By Gabriel I.H. Williams
There is a wise old saying which goes, “Give people their flowers while they are still alive…..” In so doing, we are expressing emotions like gratitude, respect, appreciation, and love in tangible ways to said individuals while they are alive and not during funerals, as has often been the case.
In view of the foregoing, it is with very deep gratitude and honor to bless the Lord for the life of legendary journalist Kenneth Yakpawolo Best, as he celebrated his 85th birthday on October 28, 2023.
This belated happy birthday message is a public expression of the emotions noted supra, for without the support of this great visionary man and his wife, Mrs. Mae Gene Best, I am not sure how many of us especially from economically disadvantaged backgrounds would have made it into the journalism profession and succeeded as well as we have. All I can say to Mr. and Mrs. Best, thank you for the tremendous sacrifices you made to transform the journalism landscape in Liberia during an unprecedented period of instability and bloodshed in the history of our country.
We bless the Lord for the lives of the many young people you touched and transformed by providing us with career opportunities at the Daily Observer newspaper in the 1980s. After the Best family fled Liberia and relocated to The Gambia in the early 1990s due to Liberia’s civil war, they founded the first daily newspaper in the history of The Gambia also called the Observer, which transformed the media landscape in that West African country. Like the Liberian Observer, the Gambian Observer was also a training ground for many young people, some of whom have become prominent media leaders in The Gambia.
Reflecting on my life as a teenager in high school when the 1980 military coup occurred in Liberia, I’ve always wondered, what would have become my future if Mr. Best and his wife had not established the Daily Observer, which became a training ground that created career opportunities for people like us who basically existed on the margins of society economically.
Mr. and Mrs. Best resided in Nairobi, Kenya, where Mr. Best worked as Information Director of the powerful pan-African church body, the All-Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), when the 1980 military coup occurred in Liberia. In the wake of this calamitous and watershed development, President William R. Tolbert, who was also the sitting Chairman of the continental body, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), renamed the African Union (AU), was murdered. Equally tragic, 13 senior officials of the deposed government were executed before a crowd of thousands, following a kangaroo trial by a military tribunal in which the defendants were not afforded the opportunity to legally defend themselves against charges, which included rampant corruption and gross abuse of power. Liberia was plunged into a state of instability, as hundreds of individuals were imprisoned, many people, including foreign investors, fled the country, and there were reports of huge capital flight that led to a nose-dive of Liberia’s economy.
Considering that personal risks and danger were very high in Liberia in the aftermath of the bloody military takeover, it didn’t seem to make sense to many people that someone would leave the safety of where they are, abroad, to relocate to such a country to invest. It was in the face of such a bleak and uncertain situation that Mr. and Mrs. Best decided to literally brave the storm to return home and establish an independent newspaper. And in February 1981, they launched the Daily Observer, Liberia’s first independent daily, which became one of the best newspapers in West Africa before the civil war.
As a foretaste of the trials and tribulations the Best Family endured, within two months of operation, the Daily Observer started encountering problems with the military regime for what was regarded to be anti-government reporting. The military junta, which styled itself the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), promulgated Decree 88-A, which criminalized criticism of the regime and its leaders.
Over the years of the Observer’s existence leading to the outbreak of the civil war during which its offices were burnt to the ground, the newspaper was arbitrarily shut down several times, while many of its staff, including Mr. and Mrs. Best, were arrested, detained or harassed by the government. For example, I was also arrested, stripped naked publicly, and detained by Defense Minister, Major Gen. Gray D. Allison, for refusing to disclose the sources of an article the Observer published, in which I reported the kidnap of an outspoken United Methodist Church pastor that implicated the regime.
Despite the challenges, the Observer was a beacon of hope for the Liberian people during the era of military rule, heralding the call for a just and equitable Liberian society, where the government and public leaders would be accountable to the people.
As noted supra, the Observer was also a training ground for many young aspiring journalists, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, who may not have been able to realize their full potential due to lack of opportunity, had it not been for Mr. Best. There were no journalism studies at the universities or at any other institution in Liberia during those days.
This is why I count myself among the blessed ones to benefit from the tutelage and mentorship of Mr. Best. My first encounter with this great man was in early 1982, when we invited him to serve as keynote speaker and installing officer at the installation program for officers of the D. Twe Memorial High School Press Club, of which I was the incoming editor-in-chief and chairman. I succeeded Philip N. Wesseh, under whom I served as assistant editor-in-chief. Wesseh, who would eventually become a lawyer and an iconic media personality before his death last year, had graduated as the valedictorian of the 1981 graduating class.
We were very excited when Mr. Best honored our invitation. Our school, formerly called William R. Tolbert High School, was renamed following the 1980 miliary coup. A public school located in a predominantly low-income borough of Monrovia called New Kru Town, D. Twe High was not regarded among the prominent or elite schools in Liberia, even though we had very good academic programs and extracurricular activities. An example is the Press Club, which has produced many journalists in the country. During the program, the auditorium was crowded with students and teachers alike, and the D. Twe High School Choir, which was regarded to be one of the best school choirs that sang in both English and the Kru language, was equally thrilling.
More importantly was Mr. Best’s address, in which he called on us students to seriously focus on our studies to be adequately prepared for future leadership. I was so inspired by his message, particularly to members of the Press Club in which he underscored the significant role of journalists in society that I began to seriously develop interest in journalism as a career.
However, it never occurred to me that I would begin my professional journalism career at the Daily Observer. That opportunity came during my graduation in 1982 when the late Mrs. Rachel A.B. Cox-George, then D. Twe High School Vice Principal for Student Affairs, offered me a scholarship to attend the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ). Concerned that many young people who graduate from public schools like D. Twe often lack support and opportunity for advancement, Mrs. Cox-George said she did not want me to fall through similar cracks because I had distinguished myself to be a studious and respectful youth. And so, she contacted Mr. Best to have me do my internship at the Observer because that was a major requirement for enrollment at GIJ.
At the conclusion of my six-month internship, I could not enroll at GIJ because Ghana, then an unstable country due to successive military regimes, had been plunged into yet another bloody crisis that resulted to the closure of institutions of higher learning, including the GIJ. The economy and living conditions in Ghana deteriorated in those days that Ghanaian merchants and others came to Liberia to purchase basic commodities, such as toothpaste, toilet tissue, and bath soap. Today, Ghana is a peaceful and prosperous country, where many Liberians now flock for advanced medical treatment, tourism and other modern services.
As God would have it, Mr. Best decided to retain me as a reporter at the Observer because, he said, I had performed satisfactorily and that he saw in me the potential for growth. He also asked if I could go to New Kru Town and find one of my former schoolmates from the Press Club who was serious-minded, to also be trained and employed as a reporter.
I went to New Kru Town and contacted Philip Wesseh, former editor-in-chief of the D. Twe High School Press Club, who had graduated a year before me but was unemployed and unable to attend college due to lack of support. With the opportunity afforded him, Wesseh excelled. Because of his impressive performance, he was soon elevated to the position of News Editor of the Observer, a position he held until the outbreak of the civil war. He succeeded me as Managing Editor of The Inquirer, the leading independent daily newspaper during the civil war, after I fled the country due to death threats from some of the armed factions that were fighting for power and control of resources. He became a lawyer and was a lecturer at the University of Liberia and other institutions of higher learning in Liberia before his death in 2022.
Besides The Inquirer, several other newspapers, including FrontPage Africa led by Rodney Sieh, a nephew of Mr. Best, and the Standard newspaper in The Gambia, are also offspring of the Daily Observer. The seeds that the Best family planted through tears and pain are germinating and growing into a mighty forest that no force of evil can stop from spreading. For example, burning down the Daily Observer offices did not stop the transformation of the Liberian media. Similarly, the arrest and deportation of Mr. Best from The Gambia by the Yahya Jammeh military regime for what they regarded as anti-government reporting did not stop the wind of change the Gambia Observer has caused to blow across the Gambian political and media landscape.
Mr. Best also led the charge among a group of prominent Liberian journalists to resuscitate the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), which was moribund following the 1980 military coup, and he was elected the president. Those prominent media personalities included Dr. C. William Allen, an author who has served as assistant professor at Virginia State University in the U.S.; Mr. Lamini A. Waritay, former Editor of the New Liberian newspaper, one of the founding administrators and former Chairman of the Mass Communications Department at the University of Liberia; Ms. Charlotte Mae Phelps (late), Manager of the Catholic radio ELCM; and Counsellor Momolu V. Sackor Sirleaf, publisher of the independent Footprints Today newspaper. who later became Foreign Minister under Charles Taylor. Both Dr. Allen, who succeeded Mr. Best as PUL president, and Mr. Waritay, who also succeeded Dr. Allen to the PUL presidency, would later serve in respective transitional governments as Minister of Information during the Liberian crises. The PUL became one of the leading organizations advocating for human rights and democratic governance in Liberia during the military era and the civil war.
Mr. Best, who officially retired from journalism a few years ago, had no tolerance for mediocrity. He imbued in us many professional and ethical qualities, such as protecting the confidentiality of sources, avoiding bribery to influence a publication, and desisting from blackmailing people in the performance of our journalistic duties. He did not hesitate to fire any Observer staff who was culpable of such professional and ethical breaches.
Finally, to Mr. Best, may the hope and joy that you have spread in the past come back to you and your family, by His Grace. Wishing you a belated happy birthday!
About the Author: Gabriel I.H. Williams is a career journalist, former deputy minister of Information and diplomat at the Liberian Embassy in the United States. The founding managing editor of The Inquirer newspaper, he served as acting president of the Press Union of Liberia during the early years of the Liberian civil war and was also founding leader of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA). He is author of Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia (2019) and Liberia, The Heart of Darkness: Accounts of Liberia’s Civil War and Its Destabilizing Effects in West Africa (2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.