The Challenge of Our National Purpose and Agenda...
August 1, 2000

Liberian communities in the Diaspora celebrated Liberia's 153rd Independence Anniversary over the weekend. For its part, The Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta had Dr. D. Elwood Dunn as its Keynote Speaker. Bellow is the full text of the speech delivered by Dr. Dunn during the Independence Program in Atlanta on July 29, 2000.

President Dagadu, other officers and members of the Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta (LAMA), my fellow compatriots and friends of Liberia:

Thank you, Ms Harris for that kind introduction. Allow me to add that my wife, regrets her inability to be with us this evening because of a prior commitment that took her to Washington, DC.

Finding myself among fellow compatriots and friends of Liberia, in the broadest sense, is for me always a source of joy as it brings a sense of fulfillment. I thank LAMA for inviting me to commemorate with you our Natal Day. I should also mention that it was exactly a decade ago, July 26, 1990, the 143rd independence anniversary, that I spoke to another Liberian community, the Liberian Community Association of the Washington Metropolitan Area. This was, as you see, the beginning of the decade- long civil war in our country. Prior to leaving our residence in Tennessee in July 1990 I had been contacted by someone at NBC News hoping somehow that the peace negotiations that one then heard about would produce a breakthrough. There was, of course, no breakthrough and so I heard no more from NBC. My appearance on the PBS McNeil/Lehrer News Hour a month earlier was perhaps the last significant American airing of our national problem. The Gulf War soon wiped us off the geopolitical map and left us to stew in our West African juice. That was then. What about now?

Well, now we gather to take stock as a people in this segment of the Diaspora community. We gather to commemorate the sacred event of the initiation of our nationhood. Though the words commemorate and celebrate could be used synonymously I much prefer commemorate over the praise and extolling that tend to go with celebrate. Our national circumstances at this 153rd anniversary require sober reflection, renewal and rededication, not mere merry-making.

LAMA, I believe, has itself acknowledged the emphasis I am talking about as it marks July 26, 2000. It did not only plan jubilation and celebration, but commemoration at it took note of our national circumstance. The essay contest about "what Liberia means to me", the occasions of intercession and prayer, the cultural celebrations ­ all of these attest, to my mind, to the fact that you have caught the spirit, the spirit that recognizes the need for national introspection, for national renewal of purpose, for national projection of a future in harmony with who we are as a people, and what we must aspire to become.

It is in this spirit and against this backdrop that I propose to address you briefly on THE CHALLENGE OF OUR NATIONAL PURPOSE AND THE AGENDA FOR NATIONAL SELF-FULFILMENT.. What is national purpose? Why are we a country? Or as the essay contest asks, what does Liberia mean to me, and you, and you? How do we fulfil our purpose as one people?

National purpose is the controlling value system, value consensus, value preferences, of any nation as it comtemplates domestic/international interaction. It is a phenomenon that emerges from the socio-political setting in which the nation has its real being. It evolves along with the institutions, the agencies; and the moral and material stresses to which the nation-state inevitably is subjected. To the extent that this ego-image of any national group is clearly formulated and based on genuine values consensus, it becomes an absolutely controlling determinant of national interest.

Liberia's national purpose evolves from the circumstances that attended its founding almost two hundred years ago. Yes, the original idea of Liberia developed from the need to locate a place of refuge for the free people of color of the United States in the early 1800s. With the attention of post-slave-trade philanthropists focused on rehabilitation of those areas that had been devastated by the inhumanities of slavery and the slave trade, the idea of introducing to the West African coast Christian civilization soon became a controlling purpose. The planting of the Liberian entity was thus accompanied by the introduction of purposes having to do with civilizing and christianizing. Soon an uneven and unending debate was engaged between advocates of the Euro-American perception of the "civilizing mission" and those who differed fundamentally.

Hilary Teague, the writer of our Declaration of Independence and Liberia's first Secretary of State led the advocacy for the civilizing mission. Edward Wilmot Blyden, perhaps the foremost original thinker that Liberia has produced, took the opposite view. Himself a youthful immigrant from the Caribbean some four years following our independence, Blyden was educated in Liberia and came to view the national purpose during those formative years in terms of organizing for a resurgence of Africa, initiating a spiritual reconstruction and acceptance of the Industrial Revolution introduced by Europe, for the restoration of the black race to its original integrity. His objection to the civilizing mission was not a rejection of Christianity. Rather, it was a rejection of those aspects of European culture presumed integral to Christianity by the West, yet perceived by Blyden and others as nonessential. The objective remained one of disallowing the presumption of European cultural superiority implied in the introduction of the civilizing mission, yet admitting that interdependence requires cultural pluralism. Dr. Blyden perceived Liberia as the nucleus of a modern, progressive nation ­ a synthesis of the best in African and Western cultures.

Now, translation: First, Liberia has a past, a glorious past but not one without immediate challenges. That past was republican Liberia which Hilary Teague celebrated with eloquence in the Declaration of Independence. But integral to that past of ours was pre-republican Liberia which Edward Wilmot Blyden sought to articulate. Teague was a product of his times, the 19th century world and its "scale of civilization" which had the Western person at the top, the Westernized black person next, and the non-Westernized Africans at the very base in the most negative sense of the word base. As to Blyden, he was far ahead of his time. He consistently advocated removing the potted plant of the Liberian state from its pot for planting in the African soil that had become Liberia.

These two men in their respective advocacies became the progenitors of the Liberian dilemma ­ a civilizing mission or the development of an African nationality that blends elements from the dual heritage of the West and Africa. Have we acknowledged and addressed this issue, played politics with it, or merely wished it away?

For a twenty/twenty vision, Liberia must be seen through the lenses of Teague and Blyden, and their intellectual successors. Some of us still wish to dwell on our "glorious land of liberty", while others of us advocate an examination of the "glory" and the "liberty" alike. Some of us take our cue from and dwell upon such national symbols as the Seal, the Flag, the Declaration of Independence, the National Anthem, while others of us call for pause and examination of what those revered symbols are saying to all of us Liberians, not in the Year of Our Lord, 1847, but in the Year of Our Lord, 2000. Again the relevancy of our essay contest: "What does Liberia mean to me"? We must be honest with ourselves and cease burying our heads in the proverbial sand.

Yes, I can almost hear the echo, let sleeping dogs lie! Things were so fine and peaceful and somewhat prosperous when William V.S. Tubman was president. The trouble started with Tolbert and those PAL and MOJA people! I would be the last to exonerate PAL and MOJA of leadership responsibility as they engaged the Tolbert government, and then as they abdicated (or simply proved their inability to translate opposition politics into creating a governing coalition) in the 1980s and beyond. Yet neither Tolbert nor the PAL and MOJA people can alone shoulder the responsibility for the crisis that has engulfed us as a people. All of us are to be blamed, especially those of us in opinion-molding capacities: parents, teachers, preachers, journalists, lawyers, former government officials, etc.

So much for our glorious past and the conceptual problems that we have inherited. If we are to attain an enlightened national purpose of building in Liberia an African nationality, with what agenda, with what national agenda should this building occur? We could begin with the agenda bequeathed to us from 153 years of history. This could be traced from the deliberate actions of those who sought to blend pre-republican and republican Liberia, the Christian churches and their missionary endeavors, individual philanthropy that made possible the education of such stalwart sons of Liberia as Didhwo Twe, Plenyono Gbe Wolo, Momolu Massaquoi, etc. Or, we could come to the 1970s and objectively examine that extraordinary decade in our history. There were starts and fits, to be sure, but it is unmistakable that the agenda was one of facing squarely our national realities and then attempting to move, to bring about equality of opportunities, casting our lot with Africa where we physically were, and proceeding with a development that was as self-reliant and self-sustaining as possible.

Unfortunately, many of these things remained at the level of intent, though there was some implementation. Human failings on part of the regime were only a part of the problem. Strong and consistent leadership was wanting. Neither the government of the day nor its many opponents seemed capable of providing such a leadership. And individuals of social and political stature in civil society chose to be spectators when fundamental national issues were crystallized and being debated. A leadership void was created. The military intervened.

Euphoria ensued, as it appeared that the opposition represented by PAL/MOJA had in effect come to power. The reform agenda, it was thought, would be implemented fully, and majority rule and social justice, important elements of accountable government, would be enthroned. That was not to be for reasons having to do with both the character of the military regime that emerged, but more importantly, the character of the opposition of the 1970s. Soon there was no reform agenda to speak of as an ill-conceived "revolution of entitlement" ravaged the land and took the society to a pre-1970s period of political intolerance. The insurgency, which ensued in 1989/90 effectively, wiped out what remaining pretense there was to a national reform agenda. Liberia quite simply descended into Hell!

We are now supposed to experience a national Resurrection after a full decade of carnage and spiritual and physical destruction. We sent by our action and inaction thousands of our compatriots to their early graves. MAY I ASK YOU TO RISE IN A MOMENT OF SILENCE TO THEIR COLLECTIVE MEMORY!!

Now, there is a semblance of our climbing out of our Hell, or is there? Much has been said about our immediate post-war needs. Much has been said about the three or four "r's of reconciliation, rehabilitation, repatriation and reconstruction. Needless to say that these things cannot go forward in a void. There must be leadership to provide context.

A response might be that there is an elected government in place. That is the context; that is the leadership. My response, a necessarily critical one, is that the context is highly problematic. It is problematic because we have kept our ears, our eyes, our minds open since 1997, and the conclusion is that we are still in serious trouble. There is little evidence that we have been reconciled, that we are rehabilitating, that we have been repatriated, or that we are reconstructing.

For the sake of brevity, I would reduce the problem we face, the challenge of our national agenda, to two words - Leadership, and Education.

To lead, one must first be inspired. One must also project an attainable vision. And then one must strive to deliver, to fulfil the people's aspirations for the tangible and intangible things of life. One ought also to be concerned about one's legacy, for a good part of a real leader's conduct in office is conditioned by how that leader wishes to be remembered in history. I will leave it to you to judge whether we now have such a leadership in place.

The second problem we face is one of education. Yes, it is true that we need to restore our educational system destroyed by a decade of warfare. I am sure some of this is underway, especially as a consequence of the efforts of private entities at home and abroad. The dimension of education that I have in mind is of another order. It is civic education. It is the process of socialization and re-socialization that makes us one people. This takes us back to the Western and African heritages that I alluded to earlier. Have we been socialized by our parents, our schools, our churches and mosques in light of the circumstances of our founding as a nation?

Do we have a common understanding of majority rule? Is there room in our scheme of social intercourse for minority rights? Are we disposed to compare our national situation with those of other countries, such as Rwanda, or Serbia, or South Africa? Are there lessons to be learned from these countries?

What understanding do we have of our social cleavages - class differences, ethnic differences, religious differences, etc? Are we aware that such differences could be so managed that we could live peacefully together, as many countries do, incidentally, amidst the differences?

And, always on civic education, what understanding do we have of our post-conflict society? Is there a national healing mechanism in place? Have we made our individual and collective confession in humility? Are we prepared to face truth as we reconcile? Are we really poised for a new beginning?

I consider this commemoration of 153 years of national existence a fitting moment to pose these questions about our leadership and our civic education. And I invite you to reflect upon them.

I invite you LAMA, and all my compatriots, to reflect this day upon our national imperative, or national agenda rooted in a shared national purpose. I invite you compatriots whether on the ground in West Africa or in the Diaspora, here in Atlanta or elsewhere in these United States, to make the fulfillment of Liberia's national agenda your group agenda, your personal agendas.

This entails a whole lot, but you can start where you are, with your circumstance. Those at home must not allow the forces of oppression to cow them, must not allow the flame of national hope to be extinguished. They must know that in us they can be assured of maximum and dutiful and sacred response to legitimate leadership. Those in the various communities in the Diaspora have no less an obligation to seek to change personal rule in our land to accountable rule, to seek to bring about a government that humbles itself as it serves the supreme interest of the nation, a government that is capable of so orchestrating its efforts at home and abroad that it can provide the population with the bare essentials, a little bit of dignity, and liberate the creative potentials of the people of Liberia.

Finally, let me say specifically to LAMA that there is ample precedence of Liberians abroad influencing policies at home. I once served in the Executive Mansion as minister of state for presidential affairs in the Tolbert administration. And I have vivid recollections of the pressures felt from Liberian communities in the United States. LAMA, you have power! Use it to bring about accountable government, to re-rail our de-railed national agenda.


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