An Inspiring Life of Hope and Optimism

.... Review of “A Liberian Life: Memoir of an Academic and Former Minister of State Presidential Affairs” by D. Elwood Dunn, by Mohamedu F. Jones, Esq.

In full disclosure, I believe that Dr. D. Elwood Dunn is at least primus inter pares among Liberian scholars, arguably he is primus, for his substantive contribution to academia (imagine if he had been able to spend 35 years teaching Liberian university students), and for his scholarly engagements and publications about Liberia. Dr. Dunn is probably the most widely published Liberian academician (I counted at least 38 on a list in Appendix 6). He is also a relative, and he does mention my name in passing in more than one place in his memoir. 

In his introduction, Dunn states: “It is my hope that my life’s experience will serve to inspire and motivate young Liberians and others to prepare themselves for self-fulfillment through a life of service to others.” This writer believes that he did and will you why. Please read on.

“A Liberian Life”, to paraphrase Dunn, is recent history in the form of autobiography.  It is his story from birth through its publication, and his country’s story from the mid-1970s through the years of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf presidency. It contains thoughtful analyses, evidence-supported findings, and presents his views of the long-list of unfinished and unresolved Liberian subjects that are necessary to transform the country and create a sustained nation.

Regarding his Liberian scholarship, Dunn states that his “motive for research and writing was a desire to better understand my country with a view to enhancing its development and hopefully contribute to the broader advancement of knowledge.” Liberians today are still living through the windfalls and shortfalls from those long-ago events in the 1970s that are presented in historical details in the book and offered by someone who was present.

The memoir is by an academician who methodically takes the reader down the highways, byways, detours and contours of his life, beginning with the very Liberian complications of the circumstances of his birth, through the idyllic years of growing up in a sleepy small town in the functional and nurturing “warm, loving, and caring home” of his grandparents. His gratitude for the reciprocal love and devotion of his grandparents is palpable to the reader.  These were the years when his lifelong devotion to the Episcopal Church of Liberia began as an acolyte in boyhood to publishing full length histories of his church.

Dunn shares the apparent painful complexities of his interactions (there is no indication of any meaningful parent-child relationship) with his “never child focused” father which among other things the author tells us caused him to lose his ability to speak the Bassa language. You feel his abiding loss as he tells that story.  We journey with him through his marriage to his wife, the late Rev. Matilda Dunn, building their family together, while pursuing their careers, and bringing up their children. 

In the preface, Dr. Dunn summarizes his careers into three distinct parts: (1) teaching; (2) direct government service (relatively brief) and (3) participating in and leading some governance reform related projects.  Interwoven in these careers Dr. Dunn is always plotting to permanently return home to Liberia, in some instances literally, to physically be there and always figuratively by devoting time and energy to uplifting Liberia for the well-being of its people.  You live the lament of the exile with him when he writes “While Liberia was still on my mind, my immediate task…” was providing a safe environment for his family and building his very distinguished academic career. A manifestation of Dunn’s love for country is crystalized when after a meeting briefing President Tolbert, his boss, the Foreign Minister, expressed gratitude to the President for the opportunity to serve him while Dr. Dunn thanked the President for providing him the opportunity to serve Liberia.  Throughout the pages of his memoir, it is plain to the reader that Liberia is always on his mind and he is constantly wanting (needing?) to serve his country.

In his first government job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Dunn, the “reluctant politician” quickly assessed and experienced the dysfunctionality of the “existing governance arrangement” at the Ministry and in the country. He lets the reader know that while he “shared the strong pro-Africa and developing countries solidarity policies” of President Tolbert, he “wanted to see this tied to more inclusive governance at home.” 

Like many other Liberian “moderate progressives” of the 1970s, this reviewer was also “troubled by the disconnect between Liberia’s progressive foreign policy and a somewhat regressive domestic reality.”  In any event, the author became unhappy, not feeling “free, respected, appreciated and rewarded” for what he did, and eventually left Foreign Affairs without “fanfare or words of thanks” to go to work at the Executive Mansion. 

Dunn’s next Liberian government job takes the reader into the executive office of the Liberian presidency, first as a Deputy Minister and then for six months as Minister of State for Presidential Affairs when there was a growing “clash between the old Liberia and a projected new Liberia. There was tension “between the old establishment figures in the government and the President.” We learn that not only did the old establishment figure “resist change, they were intolerant of public criticism of the status quo and unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of the popular demands for change.” 

The teacher that he is, the author outlines the factors that converged and “eventuated in the [April 14, 1979] crisis.” He underscores that it did not “happen in isolation,” pointing out the global economic crisis of the 1970s resulting in the drop in commodity prices, the resultant meaningful fall in Liberia’s tax revenue, supply and rising price pressures.  There were notable signs of political tensions as diverse Liberians challengingly engaged their leaders.  In the face of all this, Dr. Dunn points out that “a pattern persisted of governance by commission or committee rather than [a] more decisive” approach.

The author’s assessment of the President is blunt: “President Tolbert was not a political operative.”  Later we learn that he found Tolbert to be “congenial,” “versatile” and possessed a “gifted mind.” Dr. Dunn offers an inside “the situation room” view of the April 14 crisis when “The much vaunted Liberian political stability faced an existential threat.” There was a tense cabinet meeting on April 14, 1979; President Tolbert was in a “fighting mood.”  The cabinet, without dissent, was “in favor of prompt and decisive action.”  The author tells us that he learned later “that security forces led by the police, opened fire on the protesters.”  At the end of the day, “a significant number of Liberians lay dead or injured and property worth millions of dollars was destroyed.”  April 14, 1979 exposed the government’s vulnerability and Dr. Dunn informs the reader that “some have suggested that a coup d’état could have happened that day.”  There would be a coup within a year, on April 14, 1980. 

In the immediate aftermath of April 14, the author tells us that President Tolbert dictated part of a speech to him in the hallway and observes that “nothing much was going on” in the Executive Mansion the day after the crisis. He makes the reader a witness to developments that led to troops from Guinea coming into Liberia. We learn that Tolbert for the first time, had surprisingly asked his views on policy. What is amazing to this reviewer is Dunn’s response. How many persons would refrain from advising the President, particularly when asked a direct question? Elwood Dunn did! He explains that he did not have enough information to offer an informed opinion. How one wishes more Liberians would abide by that maxim and not offer uninformed opinions.  Now that will be the day!

The reader is able to follow the indecision and intrigues of the government after April 14 including cabinet changes, presidential speeches, taking opposition leaders into custody, and visits to the country by neighboring heads of state. We learn that in meetings with the armed forces after April 14, Tolbert heard “an earful of grievances” and told the military that some of them were being addressed.  Perhaps unintentionally, the author conveys a sense of skepticism that the grievances were being addressed, at least to this reviewer. 

Dr. Dunn spends considerable time discussing the Brownell Commission that President Tolbert “charged with leading a consultative investigation into the events that eventuated in the disturbances.” We learn how the commission was formed, how its members were selected and appointed, and its deliberations. We read details about the leaking of the Commission’s report before presentation to the President, suspicions surrounding Dunn regarding the leak and finally how “this important, even critical work” avoided being aborted. As the reader follows the story, ultimately, it becomes clear that the Brownell Commission’s report was indeed aborted and fell on the very large dustbin of Liberian history.  One wonders if anyone other than Elwood Dunn even has a copy.

As someone who was engaged in the reformation process, which is how I met the author in person for the first time, I concur with Dunn that the True Whig Party was one of the “greatest challenges” to Tolbert’s “quest to reform Liberia.”  Dr. Dunn brings the reader into the labyrinth of how the effort to reform began at a meeting held on October 13, 1979 that this reviewer also attended.  The result is that Dr. Dunn and I and others were appointed to a Task Force by Tolbert; the President appointed Emanuel L. Shaw II as chair and I subsequently volunteered to be secretary at the convening meeting. In my first appearance in Dr. Dunn’s memoirs, he points out that many decades later I told him that some members of the Task Force were suspicious of him. I did tell him that. I also told him that I wish I had a copy of the Task Force report; Elwood Dunn matter-of-factly told me he had a copy and provided it to me.

The work of the Task Force eventually led to events that resulted in Dr. Dunn’s appointment as Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, albeit, as it turned out for only six months. Although we learn details of some of the activities that he was involved in as Minister, it becomes clear that his impact was very minimal. Dunn was not in Liberia at the time of the coup; he later arranged “safe passage” to return, noting his wife and small children were in Liberia. He returned home on April 22, 1980. On the same day 13 Liberian citizens were unlawfully and wrongfully murdered on the beach under the guise of judicially sanctioned “executions.”  Could Dr, Dunn have been among those men had he been in Liberia on April 12, 1980? 

Personally, one of the most fascinating snippets in Dr. Dunn’s book for this reviewer is that he reiterates something I have heard and been deeply skeptical of. I have heard from family and friends that on that day, “suddenly darkness fell upon the land. It lasted for a good while and then dissipated as the sun returned.”  When I shared this with my wife, she asked if I believed her now. I did not answer.

As part of the journey with him, the reader follows Dr. Dunn’s return to the United States, this time seeking permanent residency. The flabbergasting and failed effort by the State Department to derail his asylum petition is maddening, and infuriating to one who also sought the protection of political asylum. Ever the scholar, Dunn states: “With no appreciation of the social nuances and the many crosscutting cleavages realities of Liberia, the ubiquitous ‘us’ versus ‘them’ was being peddled by official America.”  This makes you wonder as one reflects on the Tolbert years leading up to and after the coup, during the Doe years, and during the war years, how much division United States officials fueled. What was in those “top secret” cables to and from Washington? Does this lend credence, which this reviewer believe is not sufficiently supported by the available evidence that the US government actively supported or even instigated the 1980 coup?

Dunn’s academic career, particularly at Sewanee was the longest of his three careers. By any and every measure, his is a remarkably successful career. He met the three requirements of the University of the South: (1) “measurable effective teaching,” (2) “substantial contribution to the academic community,” and (3) “scholarly engagement and publication.”  I wonder if all things academic are presented in sets of threes. 

“Liberia remained part of his DNA” as the author engaged in many Liberia-specific social and political activities including maintaining ties at home, in Diaspora Liberian communities and with American interested in Liberia. We learned of his transactional relationship with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “I gravitated toward Sirleaf perhaps the most because of her political contacts and apparent access to valuable information. We developed a good working relationship.” 

As a function of Dunn’s “keen interest in Liberia’s fate, both at the level of scholarship and political engagement” that propelled his involvement in all things Liberian. He takes the reader with him through his multidimensional Liberian-focused activities. The wide range of these activities includes “teachable moments designed to correct critical historical record,” participating in Congressional hearings and corresponding with members of the US Congress, appearances on television programs and doing syndicated radio interviews throughout Canada.  Dr. Dunn shares the beginning of his connections with the Liberian Studies Association (LSA) where he would go on to become Editor of its Liberian Studies Journal (LSJ), and with which he remains affiliated. 

As his story is his country’s story, Dunn discusses his “Focus on Rebuilding Post-Conflict Liberia” with a clear agenda of research and service to Liberia and Liberians. It is with a sense of heightened accomplishment that the readers learns of his herculean effort to rescue and preserve Liberian records including the papers of President Tubman, Episcopal Bishop George Browne, Reginald Townsend, Evelyn Townsend, Romeo Horton and Bai T. Moore, one of Liberia’s preeminent literati and a “cultural icon.” This reviewer has electronically examined some of the digitized Tubman papers at the University of Indiana, including Tubman’s letter dismissing my father, M. Fahnbulleh Jones, as Superintendent of Grand Cape Mount County in 1959. Significantly, the families of these Liberians retain ownership of the papers and the ever Liberian-optimistic Dunn undertook the preservation with the goal of returning the original documents to Liberia, “once professional cleaning and digitizing were completed.”  The inimitable value of this effort of Dunn and his collaborators to Liberia speaks for itself - res ipsa loquitur.

Chief Detective Inspector Dunn! Dr. Dunn undertook the “concrete task” of investigating allegations of corruption in Johnson Sirleaf’s Executive Mansion. This reviewer was briefly part of that investigation, which give rise to another passing reference in Dunn’s memoir. Following the conclusion of the task, the author and members of his committee publicly presented their report to President Sirleaf.  Before Sirleaf could act, there was a bombshell! Internal reports submitted to the committee were published in the press.  Dr. Dunn walked away from the “political intrigues” associated with the publication, but he clearly recognized President Johnson Sirleaf’s attempt “to end the government’s direct engagement with the matter.” Like the Brownell Commission report all those many years before, this report too was effectively aborted.

Notably, Dunn and his committee also presented a financial report detailing their expenditures and duly returning the balance funds to the government. This reminded me of a story told in our family. The story is our grandfather, then Senator J. A. H. Jones, undertook a government paid trip in the late 1950s or early 1960s. On his return, he submitted his receipts and the unspent per diem to the Department of Treasury and no one knew what to do with the money because it had not been done before. Hopefully, when Dunn returned the funds, officials knew that it should go back into the government treasury. 

In 2012, the beginning of Sirleaf’s second term, Dr. Dunn delivered the National Oration at the National Independence Day Celebration under the topic “Renewing our National Promise,” addressing it in two parts: “contextualizing our national experience and highlighting the role of values in national development.”  I, for one, wish that Dunn would have explained what the history and purpose of the National Oration is.  In the early 1980s, I was the County Orator in Grand Cape Mount County on Independence Day. As I left after the celebration, I had a distinct feeling that I  had wasted my time. I had! Does anyone even remember Dunn’s speech, much more concretely acted on anything in it? At least there was no indication that the President was “vexed with him” as has been conjectured in some cases regarding National Orators that I have heard.

Dunn tells us that he declined the traditional award that he “considered not nationally representative enough” and opted to be gowned by the National Council of Chiefs and Elders. This leads one to wonder if the late Dr. Amos Sawyer and the late Ambassador H. Boima Fahnbulleh, two previous orators, had been offered and accepted any of these “not nationally representative enough” awards.

The next Liberian-focused activity that the author becomes engaged (entangled?) with was the Constitution Review Committee. The author classified the committee’s process as “inconclusive.” He determined that the committee was “dysfunctional,” had an “ambiguous” relationship with the Legislature and was plagued by the “issue of intellectual integrity versus excessive politicking.”  Although not expressly stated by Dr. Dunn, is he suggesting he considered the committee and its work to be a failure?

The next Liberian-focused project that Dunn turned his attention to was the National Symbols Review which originated in his National Oration. The idea to review the country’s symbol stemmed from the author’s view that there was a “need to Africanize a Liberia that remained steeped in its nineteenth-century symbolism.” The lyrics of the National Anthem and the National Seal needed to be reviewed. As part of this review, the author believes that Liberian government awards or ‘decorations’ should also be “revisited as a means of addressing national identity issues.”  This effort was interrupted by the Ebola pandemic in 2014.  While Dr. Dunn undertook to re-initiate the review, nothing came of this effort. 

The next Liberian-focused project to engage the attention of Dr. Dunn was the Liberia National History Project. This project was an outgrowth of his National Oration where the author had suggested that Liberians “should encourage Liberian historians to hash out a national narrative that is truthful, inclusive, and does not shift blame from individual wrongdoing two groups, whether in the distant past  or more recently.”  Here Dr. Dunn, Liberia-optimistic as ever, is looking to remove from his country’s national narrative those elements of falsehoods, division, and blame gaming that were pervasive in Liberian history. This project “languished” and “remaining in abeyance as Sirleaf left office” because funding that was promised, “a demonstration of political will on the part of the government was not forthcoming.”  Another aborted effort! As you read this, you have to wonder: “Why hasn’t this man given up on his country?”

The final Liberian-focused project that the author shares with the reader  is “Governance Reform and Vision 2030.”  Dunn tells us that “the idea of governance reform had also be part of my episodic engagement with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other Diaspora personalities and groups” and describes in detail his interlocutions with her and others, notably, his contemporaries Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dr. Byron Tarr, and Dr. Togbah Nah Tipoteh and politicians like Jackson Doe and Edward Binyah Kesseley, among others. We learn that the “main purpose of the vision exercise was to provide a compass that would guide national development in the face of enormous post-war challenges.” We learn that “some of Liberia’s brightest and best were not invited” which was compounded when others declined to participate “thinking the project was partisan.” The second problem was an ineffective communication strategy and the third problem “concerned the responsible statutory bodies.” (Another set of the academic threes!)

In the end, this project did not achieve the key requirement for operationalization which was “that it should lead Liberians to think, speak, and act differently as regards transforming the country. This did not happen.”  The president did not impose her “personal imprimatur.” Dr. Dunn concludes that Sirleaf’s legacy “would likely have been more enduring if these critical non-tangible measures had been implemented before she left office.” Ever the astute political scientist, Dunn insightfully underscores that successor governments would not find the political capital to stay the course. Another aborted project!

The scholarly insights regarding Liberian Presidents Tolbert and Johnson Sirleaf are spot on. He confirms some of what we heard in the 1970s and many of the notions we had about the leaders of the time such as the late Frank Tolbert, Richard Henries, Reginald Townsend, and James A. A. Pierre. 

Dunn learned discussion of others who have written about Liberia such as Holsoe (who “privately made derogatory comments about some elements of indigenous life”), Liebenow (read by every American ambassador from the 1960s through the 1970s) and d’Azevedo (“a rare and compassionate Western scholar”). He offers learned analyses of Liberian-centered scholarship. He systematically presents background analysis of Liberia in each decade that his book covers. He highlights the work of one of his successors, Carl Patrick Burrowes (Are there others?).  The partial list of articles and other publications that the author presents as an appendix offers a great starting point for any research regarding Liberian history. All of this tells the reader why Professor Dunn was department chair and retired as a well-respected tenured professor.

The memoir is wrapped in the author’s belief, clearly deeply held, that Liberians must emphasize commonality, and stop focusing on the dichotomies of the nation, even as we recognize our differences.  Dr. Dunn views commonalty and communality as central to writing true Liberian history and nation-building 

The author unequivocally accomplished his purpose:

to personalize Liberian history has I lived it, hoping it might constitute one of the building blocks for a future history of the Liberian people. This is history as autobiography. I hope I made such strides toward the accomplishment of my purpose that readers would come to know me and acquire a glimpse into the Liberia of my time.

As you read Dunn’s inspiring memoir, the ever hopeful and optimistic theme (even in the face of disappointments and failures regarding Liberia) affects you and leaves an especial meaningful impression. This is definitively his country’s story integrated into his story.