For many years, sessions of Liberian Studies Association (LSA) have dealt with the crisis the country has been faced with for almost a quarter of a century when guns became the ultimate political tool and the name of the country has become synonymous with instability, refugees, death and every imaginable social ill. This year’s conference, the 36th gathering of Liberians and other scholars interested in Liberia, the subject was no much different in its focus. Says Dr. James S. Guseh, Professor at the North Carolina Central University and Chair of LSA: “the impact of the past fourteen years of conflict seems to influence the types of papers or issues […] discussed.” Scholars from every sphere of the academic world converged on Durham, North Carolina on March 26, 2004 for a three-day conference on Liberia.
Contrary to the past years when there seemed to be no end in sight to the quagmire, this year’s conference was held against the background of hope. Violence has subsided and disarmament, with the involvement of the international community under the auspices of the UN and the support of Liberia’s oldest ally, the United States was almost a given. However, for the scholars who attended the conference, ending the violence was far from solving Liberia’s problems as long as the cause roots of the problems were not resolved. According to Dr. Guseh, “one of the major causes of the Liberian conflict is the lack of commitment to democratic governance,” adding “there can be no sustained economic progress without democratization. Thus, adopting the democratic institutions is one of the major challenges facing Liberia in its development efforts.”
A few panels focused on the current conflict, such as “International Issues on War and Peace in Liberia,” Challenges Facing Post Civil War Liberia or Post-Conflict Reconstruction Efforts in Liberia, others attempted to take a look at the structural political and economical problems of Liberia such as Economic Growth and Development in Liberia, Addressing The Emotional and Spiritual Wounds From Liberian Civil War or Governance, Ethnicity, Conflict and Democracy in Liberia. Along with these panels, others dealt with culture, such as Literature, Communications and Democracy in Liberia where former head of State Wilton Sankawulo Dr. Sakul W.G. Malakpa, and Pr. John Gay talked about their upcoming books and the linkages between literacy, national language and democracy. Mr. Morris Koffa, an environmental engineer with the city of Washington, DC, made a remarkable presentation on the relationship between health and the disastrous sanitary conditions in the city of Monrovia where sanitation seems to be on nobody’s list of priorities.
The central theme of the conference, Civic Engagement in Liberia: Strategies for Peace and Sustainable Development was palpable in every discussion group and was central to every paper presented. The state of affairs in Liberia was not lost to anyone at North Carolina Central University. In a communication welcoming participants, the Chancellor of the institution wrote that “even after 156 years of independence, Liberia is not free,” concluding: “the activities of the Liberian Studies Association are helping to highlight the social injustices in Liberia and effect change.”
In his keynote speech, Dr. J. Chris Toe, a Liberian academic and President of Strayer University in Washington, DC, emphasized the many social inequities and injustices that crippled Liberia. Dr. Toe pinpointed the fact that Liberia, the oldest nation-state in modern Africa had perhaps the lowest literacy rate on the continent. With figures from other Liberian researchers, he made a moving plea for mass education as the surest path to sustainable democracy and development.
Many a times during the debates, the tone went well above the expected academic polite conversation to reach that of political passion. Liberian scholars and their fellow friends of Liberia did not shy away from discussing openly issues regarding the native-settlers divide as well as the gap between genders. Matters regarding the need for a national conference of reconciliation and war crimes tribunal were brought up in heated debate. At times, delegates had to leave the conference room to continue their debates in the halls. All in all, conferees seemed to agree that if the country was out of the woods somehow, the road ahead remains dangerously slippery because the ills that brought the violence are pretty much engrained in the social fabric and must be corrected before any real progress takes place.
Participants at the conference included Dr. Al Hassan Conteh, former Vice-President of the University of Liberia and currently serving at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Elwood Dunn, former Minister of State and currently at the University of the South, Dr. George Kieh of the New Deal political party, Mr. E. Sumo Jones, former senator of Lofa and current Chairman of the American Colonization Society (ACS), the former Liberian Ambassador to the US Mrs. Rachel Diggs and the former Minister of Justice and Council of State member Prof. Philip Banks. Members of the Liberian community association in Durham (Liberia First) provided lunch and entertainment to the conference.
The conference received a joint-invitation from Cuttington College and the University of Liberia to hold its 37th Annual session in Liberia, in 2005. Looking at the hundreds of academicians and other highly trained Liberians in attendance, one cannot help but hope that very soon, conditions would be conducive at home for the return of all this brainpower to help put the nation on the path to development through education.