By: J. Kpanneh Doe

With the 20th century drawing to a close, and barely few years left before a new millennium is ushered in, it is befitting to examine the challenges that lies ahead of Liberia, a country emerging from the ashes of a bruising civil war. An examination is appropriate in light of its independence anniversary and sesquicentennial celebration - the country turns 151 on July 26 - and is preparing for a national summit conference on its future of Liberia planned for July 24 -31.

These are extremely critical times for Liberia, but these can be exciting times as well. The country now has an opportunity to either move forward or backward - or revert to the past. Given the unprecedented attention being paid to Africa, and with the 21st century poised to be an "African Century", one wonders whether Liberia would become a part of the much-touted African renaissance. Or, will the nation's dreams be left unfulfilled?

The birth of the Liberian state has always been a contradiction. For decades, since 1847 when the nation was founded, the country has been searching for a vision. As the nation struggles to redefine itself in the new millennium, its leaders continue day in and out, by only paying lip service to "peace and national unity", with no commitment in sight.

Similarly, the founding fathers' vision of establishing a land for freed black slaves remained at best limited in scope. The nation's leaders have also tinkered with slogans which they have tried to pass as vision. Tubman's "Open Door and Unification" policies, for example, failed to register any pulse with the public. Neither did Tobert's "Wholesome Functioning Society", "Total Involvement for Higher Heights", or Doe's "The Struggle Continues", spark any fire in the Liberian people. All of the slogans rang hollow and were only symbolic rather than substantive in addressing our deep rooted problems. Amazingly, President Taylor has been careful not to play with slogans, but has instead resorted to the pursuit of policies that are focused on addressing the symptoms of our problems rather than the cause.

Liberia has been cast "one country with two nations" - a country that's yet to develop a collective sense of national identity and vision. Moreover, there persists an ever present political and economic cleavage that has become the achilles' heel of the nation. The overcentralized nature of our political structures has discouraged mass civic participation in the democratic process and the growing schism between the haves and the have nots.

So what do these developments portend for the future? After seven years of destruction, can the nation recover? What are the challenges ahead as the nation prepares for the next millennium?

There are three basic challenges that the nation must confront. They involve the following: 1) the historical challenge; 2) the democratic challenge; and 3) the development challenge.

First, the historical challenge: There is an indisputable truth to the adage "history is a repeat of itself." How do we avoid repeating ourselves in the 21st century? This is certainly going to be a challenge because there are attempts by certain sectors of the Liberian society who are bent on reconstructing our history by positing that our problems started 18 years ago. From 1847 to 1998 is certainly not 18 years, but rather 151 years. Such a revisionist approach to our history is false, misleading and destructive. The history of Liberia which is flawed, of course, has perennially elevated one section of the society at the expense of the other. That attitude does not augur well for a country wishing to enter a new century. While history cannot undo the past, certain lessons can be developed for the present and the years to come.

The April "Reconciliation" conference in Chicago, Illinois, for example, had the potential of bringing a closure to years of hatred and mistrust. Though the summit was poorly conceived and executed, it was an idea that was overdue. Had the planners taken into account the pain that was inflicted on Liberia and its people for seven years, they could have gone beyond the extreme to invite people from every sector of the Liberian society to make this idea a reality. There would have been genuine closure to the matter. Sadly, the summit ended as it started - with hatred and mistrust.

Second, the democratic challenge: It is an inescapable fact that those countries that will succeed in the 21st century are those that have already begun to put structures in place to sustain their democratic gains. These are countries that have made a commitment to build free and open societies with the goal to unleashing the creative geniuses of their people. Maintaining democracy is more difficult than acquiring it. This is especially true in the case of Liberia which has never had any experience to draw on. The foundation on which Liberia's fragile democracy can be sustained is to encourage freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and due process of law. These are fundamental to any aspiring democratic society.

By creating such an environment, this will launch us in the 21st century to compete with other free and open societies. When utterances such as "democracy needs to be protected by guns" are made by the national leadership, this leaves much to be desired and is a throwback to the dark days where there was "rule by men", rather than "rule by laws". This also demonstrates a lack of readiness to become part of the profound global changes taking place in which computers, the world wide web (w3), etc can have a transforming and revolutionary effect on society.

Third, the development challenge: It is said that "the elimination of poverty, civil war, hunger and environmental degradation depends on finding viable ways to involve people in the process of economic growth." Like the previous two challenges, the development challenge is equally critical. The development challenge we face in the 21st century involves maximum development and utilizition of our human and economic capacities. But this can only become possible where there is an enabling environment that is politically free of tension and conflict.

The breakdown of our educational infrastructures in which we have lost two successive generations as a result of the civil war, is another major challenge. The war has produced children that have come to know nothing except guns. How we put in place educational structures that would develop a new mind-set is a real challenge we face in the coming millennium.

Last but not least, the enormous human capital flight - the massive brain drain, the exiting of the Liberian intelligentsia and professional class to foreign lands - resulting from the war is also a real challenge. A country cannot develop economically without a human capital base ... that is why it is a development challenge to find ways and means of recapturing this lost human capital.

These challenges are not insurmountable, but they require political will, mass participation and action. At 151, the country can do better to prepare itself for the next millennium.