Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh is editor of The Liberian Dialogue, an Atlanta-based web publication that is establishing itself influentially as one of post-war Liberia’s sober media entities. Sungbeh’s ‘no holds barred’ approach to journalism and commentaries on developmental issues has established The Liberian Dialogue as a significant voice on major issues in the country. Sungbeh is passionate about the issues, and recently was kind to grant the Liberian Listener this interview.
1. The Liberian Dialogue has become one of post-war Liberia’s important voices. Recently you led the news on nepotism; you must be proud how far you and The Liberian Dialogue have come.
Yes, I am very proud because we’ve come a long way, a far cry from the lonely days of the early 2000s, when I almost singularly carried the load of the Liberian Dialogue in terms of managing and writing every article, while also contributing materials to other websites. We had few contributing writers here and there who did their utmost best to keep us afloat and relevant for a decade. It may also interest you to know that The Liberian Dialogue got a new web site last year, which attests to our growth. I am eternally grateful to those individuals who have contributed to our pages. We have a huge local and international reading audience today, and so the Liberian Dialogue has come a long way and the efforts are bearing fruits. What helped me through it all though, are my passion for the issues and my love for Liberia.
2. Why do you want the Liberian Petroleum Refineries Corporation [LPRC] privatized? Your critics say today, it is making profits for the Liberian government under the leadership of T. Nelson Williams.
The Liberian Petroleum Refinery Company (LPRC) is and has always been a money-losing government bureaucracy that is poorly managed and accountable only to the President of Liberia, who appoints the individuals who are entrusted to run it and steal from it. With corruption way out of control in Liberia, government cannot continue to allow LPRC to bleed financially while believing it is making money. Who says LPRC is making profit? International and local independent auditors? Liberia does not need a government-run oil refinery whose record of efficiency and profitability is shamefully opaque and mind-boggling to the cursory observer. Privatize LPRC so that the private owners will create tax revenues, create jobs and provide healthcare opportunities and some sense of financial stability for its employees. Privatize LPRC and invest the money in education and healthcare to benefit the Liberian people.
3. You also want the Ministry of Information scraped, why?
Like I mentioned in my recent piece, “Get rid of the Ministry of Information,” [www.theliberiandialogue.org], Liberia is a fledgling democracy that does not need a government-controlled mouthpiece, whose sole purpose is to control the lives of its citizenry through lies and propaganda. What the Liberian people need today are jobs, food on the table, and the opportunity to send their kids to school. Government should also concern itself with establishing breakfast and lunch programs for young school-age kids to focus and have a reason to go to school every morning. There is a government-owned ELBC, Press Secretary to the President, The Executive Mansion’s Communications office, The New Liberian newspaper, the Press Union of Liberia, and the various Press and Public Affairs departments of the various ministries that are already playing those roles. The Tubman, Tolbert, Doe and Taylor eras of despotism and reckless propaganda are supposed to be gone by now. There’s no reason to bring back those painful days. Liberia does not need an information ministry.
4. The Congress for Democratic Change [CDC] and its standard bearer George Weah have accepted in principal to engage the Sirleaf administration constructively, by accepting the Unity Party’s offer as chairman of the Reconciliation Commission. This must be good news for Liberia.
The Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) cannot be a serious political party when its key leader, George Weah, accepts a job from the opposition, [the ruling party] – a sitting President in a quasi-arrangement that undermines his credibility, and further gives reason to doubt his leadership as the main opposition leader in the country in the first place. I don’t think any sane Liberian who is serious about nation building is against working with the Sirleaf administration to genuinely rebuild their broken and dysfunctional country. But Weah, as the public face of the CDC should learn to inspire and lead, and not set himself up for criticisms and failures. There are too many problems in the country that requires the attention of the so-called leading opposition leader. For example, the issues of decentralization, inflation and high unemployment, nepotism, corruption, crime, sea erosion and sanitation, and the importation of rice in the country need to be critically addressed. Other issues are the insane 7 and 9-year tenures of members of the House of Representatives and Senate. So why accept a “Peace Ambassador” job when Weah could have worked feverishly to raise these pertinent issues? Why accept a “Peace Ambassador” position when President Sirleaf failed to even honor the decision of her own Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]? Weah shouldn’t have taken the job, but thanked the President for the offer and then move on to focus his undivided attention on building his party and grooming new and young leaders.
5. Some of the ‘generational change’ politicians being talked about today to succeed President Sirleaf include Kofi Woods, Augustine Kpehe Ngafuah , George Weah, Brownie Samukai, Tiawon Saye Gongloe, Kweme Clement, Jerome Verdier, Negbalee Warner etc, what’s your take on that…?
Honestly, I am not crazy about these so-called ‘generational change’ leaders. From what I know, leadership is not about a laser-like seasonal focus on being President. Leadership is about inspiring and making a difference in one’s community, and in the lives of his or her people. Leadership is about effecting social, economic and political change. Our brands of ‘leaders’ only live and breathe to be President, which is a shame. What’s heartbreaking is the fact that even the ones that are currently employed in government today are not spearheading any effort to radically change the socio-political and economic landscape of the country. These individuals just want to live, period. I don’t know whether it is out of fear of losing their jobs or sheer political expediency or laziness. These individuals have not proved they are presidential materials. Name recognition? Yes, they have name recognition. We Liberians cannot continue to pick our leaders because of name recognition, popularity, or because the individuals were once student leaders at the University of Liberia, or because the individual read the news faster on ELBC, or once criticized the President of Liberia publicly for corruption. We cannot continue to be gullible by allowing our relationships with these ‘generational change’ leaders to influence such a major decision in picking the next President of Liberia. Our country is too old and backward to be thrown into the hands of just about anybody who hasn’t displayed a sense of leadership.
6. What in your opinion must be done to attract advertising revenues to Liberian media entities, revenue which is critically needed as most are struggling?
It is so true that the Liberian media is struggling. I know because I experienced firsthand what it is to struggle to keep The Liberian Dialogue afloat financially. As you know and I know Liberians are not generous in supporting Liberian-owned businesses. Instead of paying a website a generous amount to advertise their programs or carry press releases, Liberians would rather shamelessly beg the website owner to publish their promotional advertisements and items free, or post the commercials for their programs on the listserv or face book, as if we are not paying money to hosting companies for the upkeep of our respective websites. Writing and analyzing national developments is an arduous task. In other countries those who undertake these kinds of ventures see dividends for their efforts except a place called Liberia. My only suggestion for those of us in the business is to continue to foot the bills, and continue to make our presence felt by doing what we do with integrity and professionalism. When we do what we do best – writing and discussing hot-button issues that steers the consciousness and elevates the national discussion to move our country forward in a positive direction, perhaps somebody, somewhere, someday will notice our efforts and will bring advertising dollars our way.
7. Land issues in Liberia are increasingly becoming contentious.
I am very passionate about this issue. So passionate, I wrote about it many times. Like the transportation issue in Liberia, the land issue is not looking very good in Liberia right now either. While Liberians are tearfully fighting with their own countrymen and women everyday on this issue, they now have multinational corporations to deal with – of course with the blessings of the Liberian government. Today, rural Liberians are losing their lands to multinational companies with no compensation, and this is not fair. It was reported years ago that President Sirleaf even had to deal with her own land issue. One of the things that need to be done is the creation of programs to certify or licensed Land Surveyors. The government or the surveyors need to start their own professional trade groups that monitor and certify their members. I understand there is a land commission. I still don’t know what the commission is doing. Another thing: There is a serious need for zoning laws and code enforcement in that country. It makes no sense for someone to build a shanty-looking zinc house near the street/sidewalk or near a modern home.
8. Do you have political ambitions as Liberia consolidates the peace?
For now, my wife and I are preparing to return to Liberia to rest and complete the building of our retirement home. I have couple of books on my hands I have been writing ‘forever’ that I really want to focus on completing. When? I don’t really know. Another thing I am sure of is that I want to continue to run The Liberian Dialogue, and start a print edition in Liberia.
9. Your wife is the former president of the River Gee County Association in Atlanta.
I am so proud of her for what she has done for herself in terms of completing her graduate degree (MSW), and leading the River Gee Association in Georgia in a transparent way to a prosperous future. That’s all I can say. When it comes to family, I try to separate my public life from my private live.
10. Development funds for counties reports say are continuously being abused.
I wrote about this particular issue recently, “Development funds without development.” [www.theliberiandialogue.org ]. This is another program that needs to be turned over to local control. The executive branch and President Sirleaf must not continue to micromanage county development funds for their own political gains which always breed patronage and corruption.
11. This was a really interesting interview in my opinion, especially as Liberia metamorphoses gradually into a fully functioning society after almost three decades of social upheaval and war, so will there be diverse opinions in the marketplace of ideas. “ We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color,” says Poet Laureate Maya Angelou. Our diversity is good thing that must be celebrated in a new era pundits have said as the country consolidates the peace after these so many years of suffering and fighting. The Liberian Dialogue’s voice is a very important component of that process for change. Thank you sir for your time and we hope you come back again.
Thank you too, my friend.