Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and all of the great visionaries of African history — their greatest contributions to their nations and the world at large were their ideas. It was their abilities to interpret the times in which they lived and project the way forward that moved their nations and people to action.
Great speeches and writings are great not because of the use of big words, but because of the ideas they convey; because of how they frame the conditions of the times in which they are written and because of the torchlights they point into the future. This is also referred to as thought leadership.
It is against this backdrop that we, the Daily Observer newspaper, would like to thank Madam Leymah Gbowee for the remarkable speech she delivered on July 26, 2019 at the official program marking Liberia’s 172nd Independence Day. Congratulations would not suffice; those are for achievements, and she has many. A Thank You in our view is more befitting for a major contribution made to this nation’s development and forward movement.
Every year, an orator is chosen by the President of Liberia to give the keynote address at the annual Independence Day celebration. We have seen doctors of philosophy, writers, former Liberian ambassadors, presidents of universities and the like. But seldom, if ever, have we seen women chosen to give this address. For this year’s choice, we commend the President of Liberia, His Excellency Dr. George Manneh Weah.
Leymah Gbowee is a true daughter of the soil. Yes, an educated woman with a Master’s degree and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose wisdom is sought out around the world; but also a very low key, low profile personality with her ear to the ground; one who has “walk[ed] with kings [and not lost] the common touch”, as Rudyard Kipling said in his poem “If”. A woman whose trumpet is not blown by herself; a woman who does not see leadership or headlines as targets to be grasped. One who fights for causes and not for self.
In true Leymah fashion, this orator reached out to the people themselves to find out what they wanted to hear in an Independence Day address. That in itself, if nothing else, was lesson in leadership.
Most speeches of this nature are diplomatic (avoiding the real truths) or else are reflective of history (PHD thesis type speeches). Not this one. This one was direct, yet not insulting, filled with material we could actually use. In addition, the President was directly addressed and criticized in the speech. Yet we also observe that he thanked her profusely upon delivery. This is a very significant development that suggests a major step in the right direction. It tells us that this President is looking not for mindless critique but for answers, and that he is willing to look outside of the box. We thank him also for his humility in hearing the hard things that needed to be said. Thank you, President Weah.
There was no cake in this speech for anyone. If the opposition came to the occasion with tickled ears expecting to hear the government lambasted for its ills, they walked away convicted of their own – namely, a severe case of amnesia with a possibility of committing worse ills than those they criticize, given the chance, and an aptitude for non-cooperation with the sitting government.
Madam Gbowee’s speech left us with a lot to think about as a nation. We thank her for putting it in language that we could all understand.
As a publication, our favorite part of the speech was the description of the “no positions”. We believe it was the most important part of the speech. For if we were to divide the population into the three groups described in the address, the no positions would comprise at least 90 percent of the population. “This is the group that expects the government to do everything. The group that often escapes criticism, because it is so often doing the criticizing. This is the group that does not believe it bears any responsibility for where we are as a nation. This group is better known as “we the people.”
What a befitting speech for an Independence Day celebration. This speech was cutting in its simplicity. It took the baton from the 170th Independence Day oration given by Dr. Herman Browne, President of Cuttington University, in 2017 – not so well received by the then Head of State, who gave a begrudging thank you and terse remarks. How can we move forward if we are not honest about where we are? Where do we go if we do not define the way forward?
Madam Gbowee’s speech pressed the reset button for the Republic of Liberia, aged 172 with so little to show. This speech goes down in history as having been gift-wrapped for a president beset with so many problems – some inherited, others brought in.
We pray that President Weah brings more Leymah Gbowees with vision and good ideas into the picture to help turn the situation around. We pray that we all – the President, the opposition and we the people, take great inspiration from this address and begin to work together to drive the nation in the right direction.