A Vision for a New Socio-Economic and Political Agenda

157th Independence Day Oration Delivered at a Special Independence Day Program of The Liberian Association of Iowa Des Moines, Iowa,

By Morris M. Dukuly, Sr.

on Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 31, 2004

Mr. President, Officers, and Members of the Liberian Association of Iowa
Mr. Gbote Tahyor and Members of the Program Planning Committee
Distinguished Leaders of the State of Iowa
Leaders of Civic and Religious Organizations
Platform and Other Guests
My fellow Liberians,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

My daughters, Kulah and Fata, and I are delighted to be in your midst this morning. I am also humbled by your invitation to participate in this program marking the 157th Anniversary of the Independence of our beloved country. Indeed, 157 years in the life of any nation is no mean historical and political achievement.

You and I, my fellow Liberians, will recall what "Independence Day" was in former times. On "26 Day", people buzzed and ate to their hearts’ delight. Families exchanged visits. Children dressed beautifully and went to movies. Indeed, Independence Day was a day of festivities and enjoyment for ordinary Liberians, as well as a time of reflection for all.

More than 14 years of war may have dampened the celebratory nature of independence. Yet, it has not destroyed the indomitable spirit and resiliency of the Liberian people and their capacity to have fun. This weekend - and through early next week, Liberians everywhere will celebrate the birth of our nation with fanfare and pageantry.

It is therefore expedient that you - and our countrymen in various states of the United States, have planned programs to mark this day. It is also appropriate that, as we celebrate, we offer thanksgiving to the Creator for sparing our nation and the lives of those of us who have physically survived the war.

As we celebrate, we must also be thankful to our host country and our American friends for opening their doors and their hearts to receive us in these years of our nation’s trial.

My friends: Independence Day provides an annual opportunity for us to reflect on our country’s past, examine and draw lessons from its present, and plan to confront and shape its future. Therefore, I invite you to join me as I share with you my thoughts on the topic: Liberia: A Vision for a New Socio-Economic and Political Agenda.

My friends: many of us in this hall, including our American friends and hosts, have either heard or read one or another account of Liberia’s founding. So, I shall not rehash familiar stories or stories about which little, if any dispute, exists. There is one indisputable fact, and that fact is: modern day Liberia is a 19th century enterprise between former and freed slaves, whom we refer to interchangeably as Americo-Liberians or settlers - and Africo-Africans known as indigenous people. A second fact is that the concept of repatriating former and freed slaves back to the continent of their original, in spite of its underlying social and political reasons - and flaws, was a noble and humanitarian endeavor.

However, in spite of the nobility of this undertaking, which involved the passage of the Anti-Slave Trade Legislation by the Congress of the United States on March 3, 1819, as well as the collaboration of disparate members of various philanthropic and religious organizations [Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Bushrod Washington, Francis Scott Key, and President James Monroe, etc.], the initiative had its moments of challenges and doubts. Abraham James, a former professor of the University of Liberia, in his recent article published by The Perspective, outlined three distinct motivations that undergirded the colonization efforts in West Africa: He writes:

"...One group, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Randolph regarded slavery as an evil inconsistent with the American Declaration of Independence, but since they believed it impossible for Whites and Blacks to live together in harmony, regarded colonization abroad as a necessary accompaniment of emancipation. A second group was interested in using black émigrés as instruments to convert Africans to Christianity…A third group was motivated largely by a desire to create in Africa a colony that would produce exotic crops to enrich American trade..."
My friends: The colonization efforts were characterized by three missteps: (1) Settlers sought to literally transplant and impose their acquired western concepts and beliefs on the Africo-Africans without regard to the latter’s traditions and cultures; (2) Settlers successfully attempted to supplant the Africo-Africans’ long-held practice of communal land ownership with a western system of land ownership based on outright purchase and individual ownership; and (3) Settlers successfully sought to impose, western-style, the terms of agreements on the Africo-Africans, although the latter neither participated in their formulation, nor understood their contractual obligations.

Consequently, earlier conflicts between the settlers and Africo-Africans were as much the result of the clash of two cultures as they were an attempt to enforce the terms of contracts drawn by the settlers and designed to take land away from the indigenous people. Issues related to these conflicts continue to underpin much of Liberia’s unsettled disputes yesterday - and today.

It was therefore neither accidental nor merely coincidental that on the morning of the military coup of April 12, 1980, and subsequently for several days, Sonny Okoson’s song, "Papa’s Land", blared again and again on national radio. "Papa’s Land" conveyed a subliminal message of historical significance to Liberia’s new military leaders. That message, targeted at the Americo-Liberians, was that the Africo-Africans had taken back the land, which was wrested from their forefathers.

Some of the issues were however much more profound. From July 26, 1847, when Liberia’s independence was declared, to April 12, 1980, the date of the first successful military coup, a two-tiered social structure existed in Liberia. The Americo-Liberians, the country’s political and economic elites, perpetuated a social system in which full participation by the Africo-Africans was either denied or allowed to exist only on the margins. In fact, not only did the settlers transplant with them symbols of American history, they virtually imposed a form of colonization and slavery that was uniquely Liberian. Sons and daughters of Africo-Africans, who served as domestic wards of settler families, as well as the indigenous population in general, generally experienced the same types of exclusions, social barriers, and differentiations that the settlers had themselves been subjected to while in slavery.

My friends, with time, the Africo-Africans started to question and to challenge the status quo over which the Americo-Liberians held sway. Indigenous expressions of dissent, which had been smoldering since the 1930’s - or earlier, increasingly became more evident. A Liberian Foreign Service officer, Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh, was arrested, charged with sedition against the Tubman administration, tried, convicted, and incarcerated in 1968. Fahnbulleh’s trial was a watershed moment in the political radicalization of Liberia, and presented the Americo-Liberian ruling elites two choices: Embrace and shepherd change, or failing that, as President John Kennedy once remarked, "…make violent revolution inevitable."

Ladies and Gentlemen: On July 23, 1971, when President Tubman suddenly died in the London Clinic, Liberia was a political powder keg ready to detonate. The explosion was postponed only by the ascension to the presidency of Tubman’s Vice President, William R. Tolbert, Jr. Tolbert initially seemed to represent a departure from the politics of Tubman. He abandoned Tubman’s more formal and elitist style of leadership as well as a number of his unpopular programs and policies, including the infamous PRO [Public Relations Officers] System under which citizens spied on each other.

But, Tolbert soon became hamstrung by his inability to extricate himself and his administration from the stranglehold of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy. He was also conflicted and indecisive in his handling of the increasingly strong currents of socio-economic and political change that had begun to flow more loudly across Liberia. Tolbert’s contradictory phrase, "revolutionary speedy evolution", was emblematic of the quagmire he faced and that eventually consumed his administration.

Tolbert also missed several opportunities to seize the momentum of political change. When his first vice president, James E. Greene, died in August 1975, expectations were that Tolbert would select an indigenous vice president, most likely Jackson F. Doe, a senior member of the president’s True Whig Party, and an Africo-African from Nimba County in northern Liberia. Tolbert opted to name then Methodist Bishop Bennie D. Warner, his friend of many years, and thus signaled to the indigenous population and the intellectual class that the minority Americo-Liberian ruling elites did not intend in the near future to share political and economic power, let alone allow majority rule. Hence, an increasing number of indigenous people saw violent change as the only option left to correct the socio-economic and political injustices of 133 years of minority Americo-Liberian domination and rule.

I might however add that neither anyone nor I can say with any degree of certainty if the selection of Jackson F. Doe could have averted a military coup, which increasingly seemed imminent.

The April 11, 1979, Rice Riot was therefore both a protest against the proposal [Not a decision contrary to suggestions in some quarters] by the Tolbert administration to increase the price of Liberia’s staple - and more importantly a mass campaign to remove settler rule. It is however instructive to point out that during the 1960s and 1970s, some Americo-Liberians and their children strategically aligned themselves with various mass efforts seeking overdue political change in Liberia.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Exactly one year after the Rice Riots, 17 enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia staged a bloody coup and removed President Tolbert along with the system of Americo-Liberian rule and domination. The coup was ruthlessly bloody: President Tolbert was killed along with 13 very senior officials of the three branches of the Liberian government, including his son, A. B. Tolbert. A young master-sergeant of the Armed Forces of Liberia, Samuel K. Doe, became the new military leader. The coup, while ending 133 years of settler rule and giving political power to the majority indigenous population, also led to the flight of the nation’s trained manpower - and others who reasonably felt unsafe and physically threatened.

But soon, differences emerged amongst the military leaders on the one hand, and between the military leaders and " progressives" in the new government. These differences led to rumors and reports of attempted coups - and more bloodshed, thus further exacerbated the flight of trained manpower.

The pool of former national leaders and other prominent citizens who had fled provided a ready and willing base of support for anyone willing to dare to overthrow the government of President Samuel K. Doe. Consequently, in November 1985, barely a month following the October 1985 presidential and legislative elections, Thomas Quiwonkpa, former commanding general of the Armed Forces of Liberia, who was also a member of the group of 17 that toppled President Tolbert, tried unsuccessfully to overthrow President Doe, and was killed. Unrelenting, many of Quiwonkpa’s supporters regrouped and supported Charles Taylor to launch his war, as he claimed, to "remove this dictator from the backs of the Liberian people".

President Doe was captured and killed on September 9, 1990. Taylor however persisted in the prosecution of his war. As a result of Taylor’s intransigence, other warring groups emerged between 1990 and 1994 to confront him. Proportional representation elections were held in 1997. In August 1997, Taylor was installed as the 21st president of Liberia. What transpired during Taylor’s five-year of misrule and political killings is a matter of public record.

Much of this is recent Liberian history that many of you know. The realty check is, we are where we currently are. We should neither allow ourselves to be trapped in time, nor imagine that we can dream the past 14 tragic years of our country’s history into oblivion. There are two critical question that confront us all as we mark this 157th Anniversary of our country’s independence: (1) Have the 1847 structure of our country and our form of centralized government served the greatest common good well? And (2) Where do we go from here? It is on these questions, among other important national issues, that now devote the remaining section of this statement.

My friends: We cannot go forward unless we draw important lessons from our civil war, which has shattered the infrastructure of our country, psycho-physiologically traumatized and scarred our people, given us a lost generation of our treasured human resource, divided our people along ethnic lines, awakened primordial sentiments, and raised unsettled national issues. Let me offer here five of these lessons, as I see them:

1. Lesson one: Liberians must learn to live together as one people, tolerating, accommodating and respecting their differences, while celebrating the values that we share. Unless Liberians learn to do this, no one group can or should delude itself into thinking that it can have Liberia alone, to the exclusion of everybody else - and enjoy it in peace. This is simply one of the realities of post-war Liberia.

I am not unmindful of the fact that 14 years of warfare has created deep and bitter divisions - and irreparable ill-will. I am also not naïve to contend that we should pretend that nothing has happened to us a nation and people. We however face two choices: (1) We can decide to languish in our sorry state of pain and mourning, weighed down and frustrated by bitterness, and hope that the day will come for us to settle scores. (2) Or, we can resolve to let the past recede into distant memory, renew our commitment never again to allow such tragedies to visit upon our country and people - and reunite to forge ahead with its rebuilding for our children, our future generations - and ourselves.

I also submit to you, my fellow Liberians, that living together in a peaceful, stable, and secure post-war Liberia requires that Liberians who have committed crimes against our country and people be held accountable for their crimes. I have recently read of various proposals and concepts. Some relate to a war crimes tribunal. Some relate to a truth and reconciliation commission. And of course, there is the notion that Liberians should forgive and forget.

The suggestion that Liberians should simply forgive and forget is the least attractive of the options, for three reasons:

(1) Forgive and Forget: Firstly, as our recent history has shown, Liberians do not suffer from a sense of national amnesia. Although they may pretend to forgive and forget today, they await the opportunity to exact their revenge or avenge a wrong committed against their relatives or friends, often with graver and wider consequences.

(2) Secondly, to forgive and forget, if that were possible, teaches our children and future generations the terrible and unacceptable lesson: that anyone can commit crimes, including war or economic crime, against our citizens and country with impunity. Won’t this be morally wrong and indefensible? How can we teach our children tough love, punishing them for minor offenses so that such offenses do not become future habits, and then say to individuals who have wrecked and plundered our country to literally go in peace - and sin more?

(3) Thirdly, simply forgiving and forgetting crimes committed by criminals with known history and propensity to recidivism offers no guarantee that either the criminals have acknowledge their criminal wrong or that they will in future be deterred from committing even worse crimes against our country and people again.

· War Crimes Tribunal: Appeals to many persons because it would ensure that justice under law, which was denied many of our citizens, will be served to those who have led war against our country, committed grave human rights abuses, and plundered our resources. Such persons must be made under the rule of law to return their ill-gotten financial wealth to Liberia.

I do not advocate a War Crimes Tribunal that hands out death penalties to accused war criminals. Death for the perpetrators of war and economic crimes is both cheap and easy. A greater punishment is the guilt and punishment of conscience. Such persons should languish in prisons for life without the possibility of parole or pardon and live to see democracy, human rights, rule of law, and competitive enterprise, which they trampled upon, reign in Liberia.

· Truth and Reconciliation Commission: This South African model should be for the young men and women who were lured, given guns, drugged, and ordered to kill their fellow countrymen. These young men and women should appear before a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to confess to their crimes, acknowledge that they had wronged their country and people, and ask for forgiveness. Many of the young men and women, who took up arms against their country and people, are victims of the war criminals. They are also victims of their country because it failed to educate and impart values to them. We should therefore embrace them, help to heal them social-emotionally, and lead them back into society, giving them survival skills and showing them our love and cares.

2. Lesson two: Liberians must view any persons who present themselves as liberators with suspicion. It should be our collective patriotic duty to oppose and resist any such group. For, as we have seen in recent years, most of our so-called liberators have eventually metastasized into corrupt oppressors and tyrants far worse than those against whom they fought.

3. Lesson three: The war has given us an opportunity to reshape our country in ways unfathomable or deemed possible - and that enhance the creation and advancement of democracy, rule of law, human rights, equity in the distribution of our national resources, accountability and transparency in the administration of national affairs, and social and economic justice for all of our people. Such a reshaping should also include a drastic overhaul of government and a critical re-examination of our national educational system and philosophy. It should also lead to a reallocation of our social service institutions: health, primary and secondary roads and transportation, safe drinking water, electricity, and posts and telecommunications.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The first step in reshaping our country begins with our educational system and philosophy. Our nation, like many other nations, should have an educational system and philosophy based on its core socio-cultural, economic, and political values. Then, of course, we may want to ask: What are our core values as a nation and people and to what extent have they formed the basis of the development of our national primary, secondary, vocational/technical, and college or university curricular? What is the commitment of the Liberian government to improving education and making it accessible to every citizen of Liberia? How many of our Ph.D’s have in recent years undertaken to write books that could be used in our schools? What has been the level of our government’s financial support, if any, to such endeavors?

It is a national shame that although we take great pride in referring to our country as the oldest independent Black Republic in Africa, we rank among countries with the least literacy rates on the continent, about 15% of our population. Our national leaders, instead of investing in education and in our treasured resource, our young people, invest in cars and in their bank accounts. And because of generations of educational neglect and inadequate investment, we have paid and will continue to pay a very high price.

My friends: when you have inordinately ambitious, power-driven, and greedy men able to find a reservoir of ill-informed, ill-educated, unskilled, ill-clad, and hungry young men and women, you have the ingredients for a national disaster waiting to happen either in the form of a war or organized crime. The Liberian civil war was the outcome of the coalescing of these two groups. In post war Liberia, we must therefore give highest priority to investing in education, providing adequate incentives to teachers and professors, creating the environment and climate for academic freedom and research, encouraging our many intellectuals serving in various American and other colleges and universities to return home to teach and write textbooks based on our core Liberian values. Our educational facilities must also be relevant to our national development goals and priorities, i.e., meaningful agricultural self-sufficiency, health, primary and secondary roads, electricity, and communications services. It must also not be for only the privileged urban few. Campuses of the University of Liberia must be built in Northcentral and Southeastern Liberia so that every student completing high school in either of these regions and others would not have to travel down to Monrovia to be able to attend a college or university.

In addition, those who teach and work at our elementary, secondary, vocational/technical institutions, colleges, and universities must be paid living wages, benefits, and incentives commensurate with the daily sacrifices they make, as well as the very important services they provide our country in preparing its future productive force and leaders. The money squandered on unnecessary and unproductive foreign travels and huge vehicle convoys could be best used to fund and equip our institutions of learning and those who serve them.

4. Lesson four: The imperial presidency has not served Liberia well. It has led to the creation of tyrants and despots, and must be diminished. We must therefore collectively resolve to reduce its power, reach, and importance. One way to do this is to restructure regional authority by regrouping counties into regions and giving greater political and economic autonomy and authority to their new leaders, who should be directly elected by their local populations. Such reorganization should also include the physical redemarcation of existing county boundaries as well as the enactment of new revenue sharing laws that ensure that regions retain reasonable percentage of locally generated revenues.

Under the new political arrangement, the central government would maintain overall administrative authority and responsibility for national defense and national security, education, health, land transportation, and communication services. However, local government leaders will report directly to regional leaders whose title could be "governor". The new regions would also be given the power to establish and control their own militias, while the central government would maintain a small military and a more robust police force.

5. Lesson five: Every Liberian must become familiar with the spirit, if not the letter, of our Constitution in order to defend our common liberties - and check tyrannical and corrupt inclinations and tendencies that lead to continued economic underdevelopment and mass poverty.

My friends: Too often it seems to me that we, Liberians, are either too timid, or too easily contended, or a little of both. Unless our individual house is on fire, we often remain indifferent. We saw this attitude displayed at the start of our civil war in 1990. Few cared when targets of the National Patriotic Front’s mayhem were declared to be limited to Krahn and Mandingo people, government officials, and soldiers. The theology of "good neighborliness" teaches that when a neighbor’s house is on fire, we should not only call the fire company, but we must also hurry to that neighbor’s rescue. Further, we must learn the important lesson of the Liberian parable that says that, "Town’s trap is not for rat alone". We must therefore speak out even when the injustice is against someone we do not like or against a perceived enemy. Otherwise, our silence and our indifference could embolden self-fish national politicians and tyrants to divide us, rule us, exploit us, plunder our country, and kill us with impunity.

Our national economic policy is another area where reform is needed. Under Tubman, Tolbert, and Doe, various laws were enacted to strengthen Liberia’s free enterprise tradition and give its citizens a major hand and voice in the administration of their economy. Unfortunately, these laws, including the country’s investment incentive code and Liberianization policy, have been undermined by executive exemptions and monopolies - and flouted, especially in the past 14 years and more particularly during the Taylor regime. Foreigners claiming to be investors, in most cases, bring no new finance capital. Others entered into shaded business arrangements with government officials and are granted monopoly rights over such critical commodities as rice, petroleum, cement - and even our national telecommunications system, all to the disadvantage of the indigenous Liberian businessmen and women. I do not here cast aspersions on all investors or all business people operating in Liberia. There are some honest, genuine, and committed investors and businessmen and women, Liberians as well as foreigners, but because they strive daily to play by the ethical rules of business and respect our laws, they are fast becoming a dying breed. Existing laws on Free Enterprise and on Liberianization must therefore be scrupulously enforced. Monopolies, in all their forms, must be abolished because they are antithetical to free market and the development of indigenous entrepreneurial capability and capacity.

My friends, Ladies and Gentlemen: These lessons constitute some of the important challenges we face in post war Liberia.

Before I conclude, permit me to briefly talk about the ongoing disarmament taking in Liberia. Informed and credible sources tell me that the United Nations is doing a good job. This is welcome news. However, I have said in the past - and repeat today, that disarmament is a process: the physical taking away of the guns is only the beginning. The most critical steps are those that involve demobilization, i.e., incentives for the combatants, vocational or skills training, and counseling designed to wean the young men and women away from guns and their associated culture of violence toward normal, wholesome lives. This phase also involves continuous engagement, monitoring, and mentoring. Any disarmament program that lacks these fundamental prerequisites carries potential pitfalls.

My friends: Inextricably linked to disarmament are issues of the resettlement of our internally displaced citizens, repatriation of refugees, a national population survey or census, and then elections. There however seems to be an impatience and a clamor in Liberia to hold elections when the necessary conditions for elections are yet to be met. In February 1997 when I was a senatorial candidate from Bomi County, I warned ECOWAS that military conditions in Liberia were not conducive for elections and that if elections were held, it could lead to violence. The faction leaders wanted elections, and ECOWAS was fatigued and wanted a success story.

My fellow Liberians: We are exactly where we were in 1997. Politicians, who know and believe that they could not win elections in a more stable and safe environment, are clamoring for elections in October 2005. The United Nations wants a quick fix and a success story, some claim that the Bryant interim administration is rampantly corrupt and inept and want to oust it, others simply want to have access to the cookie jar to take their share, and then the silent majority, our ordinary people, who just want peace and security and stability to resume normal lives again. The prevailing view is that the October 2005 presidential and legislative elections will be held. My question is, what is important? Elections or peace? I will choose peace and security and stability any day.

I therefore call on fellow Liberians, who believe, as I do, that the United Nations Security Council and the Secretary General should reconsider the current election schedule in Liberia to speak out and let their voices be heard.

I call on fellow Liberians, who believe, as I do, that the United Nations Mission in Liberia should be given more time to resettle internally and externally displaced people prior to holding elections to raise their voices and speak to truth.

I call on fellow Liberians who believe, as I do, that disarmament must go beyond the mere taking away of guns to providing counseling services and helping the young men and women acquire vocational and technical skills and employment to raise their voices and speak to truth. For elections will be meaningless unless those who are elected, from president to legislators, can go out to every village, town, and city in Liberia. Elections will be meaningless unless our people can return to their villages to make their cassava and rice farms and be happy doing what they have always done. Elections will be meaningless unless our chiefs and Zoes can return to their chiefdoms and become real chiefs and Zoes again.

Finally, my friends, the journey toward national reconstruction, national healing, national reconciliation, and national unity must begin with small important steps. Recently when I was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend the funeral of Chayee Doe, younger brother of the late President Samuel Doe, I was informed that the family of the late President William Tolbert had traveled to Philadelphia to sympathize with the Doe family. What a magnanimous act of forgiveness! Every Liberian knows that even, if as now documented in several books, the late President Doe did not kill the late President Tolbert, he, Doe, was the symbolic face of the military coup that toppled and killed Tolbert and his son, A. B. Tolbert. If the Tolberts could find in their hearts to reach out to the Doe family in their hour of bereavement, then, there is no reason why Mano, Gio, and Mandingo cannot reconcile in Nimba County; then there is no reason why Loma and Mandingo cannot reconcile in Lofa County; then there is no reason why Mano, Gio, and Krahn cannot reconcile their differences.

A further step toward national healing and reconciliation is for the process to begin toward exhuming the remains of Tolbert and all of his officials as well as the body of Doe for purposes of giving all of them the funerals they deserved: appropriate state protocols and graves with markers. This would cost far less than the cost of half of government’s new fleet of vehicles. More important, it will convey a powerful message that Liberians are serious about healing and moving their country forward.

This, Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Liberians, constitutes an overview of my Vision for a New Socio-Economic and Political Agenda in Liberia.

Happy 26th Day to you all!
In Union Strong, Success is sure!
I thank you for your attention and for the opportunity.

Mr. Morris M. Dukuly, Sr. is a former Minister of Posts & Telecommunications of the Republic of Liberia and former Speaker of the Transitional Legislative Assembly of the Liberia National Transitional Government of the Republic of Liberia (RL)