our national heroes and heroines? They are the people who seek innovative ways to end the grinding poverty, deprivation, illiteracy, and mistrust that is wreaked upon the social fabric. Those who have and will transform our economy into one that is able to address the basic needs of all Liberians: food, shelter, education, health, and security - will qualify as national heroes and heroines. The economic prosperity of this nation will not happen when there are no qualified and dedicated teachers who establish a culture of learning and teaching; nurses and doctors who attend to people’s health and well-being. Equally, our country faces a spiritual disease of “lordship” that has deprived us all of building a caring and inclusive society. We therefore need interfaith leaders and communities that can heal this and other spiritual decadences that we face, while serving as the social conscience of the society – preaching equity. We need them to harness our national character and integrityand thus,in doing so, also emerge as national heroes and heroines. Our civic leaders who equip the young, mid-age, and old with inclusive citizenship values would also be lauded as heroes and heroines.
This quest for national heroes and heroines is a question about our collective vision of the kind of society we want to build in the aftermath of tumultuous times. We hunger for a democratic society that is “unified, non-ethnic, non-sexist, and prosperous,” and the prosperity that is shared widely. It is devoid of the self-righteous arrogance that points fingers at one group as the culprit of the society’s failings and denies responsibility for its actions in the nightmarish saga. The pursuit of these goals must define our quest for national heroes and heroines. Philanthropists, who give their personal resources to worthy causes on behalf of the vulnerable will certainly go down in our history as national heroes and heroines. We must honor our national heroes and heroines because their contributions should not be taken for granted and draw inspiration from those influences.
Strong individuals and institutions in Liberian society, among both Indigenous People and Settlers, must continue to engage and advocate for improving the terms of our coexistence and the building of a multicultural and multiethnic civic democracy against strident forces on the other side of the debate. These individuals and institutions must help to fit the pieces of our scattered history and painful reminisces together in distinctive ways to tell the life story of our communal heritage devoid of prejudices and preferences. That there are many compelling, but competing stories of Liberia’s past is a fact, but interpreting them is a challenge for our historians: formal and informal; oral and written. Understanding of the past will remain incomplete, which is why we must keep the intellectual curiosity well and alive – cultivating and deepening our understanding of the past.
We will certainly disagree with one another on individual candidates for national heroes and heroines, but we would have to agree that our national heroes and heroines are those imbued with talents, creativity, and leadership – who use their gifts in service of others and society. Our national heroes and heroines work hard to achieve more and give more so that they can eventually make a big difference in our lives. The destiny of the nation remains at risk so long large numbers of Liberians continue to believe that our diversity is a social problem of disruptive kind, rather than the nation’s strength. In selecting our national heroes and heroines, the messages that we will be sending are as follows: the values that we cherish, the development goals that we should pursue, the loyalties that we should hold dear, the social and political norms that we should follow, and our hopes and dreams for the future. This is why Healey’s words are so apt for the moment: “Our nation is not built. It is still under construction. We are all the builders.”
Previewing Part III: It will deal with my personal heroes and heroines and taps into the intimate/domestic sphere, the traditional value system and family structure that steered me, how my heroes and heroines made critical life-saving difference in my growth and development. I will also capture and interweave some of the many comments that I have received from readers on this important topic in the final article in the series.