Archbishop Francis' Freudian Slip

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 4, 2002

The Catholic Church is one of the most powerful and respected social institutions in Liberia. The Catholics are heavily invested in education, health care and charity work in Liberia, in addition to their visible ecumenical role in the greater Liberian society. Even in my hometown (county) of Rivercess, the Catholic influence is manifested in the number of Rivercess youths who regularly flock to Catholic schools and churches, and those who went on to become Catholic priests and nuns. And personally, Catholic Archbishop Michael K. Francis and the late Episcopal Bishop George D. Browne stood out to me as men of high intellect well suited to their ecumenical callings. So it is perplexing that a person with such great influence as Archbishop Francis will choose to mince words when discussing the unending Liberian crisis at a forum supposedly aimed at peace and reconciliation in Liberia.

In a speech at the formal opening of the Liberian government-sponsored National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation in Monrovia August 24, 2002, Archbishop Francis correctly noted some of the impediments to genuine peace and reconciliation in Liberia when he said: "Why has Peace eluded us? Why don't we have Peace in our native land? I am not oversimplifying the problems. There is a deficiency in our meting out justice to the people of this land. It seems to me that we are so blinded we cannot see injustice incarnate - it is a pity, because our consciences become so stifled that we do not have the moral will power or the political will power to act justly".

And, in his usual act of brilliance that has won him much public respect and admiration over the years, Archbishop Francis thought to explain what he meant by peace eluding Liberians by defining his perception of peace: "Peace is not only the absence of physical conflict; it is infinitely more than that. It has spiritual, psychological and physical dimensions. Quite often we are more concerned, it seems to me, about raw power and not its inner nature of service. Will this time make a difference? I hope. True Peace is Justice in the simplest definition. Peace and Justice go hand in hand, they are Siamese twins. Where there is justice we will have peace in all its dimensions and where there is peace we presuppose there is justice. When the rights of every individual is respected, when we live in a society where there is respect for the basic rights of all, where injustice in all its forms is not the order of the day, then without doubt there will be peace".

So far, it would seem that the Archbishop is right on the mark. For what can be a better speech at a peace and reconciliation conference than laying bare the issues and circumstances that led to the conflict in the first place? And the Archbishop won even higher marks with the next rhetorical questions and answers: "Are we surprised, then that we as individuals, as people, and as a nation find it difficult to be reconciled? How can we when that process of uniting us is thwarted by our default in meting out justice to one another from the family setting to the community and the nation. Reconciliation is only true and genuine if we admit our faults, respect the rights of others and respond to the invitation to repair whatever damage we may have effected by our negative relations with our fellow citizens. Reconciliation is truth. Reconciliation is admitting of one's faults and seeking forgiveness, of deeply apologizing. But when there is a culture of impunity, a culture of arrogance, a culture of disrespect for our fellow person, we will never have reconciliation. It is a spiritual fallacy to believe that saying Lord, Lord and not loving one's neighbor as ourselves, we will have peace".

Great! The Archbishop has given us enough clues on the road to genuine peace and reconciliation in Liberia --We must treat each other with utmost respect. We must be honest in our dealings with others. We must learn to forgive each other. We must do away with arrogance in whatever we do. We must be truthful in admitting our faults. And we must value justice in our undertakings. Here the Archbishop is well within his ecumenical rights to discuss the Liberian crisis from a moral standpoint, and he did so ably. However, it is the Archbishop’s attempts to sail outside the ecumenical path to peace and reconciliation into the purely secular realms of politics and culture that warrant this article.

It must be understood, notwithstanding, that my analysis of particular portions of the Archbishop's speech does not in any way cheapen my admiration and respect for him. What I have set out to do on these pages is to hold the Archbishop responsible to his public statements as I would any other politicians or public figures, and to state my disagreement. Furthermore, because the Catholic Church wields enormous power and influence in Liberia, it will be uncharacteristic of the Liberian public not to accept at face value public utterances by the ecumenical leader of the Liberian Catholic Church at such an important forum as the conference on peace and national reconciliation. It is therefore my hope that inferences by the Archbishop that perpetuate the myths contributive to our societal malice would be adequately addressed.

Now let's examine the Archbishop's rendition of Liberian history in relation to political, social, economic, and cultural coexistence between Americo-Liberians (or pioneers/settlers/immigrants) and native Liberians (indigenous people). "We as a people, as a nation, have never in a sustained and meaningful way come to grips with how we have treated each other in the past and in the present. From the founding of our nation the process of reconciliation was never put into motion - there were two classes: a superior one and an inferior one. The latter was looked down upon as barbarian, uncivilized and needed to be Christianized. In the process our forefathers on both sides meted out injustice to each other...," Archbishop Francis said.

Of course, you might be tempted to ask "What's wrong with that statement?" And my answer: "A lot". First, you will note that the Archbishop played to the stereotype that the "inferior one (meaning native Liberians}" were, or are, "barbarian, uncivilized and needed to be Christianized" without stating in similar diction what qualities made the "superior one (meaning Americo-Liberians)" superior. But more to that, the Archbishop stated that in the process of the "superior one" trying to civilize and christianize the "inferior one", "both sides meted out injustice to each other." How ironic? Is it possible? Can the slave-master and the slave each be blamed for meting out injustice to each other?

Archbishop Francis said, "In the early years of the 20th Century the renowned Liberian Scholar and Statesman, Edward Blyden in very strong terms articulated on several occasions the inequality existing among our citizens and he encouraged intermarriage between the descendants of the immigrants and the indigenous population. Hence the marriages between Edwin Barclay and a Grebo Lady, Euphemia Davis, the marriage between Arthur Grimes and a Vai Lady, the marriage between Momolu Massaquoi and the Grand Daughter of President Johnson, etc." as if intermarriage was a panacea to the wide gaps of social, economic and political inequalities that existed, and continue to exist, between Americo-Liberians and native Liberians.

But even after alluding to efforts by Blyden (and others) in the early 20th Century in prevailing on the ruling Americo-Liberian elites to live together in peace with their indigenous brethren and to treat each other with respect and as equals, Archbishop Francis still settled for the categorical statement that: "For the past two plus decades a culture of violence, a culture of deception, a culture of dishonesty, non-achievement and negative social attitudes have developed that it has become the order of the day..." But really? Did the Archbishop not know that "a culture of violence, a culture of deception, a culture of dishonesty, non-achievement and negative social attitudes" developed in Liberia as far back as 1822? I hope not! LOOK AT THIS SENTENCE! Because the Archbishop ought to know that it is injustice, inequality and blatant violence if native Liberians were not accorded Liberian citizenship until 1904, but had their land and cattle confiscated and forced to work as farm laborers and domestic workers.

In fact the Archbishop knew of the inequalities because he declared in the same speech that, "In 1945, President Tubman had three representatives from the three Provinces sit in the National Legislature - the Western, Central and Eastern Provinces respectively. It was only in 1964 that this country became one under one law and administration and the Interior Administration, as we knew it - absolute and dictatorial - was abolished. President Tubman made an attempt to reconcile the two segments of our society through his Unification and Integration Policy. To his credit he tried and in this process brought our country under one administration and though imperfect, the disadvantageous segment of our nation was given representation in the National Legislature. This was the first real attempt to resolve the first class - second class reality of our citizenship".

In essence, the Archbishop was admitting that two distinct classes of people not only existed in Liberia, but that from Liberia's declaration of independence in 1847 up to 1945, native Liberians were denied representation in the National Legislature except token representation at the whims of President Tubman, and probably other presidents before him. So how come he suggested that "For the past two plus decades a culture of violence, a culture of deception, a culture of dishonesty, non-achievement and negative social attitudes..." had become the order of the day? Is there any other way to infer from the Archbishop's statement, "...The Interior Administration, as we knew it - absolute and dictatorial - was abolished" that a culture of violence, deception, and dishonesty never existed in Liberia long before the past two plus decades? I guest not, but you may draw your own conclusion.

The Archbishop also declared, "In 1980 there was a bloody coup and many of the children of the pioneers were killed and their properties confiscated. Many are still in self-imposed exile. There was no attempt at reconciliation and the bleeding continues which makes reconciliation imperative. In 1989 a brutal war began. Thousands upon thousands were killed and the whole infrastructure of the nation was destroyed - political, financial, spiritual, etc." Here, as noted in his earlier depiction of the "superior one" versus the "inferior one" phenomenon, the Archbishop went to great length to document that "children of the pioneers were killed and their properties confiscated" but he had no such recollection of native Liberians who were "killed and their property confiscated" during the 1980 coup, or during the 1989-1997 Liberian civil war. True being told all Liberians, whether Americo-Liberians or native Liberians, suffered in the aftermath of the 1980 coup and the 1989 civil uprising. The growing population of internally displaced Liberians in Monrovia, and the thousands of Liberian refugees across the West African sub-region attest to the basic fact that no Liberians, regardless of education, wealth, or class, were spared as a result of the wave of violence in our country. And the Archbishop should know this very well.

So to speak only of persons killed and properties confiscated in the aftermath of the 1980 coup at a reconciliation conference is tantamount to glossing over, if not out-rightly suggesting, the cruelty, mass killings, and property confiscations and destructions that characterized the 1989-1997 civil war were less important, and that the only thing that matters for national reconciliation is accountability for the persons who were killed and their properties confiscated in 1980. Good if the living relatives of those killed in 1980 were compensated for the loss of life and property, but will the Archbishop also advocate for the relatives of persons throughout the various counties of Liberia who died and their properties were either confiscated or destroyed as a direct result of the 1980 coup, the 1983 Nimba Raid, or the 1989-1997 civil war be equally compensated? Of course, the relatives of any persons who were unjustly killed or had their properties confiscated or destroyed ought to be compensated for the losses if justice, fair play, and equality must be the hallmarks of the day, or the new Liberia, as the Archbishop so ably advocates.

But the Archbishop's prescription for achieving peace and reconciliation in Liberia was not limited to his implied desire for national accountability for "children of the pioneers" who were killed and their properties confiscated in1980. He also wants certain traditional practices (meaning certain native Liberian customs and traditions) abolished and the traditional legal customs reformed as part of the reconciliation process. Here, it is difficult for me to comprehend the Archbishop's logic for the recommendation, or the logic as to how traditional legal customs and practices directly or indirectly undermine peace and reconciliation in Liberia. But the Archbishop is convinced that there is some linkage, and this is how he put it:

"Cllr. William V.S. Tubman in 1918 argued the cause of the two sets of laws, Indigenous and Civil - one for the so-called 'civilized' people and another for the 'indigenous' people. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Dossen ruled that two separate laws were unconstitutional - all Liberians should come under the civil law--unfortunately the Executive never carried out this decision of the Supreme Court... It is suggested that the Constitution be amended to give recognition to the rights of victims of crime and abuse of power. That the Legislature carry out its constitutional mandate by enacting the following laws... giving protection to women married under customary practices...," Archbishop Francis said.

He also stated that, "In the past we have looked on many traditional practices as being uncivilized and diabolical. We have not admired cultural heritages whether from America, the Caribbean, Congo or Liberia. We are a mosaic of cultures and we need to be proud of our national heritages, our national customs, etc. Of course not all our cultural heritage is good; not all of our customs are good and wholesome. We need the wisdom and understanding to do away with those that are inimical to our well being as a people; for example, female genital mutilation and the understanding to enhance those that are good and of benefit to our nation and people. We are one people with one destiny and in our interactions as a people we should be very sensitive to the good cultural behavior and mores of our fellow citizens from different cultural backgrounds."

Again, it would appear that the Archbishop was genuinely discussing pertinent issues of the day. But read the two passages carefully and you will note that he is playing to Americo-Liberian stereotypes of native Liberian customs and traditions. Perhaps you ought to notice how the assertion, "In the past we have looked on many traditional practices as being uncivilized and diabolical" tied directly together in the same paragraph to "Of course not all our cultural heritage is good; not all our customs are good and wholesome. We need the wisdom and understanding to do away with those that are inimical to our well-being as a people; for example, female genital mutilation..."

So what is the Archbishop suggesting? Is he suggesting that the so-called 'female genital mutilation' should be abolished because it is "uncivilized and diabolical"? Maybe not, because it will be a tacit admission on his part that the Liberian Christian Church (Catholics included) practice of male circumcision or "male genital mutilation" (to borrow the Archbishop's phrase) is "uncivilized and diabolical". But it is difficult for the Archbishop to reconcile his call for abolition of the so-called "female genital mutilation" (female circumcision) in Liberian traditional culture with his earlier statement that, "We are a mosaic of cultures and we need to be proud of our national heritages, our national customs, etc..."

Besides, the Archbishop should not be in the business of publicly spearheading calls for changes in traditional practices for which he knows little or nothing. And this is true because even if the Archbishop were a member of the all-male traditional Poro Society, he would still not know what goes on in the all-female traditional Sande Society. So, like I challenged the Monrovia-based National Association on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (NATPAH) in a previous article,, to produce empirical data that supported their claims that traditional practices such as female circumcision posed health risks to women and children, I would be delighted if the Archbishop could make available similar data. For instance, Catholic traditions such as 'exorcism' and "celibacy" wouldn't make much sense to non-Catholics, but Catholics do hold those traditions dearly. The same is true with members participating in hazing at fraternity houses on Liberian high school and college campuses, and the 'rigorous initiation' (euphemism for severe floggings) or rites of passage rituals at western-oriented Liberian secret societies such as the UBF and Mason. Note the use of "severe floggings" is deliberate to drive home the point that available public information about UBF and Mason initiation rituals may be untrue or exaggerated, and the same logic applies to initiation rituals at traditional Societies such as the Poro and Sande. Only members in those societies know best what really goes on, and there is no need to demonize or castigate something only because you do not understand it. We ought to respect our traditions even where our curiosity or thirst for knowledge about the inner workings of such traditions remain unsettling.

On the issue of native Liberian customs laws vs. the Anglo-Saxon or western jurist prudence laws adopted by the Americo-Liberians, the Archbishop seems to agree with, and regret the non-implementation of, a 1918 ruling by former Chief Justice Dossen that "two separate laws ('Indigenous and Civil -- one for the so-called "civilized" people and another for the "indigenous" people", to borrow the Archbishop phraseology) were unconstitutional - (and that) all Liberians should come under the civil law". But this kind of logic is what has been responsible for the great divisions in the Liberian society today. And for a moment, let's understand this: The Archbishop and members of the Liberian Christian Church want constitutional guarantees of "separation of church and state", but not separation of "customary laws and civil laws?" But isn't that in and of itself planting a seed of disunity? At least not to the Archbishop and fellow proponents of the drive to abolish customary laws, though the Archbishop admits that some of Liberia's present chaos may have resulted from the fact that "We have not admired cultural heritages whether from America, the Caribbean, Congo or Liberia".

It is equally difficult to fathom the separation of customary laws and civil laws as any form of constitutional violations. More so, is the Archbishop talking about the same 1847 Liberian Constitution that did not recognize the natives, the original inhabitants of the landmass later called Liberia, as Liberian citizens? But granted that all things are equal, even in advanced and great democratic societies such as the United States, customary laws operate in tandem with the civil laws. For example, Washington, DC, the United States' Capital has a "Domestic Partnership" law rooted in customary laws. And, throughout the United States, Native Americans (American Indians) practice customary laws on their reservations. Besides, in Liberia, a division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is propped up with traditional legal scholars who regularly investigate abuses of any kind under customary laws and related traditional practices, and hear appeals from time to time from lower customary courts. So why does the Archbishop (and others of like minds) find customary laws to be an affront to civil liberties, an impediment to peace and reconciliation in Liberia, or unconstitutional? Is this an issue of control or genuine concern for the well being of the adherents of customary laws and practices? Perhaps some Liberian legal scholars will explain the difference in the not too distant future.

But as the Archbishop correctly stated in his speech, "We (Liberians) are in many instances insincere, dishonest, deceitful, and sycophantic. We have serious attitudinal problems... We should address ourselves not only to healing the wounds of the past but also to those of the present". And the Archbishop's call for a TRUTH COMMISSION for Liberia modeled after South Africa, for healing our self-inflicted wounds and scars as a prelude to genuine peace and reconciliation is unlikely to succeed once we continue to stick to the notion that the customs and traditions of one group of people in Liberia are better or superior to the customs and traditions of the next group. Diversity in thought, expression and experience is what makes a nation great and prosperous and not concerted efforts on the part of one group in society to impose its will or to strangulate the other group. Hope that's not what the Archbishop is recommending.

Finally, I share the Archbishop's concerns for reforming the national security apparatus, prioritizing health and education, practicing justice and equality before the law, and promoting genuine peace and reconciliation that will eventually propel Liberia to becoming the great and prosperous nation she ought to be. But respect for each other as individual citizens, and the customs and traditions of each group will be key to our success. Therefore I concur, as the Archbishop so ably noted in his speech: "The question that arises is: will we succeed? Why have our other deliberations, reflections and conclusions not succeeded in bringing us the desired peace and reconciliation? Have we been going the wrong way in seeking our desires for our country? Or have we neither the political nor the moral will to implement what we have concluded? Or perhaps we have been fooling ourselves and have not been sincere about what we have discussed and what we want? Still the questions come to mind: Do we want genuine peace and reconciliation in Liberia? Are we honest with ourselves?" Your answers are as good as mine!

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