Farewell, Journalists Philip N. Wesseh and James Seitua: Brilliant Minds Gone Too Soon!
By Gabriel I.H. Williams
In the respective months of September and October 2022, the Liberian media was struck by the death of two prominent journalists: Attorney Philip N. Wesseh, long-serving Managing Editor of The Inquirer newspaper, and Mr. James Seitua, former Editor-In-Chief of the Daily Observer newspaper.
The deceased colleagues and I worked together in the 1980s as reporters at the Daily Observer, then one of the leading independent daily newspapers in West Africa. We began our respective journalism careers under the mentorship of legendary journalist Kenneth Y. Best, Managing Director of the Liberian Observer Corporation, publishers of the Observer.
Another legendary journalist who tutored us was the Observer’s Editor-In-Chief, Stanton B. Peabody, whose arrest by the government in 1964 led to the establishment of the Press Union of Liberia — the umbrella organization serving Liberian media professionals and institutions. Along the way, we also benefited from the tutelage of yet another legendary journalist, Rufus M. Darpoh, a great warrior of the pen who was kidnapped and jailed for six months in 1985 at the notorious Belle Yalla maximum security prison by Doe’s military regime, after government intelligence agents intercepted articles he had written for foreign magazines that were deemed anti-government.
The great crusader for democratic governance in Liberia, the late Albert Porte, who was Chairman of the Board of the Liberian Observer Corporation, usually came by the office and spoke to us about our importance as journalists.
Being nurtured and influenced by some of the brightest and forward-thinking minds in our country during that era, such as those notably mentioned, helped to shape my colleagues and me as exemplified by the extraordinary accomplishments of Attorney Wesseh, and the commitment to high professionalism by journalist Seitua.
My late colleagues and I started our respective journalism careers during the dictatorial rule of Samuel Doe, who overthrew the government of President William R. Tolbert in a 1980 military coup in which the president was assassinated, and 13 senior government officials later executed.
Freedom of speech and of the press, as well as political activities, were suppressed or criminalized by Doe’s regime. During the civil war that led to Doe being brutally killed, journalists and rights activists were also targeted by the armed factions involved in the bloody contest for power in Liberia. In the discharge of their duties to keep the public informed of developments, Wesseh and Seitua also endured their share of the abuses journalists suffered during that period of unprecedented violence and bloodshed in Liberia.
The first shocking death news was that of Attorney Wesseh, who passed away at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia on September 14, 2022. Wesseh, 64, was an iconic journalist on the national scene and a mentor to scores of journalists. Even though Attorney Wesseh was known to be ill for a prolonged period, his death was received with shock across Liberia and beyond. In reaction, President George M. Weah described as “deeply saddening,” the death of the iconic journalist, noting that the demise of Attorney Wesseh “leaves a deep void in the Liberian media.”
Former Liberian Vice President Joseph N. Boakai and other prominent personalities in the Liberian society were among the massive crowd of sympathizers at the funeral service, which climaxed three-days of “celebration” of the life of Philip Wesseh. The funeral service, which was held in the Borough of New Kru Town on October 28, took on features of a national event.
The choir at the Trinity United Methodist Church in New Kru Town, where Attorney Wesseh was a lifelong and very active member, invoked the presence of God at the homegoing celebration with a mixture of soul-stirring songs in English and his ethnic Kru language. The deeply emotional service of hymns and tributes included a moving rendition by Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh — an iconic politician and pan-Africanist who opened the tributes with the song: “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.”
One of the most tearful moments was the tribute by Mr. Kenneth Best, Wesseh’s first professional mentor, who openly wept as a parent would weep over the loss of a beloved child, as he recalled how young Wesseh was nurtured professionally at the Observer.
Perhaps, the tribute that would institutionalize the memory of Philip Wesseh was that which was paid by the University of Liberia (UL), where Wesseh was an alumnus and a faculty member. In the tribute, read by the Dean of the Amos C. Sawyer College of Social Science and Humanities, Dr. Josephus Moses Gray, the UL announced the establishment of the Philip N. Wesseh Academic Award for Excellence in Journalism Dr. Gray, who represented the UL President, was once a member of The Inquirer’s editorial staff during Wesseh’s leadership.
Wesseh’s journalism career, which spanned some 40 years, began in the early 1980s as a Daily Observer correspondent in the Borough of New Kru Town. He graduated in 1981 from the D. Twe Memorial High School (formerly the William R. Tolbert High School) in New Kru Town, where he ably served as chairman and editor-in-chief of the school’s press club.
Even though he was the dux of his graduating class, Wesseh was unemployed and unable to pursue further education due to lack of opportunity. He got a breakthrough after I recommended him to Mr. Best, who was impressed by my performance and wanted me to find another former member of the D. Twe Press Club to become a Daily Observer reporter in New Kru Town.
I am a 1982 graduate of D. Twe High, where I served as assistant editor-in-chief of the school’s press club under Wesseh, who graduated a year before me. As God would have it, immediately following my graduation, I started my career at the Observer as a trainee reporter, in preparation to enroll at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ). However, plans for my travel to Ghana did not materialize because of instability in that country during that period.
At the Observer, Wesseh soon became one of the best reporters. As a result of his hard work and leadership qualities, he was appointed News Editor of the Observer. However, his appointment did not go down well with a section of the newsroom. This was because he was elevated over a few senior reporters, including yours truly. One of the senior reporters openly protested and said he will not take instruction from Wesseh.
Certain individuals attempted to have me join the opposition to Wesseh’s promotion on grounds that I had been at the newspaper longer and that I was responsible for his employment there. However, I openly congratulated Wesseh, gave him a hug and assured him that I would work harmoniously with him as my boss. It was a very difficult experience submitting to the authority of someone who had regarded you in a senior capacity, which was why the other senior reporter openly protested. Nevertheless, I have always been mindful never to be envious or fight against others because of their accomplishments. My parents inculcated in me a sense to remain obedient and hardworking and doors of opportunity would open, and it always has, by His Grace.
Wesseh held the position of News Editor with distinction until the outbreak of the Liberian civil war in December 1989, which led to the closure and destruction of the offices of the Daily Observer. However, none of us ever conceived that God had also planned to elevate me to become Wesseh’s boss, a greater responsibility to establish and manage an entire media entity.
In 1991, several former editorial staff members of the Observer launched The Inquirer — an independent newspaper which became the leading daily in Liberia. The initiative was led by now late T. Max Teah, longtime news editor of the Observer, who trained and mentored all of us who were involved. However, to my utmost surprise, T. Max announced that he would rather have me take over the leadership of the proposed paper because he was impressed with certain leadership qualities in me. I initially objected because all of us were displaced as a result of the war, and we had no money, equipment or office to operate from, not to mention the tremendous personal risks involved in operating an independent media in a war environment. After T. Max and the group prevailed upon me to assume the mantle of managing editor, Wesseh was one of the first to openly express his full support for me. He recalled how I supported him when he was appointed at the Observer and there was opposition.
Serving first as assistant editor-in-chief and later editor-in chief following the death of T. Max Teah who held that post, Wesseh was one of my most trusted and competent lieutenants at The Inquirer. Other founding leaders and earliest staff included J. Grody Dorbor, currently acting Secretary of The Inquirer Board, Roger Seton who established and managed the business and administrative department, S. Togba Slewion, late veteran Sam Van Kesselly, Counsellor M. Bedor-Wla Freeman, who is Chairman of the Liberia Independent Information Commission, Massa Washington, former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, and veteran photographer Gregory Stemn. Legendary journalist Stanton Peabody and UL instructor K. Moses Nagbe, a prolific writer of national repute, further enriched the quality of our staff as full-time editorial consultants, as we endeavored to establish an institution that would remain in existence beyond individuals.
Wesseh succeeded me as Managing Editor of The Inquirer in 1994 after I fled Liberia due to death threats from the armed factions involved in Liberia’s civil war. During various staff meetings we both attended in recent years, he and I often recounted the above story to teach young people that you don’t have to envy or fight others for position.
Over the last decade, Wesseh received a national honor from then President of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He also graduated from the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, University of Liberia, and was admitted into the Liberia National Bar Association as an Attorney-at-Law.
While I was consumed with executing plans to ensure a successful funeral for Attorney Wesseh in my capacity as Chair of The Inquirer’s Board, Greg Stemn called to give me yet another very shocking news that Seitua had just passed that day, October 13, 2022.
Seitua, 67, died at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts, following a period of illness.
He joined the Daily Observer in 1986 as a Senior Reporter, and rose through the ranks to become Editor-In-Chief of the paper. He was regarded as a very good narrative writer. Seitua and I worked together for a few years after I rejoined the Observer editorial staff in 1987, following my return from the United States. I traveled to the U.S. in 1986 to serve as a Journalism Scholar at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, N.Y, under the Daj Hammarskjold Memorial Fellowship - one of the most prestigious awards in international journalism.
When I met Seitua at the Observer, he was a well-respected senior reporter in the newsroom. He was a trusted colleague and a team player who was exemplary by the respectable manner in which he conducted himself and treated others. Civic-minded with a serious but engaging demeanor, Seitua was a consummate professional and a private individual who shied away from the public limelight.
As we reflect on the passing of these two journalists, I am reminded by Solon, a Greek philosopher and one of the fathers of modern democracy, who once said: “No man should consider himself truly happy until he is dead.” Solon believed that it is after a person’s death that people would reminisce on how he or she lived for good or bad. The question to all of us is: How do you want to be remembered when you are gone?
As journalists Philip N. Wesseh and James Seitua take their final rest, I say to them: Adieu! Well done.