Observing July 26 with a Difference

By James Seitua

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 28, 2004

Since Liberia declared independence on July 26, 1847, Liberians had always observed their natal day in pomp and pageantry. But with 157 years of nationhood, it seems as though all we have to celebrate is the number of years, and if age were the rationale for celebration, Christians the world over would have little time worshipping, as festivities honoring Methuselah would overwhelm the church’s calendar.

It’s no sarcasm stating that Liberia (age aside) has little to boast of. A troubling anecdote of bad governance, underdevelopment, terrible human rights records, and an unparallel patriotic bankruptcy isn’t anything to make someone proud. Former vice president Bennie Warner put it in a nutshell when he said, “What is wrong with us is us,” even though our current state of decadence is just too profound to compare to his time. Baccus Matthews of the United People’s Party, considered a political chameleon, once rightly said that the problem in Liberia is that the “people clap for anything that is given them.”

Because of this, we are preyed by a hugh identity crisis that it’s sometimes difficult for others to fathom who we really are; even our neighbors who thought they knew us well prior to the 1989-armed conflict are now wondering who we are. And the current scramble for positions and power in the war-ravaged nation, coupled with persistent reports of wild-spread corruption, is generating more questions than answers.

Good governance is the platform of every aspirant, but bad governance is the legacy of most officeholders.

Many Liberians believe that William R. Tolbert, Jr., the 19th President of Liberia, was the best leader the country had had so far. Tolbert inherited a “rotten system” from William V.S. Tubman who ruled Liberia for 27 years (1944-1971), partying and make inroads into the families.

Seasoned economists believe the rate of Liberia’s economic growth under Tubman was compared only to a country like Japan. But that phenomenon is now described as “growth without development” because Tubman’s agenda encompassed merrymaking, political witch-hunting, not development.

But Tolbert rose above the fray, stressing hard work, not political patronage; self-sufficiency in food production, not reliance on food importation.

His dream to lift Liberia to “higher heights”, however, was short lived. Stalwarts in his own party, the True Whig Party that had ruled the country for over one hundred and a quarter centuries, implicitly opposed his reforms they felt were heading the Americo-Liberian dominated government in the wrong direction, and the ordinary people who were to benefit from the measures, particularly the campaign for locally produced food, rejected them vehemently. Why? Rice is a powerful weapon that politicians use as a gift to control the people, and the people love gifts, even from the devil.

So “Speedy”, as Tolbert was affectionately called, became a victim of circumstance – he was murdered in one of Africa’s bloodiest coups on April 12, 1980 - and Liberia lost a chance, perhaps, the only chance to develop.

The country’s underdevelopment becomes so glaring when one crosses the border into a neighboring country. Liberians who have traveled to the Ivory Coast, Liberia’s eastern neighbor, can attest to the fact that the former French colony does not “resemble” Liberia’s neighbor. With superb road networks, self-sufficiency in food, and skyscrapers to count, how in the world can this country be our neighbor when we cannot even boast of one paved road from one end of the country to the other?

How did the Ivory Coast, which gained her independence from France as late as August 7, 1960, attained such a tremendous progress when we appear not to have even contracted an expert to draw up a blueprint?

Please don’t tell me the French developed the Ivory Coast, but if you do, ask yourself why the Americans never developed Liberia.

But blaming others for our ineptitude is not actually within the scope of this article. If we never developed our country following World War II when the demands for iron ore and natural rubber reached their peak, with Liberia at an advantage to meet those demands, how can we blame someone else for failing our country so woefully?

When the “Wind of Change” blew across the continent of Africa in the 1960s, forcing colonial masters to relinquish control over their subjects, Liberia played a meaningful role securing freedom for many African nations. Today, however, the “mentor” is a mismatch for most of her “guided” in term of development and progress. Badly enough, fourteen years of devastating armed conflict and the general worthlessness of the Taylor-led government had added insult to injury.

And what’s even more heartbreaking about the Liberian situation is that many individuals who hold positions of trust in the country have not only attended some of the best universities in the United States, the greatest country on earth, but have also worked in America where the “system” works for everyone - the high or the low; the rich or the poor - you respect the law, or the law won’t respect you; you pay your bills or you have no service.

Unfortunately, this experience is not being transferred to the Liberian scenario primarily because the privileged ones have become the untouchables, engaging in acts they never dreamed of while in the United States or other developed countries. But who cares? After all, white-collar theft is just a style, and those who fail to “wear the latest fashions” before leaving office are branded as fools. This is where the ordinary people share the blame for the shame that has become the fame.

A man lived and worked in America with no car, when he returns home to “help rebuild” his country, he not only get cars but drivers as well. A man lived in America and paid his bills, when he returns home to “help rebuild” his country, not only he but his girlfriends too won’t pay their bills. In fact that’s just what the boss is not paying; what he’s paid has multiple sources – the approval fee, the signature fee, the beer, the cold water, the lunch, and the expediting fee. And with a lot of Lebanese returning to “take advantage” of the new “investment opportunities”, one can only imagine the number of envelopes that flow.

What about the “pay check” the boss writes for himself? Do you remember Charles Taylor’s bulk purchasing scheme - the fake purchasing system that landed nearly $1 million in Taylor’s private account for government supplies that were never delivered? Don’t you remember the thing that made the man to fight war? Well, that thing is still a reality in the government system. The difference is that the network of thieves had grown larger and the criminals have become cleverer. But with everyone stealing, anyway, who would waste his time, checking on others?

So we’ve learned that using acquired knowledge for which positions are created and with which people are supposed to perform their duties does not hold in this setting. What matters is “what I can get before I get out”. In all of this, Liberia remains the biggest victim.

Look at Charles Taylor, for example, the boastful Massachusetts’ Bentley College graduate with a degree in economics (all the killings, all the devastation aside), who used his “acquired knowledge” as a platform during his presidential campaign, promising to “fix” what he “spoiled” and spoiled so disastrously, but the only visible sign of economic activity in Liberia throughout his presidency was the annoyance of streaming calculator-holding money exchangers, chasing people for “good rate”. Everything else was under the table - revenue collection, handling of the maritime fund, controlling the numerous logging companies, everything became a private matter of the president.

That’s why everybody wants to become president of Liberia, to enrich themselves while delivering a death sentence to our beloved country.

John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This is the kind of patriot Liberia needs, not the ones who inscribe patriotism on their guns to kill, on their hands to loot, and on their lips to abuse.

Realistically, this issue transcends the country man-Americo-Liberian rivalry that bedevils Liberian politics. We’ve already seen how barbaric people from both backgrounds can become. Now we need the John F. Kennedy type of patriots from both sides to exhibit positive attitudes and work together for the sake of Liberia.

So before putting on your dancing shoes to go celebrating on this July 26, think about what Liberia needs, think about how you can help, and give a helping hand. For the only moment Liberians would have a truly meaningful celebration of their country’s independence is the day they would proudly match its achievements with its age.