Leadership; delegates, other distinguished guests]; my fellow Mandingoes, my fellow Liberians:
It gives me great pleasure tonight to finally honor your invitation to address the Federation of Liberian Mandingoes in the United States of America. This has been a long time coming, and has been delayed by the demands of my duties as a public servant, first as the former Minister of Finance & Development Planning; and then by my new portfolio with the World Bank Group providing support to more than 35 countries challenged by conflict, fragility, violence and forced displacement or refugee crisis. Of late, I have also thought it wise to remain discreet, prayerful and observant during this historic moment in our country’s democracy, and to support the first peaceful transition of power from one living president to another in Liberia since 1944. This transition, in my humble opinion, if managed well, will further establish Liberia as a true democracy, solidify the fragile peace we have maintained over more than a decade, and set the tone for the next era when Liberians can begin to cultivate an unshakable society where all tribes, religions, men and women, young and old can peacefully live together. Therefore, it is very important that all Liberians regardless of their tribal identities, political backgrounds, religion or otherwise, listen to their better angels and embrace a peaceful transition of political power.
Now that the process toward that transition is well advanced, I would like to share my views about the role of our Mandingo community at this moment in Liberia’s history, and how we can help build a nation that is inclusive and prosperous for all Liberians. But first, let me make clear that the views I express here this evening are mine only. I am here, not in my capacity as an official of the World Bank Group or any other organization I have worked with in the past. I am here as a proud citizen of Liberia, a proud Mandingo committed to a smooth and constructive transition into the next chapter in our national story.
Before we look to the future, we must examine our past and capture the essence of who we are meant to be. Let’s start with our name: Liberia. It comes from the Latin word ‘Liber’, and means ‘Land of Freedom’. As we know, the newly freed Black American founders chose that name for the land where they settled, to announce to the world that black people, too, have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that black people have a right to freedom. But there were a few things they forgot. Firstly, they forgot to look beyond their own ethnic group and see that the other black people they met on that land also have the same right to freedom. We know that story, and how it deteriorated over more than a century into the chaos we are just now recovering from.
We also must remember, that once conflict broke out in 1989, it wasn’t the Congo fighting against the other tribes. At that point, it was all of our indigenous tribes fighting one another. That leads me to point out the second and fundamental thing the Settlers and all of us forgot; and that is the meaning of Liberia; the meaning of freedom. Now, you may be asking what the importance is of defining freedom and helping you understand it tonight. It is a general concept that most of us understand and aspire to. But every so often we need to do a spot check and consider what freedom really is, and whether our actions match our understanding of that word. According to Oxford Dictionary, freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think the way we want to. It is the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic governments. It is the state of not being wrongly imprisoned or enslaved; and it is the state of not being subject to or affected by something undesirable.
Follow me briefly my fellow countrymen and women, and I will show you how forgetting the true meaning of freedom has cost us the ability to determine the level of freedom we have enjoyed at any point in our national journey; and cost us the ability to make informed decisions to fully realize our true potential as a people.
When our forefathers founded the settlement of Liberia in 1822, they were still governed by whites from the American Colonization Society. It took them 25 more years to gain political freedom, which they did in 1847, by declaring their independence from any foreign entity and establishing Africa’s first nation governed by black people. But they failed to realize that total freedom means “not being subject to or affected by something undesirable” – like ethnic tensions. If they had seen the picture from that angle, they would have recognized that the marginalization of indigenous people would lead to prolonged ethnic tensions and undermine their quest for freedom, from 1822 up until 1980 and beyond. They would then have taken a more inclusive approach to nation building, and fostered a more sustainably peaceful and productive society.
On the other hand, our seventeen native brothers who thought the fight for freedom justified the assassination of a long serving Congo president in 1980, also failed to see the big picture. At that time Liberians of all ethnic groups were right to be angry because so many of us – Congo or Indigenous – were deprived of “the right to act, speak, or think as we wanted; and the right not to be subjected to a despotic government.” But those who chose violence as a means to gain political freedom did not realize that by shooting down a head of state, they were undermining their own hope of gaining political and economic freedom.
It was clear, at that time, that we were under a dictatorship characterized by political exclusion with a one-party state, and that our economy was characterized by high economic growth without tangible development. But, compared to our neighbors on the continent, Liberia was becoming a model for human development, which is a major factor in determining the level and sustainability of economic development as a whole. To be clear, a country’s human development is determined by three factors: the life expectancy of its people; access they have to quality education; and their standard of living, which is calculated by gross national income per capita.
If we evaluate Liberia’s performance on these indicators, we will see that Liberians were among the best educated on the continent of Africa for decades. Students came from all over Africa to attend the University of Liberia and Cuttington University. Graduates from our schools could go abroad and compete with the best students at the most prestigious universities in the world, and earn master’s and doctoral degrees. We had the highest quality medical facilities in the region, and the John F. Kennedy Medical Center was the leading referral hospital in West Africa.
We had the best legal minds on the continent long before we even opened a law school, and our bar exam was tougher than the one at New York University. We had good engineers, doctors, and highly skilled artists. We had an economy that attracted foreign exchange, not only through the large-scale export of rubber and iron ore, but at the micro level where market women from as far as southern Africa were flying in to buy their goods from Waterside, and fly back home. We had independent subsistence farmers and artisanal diamond miners like my father; farmers like so many of our mothers, who fed the nation. As a child, I always looked forward to December every year for the harvests.
These factors reflect the growing human development in Liberia up until 1980. I should note that the centerpiece of human development is education. The more quality education is available, the more improvements are likely to be seen in the other factors – life expectancy and standard of living – over time. We had that; and while it is true that most of the economic buzz and access to basic social services were concentrated in the urban areas particularly Monrovia, education access was gradually expanding. We were getting there; and then we sabotaged the economic freedom we were gradually obtaining by resorting to violence on account of the political freedoms we wanted. The decision to fight one another along the lines of class and ethnicity set us back decades from where we were before. And here we are today, having just celebrated our 170th year of independence; and we remain the oldest republic in Africa but still one of the poorest in the world.
Our often-shallow understanding of what it means to be Liberian – what it means to be free from poverty, social tension and violence, illiteracy and ill health – also cost us, for a long time, our place as a leader in the comity of nations. New and embattled countries such as Israel and our African neighbors counted on Liberia to validate their claims to statehood in the 1960s and early 1970s. More importantly, the entire continent of Africa looked to us as an example of the courage, tenacity and strategic action required to build and sustain a nation by and for African people. Not only that, these new African nations looked to Liberia for leadership in establishing the framework for cooperation amongst themselves. We set an imperfect but important example of freedom. But when we began to fight one another, we undermined our political and economic freedom; and as a result, we lost the platform we had on the world stage to demonstrate that Africans can build a successful nation where all people can contribute and succeed. Now, all across Africa, we are fighting each other.
Meanwhile, the world is looking at us and adopting the brilliant examples Africans have set – like establishing regional integration communities such as the OAU then AU, ECOWAS, the Mano River Union, etc. We did it first, but the Europeans built on it and expanded on the concept with their European Union. The African Peer Review Mechanism, under the African Union system, is another brilliant African idea of African countries evaluating the quality of each other’s governance practices; and other continents are impressed by the concept and considering adopting it. But again, our lack of unity at the national and continental levels constantly undermines our ability to collaborate and to realize the economic and political freedom, and the peace our people deserve.
I believe that the curses in our past are blessings for us today. Liberians at home and abroad have seized the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and engage more constructively in the national discourse. Yes, we have had many instances wherein public figures and private citizens have abused their freedom of speech to breed division and undermine progress. But, by the grace of God, we have made it through more than a decade free of violence, and have succeeded in the conduct of two free and fair general and presidential elections cycles.
Respect for the process
The current electoral process is fraught with controversy, as we grapple with issues of dual citizenship and the constitutionality of our code of conduct, which obligates public servants to vacate their posts at least two years before running for elected office. The recent decision by the Liberian Supreme Court on the Code of Conduct has led to a motion filed by a group of senators to impeach three supreme court justices that has been endorsed by the House of Representatives. On the eve of the most important transition in our country, our elected politicians that are predominantly indigenous, have again ignited a potential constitutional crisis. We may all hold varied opinions about these critical issues, and we may observe the latest developments with interest, if not frustration. But one thing is sure: come October 10, 2017, those of us who registered have a choice to make and a responsibility to bear regarding the future of our country. To abstain from the vote because we are dissatisfied with the process would amount to us robbing ourselves of the right to be represented in government. After all, democracy means “rule by the people;” and the tools that ‘we the people’ have to exert our rulership over our country are our ballots and our voices. These are never perfect tools, because the candidates we cast our ballots to elect will never be perfect people; and we ourselves will never make perfect decisions or have a perfect perspective on any given issue.
We are humans and all flawed; and because the functioning of our democracy depends on our actions, it will always be flawed. But the more sincerely and consistently engaged we are in the process, the more hope we have of gradually maturing the system. My aim tonight is not to excuse the improper actions taken by any political figure in our land, but to urge all Mandingoes and all Liberians to see our country as we would our own children. When we see them going in the wrong direction, we don’t retreat and keep silent.
We speak up and we take corrective action. After all, their behavior represents us and we are ultimately responsible for it. So, too, the progress of our country directly reflects the quality of our political institutions and the quality of our actions to hold them accountable. Let us, therefore, boldly engage in the process, cast our votes and peacefully accept the results of the election. I also encourage those of you here in the Diaspora to reach out to family members and relatives in Liberia and encourage them to vote. That is the biggest contribution you can make to the process. Let us also continue, thereafter, to honor those who have been elected, even if we did not choose them; and let us speak out constructively about the issues that matter to us, and hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for the direction of our country.
Focus on Issues
After all, it is the issues that matter, not the personalities that are able to excite us, or incite in us fear and resentment of people belonging to other tribes, socioeconomic classes or religions. These political personalities come and go. Twelve years ago, we had one group of candidates; this year, another group. In the next twelve years, more giants will rise and more will fall; but the issues of education, healthcare, national security, basic social services and inclusive and sustainable economic growth to create opportunities for all – particularly young Liberians – the issue of good governance, justice, rule of law and national reconciliation will persist in affecting our national trajectory long after every larger-than-life political personality has left the scene.
When the Ebola epidemic attacked Liberia, it didn’t distinguish us by tribes or by indigenous versus Congo. These national challenges affect us all in the same ways. The quality of health services and education in Liberia does not affect the Kpelleh people any less than it does the Mandingoes. The state of our economy does not affect our community any more or less than it affects the Manos, Gios, Krahns, Krues, Golas, Grebos, etc. All of our people suffer similar fates, be it Ebola or economic stagnation.
Our job as voters, therefore, must be to build with our votes a team that is able and committed to help us overcome the challenges all Liberians face. That team must embrace humility and simplicity – not chasing after pay raises, gas slips, expensive cars and other benefits at the expense of taxpayers, but focusing on restoring the dignity of the Liberian people. That team must firmly uphold sound governance, increased voice and accountability, integrity in the discharge of their public duties and economic and fiscal responsibility. That team that we choose must be diverse and embrace the unique perspectives of the people in it that represent all of us. That team must work together.
Call for unity
Liberia is a democracy – ruled by the people who choose their leaders. If we want the leaders we have chosen to work together and be unified around the agenda we have set, then we the people must set the example, reach across ethnic, economic and religious lines and unite. Indeed, if there has ever been a time when national unity would determine the survival of our nation, it is now. As Abraham Lincoln saliently puts it, a country divided against itself is confusion. We need to work together and see our diversity as our strength instead of our weakness.
The movements of the global economy, especially the protracted fall in the global price of our primary exports (rubber and iron ore) that started in early 2013, have harshly affected Liberia and led to the depreciation of our currency against the US Dollar. The exchange today in Liberia today is a whopping $123 LD to $1 USD, which most severely affects those at the bottom of the income ladder. We are also still recovering from the economic effects of the Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak, which saw major concessionaires leave the country, leading to a fall in the employment rate, further reduction of our export earnings that attracted US dollars into our economy, and the high cost of rehabilitating our healthcare system.
As you are all too aware, we are also living in the Trump Era, where a significant amount of the development assistance Liberia has enjoyed from the United States and its allies has been, or could soon be, sharply reduced. Programs are already being cut in crucial sectors such as health and education; and this is just the beginning. We must also remain aware, as Liberians and especially as Mandingoes, of the shift in the US government’s immigration policy as well as the recent remarks made by the president encouraging police misconduct.
The policies, statements and tweets that now define the national agenda of our closest ally in the developed world are a crude reminder that we as Liberians and as Mandingoes must redefine our concept of community, and hold our compatriots closer than we have before. It is time for us to dismantle the artificial clan titles such as Gboni, Manika, Koniakah, Bussykah and unite as one community in Liberia. FELMAUSA is a good place to start from. Mandingoes are more disunited inside Liberia than ever before; but, if anyone doubts the vibrancy of our community, I say to them come to Minneapolis tonight and you see the true meaning of unity and vibrancy. If anyone has any doubt about the meaning of a happy people, I say to them come to Minneapolis tonight and you will see a very happy and positive Mandingo community that sees the possibilities in its members, community and country. Come to Minnesota tonight and you will see the crème de la crème of a vibrant Mandingo Community.
That vibrancy, that sense of community, and the openness that you exhibit in your daily lives is now a critical tool we must leverage if we as Liberian Mandingoes are going to thrive in this new yet familiar xenophobic age. While the travel ban did not affect our Liberian Mandingo community, it could have. And it showed us and all Muslim communities in the United States that we may have different races, speak different languages, and have different cultures; but we have a common experience of discrimination, and we must be united in our peaceful resistance against it. The developments over the last seven months have also reminded us that we cannot resist these injustices alone. We need strong friendships with people outside of our cultures – like those lawyers and other activists who put their lives on hold to help Muslim families affected by the travel ban to gain reentry into the United States and reunite with their families; like the thousands of citizens across the country who gave their representatives in Congress no rest until they overturned the travel ban. Not all of them were Muslims, but they took action because they recognized that we are all human beings, and we all need to step up and help each other in times like these. And I appreciate their effort.
In the same way, we as Mandingoes, who are predominantly Muslim, must take the initiative, if no other group will, to build strong interreligious trust within Liberian society at home and abroad. This will in no way be a simple endeavor; but we must do it. Liberia is, after all, a democracy; and as I said before, and as we know, this means ‘rule by the people’; and we are all Liberians. And let’s remember the fundamental principle of our political system: that there should be no taxation without representation. Yet, the longstanding religious bigotry in our politics continues to influence the decisions of Christian politicians to exclude Muslims from their tickets for fear that they might lose votes. This not only affects Mandingo Muslims, but all Liberian Muslims, who are all productive citizens of our beloved country.
Sadly, the ongoing 2017 elections are no different from those of the past, when every major candidate sees able Muslims as serious impediments to their electability even when some of the most honest, most loyal and hardest working Liberians are Muslims. They say Muslim voters in Liberia are too small a demographic to be worth including; not recognizing that the national reconciliation we so desperately need is worth more than any one party’s popularity. Most importantly, those who continue to hold to this bigotry do not recognize that they do so at the expense of national development. We could learn a thing or two from how our West African neighbors are fostering religious inclusion for their peoples, to the significant benefit of their economies and societies. Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, etc. all have either a Christian or Muslim as president or vice president, and these are thriving economies that have made much of the progress that we aspire to. Muslims in those countries have not been a liability, but an asset. Almost all 53 African countries celebrate Christmas and at least one Islamic holiday to foster unity among their peoples, while elected Liberian politicians choose to remain blind to the inherent benefits of doing this to unite the Liberian people.
We are no different from any other Liberian; because the beauty of Liberia is the diversity of our physical appearance. Unlike peoples of other more homogenous African nations, we don’t all look the same. You can hardly tell the difference between any Muslim and Christian on the streets of Liberia. More importantly, there is very little difference between us in our hearts. We wish for the same things for ourselves and our children. Our Sons and daughters attend the same schools, dream the same big dreams, and face similar challenges. They grow up together, work together and have fun together. In a few months, our Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters will be voting together and thereby shaping the same future. So, it is about time for Liberian Muslims to take our rightful place in the national conversation peacefully, knowing that when we stand together and protect our country from the threat of any form of division; when we build a peaceful bridge to prosperity along with our fellow Christian citizens; when we pay our taxes, and engage in community development, owing allegiance only to our constitution under the one banner – the flag – that covers all Liberians, we are protecting our own freedom.
We know that some of our best friends are not from our ethnic group, and may not share our religious beliefs. Some of the people who made us who we are today – our teachers – did not share our culture, or our physical features. But they poured into us their knowledge and their values, and they helped us develop our brains and talents, so that we could become the responsible, productive and successful citizens that are contributing in significant ways to our country and the global economy. We have benefited from our fellow Liberians, and from people of other cultures through our experience in the Diaspora, and they have benefitted from us too. I believe that the next frontier in our journey as Mandingoes and as Liberians is to recognize that our compatriots are our greatest assets in overcoming the many challenges we face. We have run out of time for nursing old tribal wounds. It is time to count the cost of freedom and sacrifice our distrust and division, to gain the realization of our Liberian dream.
It took us 190 years (from 1822 to 2012) to articulate for ourselves a national vision of where we want to be; and we did so by looking back and identifying the missteps of our past. That vision statement must be revised periodically as we continue to evaluate ourselves as a society, as an economy, and as a people, and decide our next steps forward. But as we work to fulfill that evolving vision, the choice is ours to claim the freedom to act, speak, or think the way we want to, responsibly, constructively and peacefully. The choice is ours to maintain our democracy and not give way to foreign domination or any despotic government. The choice is ours to build a nation and a society wherein few are imprisoned, none are enslaved, and all feel welcome, valued and supported.
To any young Liberian between the ages of 18 and 35, please remember that you are both losers and winners in the protected Liberian civil war that cost many lives. I want you to know that when you were four years old, your country was a tragic comedy and a pariah state. Today, with its imperfections, your country is an inspiring, uplifting drama. I want you to know also that you lost the war because when some of you were between 7 and 21 years old, you or many of your peers fought the war and committed some of the most unimaginable and gruesome atrocities. You became men and women in your teens at a time when you should instead have been developing your minds through education and directing your energy to sports and other character-building activities that would have solidly prepared you for adulthood and good citizenship. But you also won the war in that today you make up 75% of Liberia’s population and in your hands lies the power to decide who leads our country into a future full of opportunities. You have the power to demand that those seeking your votes give you the same dignity they have. Country and Congo will not give you dignity.
Deep down, neither you nor I believe that a life so dear and freedom and peace so sweet, can be purchased at the price of tribal bigotry, without there being dire consequences to any community that chooses to foster division and hate. It will backfire, as we have already seen in our nation’s history. You and I have the courage to say to our politicians, there is a price we will not pay. There is a point beyond which we will not allow them to advance their rhetoric. If their language is not constructive, then it has no place in our public discourse. This is how we must defend our freedom to live in a peaceful and progressive society.
Each government must facilitate this process of nation building, and uphold the political and economic freedoms that our Constitution affords us. But it is the responsibility of each citizen to solidify those freedoms through our votes, our peaceful and constructive advocacy and public engagement; and, most importantly through our ability to value and support one another. That is the key to progress; that is the key to freedom.