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“Toward breaking the cycle of missed opportunities in Liberia’s history”

By George  Klay  Kieh, Jr.

This speech was delivered during the 167th Independence anniversary of the Republic of Liberia, sponsored by the Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta (LAMA), held on July 26, 2014 at the Joseph Boakai Liberian Community Center, Lilburn, Georgia.                            George Klay Kieh, Jr

 

 INTRODUCTION

 

Let me begin by expressing my thanks and appreciation to President Mulbah, the leaders and members of LAMA, our community association, for selecting me to deliver the oration marking the celebration of the 167th Independence Anniversary of our dear Liberia. I consider this a singular honor and privilege for two major reasons. First, it is a national service to our dear country. Second, the invitation came from the Mulbah Administration that has demonstrated in concrete ways what our dear Liberia could look like in terms of accountability, transparency, and the undertaking of meaningful projects that are having profound positive effects on our community here in Metropolitan Atlanta.

My dear fellow Liberians and distinguished ladies and gentlemen, we assemble here tonight in our new community center to celebrate 167 years of our country’s independence, amid the current deplorable conditions of the majority of our fellow Liberians at home. For them, the celebration of our country’s independence is more of a struggle for survival than an occasion for happiness. In short, the lives of the overwhelming majority of our fellow Liberians at home hang in a precarious balance, as they live on the margins of our society. To make matters worse, our dear country is currently experiencing an outbreak of the Ebola virus, which has already led to the death of several persons. May we please rise, and observe a moment of silence for those who have fallen victim to this deadly virus, and to plea for God’s mercy as ways are found to address this emerging epidemic

Clearly, there is the need for critical refection on 167 years of our existence as a country, and the projection of an alternative pathway that will give all Liberians the cause to celebrate our country’s independence. Against this background, I invite you to reflect with me for a few minutes on the topic “TOWARD BREAKING THE CYCLE OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES IN LIBERIA’S HISTORY.”

THE TRAVAILS OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES IN LIBERIA’S HISTORY

      Over the past 167 years of our existence as a country, God has blessed us with abundant natural resources, including rubber, iron ore, timber, gold, diamonds, and now oil. Unfortunately, throughout our history, we have failed to create the requisite conditions that would have turned God’s blessings into human-centered development, prosperity, democracy and national unity. That is, at various critical historical junctures, we have missed opportunities. Let me map out few of these missed opportunities. First, in 1820, when our brothers and sisters, who were enslaved in the United States began to return to the Grain Coast(now Liberia), we had a great opportunity to establish a firm foundation for the building of an economically vibrant and democratic country. Regrettably, the opportunity was missed, because our brothers and sisters, who were repatriated from the United States, were victims of the slave psychology and its resulting “superior-inferior myth.” In this vein, they subjected their brothers and sisters from the various ethnic groups, who they met on the Grain Coast, to the same inhumane treatment to which they too were subjected during slavery in the United States. Consequently, this led to several needless conflicts.

Second, in 1847, when Liberia declared its independence from the American Colonization Society, which had played the role of a colonial authority, we had the opportunity for our brothers and sisters, who were repatriated from the United States and their kin, who they met on the Grain Coast, to come together and build a united democratic and prosperous Liberia for all. But, again, the opportunity was missed. For example, only those from the repatriated stock served as delegates to the independence convention. Accordingly, the constitution and national symbols such as the flag, the emblem and the motto only reflected the cultural and historical experiences of the repatriated stock. The motto reads, for instance, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,” clearly refusing to include the ethnic groups that had previously occupied the area. Further, the members of the various indigenous ethnic groups were denied citizenship in the new country. And this remained so until 1904, when partial citizenship was granted, and 1947, when full citizenship was granted to the members of the various indigenous stocks.

Third, in spite of the discriminatory practices the repatriates meted out to their indigenous brothers and sisters, Liberia was making considerable progress in terms of the development of local entrepreneurship. This was evidenced by the fact that there were several thriving Liberian-owned businesses in various sectors of the economy. But, by 1869, faced with competition from foreign businesses, both the Liberian government and the local business people failed to design and implement strategies that would have assisted local businesses in being more competitive. Instead, local entrepreneurship was abandoned, and the government became the major source of employment. Since then, various public officials have used their positions to engage in sundry corrupt practices, such as extortion and the receipt of bribes, as the ways of getting rich quick and without risk. In sum, politics became a “life and death struggle” in which people did, and still do all they can to secure control of the Liberian government. In turn, the faction or fraction that has control of the government at a particular historical juncture uses political power to reap personal economic benefits through the processes of plundering and pillaging the public coffers. In short, the Liberian government became, and is still like a “buffet service” in which those who control the government and their relations “eat all they can eat for free,” while the majority of Liberians look through the windows with empty stomachs.

Fourth, in 1926, the beginning of the opening of the floodgate to foreign investments, Liberia had the opportunity to establish and enforce an investment code that would have required, among other things, that foreign-based companies set up plants in Liberia to manufacture goods from the raw materials they were extracting. Unfortunately, this was never done. Hence, the various major foreign-based companies like Firestone, the Liberian Mining Company, Bong Mines and LAMCO simply used Liberia as a source for the extraction of raw materials such as latex and iron ore. In fact, in Firestone’s extended concession agreement that covers 59 additional years, there is absolutely no requirement for the company to manufacture tires and other rubber-based products in Liberia. Similarly, under the new wave of foreign investment that began in 2006, Liberia still remains a source for the extraction of raw materials.

Fifth, during the Tubman administration, which spanned 27 years, the height of the foreign investment boom, Liberia had the opportunity to build a democratic and prosperous country. But, unfortunately, this era was marked by the violation of political human rights, and the failure to make meaningful investments in education, health care, and the infrastructure, among other things. This led Robert Clower et al to characterize the socio-economic situation of this period as “growth without development.”[1]

Sixth, the emergence of the Tolbert era was greeted with great hope by the majority of Liberians. And the administration fueled these hopes by, among other things, opening up the political space, so that Liberians could exercise their constitutionally guaranteed political rights and civil liberties, and by undertaking various development projects, including public housing and the infrastructure. However, the “wind of change” was quickly bottled by the agents of the “same old, same old.”

Seventh, the April 12, 1980 military coup was welcomed with amazing joy by the majority of Liberians. The hope was that Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe and his fellow members of ruling People’s Redemption Council (PRC), who hailed from the lower class, would have brought about sweeping changes in all of the sectors of the country. Unfortunately, by the very poor performance of the military government, the coup was a “promise betrayed.”[2] Similarly, the Doe civilian government, which lasted from 1986-1990, performed even worse than the military regime. And this was reflected in, for example, politically-motivated killings of the real and imagined opponents of the regime, the violation of political rights and civil liberties, rampant corruption, and very limited socio-economic progress.

Eighth, the cycle of missed opportunities led to the first civil war from 1989-1997. After the deaths of more than 250,000 people, the injuring of thousands of others, mass population displacements as refugees and internally displaced persons, and the destruction of the already underdeveloped infrastructure, the war finally ended, thanks to the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Subsequently, Charles Taylor, whose National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) started the war, was overwhelmingly elected the President of Liberia for several understandable reasons, including the fear by the majority of the voters that a Taylor loss would have meant the return to war. During its tenure, from 1997-2003, the Taylor regime failed to fulfill its vaunted promise of making “Liberia the Hong Kong of Africa.”[3] This was reflected in the fact that mass abject poverty was widespread, there was the lack of functioning public hospitals and schools, and the infrastructure, which had been destroyed by the war, remained in ruins. To make matters worse, like the Doe regime, the Taylor one engaged in politically-motivated killings of both its real and imagined opponents, as well as the wholesale violation of political rights and civil liberties. In addition, corruption continued to be a “national sport,” as evidenced by the continuation of the practice of using the public’s money as an “ATM machine,” from which government officials withdrew cash anytime they wanted to do so.

Ninth, the seemingly unending cycle of missed opportunities, including the poor performance of the Taylor regime, resulted in the country’s second civil war, from 1999-2003. Characteristically, the war visited deaths, injuries, displacement and destruction on our dear country. Again, under the leadership of ECOWAS, efforts were made to terminate the war. After a two year transitional period, presidential and legislative elections were held in 2005. And Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected the President of Liberia. President Sirleaf’s election was greeted with a wave of optimism and hope by the majority of Liberians. Also, the international community provided assistance of various types in an unprecedented manner. In short, the Sirleaf regime came into office with a lot of good will from both Liberians and the international community. After more than eight and the half years in office, the evidence shows that the regime has made appreciable progress in improving the respect for political rights and civil liberties. However, on the socio-economic front, the regime’s performance has been poor. After leasing about 33% of the country’s land to various foreign investors, including major concessions to Sime Darby, a Malaysian-based multinational corporation, which was given 220,000 acres of land for a 63 years lease to invest in the palm oil sector, and Golden Veloreurn, an American and Indonesian-owned oil palm multinational corporation, which was given 865,000 acres of land under a lease agreement for 65 years,[4] and overall foreign investments totaling about $19 billion, the material conditions of  the majority of Liberians have not improved. For example, according to the Sirleaf regime’s own Ministry of Labor, in 2010, the unemployment rate stood at an alarming 95%.[5] Similarly, during the same period, more than 56% of the population lived below the poverty line.[6]  Significantly, these dire economic and social conditions have made living on a daily basis a major challenge, as most Liberians lack the financial means to purchase food, and the other basic essentials of life. Unfortunately, these challenges have led some Liberians to commit suicide, because they had given up hope. To add ‘salt to injury,” political corruption has increased and become widespread, as various public officials use an assortment of corrupt means, including the receipt of bribes, extortion, and outright stealing of public funds to enrich themselves. Overall, the dominant mindset is that Liberia is doomed!

In addition, the cycle of missed opportunities in our country’s history has not only being caused by anti-people and anti-development regimes, but by Liberians themselves. Indeed, former Vice President Bennie Warner’s poignant declaration, “What Is Wrong with Us is us,” [7]which was made almost four decades ago, still have relevance in today’s Liberia. And the meaning of this declaration is reflected in several ways:

1. We encourage political corruption by expecting public officials to dole out money from the public coffers to individuals and groups for private purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with the provision of public service. In addition, we regularly ask public officials to give us gas slips, and to allow us to use government vehicles and equipment for private purposes.

2. We do not like to follow a system that is based on rules and processes. Instead, we like the corrupt “Liberian way” of short-cut illegal transactions.

3. We are easily impressed by form, including the names of the so-called “important political families.”

4. Our discourse is very uncivil. For example, the discourses on several of the Liberian-related discussion forums are characterized by personal attacks, personal insults and the desire for personal destruction. In other words, no attention is given to focusing the discussions and the resulting disagreements on the differences on policy issues. In fact, these uncivil discourses are being visited on President Sirleaf. For example, President Sirleaf has been the victim of personal attacks and personal insults on several of these discussion groups, as well as on radio and in the newspapers in Liberia. Now, it is a healthy thing to respectfully disagree with the policies of the Sirleaf regime, but it is completely unacceptable to subject the President of Liberia, a mother and a woman to personal attacks and personal insults.

TOWARD BREAKING THE CYCLE OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

     My fellow Liberians and distinguished ladies and gentlemen, clearly these 167 years of independence have been marked by missed opportunities, and their resulting hardships for the majority of Liberians. And as a result, our people have lost hope, and also believe that our dear country is doomed. But, by the grace of the Almighty God, who makes the impossible possible, I have come to boldly declare tonight that Liberia is not doomed! In fact, the best of Liberia is yet to come! I see emerging on the broad Atlantic coast a new Liberia in which the cycle of missed opportunities will finally be broken. You and I will see in our life time a new Liberia in which

the descendants of the Coopers, the Dennises, the Deshields, the Tolberts and the Tubmans, among others, will work together with the descendants of the Dahns, the Fahnbullehs, the Nyankoon, and the Yarkpawolos, among others, in the true spirit of unity, mutual respect, and a collective commitment to build a new Liberia in which one would be judged, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated on the basis of “the contents of their character.”[8] In so doing, our national symbols—emblem, motto, and flag—will reflect the various cultural and historical experiences of all of our people.

In the new Liberia, public service will be a noble undertaking rather than a quest to get wealthy through corrupt means. In this vein, public officials will make the interests of the Liberian people the focus of their respective responsibilities.

In the new Liberia, the political rights and civil liberties of all Liberians would be protected. In this vein, for example, Liberians will hold their public officials accountable, and would broadly require integrity and honesty from their government.

In the new Liberia, we will make massive public investments in world-class education and research, health care, public transportation, public housing, and the infrastructure, including full access to clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity. The resulting benefits will impact every county, district, city, town, chiefdom, clan and village.

In the new Liberia, we will create employment opportunities by the government creating an enabling environment in which Liberian-owned businesses can thrive and succeed. In addition, foreign investors would be required to create employment opportunities for Liberians both within their companies, and by helping to spurn the development of Liberian-owned businesses by their manufacturing activities. By so doing, the thousands of Liberians, including scores of our young people, who are unemployed, will be able to find jobs, so that they can live decent lives.

In the new Liberia, we will give special attention to our young girls and women, who have become prostitutes, because of the hardships of life. Also, we will show concern for our elderly and the mentally challenge, as well as all vulnerable groups.

In the new Liberia, we will have a new political culture that is characterized by civility in our discourse. In this vein, we will focus the discourse and the resulting debates and disagreements on policies and not personalities. As well, we will respect government officials for the positions that they hold, and as fellow human beings.

In the new Liberia, we will protect our environment from destruction by the pollution of the air, land and water. We will do so by designing and strictly enforcing environmental regulations.

CONCLUSION

     Finally, my fellow Liberians and distinguished ladies and gentlemen, when we have constructed a new democratic and prosperous Liberia for all of our people, then all of us, Liberia’s sons and daughters, Christians, Muslims, the adherents of traditional religions and others, the descendants of the various indigenous ethnic groups, of the repatriates, of immigrants from other African states, and of immigrants from the Caribbean, men and women, old and young will form a gigantic human chain from the picturesque Kpatawee Falls in Bong County to scenic Blue Lake of Bomi County, from the trees-rich Belle Forest in Gbarpolu County to the beautiful Atlantic coastline in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, from the tourism haven of Lake Pisso in Grand Cape Mount County, to the Puto and Tiempo Mountain ranges in Grand Gedeh County, from the wonders of River Norh in Grand Kru County, to the agricultural rich lands of Foya in Lofa County, from the multiple economic benefits of a revised Firestone concession agreement in Margibi County, to the economic engine of the Port of Harper in Maryland County, from the welcoming view of Providence Island in Montserrado County, to the re-assuring outlook of Saclepea in Nimba County, from the shipbuilding potentials of Cestos City in Rivercess County, to the highlands of the Killepo Range in River Gee County, and to the valleys of Jedepo in Sinoe County, and in true celebration of our independence, we will sing will real meaning and purpose “With hearts and hands our country’s cause defending. We meet the foe with valor unpretending. Long live Liberia happy land, a home of glorious liberty by God’s command.”[9]

May the Sovereign God, who is “able to keep us from falling,” [10] take us, guide us and lead us on this national journey to break the cycle of missed opportunities. May the God of Mercy and Renewal rebuild our country, and watch over our counties, our districts, our cities, our towns, our chiefdoms, our clans and our villages.[11] May God, Who is the Source of both physical and spiritual strength, enable us to “run and not be weary, to walk and not faint.”[12] May God   enable us to invest in our children, bring joy and happiness to all Liberians, give our country peace and stability, prosper the works of our hands, and save our dear old Liberia. GOD BLESS YOU, AND HAPPY “26.”

 

Dr. George Klay Kieh Jr., is Professor of Politcal Science and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, University of West Georgia, Carrollton. 

 

NOTES

 

[1] Robert Clower et al, Growth Without Development: An Economic Survey of Liberia, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1966).

[2] See the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Liberia: A Promised Betrayed, (New York: Human Rights First, 1986).

[3] See Rose George, A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World, (Jersey City: University of Bullet, 2004).

[4] See T. Ford, “Liberia: Land deals With Foreign Firms /Could Sow Seeds of Conflict.’” The Guardian (UK), February 29, 2012, p.1.; and E. Baron, “Palm Oil Industry Accused of Land Grabs in Liberia,” Global Post Rights, December 27, 2012, p.1.

[5] See New Democrat, “Liberia: Estimated 95 Percent Unemployed,” March 17, 2011.

[6] See The World Bank, Liberia. www.worldbank.org/en/country/liberia/overview. Accessed July 2, 2014.

[7] Bennie D. Warner, Induction Speech as the Vice President of Liberia, delivered on October 31, 1977.

[8] See Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a Dream Speech,” delivered on August 28, 1963, at the historic “March on Washington.”

[9] See the 7 and 8 stanzas of Part II of  the National Anthem of the Republic of Liberia

[10] See Jude 1:24

[11] See Psalm 127:1

[12] See Isaiah 40:31

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