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Issues Must Define Liberia’s Historic Transition – Not Ethnic Sentiments

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Preparations for the elections of October 2017 in Liberia is increasingly hearing of “time for the country people to assume power.” This has brought forth the resurgence of the country-congau narratives. True, one group of people led Liberia for well over 133 years. But this was not a story of democratic governance. This was not a story of elections, and regrettable, this was a course of disorganization that many still blame today for Liberia’s gross underdevelopment. For most of this period, the majority of people in our country were not even considered citizens, mainly because they were not “civilized.” That is a sad period that cannot be relived in the spirit of democracy, justice, freedom, and I dare say civilization.


The coup d’état of April 12, 1980 that shattered this establishment was a rude awakening that saw a ridiculous story of bloodshed and a transfer of power previously unknown in Liberia. The coup marked a renewal of the Liberian state, led to the development of a democratic constitution that guarantees universal suffrage and citizenship for anyone who was a citizen upon its assumption. On account of this revolution, any Liberian of any persuasion can now stand for president or any other office. This is a victory! Given the years of underdevelopment and disenfranchisement, the people of Liberia have since had the opportunity to organize their state in a better manner and form, utilizing the best of our human resources towards ensuring the rights and welfare of our people.

Unfortunately, the stage upon which universal participation and governance in Liberia was set disintegrated within a few years, and there have since been years of destruction and misery. We have had conflicts, transitions and related processes to make that move towards sustainable democratic governance. After 12 years of relative stability, our efforts to transition to a more formal and organized government must be one that strengthens the peace, ensure greater participation and lead to sustainable development.

This is a tall, but not impossible order, given that there are experiences in Africa and elsewhere that we can rely upon. The best guidance anyone can get in these condition could be from a person who the world rightly sees as a symbol of reconciliation and uprightness. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela spent a quarter century in prison under his country’s exploitative and oppressive apartheid rules, “fought against white domination, and … black domination,” yet still had the courage to “cherish the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

In the face of such highly vaunted guidance in peaceful coexistence, upon which to expand the transition and transformation of Liberia, there is a mayday call for domination, alienation, exclusion, expressed through debates for a so-called “indigenous leader.” The divisiveness of this call brings into question whether there is anything that should limit anyone from being an indigenous in today’s Liberia. The Golas are reputed to have been in these territorial limits for the better of the last 500 years, and the Americo-Liberians have been here for nearly 200 years. Over time, there have been significant interrelations that could have eased this claim of tribal purity. But a lot of people are ignoring this and subtly calling on a “country-people” regime. This is sad, and a story minorities and marginalized groups anywhere should fear.

While Mandingoes have been settled within the current Liberia territories for periods between 200 and more years, many persons from a number of other tribes still attempt to ignore this fact and its historic significance. This made Mandingoes collateral victims of the sad targeted tribal killings that occasioned the Liberian civil war. The tension had regrettably evolved between Gios and Manos on one hand as against the Krahns on the other. But the tribal tides and claims against the Mandingoes ultimately caused a degree of discomfort and tension with the Lormas.

While historically, and geographically, one of the better known and largest language groups across West Africa, and given their location across the savanna, which placed them at a location at the actual north of Liberia, across four counties, Mandingoes are in most cases considered strangers, who have gotten involved with “Liberian affairs.”
This misconception prevails notwithstanding the fact that other tribes like Lorma, Kissi, Kpelle, and Mano have larger numbers in Guinea, while Krahns and Gios have larger number of their tribal folks in Cote d’Ivoire. Despite this reality, members of these groups are seldom considered foreigners in Liberia, yet Mandingoes bear the brunt of discrimination.

Similarly, while at the time of the organization of the Liberian state a majority Muslim ratio among the Vai, Mandingo and Gbandi, and significant Muslims among Kpelle, Kissi and Gola, a lot of people in Liberia still think Islam is a “foreign religion.”

As a consequence of this thought and perception, Mandingoes on one hand, and Muslims on the other, are easily frowned upon and rejected by “some” Liberians. This sad state came to a head when a major constitutional review process considered transforming Liberia into a Christian state. Such efforts to limit opportunities for any one group or another questioned whether we as a people are determined to move Liberia forward as a democracy. Good for all, the national leadership, with appropriate advice from the international community, thought not to allow such a divisive trend to gain national recognition.

This is a sad scenario that should not continue as we drive into the third century of Liberia’s existence, and especially where there is a transition that should benefit all, and drive Liberia to another era. For a fact, you do not end your marginalization by joining others to marginalize others. Those with the mind to marginalize will still define new minorities for marginalization.

Experiences from other countries show that using tribalism in the political process can be dangerous. In a recent article for DeutcheWelle by ZipporahNyambura , Nairobi-based analyst Brian Wanyama blamed tribalism for “ills in [Kenya] like corruption, ethnic clashes and underdevelopment,” and recommended that “People must be given jobs based on their skills and training, not tribes.”

Nyambura recalled that the flames that engulfed Kenya in the aftermath of the hotly disputed 2008 elections, which left over a thousand people dead and thousands displaced, was a result of the ethnic tension that have characterized Kenyan politics since independence in 1963.

Regrettably, those pursuing this country-congau line do not seem to reason with such difficult and contemporary experiences from nearby counties. Worse of all, these advocates unfortunately include those with difficult leadership records over a short space of time. They have never been deprived of participation. Some have been a part of every leadership structure since 1980, but again they have not provided the service our people need and desire. What positions do they need to provide these services?
The category of people running this route are posing a danger for Liberia. This group includes the old establishment politicians, but also enroll the young, urbane, professionals. Already, this advocacy seems to be yielding fruits of a tribalized elections, as 40.3% of respondents in a survey conducted by the Liberia Holding Consortium (May 2017) say they will vote on a country-congau basis. This is quite sad, as we cannot be using our education to foster discrimination. This is so distant from the sainted Mandela’s well stated maxim: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We should rather be utilizing our ideas about making Liberia better!

Other than those shouting the country-congau divide, there are other candidates toying with the rhetoric of aligning with one populous county or another. They are also part of the problem. Fact is, two, three or four populous counties can simply team up, and screw all others out. They could furthermore perpetually keep leadership among themselves – on the basis of county population and perhaps tribal alignment. It could be seen as democratic and within the context of the law, but when others begin to feel marginalized, they will obviously utilize unacceptable options to redeem themselves. This is sad!

If such a difficult scenario unfolds, Liberia should think about the possibility of keeping this alive. In the event of a fall-out, because one or another of the coalition members feels discriminated against or slighted, they would form a new alliance. This could lead to deeper offenses and the further possibilities of using all means possible to get even. With this brand of politicking, we are on the verge of violence!

For this election, and any other across our lifetime, let’s take people on account of their services, not where they come from, and not what they can give us during this campaign. Liberia has come from a very difficult place to be playing with fire. This could be our undoing, and provide room for the renewal of the same dominance we pretend to be fearing.

The examples of people using sectarian, cultural and other divides to dominate others have led to nothing but tension, conflict, war and destruction – even in many parts of Africa.

• The notion of Ivoirite has been the cause of war and continuing tension in Cote d’Ivoire;
• The demands for an Islamic caliphate is at the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria;
• The evolving resurgence of an Igbo nation is leading civil disturbances in southern Nigeria;
• Religious flames are leading crisis in the Central African Republic; and
• Anglo-Franco differences are instigating trouble in Cameroon.

In the sad story of Sudan, religious claim drove the division of that huge country into a north and south. Barely had the ink dried from the disintegration paper, and we saw tribal and other political differences dividing South Sudan further.

As a Muslim, and from one of the smaller tribal groups in Liberia, I do not see this in a positive light. There has been a crusade for the transformation of Liberia into a Christian state – by law. We resisted that, and insist that the Christians should simply convince all others to join their faith by their actions and engagements. We are glad that the government and the international community frowned upon this, and at some point, the theocracy is no longer a part of the national conversation. We cannot turn this around. We cannot be saying no to religious dominance in one breath, and practicing ethnic superiority in another. For once, our education and experiences should lead Liberia into a positive light – not into a realm of darkness.

Already, on the eve of these elections, we are now faced with a law that effectively disenfranchises a number of people, for merely agreeing to provide government service. This is not to defend those who use public service for their personal benefits, but to note that the ethical issues we need to address must be seen holistically. The truth is, lots of other government officials daily violate rules surrounding public facilities and resources, but they are not punished. In short, they have not sought further offices, and no one is bothered about them. Of course, the concern we want to address is abuse of public offices. Until we have a fully integrated strategy among integrity institutions, our resources will ultimately be subject to abuse, fraud and waste.

But more to the issue of tribal or ethnic claims, if the citizens of the United States had made such wild claims about race, Barack Obama would never have become president. And if the claims being pursued by the Trump fanatics, the Jean Marine Le Pen and other ultra-nationalists come to pass, Europe and America would not have any black or at best Arab or Muslim-like citizens.

But regardless of how we run this debate, the crucial fact remains that the 2017 elections in Liberia mark a significant transition. Liberia must in turn observe this transition in an especially transformative light. This should ensure a better and more functional Liberia – derived by all Liberians working together on an agenda that benefits all Liberians.

This position is supported by the Director of the National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections (NAYMOTE), Mr Eddie Jarwolo, who notes on facebook that democracy holds: “…elected officials … accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office or [be] voted out. Let’s support issue-based elections/campaign in Liberia and hold elected official accountable.” I agree!

With the ongoing trend, we predict that an indigenous vote would sooner lead to a bigger tribe argument. And before we know, smaller tribes would be on one side of the divide. This will be followed by the claim about one group being more Liberian than the other, and worse the resurgence of the Christian state debate, and our little Liberia would be in flames. We cannot afford this in Liberia any further.

For once, the Liberian story must be about a great leap involving all, and towards a sustainable drive for Liberia. That story should involve the extent to which politicians and governments can link their accomplishments in education, energy, access to finance, sustainable development to the plans they marketed to voters ahead of the elections. We can use this to signal that Liberia (even Africa) can mark reasons for which the sad stories of migration, disease and poverty can be reversed.
I insist, a Better Liberia is Possible, and that betterment can begin now with a fully inclusive transition.

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