Last Thursday, May 14, was observed as a national holiday throughout the country. The day was first proclaimed as a national holiday on May 14, 1947, just about three (3) years after William V.S. Tubman was sworn into office as President succeeding noted poet and musician (author of The Lone Star Forever) Edwin J. Barclay. Liberia, at the time could at best be described as a collection of tribal nations loosely held together under the banner of the state-the Republic of Liberia.
Poor or non-existent communication infrastructure ensured that local communities remained isolated and largely unaware of developments obtaining in what was supposed to be their country.
To his credit, President Tubman did much to break such isolation with the building of roads connecting North, Northwest and Southeast Liberia to Monrovia, the capital and seat of government. In 1947 he introduced suffrage for women which was a first. Prior to that time, Liberian women were excluded from participation in national political life, although the then existing “property clause” law requiring voters to own property in fee simple served to automatically disenfranchised most women, especially rural women. By the time of his passing in 1971, a sense of national identity had been forged albeit with many cracks and fissures.
We must not however lose sight of the fact that President Tubman had inherited a legacy of settler domination of the national political landscape in which indigenous people were but observers or no more than marginal participants. He proceeded cautiously perhaps mindful of the opposition he was likely to face from those opposed to meaningful inclusion of people of indigenous stock in matters of national governance.
For example, it was not until 1964 that he created four (4) new counties (Bong, Nimba, Lofa, Grand Gedeh) placing them on equal political footing with the five (5) original counties(Montserrado, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Bassa, Sinoe, Maryland).
After 173 years of existence as a nation and after a 14-year bloody civil war we still find ourselves confronted with the question of national unity because in the perspective of most Liberians, Liberia remains a divided country.
Its political and economic systems have failed to respond adequately to the imperatives of inclusive national development, a cardinal element required to foster national unity in a truly meaningful sense. Moreover, no one has been held to account for their actions in a civil war that left more than 250,000 people dead and thousands maimed or wounded with the country’s infrastructure virtually destroyed.
The post conflict period under the leadership of President Sirleaf saw no action taken to address the issues of impunity by having individuals indicted in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to account. Moreover, inequality especially income inequality continues to rise as more and more Liberians continue to fall into poverty due to official corruption and mismanagement of the national economy.
In short, Liberia is increasingly becoming a highly unequal society and this tends to undermine whatever pretensions to national unity our leadership may claim to have.
National politics have for all purposes become a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. The winning and ruling party awards all the plum jobs to its partisans and loyalists leaving the rest of the political actors marginalized. Thus, it is by no means surprising that competition for political ascendancy is fierce. At elections the field is crowded with contestants from mostly mushroom political parties and when it is all over those parties sink into virtual oblivion.
It is the considered opinion many well- Liberians that, national unity will continue to elude this nation if our organs of national governance (Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches) are manned by corrupt and self-seeking individuals who have little or no regards for the national interest. After over 150 years of independence the inequality spawned by historical patterns of exclusivist governance is reflected in statistics captured in the 2013 Liberia Demographic Health Survey (LDHS):
- Only 14 percent of households in Liberia use improved toilet facilities that are not shared with other households;
Forty-five (45) percent of households have no toilet facility at all.
- Only ten (10) percent of households have access to electricity.
- Ninety-eight percent of households use solid fuel for cooking.
- Only one(1) in four children under 5 has a birth certificate.
- Forty-seven percent of females and 33 percent of males age 6 and older have never attended school.
- Thirty-three percent of women and 13 percent of men age 15-49 have no education.
- Thirty-six percent of women and 58 percent of men have at least some secondary school education.
- The under-5 mortality rate in Liberia is 94 deaths per 1,000 live births. That is, about 1 in 11 Liberian children dies before they reach age 5.
- The infant mortality rate, or deaths before the first birthday, is 54 deaths per 1,000 live births. About half of these occur in the first month of life.
In view of the above, we or any nation for that matter cannot justifiably claim to be a united country in the face of such dismal statistics which more than anything tends to alienate people and ultimately undermine trust and confidence in their institutions of national governance. It is little wonder therefore that the desired unity seems to be eluding us. On deeper reflection, the failure to achieve national unity can be attributed to the chronic lack or failure of leadership.
Correspondingly, Liberians must learn that unity is not bestowed from above. It has to come from the people and, it must be a unity forged in common struggle against impunity, exclusion marginalization and injustice in all its forms including disregard for the rule of law. Only then, if successful these efforts become, can we then truly boast of being “One Nation Under God Indivisible with Equality and Justice for all and not to the highest bidder.