Life at the beginning of post-conflict Liberia presents us with a disturbing reality, one that Liberians are capable of escaping, if we so desire. Ethnic identity has come to be the hallmark of whether or not Liberians have the word “target” written on their backs. It is clear that one of the consequences of dictatorial rule in Liberia, in addition to the adverse political and economic impacts (suppression of dissent, unequal distribution of national wealth, and class divisions) were the marginalization and oppression of certain ethnic groups merely because of their ethnic affiliation. Simply stated, the central political predicament facing Liberia and the greatest threat to nation building is ethnic hatred and the potential for those among us who find delight in polarizing us along ethnic lines for political, social and economic benefits.
In this essay, my goal is to confront what seems to be a resurgence of the tendency to exploit ethnic division in the wake of the run-off elections, particularly the rift between Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens. What I would like to demonstrate in this essay is that leadership in post-conflict Liberia has one critical defining feature. It hinges on the capacity and ability of those in leadership to devise and implement a strategy for surmounting disunity rather than exacerbating hatred. The history of Liberia is deeply tied to the strategies, agendas, and styles of leadership that have divided rather than unified the citizenry and the results have been muddled with chaos and confusion.
Proposal for Leadership in Post-Conflict
I propose that leadership in post-war Liberia has to be defined in the ability to hold those who trade in ethnic diatribe and division at bay from the arenas of governance and public policymaking. Most importantly, it is those leaders who are willing and able to take the very critical step of helping Liberians to open themselves up to difference in the broadest sense possible, to create new kinships from the ashes of the alienation, conflict, and warfare that have afflicted us; that would return us to stability. Ethnic prejudice has a way of narrowing our lenses, thus preventing us from seeing the manifold ways in which we are tied together. We are connected through intermarriages, affiliation with faith groups, poro and sande societies, professional associations, age cohorts, gender, schools that we or other relatives attended, and most importantly, the common plight of our Liberian identity. It is our acknowledgement of and the forging of more robust sets of other connections and communal lineages beyond ethnicity that we will build a national identity and surmount the ethnic bigotry that haunts us. We will not get from the verge of self-destruction if we do not elect leaders whose intentions are to heal our wounds rather than cause rift among us.
New Rounds of Ethnic Hatred: The Trigger
I have been reading with dismay and sadness, what seems to be another round of exchanges that are aimed at pitting the citizens of Nimba against those of Grand Gedeh. People have begun to allege that George Weah is about to marry a person (Mamie Doe) whom is apparently Samuel Doe’s daughter and that Weah, was recently initiated in a local secret society (Bodio) in Grand Gedeh County. Others have aligned George Weah with Charles Julu, George Dweh, and other people with criminal past, some of whom are supposedly going to serve in Weah’s cabinet, if he wins. These are allegations and no one has provided evidence to validate these claims. As a matter of fact, according to the Analyst web magazine, Dweh has refuted the assertion that he has had any contact with George Weah. On the other hand, some people have claimed that the allegations made above are last minute stunts by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to polarize Liberians and capture votes from Nimba, since Weah won in Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties. This is also an accusation that has yet to be substantiated. These situations would go unnoticed if they did not have serious implications for evolving democracy and bringing about peace and stability in the post-conflict era. Whatever the validity of these claims and counter claims, I believe that any attempt to divide Liberians at this juncture in the life of our country, no matter whomever the perpetrator is, this act, warrants their disqualification for the presidency of Liberia. We cannot reduce a discussion about the most deadly psychosocial disease in our country to a mere political maneuver, “a poker game” just to win elections.
I need not describe the backlash that such exclusionary political strategies have fueled. After 14 years of brutal ethnic civil carnage, hundreds of thousands of Liberians are dead. The economy is devastated, infrastructure are in ruins human resources have been wasted, brain drain has skyrocketed, women have been raped in large numbers, children have been paralyzed both physically and emotionally, and young, middle-age and aged people have continued to languish hopelessly in refugee camps and been exiled around the world. Hence, what value does it serve to still be invested in planting the seeds of hatred and vicious ethnic division?
Should evidence be provided that one party or another is intentionally and purposefully seeking to divide Liberians along ethnic lines, this should be grounds for disqualifying the party and its candidate for the presidency. Why am I proposing such a harsh sentence? It is clear that Liberians are a forgiving and tolerant people, manifested by the fact that they allowed warlords and those who meted out suffering at them to participate in the elections. But to construe their forgiveness and tolerance as weakness and to begin to rehash the same Machiavellian tactics that bore the fruits of carnage and suffering is to take advantage of their good will and nature. Those with any intent to impose their wicked designs on the Liberian people should be put on notice. Those who believe that placing Liberians in perpetual chaos is their way out of massive failure must certainly be put on notice. Like an emperor without clothes, their naked cruelty is exposed. It is only they that have been blinded by their wickedness and have yet to realize that their plots are being viewed by Liberians like x-ray. This is why I believe that it is an unpardonable sin for any presidential candidate to be a part of or condone ethnic division or any other form of disunity among Liberians. If this is the only strategy such persons have for assuming leadership, then they should forego the presidency because they do not have the Liberian people at heart.
Taking a Broader View of the Liberian
I would now discuss what I view as a critical issue worth noting in all of these debates. Nimba and Grand Gedeh are not the only two counties in Liberia. There are many more Liberians than there are Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens, combined. Fatigue induced by the continued in-fighting has set in and Liberians are tired of being subjected to war and destruction at their expense. Hate mongers who have continued to seize on the vulnerabilities of Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens are vile and loathsome, perhaps the lowest excrements of humanity. If presidential candidates are party to such a corrosive agenda, it is essential that they not be allowed by the Liberian people to perpetrate their fraud on the nation.
The formation of trans-ethnic coalitions is essential for amassing the much needed political and economic power and leverage that would reverse the dynamics that have caused the divisive agenda to gain stranglehold on the psyches of many who perpetrate it. But I should add that the Nimba-Grand Gedeh axis is not the only arena where trans-ethnic coalitions are viable instruments for change, but also in the arena of the Americo-Liberian-indigenous divide, which seemingly is also rearing its ugly head in the current political climate. A broad-based movement against bigotry of all kinds and the inequalities that have evoked the immense difficulties that we have encountered over the years is a way out of our wretched state. We need to coalesce and organize around poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, poor working conditions, women’s rights, children’s rights, public corruption, and the various causes that would raise our standards of living. It is the responsibility of the citizenry that we turn our leaders’ attention toward the issues that matter in our daily lives and divert their attention from trivial issues that have distorted social progress.
Are Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens the “sassy dogs” of Liberia, who must often be set against one another for the mere pleasure of the political operatives who pull the strings and use these two groups as puppets against one another for their selfish gains? When the children of Nimba and Grand Gedeh were being killed in the forests, and their parents running miles, and seeking shelter at night, dying of starvation, these political puppet masters had their children in schools in the West living off of their stolen wealth. The puppet masters and their soothers were also living in the West and other parts of the world in luxury. I focus here on Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens not to discount the sufferings of other Liberians, but to make my point regarding the constant juxtaposition of these ethnic groups for political exploitation. Are Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens “rational and sensible” people who have come to realize fully that the more they allow themselves to be the pawns of political pimps and prostitutes masquerading as patriots, they wane their respect among well-meaning Liberians?
Recounting Nimba-Grand Gedeh Kinship
Let me remind my fellow Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens that we are cousins. The most tangible expression of our vulnerability and victimization is that some of us have accepted our oppression without collective “anger, rage, and organized resistance” against agents of our exploitation. Our backs are against the wall and I must ask: “Where is our outrage against the catastrophic consequences of this invidious design? Why should we allow the gulf of distrust that has been manufactured to divide us?
As relatives, how long would we allow ourselves to be pumped up by bystanders with “devious intentions” while they watch us die? When our children go to war, they do not return to become interim leaders or presidents. We are often relegated to the backseat of history. Opportunistic politicians applaud Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens to engage in warfare then treat them as if they are no longer needed once they achieve their intended results. Remember that nearly all of our traditional and political leaders on both sides have been pitted against one another and cunningly wiped out. Bob Marley, the prophetic songwriter asked: “How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?” Wise up Gedeh and Nimba. Your destiny hangs in the balance. I urge my fellow Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens to choose a path that would allow us to surmount the stigma of being troublemakers and menaces to civilized society.
More Pressing Challenges
Rather than preoccupying themselves with failed strategies (divisive approaches), emergent leaders in the post-conflict period have to develop a more nuanced understanding of the well-entrenched challenges that lie ahead and waste no time in developing sustainable solutions to them. There are more pressing challenges in rebuilding Liberia than a relentless gasp for notoriety by tarnished and irresponsible people who see their way out as exploiting old wounds between Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens. We have structural problems of social and distributive injustice and the marginalization of segments of our society to numerous disadvantages. Poverty has consumed a major segment of our population as have illiteracy. We have limited or no mechanisms to safeguard civil rights and economic opportunities for most of our populations. Reliance on government for employment and stolen wealth remain entrenched in the psyche of many citizens. The entrepreneurial sector remains dominated by foreigners and Liberian-owned businesses have yet to gain foothold.
Add to this, the fact that our country is without electricity. People are still drinking from dirty streams and schools remain dysfunctional or nonexistent in some areas. Our children have been in and out of school for 14 years and are mired by lack of exposure to civility and drenched in disease. Roadways are inundated with potholes and food supply remains scare, while joblessness continue on a fast spiral upward. These and other unsolved problems are the landscapes that are worthy of immediate attention rather than a preoccupation with the continued sparring among Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens, if they fail to take the initiative to end their own persecution. Strategies that can invigorate enfranchisement and full democratic participation for all Liberians and give them stake in society are in the greatest demand and must be pursued with vigilance.
Finally, I urge the two remaining presidential candidates to publicly denounce any practice related to ethnic polarization or bidding not through surrogates or written press statements, but in person. They should take preemptive steps to stop people in their parties that may attempt to plant the seeds of ethnic division by assuring that they do not carry out acts that would aggravate the sores of disunity. We dare not squander the good will of the international community that has invested enormously into our peace process. Silence on this issue may be an eloquent indicator of complicity.
I also call on my fellow Liberians to consider as their first act of citizenship following the determination of our new president, that we impress upon the legislators to immediately activate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This latter undertaking would serve as a way of cleansing ourselves through confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, thus providing the basis for collective renewal and rebuilding of post-war Liberia on a more solid and sustainable foundation. Essentially, if there is a moral starting point for transformative social change in post-conflict Liberia, I believe we must start with ending bigotry and all its tentacles and manifestations. If we weave discussions about the egregious nature of ethnic injustices, sexist oppression, and class inequalities together in a tapestry of public policy agendas that put our voices in dialogue about these and other wedge issues, I am certain that an inclusive nation building strategy would emerge.
About the Author: Dr. Emmanuel T. Dolo is Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, and author of a forthcoming book on ethnic politics in contemporary Liberia from the Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers in New Jersey. He lives with his family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org