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Tribalism: A catch 22 accusation in Liberian discourse

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
Lawrenceville, Georgia
July 25, 2013

The People, Budget & the Government
(Used with permission from Jordan Porompyae)

The pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who is the author of Common Sense that is referred to as a dreamer and patriot in American History; wrote in his Dissertation on First Principles of Government these insightful words: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent which will reach himself.” Not to be outdone, George Orwell followed with this statement: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” That being said, the truth is what my article is about.


From a very young age, I have dedicated my life in the service of humanity; because Jesus Christ instructed us to be “fishers’ of men (women)” and to be our brothers/sisters’ keeper. Therefore, I never pay attention to the advice, “Your leave the people’s thing alone” and “Mind your business” that old folks used to give us when we were growing up in Liberia. Perhaps, this is the reason I have been blessed by God to see my 66th birthday and to be among the living.

What old folks used to tell us in the past, is happening today. There are many people amongst us who have taken “Your leave the people’s thing alone” and “Mind your business” to another level. These so-called new ‘patriots’ interpret every disagreement as either regional or tribal; which I believe is a “Catch 22” Web. It is regarding this new “Catch 22” discourse among Liberians that this article, Tribalism: A Catch 22 Accusation in Liberian Discourse is written. My purpose for writing this article is to identify the main reason these new ‘Patriots’ are waging cyber assaults against those of us who are speaking truth about corruption, abuse of power, and the violation of the Liberian Constitution by the President of Liberia and the elected government officials.


It is my honest belief that as citizens and writers, we have a responsibility to address social maladies such as corruption and the abuse of power; by taking a firm position in speaking out against these social maladies that have made our country and world an unsafe place to live today. We must speak against these social maladies in order to offer a different approach or a better choice for those who are engaged in these wrong practices, and for their victims to see that there are other means besides corrupt practices. The “Catch 22” scheme is designed to prevent this conversation from taking place.


First, let me define the phrase, “Catch 22” for those who are not familiar with it. The Free Dictionary on line defined Catch 22 as: 1) A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions; 2) a situation in which a person is frustrated by a paradoxical rule or set of circumstances that preclude any attempt to escape from them, and 3) a situation or predicament characterized by absurdity or senselessness. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Catch-22)

The political cartoon above with the title: “The People, Budget & the Government,” clearly illustrates the plight in which the Liberian people find themselves today. There are many among us who see nothing wrong with the crimes that our government officials are committing against our people; as deplorable as these conditions are for the masses of the Liberian people. This behavior is nothing new. From the beginning of time, there have been two competing forces; forces that deal with gravity as observed in physics: “what goes up must come down.” This concept of being FOR and AGAINST can be found in everything we do as human beings. For example, in any debate, be it in our social organizations or politics, there are those who hold a particular view point and those with the opposing view point. Without this interaction taking place, life as we know it today would be boring and not meaningful.

As  a matter of fact, in most organizations or governments, the individual most people hate to see say or ask questions they dare not ask or whose point of view causes confusion and anxiety in the group, in some cases is the person who makes the most valuable contributions to the discussion. We find this practice in a democratic environment where there are two competing groups. A good example is the Republican and Democrat parties in the United States. On issues that involve national or international policy, both parties debate the issues to come up with the best policy. To me, such a debate is in the best interest of the county.
However, in most Liberian debates, it is the exact opposite. In a forum or debate in which Liberians are involved; there is this tendency to accuse the other person of engaging in the practice of tribalism because he/she agrees with the person of his tribal background. This is a common practice among Liberians on the Liberian Listserves. Those who do so perhaps would like to live in a society where there are NO tribes. I find this to be against God’s plan. The God who created us in His own image, said, “It is good!” after He finished creating us. In fact, tribe is part of His original design. Therefore, I find arguments that are against tribal relationships to be baseless and are in opposition to God’s plan.

Therefore, those who accuse others of this practice have turned their arguments into a “Catch 22” web -- “A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.” Because if I agree with a person from my tribe on an issue, I am called a tribalist; and if I disagree with a person from another tribe, I am still considered a tribalist. This is the world those who operate from this mindset would like for all of us to operate from. I find this to be illogical and far from being practical. Such a world exists only in the fragment of their imagination; better put, a utopian state of mind.

In the real world, there will always be these two competing forces interacting with each other – those who are for, and those who are against for different set of reasons. Humanity has come this far due to this interaction. If God had intended it to be the other way around; He would have micro managed our affairs; instead, He gave us “Free Will.” He left it to us to either do good or engage in activities that are wrong. Therefore, calling a person you disagree with tribalist, will not change that person’s way of thinking or position. It is a waste of one’s time and energy to continue to behave in this way.

This brings me to the second phase of my article. For the purpose of our discussion, let me pose the following questions: 1) Where have the former or ‘old progressives’ gone or been? 2) How can these former ‘progressive’ comrades remain silent and disengage when the wrong practices they forcefully spoke and organized against are being violated with impunity by the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government that many of them are part of?

Moreover, with all of the corruptions going on in Liberia, it surprises me to see that many of us who in the past professed to be ‘progressives’; organized the youths, students, workers, market women, the poor, influenced the masses of the Liberian people to rally against oppressive regimes are now complacent. Rightly so, the young people that the old ‘progressives’ inspired see us as assisting the oppressors of our people. I could not agree more with their criticism of us for the fact that there seems to be our disconnection from the struggle for “Rice and Rights” or “In the Cause of the People” and the clarion call for “Our Eyes are Open, the Time of the People has Come!”  What has happened to the struggle; has it end or is this a fatigue?

Let us NOT forget the profound statement by Comrade Frank Fanon that many of us used to quote: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it…” (The Wretched of the Earth) Have we betrayed our mission?

Time is against us! If we do not step up to the plate to redeem ourselves, by speaking truth to power; history and the generation our advocacy influenced, will judge us harshly. Therefore, the time has come for former or ‘old progressives’ in Liberia, and in the government to either continue to assist the oppressors and their cycles of kleptomaniacs or lend their voices to the voiceless majority to get these shameless rogues and rampant corrupt officials off the backs of the Liberian people. This is an obligation! If ‘old progressives’ -- you know who you are! If you do not step up to the plate, you must as well remain silent and irrelevant; because no matter the explanation you provide later, will be meaningless. 

In addition, it is about time for organizations in the diaspora to stand up for the Liberian people. I salute the Movement of Liberians Against Corruption (MOLAC), the Minnesota based group that planned the protest rally against the Minister of Finance, Amara Konneh who is scheduled to serve as orator for the July 26 celebration in Minnesota. It has been too long since Liberians and their organizations in the Diaspora held the President of Liberia and the officials of government accountable for the gross mismanagement of the country’s wealth and resources. Instead, when these government officials come to the United States, county or chapters of the once progressive Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) gave these officials red carpet treatment without engaging them into serious discussions about the plight of the Liberian people at home. This has become the practice since Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office.

Recently, in defense of President Johnson-Sirleaf, one of her diehard supporters – a reverend, wrote on the Liberian Listserv stating the USD $13 Million “is not missing per SE but was not correctly used as was designated.” What’s the difference? I find it difficult to understand such an excuse! The Good Book reminds us in Proverb 14: 31-32 that, “If you oppress poor people, you insult God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship. And that, “Wicked people bring about their own downfall by their evil deeds, but good people are protected by their integrity.” Therefore, you who support the oppressors or remain silence when the poor are being abused and exploited will be considered siding with the oppressors, and this makes you the same as the oppressors.

Recent history has proven that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her government has surpassed the practice of corruptions, abuse of power, nepotism, tribalism Americo-Liberian/Congo tribalism, cronyism, the lack of transparency, and misappropriation of the country’s wealth, land and mineral resources without regards to the  Liberian masses. As a matter of fact, one long time Liberian human rights activist I had a telephone conversation with a week ago, referred to the President in this manner: “President Sirleaf surpassed former Liberian Presidents [Tolbert, Doe, Taylor, and Bryant] who she criticized, undermined and plotted against in the past. She earned the honor of distinction-- as the most corrupt president of Liberia since JJ Roberts.” [The 1st President of the country]

As a final point, I believe change does not mean mere reform or replacement of one leader with another. Putting old wine in new bottle does not make the old wine new. To change means to depart from repeating the same old WRONG practice. In other words, an old rogue and a new rogue ARE the same; the only difference is, one is old and the other is new but the effect is the same for the poor citizens whose conditions either remains the same, or becomes ‘worser’ as we say in Liberia.

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About the Author:  Siahyonkron Nyanseor is a poet, a Griot, journalist, cultural and political activist and an ordained Minister of the Gospel. He is a retired Mental Health/Developmental Disability Specialist. Currently, he serves as Chair of ULAA’s Eminent Persons, Inc. Mr. Nyanseor is co-founder and treasurer of the Liberian History, Education, and Development (LIHEDE), Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting indigenous Liberian history and the advancement of human and civil rights of Liberians. Also, he is the Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF); publisher of theperspective.org online newsmagazine, and serves as Senior Advisor to the Voice of Liberia newsmagazine. In 2012, he Co-authored Djogbachiachuwa: The Liberian Literature Anthology. He has a BSW in Social Administration and MBA in Management. He can be reached at: wbgkharris@gmail.com.