Freedom and Relativity

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective

December 5, 2001

We Bush Grebos have a saying that whatever brings palm nuts to town is called a basket. But the container in which some praise was delivered to me would make even a Bush Grebo man stop and take notice.

In a two-part series of articles under the theme "Where Are The African Intellectuals," I drew fire from a South African writer named Mr. Mukazo Mukazo Vunda. Vunda simply titled his piece "I Defend Thabo Mbeki," as published in The Perspective online magazine, in response to my comments regarding the South African President’s stand on the relationship (if any, in Mbeki’s case) between the HIV virus and the disease AIDS.

However, whereas there had only been grudging concession here and there that I have ever made sense in my discussion of Liberian issues, I found boundless praise at home just when I decided to take my show on the road in search of "African intellectuals."

The praise raises suspicion only by its unrestrained effusiveness: "I wholeheartedly concur with Tarty Teh’s response to Mr. Mukazo Mukazo Vunda’s retort," wrote Molley V. Paasewe, [Mr. Taylor’s Press Secretary and] editor-in-chief of the nearly launched "Liberian Voice" newspaper. Mr. Paasewe was also public relations specialist for the government of President Charles Taylor until recently. Paasewe left the Executive Mansion post in protest.

No. The protest wasn’t that Paasewe disagreed with any of the Taylor government’s policies. Rather it was because the money that was budgeted for the Taylor government’s PR efforts had been privatized (euphemism for "stolen," in deference to the Executive staff’s sensibilities) by then Presidential Press Secretary Reginald Goodridge. This is, of course, according to Paasewe.

Anyway, let me not go into all of that, especially since I am the one being praised by Paasewe, no less. Well, Paasewe and I go a little ways. If I had guessed there would be a day like this, I would have kept a list of names Paasewe called me, even when it appeared that I was in sympathy with him for the way he was ejected from Taylor’s Executive Mansion. In one exchange Paasewe told me he knew of no wrongdoing by the Taylor government. For me this only explains why Paasewe would be chosen as the editor-in-chief for the next pro-Taylor newspaper. But I have no solid clue why I have begun to make sense – not gradually but – so suddenly.

Perhaps there isn’t much that the theory of relativity cannot explain, at least partly. For an example, to press his case that freedom existed in the then Soviet Union, a Soviet journalist stood up to his American counterpart who had claimed that he could stand in front of the U.S. White House and say "To hell with President Richard Nixon" and not get arrested. The Soviet replied, "I too can stand in front of the Kremlin and say ‘To hell with President Nixon’ and not get arrested."

So, relatively speaking, there is no risk in saying that South African President Thabo Mbeki belongs to the "Stone Age," as Paasewe has intimated. In fact, Paasewe can say this both in Pretoria and Monrovia. But if Paasewe should venture to ask for, say, the autopsy report for the death of President Charles Taylor’s Vice President, Mr. Enoch Dogolea, he’d better be in Pretoria, because hiding even in his mother’s womb in Liberia would not do him any good. Taylor has threatened, on many occasions, to invade the womb to get at his enemies.

Measured compliment is easy to take; but the one that comes as a torrent arouses suspicions. Even as the obvious beneficiary of Paasewe’s adulation, I can see that (whether in praise and in rebuke) he knows only the extremes: "I was shocked when I heard Mr. Mbeki’s stone-age commentary on HIV/AIDS. Such remarks, coming from just any African wouldn’t have mattered much, but from the President of a renaissance nation like South Africa …. it is uncalled for," wrote Paasewe. Perhaps this is because, in Paasewe’s mind, Mbeki’s stand on AIDS portends more danger for Liberia than for South Africa: "Mr. Mbeki’s comments on AIDS only served to reinforce such belief among those Liberians who will bet you their last Unity dollar that the disease is not real."

And so, Paasewe’s rave review of my performance on the road deserves my gratitude. But my ultimate aim is to get similar acceptance before the home audience. Yet, I am not so blind to the conditions under which Paasewe and other home-based writers operate. However, if I am expected to view their comments about me in the context of the difficult conditions under which they operate at home, then shouldn’t they too be guarded in their rebuke of me even as the perceived enemy of their master Taylor when I turn to subjects closer to home? That, in my view, would be the political equivalent of the theory of relativity.

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