The Perspective launched a debate recently on the situation of our national economy upon the publication of the report by the Liberian Economy Group (LEG) –headed by the veteran politician and economist, Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh. We applaud this effort. During the same period an article appeared also in the FPA: “Liberia: Govt. ‘Presents the Fact’ in Response to Ex-Auditor General Morlu’s 400 CBL Jobs’ Revelation”. Both papers attest the serious economic crisis confronting the Weah government. And true to democracy, while some are proposing meaningful solutions, others crave joyfully for the downfall of the government.
I put myself on the side of the solution seekers, but not as an economist or some financial expect. So, this Part One of my paper will dwell on the socio-psychological aspect as put forward in the LEG’s report. I consider it an important acknowledgment, especially knowing the calibre and the long, rich professional experiences of the proponents.
According to LEG, the main problem of Liberia is the “Over-Americanization of Liberia.” And this is how it sums it up: “…it is making of national decisions on the basis of American cultural values rather than Liberian cultural values that lead to the worsening of the living conditions of Liberians. The living conditions of Liberians become bad and worse when Liberians prefer what is American over what is Liberia. The living conditions of Liberians become bad and worse through the production of Liberian raw materials mainly for export where value is added abroad in America and Europe rather than in Liberia. It is impossible to solve Liberia’s problems with the understanding of America’s problems rather than Liberia’s problems…”
There is no doubt that culture plays an important role in the orientation of sound national development policies. Notwithstanding, I think it is an overstatement or a mere short-cut explanation to say that Over-Americanization is responsible for Liberia’s mass poverty and underdevelopment. Frankly, for someone like myself who dare to wear an elegant Mao Tse-tung suit at graduation ceremony in 1968, followed by the famous Tipoteh rubber slippers and the Tolbert swear-in-suit, it deeply breaks my heart that more than half a century later we are still shifting the blames of our collective national failures on “Over-Americanization.” No, we must continue to call a spade a spade in order for our consistency and credibility to prevail and perpetuate. Or else our youths will continue to be disoriented, confused and discredit our political leaders.
Liberia is under the wardship of America since 1847 and nothing more
A wardship, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the state of being a ward; a guardian’s care.” Some would term it a “step child”, though my first choice of word was “puppet” – a person who is entirely controlled by another. But that would have been denigrating my country.
Liberia reached the apex of a shameless ward under the regime of Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (2005-2017). That was the time when the American Ambassador to Liberia could not be differentiated from a de-facto Governor General or the Vice President. This female diplomat was everywhere, seconding our Chief Executive and bullying the Legislators, Judiciary, politicians and everyone else. Truly, it was during this very crucial period, as never before, that Liberia sacrificed her pride, dignity and total independence to become a ridiculous begging nation only to pay extravagant salaries and enrich a very few. We forgot to establish a solid economic base, state institutions, discipline and the rest. In the process, not only did we compromise the bulk of our natural resources, but also our national economic future for a very little in return.
And this brings us to an important point. A nation which exports (or sells out) all its raw materials to America and Europe – “where value is added rather than Liberia” – I consider that nation a failed, visionless ward of America rather than an Over-Americanized cultural reflex or generosity.
Look, in172 years of existence, 99% of Liberians still eat rice, cassava, fufu, palm-butter, cassava leaves, potato greens, eddoes, palava sauce, torborgi, bitter leaves, dum-boy, jolof rice, cabbage, bitter bolls, eggplants, plantains, bananas, yams, oranges, tomatoes, salads, plums, etc, – everything that grows in abundance in Liberia. Additionally, we wear our elegant African attires, Tipoteh slippers, swear-in suits, Mandingo gowns, country hat, etc and have done away with the Cuban cigars, tail-coats and top-hats (leaving the latter to the Masonic craft for the settlers descendants to keep alive their history and cultural heritage). Well, this goes to prove how rich and diverse is the Liberian culture.
At the other end, in those same 172 years I do not know those many Liberian today (residing in Liberia) who drink a glass of milk/juice/coca cola for breakfast or have 3-4 meals per day as an average American would do.
So, my interpretation of an Over-Americanized cultural influence would be that in those 172 years we have worked to copy or implant the exact American development model: top notch universities, schools, hospitals, super highways, functional state institutions, 24 hours electricity/running water, bustling economy, strong currency, job/food/housing security, adequate retirement, etc – all things that produce proud citizens and die-hard patriots like America. But none of that.
Let us take the example of Firestone, this company has been in Liberia for more than a century with everything Americanized within its concession area: paved roads, 24-hours electricity/water, hospital, school, golf court, and the rest. And we never had the vision to do likewise for our country despite the fact that we go there to play golf, have medical treatment and sell our rubber. Of late, the “real” elites are even using the golf course for Garden Tea Parties and Hat Competitions far away from the unbearable pro-poor environment of Monrovia.
Lack of culture/education development is our national tragedy
This is how a popular French philosopher describes education: “Educating means creating free, self-sufficient, intelligent, independent citizens with critical mind.” It can not be said any better. Both education and culture are one unit; thus an educated person is a cultured individual and vice versa.
I mentioned much earlier that 99% of Liberians know their cultural roots. But what has been miserably lacking in172 years is a sound modern education to add value to our diverse cultural identities. Remember, our traditional cultures also had their traditional schools which, unfortunately, international NGOs/partners are today obliging us to abandon in return for little financial aid. Look, was any foreign government or entity crazy enough to have dictated to Tubman, Tolbert, Doe or even Taylor to ban the Poro, Sande or Zoe Bush? No. But it is under our watch – the most educated ones – that our traditional cultural system is being totally dismantled; and just when our modern educational system is in a total disarray. Worse, it was also under our watch that the famous Liberia Culture Center at Kendaja was replaced by a 5-star hotel. What a shame and disgrace to our nation.
The adverse effect – since we have not established a strong, mass modern education system to add value to our rich diverse cultural identities, we have never also had the capacity to add value to our abundant raw materials. In other words, we learn nothing about our vast natural resources, their value and utility to our general national development.
But let me refresh our memory further on our modern education drama. In 172 years, how many medical doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, pharmacists, geologists, scientists, university professors, writers, agronomists, PhDs, great men/women, physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, etc have we produced? Or what did we learn about our past Presidents – family, education, profession, achievements, burial sites, and the rest. Nothing whatsoever. Oh, I forget the illiteracy rate of Liberia (certainly around 90%) in a population of 4.7m, and whose majority are less than 35 years old. So, how many of them know the lyrics of the National Anthem to even hum it? Not more than 10%, probably. Gosh, we need to first say good-bye to democracy, instead of talking about an Over-Americanized culture. Where?
And here is another shameful example for reflection. In the 1960s I was taught by the American Peace Corps (and also Sierra Leonean, Ghanaian, Haitian teachers, etc); in 2019 (almost 60 years later), these folks are still in Liberia to fill the gap in our eternal “shortage of teachers” since 1847. Unbelievable! But you know something, the great Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana refused these Peace Corps, considering them as nothing but CIA spies. Today the Ghanaians are among the most cultured, disciplined, fast developing and prospering. To crown it up, Ghana has offered citizenship to African Diaspora in remembrance of the 300 years that slavery was perpetuated. And Liberia, “This Glorious Land of Liberty” (founded by freed slaves), we even refused dual citizenship to our own citizens who went into exile from the civil war. And yet we are wondering why our country has not developed in 172 years.
Frankly, there is something profoundly weird about Liberian leaders. We are so proud of our nation’s history and age, but yet lack the wisdom, passion, conscience and genuine courage to progress our nation and people, but only ourselves.
Detachment of an elite ruling class from the majority population
It is no secret that the seeds of detachment of the elite ruling class from the majority population were planted in 1822, when the first settlers landed on the shores of Montserrado. But that was what we had thought until April 12, 1980, went 99% of the government (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary) got in the hands of we the so-called “real owners” of the land – the turbulent emergence of a new majority ruling class elites. However, since this historical date or 39 long years later the majority have become poorer and poorer, and the new ruling class elites have detached themselves farther and farther from their people. So what is the problem?
From the mountain of factors, I shall explore briefly only four.
The first problem is historical which is already known. From 1847-1980, the educated indigenous Liberians were indoctrinated not to associate with their people – their roots. To achieve this objective, the social and institutional mechanisms put into place worked to perfection. As a result, not only are we terribly afraid of our own people and ourselves, but we do not even know that all that natural resources of our villages are our inheritance to develop and make our people self-sufficient, wealthy and happy.
The second problem is power – it corrupts. In 172 years of existence we have perceived power as the mean source or the quickest way to acquire wealth and prominence. Until recently, we had no literature on the careers (business, professionals, professors, etc) of our officials before they got into government. We only saw them rich from government.
Poverty and unprepared to lead syndrome. To be poor and unprepared to lead is a double-jeopardy prone to corruption, manipulation, blackmails and vices. Since 1980 (and I dare say since 1847) our leaders have been poor and unprepared to lead efficiently. Worse, since 1980 we have been having successive leaders by default.
Downside of democracy. Democracy is competitive; it does not guarantee an employment for life. Thus if poor and unprepared people are put in power, we cannot expect development as a first priority. What is more, we do not have yet the proper social security net to cover retirees, unemployed, senior citizens, etc – all part of the virtues of democracy and national development that our politicians ignore.
In essence, our problems are complex, but we have no Over-Americanized culture. If anything I would rather conclude that we have an ingrained settler culture of 172 years – a culture in which the blinds lead the blinds; never had a genuine broad-based national development agenda, but instead an entrenched plantation (or slave) mentality to faithfully serve the master as a ward. We served the settlers first as wards, and the settlers served America as wards; now we are all cloned wards of America.
We must, at some point, free ourselves from his huge historical bondage and the persistent psychological burden to advance our country in this 21th century. My fervent hope.