Liberia: A Nation Still Struggling To Live Up To Its Meaning


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 5, 2003

Editor's Note: The following speech was delivered by Cllr. Tiawan Saye Gongloe on August 2, 2002, at the 34th Annual National Educational Conference of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia


Mr. Leon Lynch
Chairman, Board of Directors of the A. Philip Randolph Institute

Mr. Norman Hill, President, APRI & other Executives

Conference Delegates

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Before I proceed any further, please permit me to first express my deep gratitude to President Hill and the executives of the A. Philip Randolph Institute for, not only surprising me with the honor of addressing this noble assembly of men and women of conscience, but also affording me a rare opportunity to tell the story of the oppressed people of Liberia. Thank you Mr. President.

You have asked me to address this national conference as the Bayard Rustin Distinguished speaker I must tell you that I evaluate myself as not sufficiently accomplished in the work of serving humanity to appear at a rostrum that honors Bayard Rustin, a great advocate for social justice who worked with venerable civil rights leaders and freedom fighters such as A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nnamde Azekewe of Nigeria, and who so successfully adapted Mahatma Ghandi’s strategies of non-violence in the struggle for racial equality, social justice, freedom from colonial rule and respect for the dignity of the human person.All these men of conscience stood firm in their conviction and commitment to the struggle for racial equality, social justice, freedom from colonial rule and respect for the dignity of the human person, without regard for any physical distinction, origin, or belief. However, I consider my selection for this task as an encouragement to remain dedicated, consistent and persistent in the struggle for social justice and the promotion of human rights in my country, Liberia, which for, perhaps the first time, has featured permanently in American news for the past two months. As you know Liberia has turned out to be of Africa’s contemporary tragedies. Armed factions there are committing atrocities of unimaginable proportions and subjecting ordinary people to very cruel forms of human degradation. Even as I speak to you, women, children, the elderly are among the helpless civilians are dying from indiscriminate firing of weapons, hunger and disease.

May I humbly request that you stand with me for a moment in silence to the memory of those who have lost their lives in the on-going fratricidal war in Liberia? Thank you and you may have your seats.

In response to your request that I share with you the human rights situation in Liberia and my role as a human rights advocate, I have chosen to speak to you on the topic: Liberia: A Nation Still Struggling To Live Up to Its Meaning.

Liberia was proclaimed as sovereign state in Africa in 1847. It evolved from a colony established on the west coast of Africa by the American colonization society (ACS) for the repatriation of freed American slaves. It was the only colony established in Africa by a non-governmental organization. All other colonies in Africa were established by European governments. The establishment of the colony that became Liberia was, therefore perceived as a philanthropic endeavor and an act of goodwill.

From its establishment in the 1820s to the end of 1830s, the colony was governed exclusively by white American missionaries appointed by the American Colonization Society. In 1839, Joseph Jenkins Roberts a free born from Norfolk, Virginia, United States was appointed lieutenant governor and shortly, thereafter, governor. He was the first of those repatriated to the colony to be so appointed.

Shortly following his appointment, Governor Roberts embarked upon the process of making the colony a sovereign state. This process led to the declaration of independence on July 26, 1847. The country was named Liberia and Joseph Jenkins Roberts who led the process of independence became its first president. Its capital was named Monrovia, after President James Monroe, a former president of the United States.

The dream that inspired the proclamation of a colony for freed slaves and free-born a sovereign state was contained in the Declaration of Independence of Liberia. In that declaration, the founders of Liberia bemoaned their denial of all rights accorded other citizens of the United States of America as citizens and the lack avenues of redress of grievances. Therefore, the promise of Liberia was the hope and opportunity to establish an asylum from oppression for the victims of such abuses, according to the Declaration of Independence. Liberia was meant to be a country where the protection of human rights would be given the highest national consideration. The desire for the enjoyment of all rights accorded a free person was the motivation for establishing Liberia. It is called Liberia, the land of liberty because it was meant to be a country of freedom from abuse. The motto of Liberia is “The Love of Liberty Brought us Here.” Liberia was intended to be a human rights paradise in Africa.

However, from the founding of Liberia to this day, the dream of establishing a country in which all human rights would be respected continues to be illusive, an empty dream. Between 1847 and 1869, for example the mulattos amongst the founders of Liberia governed Liberia, largely to the exclusion of the darker skinned founders and the total exclusion of the native inhabitants of Liberia. In 1869, Edward James Roye a darker skinned amongst the founders was elected, thus largely ending the exclusion of other founders from participation in governance on the basis if skin pigmentation. For over a century of the founding of Liberia, the native inhabitants of Liberia were largely excluded from participation in the governance of Liberia and denied other basic human rights. For over a century the relationship between the founding fathers of Liberia and the natives was one that could be easily described as black apartheid. It was only as late as 1948 that natives were allowed to vote in Liberia. However, the right to vote was in reality only restricted to the right to cast a ballot, not a right to contest for office and be voted for. Attempts by President William R. Tolbert to change the situation and allow equal participation in government was seriously resisted by oligarchy of the descendents of the founders of Liberia.

It was against this background that a group of native soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia overthrew the Government of President Tolbert by assassinating him on April 12, 1980. The soldiers formed a military administrative council and named it the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). The name of the military junta give hope to the majority of the Liberian people that at last the era of freedom had dawn in the land of liberty. The people of Liberia saw in the name,” people’s Redemption Council” a promise of fulfilling the dream for which Liberia was founded. They expected that this time around freedom would be for all Liberians, not a few as it had been before the military coup. A popular slogan of the period was,” The time of the people has come.” Nevertheless, a series of events following the coup dashed the hope of many Liberians for a better Liberia, as they saw the promise of greater freedom for all betrayed day by day.

The military junta summarily and publicly executed thirteen officials of the Government of President Tolbert, the civilian government that they overthrew. The Americo-Liberians, as the children of the founders are called, were largely excluded from participation in governance and many of them subjected to all kinds of abuse of human rights. The rule of the military junta, therefore, began with vengeance against Americo-Liberians and denial of their rights as well as avenues for of their grievances. Many of them left Liberia and sought asylum in the United States of America.

Subsequently, the military junta began to purge itself and many members of the PRC were eliminated while others were arrested, detained and disrobed from the army. The military junta, through a set of decrees institutionalized the violations of human rights. In enforcing the decrees, students, journalists, intellectuals, religious leaders and civilian politicians became constant targets of abuse.

In response to international pressure for a civilian government, the military junta organized general and presidential elections in 1985, but those elections were rigged in favor of the party of Samuel Doe, the head of the junta who was himself a candidate. A military attempt to remove Doe proved futile and was succeeded by massive killing of suspected supporters of the attempted coup. Many soldiers and opposition figures went into exile following the coup attempt.

It was this gloomy human rights situation that had caused mass discontent in Liberia that Charles Taylor exploited to launch a civil war in Liberia on December 24, 1989 to remove Samuel Doe, the military dictator who had become president. Mr. Taylor named his rebel group the National Patriotic Front of Liberia(NPFL) and promised the Liberian people democracy and respect for human rights. Yet, during the civil war the parties to the conflict, including the NPFL of Mr. Taylor perpetrated massive human rights violations. Ironically, in 1997, Taylor was elected president of Liberia, following a lull in the conflict and seven years of mediation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

President Taylor promised the Liberian people that freedom of expression and respect for all other human rights would be the hallmark of his government. However, for the six years of his presidency, Taylor has not lived up to his promise of respecting human rights and the rule of law. Not only has he failed to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law, he himself has been the source of numerous human rights abuses and disregard for the rule of law. He has ordered the murder of his political opponents, real and imagined. Over the past six years journalists, human rights advocates, political opponents, civil society leaders, labor union leaders, lawyers and others have been arbitrarily detained and often subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, harassed and many times forced into exile. The level of human rights violations under Taylor has surpassed the records of all governments before him. His soldiers and para-military officers commit human rights abuses with impunity. It is this situation of massive human rights abuse under Taylor that has, unfortunately, been used as an excuse for other groups of Liberians to engage the Taylor government militarily. The Liberians United Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) say, as their names suggest, that they are fighting to remove Taylor and in order to bring about reconciliation and democracy in Liberia. However, by their past and present records they have proven to be as bad as Taylor is. This situation has placed the Liberian people in a dilemma with no savior to turn to. The Liberian people clearly do not want Taylor as their president anymore, but at the same time, they do not want a replacement of Taylor by LURD or MODEL. This is why most Liberians are calling upon the international community led by the United States to militarily intervene, stop the combatants, disarm and demobilize them and create an environment for the holding of free and fair elections in at least two years. In order to prevent a future repeat of the current madness in Liberia, recommend that the international community make accountability for crimes against humanity and violation of human rights, in the current conflict, an important part of the framework for peace in Liberia.

Upon my admission to the practice of law fifteen years ago, I made a deliberate decision to make human rights advocacy the major focus of my practice. In this effort, I have joined journalists, human rights monitors civil society leaders and religious leaders in exposing abuse of human rights in Liberia. I conducted workshops on human rights issues and spoke about it even in shanty coffee shops. As a trial lawyer, I represented many victims of human rights abuse, on a pro bono basis particularly journalists, union leaders, human rights advocates, civil society leaders, other lawyers and the poor.

My activities as a human rights advocate, made the Taylor government to perceive me as an enemy of the state. Consequently, for the last three years, the government subjected me to series of harassment, intimidation and death threats. Nevertheless, I remained relentless in my advocacy. As a final result, I was arbitrarily arrested on April 24, 2002 and detained for seven days by the Liberia National Police on the direct order of President Charles Taylor. I was brutalized and so severely tortured to the extent that on the next day I could neither walk nor sit. The official reason for my arrest was the speech I delivered at a regional conference of the Civil Society Movement of the Mano River sub-region of West Africa in Conakry, the Republic of Guinea. Mr. Taylor considered that speech unacceptable because it pointed out that the source of the conflict within the Mano River sub-region was the conflict in Liberia. However, because of local and international pressures brought on the government, I was released after seven days of detention.

Let me make it emphatically clear that this experience has not weakened me in the struggle for the realization of the dream upon which Liberia was founded: the creation of a country governed by the rule of law and respect for the rights of every human being. A reality which all advocates of freedom and civil rights experience under dictatorial regimes is guilt by association. In my case, for instance, Hassan Bility, a fearless journalist who published in his newspaper, the speech for which I was arrested, was himself arrested and his paper closed down. He was released, re-arrested, and kept in solitary detention for six months before he was released based on international pressure led by the United States. Also, Aloysius Toe, a brave human rights advocate who issued the first press release informing the world about my arrest and organized a peaceful march for the release of journalist Hassan Bility was arrested charged with treason, and kept in jail for eight months. He escaped from prison just two weeks ago in the midst of the street fighting between the rebels and the Government of Charles Taylor in Monrovia. This is the human rights situation in Liberia.

Throughout Liberian history, men and women of conscience and courage have challenged the continuous system of human rights abuse. Over the past three decades human rights advocates, journalists, civil society leaders, religious leaders, union leaders, students and lawyers in Liberia have been in the forefront of exposing human rights abuses in Liberia. For their advocacy, many of them have themselves been victims of abuse.

The question now is what is the way forward for Liberia. I believe that the first thing that must be done is to stop the military conflict. The most effective way of doing this is for a neutral superior military power to intervene in a robust manner to stop the carnage. That superior power should not be expected to come from West Africa because over the past fifteen years, Nigeria, west Africa’s super power, has made so much sacrifice with scarce resources to stop the conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nigeria has paid more than its fair due in the maintenance of international peace and security under the circumstances. Besides, the conflict in Liberia has become a West African conflict, given its connection to political and military instability in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Ivory Coast. It is against this background that everyone, including West African leaders and others are calling on the United States, based on its historical relationship with Liberia, to take the lead in bringing peace and democracy to Liberia.

Liberia presents the most compelling case for US military intervention in military. First, the appalling humanitarian situation speaks for itself. Liberia is the only country in Africa with which, in the words of President Bush,” America has a unique relationship.” Third, the whole world, particularly the permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations and America’s key allies, as well as the Secretary General of the United Nations have strongly appealed to the United States to lead stabilization efforts in Liberia. Fourth, all the parties to the Liberian conflict and the entire population of Liberia have appealed to the United States to intervene and they have promised to cooperate with the United States. Fifth, major American opinion leaders and institutions, some of whom opposed the US invasion of Iraq, have expressed their support for US military intervention in Liberia. The support of the US media, in terms of exposing the horrors that is being experienced by the ordinary people in Liberia, for example, is unprecedented. Sixth, the United States will spend much less on its Liberian operation than it has spent anywhere on similar operations. Seven, Liberia as a failed state and like all failed states, bears the potential of nursing terrorism in the same way Afghanistan did. The Washington Post has already given the Aquaeda terrorist group’s connection with Charles Taylor and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone. Eighth, US intervention in Liberia is a test of the Bush administration’s commitment to its new policy on Africa. Ninth, the millions of dollars, which the United States has spent through the United Nations and its specialized agencies on relief activities in Liberia, she should help to end the conflict so that her financial assistance can be redirected to and reconstruction in Liberia. Finally, the United States will easily succeed in this venture and all Liberians will be will be exceedingly grateful for her intervention, as they have begun to demonstrate with the arrival of the US fact-finding team in Liberia. It should, therefore, be noted that the reaction of the Liberian people to US military intervention in Liberia will be totally different from that of Iraq or Somalia.

Every minute, every hour and every day that passes without military intervention leads to more deaths and human suffering in Liberia. Let me reiterate the humble cry of the Liberian people for a robust military intervention of the United States to immediately end the carnage in Liberia. Liberians and Africans everywhere will be grateful for this humanitarian gesture.

Stopping the carnage in Liberia is only a short-term solution to the conflict in Liberia.
Military intervention will silence the guns, perhaps for a limited period before conflict resumes. A long-term solution to the Liberian problem will require addressing the root causes of the conflict. The Liberia conflict as I said earlier, is rooted in a legacy of repression and social injustice due to exclusionist governance, that has lasted for over a century and a half of Liberia’s existence. Therefore, the long-term solution for resolving the conflict in Liberia is to put in place a governing process that will guarantee popular participation in governance and respect for the rights of all Liberians without regard to origin, tribe, family background, belief, sex or other identities. In order for peace to prevail in Liberia and for conflicts to be avoided, governance in Liberia must be reflective of the name Liberia, the land of Liberty.

The lack of respect for human rights is at the core of all civil conflicts in Africa today. A critical examination of each of the conflicts points to exclusion from governance and other human rights abuses, of not only individuals, but also groups of people. More often, it is group response to violation of human rights that leads to military conflicts in Africa.

Let me note here, that although, the focus of my speech is Liberia, the lack of respect for human rights is at the core of most violent conflicts in Africa today. A critical examination of most of the conflicts points to exclusion from governance and other human rights abuses, of not only individuals, but also groups of people. More often, in the face of protracted marginalization and unresponsive governance, violence becomes the option used by victims of marginalization. Many conscious people in Africa are making serious efforts at addressing the endemic problem of human rights violations in Africa. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and The International Crisis Group, amongst others have helped Africans to appreciate the gravity of the human rights disaster in Africa. All well-meaning Africans are grateful for the contributions of these organizations to improving human rights conditions in Africa. However, in addition to these efforts, Africa needs greater attention from the African- America Community.

The people of Africa are grateful for the contributions that were made by African-Americans in the struggle for independence in Africa, generally and the elimination of apartheid in South Africa, in particular.To continue these efforts, I call on African-Americans to seriously adopt a policy of constructive engagement for the promotion of human rights throughout Africa. Following the examples of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and other past African-American leaders, African -Americans should constructively engage Africa for the purpose of promoting respect for human rights as a way of resolving and preventing conflicts. This process of constructive engagement will entail African- American leaders opening broader lines of communication with government and opposition leaders in Africa to ensure that political disagreements do not lead to brothers and sisters kill each others. In this regard, African -American leaders must seek more to understand Africa, its culture, economy and politics so that they can make informed decisions or give informed advice. Mother Africa needs your help; please do something to rescue her.The struggle for civil rights in the United States must be viewed within the larger context of the struggle of the African people for human rights, economic redistribution of national resources or economic justice and equal political participation in governance.

The shame that African big men, the sick dictators, produce by their massive human rights abuse, certainly undermines the enthusiasm of Africans and people of African descent for Africa. Because of this situation, most African-Americans do not frequent African countries. It appears that African-Americans would like to visit African countries that demonstrate at least a modicum of respect for human rights. The current wave of African-Americans that visit South Africa, Ghana, Mali, Senegal and other countries that have embarked upon democratic governance and ensuring respect for human rights, speak to this fact.

In closing , let me reiterate that the Liberian crisis must be considered within the context of the need to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Africa. It is a challenge that requires the collective resolve of the children of Africa, whether they live in Africa, America or other parts of the world. Africa has become a collective shame; we must work collectively to make it a collective pride. We are in this boat together. Let us build upon the integrity of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and other African patriots to restore dignity to the peoples of Africa. This challenge may seem too difficult to meet, but with God and determination, all things are possible.

May God rescue Africa. I thank you.