"Taking Steps Beyond The Trauma"
Remarks by Ambassador Bismarck Myrick - Former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Liberiaat the Biennial Installation Ceremony and Dinner
The Association Of Liberian Journalists in the Americas, Nyumburu Cultural Center, University of Maryland
September 7, 2002
September 18, 2002
I thank you for that kind and generous introduction.
President Cyrus Badio, Vice President Mr. John Lloyd officers and members of the Association of Liberian Journalist in the Americas, friends, colleagues, distinguished ladies and gentlemen. I congratulate all of the newly elected officers of this prestigious association.
I am truly humbled to be in your presence, much less to be able to share some remarks with you on this significant occasion.
It was my honor to represent the United States if America as the American ambassador to the Republic of Liberia for three years, from 1999 to just a few weeks ago. I left Monrovia at the end of July, 2002. I also served in Liberia for two years as Political Officer at the United States Embassy in the early 1980s. As I reflect, this means that about 25% of diplomatic career has been spent in Liberia. In addition, my professional postings, studies and teaching of African topics have led me to travel in about 35 African countries over the past three decades. I add quickly however, that I do not consider myself to be an expert on other people’s cultures. I also add equally quickly that while my remarks tonight will draw on some official public positions, the presentation is based on my own personal observations and views. I stress that I am not making an official policy statement.
I have entitled my brief remarks, "Taking Steps Beyond the Trauma". I will characterize Liberia’s current political state and make some suggestions regarding what I believe the government, civil society, including journalism associations, and the international community might do to change conditions. I aim to challenge you, to provoke you and to contribute to the public debate.
Most of us know that the United States and the Republic of Liberia share a unique history. Over the years since 1847 official ties have served the mutual benefit of both countries. In the tradition of modern international relations, both countries have used the relationship to advance individual national interests. For example, it is well known that over the years the United States has provided Liberia urge amounts of development assistance. Historically, on most issues, Liberia has sided with the United States in international for a. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the relationship has to do with the interpersonal linkages. There are deep family ties between the two countries and peoples. Many Liberians are as much at home in the United States as they are in Liberia. After all, most Liberians with education attended schools and universities in the U.S.; they know the U.S. political and moral value system. Over the years, Liberians have selectively adopted those values and selectively applied them to the Liberian setting. I say selectively because although there was undeniable exposure to the American way, few Liberians with influence insisted on the type of inclusiveness within their own country that could have bridged painful socio-economic and ethnic gaps within the society.
As I see it, a significant negative trait associated with the relationship is the evolution of an attitude of Liberian dependency-as opposed to interdependency-with regard to the International Community. Many Liberian friends expect-even demand-that the U.S. and others solve Liberia’s political and economic problems. Many are especially willing to step aside and wait for such U.S. intervention. In my view, this type of passive, failure-to-take-the-lead-in resolving-your-own-problems attitude contributes to what I label an abnormal environment.
I realize that abnormal is a strong term. But when one combines deep-seated dependency and shyness at accepting responsibility for the direction of your own destiny with the horrific human rights abuses that began in the 1980s and multiplied tremendously in the 1990s, the result is a traumatized society.
Symptoms of the trauma that I witnessed personally include a breakdown in traditional, kinship relationships, widespread fear of government security operations and a sad acceptance of intimidation. The lack of remorse after lying or stealing, the quick use of violence to resolve disputes, the shameful abuse of children, especially female children, ubiquitous begging, government intolerance of criticism, duplicitous officials, an across the board absence of honesty and never ending slander and rumors.
I offer that steps beyond this condition must be led by government because it is government that has created the environment for the continuation of the trauma. Candidly the government is wrongly led by those who do not respect transparent democracy. Specifically, these leaders have given no convincing evidence that they desire to deliver good governance or that they even seriously care about the plight of Liberia’s ordinary citizens. Instead, the evidence clearly points to miserable life conditions where there is no central clean water system and most people live in darkness because there is no central electrical system-even within the capital city of Monrovia. Unemployment in the formal sectors is around 80% and the illiteracy rate is between 70% and 80%. The government has done little to curb intimidating abuses by its security establishment. So, most Liberians, including many senior government officials live in fear. Citizens have no protection against their homes being invaded or being arbitrarily arrested without the benefit of due process of law. All of this takes place in a country with a relatively small population and that is rich in natural resources.
Of course Liberia’s government leadership blames this five-year lack of responsible government on dissidents and the international community. Anything except recognition of the government’s own ineptitude at taking at taking advantage of opportunities to advance internal and sub-regional conflict resolution and thereby guide Liberia back into its former status of respected members of the international community. The only transparent aspect of the whole pitiful situation is that ordinary Liberians, though illiterate and poverty-stricken , can see the abuses led by or tolerated by their government. However, they will not speak out and, with very few exceptions, those U.S. educated senior officials of the executive branch and the legislature-people who know better-will not speak out. I understand that they will not dare speak out because of fear. Fear that they will be fired from their positions, labeled unpatriotic, slandered, have their homes or business violated or harmed physically. In my view, this is shameful and, scapegoatism as defense for abuses of democratic principles no longer works.
Government steps aimed at healing this trauma must begin with demonstrated compliance with the terms of Liberia’s Constitution. The Constitution guarantees protection of the rights of citizens, including their human rights and due process of law. The Constitution also holds the Government accountable for the conduct of official international relations the expectation is that the government will behave in ways that keep Liberia in compliance with international standards, including the establishment of peaceful relations with neighbors and the broader international community.
Because the current government has failed to live up to expected international standards, the international community has intervened with sanctions as well as incentatives(sic). Specifically, through United Nations resolutions, the international community has presented the Government with clear demands that could lead to the reestablishment of Liberia’s credibility. Moreover, for some time now, the Government has had opportunities to cooperate with European Union proposals that would show commitment to good governance.
So, I am convinced that steps beyond the trauma could be advanced by government’s opening of democratic political and economic space for all of its citizens, avoiding actions that destabilize or threaten to destabilize the sub-region, delivering good governance, including transparent fiscal management, as well as general straight forward compliance with international rules.
There is a definite role for civil society in the formulation, and more importantly, the implementation of strategies that will take the country beyond the trauma. All elements of civil society need to get off the sidelines and to become proactive agents for peaceful change. I am talking about involvement in a process that is not limited to the often cosmetic meeting and conferences. In my humble view, political and civil society leaders become co-conspirators with government in the abuse of ordinary citizens if they do not involve themselves in active, practical, results-oriented actions for change. Of course these leaders will have to sacrifice conveniences and be prepared for setbacks, more suffering and danger. The alternative is the institutionalization of "so-called leaders" who are content to allow one element of society to totally manipulate and to control the whole country.
Now, more specially. I believe that factions of civil society such as politicians and leaders of organizations can find ways to demand that government not only removes the threat to personal safety caused by the many security elements but also delivers better education and housing. These leaders have strong conflict prevention and resolution training and
skills. They have not exhausted avenues for demonstrating these capabilities. We all know the pattern in Liberia. What happens most often is that one person will challenge the status quo. That person will be arrested and/or beaten up. Focus then shifts to the status and welfare of that person. There are rarely sustained demands for an end of the circumstances that led to the abuse. Then, at the earliest opportunity, this once courageous person leaves the country creating more internal leadership vacuum.
I believe that non-greedy and non-self-focused business leaders with integrity in the private sector can facilitate the gathering of the funds needed to re-establish water and electrical infrastructures. These same private sector entrepreneurs can open businesses, Medical Centers and Schools. And, I believe that organizations such as the Association of
Liberian Journalists in the Americans can mobilize public relations and media support which highlights Liberia’s potential and constructively condemns those who are intent on keeping Liberia in the global wilderness.
I am talking about taking steps which confront fear to reclaim ownership of Liberia’s political, economical and social environment. These suggestions may sound idealistic or even naïve. But, I can tell you that if Liberians themselves are not willing to take the lead for a better tomorrow for their children within Liberia, no one will do that for you. I respectfully add that it is difficult to change conditions within Liberia from Maryland, USA or from any other place outside of the country. In addition, it is near impossible for one person alone to shape the direction of change. There is need for multi-dimensional, civil society initiatives.
These initiatives should be based on platforms that encourage international supports while rejecting total dependency. They should center on building participatory democratic structures for a fair elections outcome. The U.S. Government and others have already committed resources to assist the elections process. But, not only that, there are deep-seated economic and social problems that need new attention and commitment for resolutions. Journalists associations can be persistent in exposing these arrears of deprivation and promote public debate on them. They can join with the already ongoing commendable efforts of the Press Union of Liberia.
Finally, it is clear to me that more vision and more activism are needed. Peaceful change is possible. You see, I am encouraged by my Liberian hero---A man from your journalistic ranks. His name is Albert Porte. Until he died Mr. Porte stood up for his beliefs; he was a true, fearless activist for social change. When the government arrested him, as soon as he was released, he returned to speak up for democratic principles- always in the context of Liberia’s Constitution.
I do not believe that all leaders have Albert Porte’s vision or courage. But if members and Liberian friends of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas apply only 10% of his reluctance to stay on the sidelines and accept abuse, you can successfully lead concrete steps that will take the society beyond the trauma.
I thank you.