The Country And Congo Palaver:
Who's The Problem?
By Tarty Teh
Since, in fact, this was a direct request by the editors of The Perspective Magazine that I write this article in response to President Charles Taylor's threat to ban the use of the term "country" and its antithesis "Congo", I must necessarily begin the piece exactly in a way that confirms the utility of these terms; not, however, with a view to derogate any group, but to show that perceiving tribal designations as the problem and thus banning these cultural identities is simply a brand of arrogance which borders on stupidity. I therefore hold no one in any regard who worked with Taylor to put this labeling ahead of hunger and homelessness as deserving of legislative agitation at any time.
To that end, I find it necessary to describe the set-up which now worries President Charles Taylor and his political lip synchers. So let's get it straight. Charles Taylor is an Americo. I, Tarty Teh, am country (or Grebo, if you care enough). A Congo however would be someone like Reginald Goodridge, whose forefathers were rescued from some slave boats after slavery was banned internationally. The theory is that the slave port of origin for the Goodridge family is somewhere in the Congo. But the Goodridges (or what could possibly have been the Sese Sekus) did not go back home to the Congo when they were cut loose. That was because they had a better chance of being accepted by the aristocratic Americos than any tribal group had the right to expect.
And so the Congos were accepted, although in a limited capacity, among the Americos. However, some country people were "assimilated" along with the Congos into the Americo main culture. However to get "assimilated", you had to be first and necessarily "civilized". This is where it gets tricky for me, and being country doesn't help matters much. But it worked for some tribal people. That's how some Jones, Wesleys, Thompsons, and Stewarts were successfully "assimilated". These were the ones who could no longer stand being called "country", and so naturally developed the camouflage of looking, sounding, and acting like Americos.
Still some country people somehow developed immunity to the supposed degradation of being called "country." First, because, in fact, they were and are still country. The Gbarbeas, Kollies, Fahnbullehs, and Tehs belong in that group -country people who think they can be useful citizens while at the same time being recognized as country people. There is, however, another group that got stuck somewhere in between. They are the Yekesons and the Wortorsons. This group deliberately suspended their own transmutation from country to Americo in order to achieve some compromise in social posturing. They are thus suspended between the two main groups in Liberia. There is a word for their state.
Who's the Problem
There is a risk inherent in writing about President Charles Taylor. The risk is one of boredom generating in the incessant description of something so obvious, however horrible. Even so, whenever I describe any aspect of the embarrassment Taylor represents, I get, in addition to some of the predicted agreement with my observations, a half dozen or more dissenters claiming that I have not endeavored to propose a solution to the problem. Well, maybe they are right. We are the problem, for letting Taylor get away with so much.
We had a choice; a half dozen choices, in fact. I would have voted for Wortorson, Tipoteh, Moniba, or Fahnbulleh in any order in the 1997 Liberian presidential election if the situation, going in, had not been so hopeless. And I would have studied each of the above candidates closely enough to make my choice more deliberate and focused. But, as I have said many times before, it was hopeless to begin with. And so Charles Taylor won the whole thing - the presidency, both chambers of the legislature and all the offices that radiate from their control. Therefore, if Taylor felt a need to atone for the colossal destruction by which he acquired power, there were hardly any obstacles to prevent him from doing so.
A Deal is a Deal
The set-up leading to the elections was as Taylor had wished and demanded it; he therefore yielded no ground during the negotiations that led to the settlement under which he was made a part of the search for democracy. But having accepted the terms of those agreements, we cannot now quibble with the result. Besides, that's democracy.
Much as it would have pained me to see Taylor redeem himself after I had advocated that he should not be allowed to compete as a candidate for any office, I would have found myself on the shaky ground of arguing against apparent success or an honest attempt at workable solutions by the Taylor government. But Taylor will be Taylor.
And it is not like I held my breath in hope that Taylor would not benefit from my concerns by addressing them. It can only be that Taylor is battling something that has a firmer grip on him than a desire to impeach a perceived enemy. The bottom line is that such is the nature of the beast. Yet he does all this at our expense.
I can understand Taylor's preoccupation with his own survival, but even I fear for his life for the opulent life-style he has chosen among a population he has decimated for the privilege of having his way. And so I ask, when is enough, enough? And can we continue to blame the man for not being able to resist the exploitation of our cowardice and greed for crumbs?
I would have had a need (which I might not be able to resist successfully) to magnify Taylor's misdeeds. But given their magnitude, my question is a simple one. Do these acts require any magnification to prove iniquity? This is why I refrained from commenting on the result of the Dokie murder trial. There was nothing I could have added which the manner of the trial did not sufficiently underscore.
Our silence on these issues only guarantees killing as a means of resolving any issue Taylor regards as a problem. Because of that, killing for Taylor is as convenient as backspacing on your computer keyboard. Which is perhaps why Mr. Tom Woewiyu, Taylor's Minister of Labor, used the term "erased" to describe the elimination of the Nimba politicians.
Well, in fact, all of these things, except the Dokie murder and trial, happened before we had the elections. The elections marked the beginning of a new arrangement. So regardless of what I thought about the process, the people had voted for their leader. It was therefore time for Taylor to redeem himself. And what has he done in 10 months of having his way? Well, he continues to have his way.
For having survived our combined attempts to neutralize him, Taylor is not so easily and fairly accused of not knowing who his enemies are. And so he has publicly identified his enemy as the tribes. It will be treasonable, therefore, to say you are a member of a tribe. But this is not a one-man agenda. By some coincidence (if it is), I received an e-mail from an Americo named Charles King in which Mr. King rants, "I hate tribes." King picked me as a target because I am a Grebo who wants to remain a Grebo. And Taylor is ready to ease my burden of being Grebo by taking the label away from me.
Taylor had expressed roughly the same sentiments in 1993 as King did in 1998. In 1993 and on learning that I had entered Liberia, Taylor spent 30 minutes of prime time on his radio network talking about me and my tribe. Well, in fact, he thought I had switched tribes (from Krahn to Grebo) a tough thing to do. The only person who has done such is Ignatius N. Clay, and with astounding success too. From Kru to Krahn, Clay went, and back again to reflect the make-up of any prevailing forces. But I am not such an acrobat.
The coincidence is that Taylor's proposed ban of tribes as a cultural entity in Liberia came the week Charles King informed me of his antipathy for tribes. And history backs Mr. King up on this one. It was his grandfather, President Charles King, who sold African Liberians into slavery in the 1930s. It just so happened that slavery had been banned internationally at the time President King discovered the marketability of tribal people. Some of the country people for whom the Liberian government had already invoiced the Spanish plantation owners in Fernado Po returned home to their tribes after the League of Nations' intervention ended their enslavement. Among the unlucky ones was a man named Gbalee Kuhn, my maternal grandfather, who died in Fernado Po. I had, until now, drawn comfort from the fact that because the League of Nations convicted Liberia of slavery we were free. Now I am not sure if we are not still slaves.
Some More Clues
We have seen enough senselessness in Liberia's recent past. The only hope was to put in place a process for predictably dealing with violations of the rights of citizens. The voting process mandated the rule of order. We need to remember also that the process gave us a way out of being forced to live with the kind of danger Charles Taylor portends for the whole country. So I would say that when opposition politicians are found beheaded and burned, that's a clue that the government which listed any such person as an enemy is a bad government and must therefore be held accountable. And if everyone implicated in the murder is found innocent as a result of a trial, that's another clue.
Mind you, we don't want to toss the whole government out the window. We must merely exorcise it of bad influences. To that end, I think the Liberian Christian group who in early May 1998 visited the Executive Mansion to chase away evil spirits had the right idea but ended up chasing the wrong spirit. It is not Doe or, for that matter, Tolbert who should be chased out of the Executive Mansion. It makes you wonder if the Liberian Christians have ever heard the phrase "rest in peace" for a dead person, however evil.
The constitution has equipped us to do our civic duties under the law. In addition to that, we have a legal government which, besides having resulted from free elections, has the further legitimacy of being broadly based. For instance, President Taylor's Director General of the Cabinet is Blamoh Nelson. Mr. Nelson is also a Kru man. As is Joah Toe Wolo Gbe Nimley Morkonmana Nyudueh, who is Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Tom Woewiyu as Labor Minister was sent to the United States in October 1997 to pinch-hit for Taylor's foreign ministry in drumming up support for Taylor's proposed trip to the U.S. to address the United Nations. And you thought banning hammocking was the end of humiliation for tribal people. Yet the choice of issues for examination by the Taylor government still does not reflect the urgency of our national condition. So how long are we going to let Taylor get away with murder literally and figuratively?
So if we are beginning to have nightmares, it's because President Charles MacArthur Taylor has fielded a dream team again.