Politics of Tribal and Religious Intolerance

By Nvasekie N. Konneh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 9, 2003

We have been through more than a hundred years of Americo-Liberian oligarchy. Then the native revolt that swept away that oligarchy, giving the people a great sense of renewal. The people’s expectation of this revolt was betrayed by the military dictator who desired to stay in power against the wishes of the people. Then entered Taylor with the Manos and Gios who had become dissatisfied with the brutal regime of Doe and were brutally victimized because of their opposition and several attempts to seize power through force. It became more or less a power struggle between the Gios and Manos on one side against the Krahns on the other side. The Gio and Mano tribal alliance headed by Taylor began to go after the Krahns and Mandingoes as their primary targets (why the Mandingoes is interpreted differently by both the Mandingoes and others). The Mandingoes and the Krahns, just like the Gios and Manos, came together to fight back against what they considered as a naked aggression against them. And still the Krahns and the Mandingoes divided along tribal line, resulting into the unnecessary death on both sides. Given all of these experiences, the question one may be tempted to ask is, have we become more or less tribalistic and religiously fanatic? Have we become more or less tolerant of each other’s cultural and traditional values? Have we become more or less open-minded? The answers to these questions may be yes for some and no for others.

Some example of this could be seen recently when Mr. Toman Gboya of UNIBOA said, "What I like about being a Bassa is that we are all Christians. There is no single Muslim among us here." As close-minded and offensive this might have been, the singular response to it came from Mr. Siahyonkron Nyanseor, publisher of The Perspective, in his piece, “Ignorance of History Is no Excuse.” In that article, here is what he said, “I read with complete disappointment the recent comment made by Mr. Toman Gboyah, Chairman of the Board of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Bassa Organization in the Americas (UNIBOA-PA)… Mr. Gboya is reported to have said, ‘Praise the Lord, ... What I like about being a Bassa is that we are all Christians. ...There is no single Muslim among us here.’ The article, published by The Perspective on January 2, 2003, went further to say, ‘the predominantly Bassa audience let out a salvo of thunderous voices,’ which could be interpreted as agreement with Mr. Gboyah's comment. If this is not the case, I would think an apology from the leadership of the national organization and Mr. Gboyah will be in order, for being ignorance of Christian and Liberian history is no


I can’t tell how much of our recent experiences have influenced these two men to come to the above opposite conclusions. However, what is important to know is that there are many who are still grounded in our intolerant past. They will not even make any effort to mask the hate and intolerance in their hearts. The most recent example of this is an article on Taylor’s website, “Allaboutliberia.com” with the caption: Islamization of ULAA-Kromah enters pact with LURD financiers in Europe. So this article is not so much about whether or not Mr. Kromah met anyone in Europe. It’s about the tribal and religious intolerance displayed by the so-called “correspondent in America.” Just by reading the title, one can imagine what to find in the body of the article. Instead of focusing on the issue (s), the writer is simply displaying tribal and religious bigotry. In the opening paragraph, the anonymous writer writes, “The Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) is reported to have slipped into a LURD outfit, thus paving the way for the full islamization of the organization.” Even if it were a campaign season in ULAA, can this be qualified as a responsible political statement? I will think otherwise.

In politics, we can expect one's opponents to run dirty campaign against him but when those opponents have no issue to discuss about their political foe, all they can come out with is something like, "Mohammed Kromah, a member of the Mandingo ethnic group of Islamic orientation, was elected to the national leadership of ULAA on 'an appealing platform' late last year, -- an election largely intended to disprove claims that Liberians are opposed to Mandingoes (Moslems) holding community and leadership positions.

But the election of Kromah, effected out of expediency is said to be haunting ULAA, whose general membership are non-Moslems." This statement, laden with nothing short of tribal and religious bigotry on the part of the anonymous writer and those who share his narrow-minded view, is a disservice to the genuine efforts of sincere peace loving Liberians trying to find our way out of the quagmire we have been planted in since 1990. Only a person with limited thinking capacity will make this kind of inflammatory statement at this time of our nation’s history. What is even more alarming about this is that it is found on the government operated website. One would think that this website would be promoting genuine peace and reconciliation among Liberians, but instead it’s been used to further divide us along tribal and religious line. This is sad. It’s a bloody shame.

It is a fair question for this anonymous writer to ask Mr. Kromah whether or not he traveled to Europe to meet the LURD financiers and whether or not this violates any law of ULAA, the organization he’s heading as the president. He would have done better by even trying to mask his true feeling and thought while asking this question. All he has done now is to expose his own weakness to adequately present a case. Now we all know how small-minded some of our compatriots are, even after having gone through what we are still going through. For this person, politics of tribal and religious bigotry is the only way to go. Because of his limitation to compete on the level playing field, this poor fellow wants to start an early campaign by appealing to the raw emotion of one group against the others. All true nationalistic Liberian patriots must reject this kind of thinking. It is dangerous. It was not good for Liberia yesterday, not today nor will it be good for us tomorrow.

When Mr. Sam Mohammed Kromah was elected through a free and fair election to become the president of ULAA sometime last year, it gave me the feeling and hope that an ideal Liberia where a tribe or a religion of a person does not matter was emerging out of the problems of our time. While before I could not imagine “other Liberians” overcoming their "suspicions, fear or hatred" of the Mandingoes, Mohammed Kromah’s election gave me the hope that a new day was dawning. Let the truth be told that the election that made Mr. Kromah the president of ULAA was more credible than the one that made Taylor the president of Liberia. Issues were debated, and campaigns were conducted in the free environment. People had no guns pointed at their heads to make any choice against their will. So for someone to say that Mr. Kromah’s winning of the ULAA presidency was “effected out of expediency” is just another propaganda intended to deceive the people. Mr. Kromah’s election victory is a reality, indeed a history that cannot be undone. It can only be repeated as time goes by.

When I attended the inauguration of Mr. Kromah last year, I felt more proud of being a Liberian. The atmosphere was friendly and everything mentioned of the tribe (Mandingo) was either friendly or intended for fun. I began to fantasize about taking that kind of brotherly love and sisterly affection to Liberia to teach our people the lesson of oneness born out of common problem affecting all of us. This is a positive message our people in the towns and villages in Liberia need to hear so we all can begin to work to put things back together. This kind of optimistic thinking represents the new Liberia that should certainly emerge out of our war of tribal and religious intolerance. While some of us may be sincerely hoping for this, there are those who are strongly rooted in the past that they won't let go of it, because they will feel very uncomfortable in the new Liberia where they cannot rely on their tribe or religion alone to exercise undue influence and dominance of others. This is why Taylor and his under men will do anything to hang on to power. This is why Mr. Taylor has pumped in thousands of dollars to undermine Sam Mohammed Kromah’s administration. What they are doing is nothing new. This is what dictators everywhere have done and are still doing. They appeal to the tribal sentiment of one group against the others and instead of people uniting against their common oppressor, they will be too busy fighting and fussing among themselves on issues that don’t really matter. Instead of us discussing about the apparent "gangsterization of the nation" by Taylor and his henchmen, he and his agents would like to keep us busy about something that does not even exist: the "islamization of ULLA."

ULAA is a secular organization and those seeking its leadership do so on a secular platform. Its membership is not limited to tribe or religion, it's open to all Liberians. Given this as it is, how much sense can be made of the fact that ULAA’s “general membership are non-Moslems” or someone is "islamizing ULAA" simply because its current president happens to be a Moslem? If he is a Liberian and ULAA is a Liberian organization, why should it matter whether its president is a Moslem or a Christian?

Here we go again: “Sources have revealed that Mohammed Kromah, following his induction as ULAA President at a Christian Church in Baltimore, made his first public appearance at a Mandingo rally at the Embassy of Liberia in Washington, DC calling for the unconditional release of fellow LURD supporter, Hassan Bility, while failing to mention other detainees.” Who are those detainees, and how did he know that their names were not mentioned during the said demonstration? Does he care about them? Not when he agrees with the lies the Taylor’s propaganda machine is spreading that these peaceful citizens, picked up from their homes in Monrovia, are “LURD supporters.”

It is not a secret that Taylor government has arrested scores of people, accusing them of being LURD supporters and has never allowed the courts to prove the men’s guilt or innocence. These men have been tortured (ask Tiawon Gonglo). For the freedom of these men, some Liberians decided to demonstrate at the Liberian Embassy in Washington DC. The demonstration was a success in terms of the turnout and the atmosphere of peace that prevailed. Everyone came out of there with renewed energy to do more of it for the total liberation of the country. Taylor and his propaganda machinery pumped out a lot of propaganda against it, calling it a “terrorist gathering,” but Liberians that showed up proved to have known better. Whoever was the ULAA president had to make a choice between identifying with the oppressor or the oppressed, otherwise ULAA would be considered an elitist organization that does not care about the common people. Whether those being detained were predominantly Gios or Mandingoes, it was the duty of ULAA through its president to show solidarity with them. Someone who does not approve of this is as guilty as Taylor himself for the oppression of the Liberian people.

As one of the organizers of that demonstration, I will like to set a record straight here. When we planned to have the demonstration at the Liberian Embassy, Mrs. Mydea Karpeh-Reeves was still the president. Out of respect for her position as the ULAA president, we wrote her a letter telling her why we were demonstrating. We sought her guidance, support and participation. She said since she was on her way out of office, we should contact the new president. She agreed it was a good idea to demonstrate but she warned that Liberians don’t like to demonstrate, a complain we have all heard too many times. She told us about her own disappointments with the results of similar efforts in the past. Since we were determined to carry on our demonstration against all odds, we contacted President Kromah. As expected, he responded positively. His refusal would have made us to question his commitment to the principle of freedom and justice for all Liberians. Tiawon Gonglo, James Harris, and many other Liberians of various ethnicities were there and they don’t share Taylor and his henchmen’s thinking that it was a Mandingo demonstration. I discovered many new friends during said demonstration. One of them I am proud to say is my friend and brother Charles Sunwabe. Right now we are working together along with other freedom loving Liberians to organize another demonstration for Aloysius Toe and other people still in jail. We are not so much thinking about the tribe of those people in jail. We are moved by the fact that they are human beings like us. We are demonstrating because we believe that they are being illegally detained and denied justice for too long. We can’t let them die in filthy prisons without publicly voicing our solidarity with their plights. They are human beings just like us and they deserve freedom as well. That’s why we demonstrated back then and that’s why we are doing it again.

One would have thought that the government that emerged after these many years of confusion and carnage would have served as our guide to a better future. The priority of that government should have been the promotion of national reconciliation and unity, which are the foundations of national prosperity. I am sure when Liberians voted for Charles Taylor in 1997, they expected nothing less than this. They expected him to reconcile the various tribes that have been fighting and killing each other. More than any other president in the Liberian history, he should have genuinely reached out to everyone to heal the wounds and bring people together for a new Liberia in which the feeling of patriotic nationalism would motivate all of us to sacrifice for the good of the nation. Unfortunately, the government of Mr. Taylor has continued to exploit the tribal and religious differences among Liberians. With the kind of policy he’s pursuing, it will be very difficult for us to be able to live in peace like we have known in the past.

Having said all of the above let me come down to do what this nameless, and faceless writer failed to do. I sent email to the ULAA president with this question: There Is a rumor that you went to Europe. If it is true, what was your mission?

Below is his response to my question: A community in Italy organized a workshop on political and humanitarian situations in the Manor River Union sub region. An invitation was extended to me strictly based on my involvement in many humanitarian efforts in the sub-region. As the President of Resources and Outreach for Liberia (ROL), an organization that was founded by my wife, Dr. Margaret N. Kromah, I was invited to attend this gathering. I understand that the Liberian Government was invited but turned down the invitation. The Manor River Humanitarian Organization was there. LURD representatives were also there along with three other humanitarian agencies that provide humanitarian services in the sub-region. The THEME of the conference was “What Went Wrong and How Can We Fix It?”