Their agitations in the 1970s and 1980s might have set the stage for subsequent instabilities that led to loss of thousands of lives and the unimaginable destruction of the country’s infrastructure, but the group of Liberians known as the Progressives have long said they did no wrong, and as such they owe no apologies.
The 169th Independence Day National Orator, Dr. Dougbeh Christopher Nyan, said the progressives, who many considered as the “agitators or initiators” of the Liberian conflict, are really advocates for the oppressed and for equal rights in society, and that was just what they did.
The Progressives considered themselves as political and social activists that belonged notably to two political organizations—the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), founded in 1973 by Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, an economist turned politician and his associates; and the Progressive
Alliance of Liberia (PAL), founded by the late Gabriel Baccus Matthews.
Delivering his Independence Day oration on Tuesday, Dr. Nyan said “We [Progressives] dedicated our lives for the attainment of fair play in this society. We put our lives on the line day-in and day-out for a peaceful and democratic change of government.”
He noted that the ongoing progressive trend in the Democratic Party of the USA has sharpened the debate on equality and social justice in America this year. “So, being a Progressive is something to be very proud of and nothing to be ashamed of or apologized for. We have really committed no crime as Progressives,” he added.
Though Liberia paid a high price for the change that the Progressives advocated, for which many blamed them, because of the manner in which the advocacies were carried out, Dr. Nyan said, “We did what was right and we will do it all over again for our people. Progressives are advocates for the oppressed and for equal rights in society. We dedicated ourselves to the struggle with passion, not for money. We made enormous sacrifices during our time in the fight for democracy and social justice against the military dictatorship of the 80’s. We didn’t waver, we didn’t swerve, we stood stiff and faced the inequality and the persecutions.”
The Progressives professed to be enlightened with a higher political consciousness, with a promise of changing the Liberian political landscape – which was controlled by a handful of political elites – to democracy by the masses. So, the destitute masses hailed their rhetoric and slogans, and immediately volunteered to spread the news in anticipation of the revolution like wildfire.
Many believe their agitations stirred up political tension in the country—subsequently leading to the Rice Riot and the April 12, 1980 coup d’état that saw President Tolbert and 13 of his senior government officials brutally murdered by enlisted officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).
The Progressives’ failure to condemn the coup proved that they favored what happened. Top leaders of MOJA and PAL were appointed to top government positions that also came with top ranks in the military.
As a result of the Progressives’ agitations, the political atmosphere in the country, specifically Monrovia at that time (late 1970s), heated up much faster than Liberians could handle.
Dr. Nyan added, “We have suffered for too long for this country. When I say we, I mean all the genuine human rights and democratic advocates, student activists, journalists, leaders of political parties in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s and the Progressives who played major roles in the process for the democratization of Liberia over the years.
“For standing with the poor and the oppressed people of Liberia, we were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, exiled and some of our compatriots executed. We have committed no crime other than prosecuting the struggle for socioeconomic justice in Liberia,” he said.
He noted that the Progressives also supported the liberation struggle of the Southern African countries from colonialism. “This was all through the efforts of anti-apartheid movements across the world that brought substantive pressure to bear on the racist South African government. And at the end of the day, Nelson Mandela and the others were set free from prison and the rest of South Africans were free. Namibia and Zimbabwe and Mozambique became free, and so Liberia plays a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle, particularly during the country’s most visionary leader, William R. Tolbert,” he said.
MOJA founders also included Dr. Amos Sawyer, a historian and politician, Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh, also a historian, politician and eloquent orator, and Dew Tuan Wleh Mayson, one-time Political Science Instructor. Among the organization’s younger devotees were John Stewart, former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and Conmany Weseh, now River Gee Senator.
Dr. Nyan’s comments may just not go down well with the children of the victims of the April 12, 1980 coup d’etat, some of who usually gather to commemorate their deaths. They also hold the Progressives responsible for stirring up the tension that eventually caused their relatives being executed.
Nyan’s statement may have scratched open an old wound for a country in which reconciliation and national unity remain elusive. However, his was not very different from former Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Amara Konneh, who in his parting words from the Ministry told
Liberians that the Sirleaf administration owes no one an apology. Liberians heavily criticized Konneh for what they described as an arrogant statement. However, throughout the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings that lasted for over three years, ending in 2009, various actors – warlords and progressives alike – declared that they, too, “owed no apology” for their actions.