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Response to Pres. Sirleaf 162nd Independence Day Speech

There is no doubt that the Liberian war was deadly, brutal and lasted so long. But thankfully so, there are survivals and we are blessed to be a part of that select group. The effects of the war and the events that followed are so fresh and so visible. We were there and heard or saw everything that went on to the point that any early attempt to make wartime actualities appear like breaking news from outer space is somehow laughable, to put it mildly. To the extent that human nature is fraught with making excuses for the unpleasant outcomes of our actions and behavior but at the same time taking credit for the favorable ones, true leadership is demonstrated when we own up to our mistakes and make each experience a teachable one for a better plan of action incase history repeats or a similar situation presents itself. Inaccurate attributions inhibits one’s ability to learn from past mistakes and make improvements or when worse come to worse instigates aggressions as the one making these negative attributions often blames some external stable or unstable factors for their own blunders, lack of effort or limitations. I admit that this is not common sense but it is a no brainer for those in managerial, administrative or leadership roles. A child who blames his/her poor performance at school on the teacher’s poor presentation skills (or that every other classmate is failing as well) will either give up trying harder or resort to aggression on the poor teacher.

The Liberian war has ended and hopefully it has ended for good. We are all scared to death when there is even a faint mention of another war as we have not even buried all the casualties of the long one that just ended or completely healed from all its wounds and cuts. But it is how we deal with the aftermath of this very ugly war that will go a long way in mending our broken pieces and writing off any form of violence as means of changing governments or fostering our economic and political agendas. If perpetrators of this tragic part of Liberian history will continue to justify their participation as prudent ways in standing up to “dictatorship” or quip that they did nothing wrong because their actions were endorsed by a vast majority at a time, they are re-killing those who died, re-inflicting the sores of the wounded, re-leveling our cities and towns, closing the doors on genuine healing and reconciliation and setting the stage for more bloodshed and revenge.

It is so disappointing that the main actors of the worse human rights violations in Liberian history have not come to grips with their actions but continuously refused to take full responsibilities for the consequences of their actions simply because their actions were popular at a time with people many of whom were equally hostile, delusional or overtaken by jealousy, hate and revenge as well. They bounced off the popularity and support for their crimes on the walls of “you do me, I do you,” and “we will spoil it and fix it,” era when thoughtlessness ruled.

Almost six years since the dictator and now an indicted war criminal Mr. Charles Taylor was disposed and subsequently incarcerated; almost four years since she won a disputed election, President Sirleaf is yet to make a full disclosure about her participation in the 1985 bloody armed invasion and the NPFL rebel incursion, show remorse and recant violence as a way of advancing her political cause. Instead of brainstorming how to reconcile her many roles in past conflicts and her present job as post war president, she is “blame storming” any time she speaks of her participation in the bloodshed. Such “iron” attitude, I believe has prolonged the post war debate and eroded any trust that she is the right candidate to lead the reconciliation, recovery, and rebuilding processes. Did Liberians make a mistake by electing her? That is a judgment call. Maybe yes, but the game is not over yet; we have plenty of time remaining and I am sure President Sirleaf room enough to wiggle her way out of any situation.

In her July 26 Independence Day speech in Gbarnga, central Liberia, the president missed an opportunity to set the record straight and sincerely apologize to the Liberian people. She began on a faulty ground by taking credit for the pleasant situations while blaming all others for the unpleasant ones – something which ran through out her entire speech if not her tenure as president of Liberia thus far. On a false concept that a vote for her in the 2005 elections meant a vote for change, President Sirleaf misinterpreted or simply chose to misrepresent the Liberian people’s hand of reconciliation, forgiveness and friendship that they have extended to her and their resolve to quickly start afresh. There is no doubt; change was never part of the plusses for then candidate Sirleaf in the 2005 crowded field. If there is any line of commonality that I can draw between the 1997 and 2005 elections, it would be the way the Liberian people voted. In all two elections, they voted and chose their leader out of fear.

In 1997, it was a vote based on the fear that the country would return to war if Taylor who had the biggest weapon lost the elections. In 2005, it was a vote based on the fear that Mrs. Sirleaf who was thought of holding sway over international donations would block aid to Liberia once again as the International Community would not trust a Johnny Just Come, semi educated and political neophyte to dole out reconstruction cash. Voting for Mr. George Weah would be outside the norm and a change from our political trajectory. But for Mrs. Sirleaf, who worked with the True Whig Party (TWP), was on the tail of the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) and joined the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to represent a change sounds like news to me. But these are post war rhetoric mixed with marketing skills – a seller is never going to speak ill of her own goods and so I get it.

Liberians far and near knew that Mrs. Sirleaf was a Finance Minister in the Tolbert government, a continuation of the century long say-so-one, soy-say-all one party misrule. She carried an embodiment of a TWP insider who subtly defected when the tides against the establishment became irreversible. It was alleged that some way, somehow, she had played a two handed game in facilitating the bloody coup which ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian/Congo hegemony. She was one of those former government officials pardoned because it was now payback time for her role in chipping away the legs of the chair that President Tolbert and his corrupt elite class sat on.

Like other activists, Mrs. Sirleaf would soon fall off from the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) government to lead the scramble for the presidency when President Doe pulled away the curtain that had blocked multi-party democracy for over a century. As other opposition figures, she became part of successive arm struggles the last of which would ruin the country for the rest of our lives. She danced to the gun sounds and the cries of Liberians being murdered indiscriminately by the NPFL gangsters even after the assassination of President Doe. She cheered the annihilation efforts against some Liberian ethnic groups by the rebel group but finally backed away when it was clear that the belligerent Charles Ghankay Taylor aka Papay was not in the mood of sharing table with or ceding power to anyone. It was like the man who often told his wife “there would be no two trousers in this house.”

Mr. Taylor was the only one clearly wearing the trousers (and him alone) and any other with trousers had to be killed like Messrs Jackson Doe or Moses Duopo or force to flee on the other side like General Prince Y Johnson or Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. So how does Mrs. Sirleaf who has been part of the problem all along and even invaded our country on a number of occasions–something that suppose to be a felony, represent change? Fortunately for Mrs. Sirleaf, some Liberians (plenty enough to be in the majority in 2005), as she has spoken of the kind people of Bong, have just been kind to Mrs. Sirleaf and resolved not to revisit her with the same measures her trespasses would deserve. Regrettably, their move to swallow the bitter pills and challenge Mrs. Sirleaf to be a part of the solutions to problems she has helped to create has now been taken completely out of context. Like her one time ally, Mr. Taylor also made the same claim that his land slide elections in 1997 meant that Liberians have forgiven him also. Today there is no argument that Mr. Taylor’s transgressions were never washed away and is now paying the price for his wickedness.

George Weah instead was the change candidate while Mrs. Sirleaf became the status quo. Mr. Weah has held no political office and had no prior party or warring faction affiliation. He was not a college graduate unlike all the other players and probably never read any book from cover to cover. Even his high school credentials were questioned. All he did up to that point was play soccer and help foot the bills for the national soccer team at a time when the country was wrecked and ungovernable. When most of the main political actors became tainted with political blunders or had their hands soaked in blood, many Liberians especially the youths turned to the soccer star who had just hung is boots to rescue the country from the hands of gluttony and human rights abuses. Looking in such unlikely place for help after the disposition of Dictator Taylor followed by a corruption party hosted by the Gyrude Bryant interim presidency was the real change garment which President Sirleaf is now attempting to put on.

Even with this loosely worn change garment which from all indications does not fit our president, she proceeds with a laundry list of achievements mainly in physical structures-all bones with no meat. If it doesn’t fit, she must as well quit it as this list of successes would soon betray President Sirleaf’s assumed demeanor of change. She lists construction or renovation of buildings, schools and hospitals, re-opening mineral trades, new military recruits, and number of students enrolled or graduated, how much money coming in and the rest, all of which did not contrast with what other past presidents have done.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of a number of corruption prosecutions nor did she state how these constructions, renovations, graduations, upped revenues and mineral trades translate into changing the lives of the people. The question of what has been the fundamental change that the President Sirleaf claims to represent was left unanswered not inadvertently but on purpose. A vote for Mrs. Sirleaf was certainly a vote for the status quo aimed at giving a second chance to the Iron Lady and a generation of politicians on probation. It is now their opportunity to make use of this opportunity as second chances rarely come by or risk violating the parole and be done with, cast away for good and remembered as a generation which failed to redeem itself after so many chances.

We had schools before. We had running water and electricity before; Zorzor Rural Teachers Training Institute (ZRTTI) and other training institutes had graduated students before; six year olds (boys and girls alike) have been going to school long before I sat on the bamboo benches at the Lower Jeadepo Public School at age five. We have exploited our natural resources before and made millions from exports. All these trumpeted achievements are old news. The real thing that has been lacking is accountability and putting in place a robust and self regulating system that will outlive any presidency. There is a dire need for change from the old way of doing business that has never benefitted the country except a select group of gluttons and egotists. That is the change Liberia needs not the same ole, same ole, in new set of uniforms.

I always agree with the president when she speaks about empowerment and the ability of the Liberian child believing in himself/herself. That is why I could not applaud the president more when she spoke:

“Fellow citizens, a nation rises to its potential when its people are prepared to seize the opportunity, to capture the moment, to accentuate the positive. A nation rises to its potential when its people are proud of their achievements, are prepared to extol their values, are ready to rise above self interest in demonstration of nationalism and patriotism.”

But as saying is different from doing, the President soon contradicts that very belief in us as it as been our culture of looking outside for help and validation. Right after making the powerful declaration about nationalism and patriotism she showcased three foreigners as people whose virtues we all need to cultivate. The three namely: Martin Luther King, an African America civil Rights leader, Nelson Mandela, ex- president of South Africa and Current US President Barack Hussein Obama were eulogized on our Independence Day. The American politicians and leaders look up to their former presidents to rally the American Spirit, the Greeks look at their philosophers, the Ghanaians look at their educators, but for Liberia and the president, the case is different.

Is there any Liberian whose examples, life or philosophy worth endearing or do we always have to look for outside help? What is wrong with evoking some of the good things of President Tubman or Doe, the philosophies of Edward Wilmot Blyden, the activism and astuteness of D Twe and Albert Port, the political wisdom and resilience of Togba Nah Tipoteh who remained sparkling clean in the midst of a culture of corruption and a fashion of warfare and crimes? Why can’t our president quote the uncompromising and selfless utterances of Bishop Michael Frances who never swayed to the left or right even with gun aimed at his forehead?

I thought an Independence Day message in Gbarnga would touch on the rich culture of Bong County and the roles its citizens have played in our national history. An Independece Day message should among other things stress on what the day means to Liberians in this post war era. But instead it was all about the president’s legacy and her elite class of achievers and role models beyond the Liberian shores. If the president cannot look at any Liberian past or present to rally the best in us, how does she expect our little ones not to follow in the subculture of “our help comes from abroad” mentality? With such show of elitism every now and then, attempts to subordinate the Liberian culture to foreign values continue to be sustained.

Undoubtedly, one thing that has marred President Sirleaf’s character, political career, and legacy is the way she has dealt with her association with the NPFL war machine. Liberians being a sympathetic group of people have continued to show unqualified love for Mrs. Sirleaf to the point of begging for an apology and perhaps some crocodile tears for her role in various arm incursions resulting into the deaths of so many Liberians. But time and time again, Mrs. Sirleaf has squandered such opportunity and continued to justify her actions while at the same time finding all other Liberians guilty of the crime for which she has been indicted. When she was presented with the same opportunity for perhaps 1000th time on July 26, 2009 to pivot from such posture, she began with her own praises:

“Fellow citizens, as many of you know, I have dedicated my life to navigating a future for Liberia free from war and fear and grounded in individual freedom and opportunity.” In other words, if any cannot see or know of Mrs. Sirleaf’s selfless dedication to navigating a future for Liberia flowing with milk and honey, that person is simply dumb or a big joker. After positioning herself as the righteous and selfless peace loving patriot, she admits that she was unable to make the distinction between good and evil but because she claims to be righteous, she blames such inability on some external factors she called “opaque circumstances” and that anyone else presented with the same situation could have done exactly the same thing she did.

She flipped and further justified her actions to wage war, “sometimes, the circumstances were opaque, the distinctions between evil and good were not so clear—this is the nature of conflict and war.” To the always right and self justifying Mrs. Sirleaf, there was war before there was war. As if she has not shown enough intransigence and lack of remorse, she indicts thousand other Liberians before making the same claim Mr. Taylor consistently made that the NPFL war to overthrow the elected government of Mr. Doe was prudent, justified and inevitable. To this date, this is one major point where Mr. Taylor and Mrs. Sirleaf are in strong disagreement as it probably was at the launch of the 1989 rebel incursion.

But Mrs. Sirleaf was not alone in her actions and therefore resists any personal responsibility. She maintained, “Like thousands of other Liberians at home and abroad who did, I have always admitted my early support for Charles Taylor to challenge the brutality of a dictatorship.” Do I need to listen again to see where she broke away from her ally against “brutal dictatorship” when she still tries to make these inaccurate attributions? Up to this point, enough justifications of these heinous crimes and self praises have been said. So painful and so heart wrenching, she tries to cut corners by washing her hands off Mr. Taylor’s war crimes when she spoke “It was equally clear that when the true nature of Mr. Taylor’s intentions became known, there was no more impassioned critic or strong opponent to him in a democratic process.”

As our old folks say, “a child who will listen and heed to advice is corrected only once.” Mrs. Sirleaf has been told time and time again that the war she organized, sponsored and directed has hurt many of us but she continues to apologize with one side of her mouth but at the same time repeats that she did nothing wrong with the other side. Maybe all Liberians will have to live in learned helplessness and apologize to Mrs. Sirleaf instead for what I don’t know. When we all give her our apology saying, “you take best Madam President,” we may be able to rest from her constant defensive outbursts, have a good night sleep and keep her legacy intact.

Published as guest commentary on the Liberian Journal on 8/5/2009

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