The Passing of Mediocrity: Dire Necessity for Trans-Ethnic Leadership

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

Keynote Address Delivered at the National Reunion of the Alumni Association of Lutheran Training Institute (LTI) on Saturday August 12, 2006 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 17, 2006


It is a rare opportunity for an alumnus of a rival school, Ganta United Methodist High to be invited to be a keynote speaker at an occasion commemorating your annual reunion. I vividly recall the yearly trips that we made to LTI to play sports and enjoy significant social exchanges in the 1970s and early 1980s. As a matter of fact, many of my classmates attended LTI after we graduated from junior high school: Marie Kromah Richard Keh-Keh, William Olufemi Davies and David Vesseley and several other students from Yekepa where I grew up.

I feel a sense of regret being the keynote speaker at your reunion when I could not attend the just held reunion of the Ganta United Methodist Mission Alumni Association in Philadelphia because of a family emergency. I also feel unqualified to speak to you because these roles have traditionally being reserved for government officials or people much more advanced in age and social stature. I possess none of these characteristics. I am just an emerging scholar whose thoughts on some subject matters you have become familiar with through my regular articles in various news media that cover Liberia and Africa.

However, I accept your invitation gladly, although on very short notice. You asked me to speak to you on a theme that would reflect on the past and suggest pathways to the future, with a particular focus on how to weave LTI alumnus into this strategic design. To achieve this goal, I have chosen to examine the past of our country, specifically two problems that I consider critical challenges facing the reconstruction of our country – Liberia, which affects each and all Liberians. I have entitled my speech - The Passing of Mediocrity: Dire Necessity for Trans-Ethnic Leadership. The topic emanates from an ongoing research to be published in my forthcoming book - Ethnic Hatred in Liberia’s National Identity Crisis: Problems and Possibilities. Before moving forward, please allow me to acknowledge the presence of my wife, Aba who despite a prior engagement, elected to come to support me. Thank you.

Why do many Liberians feel a sense of helplessness and apathy in the face of their country becoming the shame of the world community? Why has it taken so long for Liberian leaders to recognize their woes and have continued the charade that it is someone else’s responsibility that the nation collapsed - and not theirs at all? Why has leadership come from unexpected sources during these warring periods, than from those whom Liberians considered to be the repositories of change? Why has it been that when our country has approached the brink of change, something dramatic has gone wrong, and we are forced to start anew? And why have our expectations for durable change waned, so much, that the alternatives we consider the best, are so mediocre that they lack the capacity to achieve the lasting change that we genuinely crave?

The answer that I have arrived at is a simple proposition. Liberia is in short supply of trans-ethnic leaders. By trans-ethnic leaders, I refer to those persons whose ability to deliver on their commitments to democratic ideals and values as well as their proven integrity have given them political appeal beyond the narrow confines of their ethnic group. As such, they are able to use this political capital to leverage pan-ethnic solidarity and national identity. Why are trans-ethnic leaders critical to the reconstruction of war-torn Liberia?

First, let me briefly clear up some mistaken positions that some often take regarding our history. We have become accustomed to reflecting nostalgically on the past comparing the governance records of the settler hegemony with that of subsequent regimes. We have tended to equate coercive social control with peace and stability, negating the latent social tensions and strife that were present under the settler imperial rule. Proponents of this view suggest that social equality, this novel ideal, was the primary driver that brought the settlers to the shores that would later be named Liberia (Holder, 2006).

That might be the case, but it is hard to juxtapose such an inclination with the systematic repressive machineries that settlers devised and used to subjugate the indigenous people. An expectation of social and distributive justice would have appeared ordinary and normal from a people who had endured subservience and slavery. The lack of a social policy to ensure that disparities that settlers experienced while in servitude would be not be repeated in their new country remains difficult to explain. President William V. S. Tubman initiated a unification policy that expanded jurisdiction of the central government into the “Interior.” His successor, William R. Tolbert enhanced this policy, but it is fair to conclude that this did not remedy the subjugation of indigenous people nor did it produce social cohesion. In addition, the larger citizenry was not integrated into the political, social and economic milieus, even with the unprecedented political agitation of the 1970s under Tolbert. Still, the obvious bureaucratic and social apparatuses of settler domination remained in force.

When the People’ Redemption Council (PRC) overthrew the Tolbert administration, Liberians hoped that the military would defuse the obvious ethnic schisms. There was significant euphoria and celebration welcoming the coup and coup makers, but ethnic strife seized the collective psyche of large segment of the Liberian people. Rather than nationalist exhortations, the infamous taunt against settlers, “Country woman born soldier and Congoe woman born rogue” continued. The Doe administration executed 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet who were all settlers. The PRC failed to nurture and support pan-ethnic unity. Instead, it exacerbated interethnic divisions and usurped civilian preserves. Even the social movements (MOJA and PAL) that rebelled against the settler hegemony failed to honor its democratic commitment and were co-opted by the military junta. They lend credence, legitimacy, and prestige to the untenable positions of the PRC. Doe and his patrons within the social movements missed this golden opportunity to unify the nation.

Beginning with the NPFL’s manipulation of the palpable ethnic hatred that consumed the nation, an insurgent ethos also birthed numerous warring factions of different ethnic garden varieties. The United States Liberian Diaspora became a conduit for many of the destabilizing forces launched by the insurgent groups. Numerous interim arrangements came and went, and each drove a dagger through the heart of the nation, given its failure to affect lasting remedy. Leadership failures formed heaps and the country ultimately collapsed. An irritating sense of hopelessness reverberated among the Liberian people. Many Liberians would say that the pattern of oppression that they felt affected their sense of self and their well-being, including their health.

These historical narratives are great testimonies to the extreme importance of social policy dimensions to the reconstruction and reasons to urge policy makers to bring about a balance in social and economic policy – social development. If there is a tie to all this, it is that our common enemy is ethnic hatred, and thus, we are in a fight with a belief system that puts personal ambition and ethnic identity ahead of national identity. And if we are digging for root causes to the war, perhaps we have just located one of such causes.

To defeat that common enemy, we must recruit, support, retain, continue to grow, and plan for the continued succession of trans-ethnic leaders. The common enemy in question is a dysfunctional and bland form of consciousness. We must get over this false consciousness not because ethnic identity is subservient to national identity. But because ethnic identity is susceptible to being politicized and exploited for purposes that are anathema to social progress and national unity by people whose personal ambitions are not aligned with achieving the well being of each and all Liberians.

We are in a battle for the soul of our country and the future of our children and their children. In this quest for our national survival, I have come this evening to wage a war on this common enemy and to invite you to be my allies in this process. Until and unless we displace this false consciousness and replace it with a sense of pan-ethnic unity, we will remain prisoners to the predators who thrive on digging deeper wedges between and among different social groups. I have come to a belief that the next frontier of social change in Liberia is to wage an ideological warfare on those that still see value in being saturated in ethnic identity at the expense of national identity, without acknowledging the enormous harm that ethnic hatred has caused.

In coming to this awareness, I believe that I am drifting in a realm of a new vision and a new possibility for our country. You cannot draw a line of causality from all that have gone wrong in our country to their root causes because their nature is complex and complicated. Nonetheless, you can make a strong case that a failure of leadership comes close to explaining the collapse of the Liberian state in the wake of our immense enmeshment in ethnic identity and other cleavage causing social agents.

The lip service that some dictators, intellectuals, social movements, and warlords pay to words like “democracy, freedom, equality, and human rights” should no longer disarm us and let our guards down. The question is not whether they do this knowingly or unknowingly, but that they do it repeatedly ENOUGH, not paying attention to the dire consequences of their actions for social cohesion and national solidarity. We should be conscious now that terrifying aspirations have regularly lurked behind the empty promises and passion that predators show for the liberties of the disenfranchised citizen. But having had the chance to watch our country go through its bouts of failure and collapse, we hopefully know by now, how to identify these specious claims. We should not be under any illusion that these mischievous people would stop their deception no matter how many times we recycle them through the bureaucracy.

If this is true, then we must ask what kind of leadership paradigm is well-suited for changing the course and setting us on a path to durable peace and stability. If the lack of leadership, trans-ethnic leadership, is the problem facing our country, then there is hope that we can cultivate that kind of paradigm to stop the crushing pain and humiliation. Our country is no longer vulnerable to the settler-indigenous divide. The ethnic composition of our country has changed dramatically. Intermarriages, frequent and sustained interethnic contacts, and socialization, education, and modernity have hastened the pace of demographic change so much that Liberians whose identity crisscrosses the settler-indigenous divide are bountiful, and that might just refer to every single Liberian with minimal exception. Each can be cultivated, nurtured, and supported to become a trans-ethnic leader and turn the bleak trend around. It is just a matter of time. Our history is not one that has condoned religious bigotry and fanatical responses to difference, even when predators have tried to spark religious dimensions to our conflict. Indeed, just imagining the possibility of developing trans-ethnic leaders gave me hope, although it may not be a magic wan.

Clearly, there is a simpler, yet special way in which we can begin to evolve sustainable change in Liberia. It is simple because it requires much less effort to look for common values and vision than to look for differences. It is less stressful to hone in on strategies for unifying than spending time on how to foment hatred. Our charge is to intervene at each person’s point of need out of respect for their live experience. We must seek to identify, name, and legitimate their experiences by putting them in an environment with others where they can determine that they have mutual needs. Together, they will determine how each is invaluable to the other, and in partnership, establish the necessity to conquer their differences and pursue mutual interests.

As one who aspires to the kind of leadership paradigm that I have come to speak to you about, my desire this evening is to warn you and other Liberians that are still engrossed in the belief that we must wait for our failed leaders to be recycled and then again take our country down the “abyss of destruction” to wake up from your slumber. I came to appeal to you to think seriously about the sorry state of leadership in our country.

Tensions and strife that emanate from division and stratification are natural parts of human existence. But how society develops public policy to prevent or mediate the effects of these divisive tendencies, sets one society apart from the other. Inequality and exclusionary practices have been addressed poorly in Liberian society, a testament to the kinds of leaders that we have had over the years, both in the government and social movements seeking to seize political power.

The state’s capacity to intervene in society is directly related to its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. My emphasis on the ordinary citizens’ role in transforming Liberian society is based on the conviction that while government intervention is one means of intervening in society, changes that contribute to long-term transformation of the polity come not from the elite or the government, but from the ordinary citizens. The latter has more vested interests in changing the status quo ante than the elites or the government in transforming itself. The most dramatic changes in politics and the governance structures have come not through the settler hegemony or the Doe and Taylor governments and not even from the social movements of the past. Each has been either slow to change or intransigent in its resistance to change. Hence, this is a case for the kinds of social interventions that the elites and government cannot “stifle, restrain or co-opt.” There is a need for “revolutionary” change in Liberia, but not through rhetoric and guns, but shifting mindsets and worldviews, and building mechanisms for social inclusion and integration.

What new leadership framework is compatible to the demographic changes occurring in 21st century Liberia? Any new leadership innovation has to be one that allows us to stop recycling failed leaders. We have to relinquish our attachments to the leaders that we have cherished for so long, but have disappointed us repeatedly. This is important because the vision of change that they have offered us has proven to be faulty, even decadent. We must learn to see our problems with new lenses and identify solutions that have not worked, despite modifications and constant recasting. It is Albert Einstein who said: “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness.”

Where do we look to find trans-ethnic leaders? What characteristics would help us identify them? There are numerous venues where trans-ethnic leaders reside. But the most important place to find them is just within your own self and immediate circles, although others reside beyond your interpersonal spheres. But I think that the important question here is the one that relates to indicators that define trans-ethnic leaders. In answering this question, I might be able to correct some mistaken views about leadership in general, and the promotion of a pan-ethnic national identity in particular, which is the vision that sets trans-ethnic leaders apart from others.

Trans-ethnic leaders are tremendously concerned about the rights of minorities, even if they are not members of those groups. They do not take for granted any tendency or sentiment that is bigoted, and hence, are vigilant about how difference: ethnic, religious, social or otherwise is politicized to serve despotic ends. Trans-ethnic leaders are wedded to the principles of equity, justice and accountability, and do not allow themselves to be subsumed under the auspices of oppressive regimes, even when it is personally convenient and beneficial. They stand firm against the denigration of one group and speak out against all public policies that privilege one group over the other. They draw a precise connection between the protection of civil liberties and peace building, and thus assure that protecting the liberties of citizens are the foremost responsibility of those entrusted with political power. Essentially, trans-ethnic leaders draw from their belief in equity, justice, and participatory democracy to build the organizational framework for governance. They use this paradigm to evolve the regulatory frameworks for economic governance and to motivate and galvanize citizens to participate in competitive political processes.

Tonight, I have provided a new perspective about the interethnic tensions and strife that form the core of the governance crisis in Liberia. I have also suggested a new way of thinking about the value and operating strategies of trans-ethnic leadership. I am convinced that past paradigms rooted in the settler-indigenous divide or ethnic saturation model are outmoded because they lack capacity to capture the challenges presented by a growing pluralistic society. Rather than focus on being a leader of one ethnic group, I have proposed a model that is nationalistic or transnational in its approach. No longer should leaders emphasize serving just one single ethnic group, rather they must provide a kind of leadership that engenders pan-ethnic unity. Liberians are too diverse and their needs manifold that providing them appropriate leadership in a pluralistic context would mean, being able to decipher the complexity of those shared needs. The trans-ethnic leader highlights citizens’ interdependence and leverages their broad lens to identify shared problems and build supportive and caring relationships between and among the different constituents so that they can address their concerns collaboratively.

You have a special opportunity to become trans-ethnic leaders, and to turn Liberia around. Tonight, I empower and urge you to take on this mantle because LTI, Lofa County and more so, our country needs your leadership. I thank you for the invitation and your indulgence.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo lives in Coon Rapids, Minnesota and works for the South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove as the Director of Educational Equity and Integration. He can be contacted at

© 2006 by The Perspective

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