President Sirleaf’s Address to Congress: An Assessment in Retrospect


By Theodore T. Hodge


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 23, 2006


When President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf addressed the U.S. joint Congress a few days ago, it was a momentous occasion. From her triumphant entry, up to the time she was introduced and throughout her speech, she held many spellbound. It seemed as though a lot was riding on her performance, and indeed, a lot was at stake. A fellow Liberian was aptly quoted saying, It made me proud to be a Liberian”; many share the sentiment. Many will agree and few will argue that the Iron Lady made us quite proud that day, in many ways. But…

It should come as no surprise that the general euphoria has since died down and the moment for an earnest assessment is now. That is the purpose of this article. Please remember that the views expressed here, although drawn from the politico-social and economic realities of Liberia, are my personal opinions.

President Sirleaf was not too long into her speech before she declared, “The national motto of Liberia, founded as you know, by freed American slaves is, ‘The love of liberty brought us here.’

As good and patronizing as this may sound to American ears, there are many who believe that this historical perspective is contradictory to reality. Many ask, “How can you ‘found’ a country that is already populated? For the sake of argument, it is technically correct to conjecture that since the land was not called “Liberia” before the former slaves arrived, they in fact founded the country. But it is easy to see how such usage of language, innocent as it may be, could serve as a point of conflict. It creates an “Us versus them” mentality, which is not conducive to peaceful co-existence because the majority of Liberia’s population hails from indigenous stock. To conclude that the country was “founded” by the minority is to marginalize the majority.

“The Love of Liberty brought us here”, is the national motto. First of all, this is quite misleading. The former slaves who were dispatched to Africa did not willingly go searching for liberty. They had become an embarrassment to America after the strange institution, slavery, ended in America. The freed men of color, as they were known, became a sore on America’s social conscience. Diverse groups including the government, church and civic groups and even former slave holders thought it best to dump these newly freed citizens elsewhere as their growth in population posed a new social problem to a society that was bent on identifying itself along racial lines. So the ex-slaves that were sent to Africa did not go seeking “liberty”, they were being ostracized. They were being thrown out of the land of their birth; that’s the reality. America failed to give the young country the tools necessary for survival in a hostile world. When Liberia declared its independence, America was slow to recognize her as other countries such as Germany, England and France did; America was still suffering from its racial state of mind. To now see the story presented as if a country called Liberia was built out of American generosity because of America’s love of freedom and individual liberty is a distortion of history. I guess the story has been told long enough that even the most educated people now believe it. Do they really believe it or are they just being disingenuous? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Many will remember that the issue to discuss the national motto became a matter of public referendum about three decades ago. President Tolbert appointed a committee to examine the issue. President Sirleaf was a member of the Tolbert administration then. To believe that those concerns that were expressed then are now resolved is folly or purely deceptive. Is the national motto appropriately worded? Some have their doubts.

President Johnson-Sirleaf continued by saying: “Thanks to President Bush whose strong resolve and public condemnation and appropriate action forced a tyrant into exile…” That statement is not exactly true. The first President Bush, President Clinton and the present President Bush stood by as Charles Taylor and other self-serving warlords tore our country apart, taking hundreds of thousands of lives. Although any of those administrations could have intervened to stop the destruction, they concluded that the Liberian problem was not worth American lives. Instead of intervening, they airlifted their embassy staff and other citizens; their logic was Liberia was not of any strategic interest to the United States. When Taylor left Liberia, it was because he was engulfed in a brutal civil war and the pressure from African governments and other world leaders, including America, was too much to ignore. Again it is disingenuous to lay such credit at the feet of the American president. He just doesn’t deserve it. In my view, if George W. Bush had really intended to put his foot down and show Taylor a lesson, Taylor would have been sharing a cell with Manuel Noriega of Panama; instead, Taylor is living in luxury in Calabar, Nigeria. What a mockery of justice!

According to President Sirleaf, “The people of Liberia and the people of the United States are bound together by history and by values…” yes, many Liberians enveloped themselves in false hope believing the preceding statement. What did being bound together by ‘history and values’ bring us? Liberia, as a nation did its part from time to time and President Sirleaf gave ample examples: Liberia broke her relationship with her biggest trading partner, Germany, and declared war against her, just because it was in the American interest to do so. Before the age of synthetic rubber, Liberia allowed the United States (Firestone) to plant rubber trees that was necessary for the American economy, at the expense of Liberians. Liberia established a shipping registry to help transport American goods to Europe during WWII. Liberia was also used as a fueling stop along the way to war. And during the Cold War, Liberia hosted a submarine tracking center, an intelligence post and one of the largest Voice of America transmitters in the world. During this extensive period of bilateral cooperation, Liberia voted with the US on every issue in international organizations such as the United Nations, sometimes against its own interests. One would think such close ties, historically and culturally, would create a moral duty. But using such reasoning, when some of us argued that America had a moral duty towards Liberia, the cold-hearted policy wonks of Washington reminded us, “countries only have interests, not friends”. We were told with cold calculation that Liberia was not of strategic importance to the United States. Have we become strategic friends again? Let’s not fool ourselves; Liberia can only be America’s stepchild, ugly and sometimes unwanted.

Strangely, there is a saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers”. If it has been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf is no dummy. I know that, and that is why I supported her and still wish her the best, for the good of the Liberian nation. She has become Liberia’s chief salesperson and she may be telling them just what they want to hear to inflate their own egos. So far, it seems to be working; they are tripping all over themselves to make the resources available for our troubled country. So, does the end justify the means? Depending on one’s perspective the answer could be, yes.

It’s called politics. If Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf plays her hand well, which she seems to be doing masterfully at the time, we could expect great results for our suffering people. And if all that ends well is well, keep on telling those lies, Mrs. President. After all, they do know the truth.

But here is where I think President Sirleaf must watch what she says most carefully: Talking about the historical causes of the Liberian conflict. On this issue, there is no need for embellishment, or twisting the truth. We owe it to ourselves to be as direct as we can be otherwise we stand a chance of deceiving ourselves and retrogressing into a hotter pit. What do I mean?

Well, in order to move the country forward, as our new president pledges, we must first correctly and honestly diagnose the root causes of our nation’s turbulent past instead of just addressing its most obvious symptoms. In listening to and reading the president’s speech, one gets the impression that the president is under the illusion that Liberia’s vast problems began these last couple of decades; nothing could be further from the truth and to hear someone who knows the truth sugar-coat it for convenience is a bit disappointing.

To President Sirleaf’s credit, I must state emphatically here that she did not make such a claim directly, but that’s simply the impression she conveyed, in my opinion. Yes, it is quite true that since President William Tolbert was dethroned and brutally murdered by enlisted men of the army, Liberia has taken a turn for the worse. But the country was on a path of self-destruction for a long time by instituting colonial and apartheid-like conditions and policies in the country. There was a clear distinction between citizens who could trace their ancestry to the colonists and those of indigenous descent. The seeds of discontent were planted over a century ago; the miracle is that it took so long to explode. We must be willing to visit that ugly past instead of dwelling on the most recent episodes; we have a pressing obligation to re-examine our past so as to understand the fundamental root causes of our national history.

It is not my intention to inflame or inflict pain or to incite hard feelings. But we must remember that our “fore fathers” bear much blame for their actions in framing our society. We must remember that it was after a full hundred years of independence that universal suffrage was extended to all Liberians. We must remember that for a very long time the Liberian society remained divided into two classes where many indigenous children were seen as subjects and wards; they normally worked in slave-like conditions just to advance themselves with some barely even getting the chance to attend formal schools and when they did, they were sent to inferior schools. Some fortunately fared pretty well. (The President described her grand parents’ experience).

We must tell the young children about the wickedness of one administration that fell because it had the audacity to deal in slavery, yes, in forcible labor practices years after the ugly practice was abolished internationally. What does one say about the descendents of former slaves who became slave masters themselves? Liberians were sent to offshore locations where they worked on sugar cane plantations and were held there against their will. Horrible? That’s an understatement. What does one say about the practice of not granting land ownership to indigenous masses when the colonists themselves and few indigenous members of the elite could own vast tracts of land? What does one say about the ugly political machines that created a virtual one-party system where the slogan was, “So say one, so say all”? I could go on and on, but I’m sure the reader gets the picture I’m trying to paint. Liberia’s ugly past is much older than just two decades of civil strife.

I make these points because President Sirleaf said: “…Always poor and undeveloped, Liberia is only now emerging from two decades of turmoil that destroyed everything we managed to build in a century and a half of independence.” The truth of the matter is, not very much was built in the so-called century and a half of independence. Liberia lacked good roads. I think paved roads extended from the capital to barely sixty miles inland. Building less than a hundred miles of paved roads during a hundred-plus years of independence cannot be considered progress by any stretch of the imagination; it is backwardness. We managed to have one public university. One. We lacked good and affordable schools and our people did not just begin to die from curable diseases, that has been the norm. There were barely any medical facilities in the country, and wherever they were, ordinary citizens could not afford them. The rich and powerful sent their children to schools abroad and sought medical treatments abroad while their wives and concubines shopped in Europe and America.

Our President said, “The cost of our conflict run wide and deep, manifested in varied ways: Mismanagement, corruption, bad governance, massive looting of public treasury and assets…” She said further, “We have a 3.5 billion dollar external debt, lent in large measure to some of my predecessors who were known to be irresponsible, unaccountable, unrepresentative and corrupt…” Yes, I do agree with Madam President, but I must insist that if we are to blame only Presidents Doe and Taylor, we are not being honest. The issues of corruption, mismanagement, bad governance and irresponsibility go much further and deeper that our two modern culprits.

Again I couldn’t agree more with our president who said, “A nation so well endowed, so blessed by God’ with natural resources, should not be poor. We have rubber and timber and diamonds and gold and iron ore. Our fields are fertile. Our water supply is plentiful. Our sunshine is warm and welcoming.”

Despite the obvious truths stated above, Liberia remains a poor country and was a poor country before 1980. We must note, in the interest of fairness that we did not discover these natural resources lately. We know that the country has been in the rubber business – close to a hundred years! Our timber, diamonds, gold and iron ore have been exploited by unscrupulous business people from abroad with the willing help of some of our “illustrious” leaders long before Doe and Taylor appeared on the scene. Many of our ex-leaders sold our natural resources to the highest bidders and left huge amounts of money in personal accounts in foreign banks while ordinary Liberians worked in slave-like conditions just to survive. Despite fertile lands we imported food and despite a plentiful water supply, our people lacked clean and safe drinking water. Our leaders stole everything for themselves; the only thing they left was the sunshine because they couldn’t steal that. It is still warm and welcoming.

Before I end this essay, I must emphatically state that it is not my intention to portray the impression that all Americo-Liberians (descendents of the colonists) were rich and powerful and privileged on one hand, and all people of indigenous descent were poor and treated as dirt. No, the reality is some folks of transplanted ancestry were hard working people who were not considered members of the elite just because of bloodline while some others of indigenous ancestry joined the elite class and even helped to perpetuate the madness that restricted our growth as a nation. They too were agents of oppression.

Yes, the reality is our founding fathers and their descendents built a class society, a society of haves and have-nots. The elite minority ruled mercilessly over the marginalized majority instead of building a secular, meritocratic, inclusive and pluralistic society, they managed to create a very small upper class, an almost nonexistent middle class and a huge underclass. That strategy is the recipe that led to disaster.

The new president and her administration’s challenge must be how to develop a huge middle class by creating economic and social incentives to rise. Our society must be based on merit and reward, not on social connections and elitism. The challenge is to raise the general standard of living of the people by creating the economic and political environment that will turn into substantial gains for all while downplaying our ancestral differences. After all this time of mutual existence, isn’t it time we became one nation, one people, in reality? That is our collective challenge.

The old saying, “Those who don’t remember their history are bound to repeat it”, rings so true now. Let’s put the political correctness aside and deal with the truth and nothing but the truth. Candidate Sirleaf’s constituents, women, farmers, ex-soldiers, the young dropouts and others who put their fate in her deserve to be honored and uplifted from their misery. Telling the same old euphoric story about Liberia’s prominence and its place of glory is not the best strategy. For a very long time Liberia was considered a land of peace, an oasis of stability in a volatile world. Well, that was a psychedelic analysis. In reality, Liberia was a time bomb sitting on sinking sands. On April 12, 1980 the sands sank and the bomb exploded. Can we afford to ignore those realities for the sake of political expediency? We need a new vision, for without vision the people perish.