Awards Must Translate Into Better Life For All Liberians

By: James W. Harris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 5, 2007


On the international stage, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf easily passes off as a kind of rock star or Hollywood celebrity. Everywhere she has gone, the President has usually been given very warm reception by her hosts. No doubt the friendships and contacts she has nurtured over the years working with such organizations, like the United Nations (UN), amongst others, are certainly paying off big time now for her.

Here’s how The Perspective writer, Abdoulaye W. Dukule, described her recent visit to and subsequent reception in Washington, DC: “If there ever was a political Oscar night, the Africare dinner honoring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could pass for one. There were Chris Tucker, Cicely Tyson, Barbara Lee, and Debbie Lee. Robert L. Johnson showed up with a coterie of media personalities. On the political side, the who’s who of Congress was on hand. According to Africare President Julius Coles, this was the most ‘successful fundraising evening’ of his 5-year tenure at the head of the largest African-American humanitarian non-governmental organization devoted to Africa.”

Liberians have every right to be proud
While Liberians generally should be very proud of their President, especially her individual accomplishments abroad, it would be nice if ordinary Liberians too were to benefit from the rewards derived from such high profile visits and receptions.

Yes, she can take the numerous awards given her and hang them on the walls of the Executive Mansion or even in her private residence in Monrovia if she so desires, but they would actually mean nothing for the country as a whole if the wretched lives of our people remain forever the same.

As President Sirleaf prepares to make yet another trip to the US in as many months – this time to pick up the Presidential Medal of Freedom (said to be the highest honor awarded to civilians by the American government), events on the ground in Liberia sadly depicts a radically different picture.

A different story on the ground
In a moving letter to which was dated 10/28/07, one Thom Gibson ( who had apparently just returned to the US from Liberia wrote: “About a week ago, I was in Liberia and the minute I arrived at the airport, depression stepped in. The reason was, some employees at the airport harassed us for money which was very unprofessional. I just could not believe such attitude existed after I had heard all of that had stopped. I was furious and still am because I expected more from my fellow Liberians. When we got out of the terminal building, there were still employees following us to our car asking us for money. I was upset and ashamed because of the investors and other visitors that were in our midst.”

But if you thought that Gibson’s early experience at the airport upon arrival at home recently was an isolated case then you may just want to think again.

“After we left the airport for Monrovia, I was in more shock. The roads were filled with pot holes all the way to the Capitol City. Driving before City Hall up to the Mansion reminded me of back in the days during the rainy season in Logan Town how terrible the road was. It was at night and there were so many people along the road especially in the ELWA area and the road leading as far as Catholic Hospital. I thought something had happen but was told by the Driver that it is the normal practice of citizens to be in the streets all the time”, Gibson further wrote. [You may want to go to the following link to read Thom Gibson’s entire letter for yourself --]

Some Liberians still in perpetual denial
Not surprisingly, Gibson has since come under strong attack and/or criticism from other Liberians who prefer to remain in perpetual denial about the horrible state their country is currently in, despite President Sirleaf’s frequent foreign visits supposedly to seek help and aid for her wrecked nation.

For example, one Lee S. Mason ( who said he presently lives in Liberia on the Dwahzon Beach Road on the Robertsfield Highway wrote in reply to Gibson: “Like many Liberians who have been away from the country for many years (assuming that this is the case with Mr. Gibson going by the contents of his letter) there have been a complete disconnect between him and what has been happening in the country over the last 15 years or so-or is it that he deliberately chose to ignore the realities of what Liberia has become as a result of the last 15 years of civil war?” Now, what has this got to do with anything?

More vexingly, exactly what does Mason mean by “[Mr. Gibson] chose to ignore the realities of what Liberia has become as a result [of] the last 15 years of civil war?” Of course, everyone or at the very least every Liberian should know by now what their country has become after many years of brutal wars which were basically forced on them by opportunistic Liberians and their foreign backers – a severely devastated country today.

But does Mason know who brought those wars on the Liberian people and state? If you don’t know, Mr. Mason, the wars were wickedly imposed on the Liberian masses and state by the very same bunch of irresponsible Liberians [don’t we all already know who they are] running the collapsed nation today - thanks to the voters [?] of the last supposedly “free and fair” elections held in Liberia.

You break it, you fix it
Furthermore, Mr. Mason, have you ever heard of the phrase “you break it, you fix it” which was made popular by former US Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell when he was admonishing the Bush administration about venturing into Iraq? If you haven’t then you and others who share your narrow view about someone else’s perspective about present conditions in war-scarred Liberia may want to get help in getting a clear understanding of the above phrase.

Aside from Gibson’s uniquely frank observations about his recent trip to the Liberia, those of us who still have some relatives and friends at home get the same kind of feedback whenever we ask them about how things are going back home. The usual answer from such inquiries is always, “it’s here oh my brother…things are very hard on us….no work…no money…but the price of everything keeps going up”.

Seriously, when you hear these kinds of sentiments being made by people on the ground as well as those who are constantly going in and out of the country, you better know that things are not as rosy as the Unity Party government and its diehard supporters would wants us and the rest of the world to believe. As it is said quite so often, “it’s much easier to break something than to fix it.” In this regard, I’m sure that the President and her close friends are finding that out right now.

Government not expected to work miracles
But while I certainly don’t expect the Johnson-Sirleaf administration to work miracles in resuscitating a nation which was on the brink of total collapse, albeit, her own contribution to the long-running crises, the least that Liberians expected from this government was for it to be immediately responsive to their basic needs (i.e. providing safe drinking water, better sanitary conditions, electricity, jobs, etc. as starters). But that clearly doesn’t appear to be the case right now.

As one Cooper Kweme (, a frequent letter writer to recently observed: “I can't remember anytime when citizens of Liberia openly and boldly came up with a statement, especially on a birthday of the President to say that the state of the nation is not what it is supposed to be. What I can remember, however, on the occasion of many previous presidential birthdays, is that there were massive petitions from all of the counties and subdivisions of the country, sycophantly praising and telling the president at the time how wonderful things were and how glad the people were that God had blessed them with this immortal being.”

He then went on to say what his expectations would or would not be if he were to visit Liberia today: “I don't expect to go to Monrovia and to drive on a four-lane highway. I don't expect to see traffic light at every intersection. I don't expect everybody at Roberts International Airport to welcome me to Liberia without asking me to ‘give your pekin small thing’."

But “there are certain basic things I expect from our people [the government], especially after two good years of calmness. With people coming to Liberia from all over the world, I expect the Immigration personnel at border crossings to be courteous, respectful, and professional. People working at the borders are the first that visitors encounter when entering any country. Whatever action is exhibited at the border, be it good or bad, will forever remain with the visitors while in or out of the country”, he added.

Two years of democracy [?]
Kweme continued: “After two years of real democracy [?], I expect people who sell stuff to be selling them down Waterside. If I wanted to buy artifacts or souvenir stuff or sew me a pair of trousers, I would go down Waterside or to the designated areas for these kinds of activities. To block the road from Mount Barclay to Ducor Palace with goods for sale is not a good sight for visitors. It shows lawlessness. It shows disrespect to authority.”

Now, when it comes to the part of Kweme’s hopefully frank letter where he said: “And finally, when I go to Monrovia, I want to hear that Kofi Woods and John Morlu, II are still in the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Government”, honestly, I don’t know about all of that. Sometimes I even wonder why a promising young man like Woods would accept a position – whether high ranking or not - with this suspect Unity Party government.

Are we to believe that he shares the same philosophy with the Johnson Sirleaf government, especially regarding its continuing disconnect from the Liberian people? Yes, I’m certainly talking about the vast majority of Liberian masses who have yet to benefit in any way from the millions and millions of dollars pouring into the country as the result mainly of President Sirleaf’s favorable status with many world leaders and others who could make a big difference in the lives of our impoverished compatriots if given a direction.

Ultimately, though, Mr. Woods has every right to work for whoever he wants, never mind how others like me would feel about his decision. I still think that he could best serve his country from the outside rather than being a part of this government that evidently has many people that could perfectly fit the description of life-long opportunists.

As for John Morlu, II, his is a completely different story as it doesn’t appear that he knows what he is doing, although for their own selfish reasons, many “young” Liberians still support him rather than telling him out rightly, “look, my man…you’re making the same stupid mistake as the failed generation before us. Try to stick within the confines of the job you’ve been hired to do for such a hefty salary, ok. Just go ahead and carry out your mandate.”

According to some sources, Morlu currently makes near or in the low hundred thousand dollars range (and I mean American dollars – not Liberian) for his work as the nation’s Auditor General. Yet, up to this very date, the man hasn’t produced even a single audit report on any government agency – not ZIP. So, in effect, the Liberian people are not getting anything for their money’s worth. And please don’t tell me that it doesn’t matter because the European Union (EU) is paying his salary – it does matter to me one way or the other.

Many Liberians share same view
However, like me, I’m sure that many Liberians do share some of the same views as Gibson and Kweme, except that we don’t want to admit it for fear of being seen as a critic of the sitting Liberian government. As for me personally, I don’t care one way or the other how Liberians view my thinking or my work as long as I’m sincere with myself.

I’m one of those who strongly subscribe to the philosophy defined so clearly in William Shakespeare’s famous poem, “To Thine Own Self Be True”. The part of the poem which one of my favorite high school (Bassa High) teachers [professor] the late Philip V. Saywrayne [of blessed memories] made us to memorize and sticks with me to this very day are these few but powerful lines: “…Above all…to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Praise singers/cheering squads still around
If and only if most of us (if not all) were to diligently subscribe to the few lines I just quoted above, especially when it comes to holding our [Liberian] public officials accountable for their actions or inaction, I honestly believe that our country would be in a far better shape today than ever before. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of “praise singers and cheering squads” in our midst, doing the very same things others did in the past.

I’m definitely not saying that we shouldn’t give praise where it is due, but by-golly, let’s not resort to the same old practices of showering praises on our leaders just for the sake of it. That surely would get us no where except make our so-called leaders believe falsely that things are just fine and dandy when evidence shows they’re actually not!

When it comes to the question of President Johnson Sirleaf’s frequent trips abroad at a critical time like this when all her attention should be correctly focused on “rebuilding” Liberia as opposed to “returning the country to its status quo” – the direction the country seem to be moving in right now, some Liberians would argue vehemently that such visits do bring added benefits to the country. I have no disagreement with them on this, except one question – who’s benefiting from such aid today? Surely not the Liberian masses!!

Papa’s taking slow walk home
Clearly it must be a few Liberians enjoying the lion’s share of aid flowing into the country as it has always been in the past since the majority of our people still live in absolute poverty waiting for “Papa to come home” in reference to Madam Sirleaf’s campaign pledge that when she became President of the Republic of [war-damaged] Liberia, all would be saying “Papa na come”, meaning that every head of household would be able to provide for their families.

And the fact that this singular campaign promise has not been kept speaks volumes about the UP government; not to say that the Johnson Sirleaf administration is not making progress in some areas, like, fighting for debt relief for her country…But more still needs to be done (and very urgently too) especially in making life a little bit better for our people who have suffered terribly for so long under the burden of successive cruel regimes.

Let’s not beat our chests just yet
Similarly, many Liberians are also beating their chests feeling happy that quite a few foreign investors (old and new) are now coming to the nation’s rescue – again, thanks to the friendships and contacts developed by the President. But sincerely, unless the vast majority of our people benefit directly from these new endeavors, I’m afraid that no “real” development would come our way as long as we keep doing things just as we’ve always done in the past.

When a childhood friend who grew up with me in the port city of Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, became extremely excited when he learned that Mittel Steel was about to take over the mines operations in Nimba County and the jobs that it would eventually bring to both counties, I quickly reminded him that LAMCO was there not too long ago and yet most of our people still lived in misery and abject poverty. Importantly, I reminded him also that LAMCO was present right there in Lower Buchanan where we both grew up and yet our sea-side city remained largely under-developed almost in every sense.

The responsibility is primarily our government’s
Now, I would be a big fool to blame the company (LAMCO) for not leaving a more vibrant Buchanan community behind, especially in terms of much needed infrastructures, like local roads, simple toilet facilities, etc. To the contrary, it was and still is the duty and full responsibility of the Liberian government to ensure that the country’s resources are put to good use for the equal benefit of all Liberians and not just a tiny minority as it has always been since the country was established more then 157 years ago.

It’s not that the country has lacked the necessary resources to make reasonable progress as far as making life better just a little bit for the vast majority of Liberians, particularly in the rural areas. The problem has always been that successive Liberian governments squandered the nation’s wealth pursuing their own selfish goals

Dr. van der Kraaij’s study
To fully comprehend Liberia’s plight and what we’re up against, I cordially invite you to read a study undertaken by Dr. F. P. M. van der Kraaij (PhD.) of the Netherlands. Dr. van der Kraaij, who has studied Liberia extensively for many, many years has written that: “One of the most important conclusions of [his] study is that the disappointing results of the Open Door Policy [which is definitely still in place today] cannot be blamed only on ignorance and the lack of knowledge on the part of Liberia at the time of negotiations with foreign investors. They were also caused by the fact that the ruling Americo-Liberian minority voluntarily [key word] accepted the dependence on foreign investors and refused to cooperate and integrate with the tribal population of the country.” I’m not too sure whether or not this scenerio has changed in Liberia. So, as far as I’m concerned his conclusion is valid even today.

Dt. van der Kraaij, who I vividly remember teaching me Economics 201 at the University of Liberia in the late 1970s, went on to say that: “Because of this [in reference to all of the above], the economic, as well as the political future of the country depends on the realisation of an acceptable combinatin of foreign investments, economic development and national unification for all parties concerned.”

Stability depends on combination of things
I think every well-meaning Liberian who wants to see the country finally break away from its ugly past and move into the future with hope and prosperity would do well to visit the good professor’s website and read for themselve his entire study, conclusion and recommendations. In that way, each of us would be able to understand the many challenges which lie ahead and how best to resolve our differences and work toward building a brand new nation on the basis of making sensible decisions for the greater good of all.

It could well be that the Johnson Sirlear administration may succeed in bringing some level of development to our now ruined nation, but her biggest challenge yet would be to “[realize] an acceptable combination of foreign investments, economic development and national unification for all parties concerned” as Dr. van der Kraaij eloquently puts it.

Is President Johnson Sirleaf up to the challenge? That’s the big question, but we’ll see sooner rather than later – won’t we!

© 2007 by The Perspective

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