"The Path to Building a New Liberia"

The Perspective

August 1, 2001

Editor's Note: Charles Brumskine, former President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate and Senator of Grand Bassa County, served as Guest Speaker for Liberia's 154th Independence Anniversary celebration in Providence, Rhode Island this past weekend. Brumskine, a former ally of President Taylor, later broke ranks, and was chased out of Liberia by Taylor's security. He now lives in exile in the United States. Below is the full text of Mr. Bumskine's speech:

I commend you for the theme you have chosen for your weeklong commemoration of our 154th Independence Anniversary, "The Path We Must Choose to Rebuild A New Liberia." Indeed, we must build a new Liberia.

Liberia is laboring under sanctions imposed by the United Nations on the Taylor government because of its involvement in the brutal war against the people of Sierra Leone; the Taylor Government is engaged in yet another war, this time in Lofa County. Liberians remain displaced, internally as well as externally; basic public services incident to good government - health, education, and security are not provided. Liberians at home are denied the Four Freedoms, as expounded by Franklin D. Roosevelt: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Our parents and children, brothers and sisters, are without shelter; they remain in a state of destitute characterized by hunger, poverty, disease, and lack of education. The rule of law has collapsed; good governance and democratic values have again eluded us. Our statehood is threatened - Liberia is referred to either as a 'failed state' a 'rogue state', a 'state of concern' or a 'pariah state'; our nation is at the verge of virtual collapse. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the state of our affairs.

Given the depth to which we have sunk as a nation, the task of setting Liberia afloat again seems insurmountable, impossible, and undoable. But it is not! While the task of nation building that lies ahead is monumental, Liberia will be built anew and its people will once again live in peace and unity under God's command, if together, we take a leap of faith into the future. But we have to desire the change, and together, resolve to make it happen. Sacrifices will be required of us, make no mistake. Of some of us will be required, our time; of some, our resources; of some, our convenience, yet of some the risk of liberty, limb, or even life. But from all of us shall be required a commitment to a cause that is greater than each of us, a bond that is stronger than any thing that tends to divide us. Liberia is that 'cause', and the love of Liberia should be that 'bond'.

Regrettably, amidst it all, we are still divided along ethnic lines, strong enough to keep each other down, but too weak for us to forge ahead, as one people. And we dare not leap into the future unless we are united in the cause of Liberia, and there can be no faith to propel our leap until we have forgiven, and begun the process of healing.

Borrowing from the words of our National Anthem, only with united hearts shall we shout the freedom of a people benighted, because in union strong, success is sure - we shall prevail over the evil that continues to plague our nation. We can no longer allow the pains and injustices that we have suffered at the hands of others to continue to polarize us, demonizing each other and further destroying us as a nation. Instead, we must avail ourselves of that inner strength of the Creator, which has seen us through dark periods of our lives, to bind us together as a people, and build for posterity a place that they can call home. We must forgive those who have offended us, if we will together take the leap of faith into the future.

Ills of the past that should not have been, and glorious opportunities that have been, but squandered, should now serve only as guiding lights to the future, as we strive to become a better people and a greater nation. We cannot afford to "dwell on the past, it only poisons the future." And the future is the direction in which we are headed. Not just you and me, but our children, and our children's children. Let's make sure there is a Liberia for them.

Were there ills in the past, including our recent past? Yes, there certainly were. But to move ahead as a people we will have to stop the assignment of collective guilt, while we demand a sense of individual responsibility - ensuring that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. And whenever one commits a crime, violates public policy, or simply offends our sense of decency, it is he, and he alone, not his family, friends, or ethnic group, that should be held responsible for his transgressions. While it may appear "politically correct" to blame an entire ethnic group for the wrongs of a few individuals, to do so is to miss the moral imperative of right or wrong. Political savvy may justify whatever we say or write on the premise of its popularity at a particular time; moral consciousness, however, requires that we say or do not only that which is right, but also that which unites our people and not divides them.

One lesson that can be drawn from the Taylor government is that no ethnic group has monopoly over malfeasance or misfeasance, nepotism or corruption, incompetence or indifference to the plight of its people. Look at the representation of ethnic groups in the Taylor government, and consider the state of our country and the plight of our people. Does any one ethnic group dominate that government? No! Those who will continue to destroy our country have found a common bond; among them, ethnicity has become irrelevant. Can you not find a bond? Let the love of Liberia bond the rest of us in spite of our differences. We must slay the demon of ethnicity, if we are to build a new Liberia.

Because it is known that I neither lived in Gbarnga ("behind the lines") during the war years, nor associated with Taylor prior to his coming to Monrovia to make the transition from a warlord to a statesman, which many thought was possible, a few Liberians have asked me, "Brumskine, what were you thinking about when you joined the Taylor government?" My answer has always been, and is still the same: It was an opportunity of history that caught my attention. Liberia had been devastated by a brutal civil war, so many lives had been lost, infrastructure - political and physical - had been destroyed, the need for men of integrity to enter public service was screaming out to anyone that would hear. There was a great need, which, regrettably, is even greater today, to help rebuild our country and provide an example of democratic leadership. And for the little difference I made, I am grateful to God.

Allow me to share an experience that humbles me every time I tell it, but that makes me ever so grateful to God for the nineteen odd months that I served in the Liberian Senate. During the latter part of 1998, I met this elderly lady, who took me by the hands and said, "my son I want to thank you for the work you and other Senators are doing at the Capitol Building." She went on to say that for the first time she appreciated the function of the Legislature. She asked if I could understand how it made Liberians feel when they heard their Senators on the radio discussing whether or not a bill submitted by the President was in the interest of the Liberian people? She ended by saying, "God will bless you, yah." I thanked her, as my eyes moistened. It felt so good to know that in spite of the government in which I worked, my effort was appreciated, and my God was glorified.

My sojourn with the Taylor government ended abruptly, my friends, not because I was Bassa and the oppressive leadership was 'Congo', or because I was 'Congo' and the leadership was Bassa or other ethnic groups. Like most issues in our country, it had nothing to do with ethnicity. It was about choosing a path to build a new Liberia: doing a job, and doing it with confidence in God; serving with integrity and commitment, guided by a moral compass rather than a political gauge; abiding by the rule of law, and not catering to any man; seeking the interest of the people, not enriching one's self.

Notwithstanding, I believe in public service, as it bears evidence of the dignity of a people. The desire to give back a little to the country and the people that have given us so much; the obligation to set in place a legacy that we must pass on to our kids; the satisfaction of making a sacrifice to bring about a better tomorrow for the suffering Liberian children, who, but for the Grace of God, could have been my children or yours. These are all compelling reasons for getting involved in building a new Liberia. Liberia needs the services of God-fearing, committed, and dedicated men and good women.

The path to building a new Liberia will have to be based upon the rule of law, with a sense of commitment from each of us, and the integrity of each of us. The process must begin upon the constitutional premise that all Liberians are equal, and that each and every one of us is endowed with the same natural, inherent, and inalienable rights, regardless of our ethnic background, religion, gender, or political affiliation. "These are rights that come not from the generosity of man, but from the hand of God."

Liberia needs leadership that will awaken a sense of patriotism that for many is dormant or may have never existed, either because they have not felt themselves a part of the body politic, or because they have been severely persecuted for simply serving their country, or because they belong to a minority ethnic group, or a minority religion.

When I spoke at a program of the Liberian Studies Institute in March 2000, on the topic, "The Remaking Of Liberia Under The Rule of Law", I stated that "the task of remaking Liberia under the rule of law is by far greater, and the challenges more daunting, than it was for building a nation in 1847. Liberians are called upon to take corrective measures and institute remedial processes for the purpose of building a community of people, rather than demarcating a country. It is clear from our experience as a people that the ingredients which ensure a republican form of government - due dependence on the people and a due responsibility to the people - have been absent in the relationship between the people of Liberia and their governments from time immemorial. The democratic constitutional framework to which Liberia subscribes lacks the requisite foundation - the involvement of the people."

Therefore, the path we must choose to build a new Liberia has to begin at the village level - the political nucleus of the country, where the majority of our citizens live, touching everyone along the way. Of course, this will require an enlightened leadership.

Liberians whose activities are regulated by customary law are governed by a system that does not adhere to our basic constitutional principle of separation of power and does not foster the growth of democracy. Under customary law, all three branches of government merge into the Presidency. Laws providing that the determination of civil matters under customary law are channeled through the executive branch, instead of the judiciary, are to be changed so that every Liberian will have the right to judicial review of justiciable matters, as provided under the Constitution.

Laws, including Constitutional provisions, which deal with the removal from office of traditional chiefs, and the appointment of acting chiefs by the President, should be reviewed and amended to ensure that a chief is more responsive to the needs of his constituents than the wishes of Monrovia. The functions of the chiefs and other traditional leaders are to be reviewed so that a chief, who is the executive head of his town, clan, or chiefdom, is not also the head of the traditional court. Magistrates must now perform the functions of the traditional courts.

Our two legal systems - statutory and customary - should be harmonized as much as practicable, to ensure conformity with the Constitution, and that one Liberian is not treated differently from another simply because she lives in accordance with the norms and customs of our traditional society. For example, a woman married under customary law should be able to inherit from her husband just as a woman married under statutory law.

In the rebuilding process, we must reach out to those who have been left behind. We must institute major land reform legislation, which will ensure, among other things, that Liberians living on tribal reserve land and other public land within the interior of Liberia, whose affairs are still governed by customary law, will be issued fee simple deeds for the land on which they live. This is not only a right that they deserve, but also a move that will give the majority of Liberians a stake in their country, make them feel more a part of the body politic, as well as empower them economically.

We must institute the necessary affirmative actions that will help Liberians to get involved in business and commerce, a sure way to develop a middle class - an indispensable group for building and sustaining a new Liberia. There might have to be set-asides, tax-incentives, and zoning regulations, restrictions with regard to government purchases, but four years after Mr. Taylor, I want to see those whom we call "market women and men" control a majority of retail businesses in Liberia.

Democracy requires a healthy and literate society. Like the other indicators of democracy, Liberia is also doing poorly with these two. For the first time in the history of our country we have more parents educated than children. Over the last eleven years we have lost an entire generation of kids to ignorance. Therefore, in building a new Liberia, a substantial amount of our resources will have to be devoted to massive education programs, including adult literacy program. Government may have to undertake such programs, as the Student Service Corp (SSC). This was a personal initiative, which I started on an experimental basis while serving as a Senator from Grand Bassa Co. The idea was to provide scholarship for students at the University of Liberia, and in return they would go into the villages during their vacations and conduct classes for kids who for any reason did not attend school during the school year or who performed poorly in school, and needed assistance.

Our children should not be left to die from diseases that are preventable or curable. The National Health Service should invest a lot into preventive medicine. Giving the condition in which we find ourselves, medical outreach programs will have to take precedence to capital-intensive medical structure. Instead of putting a million dollars in JFK Hospital, which would benefit only a few people in Monrovia, we could build several clinics through out the country, or a few mobile clinics that would periodically travel through out the country, and benefit the majority of our people. With a little selflessness, a lot will be done in the new Liberia.

Along the way we should find the strength to forgive those young men and women who have been used, and continue to be used, to wreak havoc on our country, remember that most of them are as victimized as the people they killed. We must complete the process of healing by rehabilitating them into productive citizens. A good government would ensure that those young men and women are integrated in a well-structured national army, but never again in combative roles. They should be enlisted in auxiliary units of the Armed Forces of Liberia, such as the Agriculture Battalion, the Engineering Battalion, or the Medical Corps, wherein they will be trained under military supervision. They will not only acquire useful skills, but will also be detraumatized. They must forever be taken out of the hands of another demagogue, and placed on the path to a new Liberia.

Liberia is no longer a member in good standing of the international community. The process of restoring our country will begin with our relationship with our neighbors - Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire. The adventurism of the Taylor government must be stopped. Public resources used to prosecute wars, would better serve the education and health needs of our people. Together, we must take the necessary action to alter the course of our country and restore the faith of our people.

I support the call to convene a meeting of Liberians, including President Taylor and officials of his government, the leadership of political parties, exiled politicians, and the leadership of LURD, the group, which we are told is militarily engaging the Taylor government in Lofa County. It is our hope and desire that such a meeting will give rise to the cessation of hostilities in Lofa, the release of the rest of the political prisoners, an assurance from the Taylor government that it will respect the rule of law, and a commitment to the holding of free and fair elections in 2003, under the supervision of international observers.

Today, let us join our brothers and sisters back home or in refugee camps and together rejoice in hope, as we, as a people, have for too long been patient in tribulation, struggling against the ills of tyranny, poverty, disease, ignorance, and war. Let us not take comfort in what others may do for us, but together, let us pursue those endeavors that will ensure our freedom and the survival of our nation. For through the eyes of faith, I see a new Liberia on the horizon that beckons onto every Liberian to help it become a reality. Together, let's take a leap of faith into the future, and build a new Liberia for our children.

May God bless our people and save our country.

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