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The Liberian Flag: A Symbol of Pride or Misrepresentation?

By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh

From Our Archives

November 2, 2001

Lately, the American flag is seen everywhere. The flag can be seen draped from windows of buildings; painted on rooftops; hoisted onto small and large poles in neighborhoods; tied to or pasted on to antennas, and to the front and rear of vehicles. The American flag is also being used to make fashion statements, from pins that are tacked onto suits, to t-shirts, socks and other apparels that are worn by patriotic Americans.

The current proliferation of flags in America is the result of September 11, 2001, terrorist attack by religious zealots who took their deadly crusade into the political and economic capital of the United States, killing several thousand innocent civilians, destroying infrastructures, and briefly bringing the U.S. government to a halt.

While it is true that the crisis that confronted the United States on that day could have trickled the worst economic crisis since the “Great Depression” that would have caused a ripple effect to the foundations of American politics and economy, instead, the attacks have strengthened the resolve and patriotism of the American people, which requires every citizen to roll up their sleeves, put aside their political, religious and other differences, unify behind the flag, show that sense of patriotism, fight the enemy and do for country whatever is necessary to defend it.

This concept seems to be working very well because we have seen how the American public (politicians included), have rallied behind the American flag and their president in their campaign to wipe out what President Bush referred to as ‘terrorism everywhere.’

The flag of any nation is a symbol of pride and unity. A nation’s flag can also be a symbol of disunity. Liberia is such a country whose flag misrepresent instead of uniting its people. The Liberian flag is a symbol of what I referred to as “misrepresentation”. By misrepresentation, I mean its so-called national colors – red, white and blue (horizontal stripes of red and white and a blue field with one star) are a copy of the American flag plagiarized by Susannah Lewis who thought she was Betsy Ross, who is credited with making the first American flag. This irritation represents only a segment of the Liberian society and excludes the rest. And as such, the symbol doesn’t arouse the united front of the Liberian citizenry like the American flag.

The Liberian flag is not only divisive, but it also is an insult to African Liberian culture, devalues their heritage, and questions their sense of national pride. Liberia is the only country in Africa with a replica of the American flag as its national symbol. What does this say to us? It is the lack of national pride, creativity and originality – to copy a flag that does not represent the Liberian reality, instead, it represents past experience of less than a fifth of its population. Moreover, this flag has been used time after time as an instrument of oppression. Only in Liberia can a person be arrested and jailed for walking while the flag is being raised, lowered or dropped, without due process of the law.

Any future attempts to refigure and redesign a new Liberian flag that truly represents the wishes and aspirations of the Liberian people would not only be a movement in the right direction, but it will also make all Liberians proud and inject into our national consciousness a true sense of patriotism.

However, an attempt was once made by the Deshield Commission on National Unity. This Commission was established by an Act of the Legislature on July 22, 1974, authorizing the president to set up a commission. The Commission came into existence purposely due to persistent calls from citizens who felt that certain national symbols were divisive; therefore, they needed to be revised in order to include all of the citizens of the Republic of Liberia.

As a result, the president through a proclamation outlined the guidelines by which the Commission was mandated to review the motto, flag, anthem, and constitution. This mandate empowered the Commission to review the motto, flag, anthem and constitution “with a view of stamping out every idea that may suggest class distinction, separateness or sectionalism among the people of Liberia.”

The fifty-one member Commission consisted of the following: Montserrado County – McKinley A Deshield (Chairman), C. Abayomi Cassell, E. Reginald Townsend, R. I. E. Bright, Luvenia V. Ash Thompson and Nathan C. Ross, Jr.; Grand Bassa County – G Flama Sherman, Lawrence Morgan, Joseph Findley, Martha Dunn and Joseph M. N. Gbadyu; Sinoe County _ Harrison Grigsby, H. C. Williamson, E. Richmond Draper, Charles A. Minor and Florence Ricks Bing; Grand Cape Mount County – Charles Dunbar Sherman, M. Fahnbulleh Jones, Abeodu B. Jones, Eric David, Evelyn Watson Kandakai; Nimba County – Jackson F. Doe, Michael J. S. Dolo, David M. Toweh, J. Railey Gompah and Phoebe A. Logan; Lofa County – E. Sumo Jones, Milton K. Freeman, Moima K. Morris, William W. Momolu and Robert K. Kennedy; River Cess Territory – John Payne Mitchell; Maryland County – David Hne, J. Daniel Anderson, H. Nyema Prowd, Nathan Barnes, Jr. and Janet Cooper; Bong County – Harry A. Greaves, Sr., Elizabeth Collins, Melville Harris, Sr., Joseph G. Morris and Bismark N. Kuyon; Grand Gedeh County – Salis Rue, Harry Garngbe, Yancy Peters Flah, E. Yeda Amafili and Albert T. White; Marshall Territory – Emma Campbell; Bomi Territory – C. C. Dennis, Sr.; Sasstown Territory – Joseph S. Nimene; Kru Coast Territory – S. Edgar Sie Badio.

Instead of carrying out the mandate given to the Commission by the President, Chairman Deshield took an arbitrary position by issuing a warning statement in a national broadcast during the launching of the Commission. In that broadcast, Deshield stressed that the President’s mandate was “to give consideration to possible, I repeat, possible changes… the Commission does not conceive neither interpret the President’s mandate as an authorization or directive to necessarily change it is not the intention of the Commission to merely propose changes apparently to satisfy the whims and notions of a few purported academic detractors.”

Having made such statement, the Commission never got down to actually examining the issues. Since there were those on the Commission who did not care to as he put it “change history,” no matter who these symbols offended. Those who held this belief were the ones who constituted the ruling class. This approach rendered the whole exercise as a sham.

After three and a half years (July 22, 1974 – January 24, 1978), the Commission submitted its recommendations. The recommendations did not mention any basic changes to the flag. Regarding the constitution, the Commission “indicated a disposition to certain changes, which were never specified in the report.” On the national anthem, it recommended that the word “Benighted” be replaced with “undaunted.” It also recommended that the national motto is changed to “Love, Liberty, Justice, Equality,” replacing “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”

However, it is alleged that one of the reasons why no changes were made to these national symbols was due opposition to changing the motto by Commissioner C. Abayomi Cassell. Commissioner Cassell made his opposition known to the President through a memorandum after the Commission had submitted its final report (Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 1985).

Now the question is, can the Liberian flag be changed? Certainly, it can. However, for this goal to be accomplished, it has to be accompanied by an aggressive populist agenda and education, which will address the plight of all of the people of Liberian. Charles Taylor and his kitchen cabinet will have to change their attitude and the way the government is being operated. But if vestiges of oppression continue as we have seen over the years, presided over by dictator who believes wholeheartedly that Liberia is his inheritance and the Liberian people are his slaves, confidence in the leadership will remain low. With this “don’t care” attitude that the leadership exhibits the Liberian people shouldn’t expect much from them. They lack the commitment to resolve these burning issues.

Based on such the division regarding what should be our national pride and inclusion, I doubt that most Liberian will be that patriotic to unite behind a government that is against unity and is credited with the deaths of 250,000 of its citizens, imprisonments, disappearances, and intimidation. Since the government came to power, we have witnessed its disinterest in providing much-needed resources like safe drinking water, proper sanitation condition, electricity, equitable health and educational facilities for its people. Instead, the Liberian people continued to experience repression, starvation, national and international condemnations.

A question was asked not too long ago by a Liberian opposition politician whether Liberians were willing and prepared to die for the Liberian flag. The politician said, “Thinking about it, I am doubtful as to whether Liberians are willing to shed even a once of blood for a piece of cloth that is not only oppressive but doesn’t represent them”.

But sadly and ironically, our flag which should symbolize unity and pride has become commercialized – now a “flag of convenience” – used as a source of generating revenue to purchase arms for the rebel RUF of Sierra Leone, and to buttress the Taylor regime in Liberia intent on destabilizing the West African sub-region.

Category: Editorial, News Headlines

About the Author: Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh is author, editor and publisher, - The Liberian Dialogue 770-896-5873

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