Flashbacks From War-Trauma: Reactions To The Reinvention Syndrome


By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 17, 2004

When I read Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer's article attempting to correct alleged misrepresentations by E. Sumo Jones, Sr and Dr. Harry Moniba, I felt a sense of obligation to my generation to intervene, although uninvited. I felt a flashback of the gross disappointment and dismay at the generation that unreasonably agitated against the Tolbert Administration and promised Liberians better life. And when the opportunities arose for them to change the course of events, they failed us miserably.

They were very right to agitate given the alarming inequities that existed. They were extremely courageous to stand up against injustice under very trying circumstances. But because of their inability to sway the military junta, with which they had relationship and influenced prior to the 1980 coup to activate their paradigms for change -- this lack of insight and leadership contributed to the civil war and its aftermath. It is also clear that the opposition groups lacked strategies to facilitate transition from agitation to governance following their stinging criticisms of the Tolbert Administration. Equally so, they were unable to build a unified coalition bloc amongst the activist groups for wining elections. With the abysmal performance of the Sawyer-led Interim Government, it is hard to debate that the opposition movement (although unstructured) also had feasible options in response to its criticisms against Doe. Plainly, they could not develop an agenda beyond criticizing and protesting. Thus they left a massive void, which was filled by anarchy.

Feeling Cheated
Watching Sawyer, Jones, and members of their generations trying to settle scores in the media has given me flashbacks from torments suffered from the civil war and the events that precipitated it. Upon reading the article, I felt cheated all over again. The article and others like it that have appeared on various websites -- have brought back memories of the civil war and its depressing effects on me personally and on my generation. I am referring to the generation whose prospects were robbed and the small remaining future mortgaged by earlier generations of political leaders.

I reflected on my days as a young University of Liberia student and even before, being a strong supporter of opposition activist groups, including some of the same people seeking to vindicate themselves from their failings. These are the individuals who sought vulnerable actors (students, workers, illiterate soldiers, and citizens hopeful for positive change), and used them to eat away at the foundations of the Tolbert Administration.

Flashbacks from Torture
Flashbacks from torture have a way of evoking self-blame, but I dare have any of that especially since I have come to decipher the cunningness of our past failed political leaders. Self-blame has the tendency to inhibit critical analysis of the events that led to one's torture and to take the necessary stance to prevent reoccurrence of the torment. More so, there is a tendency for individuals who have been tortured or experienced conflict-related distress to feel a sense of a broken spirit. You are often forced to inquire: "Why didn't I have the strength and the will to resist my torturer?"

Many Liberians have continued to feel hurt and angry just by thinking about how the war robbed them of the promise of a hopeful future, which in Tolbert's quests for change, referred to as the "wholesome functioning society." They have said that the war has confounded their prospects. Many others have not been able to rid themselves of flashbacks associated with the dashed hopes that they experienced as a result of the let-down by many of the same persons trying to correct the historical record.

The Opposition Movement-Despot Axis
The exchange between Sawyer and Jones is illustrative of a tendency in Liberian politics that has received little or no attention in the nation building discourse, more specifically our attempt to build during the post-conflict era. I am referring here to the gloomy state of political leadership in Liberia: all deceit and no commitment to the well being of the Liberian people. I am also referring to a political culture entrenched in corruption and patronage thus breeding inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. The horror of this posturing is that failed political leaders still believe that Liberians have not been able to decipher their complicated web of Machiavellian intrigues. I am talking about former political power seekers who are still trying to reassert themselves, largely seduced by notoriety and greed. They are better known for their agitation and not their contributions to improving the lots of the Liberian people.

One has to acknowledge that the legacy of the progressive movements in Liberia, which Amos Sawyer, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Gabriel Baccus Matthews, Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr, Dew Mayson, and others led, has hardly been progressive. Instead, it has been retrogressive, if not reactionary. While MOJA, PAL, and the other opposition movements did help their leaders to acquire power, prestige, and profits, they hindered the Liberian people from realizing the hopes promised - that positive change was on the horizon. Few weeks before the coup, MOJA had its National Convention in Monrovia and highlighted the theme: "Our eyes are Open; The Time of the People has Come."

Few weeks after this meeting, some of these same people were appointed to cabinet positions in the Doe Government and soon began to travel around Monrovia under the protection of machine-gun carrying soldiers who now stood between the so-called revolutionaries and the very people "whose time had come." Today, we know of some of the same revolutionaries who now boast of wearing only name brand cufflinks, shirts, ties, and shoes. The masses, young men and women who were looking forward to hopeful future watched as these so-called revolutionaries capitalized on their vulnerabilities and converted them to agents of provocation. These vulnerable Liberians now languish in abject poverty in West Point, New Kru Town, Slipway, and other destitute areas of Liberia, while a prominent professor at Cuttington College and leader of MOJA boasts of skiing on the Swiss Alps yearly. Utter Mockery.

In my minds' eye I can see the picture of a pregnant woman with a baby on her back carrying an AK-47. That was the picture that Sawyer, Tipoteh, Mayson, and others used as the prominent logo on the cover of MOJA's magazine. I sold that magazine to Liberians in the streets of Ganta while a schoolboy at Ganta United Methodist High School. Underneath that picture was the caption: "The Struggle Continues" written in Kpelle.

Twenty years later and following the civil war, I am forced to wonder if this was the child soldier that Sawyer, Taryor, Tipoteh, Mayson, Fahnbulleh and others envisaged, and then realized during the Taylor-led war. In fact, Sawyer cannot distance himself from it because he and others organized the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL), which was the political arm of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) military machinery. The ACDL raised funds to purchase arms and ammunitions to support Taylor's destruction of Liberia. This alliance broke up after Taylor declared his interest in the presidency. Here, Taylor abandoned the covenant between himself and the ACDL that he would operate the military wing of the organization and his intellectual and fiscal patrons will lead the political wing. The first governmental structure that the NPFL was supposed to effect following the Taylor-led coup was fashioned and designed by Sawyer, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Harry Greaves, Jr. Clearly, the role of the opposition movement, principally MOJA and PAL in unleashing carnage on the Liberian people via their attachments to Doe and Taylor cannot be disputed easily. They plunged the country into anarchy -- mayhem that Sawyer rode to power as Interim President, following which he surrounded himself with cohorts from the past, building additional checkered records.

Sawyer, Matthews, Tipoteh, Fahnbulleh, Mayson, Sirleaf, and others who presented themselves as role models and redeemers of the people during the 1970s and 1980s eventually failed us dejectedly. And this has caused mass disillusionment among my generation, which formerly admired and emulated them. Sawyer should identify with this disillusionment since he too once expressed his disenchantment with a system that he previously admired, and did not deliver on its promises. I am referring here to the Tubman Administration, which Sawyer served as a newscaster on ELBC radio. The history of journalism in Liberia bares out the fact that Sawyer the broadcaster always signed off in these words: Amos Sawyer, ELBC News, Good Evening." Having later being influenced by the protest movements of the 1960s during his post-graduate studies in the US, Sawyer returned and he and his colleagues turned their dissatisfaction into opposition movements that sought to reform the Tubman and Tolbert Administrations, if not remove them by any means possible.

I will not be surprised that this paper will draw attacks from a perennial group of ideologues (mainly Sawyer's surrogates); who have perpetually failed to critically evaluate the performance of their leaders. They might not acknowledge that at critical junctures in the life of our country, the Liberian opposition movements unilaterally discredited itself and eroded the confidence of the Liberian people in the ability of its leaders to deliver on their promises. The widespread nostalgia among Liberians for the Tubman and Tolbert eras is evidence of the gross disappointment that these groups have caused. Ostensibly, Liberian opposition politicians are more interested in being fluent celebrities who critique the historical record to defend their weakening integrity. It has become clear that they did not have strategy or the requisite practical experience to save the country from degenerating into anarchy. I repeat: they could not develop an agenda beyond criticizing and protesting.

Scarcity of Statesmen and Stateswomen
For so long, we have coveted the opposition movements and their leaders and not held these individuals to high standards. Essentially, what this boils down to is that Liberia lacks statesmen and stateswomen and as such, it continues to drift. This would not be an entirely unfortunate situation, if it weren't for the development of a malicious disorder, that I have labeled "The Reinvention Syndrome." This is the condition in which failed power seekers tend to reinvent themselves by capitalizing on the people's perceived collective amnesia while pursuing their selfish agendas. Again, Liberia has a scarcity of statesmen and stateswomen, and perhaps there are a few persons who aspire to this noble stature. All of our former presidents and vice presidents are dead or on the run. None among the ones alive have risen to the stature of statesmen or stateswomen to whom we can turn to leverage their moral authority and appeal in peacemaking in Liberia.

Therefore, I suggest that instead of making claims and counter claims against one another, Sawyer and others should adopt the character of statesmen and stateswomen. They should endeavor to build institutions and institutionalize practices that correct the wrong that they were part of causing. My argument here is based on the view that none of these would be leaders have left my generation strong institutions or traditions (best practices) that can be sustained over time. We have inherited simply broken down or weak institutions that lack the capacity for transfer to succeeding generations. No longer can mechanisms used to foster cronyism suffice for institutions.

In light of the aforementioned analysis, these power seekers have the historic obligation to correct the wrongs that they have caused. When innocent market women were killed and their life possessions destroyed; when civil servants were murdered in cold blood simply because they carried government ID cards; and when the abdomens of pregnant women were split opened and their babies kicked around as football, these leaders should not be allowed to act as though Liberians will simply forget what their inexperience in governance and lack of vision wrought.

What's at Stake? Reclaiming Our Voices
David Morris (1996) writes that when we suffer trauma and related assaults on our humanity, what gets silenced is our voice. He adds, when we lose our voice especially in interpersonal contacts with people that we trust and even respect, we must rediscover that voice via comparable situations. As Liberians, reclaiming our voice is in my mind a great metaphor for seeking to prevent the reoccurrence of the assault on our humanity caused by detractors who were the underlying contributors to the dismal state of affairs in Liberia. No more can we afford to blindly follower philosopher-kings who like pied piper parades us to our death to the tune of melodious music. I am reminded here of the song from the 1970s, which carried the lines: "killing me softly with this song."

The wrangle among Sawyer, Jones, and Moniba reflects an attempt by politicians with checkered records of success to reinvent themselves and find new stages upon which to build their political futures. But I am forced to ask: "Where do we go from here?" In response, the following suggestions are worthy of consideration. These failed leaders should offer practical life applications of their ideas to the personal and professional development of citizens. Instead of running for political offices, they should build entrepreneurial ventures that will provide jobs for Liberians, especially those with stolen wealth that could be reinvested in the country at least as a way of atoning for their misdeeds. They should also be exploring goals that they did not achieve truthfully and not only explain why; but most importantly, how we can correct the barriers that stood in the way (personal or otherwise). But foremost, they should build institutions that will reform the minds of thousands of our young men, women, and children whom they wounded by their selfish wishful machinations. The citizenry too must develop curious minds, a tradition of questioning our leaders, and taking stock of their contributions and their failings, and holding them accountable. No longer can the leading conceptions of reality and knowledge be abdicated to these agitators who led us down the path of death, doom and destruction.

I have no intention to create a generational or cohort war. I am suggesting that we have to reconstruct our collective traumas into self-protective mechanisms that would help us in reclaiming our future. Destiny has foisted upon my generation the responsibility to bring the downward spiral to a halt. There are reservoirs of resilience, patriotism, and creativity that have for so long gone untapped, and we cannot shy from this responsibility.

My aim in this paper has been to shed light on abhorrent tendencies that many of our political leaders represent and to prevent any reoccurrence of such inclinations. Moreover, there is opportunity for these individuals to liberate themselves from their political woes in the name of integration and beginning anew, but that opportunity is only possible if evidence emerges that they have parted from their old ways. I intend to remind my generation and succeeding generations about the low-spirited days in our nation's history and some of the causes. Whenever our political leaders and their surrogates write or speak, I exhort my generation to decipher their assertions with a fine-tooth comb.

Author: Emmanuel and his family live in Maplewood, Minnesota.