Liberia: Saluting Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu

Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu

— He Inspired So Many People in Many Ways

Joe Bartuah

With the passing of the renowned Liberian political scientist, diplomat, and historian, Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu on August 29, in Ganta, Liberia, the nation has in less than a year, lost two of its eminent scholars, noble statesmen, topnotch educators and exemplary compatriots who tremendously inspired hundreds of thousands of their fellow compatriots during their lifetime.

On February 16th this year, we lost Dr. Guannu’s buddy and former boss, the former Interim President of Liberia, Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer, whom Dr. Guannu had served as Presidential Affairs Minister from 1990 to 1994.  

In my particular case, I first heard his famous name in 1976—Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu--when I was in grade school. At the time, he was serving as Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Foreign Service Institute at the Foreign Ministry in Monrovia, with the late Charles Cecil Dennis, Jr. as the Minister. Perhaps due to his distinguished professorial background, President Tolbert, the illustrious Pan-Africanist had strategically positioned him as head of the quintessential Foreign Service Institute to help train future Liberian diplomats.

There is no doubt that the Man of Letters from Sanniquellie positively influenced and inspired so many Liberians in so many ways. Joseph Saye Guannu was a scholar of scholars, Indeed, he was a great educator who devoted every ounce of his energy and passion to imparting knowledge and transmitting virtues.

Whether it was through his public engagement, in terms of being a guest speaker at an event, his appearances as a guest on radio or television talk shows, his service in Government, or personal interactions with people, superb scholarship and instructive wisdom spontaneously flowed from the depth of his reservoir of knowledge to those who came in contact with him. 

I had the rare privilege of interacting with him in the 1990s when he was Presidential Affairs Minister and later on at his Congo Town home when he was out of government. To say that Dr. Guannu deeply cared about the stability and future of the Liberian nation will be an understatement.

Perhaps for the sake of our young people, it’s better to contextualize how Dr. Guannu and some of his contemporaries inspired a lot of young Liberians. In those days, traveling to the United States and other parts of the Western world was not as easy as it appears nowadays. Prior to the 1980 coup, most of the highly educated Liberians and those who held leading government positions were people with Western surnames.

As a result, when names like Togba Nah Tipoteh, Jackson Fiah Doe, Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Nya-Kwiawon Taylor, and Joseph Saye Guannu, among others, began to appear on the national radar, they became a source of tremendous inspiration for so many young Liberians, because the mere fact that those compatriots with indigenous surnames had also earned graduate and postgraduate degrees in America, helped to remove the implied prohibition and sub-cultural practices that higher education was the exclusive mainstay of a certain elitist group of Liberians.

In the specific case of Dr. Guannu, the pivotal positions he held, his scholarly output, unassuming demeanor, and honest character went a long way in setting good examples for others to emulate, because, through his words and deeds, he consistently sought to inculcate patriotic virtues in contemporary generation and posterity. 

As a seasoned scholar, he was one of those who immensely contributed to the discarding of two controversial national holidays in, thereby helping to strengthen national cohesion. Prior to the return of Dr, Guannu, and others from further studies abroad, Liberia had for decades celebrated two implicitly divisive holidays—Pioneers Day, which was celebrated on January 7th of each year, and Matilda Newport Day, which fell on December 1st. 

While Pioneers Day commemorated the initial arrival of the first batch of ex-slaves from the United States in 1822, Matilda Newport Day was basically celebrating what appeared to be a mythical aggression against “the natives.” As a historian, Dr. Guannu challenged the factual basis for Matilda Newport Day and also questioned the wisdom of designating one segment of Liberians as “pioneers” when the so-called pioneers and their benefactors had actually negotiated with people on the ground upon their arrival.

Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, when he was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States following the 1980 coup, Ambassador Guannu was the first Liberian of indigenous ancestry with a non-Western surname to have occupied that prestigious position at the time.

Throughout his writing and authorship, he was also keen on removing embedded myths and bringing much-needed context and clarity to Liberian history, ensuring to present a fair account of historical events, rather than jaundicing he expose` with ethnocentric biases. In the classroom, which was his exemplary domain for decades, he set himself apart as a professorial luminary of all times.    

Upon hearing the sad news about his passing when I checked Worldcat, the well-known global catalog for authors, there were 39 whopping entries to his credit, including books and other scholarly essays, beginning with Liberia and the League of Nations: The Crisis of 1929—1934, his doctoral dissertation which was published in 1972 at the prime age of 32. Among some of his well-known books were: Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of Liberia: From Joseph Jenkins Roberts to William Richard Tolbert, Jr., (1848 to 1976); Liberian History Since 1957; Liberia and the United States: A Special Relationship; The Perennial Problems of Liberian History; An Introduction to Liberian Government—The First Republic and the People’s Redemption Council as well as War to Peace Transition: Conflict Intervention and Peace-building in Liberia, among  many others. 

With his transition to the celestial realm, the people of Nimba County have lost an illustrious son; Liberia has lost an iconic educator, an outstanding statesman and a skillful diplomat. Rest on Dr. Guannu, you ably played your part in moving our country forward and left an indelible imprint on the sand of time.