Daily Observer at 36: To God Be the Glory!

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Having lost his father at the age of six, he walked the streets of Monrovia and everywhere else 10 toes on the ground, with sore toes on every foot, every year.

Yet, God had a mission for the impoverished Kenneth Best, but the boy did not know it. He would later—in 1964, a year out of Cuttington, be inspired by a sermon preached by his brother, Canon Burgess Carr, entitled, “I know the plan I have for you—a plan not for evil, but for good—to give you a future and hope.”

Kenneth entered both the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) and Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University) to study agriculture, one of his father’s professions.

Even though an Agriculture student, Kenneth yet found himself in the newsrooms at both BWI (1956-59—the Voice of BWI and the Junior A Hatchet) and Cuttington (60-63—the Echoes of Cuttington). And though yet only a Cuttington sophomore, his English teacher, Mrs. Judy Gay, appointed him Editor of the school’s literary magazine, The Cuttington Review.

It was the Review that Liberian President Tubman saw, prompting him in March 1964, to direct Information and Cultural Affairs Director General E. Reginald Townsend to send for Kenneth and inform him, “The President says I must employ you. And because the President knows we have no money to pay you, he has sent a budgetary transfer from the Mansion to enable us to pay you. This tells me the President means for you to work here.” Ken already had a job, unexpectedly offered him the day after graduation, December 3, 1963, as Assistant to the Dean of Liberal Arts, University of Liberia.

With such a thing totally not on his mind, Kenneth immediately reckoned it was God who had not rested until He had landed him into the journalism profession, to which, since that day, Kenneth has always felt he had been called.

He thanked Mr. Townsend and the President, and accepted the job.

After nearly 10 years at Information, Ken and his family traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to accept an appointment as Information Director of the All Africa Council of Churches where he served until May 1980. Mr. Best had observed two highly professional newspapers in Kenya—the East African Standard and the Daily Nation, and decided that his mission was to return and give Liberia a professional newspaper, too.

He, his wife Mae Gene and children returned to Liberia and immediately started working toward establishing the Daily Observer newspaper. Through a few shares they sold and a loan from the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), the Daily Observer was launched on February 16, 1981. It was a perilous start, with a threat, within the first 45 days, by Justice Minister Chea Cheapoo to “hunt you (Kenneth Best) down from door to door and shoot you, if ever again the Observer published another article like that on me.” Three months later came the first in five closures, one cutting of electricity by Head of State Samuel K. Doe and his powerful Defense Minister Gray D. Allison, also Chair of the Liberia Electricity Corporation.

Worse yet, there were also three arson attacks, the third of which came in late September 1990, when the newspaper’s headquarters, C.T.H. Dennis’ homestead on Crown Hill, Broad Street, was burnt to the ground and the newspaper lost everything!

By that time the Best family was in The Gambia preparing to launch their second newspaper, the Gambian Daily Observer. It took off in three weeks and became the country’s first professional and first daily newspaper. After nearly two years of successful operation, a military coup d’état occurred on July 22, 1994, led by Lt. Yahya Jammeh. Because the Observer was the only media outlet to tell their story to the world, we enjoyed a two-month honeymoon with the new regime. But when the soldiers started behaving like most military regimes, and the newspaper started writing about the regime’s widespread human rights abuses, Jammeh got angry with Mr. Best. He and many staff members were imprisoned and on October 30, 1994 he was deported back to Liberia.

Mr. Best and his family later sought asylum in the United States, where he remained for 11 years. He returned to Liberia in June 2005 and the Liberian Daily Observer was re-launched three weeks later, on June 21. The newspaper effectively covered the elections and became the only Liberian media institution to endorse candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the run-off election.

On Thursday, February 16, 2017, the Liberian Daily Observer clocked 36 years of existence. We finally caught up with the longest surviving Liberian newspaper—and the first, the Liberia Herald, founded in Monrovia in 1826 by J.B. Russwurm, a Methodist missionary. It lasted until 1862, when it folded.

When, by God’s grace, on February 16, 2018 the Daily Observer reaches 37, it will then become Liberia’s longest surviving newspaper.

To God be the glory!

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