October 16, 2003
When we were growing up in Liberia, one thing was obvious to me: Liberians in general did not enjoy an equal playing field. There was a tiny elite and another small group close to the center of power, close enough to see and smell it. But the vast majority of the citizens of the republic lived way below the poverty line. A middle class, necessary in all civilized societies to boost productivity was glaringly absent. The system - police, the courts, the legislature, and the entire government bureaucracy was highly corrupt and inefficient.
There were a few good schools and many poor ones. The University of Liberia did not have enough space for all deserving students and Cuttington University College was too expensive. Therefore, many young ones with the natural endowment to become great citizens wasted their lives because we lived in a corrupt, inefficient and undemocratic society.
The above analyses made are my personal opinions of how I saw things in Liberia. But I’m quite sure many will similarly agree. But what was the average Liberian citizen’s approach to these national tragedies in the making? Only one response: "Leave the people thing alone".
There were pockets of resistance, especially in the early seventies following the death of President Tubman. A wind of change seemed to be blowing from the academic community. Progressive students at the institutions of higher learning and some liberal-minded professors began to make some noise. High school graduates whose lives were potentially wasted because of the "unfair system" joined the chorus to demand changes in society. Although this new approach was significant, it was still a minor development numerically. But the general public, including many other students and university professors and administrators sat back and said: "Leave the people thing alone".
Some Liberian students who had come to the United States sensed the need for social and progressive change in their country. They organized themselves into what became known as ULAA (Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas).
As the message began to reach Liberia, many Liberians on the home front began to admire ULAA and its leaders. We needed change and our brothers and sisters were delivering a positive message: "Change is on the way", the seemed to be saying and we were elated with joy as we praised the efforts of ULAA. But this general feeling of optimism was met with stronger pessimism. The majority of the people of Liberia simply said: "Leave the people thing alone".
Abruptly, the military coup that toppled the Tolbert government changed our lives collectively. Many were happy that change had finally come but some of us had our reservations because change had not been brought about through the natural, progressive and intellectual revolution we had envisioned. Change, as we all know now, came though the barrel of a gun. The armed revolution, permeating Africa, had finally reached Liberia in grand style. The men in uniform left the barracks and occupied the mansion.
They, though barely educated, became our new "leaders" They replaced the corrupt civilians whom everyone had loved to hate and few admired and respected. The new sheriff in town proved himself to be a dictator following in the path of Idi Amin of Uganda and Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic and other ruthless ones. The corruption in Liberia was magnified, to our disgust. Not only did the system remain corrupt and inefficient, it became brutal as well. The "leaders" called themselves "liberators", but killed with impunity. Our system went from worse to ridiculous, to our dismay and horror. But what did the masses say? They said: "Leave the people thing alone".
This is where ULAA failed many of its followers and admirers. Instead of continuing to fight the good fight, many of ULAA’s leaders jumped ship, claiming "our time has come"; they joined the new corrupt system. They seemed to be proud that the corrupt civilian system was gone but had no compunction in dealing with corrupt soldiers. Many young Liberians watched as the leaders who had been calling for "progressive change" now shamelessly anchored the old chorus of "Leave the people thing alone".
Many young revolutionary firebrands left the shores of Liberia during this period and came to the United States for "further studies", as they said. Some joined ULAA, others didn’t. But ULAA is still the premier Liberian organization and many look up to it to lead the continuing fight for progressive change in Liberia but now the organization seems to have more detractors than admirers because they have lost hope in ULAA’s ability to lead them to the "promised land".
But what are the options? There are three, in my estimation. Firstly, Liberians on these shores must take the proactive stance of taking matters into their own hands. They must grab the bull by the horn and transform ULAA’s leadership, its structure and its direction. There is one problem with this approach, namely, it requires active participation and commitment to hard work - mainly sacrifice. Many have considered that option and blinked. They want the gain; not the pain.
The second option is to kick back and "bad mouth" the organization by pointing out its weaknesses. Some of the popular lines of attack include the accusation that ULAA has outlived its usefulness and that its leaders are only motivated to seek their personal piece of the proverbial pie. Some call the leaders of ULAA incompetent and unmotivated. This third group seems to be growing as it even includes some ULAA insiders who are trying to unseat the present administration so they can have the spotlight. They want to drive the same old taxi without determining where they want to go; they just want to drive.
The third option is by far the most popular: Kick back and do nothing and when anybody brings up the topic for discussion, simply change the topic or make other excuses such as, "I’m not a politician" or "I don’t have the time to participate". Many, many simply throw their hands in the air and repeat the old line: "Leave the people thing alone".
I’ll take the liberty to repeat what has been my position consistently: ULAA is your organization, and since we live in a democracy and have expressed the desire to promote and practice the basic theories of the philosophy, may I remind you that every citizen has responsibilities to make it work. Nobody has a responsibility to look out for your public interests while you selfishly seek your own personal and narrow interests. In a democracy, we must demonstrate the ability to balance our personal lives with our public responsibilities.
A new day dawns in Liberia. Again, the spotlight shines on ULAA. The criticisms have intensified as people juggling for position and power take center stage. Are you actively involved in charting the new course of direction? Are you actively on the path of destructive criticism making a career out of negative projections with no positive solutions? Or are you playing it safe by sticking to the old Liberia way of "Leave the people thing alone"?