Reflections on December 24, 1989

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I was born three years after the military coup d’etat in Monrovia. By December 24, I was a six year old first grader who had gone on a vacation to the interior part of Liberia. As a family ritual, the holidays were spent on the farm with my grandmother and other relatives, learning how to speak kpelleh, cooking, eating and enjoying the brief moments of village life that came only during the vacation period.

I remember, somehow faintly, one sunny Sunday afternoon on our way from church, strolling on the dusty road and blowing the dust that greeted our faces after each car passed by, the news broke of a full scale armed invasion in Nimba County. My memory of that day remains far and distant but lives with me today. I escaped into the possibility of a civil war – a concept I barely understood then. My only memory of a war was from television screens of Rambo and Chuck Norris and my childhood obsession of playing war games with my peers. The thought of that becoming a reality was far removed from my little mind, preoccupied with the fantasies of life with little room for such intrusion.

The announcement of a civil war on the shores of Liberia was a signal of deep seated resentment that had plagued the Liberian nation since its founding by freed American Slaves in 1847. The first rocking of the boat was the military coup of 1980. By 1989, there was a spillover and the pot crashed like the burst of volcano and all hell broke loose. The initial rivalry of class system politics, deep socioeconomic disparity, bloated public bureaucracy and the thriving culture of patronage wedged a divide between the settler minority and the native majority thus spilling over into the coup of 1980 that brought the nation on the brink of imminent collapse. An interruption in the nation’s history occurred when barely literate soldiers collided with governance – a new terrain to handle. The result was the dismemberment of the economy, vicious ethnic-civil crisis and the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, which resulted to the occurrence of December 24, 1989.

It’s important to remember that the event of December 24, 1989 was not an event but a culmination of undercurrents that set loose the once tightly held canoe to venture into ‘far waters.’ The stories that followed included rape, torture, massacres, carnage, extra judicial killings and the complete breakdown of a nation state.

Today, we have a nation still dodging the ghost of its past and yearning for the future. The tentacles of the past appear to still hunt the present and threaten the future. It appears the lessons of our horrific past have been shredded and thrown in the dustbin of history. The scripts of rebuilding our nation might have stayed as a relic of the past, unfit for today’s agenda. Today, the reemergence of ethnic rivalry, class sectionalism, demagoguery politics, preying on the unconscious masses, psychological warfare, etc., are all symptoms of strategies that triggered a rebellion that went astray.

December 24 remains a scar on our collective consciences. Barely nine months after the invasion, the government was overthrown and the president was captured by the rebels, mutilated, and tortured to death with the entire scene videotaped for posterity. The civil war continued until 1997 when former warlord Charles Taylor was elected President. By 2003, the entire country was plunged in turmoil and President Taylor was forced to exile. Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected President in 2005.

Several questions continue to linger on our learning curve as a people, as teachers, religious leaders, market women, politicians, journalists, youths, students, Yanna Boys, civil servants, Liberians. Each year, December 24 provides a period of personal reflections to look back at the day the first bullet was shot, and now. To look at the errors made and the lessons learned.

The day should include panel discussions on national recovery, self and collective examinations. How did all this begin and what impact did that event have on us on a micro and macro level?

What lessons have we gathered to ensure that the struggles that culminated on December 24 was not a déjà vu of plunder? What answers do we have that kids my age in 1989 can give their children for the absence of electricity that remains a scar from the madness that ensued after
December 24? This marked the day when it all began. It marks the explosion of a volcano, when deep seated resentment showed its face through an uprising that was supposedly a revolution but rocked the boat of the tiny West African nation. At about the age of my infant daughter, I barely understood what was happening, the whole story was a mirage of itself. Several years today as a young man, I wonder if the struggle is finally over, if those who died at checkpoints, of cholera, hunger, heart attacks and other causes as a result of what erupted on that day, died in vain. The struggle seems like a long shot, the curve is steeper; we’re here still battling the ghosts that showed up on December 24. I hope that when my daughter reaches my current age, the struggle would be different and our world would be more civilized than today. May the souls of those who died as a result of what followed on December 24, 1989 rest in perfect peace and may we as a nation find the courage to commemorate their memories and ensure that this does not happen again.
God bless Liberia!

About the Author
Lekpele M. Nyamalon is a writer and poet from Liberia and lives in Monrovia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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