"For Whom the Bell Tolls"

A Keynote Address
Hon. J. Rudolph Johnson
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, R.L. at the Maryland County Association of Liberia
National Conference
Woonsocket, RI
January 23-25, 2004

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 4, 2004

J. Rudolph Johnson
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Martin Luther King, Jr.

Madam President, Officers and Members of the National Maryland Association of Liberia, USA, and its Various Institutions and Chapters, Distinguished Guests, Fellow Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Part I. Return of a Native Son
As far as I can recall, Dad always wanted me to complete his journey back home to Hoffman Station, Cape Palmas. So, he must be smiling broadly in heaven tonight, as one of his fondest dreams becomes a reality - in a way.

My first visit to Cape Palmas was in the late sixties or early seventies, when, as a young Turk, an up-and-coming technocrat, from the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, I accompanied members of the Budget Committee there to discuss the 1970 development budget with the late President Tubman. It would be my first face-to-face meeting with the great one, that legendary charismatic master of Liberian government and politics and I was scared stiff.

As the officer directly responsible for the preparation and monitoring of the development component of the National Budget, I was to play a key role at the meeting and there was no way out. Shortness of time will not permit me to revisit tonight that unforgettable encounter with Tubman.

Suffice it to note only that everybody remained in awe of the man throughout the meeting – Weeks of Finance, Bright of Planning, Philips of Agriculture, Clarke of the Budget, not to say little foot soldiers like those of us who had accompanied the ministers. Anyhow, the meeting was a big success, and we all returned to Monrovia feeling quite content that we had done a good job for the country.

In later years I would return to Harper a few more times: once as a delegate from St. Thomas Church, Camp Johnson Road, to the annual convention of the Episcopal Church; again as Commissioner of Internal Revenues in the Tolbert government; and once more as a member of President Samuel K. Doe’s entourage on an official visit. These were all very exciting homecoming events for me. Much too brief, of course, but still very pleasant, rewarding and uplifting.

Now, it is common knowledge that I also have strong ties to Lofa, which is why I can freely admit that, but for the great significance of this conference, I should have been in Metropolitan Washington D.C. today paying last respects to a great son of Lofa County, Hon. Saama Smith, who died a few weeks ago and whom some of you may have known. If you would now be so kind, therefore, please rise and join me in a moment of silence to honor the memory of this fallen brother... (May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in eternal peace.)

I was born in Kolahun many years ago to the union of J. Sumu Johnson and Meisimi Dunor, the younger sister of Hon. Paramount Chief Jusu Dunor. The fairy tale of how a dashing and debonair young man from Hoffman Station in the southeast met, got married to, and raised a family with, a demur and charming Gbandi-Mandingo young lady from Kolahun in the northwest, would certainly make for some very interesting reading; however, the telling of that story shall have to await another occasion at some other time. But just a little hint for now: Meisimi Dunor was the main reason J. Sumu never quite made it back to his beloved Cape Palmas.

Now then, because Lofa has been and remains an important part of my life, anyone who loves me must also love Lofa. That said, it is both natural and in order that I should now wish to explore the other side of my genealogy and heritage, and should want to construct my family tree to the fullest extent possible - roots, branches, and all. In any case, one need not have to renounce one parent in order to embrace the other.

It is in this sense and against this background therefore that I now stand before you to declare that this your father and uncle, this your brother and cousin, and this your son and nephew, who once seemed lost, is now found; and has come to greet you in the immortal words of his loving paternal Grandmother Nmanoh of sainted memory: na-wi-yeh, na-feh-dey?

Yes, this full-blooded Grebo man from Hoffman Station, Maryland County, is here not so much to claim, as to accept, with great humility and gratitude, the birthright you have so graciously handed him on a silver platter today. It truly is an honor to have been invited to serve as keynote speaker for this auspicious occasion, this grand homecoming. (And I thank you.)

Part II. The Liberian Crisis
Like his contemporaries and kinsmen, bearing such names as Appleton, Bedell, Brownell, Bryant, Collins, Elliott, Langford, Neufville, Shannon, Speare, Wallace, Wilson, and many others too numerous to mention, names my siblings and I often heard around the dinner table, the Old Man did love and cherish his hometown, county, and country, and went to his grave wondering, why in the world people who had dubbed themselves patriotic citizens of Liberia would have taken up arms, drugged little children and used them as soldiers to commit genocide against some 250,000 of their own countrymen; to brutalize and traumatize innocent women, children, and even senior citizens; to loot and decimate the entire socio-economic infrastructure of the country that many had labored so hard to build.

To his dying day he never quite understood what manner of men, having seen their country Liberia, as that shining city on the hill, would not rest till they had dragged it down to its knees, converting it to a pariah state, rendering it the scorn of the entire international community, degrading it from such lofty heights as one of Africa’s most prosperous and civilized nations (especially in those golden Tubman years) to the lowest depths as one the poorest and most dangerous places on the face of the earth today; robbing the Liberian people of their very human dignity and national sovereignty, converting a once proud people into beggars, displacing thousands of them internally and dispersing many thousands more as refugees all over the world.

But at least the J. Sumu Johnsons of this world did do their part; they did serve well their God and country, before going on from labor to reward to be with their Creator in heaven. About that there can be no doubt. We thank God for them and for the great contributions they made to our country, notwithstanding that the great nation they built now lies in ruins.

It now remains for us, their heirs, to find the strength and courage to rise up from the ashes and meet the twofold challenge confronting us today: halting the raging madness, mayhem, and carnage still threatening to destroy our country, and beginning without further delay the urgent task of national reconstruction and development. That, of course, is if the warlords, the shadow Taylor government, and the collaborating so-called political parties will let us. After all, as you know, the situation on the ground is still very tenuous and unsettled. Consider this: the Security Council’s sanctions on Liberia are still in place, and the United States government just issued, on Wednesday, January 7, a new advisory to its citizens, warning against travel to Liberia.

The Associated Press quoted the State Department as citing the lack of an effective police force and delays in the full deployment of a U.N. peace keeping unit as the reason for such a warning. The department said the crime rate in the country had increased since last month’s start of a program allowing combatants to exchange weapons for cash. And, rather ominously, the Department predicted that the disarmament program will last "indefinitely" and the U.N. force "will not be at full strength for several more months..."

Various media reports speak of skirmishes and atrocities still being committed in one part of the country or another by MODEL, LURD, and TAYLOR’s forces. And whether the International Community itself will be up to the task of fully executing the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration program (DDRR) envisaged in the Accra Peace Agreement remains to be seen. It can only be hoped that they will succeed somehow, heaven forbidding they should fail to take us safely through to elections in 2005.

Part III. Liberia Betrayed Again
Now, many Liberians in the diaspora, tempered by bitter past experience, had, from the onset, held out little hope for the success of the Accra peace process. Mostly a tired and worn re-run of previous so-called peace initiatives brokered by ECOWAS, with financial support mainly from the United States, the Accra Peace Conference was flawed right from the start, due not so much to the inadequacy of its agenda, but more to the dubious credentials and questionable intentions of those invited.

One should have thought and even expected that after 1997, when ECOWAS literally engineered the ascendancy of Charles Taylor to the Liberian presidency, followed by his four-year reign of terror, his totally incompetent and corrupt management of the country, his utter and dismal failure to deliver anything vaguely resembling good governance or socio-economic development; one should have thought that, this time around, the officials and functionaries of ECOWAS, especially Mohamed Chambas, the Secretary General, would have seen it as their duty and moral obligation to do all in their power to fashion and launch a more credible and transparent peace process, which would ensure, inter alia, the full unfettered participation of all Liberians (or, at least, of their true leaders and representatives) - thereby redeeming, once and for all, the good name and tarnished reputation of the organization in the eyes of the Liberian people.

Instead, the ECOWAS leaders wasted much valuable time trying to keep Taylor out of prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity and instead spared no effort to secure for him not just a place, but a powerful place, in the interim government to be established. And (surprise, surprise) how they succeeded in their machinations. With the help of Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano, then AU Chairman, and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, among others, his West African colleagues like Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and John Kufuor of Ghana orchestrated a virtual royal send off from Monrovia for Charles Taylor, before moving to create a tripartite interim government consisting, incredibly, of the following:

(1) Members of the same discredited and failed Taylor government,
(2) The warlords who had taken up arms and had stopped at nothing (including looting, killing and destroying, just like Taylor) to get Taylor out, and
(3) Members of what were euphemistically referred to as "civil society organizations", which included, alarmingly, some 18 political parties, each sporting a standard bearer anxious to become president of Liberia.

These, my fellow countrymen, were the stakeholders, deemed by ECOWAS and, through them, the Brussels-based International Contact Group on Liberia and even the United States government, to be necessary and sufficient to secure lasting peace in Liberia. How terribly insulting to the Liberian people for anyone to believe that thieves, killers, destroyers and opportunists would be the true stakeholders in Liberian affairs. No doubt neither Taylor and his cohorts, nor the warlords and their murderous gangs, nor the members of Liberian so-called civil society present in Accra could believe their good fortune - especially when most of them should have been en route to prison for heinous crimes committed against the Liberian people.

The question, of course, is: Where were the vast majority of Liberia’s technocrats, intellectuals, and leaders in all this? Where were the country’s lawyers, doctors, engineers, professors, social scientists, farmers, etc. And where above all were the people’s representatives from the various counties? Why were they not in Accra? Well, because nobody saw fit to invite them. One would have expected at least that the assembled compatriots might tell ECOWAS and the world community in no uncertain terms that there would be absolutely no peace conference in Accra or anywhere else, without a significant presence of exiled Liberians in America, selected county-by-county, to complement an equally significant number of county leaders and representatives from the homeland.

Instead, neither the assembled red-eyed thieves, killers, and destroyers now masquerading in Accra as the true leaders and representatives of the Liberian people, nor the Ghana government, nor the Nigerian facilitator, nor the United Nations; not even the government of the great United States of America, that bastion of democratic values and civil rights, that home of some of our founding fathers; that power with which Liberia is still identified by the rest of mankind and to which, rightly or wrongly, the whole world looks for guidance on Liberian affairs; not one sought to involve Liberians of the diaspora or from the counties at home in the peace process. It came as no surprise then, that even the few leaders who had tried to attend the Accra Conference on behalf of Liberian exiles in the United States were summarily denied entry and or meaningful participation.

Conspiracy theories are usually spun and woven to explain such things. For instance, did some people sell their souls for 30 pieces of silver or blood diamonds again? We may never know. But many Liberian pro-democracy organizations did warn the United Nations, the State Department and the Contact Group, among others, that ECOWAS could betray the Liberian people again, and should not be left with sole responsibility to manage the Accra Peace Process; that, in fact, this time around the United States Government itself should take charge. Did America listen? Did anyone else? Of course not. When your own people sell you down the river, and you are a poor black country in Africa, with no proven reserves of oil or other strategic raw materials, nobody listens to you - and it certainly does not help when you are disunited and do not speak with one voice. (More about this theme later.)

In any case, at the height of the struggle to depose the rogue Taylor regime, most pro-democracy movements in the United States, with a few exceptions, were generally inclined to embrace the following agenda of the International Contact Group on Liberia:

1. Negotiate a Peace Agreement, with the widest participation of Liberians;
2. Cease hostilities under credible international supervision
3. Establish an Interim Government, excluding all combatants from top positions
4. Set up a War Crimes Tribunal and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure that no individual or group of individuals ever again attempts, with impunity, to use brute force to effect regime change in Liberia;
5. Start Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration (DDRR)
6. Hold free and fair elections leading to good governance

Well, the Accra conference has been over since last summer and there is in place a peace agreement of sorts and an interim government, with a clear mandate to prepare the country for free and fair elections in 2005. Thus far, of course, it has been mostly a gigantic scramble for jobs, even if most of those clamoring for jobs lack the credentials and skills necessary to perform. The good news is that the brother chosen as Interim Chairman seems to have the full support of the United Nations and its Special Representative Jacques Klein, whose reputation as a no-nonsense man (as in manager) has tended to precede him.

Part IV. "In Union Strong"
Organizations like ours must now find appropriate ways to assist in making the best of a less than perfect situation, given disturbing news from Monrovia indicating that the warlords and rebels have been putting up a series of spurious demands and erecting numerous roadblocks along the way to genuine peace, unconcerned that their antics could negatively impact the disposition of an already reluctant and exhausted international community toward the unending Liberian crisis.

Just what assistance is to be mobilized and provided shall, for obvious reasons, have to be carefully worked out between our group’s leadership and the interim government in Monrovia. But the crucial first step, if not yet taken, would be to inform the administration at once that, although resident abroad, we are ready, willing, and able to help rebuild our country.

Most Liberians here, fed up with being either unemployed, badly employed, or underemployed, are ready to give up on the illusive American Dream and take the next boat to Monrovia - of course, under certain reasonable conditions that would guarantee their safety and employment. Our people should know by now I think no longer to wait for others to do for them what they can and should be doing for themselves; that they simply cannot continue to depend on everyone else for handouts.

After all, why do we always have to look to the Americans, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, even the Arabs to take care of us like spoiled brats? We should know by now as the oldest independent republic on the African Continent that, to be taken seriously by the World Community, we have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, as the saying goes.

Now whether we the members of this organization all return home today or some of us continue to reside here a little longer, what seems important and critical at this juncture is to begin in earnest the pursuit of an agenda that:

(4) Seeks to secure the maximum welfare and highest good of our people,
(5) Strives for unity and cooperation among ourselves, and
(6) Promotes closer cooperation with other Liberian county organizations in the diaspora, believing that "in union strong success is sure".

No doubt, had there been in place already, say, a Federation of Liberian County Associations in the Americas, serving as a vehicle to coordinate the aims and objectives of the various Liberian county associations and speaking with one voice for Liberians, where matters of vital interest to the country were concerned, diaspora Liberians would have been heard loud and clear, and what happened to us in the mid-nineties and again last summer in Accra would not have happened. (Mind you, back in 1993, I first proposed in an address to the National Lofa County Association meeting in Washington D.C., the formation of just such an organization to enable Liberians in America effectively consult among themselves and jointly address matters affecting the vital national interest.)

By the way, the average American knows hardly half a dozen of the nearly two hundred nations of the world or where they are located. They know even less about the Third World, especially Africa.. Why then should we think or believe they would wish to deal with individual little counties in African countries too? On the other hand, since there is strength in numbers, if the various county organizations could find a way to combine or coordinate their efforts, there can be no doubt that they would vastly increase their chances of accomplishing so much more for Liberia as a whole.

Now, it does strike me as quite uncanny that I now have the privilege and opportunity to be proposing to my father’s side something I proposed ten years ago to my mother’s people. Hopefully, there will soon be another marriage between the two. Whatever happens, it is terribly important to learn from history, so that we avoid repeating stupid mistakes that always tend to bring the same consequences already suffered before.

In this connection, Madam President, I must commend you and this august body, this new sun rising in the eastern sky, as it were, for a job well done thus far. Let me assure you: of all the Liberian organizations in the United States with which I have had the privilege of associating for the past 14 years, organizations such as the Liberia Leadership Conference, the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia, Alliance of Liberian Exiles in the Americas, and the Liberian Institute for Good Governance and Development, this our Association stands out as one of the most dynamic and best managed. Your performance this weekend has been absolutely superb, and I shall leave here tomorrow totally convinced that, under your energetic and wise leadership, the organization is not only in good hands, but is well on track to achieve great things for our people.

All the same, we should not be satisfied or rest on our laurels. Even as we strive to consolidate our own national association into a more perfect union, let us continue work for peace and unity among all Liberians, through their county organizations, keeping in mind that not much can be gained if Liberia remains a mere collection of balkanized little tribal estates and enclaves.

With the new global internet age now upon us, it is suicidal for our political subdivisions (the counties) to continue looking upon one another as mortal enemies, when instead they could be fraternally connected and networking as one people. The sooner we can show the world that Liberia is united again and ready to reclaim its rightful place among the civilized nations of the world, the sooner will all the positive forces of development be unleashed in the direction of our country.

Let us take note that the world community, through some of its important institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank Group, the European Union, the United States Government, has already mobilized its collective wisdom and resources toward drawing up various action plans to aid poor countries like ours. Shortness of time will not allow us to describe these plans in any detail, but there is a full body of literature upon which any serious government and people can draw to their benefit, especially under what is known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Consider the two below for now:

1. The United States Millennium Challenge Account (in which aid is linked to good governance, health and education, and sound economic policies)
2. The World Bank’s Millennium Development Goals (which emphasizes human development, environmental sustainability, infrastructure development, structural reform, trade, HIV/AIDS, rural development, capacity building etc.)

These programs are wide open for serious governments of developing countries; but rogue states need not apply. We therefore need to encourage our own government to move efficiently and effectively to position itself for consideration and participation in these programs, which were denied us during the Taylor years. The first encouraging step in this direction is the Donors’ Conference for Liberia scheduled to take place in New York City, February 5-6, 2004.

What input, if any, has been or is being made by U.S.-based Liberian opinion leaders, professionals, and technocrats in preparation for the said conference is a matter for conjecture. It would be very encouraging to know that the not in considerable body of Liberian expertise and goodwill available in the United States has not been or is not being ignored once again in this regard. The interim government should be urged to rise above any pettiness or divisiveness, and begin now to involve all Liberians (wherever they may temporarily reside) in the dialogue and activities leading to lasting peace, reconstruction and development in Liberia. It would be misguided and quite unacceptable to treat as outcasts or second-class citizens fellow Liberians, arguably the cream of the crop, who, due to no fault of their own, had to flee Taylor’s draconian rule, to live in exile. In a post-Taylor Liberia, all citizens ought to be encouraged, even assisted where necessary, to return home to live in peace and help rebuild the country.

One final point. Our Association is to be highly commended on the launching a project for the rehabilitation of the J. J. Dossen Hospital. This is a most laudable move, and those who initiated the idea deserve our gratitude. Let me only urge that we keep a keen eye on the Donors Conference just mentioned, which aims to mobilize as much as $500 million for Liberia’s reconstruction program, apart from another $137 million in emergency relief aid being raised by the UN under a request launched last November. All efforts should be made by our leaders to ensure that Maryland receives its full share of these funds, so that whatever we see fit to do for our county would neither preempt nor needlessly duplicate such national programs and projects. In other words, in the development enterprise, we must remain ever vigilant and circumspect.

That said, our Association should proceed full-speed with such fundraising activities as that embarked upon today, focusing as much as possible on self-help type projects likely to be considered of lower national priority, but which may be of great importance to the local communities of the county. Similarly, the Association could give special consideration to private sector-type micro-projects (small scale farming, cooperative management, furniture making, gardening, food processing and storage, arts and crafts, etc.) such that help empower or assist people mainly in rural areas do for themselves. The saying goes:

"Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime" - (That should be a major guiding principle)

Thanks again for the opportunity afforded me tonight to offer a few thoughts. I believe this Association is very promising, and has the capacity to lead the way forward in the various ways I have outlined. May Almighty God equip us all with the requisite knowledge, courage and wisdom to carry out His will in service to mankind.

Others have said all this with more elegance and greater aptness than I ever could: the poet John Donne, for one, says "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

I thank you.

Woonsocket, RI
January 24, 2004


Now, before I take my seat, permit me to say just a word about the rather ugly and unpleasant row that nearly derailed our conference earlier on. In this connection, please listen carefully to this gem from Aesop’s fables:

"A mountain was in labor, sending forth dreadful groans, and there was in the region the highest expectation. After all, it brought forth a mouse."

Yes, only a little mouse!

We Marylanders are too big for that. Yes, from time to time, people will have their differences; that is to be expected. However, the way that little disputes are handled makes all the difference in the world - and says everything about our capacity and about who we are. We must remain highly disciplined and resist every temptation to expose or to ridicule our own "country devil", if we expect others to fear it. Let us respect those we have chosen as our leaders by remembering the golden rule - not only Robert’s Rule.

Again many thanks, and God bless us all.