In a number of editorials in this newspaper, we have emphasized the naivety and danger associated with tribalism and sectionalism, especially in making political decisions. We have outlined a number of instances where politicians have used tribal and sectional approaches to claim certain areas as strongholds, but despite our emphasis on the danger and retrogression this political attitude brings, its pundits have continued in the practice of it in their desperate quest for state power. It is apropos and laudable that a professor of the Kofi Annan Institute of Conflict Transformation of the University of Liberia, T. Debee Sayndee, has sounded an alarm on the imminent danger tribalism and sectionalism would bring to Liberia.
Sounding the warning recently at a dialogue on the conduct of peaceful elections, Professor Sayndee said, “This trend is one of the early warning signs of political crisis, and it is wrong and must be addressed in time. Our conflict map has shown that tribal support to political parties, youth marginalization and ritualistic killings are some of the potential issues for war in Liberia. It is bad for our country; it stifles democracy, promotes insecurity and is bad for our children and their future.” Tribalism is influencing Liberian politics daily; and if anything should come out of this trend in our politics, it will be partly blamed on the 12-year administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Why? First, after taking over a country devastated by civil war, the government should have attached seriousness to reconciliation. But, that was not done, as President Sirleaf herself admitted. Secondly, our Constitution, in Article 5 (c), mandates the Republic (that is, the government) to take steps by appropriate legislation and executive orders to eliminate sectionalism and tribalism, and such abuses of power as the misuse of government resources, nepotism and all other corrupt practices. The failure of government to uphold this constitutional provision has given edge to the preaching of tribal and sectional politics in Liberia.
Let us recall some instances of tribal politics.
On May 1, 2011, a presidential candidate was heard saying, “Bassa people are tired making other people President. If you Bassa people want development, you must elect a Bassa man to become President in this country.” In Nimba County, the Gios accused the Manos of dominating government. Politicians are currently preaching that there should be no Gio votes for a Mano man or woman seeking elective position, even if s/he is qualified and competent to serve. Having studied Nimba’s political dynamics, politicians there have gone ahead to select four persons of Gio descent as their running mates to get votes among members of this tribe. The problem between the Sarpo and the Kru in Sinoe County still remains fresh as the Sarpos have always complained of tribal marginalization.
During a Press Union of Liberia discussion with former Finance Minister Amara Konneh and others, including Information Minister Eugene Nagbe, former University of Liberia Vice President for Fiscal Affairs, Wilson Tarpeh, and civil society advocate Dan Saryee, Minister Konneh raised the issue of tribalism, and said it is entrenched in the society. Tribal politics influences political decisions in Liberia more so than any other issue, he noted. Dan Saryee also said tribalism is reflected in ministries and agencies of government as evidenced in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP), where the majority of the hierarchy there are members of the Mandingo tribe. We recall the execution of 13 government officials of settler descent in 1980; the massacre of 250 Gio and Mano people seeking refuge at the John F. Kennedy Hospital, and some 600 in the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on June 29, 1990. On August 2, 1990, 32 Mandingos perished in Bakedu, Lofa County; and 176 persons believed to be of the Bassa tribe were massacred at the Sendin Crossing Point in Nimba County in November 1994.
We join Professor Sayndee in loudly sounding the warning that government should institute a strong policy to curb tribalism and sectionalism in order to uphold our democracy and nation. When President Paul Kagame of Rwanda saw that tribalism was a societal problem, he made it a state crime that “No one calls any Rwandan Tutsi or Hutu, but rather, Rwandan.” If anyone goes against this policy, s/he faces state prosecution. Can we learn from this and take cues in compliance with Article 15 (c) of our Constitution? On a number of occasions in this column and in his historical treatises, Observer Publisher Kenneth Y. Best has mentioned three rules his mother, Mrs. Lilian Best, elder sister of Albert Porte, set for her five children at their home on Broad Street, Snapper Hill, Monrovia in 1947 following the death of their father, George S. Best (1945). The first rule: “Never call anyone ‘country man.’” Second, “I don’t want to hear the word Congo or Americo-Liberian in this house.” And third, “If anyone asks you ‘What is your tribe,’ tell him you are a Liberian.”
57 year-old President Paul Kagame was not yet born when Mrs. Best instilled those rules in her children. Can we learn anything from these two people, Paul Kagame and Lilian Best?