Walking the Last Mile with Ellen

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In the last sentence of her final Annual Message to the Legislature last Monday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pleaded with them and the Liberian people to “join me on the last mile.”

“I still have 357 more days as President of this country and I’ve still got a lot to do, so I want to urge members of the Legislature to join me on the last mile.”

In directing that plea to the Legislature, Ellen was also appealing to those who hold the real power – the people of Liberia.

And remember, she did not ask us to run with her, as Baccus Matthews, one of Ellen’s surrogates (proxies, stand-ins) made the people run on April 14, 1979, or on that day in March 1980 calling for President Tolbert’s resignation; or as the 17 enlisted men ran on April 12, 1980, heeding to the cries of the Progressives.

No, Ellen pleaded only for a “walk” with her during her last days in power. In other words, in spite of everything—all the continuing corruption, all the disappointments, all the failings, all the continuing poverty, all the shortcomings, much of which she admitted to in this her final Annual Message, she is wishing for no calamity (blow), no confusion, no chaos, such as led us to April 14, the coup and to civil war.

She made a quick, passing but passionate reference to the Progressives. It is important to quote here what she said. “As I reflect on the early days of my life’s journey, I remember, with fondness, the bygone days when we worked together and shared ideas and were supported by those younger and dearly called ‘Progressives.’ We did not grow up together nor, with few exceptions, did we go to school together, but we went to jail together because we believed in the power of change and shared values—those old-fashioned values instilled by parents.”

One quick question: Is belief in “the power of change” a credible basis or reason for change?

Well, Samuel Doe, his 17 enlisted men and those—whoever they may have been—who stage-managed or manipulated the 1980 coup d’état that killed President William R. Tolbert and 13 of his top officials—all of them may have believed in “the power of change”—but to what avail (benefit, advantage)? The answer is known to all of us—10 years of terror, mismanagement and massive corruption, leading Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself to describe the coup leaders as “idiots.” This change was definitely powerful—all the arms and ammunitions that United States President Ronald Reagan freely and lavishly supplied Doe and his men most certainly gave them overwhelming power, which they proceeded to use in vicious and widespread retribution and punishment (chastisement, abuse) against their own people. This retribution became so widespread that the ruthless perpetrators, as vividly displayed in the well-known short story, Animal Farm, turned on their own, eliminating many, especially the non-Krahn elements among them.

But more than that, guess what? The perpetrators soon turned their wrath on the very ones who had inspired the coup—the Progressives. Indeed, in appreciation for inspiring them, on the very morning of the coup, many of those progressives were escorted from jail or from their hiding places straight into power sharing. Baccus Matthews, leader of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), became Foreign Minister; PAL Legal
Advisor Chea Cheapoo became Justice Minister; PAL member George Boley became Minister of State for Presidential Affairs; the President of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), Togba-Nah Tipoteh, became Planning Minister; and MOJA official Dew Tuan Wleh Mayson became Chair of the National Investment Commission, and shortly thereafter became a wealthy man! MOJA’s Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh became Education Minister and later Foreign Minister.

But after a while, only a little while, Head of State Doe and his coup makers turned on the Progressives, too, and most of them, beginning with Togba-Nah Tipoteh (August 1981), fled into exile!

The “power of change.” The power or the efficacy (usefulness, value, worth) of change? There are many Liberians today—and many yesterday—who firmly believe that Rev. Dr. Tolbert was definitely a better President than, so far, all of his successors—Samuel K. Doe; the cumulative collection of all Interim leaders combined; Charles Taylor, and now we must allow the final days of her administration to expire before we grade Ellen’s presidency.

Ellen has nothing to worry about. Liberians have waited patiently for 11 years. As they eagerly await the prospect of electing a new President, they are prepared to walk peacefully with her for 355 more days barring any egregious provocation. But the time for running is long over. We all remember how “The power of change” kept us running helter-skelter in utter humiliation, shame, suffering and death for 14 years. In the end, hundreds of thousands of our most highly educated and talented people have remained in exile; while most of our infrastructure was destroyed.

Ellen, Africa’s first elected woman President, has 355 more days in power. Has she enough time to surpass what President Tolbert was able to accomplish in little over nine years? No one should dismiss what could still remain of her urgency and willpower to achieve within one year something bold and noble to eclipse her underperformance.

If, perchance, she has not, we then ask not only her but all her beloved and “dearly called” Progressives, what was the usefulness of “the power of change”?

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