Liberia Must Not Remain a Historical Asterisk

President George Weah. 

 Joe Bartuah

In his famous book, “Liberia in World Politics”, written in 1934 (I last read it in 1986 and so, I’m only paraphrasing, not quoting), the late Nigerian sage and statesman, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe--who later became the first President of that influential West African state—recalled how the existence of Liberia as an independent nation had inspired the militants and stalwarts of the independence movements across the African continent. 

Even though Liberia had been severely victimized by European colonial encroachments for decades, the mere fact that it had survived the two dangerously greedy Berlin Conferences of 1884 and 1885, and their resultant “Scramble for Africa”, as well as the two European wars, otherwise tagged as World War I and World War II, was a source of pride and inspiration for leaders of the various liberation movements on the continent.

Just imagine an African student in a colonial classroom in Nigeria towards the end of the 19th century, or at the onset of the 20th century, being told that there existed a self-governing African republic wherein the people periodically elected their leaders; just imagine the aura of excitement and inspiration.

 In other words, Dr. Azikiwe’s recollection was not farfetched. It’s undeniable that historically, Liberia has played a pivotal role in inspiring millions of people around the world, directly or indirectly invigorating them to aspire for political independence.

In a similar vein, the corollary of such global inspiration that Liberia’s existence has historically engendered for two centuries now is intense anticipation. Because we’re the oldest republic, the erstwhile “lone star” in Africa, and have played a key role in accelerating socio-economic, political, and cultural development on the continent, there is heightened expectation of us as the country in nearly all aspects of human development.

As the Book of Wisdom says, “To whom more is given, much is expected.” The mere fact that as a nation-state, we’ve been in existence for more than 174 years now also means that our African brethren, whom we had inspired at some points in time to aspire for self-governance, expect a lot from us; many of them naturally look up to us to be a sort of role model for them, in terms of the best practices in self-governance and the resultant national development and economic prosperity such exemplary pattern of governance tends to generate. Put another way, our fellow Africans across the continent and even those in the Diaspora expect the leaders of Liberia to be pacesetters; to do their very best in all aspects of statecraft and be exemplary leaders who are worth being emulated.

Consider, for example, a young Zambian scholar, perhaps a university student being told that his or her college has granted him an opportunity to attend an international seminar in Monrovia, Liberia. Before embarking on his or her trip, perhaps that young scholar is given a brochure about Liberia, informing him or her that the West African nation is the first self-governing Republic on the continent; that Monrovia, the country’s capital is named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. With such a piece of information, that young scholar’s adrenaline would be streaming in full swing; his anticipation and imagination would be brimming. 

Also, imagine a tourist from one of the Caribbean island nations deciding to visit the Motherland for the first time and choosing Liberia as their destination. Perhaps such potential tourist had read in grade school, or their college courses about the Lone Star, which was singularly shining on the so-called “dark continent”, not only as an emblem of national sovereignty but also as “a beacon of hope” for black people around the world, amid the excruciating suffocation of European colonialism for more than a century until the irresistible wave of independence began fluttering in the aftermath of the Second World War.

It goes without saying that due to the historical significance of Liberia’s existence as the first republic in Africa, a lot more is expected of and from us and so, we as a people, need to honestly challenge ourselves. I strongly believe that as a nation, we can do much better than the obnoxious mediocrity currently being showcased in Monrovia.   

During the gala banquet of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) in Trenton, New Jersey on September 25, 2021, Liberia’s incumbent Information Minister Ledgerhood Julius Rennie proudly reminded fellow compatriots that January 7, 2022, would mark the 200th year of Liberia’s founding as a nation-state. The minister’s disclosure was a pivotal reminder because two centuries of existence as a self-governing nation-state is a herculean enterprise studded with challenges and opportunities. 

Historians tell us that the first batch of our black and brown brothers and sisters returning from the land of their captivity had arrived on January 7, 1822, and 25 years later on July 26th, they declared the land, which had earlier been christened in 1824 as Liberia, an independent nation.

Moreover, recent media reports from Monrovia indicated that President George Manneh Weah had set up a bicentenary commemoration committee to work towards what, by all accounts, promises to be grandiose festivities. And so,  by all accounts, we are celebrating nearly 175 years as an independent state and 200 long years as a nation-state. 

Now, as we reflect on our age as a nation-state, we must ask ourselves some hard, conscience-pricking questions. Compared to other African nations, how are we faring? Besides our longevity as a nation, what are we celebrating? In other words, what’s our level of achievement in all endeavors of human development?

This week’s celebration will be a splendid moment of reflection and retrospection. However, we must also seize such historic occasion to look inward, to conscientiously introspect, and search our individual and collective souls about our socio-economic, cultural, political, and developmental footprints. How are we faring as a nation? Are our achievements, if any, commensurate with our age as the first African republic? Are we performing under basic expectations?

Let’s take a look within our immediate neighborhood. When last were you in Abidjan? Were you in Conakry or Freetown lately? Further in West Africa, Ghana is 110 years younger than Liberia, yet that country is earning thousands of dollars in medical tourism from Liberian government officials and other well-to-to Liberians, as well as foreign residents in our country. 

Nowadays when a very important person (VIP) in Liberian society is seriously sick, where is that person taken? Is it the Jackson Fiah Doe Memorial Regional Hospital in Tappita, Nimba County, an ultra-modern hospital that has already been ripped of nearly all the essential medical equipment that the Chinese Government had installed from the onset? Or is it the already dilapidated John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, which has unfortunately earned the derogatory moniker—“Just-For-Killing”--to match its iconic “JFK” initials?

When all attempts at flying an ailing top Liberian Government official to the United States or India fail, where else do our officials go? Is it not Ghana, a country that became an independent nation on March 6, 1957, 110 long years after Liberia’s much-heralded independence as the first African republic?

As we commemorate our bicentenary as a nation-state, we must honestly take stock of all aspects of our national endeavor, especially the much-talked-about stewardship of our leaders, catalog our achievements, and also candidly, conscientiously pinpoint where we have miserably failed, where we have persistently disappointed ourselves, our compatriots and our fellow Africans who expect us to know better and even do better. In so doing, we have to be mindful that such an honest process of introspective assessment must not be a monolithic platitude couched in sycophantic flatteries.

To some extent, it seems that such a process of candid self-assessment has already begun in earnest.  For example, several hours before the ALJA gala banquet in Trenton on September 25, 2021, the leadership of our organization convened a discussion on the theme: “Toward a More Sustainable, Independent and Ethical Media in Liberia.”

As one of the panelists during that gathering, I spoke to my esteemed media colleagues on the topic, Three Steps Towards Media Integrity in Liberia, during which I posed these crucial questions: “For example, in contemporary Liberian political lexicon, what does the word “pro-poor” actually mean? 

Does that mean pursuing policies that lift the people out of poverty, or perpetuating practices that continue to further pauperize the very people? Does that mean prudent policies that minimize corruption, or callously swimming in a pool of corruption to further exacerbate the people’s deprivation?” My questions, which were generated by research analysis that many governments around the world are now manipulating multiple social media platforms to sway public opinion with fake news or alternative fact, were posed against the backdrop of unbearable socio-economic deprivations facing the Liberian people amid pervasive corruption and the prevailing kleptocratic tendencies in the country. I further reminded members of the Inky Fraternity, “We must exert every effort to thoroughly investigate and meticulously analyze issues so that our people wouldn’t be hoodwinked by artificially orchestrated euphoria.”