Confronting the Congo-Country Rift

By Dennis Jah
Published by Liberian Observer

The issue that is dividing us greatly is the Americo Liberian-Indigenous or Congo- Country rift; unfortunately, no one wants to come up and hit the nail on the head. In many internet discussions or exchanges like on the ALJA (journalists) and ULIBSA (LU students) listservs and in other groups like the SCAA (Sinoe County Association in America) the Congo-Country rift is the center of many upheavals even though many don’t publicly acknowledge it. Even if it is not mentioned in plain language, there are conspicuous divisive sentiments and emotions along those lines as discussions continue on the politics of Liberia.

From the public execution of the 13 men to the debate of who becomes Liberia’s next president, the lines are visible, drawn along the Congo-country divide. Three out of every five persons you’ll talk to about the politics of Liberia will directly or indirectly give credence to this rift. This is the major issue derailing progress and needs to be squarely addressed if we must move forward. You will agree with me that many Congo or Americo-Liberians believe that the problems Liberia finds herself in today began with the execution of the 13 men or simply put the coup of 1980. Many indigenous Liberians including me do not believe that this is true but trace our malady years back to the foundation of the country leading up to the century long suppression of the indigenous people by the Congo/Americo-Liberians elites. Some take it a step further to celebrate the 1980 revolution as a major turning point putting the country back into the hands of its “rightful owners.” I don’t share such view but I think it has a lot of merits. When former rebel leader Charles Taylor launched his rebellion in late 1989, he pointed out that his war was to revenge the 13 men (not 14, Tolbert’s excluded) executed days after President Tolbert was disemboweled in a bloody coup. While some may claim that this was not the case, but a war perpetrated by a mad man’s desire for power, many will attest to the VIP treatment Taylor gave the Congoes (including those working in the Doe’s government) during the war and his presidency. While Country people working for the same government (which Taylor condemned) were butchered, the “president’s pepperbush” were put in cars and driven to Gbarnga to see “the Pahpay.”

During the years of war, many were made to believe that the country was okay under the rule of the Congo until the day when a native (Samuel Doe) came to power. This same belief is now giving rise to a feeling of a Congo president to put the country back into its proper place. In a letter dated April 4, 2005 and circulated by Supporters of presidential hopeful Winston Tubman, inviting people (who attended a Tubman rally in Trenton) for a fund raiser, the group indicated that “good government has been lacking for the last 14 years.” This is an attempt to validate the 27 year “oligarchy” of President Tubman as good or that the days of slavery and forced labor under Charles D. B. King were also good days.

Everything that surrounds the 2005 elections and the decade long civil war either tends to fuel or coagulate this argument. Some Liberians believe that a Congo or Americo-Liberian presidency will be the best alternative for the country since they are “neutral” in the chaos that plagued our country or that they are the only group capable of a sound leadership. The meaning of all this is “I told you so, the country people can’t make it.” On the other hand, some contend that they will prefer anyone other than a Congo person since their “elite” system of governance plunged the country in the madness she now finds herself in. I believe this is the dead heat in which we find ourselves as we gear towards elections: Country-Congo, Country-Congo, Country-Congo… We may all pretend that this is not the issue for fear of being labeled as segregationist, tribalist, or something of that sort.

The way forward is to recognize this rift and begin to mend fences. The idea of having a group called Americo-Liberian, in my view, should have not existed in the first place, let alone over boss or underclass another group of people. Though we share similar history, there is no English-Sierra Leoneans in neighboring Sierra Leone. After Otumfuo Nana Osei Agyeman Prempe, the Asante king along with his golden stool was taken captive to England, years later his descendants returned to Ghana not as Anglo- Ghanaians. We didn’t have Houphouet Boigny and others calling themselves Franco-Ivorians, neither are there Great Britino-Nigerians along the coast of Nigeria. Unfortunately, this was not the case with a group of freed slaves returning home (West Africa) from captivity. Instead of looking at themselves as or adopting the attitudes of returnees and integrating, they became a separate class, distinct from the local people. (Please note that my concern is not just nomenclature but attitude.) The process of returnees’ integration worked in other areas. For example, in Guinea when some Mandingoes fleeing the war in Liberia in 1990 returned, they integrated with the locals and became Guineans and not Liberian-Guineans. Though some of them or their parents were born in Liberia, they did not make up a separate class or ethnic grouping. These scenarios may not perfectly fit, but the parallels can serve as a perfect correlation.

While we can do nothing to change our chaotic past, we can do something to completely integrate the Congoes representing some 5% of our population and not use this mistake of the past to perpetuate our ugly situation. It is not enough to simply put the past behind. We must confront it with open minds if we must close the gap between the Country and Congo people. The process begins with acknowledgment for we can do nothing when we are in denial or play blind eyes to this serious rivalry.

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