Finding Common Purpose In The Face Of Broken Bridges: Liberia’s Search for Ethnic Tolerance and Peaceful Co-existence


A presentation at the King Sao Bosso Lecture Series
January 7, 2006

By: Counselor Tiawan Saye Gongloe
Human Rights Lawyer


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 12, 2006


Let me first thank the Liberian Mandingo Association of Pennsylvania for inviting me to address this important lecture series. Named in honor of Sao Bosso, a powerful King of 19th Century Western Liberia, who attempted to bring several Liberian ethnic groups under the Condo-confederation, the kingdom led by him and who also served as a sober voice resolving the dispute between some of his colleagues and the American Colonization Society over the parcel of land acquired for the settlement of African Americans who were resettled in Liberia following the abolition of slavery in the United States.

This Lecture Series has a historic foundation for success. We need many more Sao Bossos today to heal the wounds created by bad governance, bad politics and years of armed conflict so that Liberians can become united and rebuild our country. Let me hasten to say that King Sao Bosso like his cotemporaries was not, necessarily, free of the some the terrible behaviors of his time such as slavery and the use of violence for diverse purposes. But he is noted as a voice of reason at a critical point of Liberian history. I hope my presentation here today will help us all become sober voices for sustainable peace in Liberia.

The most difficult challenge that faces us today as a people is whether we will sustain the peace that the international community has helped us to find, following the end of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia and the withdrawal of its troops. How will we deal with the bitter memories of the past due to years of repressive rule and armed civil conflict? Given the abuses committed by members of some ethnic groups against various communities and ethnic groups, is it possible for victims of such abuses to peacefully co-exist with members of the ethnic groups of the perpetrators? What can we do to promote greater tolerance and respect for our ethnic differences? Can we make any progress as a nation if we do not go beyond ethnic boundaries in what we say or do? These are some of thoughts provoked by the topic: “Finding Common Purpose in the Face of Broken Bridges: Liberia’s Search for Ethnic Tolerance and Peaceful Co-existence,” which you have asked me to speak on.
I intend to make this presentation as brief as possible so we can have more time for comments and questions from the floor. Therefore, I don’t intend to give a historical account of how each ethnic group became a part of Liberia or to raise doubts about any group’s claim of belongingness. I will make some general statements followed by some suggestions with the intent of stimulating some discussions here this afternoon.

The first statement that I want to make is that all ethnic groups that were present within the boundaries of Liberia at the time of its independence are Liberians. On the basis of this statement it is incorrect to consider any existing Liberian ethnic group foreign. To insist that any ethnic group in this category is foreign to Liberia promotes anger in members of that group and undermines ethnic tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Because lack of a national identity or statelessness can make life very difficult for the affected person, any attempt to put an individual or group in such a category will always be resisted. Arguments or actions that are intended to make any ethnic group become stateless cannot promote ethnic tolerance and therefore undermines national stability and the peaceful co-existence of the various ethnic groups.

The second statement that I want to make follows from the first and that is, members of ethnic groups that are shared by Liberia and its neighbors should be equally treated when it comes to verification of Liberian citizenship. Without equal treatment of persons that fall in this category, those targeted for scrutiny will, rightfully, claim discrimination by government.
The third statement that I want to make is that Liberians should respect their cultural differences and make no attempt to make unpleasant statements about the cultural practices of the various ethnic groups. For example some Liberian groups carry cultural marks that other ethnic groups do not carry. Making negative statements about such cultural marks may provoke anger and undermine ethnic tolerance. While most Liberian ethnic groups eat the same kinds of food, there are slight differences in preparation. It is important to respect those differences and not make negative comments about what others eat. Similar observation can be made about languages of the various ethnic groups. Making uncomplimentary statements about the languages of others may also undermine ethnic tolerance. There are those Liberians who feel ashamed to speak their ethnic languages and feel superior to those who often speak their languages. There are those who have chosen not to learn any local Liberian language and look with distain at those who chose to speak their ethnic languages. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with such trend of thought. Choosing not to speak a local language is ones right but being intolerant of those who choose to speak local languages is wrong. Speaking one’s own language and upholding other cultural values of one’s ethnic group is important for promoting one’s identity and self-esteem. What is necessary to watch out for at all times is whether certain cultural practices serve as obstacle to national unity or violate the rights of others? The Constitution of Liberia provides a framework for maintaining ethnic identity while at the same time promoting national unity. It provides at article 5 (a) and (b), “The Republic shall:
(a) aim at strengthening the national integration and unity of the people of Liberia, regardless of ethnic, regional or other differences, into one body politic; and the Legislature shall enact laws promoting national unification and the encouragement of all citizens to participate in government;
(b) preserve, protect and promote positive Liberian culture, ensuring that traditional values which are compatible with public policy and national progress are adopted and developed as an integral part of the growing needs of the Liberian society as a whole;”
What is positive Liberian Culture is a matter to be decided by the Legislature and the Court.

The fourth statement that I want to make here is that ethnic progress and well-being should not be placed above national progress. While it is important to promote ethnic interest by forming groups for seeking the welfare of its members, if the interests of such groups are put above national interest, then such attitude could weaken collective interest and therefore, undermine ethnic tolerance. A situation where the members of one ethnic group, for example only relate to each other does not promote the avenue necessary for inter-ethnic interaction, thereby creating very little room for promoting mutual understanding, without which, ethnic tolerance and peaceful co-existence are made difficult. Sometimes one ethnic group becomes suspicious of the other because of the exclusive nature of the closeness of such group. If Mano people for example do not relate to any other group beyond Mano organizations, other ethnic groups will be suspicious of their motives no matter how good the motive of their organizations may be. Therefore, ethnic groups must always be perceived by their members as an integral part of a larger Liberian group, particularly in the Diaspora. This means that activities of ethnic organizations must be seen as promoting a national objective as the Mandingo Association of Pennsylvania has decided to do by the organizing this lecture series. This lecture series is an important forum for continuous discussion on ways to promote closer relationship among various ethnic groups in an effort to reduce suspicion and promote greater understanding and national unity.

The fifth, and perhaps that last, point that I want to make here is that the bridges that existed between Liberian ethnic groups were not broken by inter-tribal conflicts. These bridges were destroyed by bad politics and governance in Liberia. The politics of exclusion which have dominated Liberian politics since independence is bad politics. In other words the political process was not opened to all Liberians. This politics has always caused resistant groups to be exclusionary in their opposition to government. The way it plays out is that members of predominant groups in power are presumed to be beneficiaries of bad governance and are lumped together with the government and opposition. Even sincere members of the ruling ethnic group who join opposition groups are regarded with suspicion no matter how solid their commitments. This bad politics have created various dichotomies that left the country continuously divided, politically, along the lines of Americo-Liberians versus indigenous Liberians, one Liberian indigenous group versus the rest of Liberians or an alliance of some ethnic groups versus the rest of Liberians. This outcome of bad politics was repeated in the armed civil conflict. Each warring faction was dominated by one ethnic group or an alliance of two or more ethnic groups, each time against the rest of the Liberian people. However, these dichotomies created by bad politics and protracted armed civil conflict blurred the true nature of the conflict which was characterized by the use of absolute power obtained by bad politics and resistance to such power by armed politicians who did not necessarily have different intentions from those in power. Yet, without looking deeply some have regarded the conflict as ethnic. The Liberian conflict was a violent contest for absolute power. As such the victims of this kind of power struggle have not, over the years, excluded members of the dominant group in power, who were perceived as traitors. So for example, Albert Porte, an Americo-Liberian became the most well-known victim of successive Americo-Liberian dominated regimes. The killing of S. David Coleman and his son John goes against the popular perception that all Americo-Liberians were privileged and protected by Americo-Liberian regimes. Similar observation can be made about the military regime led by indigenous Liberians. Amongst the indigenous Liberians that were killed by that regime are Harry Johnson, Nelson Toe, MMD Flanzamaton and many others not known by names who were members of the ethnic group of Samuel Doe, the head of the military regime? Also, in the Liberian armed conflict some of the well-known victims of the conflict were killed by members of their own ethnic groups for one reason or the other. For example, besides well-known Liberian leaders like Jackson Doe and others of Nimba who died at the hands of members of their own ethnic groups, there were local elders and businessmen who felt victim to young men and women from their own villages. I have gone at this length to survey the nature of our national conflict so we can have a clearer picture of how the bridges, however, shaky that connected the various Liberian ethnic groups were broken. Until we fully understand how the bridges were broken we cannot properly repair them and build the ethnic tolerance that we need for peaceful co-existence in our country.

It should be noted, however, that while there is a general feeling that the bridges connecting the various ethnic groups were broken by bad politics and conflict, when one looks at how the ordinary people interact with each other, there is nothing to indicate that the bridges have, in fact, been broken. Except in a few cases, people are dealing with each other like they did before the conflict, in villages, market places, etc. Members of various ethnic groups have settled in counties other than their own, since armed conflict ended. The problem seems to be more among the politically active members of the various ethnic groups.

The question therefore, is how do we make progress? I think the first thing we must do is to openly deal with the question of who governs us and how we are governed. Somehow, I believe that the manner in which the electoral processes of October 11 and November 8, 2005 were administered is a good beginning of repairing the bridges. The second thing that we should seek is openness in the process of governance and putting no barriers in the way of the right of the people to raise their voices on matters that affect them. It is the recognition of the right of the people to comment on how they are governed that gives them a sense of ownership. Here again, our elected Government has shown signs of responding positively to what the people say. The third thing that we should strive to achieve is to respect all other rights of others and the rule of law. I believe if we proceed in this manner, we will be on our way to building even stronger bridges than the ones we broke. We will always have differences but in the words of former Lebanese Prime Minister Michael Aoun, “We have to manage our differences to let the country live”. We must never again let our differences change the status of our country from a fully recognized state within the comity of nations to a collapsed or failed state.

I think you.