The End of a Century: Looking Towards
"The Genius of a Free Government"

The 20th Century is gradually coming to an end. An unvarnished assessment of this century suggests that it has been markedly momentous and tumultuous. Many significant events and developments have characterized this century, but a few are worthy of mention: the irresistible cold war - the ideological divide which separated the world into various "blocks of influence," has virtually ended; Africa's decolonization process has finally completed with the abominable apartheid system giving way to black majority rule in South Africa. The world has also seen positive growth and proliferation in a number of countries that have made a transition from a repressive military, despotic and one-party rule, and have opted for a road to democracy.

But if there were some positive trends that existed, this century was also marked by ferocious and destructive developments. There were also civil and ethnic wars that continue to undermine the very foundations of a nation-state. For example, according to a report published by the US Institute of Peace, "More than two dozen major conflicts persist clustered in Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa." One of the longest running civil wars of this century is occurring in Sudan. War has raged in this African country for almost half of this century, and for most of its 43 years of independence during which more than 1.5 million people were killed in a seemingly endless power struggle between the Muslim North and the Christian and animist South. Similar wars are occurring in the Balkans and the Middle East, which also parallel those in other parts of the world.

Yet another bleak picture of this century is the ever-widening economic gap between wealthy nations of the North, and the poor nations of the South. Most poor nations are mired in an ocean of debt making it difficult to create the necessary opportunity structures to pursue independent economic development. The Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - and now the new addition, the World Trade Organization (WTO) are held suspect, and viewed more as hindrances rather than catalysts for economic development. The increasing involvement of these institutions in shaping economic policies for third world countries has led to the further impoverishment of these countries. With more than 4.5 billion of the world's population trapped in poverty, it is evident that if nothing is done to ameliorate this dire situation, the political gains made in this century will come under enormous threat in the next century.

Given this world outlook and balance sheet, how has Liberia fared in this century? For nearly a century and a half, from the inception of its independence in 1847 (just about the same time when powers of the world were meeting at a Berlin Conference to partition Africa), the country founded for the benefit of former slaves and their dependents in North America, also conceived as a Black Republic in order to "exercise the genius of a free government," has not lived up to its expectations. This is a sad commentary in view of its enviable distinction as the oldest independent Black African Republic.

Liberia has yet to live up to its expectations. These shortcomings can be attributed to many false starts upon which the country's foundations were built by its Founding Fathers. For example, Emancipationist such as Alexander Crumwell - one of the founding fathers and a man of enlightened consciousness - who had experienced the evils of a racist slave society, was obsessed and driven by the mission to exercise "the genius of a free government" but failed due to an inherent lack of understanding and arrogance in dealing with the local realities and people they encounter.

What else happened? First, there was an alien model imposed by the Founding Fathers, which in itself was impregnated with numerous pitfalls. The Founding Fathers saw as their mission the introduction of the elements of civilization, in Liberia, to a "vast population of degraded subjects." Evidently, they knew almost nothing about the indigenous population. They were alienated from the cultures and the realities of Africa.

Secondly, the attempt to create a national character through a process of cultural hybridization - the marrying of two distinct cultures, Anglo-American and African, added more to the confusion rather than to the understanding of local realities. It is said that Liberia was "lost between two worlds" - a nation-state wanting to be both Western and African at the same time.

Thirdly, the Founding Fathers failed in establishing a participatory political system, which would have dovetailed with their mission of exercising "the genius of a free government" in which the people could be involved with a sense of connection and ownership.

Even when it seemed like there was a concerted effort by the middle of this century during the reigns of President William V.S. Tubman - when he initiated the policy of Unification and Integration - to bring together the hinterland and coastal regions under a unified political system, it was evident that this was a forced solution which had as its underlying objective, the control and management of the hinterland, which with the passage of time was to provide the economic engine to sustain the ruling oligarchy based in Monrovia. Mr. Taylor recently announced similar initiative called the "Millennium Project" which will build two highways connecting both the hinterland and Coastal counties. The effect of this project is yet to be seen. If history is any guide, this initiative resonates with others we've had in the past.

By and large, and throughout this century, every successive Liberian leader and administration including Tubman, Tolbert, Doe and Taylor, have followed similar trajectory, operating in a socio-political system established by the Founding Fathers which has led the country down a disastrous path from one crisis to another.

So, if the 20th Century is any guide, how are we to approach the 21st Century or the next millennium? What are the challenges we ought to confront? What will future generation think of us when they look back and see that ours was a generation that did not establish a solid foundation that they could build upon?

LOOKING forward, the 21st Century or the next millennium could provide the best opportunity for addressing the perennial and intractable problems we face as a people. However, there are three important challenges: 1. The historical-political challenge, 2. The challenge of Justice and Reconciliation and, 3. The economic development challenge.

The historical-political challenge is the most crucial of all. History is a good barometer of defining and redefining who we as a people. Liberia is quintessentially a product of difficult historical circumstances due in part, to the ill-conceived manner in which the nation-state was founded. The nation-state has often been perceived as alien to a vast majority of citizens who have either been disenfranchised or alienated from the political process. Because of this deep alienation, one of the sad ironies of this century despite nearly a century and a half of existence is that we have not been able to develop a common national ethos around which we can build a common identity and national philosophy.

To begin with, the country needs to examine its national character, symbols and conventions that define us as a people. Currently, there are those revisionists and die-hard traditionalists who would prefer to see us maintain the status quo, as evidence in a handful of their writings and books they have put out lately, to cast our historical problems as starting twenty years ago, rather than at the inception of the country's founding. Such approach to our history is flawed and does not serve us well. Even though we have become deep historical pessimists in this century as a result of its cruelty, we can make a difference if there is a determined political will.

Underlying our historical problems is the political challenge. One of the paramount challenges of politics or any political systems is to establish legitimacy. By this we mean a consensus must exist among the people regarding the legitimacy of the political system. The citizens and their leaders should share a common vision of the public interest of the society and of the traditions and principles upon which the political community is based. In this century, the Liberian State (or government) is yet to be seen as an embodiment of a true national consensus between the citizens and their leaders. Only twice in this century - 1985 and 1997 - under less than perfect conditions, did the citizens have an opportunity through an electoral process to use their right to vote. The right to vote which is a human right is still not totally guaranteed under the current political system.

While we seek to find concrete answers to our historical and political anomalies, we must start the next millennium by engaging in a national dialogue on Justice and Reconciliation. Our most recent violent history which led to a civil war costing the lives of an estimated 250,000 innocent people cannot be treated as being over or resolved because the barrel of the gun has stopped sounding, or because someone said "the war is over." Thousands of Liberians are still seeking closure and searching for answers as to who killed their family members and loved ones. Regarding this concern, The Perspective magazine has consistently maintain that only by seeking the truth and nothing but the whole truth about the civil war, and allowing justice to bear on those who committed such evil crimes of war and crimes against humanity (against innocent Liberian people), can the process of genuine reconciliation begin. We believe the first step in this direction is for the Taylor government to begin the process of implementing the recommendations of the conference of National Reconciliation held in July 1998. Also, we call on the GOL to join the coalition of concerned Liberians who are calling for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal.

While the Western world is addressing the Y2K problems, correcting a technological error in its computer system, one of the finest inventions of this century, most of Africa and other third world countries - including Liberia - are still grappling with how to address basic economic needs of their people. In the case of Liberia, the problem is made worse by the fact that the country totters on the brink of economic collapse. Not only has the war destroyed basic economic structures, but the new breed of economic managers and leaders are mortgaging the wealth of the country for their own personal aggrandizement, while the masses of the people wallow in grinding abject poverty. Broad day thievery and corruption eats at the very economic fabric of the society. The Liberian Democratic Future (LDF) and The Perspective believe that the wealth of the land belongs to the Liberian people. The extra-budgetary and lavish spending, flamboyant lifestyles being displayed by government officials should be replaced by a more serious approach to resource management and development planning.

Despite the powerful reasons for pessimism given us by our experience in this century, the 21st Century could be promising if real and concrete steps are taken to correct our age-old problems which continue to haunt us so that we may be able to really exercise "the genius of a free government." No amount of window-dressing, policy manipulation, social engineering or bland rhetorical lip service designed or embellished as answers to our myriad problems will suffice without identifying the source of our problems by going to its roots. Therefore, the real test of the next millennium will be for us to learn from our failures, and by doing so, we will live up to the true meaning of "Ku-Ka Tonor" (We Are One).

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