Living Together and Working Apart: A Dictatorship of Self-Importance?

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 10, 2005


A group that refers to itself as a “sampling of Liberian opinion leaders” has called for another national conference to address woes of the failed state. I will spend very little time on their self-proclaimed importance, which Theodore Hodge has already discussed. Instead, I will spend substantial portion of this paper on the merit of their proposal and the implications for reforms in post-war Liberia.

I see one critical barrier that has prevented Liberians from succeeding in reducing, if not, eliminating our continued suffering. It is the pervasive ethos of rugged individualism, perhaps its twin - an embellished sense of self-importance. It is expressed in the notion that “intellectuals” have mastery over solutions to our national problems. Moreover, it manifests itself in the mindset that we can conference our problems away – a context which allows so-called intellectuals to demonstrate that they are “all-knowing and all-powerful.” This philosophy of “conferencing all challenges” has handicapped problem solving because it looks at problems as being separate from the people affected by them – the larger citizenry.

Societal problems are complex, multifaceted, evolve with enormous frequency, and are even untidy. This means that meaningful solutions must involve thinking beyond our selfish aims to design inclusive, holistic, and equitable approaches to meeting societal needs. Inclusive and equitable solutions must also weave in their fabric processes that include the rich deposit of lived experiences and collective wisdom of the lay population. By lay population, I am referring to those without formal education, whose views are often underrepresented or excluded from public discourse.

Simply, the exciting challenge of sustainable nation building is that it is rooted in strategies and solutions that bridge conflicting and/or divided constituencies along ethnic, class, gender, religious, and related lines. At the same time, these strategies must support the well being of the citizenry as a unit, while making sure that the basic rights of individuals and underrepresented/underserved populations are respected and protected. Instead of a mere problem-stating mechanism, which many of these national conferences have become, we need a problem solving paradigm that creatively accommodates different groups’ perspectives and interests. In fact, that is the kind of balance and equity upon which democracy is anchored. On a surface, the call for a national conference presupposes such a formula.

However, when the proposal is viewed more critically, it reeks of selfishness and limited attention to Liberian contemporary history. As such, the proposal contradicts ethos that is conducive for nation building in war-torn Liberia. Why do I make such a strong indictment of the current proposal? Put another way, why shouldn’t an ulterior motive be ascribed to this proposal?

First, some participants in this so-called “think tank” organized and others participated in the just-held conferences in Washington DC and Baltimore respectively, almost side-by-side, aimed at achieving the same goals they allegedly wish to accomplish. The only difference is the suggested venue - Liberia. Why did they wait until the conflict that led to the hosting of the two separate conferences reached its logical conclusion? They made limited or no efforts to bring the two groups together. Former elected officials, cabinet ministers and “opinion leaders” could have worked hard to strike unity between the two sides, and ensure implementation of their joint recommendations. Instead some of them took sides, while some attended both conferences. Like spiders in Liberian folklore, they were caught up in the tug of war between the warring villages.

At the heart of the conflict was one of the signatories, James Teah Tarpeh. If Tarpeh had Liberia at heart, he would have allowed his ego to be subsumed under the auspices of the well being of the nation state. But he held on firmly, and exhibited undiplomatic qualities when he was being held accountable for his actions. It was on the day or day before the resumption of the second conference that Tarpeh offered an “olive branch,” although he failed to cooperate with or accept the results of the mediation by Liberian Christian ministers in the United States. It wouldn’t seem too far-fetched that this was a way that Tarpeh and his allies were reclaiming prominence. At the Tarpeh-led conference, one of the speakers was Amos Sawyer, another signatory to the document under scrutiny. Sawyer claimed not to understand the issues, when he should have drawn on his long professed understanding and expertise on the Liberian society. He also should have drawn on his position as both an “intellectual” and “statesman” (critic of past governments) to mediate the conflict. Instead, he took sides with his former teacher and mentor -- Tarpeh. Sawyer certainly offered prescriptions to the Liberian dilemma.

Today, Liberia is still paralyzed by the same conditions that converted it to a failed state, including the ones that some of the signatories contributed. The recommendations from the two previous conferences held in the Washington DC metro area have yet not been implemented as is the case of previous national conferences, in which some of the same signatories were again prominent participants. Bennie D. Warner, a former Bishop of the United Methodist Church in Liberia, and also former Vice President of the Republic of Liberia, backed Tarpeh all the way. He represented Tarpeh at the mediation meetings and failed to sway his friend from the division that brewed.

Second, these so-called “opinion leaders” perhaps a synonym for “intellectuals” since many of the Liberians with advanced degrees are often depicted as such (intentional or otherwise), should be trend watchers/trend-setters, forecasters, and developers of proactive solutions. How come they are often the ones dead last when it comes to devising solutions to our nation’s problems? This can be further understood by Elwood Dunn’s claims in the Daily Observer online Magazine that they have no capacity to host this conference or ensure that its results are implemented. This speaks to the fact that the proposal is so untimely and that its purveyors continue to live under the illusions that the international community is a panacea of all our problems. When will some Liberians relinquish the infantile dependence on the international community? If they are “opinion leaders,” why are they at the very tail end of the efforts to rebuild the nation when their relevance, and for some, their integrity have waned, thus seeking refuge under the patronage of the international community? Who is likely to listen in the dying minutes of elections to the murmurs of a group of people whose record of bringing about transformational change remain suspect due to past failures?

Third, national conference is a fertile soil for citizens to cooperate and forge alliances, but they only serve these sensible purposes when the facilitators are viewed as having legitimacy and moral authority in the eyes of their countrymen and women. More so, the processes and the solutions evolved must translate into real life changes for people to validate the method.

I have to be careful not to blemish all the signatories to this proposal because there are people in this group whom I believe are well-meaning. What scares me the most is that they were purposefully sought to lend legitimacy to a pursuit that is for all intents and purposes an attempt to blindside the Liberian people as have been done in the past. I am not suggesting that participants in this project did not consent to their participation. But if they did so intentionally, knowing the monotonous and drab records of some of their cohorts, one must question their decision to be party to another effort to create a sham that the best interest of the Liberian people is at heart, when the history of these individuals proves otherwise.

The humanity and dignity of the Liberian people is at stake here. Therefore, Liberians are no longer in the shackles of euphoria – the promise of freedom when all they get is tyranny wrapped in the garb of “the struggle continues.” Perhaps our public intellectuals have internalized the misconception that the public will not reach a point of fatigue over their continued lack of follow through. An important part of the change process is being able to acknowledge one’s mistakes – something that our “intellectuals” have had a difficult time doing, particularly those whose public record is noted for preying on the desperation of the Liberian people for solutions to deeply-rooted social problems.

A behavioral shift is necessary if “intellectuals” are to be taken seriously by the citizenry. The need to produce much-needed scholarship focused on the problems of Liberia and to educate the public on how to proceed with nation building cannot be overemphasized. However, rigorous examination of both the messenger and the message for congruence has to be the standard. Messengers whose words don’t match their deeds must be told in blunt terms that their times have past. We weaken our defense against tyranny by diminishing our integrity, which comes when we mix with people who consistently show that all they care about is themselves and not the country. What objective would a national conference serve this late into the elections? If those who are calling for the conference have no legitimacy in the eyes of the Liberian people, why would their proposals for reform and recovery be welcomed? To wrap themselves in the bosom of the international community or to cherry pick some legitimate community leaders and create a new list of pawns for self-aggrandizement is a game that we have seen several times that no longer has potency.

Instead of another conference, I offer the following alternative approaches to achieving the goals they wish to accomplish. Those among this group with a capacity to offer their ideas in the marketplace of thought and social transformation should do so in other outlets, and not get glued to the conference forum. Some of the signatories have contributed to the body of knowledge being amassed suggesting ways to bring about change. The need to make their works more robust (results-focused) is critical to rebuilding and restoring the health of our nation state. For those whose professions lend themselves to social justice, advocacy, community organizing and community development, let them invest their expertise in addressing the shortcomings of our past that lie within their purview. There is still opportunity for many to enter the pool of university lecturers and policymakers, if they wish. But the idea of another conference is a terrible one.

About the author: Dr. Emmanuel Dolo is the Coordinator of the Office of Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He can be contacted at