Issues of Liberia’s Ethnic Relationships

By Mohamedu F. Jones

The Perspective

December 9, 2001

Editor's Note: Mohamedu F. Jones, Esq., a lawyer in the Washington, DC are served as Installing Officer for the Marylanders for Progress (Liberia), Inc. on December 1, 2001, of which Ms. President, Roberta Brown and other officers were installed. Below is the full text of Mr. Jones' speech delivered on September 1, 2001:

Thank you so much for asking me to be your guest speaker and installer. It is a particular tribute. Congratulations to you, Ms. President, Roberta Brown, and the incoming officers. Honor the trust and responsibilities that your organization has placed on you.

Participating in this program of Marylanders for Progress is particularly special for me because of my connection to the people of that county. The matriarch of my father’s family, Nmano Shannon, my great grandmother, was a progeny of Maryland County. Our Grebo heritage, and our Shannon relatives are an integral part of our family connections.

Tonight, I wish to share with you my thinking about a complex set of issues that Liberians avoid, or discuss with acrimony, or engage with temporization, or view with trepidation, or employ with malevolence. They are issues that bring a certain level of discomfiture to many Liberians. They are the issues of Liberia’s ethnic relationships.

They are issues that are built into those peculiar Liberian code words: "Country," "Congo," "Native," "Americo" – and all that these words conjure up in our minds. Remember, the Liberian civil war was prolonged and sustained primarily as an ethnic war; the most depraved acts took place in the context of ethnic animus. Today, we continue to run the risk that ethnic discord may lead to deep, prolonged and even more destructible inter ethnic conflicts in the country – struggles that could last far into the future.

At the outset, I offer for your consideration a number of critical questions that I wish you to consider in respect to yourself, to examine in your heart and lay bare before your conscience:

How do you perceive your personal role and responsibility in respect to Liberia’s ethnic situation?

Do you promote ethnic conflict and polarization by action or speech?

Are you indifferent to ethnic tensions and divisions?

Does how you live, how you connect and relate, how you seek out other Liberians, and how you treat them, make you a reconciler or divider?

Are you active in bringing people together within the community of Liberians with whom you interact?

Liberia has historically, and is still today faced with multi-tiered problems of extraordinary complexities that affect its ethnic conditions. There is a long history of exploitation and discrimination, a weak culture of citizenship, a shallowness of the rule of law, and insubstantial civil and civic societies. These combinations create conditions, which, persons so inclined, have used to mobilize people along ethnic lines, to the detriment of the national body polity, and of the country.

Liberia’s relatively small land area and population offer both limitations and opportunities on how we redress its ethnic circumstances. The limitations on political solutions mean that Liberia cannot realistically resolve ethnic troubles through national partition, which would mean the creation of entirely new states out of Liberia that enjoy full sovereignty and international recognition. Autonomy along ethnic lines, which would allow ethnic groups to exercise direct control over important affairs to them, is also not practicable. Formal constitutional power-sharing or legally required collaborative decision-making by all ethnic groups in Liberian society would be unwieldy, and would help to harden ethnic differences and further polarize the country.

We must therefore look to integrative models that compel multiethnic coalitions, create incentives for moderation and enhance minority influence in national decision-making. An integrative model seeks to foster ethnic accommodations by promoting crosscutting interests. An integrative model requires the development of personal relationships, recognition of our common humanity, and appreciation of our collective citizenship, as well as the adaptation of a principled and balanced approach to the entire question.

I propose that the starting point for understanding and supporting ethnic peace and harmony in Liberia is reconciliative relationships on the personal level. A reconciliative relationship is a highly personal and interpersonal process. It ought to begin on the personal level with political and opinion leaders like all of us in this room tonight. We must start by making an effort to understand the fears and hopes, the aspirations and goals, and the perceptions and interpretations of other Liberians. These relationships must be created across ethnic identity and class line divisions, and rooted and sustained up and down the society. They must be directed to building trust, to constructing valued connections, creating networks, and maintaining coalitions, along the high, middle and grassroots levels of Liberian society – among Liberians of all persuasions.

Fundamental to this process is our recognition of a shared common humanity, one that even extends beyond a shared country. It is a sense of an "alongsidedness" – that we are together in this journey, and each of us is a keeper of our sister and brother. Central to this sense of humanity, this "alongsidedness," is a core humility that reflects an understanding of our own place in God’s creation, and of our humanness. It requires the capability to share rather than to impose, to respect rather than cast aspersions, to understand other’s needs and challenges. This level of common humanity requires engagement with and empathy for another’s journey, and a lifelong, re-generative commitment to learning, appreciating and valuing your entire fellow Liberians.

We must deal with these issues within the principles of truth, justice, mercy and peace. Truth looks to the past, and in this context, "Truth" is remembering – what to remember and how to remember. Specific to Liberia, as an example, we must remember that all Liberians who have ruled the country from its founding until today, have done so to their privileged benefit, and to the detrimental exclusion of the majority of the people. This is a truth, whether we like it or not. Now, how do we remember this truth – we can remember it in any number of ways – but I suggest that the beneficial way to remember and employ this truth is that we must challenge Liberian leaders, regardless of their ethnicity, who would rule our country in a fashion, that is not beneficial to the whole people and the whole country.

The principle of justice speaks to what can be done now to provide a Liberia in which all of us, regardless of our ethnicity may enjoy the nation. Justice asks, what makes the wrong right and what can restore us. Justice in this context is neither punitive, retributive nor revengeful. Rather, it restores or establishes a balance. Justice acts in the present to resolve the wrongs of the past, so as to protect the future.

Justice, however, must be tempered by mercy and peace. The principles of mercy and peace are about the future – our children’s future and our future progress, our nation’s destiny. The concept of mercy and peace concerns questions of "How can we coexist? How will we coexist? How will we start anew? How can we rebuild with each other? How can we live in peace?" Under the principles of mercy and peace, we cast our eyes toward the future.

These principles are connected. Remember: "Truth without Mercy is blinding and raw; Mercy without Truth is a cover-up and superficial. Justice without Peace falls easily into cycles of bitterness and revenge; Peace without Justice is short-lived and benefits only the privileged or the victors."

We Liberians must give voices to these enduring principles; connect them with each other and with our lives, within the greater whole. We must prepare personally and help our communities along the course of this new perspective. We must develop long-term lenses on what direction we ought to take, and commit to support and accompany Liberia’s reconciliation processes.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I do not offer a formula for everyone in Liberia to agree or become friends. What I suggest to you is that we, each and every one of us, individually and collectively, in our Liberian settings, should always be mindful and respectful of our common human dignity and shared Liberian citizenship. I advise we adapt values that drive our structures and forums for peaceably handling unavoidable conflicts. I propose a society where each of us will decide, and teach our children, to never make a judgment about another person, adverse or favorable, based on their ethnicity, their gender, their tribe or county, their sexual orientation, or where they were born, or what language they speak or what religion they are. This ought to be a shared national value. Do you have the courage to do this?

Thank you so very much.

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