Liberia: An Open Letter to Liberian Youth

No longer can we watch millions of young people’s futures be jeopardized due to enduring failures in our education system.

.... You can take shortcuts and get away. So many of us are incensed by it but do nothing — our cultural malaise. We must do better, now! If we lose this fight, the next generation will inherit a country embroiled in chaos.

Dear Friends,

I invite you to take a moment to engage with the thoughts I'm about to share. As we find ourselves in the midst of campaign season, the vibrant political theater is in full swing. It is a time of heightened expressions of our beliefs in the platforms and individuals we deem fit to lead us — the people whose ideologies most closely align with ours. In this season, candidates make their most impassioned speeches to rally their bases and hopefully sway over impressionable, undecided citizens.

Partisans adorn themselves in party paraphernalia from head to toe. Auxiliary groups abound. The chants echo through our streets. The anthems reverberate through our speakers. The energy, the bravado — the political theater is alive and thriving! Yet, as we revel in the excitement of this season, I implore us, the youth, the stakeholders with the loudest voice, to pause and reflect upon our individual choices. I plead with you to think again.

It is no secret that we, the youth, play a pivotal role in these elections. As we zoom out and observe the images of election-related activities, most of the faces we encounter are youthful. These are young men and women grappling with immediate challenges and anxieties about the futures they will forge for themselves and their families. Underneath the energizing spell of campaign season lies the reality of real individuals, with genuine fears, dreams, and aspirations.

Let us not forget that these elections hold immense significance. We, the youth, hold the reins that determine the fate of our politicians and, in turn, the destiny of our nation. With an estimated 60% of the population aged 18 to 35, we have the unique opportunity to assert our influence and demand real change. But will we seize this opportunity? Will we pose the tough questions and insist on clear answers? Are we going to get it right, this time? Let me indulge you. Think again!

Friends, if you’re wondering why Liberia is the way it is and questioning why our people, systems, and institutions don’t work, I regret to inform you that Liberia, by many accounts, functions as a failed state — one unable to fulfill its fundamental security and developmental responsibilities, with limited control over its borders or territory (LSE). Traditionally, when we think about "failed states", it's easy to focus solely on the latter part of the definition — the absence of effective control over territory and borders. We tend to associate failed states with countries ravaged by conflict and political turmoil like the DRC, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Libya amongst others. This perspective is understandable.

Mainstream discourse on failed states centers on issues of peace, security, and utter collapse. However, if we genuinely consider the core purpose of a state, I encourage you to broaden this definitional focus to encompass a government's inability to do its job for all of its people. We must recognize that, over a protracted period, it is the failure of states to execute basic functions that can eventually lead to full scale collapse. 

In Liberia, we stand precariously on the precipice of an inevitable collapse. To explore this assertion, there are crucial questions that each of us must grapple with. In the table below, I've posed and answered several of these questions that form the basis of my disheartening assertion. I’ve endeavored to be as objective as possible in my responses and phrasing of the questions. But I’m also aware of desirability and confirmation biases so I eagerly welcome your counterarguments. Feel free to replicate this table, candidly respond to these questions, and draw your own conclusions.

If your answers to the majority of these questions lean toward a resounding 'no,' then you live in a failed state. I believe that any country with more than half of its people unemployed, illiterate, vulnerably employed, where a handful of influential individuals wield power over the rule of law and institutions; where, at any moment, an uprising could besiege the country, operates, in my view, as a failed state. 

The capital 'F' Failed state is but the eventual outcome of the pernicious lowercase 'f' failed state. I understand the temptation to lay blame on the current administration or those from the previous one, especially during this political season. However, such a straightforward attribution would be overly simplistic.

The failure of our state is collective, rooted in its very foundation and generations of centralized governance. Amidst the chatter that the current administration might be hastening this decline, pushing our nation to its limits, I urge you to approach this discourse scientifically, with an open mind. Examine all facts, hypothesize, analyze, and then draw conclusions. If that’s still your conclusion — by all means! 

I am typically an optimist. As such, doomsday narratives hold no allure for me. But, with each passing month, the undeniable facts force me to confront alarming realities. These realities serve as a clarion call, urging us to wake up and fight to save the future of what we have left of our nation. As young people living in Liberia, we will endure the ramifications of this failed state longer than those responsible for its creation or exacerbation. Therefore, it is my ardent hope that as young Liberians, we must ask ourselves these hard questions as we approach the ballot box on October 10.

Before making that sacred choice, consider whether your chosen candidate embodies the kind of leadership that will generate strong long-term gains for all Liberians. As we think again, I encourage us all to refrain from conflating individual gains with collective progress. Just because a decision favors you and those within your circle it doesn't equate to effective governance. If development isn’t strategic, measurable, and decentralized, you should think again. If you can’t articulate how, in real terms, the activities of your political leaders will elevate the lives of people over a 10 year period, think again. 

Friends, as we consider these intricate questions, it's highly likely that we may not find a candidate or party deserving of our votes. Perhaps those embodying the "right" qualities and reputation aren't viable [electable] options. But do not lose hope. This juncture in our history is a watershed moment — an opportunity for a new movement to emerge. This movement should reflect the true Liberia we deserve, one where young people take full ownership of their future, striving for the betterment of themselves, their communities, and their fellow citizens across all 15 subdivisions. Beyond the electoral cycle, it's high time to agitate! We must compel our leaders to take the right course of action.

We cannot afford to have our futures compromised any longer. Enough is enough! No longer can we sit and watch our fellow citizens perish from preventable diseases and families suffer unbearable loss. If you can’t afford medical treatment abroad, don’t really contract any serious illness here. No longer can we watch millions of young people’s futures be jeopardized due to enduring failures in our education system.

Who’s fixing this? No longer can we watch teachers, nurses, and police officers wake up early and race to do life-saving, nation-building work not even having enough to afford lunch or transportation. Where’s our dignity? We’ve gone 176 years (almost two centuries!) and we’re still celebrating turning on street lights in our capital! What happened to our pride? Who said free access to poor-quality education would transform the lives of the masses? How dishonest can we be? We’d rather invest ~$21m in WASSCE fees versus invest in bold, innovative solutions to improve student learning outcomes in real terms.

Are we all this gullible? With over 16b in FDI from 2006 - 2017, couldn’t we invest significant resources to improve the State University to churn high-quality graduates? What happened to our collective ambition? To our honesty? When are we going to explore bold ideas that will ensure the prosperity of all of our people? 

Wake up, friends! We cannot remain bystanders who watch inadequate governance and everyday politics obliterate any glimmer of hope for a decent future for us and generations to come. Take action! What’s hindering collective action? For example, if the majority of Liberians believe ‘third lane’ driving is reckless, unsafe, and unnecessary, why don’t we put a stop to it? I’m fully convinced that we, the people, can demand the law be changed and it will. I can’t think of a more apt public display of the Liberian problem than this. We’ve normalized the fact that one doesn’t have to be patient.

You can take shortcuts and get away. So many of us are incensed by it but do nothing — our cultural malaise. We must do better, now! If we lose this fight, the next generation will inherit a country embroiled in chaos. If you think present-day Liberia is chaotic, don’t look forward to the next few years. The signs are everywhere, friends! For those of us who call Liberia home and wish for it to remain so, our only option is to demand — not plead for — a better Liberia. I am fully aware that the choice to raise a family in my own country requires critical changes in national leadership. This is a struggle we must all be willing to take on. This transformation begins with the choices you make on October 10 and extends far beyond. I implore you to think again. 

We have to say, No More! Young people, our future is already crumbling. I believe we still have a fighting chance. I hope we go down fighting. Maybe we can start by petitioning all our candidates to engage with a cross section of young people in a town hall — providing the opportunity to ask these hard questions and get some answers we can hold them accountable to. Just maybe. As for me, I will demand a better Liberia using every non-violent means possible. Fortunately, I know a whole lot of young people who will as well. Equally so, as you agitate, it is my hope that those who have been fortunate enough to be positioned to do good, that we do good and make the small changes we can make right where we are. This is where the strength of our movement will emerge.

Think again! 


Marvin Tarawally

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Daily Observer's editorial stance.