Open Letter to the University of Liberia about a National Emergency

By Saye R. Gbetu

The Perspective

October 15, 2001

Lately, there were suggestions about imposing a state of emergency in Liberia in light of dissident activities in Lofa County, which, in tandem with antecedent conflicts, continue to cause deaths and misery in our country. The evidence before our eyes of what war can do to a nation suggests that, while there are gazillion things wrong with governance and the direction our country is taking, harboring sympathy for the pillagers adding insult to injury in Lofa County is not only unconscionable, but also treasonable. All patriotic and peace loving Liberians have an obligation to join hands in order to isolate these thugs to stop them from further arresting lives yet unborn. We must categorically condemn and reject theft, murder in cold blood, and the brandishing AK-47s.

Ladies and gentlemen, while the foregoing is equally of paramount concern, I write to you about a different national emergency - the rapid spread of the deadly AIDS Virus among our already war ravaged and distressed population. I turn to you, my friends, because we do not have radio or television stations with reception throughout the nation, let alone programs in the various languages designed to help secure the well-being of the population. Drawing its students from the length and breadth of the country, the University of Liberia is an ideal representation of all languages and cultures of Liberia. The uniqueness of this great institution strategically positions it as one of few places where an informed message is not only taken seriously, but also reaches a significant learned audience.

Friends, I know that the Liberian tragedy and the ever-present misuse and misdirection of meager public resources have left you with crumbling facilities. Walk proudly with your heads up and note that an institution is not bricks and mortar, but its people. More importantly, your countrymen and women in the Diaspora admire and still believe in the university. We know that you still are the "Lux in Tenebris" ("Light in Darkness").

In the spirit of kinship and one destiny, my good friends, I write to you from faraway on a subject that greatly concerns our country and its future. As I beacon you for a deeper conversation about our people and our future, I am reminded that facts do not decide about people, rather, people decide about facts. The fact that an estimated 250,000 lives were lost and most of our people currently live in abject poverty as a result of the Civil War has not served as deterrence to those who wage war in Lofa County and their supporters.

Right now, my countrymen and women, we have a national tragedy creeping like molten volcanic lava that only few people have been talking about. I thank those who have been working in the face of daunting challenges to create awareness of this deadly plague. I am neither a prophet nor an expert on the subject. Like you, I have family members, friends, and relatives in Liberia. What I know about Liberia scares me to death when I think about how the AIDS Virus spreads.

Were you to brush me aside and make mockery of me as someone sitting in America enjoying and talking rubbish, I would have this to say: I am going ahead to where the mourners will gather to begin crying hours before everyone shows up because it takes me a long time to shed tears.

"Lux in Tenebris," amid daunting challenges, crumbling bricks and ceiling, you remain the hope of the nation. Spring of strength and fountain of knowledge, tell me why I should not engage you in this conversation. Would you rather shrink and fold from holding the lamppost in darkness by refusing to have this conversation? Is not the rapid spread of the deadly AIDS Virus in our country a matter of national emergency?

Fellow Liberians, who else, other than you who are privileged to be at the cradle of knowledge, should recognize the risk of the deadly AIDS Virus in our country? In a country where less than 25% of the population is literate, is not remaining at the vanguard to create awareness of this killer disease a matter of duty and honor?

Good people, the insatiable urge in me to let you and the rest of our people know that this disease has a potential of wiping out entire villages and towns is dictated not by a desire to become a prophet of doom, but by love of country. I fear for our country because the death toll from this disease may far exceed the estimated 250,000 said to have lost their lives in the Civil War. I am also afraid because every condition that facilitates the rapid spread of the virus is rife in Liberia. These include but are not limited to denial and ridicule, unhealthy sexual behavior, lack of education, lack of health care facilities, poverty, and migration.

Denial and Ridicule
In Liberia we never take anything seriously in the beginning. When the Civil War began in Nimba County in December of 1989, most people thought that it was a Nimba thing. In fact, many made fun of Nimba people by referring to them as rebels. Few saw it as a death trap for the entire country. Similarly, when an incidence of the AIDS Virus was reported in Liberia in the late 1980s, the joke was around that AIDS was an acronym or short form of "American Ideas for Discouraging Sex." Additionally, in a "that-your-thing-can’t-happen-to-us-sanctified-people" attitude, some people jumped on the bandwagon of spreading the lie, hatched by religious zealots in the United States during the early incidences of the virus, that it was a homosexual disease. My people, this disease has no respect for status. Whether one is a minister or yanaboy, pastor or layman, old or young, man or woman, boy or girl, heterosexual or homosexual, it does not discriminate! One more thing: DON’T BE FOOLED BY LOOKS!

Unhealthy Sexual Behavior
When I was a teenager growing up in the 1970s, having many girlfriends was considered "cool." In the absence of productive after-school activities, few things were as exciting as the adventure of "chasing" girls. As if this was not a bad enough practice, mothers gave their unspoken blessing to this unhealthy behavior because they wanted to know if their sons were "men," that is, if their sons were able to achieve erection.

Moreover, in high school, at least from my perspective, I began to take note of another unhealthy sexual behavior. On the one hand, some male students wanted to wear expensive clothes and look "good" as well as take care of other material needs including support of their girlfriends. Since these students did not have the means of doing so, they engaged in relations with older women in order to meet these needs. On the other hand, some female students who, like the boys, wanted to wear the latest fashion and look "good" as well as satisfy other material needs including support of their unemployed boyfriends, also turned to older men.

While student-student and husband-wife relationships were (and still are) considered normal, something else was happening, which was an open secret. Some schoolgirls and older men, some of whom were married, engaged in what Liberians call a "godfather-goddaughter" relationship (in other countries, this is referred to as "Sugar Daddy"). Similarly, some schoolboys and older women, some of whom, again, were married, also engaged in what Liberians call a "godmother-godson" relationship (I do not know how people call this in other countries, but for the sake of making a point, shall we call it "Sugar Mom"?).

A windy philosophical argument about the morality or immorality of the behavior under consideration and perhaps a suggestion that necessity dictates these kinds of behavior may be a pastime for some idle and "good for nothing" intellectual, but mind you, men and women of this great citadel, I engage you not in an argument to score points. Rather, I summon you for a poignant conversation about a matter of great concern to our country and its future. Darn it! Who cares whether such a behavior is right or wrong? It is unquestionably unhealthy!

I do not intend to suggest that everyone in Liberia engages in this kind of behavior. Many Liberians are faithful to their partners and many unmarried young people respect the sanctity of their bodies. However, this does not obscure the reality that this web of unhealthy sexual pattern, which possesses the potential of destroying our country still exists.

Recently during the wake of the American tragedy, a television commentator left me with a profound statement that not only applies to the Liberian tragedy, but also serves as an ideal "mat" for spreading this aspect of our conversation for a clearer and deeper understanding. A paraphrase of that statement is that there is no drug or medication without a side effect.

When the late Liberian President, Samuel K. Doe, and the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) "injected" themselves into the Liberian population like an intravenous (IV) drug given to a trauma victim to rid the country of the diseases of "rampant corruption and misuse of power," it did not take too long to realize that the IV was causing more harm than good. At that time, the few daring, ambitious, educated, and even cantankerous people thought to have been a thorn in the flesh of the military power brokers were either eliminated or forced to flee the country. Without a civil war and a noticeable movement of people across the borders, the level of migration that occurred during the Doe era went largely undetected.

Nevertheless, by late 1989, the people, fed up with Doe and his cronies to the point of puking, collectively and perhaps unconsciously created a condition that amounted to "rediagnosing" the Liberian "sickness" as a cancerous dictatorship on the bodies of the people that needed radiation therapy. Having an unmatched history of patriotism evidenced by the graves of patriots throughout the country and having transformed our country into this modern society from the unlimited largesse of benevolent foreign leaders, it did not take too long to find the needed "medicine" for our sickness. The patriot, Charles Taylor, not only put his life on the line to rid the country of the cancerous dictatorship in an adventure to restore what he called the "good old days," but also the benevolent Gadaffi of Libya supplied the cash and chemotherapy equipment—bombs, AK-47s, RPGs, Long guns, and what have you.

In the end, not only were the cancerous cells destroyed, but also the healthy ones. The massive flight from the Gaddaffi-supplied and Taylor-administered chemotherapy took our people to Sierra Leone (with 68,000 reported cases of AIDS), the Ivory Coast (with 760,000 reported cases of AIDS), Guinea (with 55,000 reported cases of AIDS), Ghana (with 340,000 reported cases of AIDS), Nigeria (with 2,700,000 reported cases of AIDS), Senegal (with 79,000 reported cases of AIDS), etc. (Source of data: Migration, which the people also considered a medicine to save them from the chemotherapy turned out to expose them to overcrowding in makeshift dwellings, hunger, abject poverty, and diseases such as the AIDS Virus.

Moreover, while the people were dealing with the side effects of migration, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was busy fixing an African medicine -The West Africa Peacekeeping Mission (ECOMOG) - for what it, too, diagnosed as an African "sickness." Unfortunately, some of the countries in the West Africa sub-region and later from the East Africa (Tanzania with 1,300,000 reported cases of AIDS) region that contributed soldiers to the peacekeeping mission already had high incidences of the AIDS Virus. This "African medicine" – ECOMOG - for the Liberian sickness, also had side effects. For example, not only were Liberian women infected with the AIDS Virus, but also the soldiers left behind an estimated five thousand children.

The return of refugees amid the existence of the web of sexual pattern discussed above in a country where health care facilities are not functional and less than 25% of the population is literate signals a nightmare and a humanitarian catastrophe of mammoth proportion.

This situation is not only worrying because people are dying or will die as a result of the spread of the AIDS Virus, but also imagine how long and the amount of resources it takes to train professionals. You probably already know that most of the professionals who survived the Civil War are out of the country. As if that is not a sufficient obstacle to the progress of the nation, those that remained are doing everything they can to leave. To those of you who care passionately about this country, like I do, I ask: who will be the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, leaders etc., if we do not take stock and change our behavior to preserve Liberia from the ravage of this disease?

Though tangential to the AIDS problem, ladies and gentlemen, some important issues surround the Civil War and the looming tragedy we need to grasp in order to help ourselves. First, in June of 1990, the Senior Bush Administration decided to let Africans solve the Liberian conflict. But at the time of that decision, two US warships with an estimated 2000 troops were stationed off the coast of Monrovia for reasons that seemed unclear since a hands-off approach towards Liberia had been adopted. Shortly thereafter, when the Persian Gulf War began, the warships were apparently diverted to the area. Unfortunately for us, the raging war in Liberia vanished from television screens in America as a result of the Persian Gulf War. In short, we were forgotten.

Today, many of you and I still share the view that the US could have done more on the diplomatic front to avert the bloodletting in our country and save us the pains and burdens we carry. I have, however, since learned that even the expectation of an active American diplomatic intervention could not have been realized without a vocal presence and pressure in Washington, DC on behalf of Liberia. It is my hope that you will find the observations and thinking that led me to this conclusion useful.

What I want to share with you, my friends, is that, in many ways, the Government of the United States does business like a spoiled polygamist. The wife of a polygamist that gives him manicure, pedicure, hot bath and not only rubs his back, but also massages and oils him receives more attention and largesse than those that work the farm and return home exhausted in the evening. Similarly, the wife that dresses nicely, wears the best fragrance, and keeps her skin smooth gets the husband’s eye and the valuables. So, the rule of the game is that a polygamist’s wife has to do something that catches his eyes otherwise she is forgotten.

I want you to know, ladies and gentlemen, that as the Civil War in Liberia was raging, no one was in Washington, DC to comb Uncle Sam’s beard, oil his feet, rub his back, or even check his hair to see if he had lice making him uncomfortable! Perhaps the world would not have known anything about the carnage in Liberia were it not for sympathetic American journalists who kept us on American television screens until the advent of the Persian Gulf War. I mean there was no substantive pressure group here to speak on behalf of Liberia.

I make mention of this in my conversation about the threat of the AIDS Virus because, in paraphrasing, a political philosopher once said that people generally judge rather by the eye and ear than by the hand. Everyone can see and hear, but few can touch. Lies were spread during the course of the Civil War and particularly during the wake of the imposition of sanctions against Liberia recently. These lies have taken their toll in terms of how some Liberians perceive the United States. Apparently, it was this twisted perception about America that precipitated the unsympathetic comment about the September 11th tragedy reportedly made during a radio call-in show that caused the recent row in Monrovia.

As much tender heart I have for Liberia, I do not think that America’s foreign policy regarding our country should be dictated by the volume of tears Liberians shed as a result of pains perpetrated by our own people. I take this position because I still believe in the humanity of those who have caused us pains either by choice or by circumstance. I do not think that anyone is irredeemable. To believe otherwise is to suggest that we lack the capacity of reflection and learning from our mistakes to do the right thing. I know this is hard to do, but we have an obligation to inform ourselves and lay the blames where they properly belong. We must learn to understand America and how it does business to save ourselves a lot of pain.

Second, we were forgotten in 1990 and it appears this will happen again. On this note, it seems that we are always unlucky. As I have indicated repeatedly, we have a looming and perhaps a more deadly tragedy - the AIDS Virus, which is spreading like wildfire in Liberia as a result of factors I have discussed. Just as this disaster is slowly cropping up and requiring the help of the United States in coping with it, the American tragedy hit. Now that media attention is devoted to America’s New War on Terrorism in the United States, the AIDS crisis in Africa and Liberia in particular will be relegated to the back burner. Again, we will be off the television screens not as a result of ill will, but because of circumstance. The point I am trying to make is that, while it appeared in 1990 that we were deserted, we were actually a victim of circumstance and our own inactivity.

Being an apparent victim of circumstance for the second time requires that we take the initiative to do whatever is necessary to save ourselves. I am taking the opportunity to keep us awake because the problem our nation faces this time goes beyond the violence of drunken youths thirsting for blood from whom we can run and take refuge in some country or jungle. The problem, which no amount of US money or expertise can help us solve, is how to change our own attitude and behavior about the AIDS Virus. Will we sit supinely and let this unfolding tragedy consume us like the Civil War? My people, the message is clear: CHANGE ATTITUDE AND BEHAVIOR OR PERISH! The AIDS Virus is real and ever-present.

Ladies and gentlemen, my job here is to ensure that when you are done reading this work, you do not remain the same, that is, you do not go on to do things as before.

Finally, sex has been redefined in the wake of the spread of the deadly AIDS Virus. It can no more be regarded singly as God’s gift to mankind for the expression of love and procreation. Today, it is not only an activity of transient joy and short-lived excitement, but also a dispenser of long suffering and death.

Only fools will make mockery of this conversation and go on as usual. How idiotic would you be to survive the terror of killers in Liberia for over ten years and die in an unlikely place - your own bedroom - from an unlikely killer - sex? If you still think I am sitting in America enjoying and talking rubbish, remember what I told you: I am going ahead to where the mourners will gather to begin crying hours before everyone shows up because it takes me a long time to shed tears.

I conclude, ladies and gentlemen of the University of Liberia, with a mandate to each of you. Read, internalize, and practicalize this message. Also ensure that five people read this conversation. This piece of my mind and heart is my love gift to you and our country. God bless Liberia.