A House Divided
Why Liberians remain divided
and what to do about it
Between 1980 and ???, my homeland, Liberia, spiraled into an ever deeper cycle of violence. ??? were killed, ????.
In ???, the rockets and AK-47s were finally silenced. But ??? years later, Liberians remain deeply divided and our national psyche battered.
The Liberian government and its foreign partners have largely ignored those wounds, while spending $$ billions on bridges, roads and first-class travel accommodations to discuss rebuilding. The recent Ebola crisis ripped off the scab to expose a festering sore.
How to explain this gross failure?
Most Liberians fault politicians. Nine times out of ten, we blame the political party we already dislike and always distrusted. Some simply damn all politicians. Others have given up on Liberia, believing it to be cursed.
Those reactions may seem different. But, below the surface, they are knee-jerk emotional reactions masquerading as analysis.
According to those explanations, someone else is always to blame. As the end of the current administration rapidly approaches, it is common to hear even high-level officials heap all blame for failures solely on the president whose confidence and largess they shared.
Whoever is explaining doesn’t have to change. We don’t even have to think differently. We expect to carry on exactly as we always have yet somehow produce better results. That is the definition of magical thinking.
With the 2017 elections fast-approaching, our never-ending search for a Liberian “messiah” is likely to intensify. Liberians went from chanting “everybody knows Tolbert is a man” while the “man” was president to jubilating after his assassination. So too, Samuel K. Doe fell from “redeemer” to “dokko.” And, where are all the Charles “Gahnkeh” Taylor supporters who once chanted “he kill mah ma, he kill mah pa, I will vote for him”?
This time around, we need more than a new “driver.” And we certainly don’t need a new “taxi,” as proposed by those who have made careers out of tinkering with the Constitution. What we need are new passengers. At least passengers who are prepared to act differently because, at last, we are willing to do the hard work required to think differently.
That politicians would divide the public should not be news to anyone. That is what they do. What is surprising? How Liberians allow ourselves to be divided and played by office seekers, day after day, year in and year out.
The crisis in Liberia defies easy explanations and scapegoating. It has lasted too long and is now too deep. For once, we need to take our eyes off the players to focus on the rules of the game. As the saying goes, “Small minds discuss people, mediocre minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas.”
Without three changes in our psyches and spirit, there will be no national progress: First, empathy for each other, regardless of class or ethnicity. That is patriotism at its core – above and beyond saluting the flag, singing the national anthem or cheering the national football team. Second, self-confidence rooted in a real “knowledge of self” and pride in the accomplishments of one’s ancestors. And last but not least, unity.
Those goals may seem farfetched because they are abstract. But they can easily be achieved, if we are willing to learn from others.
Take the Rwandans, for example. Their war was far worse than ours. And their recovery has been funded largely by exports of bananas and other agricultural products. Yet, their progress has gone farther and faster than Liberia’s, with all our iron, timber, diamonds and now oil.
How come? In my view, two factors explain the Rwandan “miracle.”
First, they had the audacity to believe that they are equal to Westerners and other non-Africans, in intellect and creativity. As a result, Rwandans accepted help if it fit in with their plans. And when it didn’t, they had the self-confidence and self-respect to say no thanks. In short, they relied on their own creative solutions. Not on the advice of “international partners. Not on newly minted NGOs with no track record. Not on 29-year-old “consultants” whose expertise derived solely from being Europeans or Americans.
Another factor was perhaps more important. Rwandans engaged longterm planning. That required deep thinking and lots of discussion about their choices. In contrast, Liberians remained obsessed with material things: the latest cars, hurriedly built roads and the biggest, most elaborate headties! Thrown to the wayside were abstract foolishness like building codes, standards for road construction and even certification of teachers.
What did ignoring ideas give us? Rapidly deteriorating roads, university classrooms that crumble before they are occupied and a lost generation armed with multiple degrees but little or no education.
An early step in Rwanda’s recovery was writing a completely new, more inclusive history. Why? Because the path to a better future lies in an understanding of the past and a respect for the contributions of one’s ancestors. Because, as every thinking person knows, “a house divided” can never, ever, ever prosper.
Liberians, meanwhile, remain straddled with a history that fuels a deep inferiority complex and implacable hatreds of each other. Indigenous Liberians often blame Conger people for this. Some Conger Liberians say its the responsibility of indigenous historians. Most citizens fault the government. And government officials blame Ebola!
Of course, a disproportionate share of the blame rest on elected officials. So too, “international partners” with their cookie-cutter prescriptions and the countless NGO vultures feeding off international disasters. But, truth to be told, no one can save us from us but us.
The truth is, Liberian history was written by Westerners to serve their interests.
Conger Liberians and the crimes of Westerners.
Indigenous Liberians as “savages.”
For centuries, the West held the rest of the world as colonies and did a masterful job of convincing others of their inferiority. As countries emerged from the grips of colonialism, one of their first challenges was rewriting their history. After all, no nation has ever risen to greatest on the basis of a history written by others. And no people can succeed while convinced of their own inferiority.
Liberians are perhaps alone in failing to tackling that indispensable task. Ghanians and Tanzanians, Trinidadians and Guyanese, Indians and Chinese have all done it. Even in the U. S., the rewriting of black history came before the Civil Rights Movement and the election of blacks to public office.
Until we are willing to uproot the racist
Front page: divided we fall!
I hope that in 2016 we Liberians will finally realize that politics cannot unite us because the electoral process is inherently divisive. Only the humanities and the arts can provide us with a coherent sense of identity, dignity and purpose that can propel us forward.
I hope this is the year we will stop expecting politicians to provide a new vision for our fractured nation. Most are constitutionally incapable of producing any such thing. That task falls squarely on the shoulders of the writers, visual artists, musicians and other creative folk.
Why? Only those who dare step “outside the box” of conventional thinking are capable of generating anything new. And envisioning new ways is, by definition, what creative people do. Our currency is not popularity per se, but rather truth and beauty.
Writing and making art are usually lonely pursuits. We who embrace these callings are often marginalized, but it is precisely “at the margins” that new visions are born. It is time for Liberian writers and artists to “be the change we want to see in the world.” The politicians will follow, and they will bring their followers trailing behind them.
Empty bag can’t stand.