By Moses Blonkanjay Jackson
In my Thinking Thoughts and introspection about the month of January, I consider how the 16th is set aside by the people of the United States of America as Dr. Martin Luther King Day, one of the world’s foremost progressives and advocates for equality and social justice. It then occurred to me that our country, Liberia was similarly born out of advocacy for equality and social justice; a group of free slaves, in search of equal treatment and a desire to be their own decision makers, came aboard a ship and founded Liberia, and established a legacy.
But today, it is clear that the craftsmen and successors of this legacy of progressive activism in Liberia have taken a furlough or simply been appeased and settled down with the very situations for which they sought change. If the latter is the case, wouldn’t that be a patriotic sham? Where are all the progressives that Liberia has produced? Why are Liberian progressives suddenly silent and not talking anymore? I intuit they are speaking inside their hearts and not speaking out, and that is a “noisy silence” because I can clearly hear their hearts beating and speaking every second of their lives with guilt, while their mouths are shut.
To understand the periods of the activities of the groups of Liberians who called themselves progressives, I have divided them into three: the Grand Progressives, the Neo-Progressives, and the Emergent Progressives. But before we dive into this non-political article, let us play with some definitions to help our readers digest the content.
An oxymoron is a phrase in which two words of contradictory meanings are used together for special effects, for example, “a wise fool”, “losing winner”, “vanquished victor”, “poor rich country” or “cowardly activates”, “transparent corrupt officials” or “silent noise”
The word progressive is a favorite of the philosopher educator John Dewey who propounded that there is no democracy in education (Dewey, 1852). A system decides what its people ought to know and pushes it down their throats. Dewey asserts that old principals of learning and governance by organizing and activating other people’s knowledge is undemocratic; he hence proposed that each individual must be allowed to rise up and find ideas that work in practical experiences. This was his construct of progressivism. Unfortunately in today’s world, people and students are placed behind enclosed walls with lock and key and asked to memorize a script controlled by a teacher.
Now, the progressives as we knew them in Liberia were people who were supposed to rise up and stand out for other people who could not stand; to be the voice of the voiceless, and to be the conscience of society and good governance; or the Johns in the wilderness. Three kinds of progressives in Liberian history are hence identifiable according to the period during which they operated.
Grand Progressives-The Audacious Bunch
The Grand Progressives were the audacious or over confident bunch; to ask a sitting African President (Tolbert) to be allowed to create another political party to run against him required real bravery. The Grand Progressives had a way of identifying themselves first as liberators of the oppressed. They bought sympathy and support from the economically challenged majority by referring to themselves as the children of the poor, the down trodden, and those who abhorred injustice and unequal distribution of the wealth of the nation state.
This group comprised basically of individuals from relatively poor aborigine families, who had traveled abroad and obtained western education. In many cases help for those travels came from the very Americo-Liberian hegemony against which the Grand Progressives were advocating. Some of the Grand Progressives, having actualized their human agencies, changed their names from Americo-Liberian names to traditional names. For example, the Grand Progressive Rudolph Roberts changed his name to Togba Nah Tipoteh, and Thomas Smith became Tom Woewiyu; Chea Chesson who became Chea Cheapo and the late Gabriel Baccus Matthews were said to have been groomed by the so-called aggressors of their time.
As progressives, they subscribed to the ideals of their Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and referred to themselves as comrades, and used mantras like “In the cause of the people, the struggle continues”; “no monkey work baboon draw” and all kinds of South African Freedom political battle cries. The likes of President Charles Taylor, former Defense Minister Thomas Wowieyu of the NPFL, Bai Gbala, Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dr. Tipoteh, Dr. Fahnbulleh and the late Gabriel Baccus were just a few of those we held with high esteem as our vindicators. In our time, these were the Patriotic Fathers or Patriarchs of militancy in Liberia, or the Grand Progressives who of course can only be counted after the late Albert Porte.
Admittedly, this group proved their activism and pushed President Tolbert to allow multiparty participation in Liberia; of course the hallmark of their activism was the April 14, 1979 disruption which was the first time some of us witnessed complete standoff with government and breakdown of law and order. In my opinion, April 14, 979 gave the poor people voice, and that voice was so loud it resonated into future decades.
When Charles Taylor supposedly escaped from a US jail and declared a revolution to the Liberian people in 1989 that was the peak of the Grand Progressives period.
Neo-Progressives-The Intrepid Converts
The Neo-Progressives were followers or converts of the Grand Progressives and this group was like daredevils, extremely intrepid or daring; to gather students on the UL campus to hold the wake keeping of a living military leader who was trying to metamorphose from an ugly caterpillar to a beautiful political butterfly, was indeed risky and daring.
Now during their time, the Grand Progressives were sure to breed a cadre of followers who would support their ideals and take over the torch in case they left the stage; these were the Neo-Progressives. Students of the University of Liberia especially the Student Unification Party (SUP), the Liberia National Students Union (LINSU) and other public high schools including Tubman High, were the major converts and torch bearers that walked to their altar.
For example in 1976 as ninth graders and freshmen, Christian Herbert, Michael George and I were members of the group at Tubman High that enhanced the neo progressive era when the Student UHURU Movement (SUM) was founded. As you can see, SUM sounded like SUP at the University of Liberia where we craved to be.
The likes of Comrades Counselor J. Augustine Toe, Donbrayea Pizzzaro Kullie Massaquoi, Yande Draper, and Mwalimu Emmanuel N’Saingbe were the forerunners of UHURU while the likes of Comrades Alaric Togba, the late Wuo Garbie Tappiah, Bridgette Sehwon Toe, Hannah Glay joined later, and swore to help carry the UHIRU torch for the next group. It was Sando Wayne’s UJAMA , copied and fashioned after Student UHRU Movement (SUM) that attempted to later match the grand SUM
The school called for student political parties but we instead founded a “Movement” for freedom. Our movement, for some reasons, had strange socialist styled-communist nomenclatures and compartmentalization like the “All Powerful Central Committee, the Political Bureau, the Militant Group, the Women Presidium, Revolutionary hall, just to name a few; we referred to one another as Comrades in “some kind of struggle” and fronted for Nelson Mandela to be free, condemned the death of Steve Biko, and supported Augustino Neto of Angola, and sympathized with Samora Machel of Mozambique. As neo-progressives our passion for social justice was extremely high and so we went overboard to the surprise of the Grand Progressives who were breeding us. “We passed mark”
We, the neo-progressives were made to believe that democracy as was unfolding in Liberia, was a farce and only equal distribution of social goods would deter unrest in Liberia. We prophesized a day when an original son of the soil would take the helm of authority, and give us the “bread and honey” entitled to us. Lo and behold, little did we realize all this would come to pass for few of our kind, but for many of us converts, it would be utopian or an illusion. Just look in government today.
As Neo-Progressives, we believed in the ideals of the Grand Progressives so much so that we mimicked their dress code, intonation, cadence in speech, and suspected that some of our colleagues even selected to wear eye glasses simply to look like Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dr. Tipoteh or Dr. Fahnbulleh; I observed that Comrade Michael George always tried to walk and talk like Grand Progressive Baccus Matthews, and Anthony Kesselly struggled to be like Grand Progressive Dr. sawyer.
As Neo-Progressives, we vowed to refrain from fabulous consumptions and so we read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” novel frequently until we matriculated to the University of Liberia to continue our neo-progressivism. Our leaflet campaign was climaxed by the anonymous writing of REACT, which infuriated President Doe to his breaking point. We were really cunny and adept daredevils.
If you recall in 1982 when President Doe found six students guilty and was supposed to execute them by firing squad for “breaching a political ban” but later pardoned them, that was the peak of the Neo-Progressive period. The war came later and scattered us all over the Diasporas and wasted 14 years of our virtues.
Emergent Progressives-The Beleaguered and Woeful
The Emergent Progressives are our younger brothers who held us in awe as we spoke and spewed fiery orations under the UL palava hut and auditorium; these later emerged as the new progressives. The mere establishment of a SIM-STUDA Union was clear indication that the emergence of progressives in Liberia was catching like wildfire. But the new breed was not daring but instead victims of the status quo economic politics.
This beleaguered and woeful bunch did not have much tenacity, adeptness, time and opportunity to carry out effective advocacy. When they assumed their advocacy statuses, it was a time that the Grand Progressives had regrouped and retuned to state power. And so to avoid creating another neo-progressive group like us, which was harsher than the Grand Progressives, they appeased this group by “bread and circus” The Grand Progressives were mindful not to resuscitate the daring Neo-Progressives who they gave birth to but instead took sides with the system and used the new born Emergent Progressives. Yesterday, and maybe today when you see the likes of Ganfuan, Samuel Tweh, Negbalee Warner, Counselor Verdier, and Professor Boakai Kanneh sitting at high tables with big positions and scripts that controlled their psyche, it speaks volumes, and leaves one with questions that might never be answered.
Isn’t this the group which is supposed to be the new “Johns in the wilderness?” How come they are so silent with all the noise around them? Is it now that they are afraid of noise? Is this woeful bunch so beleaguered that they cannot call a spade at least a small shovel, if they are afraid to say it is a spade? Are they afraid they would lose their seats at the high tables? Where are all the Grand Progressives and Neo-Progressives who vowed that they would in their lifetime seek equality and social justice? Lord have mercy.
The answer, my friend, colleagues and comrades, they are not speaking out because their jobs and livelihoods are at stake, but they are not silent. I can hear their hearts beating and speaking under their breasts and making the same noise they use to make on their campuses and in LINSU. Just that this time, it is a “Noisy Silence. What an oxymoron!
Happy (belated) Martin Luther King’s Day.
I am simply thinking thoughts.
Moses Blonkanjay Jackson is a former senator of the Harvard Graduate School of Education Student Government, and a YALE Fellow and UPENN Fellow. This Ivy League scholar’s authorship includes curriculum in physics-University of Pennsylvania- and curriculum in mathematics reading problems -Yale University. He has authored many informative essays on education in Liberia. Mr. Jackson is a graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2009. Curriculum Specialist Mr. Jackson is currently an Adjunct Professor at the Masters of Education Program at the University of Liberia, and can be reached at 0886 681 315 or firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com.