Reflections of a Statesman: What We Could Learn from Liberia’s Past

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I want all of us to reminisce thru a very short political period, spanning from the Tolbert Era to the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf period and reflect on what our dear Country Liberia was like, physically, sociologically, economically and politically. Mr. Tolbert succeeded a very autocratic rule, where descent was nationally managed; and political pluralism did not exist in our political governance. Mr. Tolbert launched a vigorous attempt of inclusiveness to the chagrin of the then political class. Political Tolerance for the first time was initiated with the birth of the Bacchus Mathews, Tipoteh, and Sawyer, and many others on the coattails of MOJA, then a political movement sweeping over Africa seeking tolerance, participation in the national dialogue and political pluralism.

The fragile stability that Liberia then enjoyed in the pre-civil disturbance days included a series of programs of development administration that were beginning to yield positive results; that administration promoted the creation of basic services and institutions in competition with the private sector. Our foreign policy began to take the colors of neutrality in a cold war era, even reaching out to nations that our traditional friends considered not being in the interest of democratic values through their own lenses. There was this fierce stream of competing and at times contradictory political ideas battling for international western correctness. For the new breed was being suspiciously perceived as promoting socialist tendencies and had become the bitter sweet fruit.

In our local Liberian political jargon, we classified them as “porcupine guts,” too bitter to swallow, too greasy to throw away. This internal struggle for political relevance created a time bomb that could be ignited at any moment, using the fuse of political exclusionism of the masses, as a starting magnet. Because the promoters of participatory and inclusive governance had convinced majority of the people to perceive themselves as not being participatory of the national cake, and influenced by the constant barrage of political propaganda by political spin masters that soothed the aspirations of a greater number of the people, things went out of control. This rupture which began some more than two decades ago, called for change without a clearly defined and articulated direction by a leadership, whose card carrying founders and die-heart loyalists failed to appreciate and grasp the enormity of the disruptive and potentially damaging consequences and therefore failed miserably, intentionally or by the weight of their political immaturity, to plan to cope with them.

This is may not be the time for a blame game but a time of reflection stating the facts as they were will go a long way to educate the then followers of blind and empty rhetoric. The change we all supported was clothed in translucent rhetoric of focusing on ethnic marginalization, feeding on emotions roused by the allegations of unsustainable abuse of the derivatives of the nation’s resources. Unfortunately, those who championed the change fell out with the implementers of the change. Many arguments may be advanced as to the reasons. That is another debate. But we paid a heavy price and are still paying a heavy price. Howbeit, that experience put Liberia on the treadmill, searching for a solution of sober guidance. It took us thru successive experiments of trial and error, not long after the sudden change of governance occurred; our immense thanks go to the resilience of Liberians that landed us on the brink and doorsteps to true democracy. We are not there yet, but being an avowed optimist I am hopeful, we will get there hopefully sooner than later.  

That is where my worries are.  First of all, let me say Liberia has done well. We now enjoy all the freedoms we need and some are being exercised without the controlling attendant responsibilities. Since we cherish our Constitution ardently, it is necessary that we pay sacred homage to it and exercise these inalienable rights with somberness; did I say somberness? Oh I meant  sobriety and reflective responsibility. Responsible citizenship should now characterize the debate to our people. Unfortunately, the recklessness of the populous speeches is beginning to take center stage. Sadly, instead of focusing on the cassava and rice issues which impact our daily lives, the pending democratic options with which the airwaves are saturated seem to fully suggest that we are running out of democratic tolerance of substantiveness and objectivity. For those of our brothers who believe in the Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means, you’ve got it wrong. We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? I wonder whether those of our brothers and sisters who may be perceiving themselves as losing political traction and therefore must pester our people with speeches with the intent to incite them, forgot the denigration that our mothers and sisters suffered, the torture, the hunger that killed many able bodies, including our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and relatives, the displacement of over a million people and the death of over 250,000 people. No political leader should engage in the use of the threat of political violence as a means of gaining political relevance, but should continue to seek a peaceful political option of criticizing the promises of the competition and provide clearly defined options that one would employ to continue the path that has already been set. Can you imagine, a candidate would have the courage to suggest that to pave the road from Monrovia to Maryland can be done by $60m dollars when we know that it costs $1m/mile; and that is some 450 miles or more of road? Even political folly would educate a candidate to the notion of measurements. That is misinformation. Let us get away from this romantic notion of civil disturbance; it does no one any good.

Please remember that I am doing a reflection of Liberia’s past and so some of my comments are a direct reflection of those times. We are all aware of what our past leaders did to the opposition. It is no hidden knowledge that the very ten-year clause that the referendum submits  was introduced by the then Ruling party then to keep the likes of Sawyer, Ellen and the lot out, who were considered as “Suitcase Politicians.” For me, responsible opposition provides the crucible for development. Opposition provides constructive engagement that forces the ruling party toward people- oriented programs. Political opposition parties are necessary in any political governance. Let no one belittle that, for the opposition has the responsible mandate of checkmating, but in a responsible manner towards making the Ruling party productive, focused, and accountable and results- oriented. So those in the Ruling party must also bear the added responsibility of a tolerance of views, protecting the freedoms that they enacted laws for and providing a level playing field for all to exercise their constitutional rights responsibly. Political gamesmanship and bickering of any kind that prey upon  and exploit the low educational level of our people, knowingly or unknowingly, undermines all of our efforts to shake off the dust and ghosts of decades of misrule, defeating all efforts to reconstruct and renew our nation and improve the socio-economic conditions of our people. Thankful to God we have survived one of the most dangerous periods of our existence: the Ebola war. Now we must begin to think ahead but one area that irks me is our poor working habits.

Our very work habits which were already notoriously bad in the past have been exacerbated; our families, the store house of discipline, have been disrupted and most have become dysfunctional; our national and parochial values have all been adulterated. All of these have imploded our penchant for foreign livelihood, which sends a dangerous message of despondency to our youth, who may be seeing no good in us. It is time which is now to crave for exemplary conduct, with role models; we must begin to show truthfulness to regain respect and credibility. As I reflect on these issues in this reflection, I call for a recommitment to do all we can to resuscitate this country so that we can be proud of ourselves and our country.

Editor’s Note: Former Grand Kru Senator Cletus Segbe Wotorson has served Liberia both in the private and public sector for over some 57 years,  starting as a cadet in government services to running for the Presidency of Liberia and then settling to serve in his twilight years as Senator for the people of Grand Kru.

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