Liberia: "What Is Wrong With Us Is Us" Not Peter Pan Syndrome
By Nat Galarea Gbessagee
Posted July 15, 2002
Back in the 1970s, Liberian speech writers and politicians popularized the phrase “What is Wrong With Us is Us” in an apparent effort to remind the Liberian government and people about the pandemic nature of institutionalized grift, social injustices, political repression, rampant corruption, inept national leadership, misdirected socio-economic development programs and policies, and the somewhat complacent and passive attitude of ordinary Liberians who endured these injustices and failed national policies as mere onlookers. The phrase preceded the 1980 coup, which formalized charges of rampant corruption and misuse of public office on the disposed government. And, ironically, one proponent of the “What is Wrong with us is us” phraseology was the disposed vice president who earlier abandoned his flocks and religious duties as a church bishop to ascend to the political position of vice president on account of an alleged “vision” by the sitting president in selecting him (the bishop).
As illustrated in the case of the bishop’s ascendency to the vice presidency and his propensity for pointing out societal ills in the famous “What is Wrong With Us is Us” phraseology, Liberian politicians and power brokers and their sympathizers have since come to develop the habit of apportioning blames and critically scrutinizing situations only where their interests are not compromised, but wouldn’t hesitate to turn a blind eye on events, no matter how deplorable and inhumane, as long as their interests are served. And this is the root cause of Liberia’s present socio-economic and politico-cultural problems, and will continue to be so unless Liberians of all walks of life see reasons to make a positive change in this direction.
But what do I mean? Well, I have had conversations with several Liberians over the last two years who will readily admit that the present government in Liberia has failed in the last five years to rebuild the social, economic and political institutions and infrastructures destroyed during the seven-year Liberian civil war (1989-1997), or even to deliver basic social services such as water, electricity and housing to people of the war-ravaged country. But that is how much they can admit. They see nothing wrong with the sitting government orchestrating events to ensure its own re-elections at the polls in 2003, and if you dared to point out particular failures of the Taylor government, they are quick to answer back with the question: “What about Doe?” a reference to similar failures by the government of slain president Samuel Doe. But isn’t in rhetoric we called that type of response “begging the question?” Yes, indeed, and that’s the sorry state of Liberian politics and intellectual discourse today.
As a former human resource professional, I have always valued personal accountability for any job tasks for which the job functions and authority were clearly defined. Any persons holding public office of any kind ought to be held directly responsible for any failures deriving from his or her inability to execute the prescribed job functions in a timely manner to satisfaction. In the world of business and industry, such failures are the basis for termination, and politics and government should be no exception. One’s predecessor in a particular job or post cannot be held responsible for the failures of the incumbent, no matter how inept the predecessor may have been. But the prevailing logic in some Liberian political and social quarters is that certain social or ethnic groups in Liberia will make better leaders than others, so to perpetuate the stereotype, it is incumbent on Liberians to be more sympathetic and forgiving of the ineptitude and political errors of the group with perceived good leadership skills, and more critical of the other group perceived as not having good leadership skills. But all this is perception and not reality, and it is foolhardy on the part of any Liberian of any intellectual standing at all to stoop to such generalizations and blatant distortions of reality.
In the last few months, I have read several articles by a number of Liberians who seemed to stoop to such sweeping generalizations when discussing the unfortunate socio-economic and political mess in which Liberia finds herself today. Indeed, it is true that all Liberians bear some responsibility for the plight of the country through acts of omission, commission, or inaction, but that is only in a philosophical or general sense. In any country, the policy makers are held liable for the failures of the country, and not the ordinary citizens because defenseless citizens are not expected to make much inroads, no matter how vocal and spirited their protests, if the government is prepared to unleash the full force of the national security apparatus on the people in order to suppress dissent. The case is made even worst where the judiciary and national legislature are muted as in Liberia.
In his July 12 article in The Perspective, "A Case of the Peter Pan Syndrome”, fellow Liberian compatriot Theodore T. Hodge purported to know why Liberians did not turn out en masse at a recent conflict-resolution and nation-building forum held at a local university in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), but found time to turn out in droves at a football game in Trenton, New Jersey between the two dominant Liberian soccer club teams, IE and Barrolle. He even mentioned a nearly failed Independence Day Program in Cleveland, Ohio where he lives, except for the dance portion, and the funeral of a football star at which Liberians across the U.S. also turned out in droves. But Mr. Hodge did not discuss the reasons for the poor turnouts at the events he seemingly attended -- whether planning, timing, and pricing had anything to do with the poor turnout -- but concluded that “I have done a number of (unscientific) studies lately and I have been very disappointed to realize that the vast majority of the (Liberian) public is more interested in dancing, partying and watching football (soccer) games than they are in discussing or listening to the issues that affect Liberia. This is very disheartening.”
And, as if such sweeping generalizations and castigations were not enough, Mr. Hodge proceeded to indict Liberians who did not attend the events he seemingly attended for lack of patriotism and concern for the plight of their country. “It was my view then and now that what contributes mainly to our state of affairs is the complacent nature of Liberians in the Diaspora. Strangely, it seems we are sending the message that once we have physically left the devastation of war and displacement and the dirty politics of our homeland, it becomes somebody else’s problem. It must be somebody else’s responsibility to find the solution to Liberia’s problem. How such a ridiculous idea took shape in our psyche is mind-boggling,” he said, erroneously assuming that Liberians residing in the U.S., Europe, and other countries traveled to those countries as a direct result of the 1980 coup and the 1989-1997 civil war in Liberia.
Hodge also played to the old stereotype by Liberian political elites that ordinary Liberians were somehow “lazy”, after denying them of self-development and self-advancement opportunities, with such rhetorical question as--”Are our politicians doomed to fail because the general public is so pathetically lazy, unconcerned and complacent?”-- And his best answer to the question is to the effect that: “Too many Liberians are sitting back, doing nothing but to blame Charles Taylor and other professional politicians for the fate of our country. The question becomes what are you doing? Why do you think these few people have all the responsibility to fix your country up for you? We must remember that in a democracy, the people have a responsibility to chart their own courses. The initiative must come from the people. That is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he coined the phrase ‘a government of the people, for the people, by the people’. We are the people!” Here, it is unclear if the intentions of Mr. Hodge were to tacitly support the policies of the Taylor government, or to simply vent his anger at Liberians who did not see things his way.
Ironically, in spite of Mr. Hodge’s sweeping generalizations and indictments of Liberians in the U.S. and elsewhere for apparent lack of initiative and resolve in finding lasting solutions to Liberia’s vexing socio-economic and political problems, his conclusions seemed to have derived from events he attended and in which he seemingly had particular interests, and not other events of similar nature and magnitude which he apparently neither attended nor had particular interests in. He even spoke so loosely and freely about democracy and "government of the people, for the people, and by the people" as if the Liberia he knows has a democratic form of government that is reflective of the true meaning of the word, democracy. But such is the dichotomy of Liberian politics and intellectual discourse that has brought the Liberian nation to its knees, and why finding a common solution to the Liberian problem seemed elusive.
For nearly two centuries, the minority settlers of former American slave ancestry or "Americo-Liberians", ruled the majority indigenous peoples (at least 16 major independent tribal groups) called "native Liberians" with such iron-hand that access to education and basic social services were denied them except for the few who were forced to become wards of the Americo-Liberians. In fact, so-called native Liberians were never accorded citizenship of Liberia until 1904, under the administration of President Arthur Barclay (1904-192), exactly 57 years after declaration of independence in 1847. And, as conditions of citizenship, native Liberians had to abandon their traditional names, cultural and religious practices, and adopt western names, western standards of living, dress and appearance, and a local brand of Christianity chastised by the settlers. Native Liberians were not to hold high public offices and cabinet posts except cosmetic posts in the national legislature as "answer boys and girls". Any legislators of native Liberian origin who ventured to speak out for more rights for native Liberians were summarily expelled from the National Legislature, as in the cases of Montserrado County Representative Didwho Twe, a native Kru, in 1929, Maryland County Representative Francis W.M. Morais, a native Grebo, in 1932, and Grand Gedeh County Senator Chea Cheapoo, a native Grebo in 1978. The tide began to shift, however, in the 1950's and 1970's, and on a larger scale after the 1980 coup. And there were countless social injustices and political issues which are not the purpose of this article.
But, because the coup plotters of 1980 were mostly native-Liberians of minimal or no formal education, and whose own political and social excesses left much to be desired, it has become the prevailing notion within some Liberian political, social, and intellectual circles to blame Liberia's present decadence status on the ten-year rule of the coup plotters and their remnants. Never mind the current president of Liberia and most of his key cabinet ministers and advisers served in the governments in question, and should equally be responsible for the failures of the 1980-1990 governments. But it is an issue of selective inertia and political correctness to discuss the failures of the governments of the 1980 coup plotters, but not failures of pre-1980 governments and post-1990 governments.
Instead, the prevailing notion among some Americo Liberians and their former wards and political sympathizers is that native Liberians ought to accept at face value that they are not any better governors of the state and promoters of democracy in Liberia than Americo-Liberians. And that assertion is debatable. But somehow that analogy is based on a false premise because neither native Liberians nor Americo-Liberians elected the coup-produced rulers in question. The coup plotters, though mostly native Liberians, thrust themselves into power through the barrel of the gun, and even if they were elected, native Liberians cannot be held responsible collectively for the actions of native Liberian leaders in the same way Americo-Liberians cannot be held responsible collectively for the actions of Americo-Liberian leaders. The president and key functionaries of the government, be they native or Americo-Liberians, must be held accountable for the failed policies and programs of the government. Mind you, the use of “key functionaries” is deliberate, and is intended to cover ordinary citizens and government officials alike who formed the power base of the government, and actively participated in the suppression of the governed.
It is however present concerted efforts and attempts by some Liberian politicians and intellectuals to discuss certain facts of Liberian history in a narrow fashion that continued to account for the prolongation of the miseries of the Liberian people, and not that Liberians in the U.S. or elsewhere are less patriotic or less concerned about the plight of their country than organizers of particular peace, national reconciliation, and national reconstruction conferences. Liberians must therefore learn to value dissent and the desire and right of fellow compatriots not to participate in certain social, economic and political events on Liberia, without having to be branded as less patriotic, less caring, or the like. In life, each person has a set of principles and priorities that guide him or her, and it is always a good idea not to compromise one’s principles and priorities for the sake of political expediency.
The new Liberia we all desired and dreamed of must be based on fair play, decency, toleration, and opportunities for all, and not on falsehood, political expediency, favoritism, or distortions. Sure, there will always be special classes in society, but membership in whatever classes emerge in the new Liberia must be opened to all based on individual merits, either in business, industry, or education, or through sports and artistic prowess. We must do away with the falsehood that because we are all Liberians, it is perpetuating class or ethnic divisions to refer to fellow Liberians as Bassa, Kru, Kpelle, Lorma, Krahn, Vai, Dey, Gola, Mandingo, Americo-Liberian, or the like. Such calls to unity are cosmetic and shallowed because they border on the falsehood that all of a sudden Liberians of all colors, shades and creeds will cease to exist as cultural and linguistic entities they have always been, simply for the sake of national peace, unity, and stability in Liberia. But how foolish and intellectually bankrupt can one be to subscribe to such nonsense. Every nation on earth is made of different culture, ethnic and linguistic groups blended together in pursuit of a common development aspiration and destiny, and Liberia cannot be any exception.
Liberia will grow and prosper because of the rich culture and ethnic diversity of the people, but it will surely continue to degenerate into chaos if attempts are made in any form or shape, as in the past, to suppress the cultural values of one ethnic group or the other. We must learn from the costly mistakes that have wrought havoc upon us as a nation and people, and march forward in the new Liberia with dignity and unity of purpose. Unity entails hard work, but true unity is attainable if we learn to tolerate and respect the viewpoints of our fellow compatriots, including the right not to participate in any function, no matter how meaningful. Therefore “What Is Wrong With Us Is Us”, and not the Peter Pan Syndrome. The Peter Pan story may have simply been an allegory to remind us about the consequences of the individual choices we make in life, but the Peter Pan story should not be misconstrued as applicable to the complex and fluid political, social, and economic problems prevailing in Liberia today.