Liberia is 160 years old as a nation state. But the recent allegations of a coup have underlined just how real the threat of our past is to the present. These allegations, though unproven, and might never be proven to the satisfaction of some constituencies, show how vulnerable our country is to vengeance or other intentional acts of instability. The failures of our forefathers and foremothers in the social, political, and economic arenas of governance have bogged us down from forging ahead. The alleged coup has reopened the explosive debates over the polarization of Liberians along ethnic lines. It reminds those who vastly underrate the threat that ethnic polarization poses to governance; that it can be the source of our shared progress and/or demise. We pay a steep price for ignoring it, especially, if governance is about calibrating several opposing interests and ethnicity is a compelling interest, which makes some Liberians to falsely feel that if someone from their ethnic group is not administering the nation, then they must carry out a coup to remove them. They or their ethnic kin can do a better job. We cannot succumb to this notion, but also, our presidents cannot prove to be partisan or ethnocentric leaders. We need leaders that transcend ethnicity and partisanship; we need statesmen/stateswomen and patriots.
If you were to trace the forces that structured and conditioned what we have become, and the source of our malaise, three occasions will stand out. Hopes of new beginnings (full participation in the political life of the nation), were raised and dashed suddenly each time (1847, 1980, and 1989). Institutional vacuum was created and there was no means of an orderly transition to pluralist polity. Oppression, vengeance, coups, counter coups, and interethnic strife became the mainstays. The whole point was that minimal or no social solidarity existed and mutual confidence in the ruling regime did not develop. Justice did not prevail and the government always ended up being the greatest perpetrator of ethnic division and injustice. Corruption, cronyism, and carnage eroded public trust.
Each of these date markers and the events that they inaugurated created negative social constructions of reality. They each created a classic mental picture and/or psychology, even a way of being at least three of them in all. From 1847-1980, there was the “supremacist psychology” which placed settlers under the illusion that they are superior to indigenous people, and caused settlers to usurp the rights of their indigenous relatives. Then, from 1980-1989, there was the “vengeance psychology,” bred from the intense desire to pay back or settle scores, whereby indigenous people wrought hatred and intensely fragmented the country along ethnic lines. From 1989-2003, we witnessed the “warring psychology,” which embraced uncalled-for violence as a viable way to effect change, leading to the burgeoning of warring factions. What I refer to as psychologies may just be instincts, motivations, and/or responses aroused by external circumstances and not settled inclinations or worldviews. Let’s bear in mind that this is not an academic treatise, but rather a social commentary written for the populist media.
Some important caveats are worth making before moving forward. The world in which these destructive and extremist “psychologies” have taken root is where perpetrators of these thoughts, some of them, at least, are truly unaware of their long-term consequences. For example, even within those groups that ruled during the periods mentioned above, across the board, it was not unprecedented for one congoe person to claim superiority over another congoe person, and for Mano and Gio siblings to go at loggerheads with one group, one, claiming superiority over the other. I should note that there were exceptions in each of these cases, where people from the ruling regime defied the prevailing norm and treated “the other” with utmost care for their humanity, even forming long lasting social and economic relationships. The habit of painting all people with broad strokes has to be one habit that we will have to relinquish to steer a new course forward.
In essence, Liberians molded a notion that to right previous wrongs, we had to use undemocratic and violent means. We constructed this seriously flawed approach out of a need to counter and survive each despotic past and made it a natural part of our political culture over time. Like a noose, this and other sins of our forefathers and foremothers have hung around our necks. After the July 26th celebration, perhaps we need to figure out how to change our state of mind. We need to bridge the growing ethnic and social enclaves in our country that the events of theses date markers created and continue to sustain.
Beneath each of the psychologies alluded to resides ethnic identity - a major factor in how Liberians deal with one another. Ethnic identity influences how Liberians perceive and assess their interaction with one another. For this reason, a “perception gap” exists between an Americo-Liberian and an indigenous counterpart relative to privileges that people from the former group received before the 1980 coup. After 1980, during the Doe and Taylor regimes, a “perception gap” existed between a Mano/Gio people on the one hand, and Krahn/Mandingo people on the other, regarding rights and privileges that the government bestowed on those whom it considered its allies and enemies. A discernible diversity exists between various members of the different ethnic groups, with respect to how ethnically-motivated animosities, real or perceived, interfere with the search for sustainable solutions to the social and economic problems that have entangled us into tightly tied knots.
The past has made many Liberians suspicious of one another. It is possible that if a Krahn or Mandingo person allegedly committed a crime, and a Mano or Gio person were the judge or jury, fellow Krahns and Mandingos would express suspicion that the evidence would be tampered with and vice versa. A possible collaboration between a Krahn former general and a Mano former lawmaker to allegedly overthrow an administration that is derogatorily dubbed a throwback to the Americo-Liberian hegemony, just does not make sense. Some Liberians find it hard to believe that the two sides can come together to forge a clandestine link in pursuit of any goal. The “perception gap” of the difference between these two “rival” ethnic groups is too high, and the Sirleaf government is having a hard time convincing Liberians of such a possibility.
Convinced that national security officials involved in the Julu/Koukou case are in to get those accused and thus set them up or at the very least, they will tamper with the evidence, all sorts of cunning schemes and scenarios are being devised regarding what might have happened. Liberians live in an experiential/psychological space that contains a long history of government falsely accusing citizens of fomenting coup and providing no evidence to prove the guilt of the accused. It is an environment very ripe with the possibility of each side to play the “ethnic card.” People can appeal to entrenched public doubt about the government’s ability to dispense justice. Worse, if the Sirleaf government itself has yet not successfully prosecuted one person from the long list of formal government officials alleged to have stolen public wealth, and the notion that it is selectively prosecuting its rivals prevails, then there is a fertile ground for doubt to thrive. The government has to secure points in its governance structures that are susceptible to the use of the ethnic card or exploitation of the immense public doubt.
Nearly all articles written about the purported coup carry the infamous buzzword “kangaroo court.” By interjecting this buzzword, some charge that Julu is being prosecuted as the “poster boy” for prior cruel acts that the Doe regime committed and his affinity to the Krahn ethnic group. Koukou is being framed, his defenders assert, because his accuser, Tom Woewiyu is allegedly a pathological liar whose past is marked by blood trails, and is a mastermind of previous coups and wanton violence against civilians. Therefore he cannot be a credible state witness especially if the government’s case only rests on emails that could have been fabricated. Koukou is Mano, and he and his people are known for committing coups. Stereotypes thrive where evidence is not provided. Previous regimes help to cultivate suspicion in the public mind that justice is impossible in Liberia, and the current government is paying the price. If there is one thing that we need the most, it is for the public to trust that the government is capable of dispensing justice. But we can repudiate the coup making tradition by providing evidence and then punishing convicted coup makers to the fullest extent of the law. Or the government can let these men go free, if it lacks sufficient evidence, and set a standard for not violating the civil rights of Liberians just to exercise “naked power.”
Who should be held liable for the climate of distrust? Should the lawyers for Julu and Koukou be held culpable for malpractice, if they fail to play the ethnic card? Would it be right for Julu and Koukou’s lawyers to appeal to the potential jury’s suspicions about fairness in the Liberian criminal justice system? Perhaps the Julu/Koukou case is Liberia’s version of the Ojay Simpson trial, where an African American football star was tried for killing his wife and acquitted; when his lawyers argued that he was framed by racist cops to the dismay of many in the White public who felt that he got off because the race card was used as a potent weapon.
Why are some Liberians, shocked and stunned that the ethnic card and the prevailing doubts about the government’s ability to dispense justice are hijacking our capacity to move forward in the post-war era? The simple explanation for what I refer to as “perception gap” is that experientially and psychologically, the worldviews of Liberians have been altered. And the government faces a challenge of restoring confidence in the law enforcement and policy making superstructures of Liberia. The Sirleaf administration cannot hide behind national security and deem Julu and Koukou guilty without harming the psyches of Liberians further, if it does not provide substantive evidence as to how it decided on the guilt or innocence of those accused. The ways in which Liberians perceive and interpret situations happening around them are framed and filtered by ethnic polarization as well as the years or decades of undemocratic governance. Peace building and reconciliation programs designed to give Liberians a boost relative to interpersonal and public trust is the answer as to how we would reverse the “perception gap.” If the government does not plug the doubt of the public by being fair and judicious, when it accuses citizens of charges ranging from small matters to treason, which could cost people their lives, it will face catastrophic consequences.
Until strides are made toward equality and opportunity, and certain groups do not feel that they are being singled out for prosecution, and others are enjoying privileges, the government might just be in the throes of a surprise. It might not win the public relations battle that its opposition would wage if governance is not transparent. The challenge ahead is not only political, but also strategically a public relations one. Its current strategic information management team (legal and public affairs) seemingly lacks the sophistication to undertake this battle. It cannot hinge on the belief that the past of these men will implicate and convict these men in the court of public opinion. If that were the case, those in their midst whose past records also allegedly carry stained hands might not mount the credibility to even represent the government. Compounding the “perception gap” between many Liberians and the government in viewing how to proceed with nation building is that many in the government are still clinging to the old values and practices “our critics are our enemies.” Unless the government starts listening to its critics, especially those who offer it constructive analysis and solutions, it would be orchestrating its own downfall. The “perception gap” would widen and then eat at the core of its existence. It would eventually implode and defeat would be assured when the President’s term ends.
From the perspective of the everyday Liberian man or woman, lack of progress on peace building and specifically taking steps to restore confidence that the old order is not being reconstituted (manifested by ending widespread corruption and nepotism and ensuring opportunities for all) would be a giant step forward. But if the government is wondering about why people feel progress is stalled or moving too slowly, it needs to think about how it is squandering national resources on demonizing the Auditor General for some of its self-afflicted fiscal management and public relations woes. If scandals continue to happen and a few connected people get off, while the disconnected people get prosecuted, the government will lament these mistakes. I have said that many times before. Its critics will saturate the national debate with words that have negative connotations and sinister motives, if certain people are denied opportunities and others are treated with deference when they commit the same crimes.
The “venom” that has heaped on the Sirleaf government to create a divisive issue out of the present allegations of a coup, reminds me that Liberian society is still far ways away from leveling the playing field for the past wrongs that the ruling elites (country and congoe) on all spectrums of the ethnic schisms created. Some Liberians got a head start and others are trying to catch up and the blame is falling on the government to create mechanisms for righting the wrongs of the past. Until the Sirleaf administration can take active affirmative steps to hold those people walking around Monrovia as symbols of inequities accountable, and to rein in its own workforce for their wrongdoings, it will continue to face a doubtful constituency. The fears and fury that some feel over the Julu and Koukou accusations is not because of those individuals alone; but there are others wondering who is going to be the next victim of the “government’s indiscriminate ploy to create the impression that conditions are still not safe.”
Former government officials who participated in previous coups or acquired their wealth unfairly from their association with past despotic regimes and still have advantages that come with those ties have absolutely no moral stance from which to criticize others for wanting to commit coups. They should have shown their distaste for undemocratic governance a long time ago. They carefully omit the fact that such issues as inclusion or building an ethnically “beloved community” which could have ended the appetite for such heinous acts were ignored, when they were able to intervene at the very onset while coup making was fashionable in Liberia.
Indeed, I believe that Liberia can undergo a political and social transformation, except that we cannot remain tight lipped when some of the hypocrites among us start to play Russian roulette with the facts or our emotions. If we are to move toward equity and justice, then the current government must start to invest in the kind of “affirmative social engineering” that is necessary for the larger society to overcome centuries of discrimination and to bring different ethnic factions together in “harmony and mutual respect.” Some of the people in the present government were the same ones who established precedents of special opportunities for their children and relatives in getting better education, bank loans to invest in business, and to acquire safety nets that many in the society were not privy to. Where it appears that an unequal status quo is being resuscitated, it is not science to determine that a climate of distrust and disgust would exist. Absolutely no reason for coups! But in the devious minds of some, their way of resolving the unpreventable hurdle associated with ethnic animosities is to rain down instability.
What is absent in the nation building enterprise in Liberia today? I believe that we need a sincere and frank national conversation about the role of ethnic polarization and how it influences people’s “attitudes, perceptions, opinions, and behaviors.” We also need to examine how past wrongs have conferred advantages on some and disadvantages on others, but to do so acknowledging that the past, if used as a barrier, can hold people back. Some might be uncomfortable discussing ethnic identity and polarization, however, after the civil war; it is completely derelict on the government’s part to act like this topic is one that can be shoved under the mat forever. The congoe-country “perception gap;” the Mano/Gio and Krahn/Mandingo counterpart or feud, compounded by generations of distrust and enmity interferes with shared commitment to nation building. They each stand in the way of us communicating across difference, and we would continue to struggle to cultivate a vision for transcending difference and solving our national problems. We must learn to communicate across difference: gender, ethnicity, class, age, etc in a meaningful way.
If there is a bright spot in all of this, the government will not continue to balk at the prospects of investing immediately into a national reconciliation project, crying that such a venture is too costly or not a priority. Although a coup is a low likelihood, the impact of an attempted coup or the news of a coup on the psyches of Liberians and potential foreign investors alike is too high. The government has to take peace building seriously. The coup, whether real or imaginary is a clear warning to all Liberians and also to the Sirleaf administration and our international supporters that Liberia is still in danger of reverting to war. We would have to let go of our forefathers and foremothers failures; cross the debilitating ethnic divides, build mutual empathy, and create shared understanding. These are the preconditions for productive dialogue. We must come face-to-face with the intense and sometimes painful reality that revenge, antagonism, and hatred will only eat at the essence of our survival. We must confront our complacency with the way things have been and are; and thrust forward by being inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us tell the Liberian narrative about our past objectively; respect the points of view of all sides, and demarcate the exceptions that lead to reciprocated compassion. In closing, as a person whose 9-5 work and consulting practice aims to resolve racial conflicts, I am not suggesting that reconciliation can be done using specific prescriptions nor can it be done in an inexpensive manner. Rather, when we invest in peace building and reconciliation, the solutions emerge from among those affected; and the price tag is often costly. Nonetheless, I can guarantee that the benefits touch every single life and generations unborn.
Idea for writing this paper came from reading the book entitled: “Black Man Emerging: Facing the Past and Seizing a Future in America” by Joseph L. White and James H. Cones, III. Clearly, their style and thoughts influenced me substantively.
2007 by The Perspective
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