By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
August 24 - Flag Day is a national holiday for Liberians. Seven women are credited with designing this national symbol. On October 24, 1915, President Daniel Edward Howard signed into law an act passed into law by the National Legislature that made it a public holiday. On this day, Liberians come together to remember their country’s history and the flag that it represents; school children parades on the streets carrying miniature flags in their hands. To many people, the national flag is a symbol of pride, fidelity, and dignity. It is referred to as the ‘Lone Star’. The Country’s National Soccer Team is called the ‘Lone Star’.
The chair of the flag committee, Susannah Lewis is referred to as the Betsy Ross of Liberia. Mrs. Ross is the woman that designed the American Flag. Unlike Betsy Ross, the Liberian flag was ‘designed’ by the following seven women: Susannah Lewis, Matilda Newport, Rachel Johnson, Mary Hunter, J.B. Russwurm, Conilette Teage, and Sara Dripper. These seven women were born in America. Susannah Lewis and Sarah Draper are from Philadelphia; Mary L. Hunter is from South Carolina; Rachel Johnson, Matilda Newport and Mrs. J. B. Russwurm are from Baltimore, Maryland, and Collinette Teage Ellis is from Virginia. Based on the design, many individuals have concluded that the Liberian flag is a replica of the United States’ flag. It has similar red and white stripes, a blue square with a white star in the canton.
The eleven stripes symbolize the signatories of the Liberian Declaration of Independence; the red and white symbolize courage and moral excellence. The white star represents the freedom the ex-slaves were given; the blue square represents the African mainland. It is believed that the Liberian flag resembles the American flag because Liberia is the only country in the world that was colonized, controlled and established by freed African Americans and ex-slaves settlers from the United States and the Caribbean islands with the help and support from the American Colonization Society. http://us.when.com/wiki/Flag_of_Liberia?s_chn=3&pt=aolsem&typecontent&v_t=content
SIGNATORIES OF DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The Declaration of independence of Liberia was written by Hilary Teage, and twelve men from the three original counties: Montserrado, Grand Bassa and Sinoe that served as representatives to the Constitutional Convention which convened in Monrovia on July 5, 1847, signed the Declaration of Independence.
The signatories to the Declaration of Independence are TWELVE, but only the number ELEVEN is mentioned. What happened to the TWELVETH Person? Was it a mistake in recording? How come the number eleven is mentioned when there were twelve men who signed the declaration of independence?
Since grade school, I have been bothered with the number discrepancy. Perhaps, Liberian historians and scholars that will read this article will provide the answer.
Find below the names and counties of the signers of the Declaration of Independence:
1. Samuel Benedict
2. Hilary Teage
3. Elijah Johnson
4. John Naustehlau Lewis
5. Beverly R. Wilson
6. J.B. Gripon
Grand Bassa County
7. John Day
8. Amos Herring
9. Anthony William Gardiner
10. Ephriam Titler
11. Jacob W. Prout
12. Richard E. Murray
This brings me to the main reason I decide to write this article. In the August 25, 2015 edition of the FrontPageAfrica, an article was published under the caption: Flag Day: ‘Don’t Change Liberian Flag, Orator Urges Patriotism’. The Keynote Speaker of the day was Dr. Joseph Isaac, President of the African Methodist Episcopal University (AMEU). It reads:
…Dr. Joseph Isaac highlighted “Patriotism” in the Liberian context. He defined patriotism as the expression of emotions; love and commitment to one’s country and ideas that the country represents; strong belief in nationalism and devotion to the national interest. “Patriotism is rooted in respect for one’s nation,” he said; but warned that it must rely on visionary people.
…In order to have patriotism, he named four basic characteristics of emotions: one must have special affection for a country; sense of personal identity for that country; special concern for the well-being of that country; and the willingness to sacrifice for and promote that country. “Patriotism also means protecting your national heritage,” he said, citing examples of protecting your ancestors’ legacy, remembering their contributions and honoring their works, as well as realizing their dreams.
My question to him is whose ancestors was he referring to when he said: “… protecting your ancestors’ legacy, remembering their contributions and honoring their works, as well as realizing their dreams”…?
Let me return to the discussion about the flag. According to many Liberian historians, the Liberian Flag was designed by the seven women mentioned earlier in this article. I believe these historians did not write or record the history about the Flag accurately. Their inaccuracy in this area is the reason for which I decided to write this article. In doing so, we need to ask the following questions – Was the Liberian Flag designed or copied? How is Design defined in the dictionary? According to Webster Dictionary, Design is defined as: creating or constructing an object or a system, i.e., architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, sewing and patterns, whereas, to Copy is to replicate a material.
The readers can now decide which word (Design or Copy) that is appropriate in referring to how the Liberian Flag was made:
The Liberian Flag
As you can see, the Liberian flag bears a close resemblance to the flag of the United States; showing the ex-American and ex- Caribbean slaves origins of the country. The Liberian flag has similar red and white stripes, as well as a blue square with a white star in the canton. The eleven stripes represent the eleven signers of the Declaration of Independence (actually, they were twelve: 6 from Montserrado County, 4 from Grand Bassa County, and 2 from Sinoe County, making the number twelve).
The American Flag
The flag of the United States was designed by Betsy Ross of Philadelphia. It has red-and-white striped field with five-pointed stars in a blue canton. The flag was designed during the American Revolution and it features 13 stars representing the original 13 colonies. The distinctive feature of the Ross flag is the arrangement of the stars in a circle.
The evidence is there to be seen that the Liberian flag is a replica of the United States’ flag. The thirteen stars in the American flag represent the original thirteen states. The eleven stripes in the Liberian flag represent the eleven signers (twelve to be exact) of the Liberian Declaration of Independence. Almost similar concept like the American flag!
The problem I find with the annual Flag Day celebration is, speaker after speaker failed to introduce new ideas about the flag; instead, they continue to promote the same political and cultural divide that has failed to unite us as one people since the founding of the Republic. This observation was captured in the Daily Observer’s Monday, August 24, 2015 editorial, titled: “Why The Flag Means Everything And Nothing”. It reads:
Many Liberians, however, see the flag as a symbol of settler oppression against the indigenous tribes occupying Liberia, from 1822 until present; and understandably so. The effects of the dual society that prevailed here are still evident today, as the majority of our population still lives in abject poverty, without food, clean water or electricity. Under these circumstances, we cannot expect them to embrace the flag. But, rather than considering a futile change in flag design, we must recognize that the widespread distaste for our flag is just a symptom of Liberia’s failure to live up to its identity as a liberator, both domestically and continentally.
…Liberia spearheaded Africa’s drive for political freedom, helping its brothers forge a continent of proud and sovereign nations. But while we were pushing for Africans’ self-determination in other territories, we disenfranchised our own indigenous peoples. How long did it take us to allow them to vote, or to hold public office? Through our hypocrisy, we blackened our own image and allowed deep-rooted divisions to rip our country to shreds.
The FrontPageAfrica’s August 28, 2015 made similar observation in its editorial titled: “Liberia’s 85% Poverty Level Staggering, Genuine Actions Needed To Rescue Dying”. It reads:
LIBERIA IS A resource rich country blessed with deposits of iron ore, gold and having vast natural rain forest.
THE POPULATION IS far lower than many countries on the continent, with less than four million people, it is one of the least populated in West Africa and Africa as whole, falling far below its neighbors Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast.
ABOUT 12 YEARS after the civil war, the country is yet to show improvement in many areas including living standard. Unemployment is still very high and a large number of the small population lives on begging and transitory income.
IN A LATEST report which is based on data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Liberia is ranked as the 5th poorest country in Africa with a GDP per Capita of $454. The report states that about 85% of the population lives below $1. This is clearly a paradoxical situation for the resources the country has and the level of investment it has attracted since 2005.
…AFTER SIGNING SEVERAL concession agreements said to be in the neighborhood of US$16 billion, to be rated the 5th poorest country on the African continent is quite astonishing and needs urgent attention from state actors.
…OUT OF THE US$1.61 billion the Government of Liberia indicated that it could only generate approximately $510 million in revenues that can be dedicated to PRS-related activities, leaving a gross financing gap of approximately US $1.1 billion over the PRS period (about US$400 million per year).
THIS WAS A CLEAR sign that the government was not serious in reducing poverty for its people. By merely expressing that it could only generate 510 million in three years meant the PRS could only survive based on donors support.
…IT IS VERY STAGGERING to be ranked the 5th poorest country on a continent of 54 countries, especially when you are the oldest independent country.
THE LATEST REPORT SHOULD serves as a wakeup call to state actors in Liberia to work to reduce poverty for the Liberian people. Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who was highly regarded as a savior in the eyes of the Liberian people should not leave office leaving the country at the bottom of the poverty index in Africa.
The real challenge is how do we find a balance that preserves our history, and at the same time expunge it of those elements that are not healthy for building a robust democracy. The motto - “The Love Of Liberty Brought Us Here” is a constant reminder that the country is still divided on Settlers and indigenous line.
The question is how does one preserve historical national symbols that are not inclusive, and at the same time cleanse one’s mind into having a positive future? Is it true to say that because something is historical, therefore, it needs preserving? Why should one be patriotic about national symbols that do not represent their interest? How can a disenfranchised majority relate to national symbols that do not include them when the national leadership continues to promote the tradition of honoring distinguished Liberians and friends of Liberia with a national symbol called: “The Most Venerable Order of Knighthood of the Pioneers of the Republic of Liberia”? The indigenous population is NOT part of the group the “Love Of Liberty” brought to Africa. In fact, the “Love Of Liberty” met tribes in Africa. This divide should have been resolved 41 years ago.
For example on July 22, 1974, the Liberian National Legislature enacted an Act authorizing the late President William Richard Tolbert, Jr. to set up a commission to address the issue of Liberia’s National Symbols. The Commission came into existence purposely due to persistent calls from citizens who felt that certain national symbols were divisive; therefore, they needed to be revised in order to include all of the citizens of the Republic of Liberia.
The goal of the Commission was to review the Symbols and Constitution with the objective of recommending to him (Tolbert) the necessary changes that were needed in order to promote genuine unity that was lacking since the “founding” of the country. The symbols and document that the Commission was to review were: the national motto, national flag, national anthem and the Constitution of Liberia.
Through a proclamation, President Tolbert outlined the guidelines by which the Commission was mandated to review the national symbols. According to the President, the mandate empowered the Commission to review the national symbols (motto, flag, anthem and constitution) "with a view of stamping out every idea that may suggest class distinction, separateness or sectionalism among the people of Liberia."
This Commission consisted of fifty-one members; it was chaired by Post Master McKinley A. Deshield. The Commission worked for three and half years (July 22, 1974 - January 24, 1978) and submitted its findings to the President. Guess what happened? Based on the opposition of one Commissioner, Christian Abayomi Cassell, the recommendations were NEVER implemented. It is alleged that he strongly opposed to changing the motto – “The Love Of Liberty Brought Us Here”. To this effect, he made his opposition known to President Tolbert through a memorandum. (See Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 1985)
The truth of the matter is, Liberian elites and Liberian Government officials are NOT serious about making changes to our national symbols. Can you imagine that after putting the Liberian people through tiresome exercise of coming up with those recommendations to make changes to the divisive national symbols; the Government had them placed on the shelf. And it is over 41 years from (1974 – 2015) since those recommendations were made. Yet today, we are still discussing making changes to them.
The problem here is our leaders put their selfish interests over the common good of the masses. For the most part, many of our people’s support for politicians are based on what they can get from them and not what they stand for. This is the reason most elected officials grossly violate public trust. They earned supports on the basis of the handouts they provide—‘brown envelopes’ hand delivered at night to these unprincipled supporters. These individuals do not care where their handouts come from; as long as they keep coming to them, their families, friends and relatives, they have no empathy for the rest of the suffering masses who live on less than $1 DOLLAR a day.
This is a serious problem we are faced with. The mindset of ‘don’t care’ must be done away with. It reminds me ‘Mind your business’ or ‘Your leave the people’s thing alone’ that as youth we were advised not to get involve in vexed Liberian issues. Personally, I believe had we gotten involved at an early age, we would have helped to educate our people regarding what was wrong in our country and how it could be resolved amicably. This approach could have prevented some of the problems we are facing today.
Fellow compatriots, the unity we seek involves a complete paradigm shift! To achieve change requires moving away from one’s old ways of doing (behaving) things. It encompasses a deeper understanding of humanity’s quest to do what is right for no reason other than it is the right thing to do. Since change is not easy to come by, those who are not willing to make the sacrifice, often refer to those of us who seek change as ‘boat rockers’ and ‘troublemakers’. And if history is any guide to understanding the genesis of a country’s pregnant palaver, and how that palaver, i.e., ethnicity, inequality, injustice, peace, reconciliation and national unity are addressed, the Liberian experience is no exception.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Honestly, many of us are sick and tired of listening to speaker after speaker repeating the same old story about the importance of the Liberian flag and what it means to the citizens and the country. To the majority of the people, it means nothing. To add insults to injury, on every Flag Day we are asked to remain patriotic. How can a people remain patriotic to something they cannot relate to?
Personally, I have unfavorable memories of Flag Days growing up in Monrovia – whether in the Clay Street or PHP (Public Health Pond) communities. As a student, I believe other students of that period (the late 50s) can attest to the HARDTIME we experienced on Flag Day. We were practically forced to drill in the rain without any refreshments; i.e., snacks, soft drinks or cold drinking water to quench our thirst. The Government could have made these provisions available to schools in order for students to be entertained after drilling. The Government appropriates funds for other programs; this is one program that funds could benefit.
I remember a particular incident as if it was yesterday. Many, many years ago, a student in my Zion Academy Junior High School platoon (at the time, I was the Major for the school; second to Godfrey Tetteh Darpoh of St. Patrick Elementary School in drilling) fainted in line; when he was revived, and asked, “What is wrong with you?” He said, “I had nothing to eat his morning”. In those days, there were students who could not afford to buy Karla, Coconut Candy, Milk Candy, and Kool-aide during recess.
Therefore, when I read about orators on Flag Day calling on students and Liberians in general to remain patriotic, it reminds of the hungry young man who fainted in line because he had not eating. This year’s orator, Dr. Joseph Isaac could have appealed to the Government to make funds available to schools on Flag Day to provide refreshments: snacks, soft drinks or cold drinking water; instead, he urged thirsty and hungry students, and starving citizens to remain “patriotic”. To me that’s unpatriotic!
Come to think about, on many July 26 (Independence Days), numerous Orators have made sound recommendations but they have been ignored by the Government. One can only conclude that the Government does not mean business in resolving these problems.
For example in 2012, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn challenged the government and people of Liberia to rethink and debate the appropriateness of the national symbols, notably the nation’s seal, motto and flag. Dunn said:
I told the government that I have been writing and making speeches against our national decorations and symbols on the basis that they do not reflect our oneness as Liberians.
…My rejection comes from the perspective that, over our existence as a nation, there have been imbalances. There have been social imbalance, cultural imbalance, economic imbalance and many more. I want us to promote the balance of the imbalance, so that whatever region of the country you come from you can see yourself reflected in our symbols and decorations.
There continued to be struggles to implement many of the fine points raised by orators since the inception of the Unity Party (UP) Government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
TO RECONCILE IS GOOD, BUTJUSTICE IS PREFERRED!
Fellow compatriots, reconciliation is good, but repentance for doing wrong to others is better. Let’s be mindful that history serves as a constant reminder of a people’s past and present events; without first finding resolutions to our national divide: INJUSTICE and INEQUALITY; we will not be able to achieve UNITY. Therefore, as a point of departure, we should learn a lesson or two from President Lyndon Baines Johnson's speech that he made to the graduating class of Howard University on June 4, 1965. He said:
You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'you are free to complete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair. This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.
Anything short of the message by President Johnson regarding the civil rights of African Americans will prevent Liberians from uniting as one nation and people. It is about time Liberian leaders honestly face the truth about our country’s pregnant problems. Until then, we will remind divided as ever. Mark my words!
About The Author: Siahyonkron Nyanseor is the Chair of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc. He is a poet, Griot, journalist, and a cultural and political activist. He is an ordained Minister of the Gospel. He is Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), publisher of theperspective.org online newsmagazine and Senior Advisor to the Voice of Liberia newsmagazine. In 2012, he Co-authored Djogbachiachuwa: The Liberian Literature Anthology; his book of poems: TIPOSAH: Message from the Palava Hut will soon be on the market. Nyanseor can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org