Dr. James Kwegyir Aggrey
(1875 – 1927)
One of the underlining factors for the enslavement and manipulation of the young boys and girls in Liberia by the various warlords for the past fifteen years to serve as their killing machines is illiteracy (i.e., “ignorance”). This category forms one facet of what the late president of Liberia William Richard Tolbert, Jr. regarded as the three major “enemies” of the people and the state of Liberia in the 1970s – “ignorance, disease and poverty” (IDP). However, in a hasty attempt to identify and combat these enemies, Tolbert decided to immediately summon at the Capitol Building his Defense Minister and Chief of Staff, cabinet ministers and members of both houses of parliament and the diplomatic corps to eloquently argue his case before the assembled officials of his government and foreign diplomats. In so doing, he categorically told the nation and the diplomatic community in a nation-wide speech that these enemies were “invading Liberia from outside” and therefore the need for urgent actions (see Tolbert’s presidential papers in three volumes). Tolbert’s identification of these enemies as foreign (external) invaders instead of regarding them as the results of the culture and politics of exclusion by his predecessors over a century was a major flaw in his timely analysis of the crises that were facing his government and the Liberian people in the 1970s. In other words, Tolbert should have stated boldly to the people of Liberia and his foreign guests that the perennial problem of ignorance, disease and poverty was deeply internal as a by-product of the 124 years of the one party-rule of the True Whig Party (TWP), which was compounded by the anti-development policies of his predecessor, William V.S. Tubman, Sr., from 1944 to 1971.
Quite worryingly, in 2005 education seems not to be taken seriously in the election campaign, while “book people” (i.e., intellectuals) are indiscriminately becoming a target for abuses and unfounded allegations in Liberia by the very victims of IDP. At this juncture, it is therefore necessary to focus on these tripartite problems that have kept Liberia underdeveloped for more than a century and a half. It is also important to concentrate on the problems of IDP, because of the deliberate policy and strategy over the years to promote illiteracy as an instrument of governance in Liberia by the ruling class. Tolbert, cognizant of the consequences of distributional conflict that was engulfing his government and the TWP, formulated his “humanistic capitalist” approach to economic development in an attempt to transcend the regressive Tubman era. As such, he was the first TWP leader in the 20th century to categorically trace IDP to one of the causes of the country’s problems of constant political instability and perpetual underdevelopment in spite of its massive natural and human resources. In this context, his reaction was two-fold: on the one hand, he sought a long-term solution by strengthening the educational sector through a number of domestic schemes such as the establishment of “multilateral high schools” or vocational school projects for the provision of middle-lever skilled workers; and on the other hand, unlike Tubman, he, upon taking office in 1971, realized that the foreign policy of a country could equally be an effective developmental tool for human capital formation. In this light, as a genuine non-alignment strategist, Tolbert abandoned Tubman’s biased implementation of Edwin Barclay’s “Open-Door Policy”, which undermined the country’s national interest. To effectively use the Open Door Policy as a development strategy, Tolbert therefore established diplomatic relations with a number of countries (e.g., the ex-Soviet Union, Romania, Poland and the People’s Republic of China) regardless of their ideological orientations for the acquisition of scholarships. The long-term objective, of course, was the training of many young Liberians in the fields of science and technology, two key areas that form the bedrock of any developing economy. Samuel Kanyon Doe and his “People’s Redemption Council” (PRC) that overthrown Tolbert and the TWP in a military coup in 1980, through the relentless efforts of the now much-hated “book people”, continued this nonalignment strategy (foreign policy) for the development of the nation’s human resources. After the transformation of the PRC into the “National Democratic Party of Liberia” (NDPL) in 1984, although the PRC had then purged itself of many of these patriotic and principled “book people”, Doe resisted the pressures of the Reagan Administration who were worried about the perceived threat of “communists” in Liberia and continued Tolbert’s scholarship schemes. Today, in spite of the inaccuracy of his analysis of the crises of the country in the 1970s, the long-term benefits of Tolbert’s educational strategy and pragmatic foreign policy have helped to train a good crop of doctors and engineers.
In the face of this observation, the identification of IDP as one of the major barriers to the industrial development of Liberia by a sitting president, should be regarded as a bold attempt and an indirect confession by a TWP leader by all counts to admit their failed leadership from 1869 to 1971. Hence, it is extremely unfortunate that the educational sector, the engine for economic growth with development, has been “de-emphasized” in the speeches and debates of many of the presidential aspirants, coupled with the new phenomenon of indiscriminate accusation of “book people” as those who have failed the country. That is, instead of placing the blame on the shoulders of those mercurial and opportunistic intellectuals who were and are still responsible for the misery of our people and the entire country, sadly, all intellectuals are being blamed for the failure of the country. Moreover, as one Liberian academic and security expert has recently observed, “politics of the belly” has taken center stage in post-war Liberia with no substantive issues such as security and human resource development in the country being discussed. This trivialization of education which others have termed “anti-education” behavior, coupled with the promotion of belly politics by some politicians in the country resonates vividly with the Confucian adage that to dominate a people, “empty their minds, but fill their bellies” with rice. This is the worrisome trend politics is taking today to the detriment of the future of Liberian youth and the entire country; but to the delight of warlords and their collaborators who always find amongst these victims of IDP (i.e., illiterate and poverty-stricken youth) a fertile hunting ground for recruits.
However, the entire situation will not continue to be bleak, if there is a visionary leadership that will realize that to halt the manipulation of the youth in Liberia by power-hungry elements, a relentless war must be waged on ignorance, disease and poverty. Within this framework, the effort of “The Committee for the Promotion of Education”(COPE) in Liberia in highlighting the issue of education in the entire election campaign should be appreciated. More importantly, to overcome the present dilemma Liberia has found itself in at the outset of the 21st century the ultimate solution will be the eradication of ignorance through the promotion and support of the educational sector. In other words, defeating ignorance (i.e., illiteracy) will ultimately lead to the eradication of poverty, given that through education many young boys and girls in Liberia will be better placed to reshape their future by becoming “bread winners” for their families and themselves in the long run, instead of enlisting themselves for a few dollars to fight in “uncivil wars”. Moreover, Liberians will then stop the game of “blaming the victims” always and not the perpetrators, whenever poor teen-age girls who are victims of the systems fall prey to philandering and unscrupulous older men simply to remain in school. For a gist of the reason why these poor girls, unlike in the past, are victims of the current circumstances, we need to reread UNDP’s “National Human Development Report of Liberia for 1999” (UNDP, 2000). In that report it is clearly documented that, aside from the threat of high adult illiteracy rates, there are growing “gender imbalances in education” which sadly lead to the highest rate of school dropouts among teen-age girls.
Another dividend to be derived from eradicating ignorance is the problem of health and malnutrition, which impedes the productivity of any country’s labor force. That is, Liberians, equipped with quality education and the requisite skills to adequately fend for themselves, will be able to look after their families in terms of better health care, housing and improved dietary decisions. The other side of this assertion is that “premature pregnancy” which has become a major problem in post-war Liberia for many teen-age girls will be arrested, since these girls will be in the position financially to make informed decisions regarding sex. In more explicit terms, while it is true that the harsh economic situation in Liberia is taking a toll on poor families with its direct impact on many of the youth, the UN has equally failed miserably to halt the massive misappropriation or theft of the meager financial resources of the Interim Government by some habitually corrupt Liberian politicians. For example, the former head of the UN in Liberia, Jacques Paul Klein whose only success was hollow rhetoric and his team witnessed passively the misuse of millions of dollars of public funds by the interim government to buy luxurious jeeps at inflated prices for its officials, while civil servants starved for almost a year without pay. The consequences of the UN boss and his team’s surprised inactions are crystal clear like common sense, because one does not have to be an economist or a sociologist to know what happens to a typical poor family, when the head of that household is financially helpless for a prolonged period. Hence, instead of the lopsided September 6, 2005 report by some so-called experts of the United Nations’ “Integrated Regional Information Networks” (IRIN) that in Liberia “study finds many girls selling [their] bodies to pay for school”, IRIN ought to have taken the plight of these poor girls into account. In other words, the IRIN experts should have genuinely “integrated” their information to also document that the handsomely paid UN representatives in Liberia have been extremely unhelpful by not holding the Interim Government accountable for transparency, fiscal discipline, and good governance. In essence, biased analysis such as IRIN’s that evades the content and glorifies mere form of a critical issue is absolutely baseless and irrelevant for an embattled country that is struggling to put itself back on the socio-economic development path. In a nutshell, a new breed of nationalist leaders and policymakers should take a leaf from Dr. Aggrey’s advice, because the fate of post-war Liberia will be determined by the literacy rate of its women. Ultimately, aside from harnessing the latent potentials of Liberian women, this strategy of gender development and empowerment will also have spin-off effects on their off-springs, who are the country’s “future leaders”.
Today, undeniably there is an ongoing crisis within the Liberian educational system in which the Ministry of Education (MOE) and institutions of higher education have been the least on the list of past and present government expenditure. For example, without underestimating the importance of national security, the first budget of Taylor’s post-war government in 1998 was US$ 44 million dollars. The allocation of that meager budget was so skewed towards defence and security than education that the entire educational sector received only 7.6%, while defence and security received the lion’s share of 81.8%, totaling the amount of 33 million dollars out of the budget of US$44 million dollars (The News, vol. 8, no. 120, 1998, pp. 1&6). Correlating this situation with the under-funding of education by the current Interim Government is a worrying reminder that practically nothing has changed and that equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth is still a distance dream in the country. In a larger sense, the present mandate of the MOE ought to be broadened enabling it to play its pivotal role as the main “enabler” and “sustainer” of the country’s industrialization program. The thrust of this assertion is based on the fact that the survival of developing economies in today’s competitive global market depends on their ability to both produce and accumulate “useful knowledge”, which is a critical factor for the acquisition of international competitiveness. This long-term strategy of restructuring the MOE will demand supporting this important and indispensable ministry with the required resources for it to spearhead the industrial development process of the country into the 21st century. However, if the neglect of education continues, this could herald another dangerous trend of instability and the continued “struggle for spoils” in the country in the decades to come with far-reaching implications.
One aspect of the current educational crisis is that the efforts of students in the country are being seriously undermined by the new phenomenon of “bogus degrees” from abroad. That is, if the mushrooming of the culture of bogus knowledge in the country is not nipped in the bud immediately by the Ministry of Education, given the negative impact it will have on the country’s already fragile educational system, this could further undermine the socio-economic development process in such a post-war economy. This new development is linked with the current crisis in Liberia for two simple reasons. On the one hand, it is a deliberate and cynical ploy to undermine the post-war economic development process; and on the other hand, it is basically designed to take away jobs from those diligent men and women who have spent years and sleepless nights to study at local universities and colleges in unbearable conditions. The flipped side of the problem is that such academic theft equally highlights one of the weaknesses of our educational system in which anyone with an internet degree from abroad can bulldoze his way up the job ladder unchecked. The consequences of the intrusion of these bogus degree holders with overloaded curricula vitae into the Liberian job market will be the breeding of discontent amongst the youth, further undermining the fragile peace process.
In short, it is time that Liberian policymakers realize the indispensable role of education in economic development, because as one British academic warns, “countries cannot borrow their way to prosperity”. They must create their own human capital through massive investment in human resource development as a sustainable industrial development strategy. This simply means that while Liberians must be grateful to the benevolence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to send doctors and teachers to assist in the reconstruction process, a nation cannot be built on such a short-term strategy. To effectively supplement the generosity of the Nigerians, Liberian Government must take seriously its educational system inasmuch the Nigerian government has done over the years; that is, Liberia can learn a lot from both Ghana and Nigeria how these countries have managed to create and accumulate such an enviable mass of human capital within four decades, after independence. Moreover, the formation of new organizations such as COPE and the “Youth United for the Promotion of Quality Education” (YOUPOQUEL) in Liberia should be understood by politicians and policymakers that the country’s young men and women feel totally neglected and dissatisfied with the “business as usual” approach to the ongoing educational crisis. Thus, it will only take a nationalist approach to economic development for the betterment of the nation and its impoverished people, unlike the past and present policies of the economic empowerment of a parasitic few who hate productive investment in the local economy but shamelessly promote capital flight (through their foreign bank accounts and luxurious homes abroad) and conspicuous consumption.