Why Does Peace Continue to Elude Liberia?

Opinion | January 28, 2011

After a long sober reflection of the general circumstances of Liberia, I think this is the salient question at this point in time that must be looked at, reflected and acted upon if we are to truly move forward as a nation.

Personally,  I think there are several issues and missteps at play here. We however must have the courage to look at history, at our inner selves on this cartwheel of sociology and history to crystallize out a few things, bite the bullet for posterity sake, seek forgiveness where we erred and rise up to be the representatives/ambassadors of the Lord or Religious Deity that we should have been in the first place, all of us one by one and then I think peace will begin to flow.  

We must do the heavy lifting ourselves instead of lifting the wrong stones out of the way or just throwing water at the real stones in the way. We should not be relying on United Nations and NGOs as we are doing now because as many around the world are concerned they are either war tourists or detached anthropologists (in the order) whose works are only transient till the next conflict erupts.  History seems to be a good place to start in this regard.

Instead of looking in the wrong places i.e. digging up dirt in other people's eyes forgetting the logs in ours or looking to the wrong places for our Liberian problems’ cure like to the US Institute of Peace (USIP= U SIP=You Sip to many around the world), I think we should be looking at the real” Institute of Hate” i.e. the historical inferno and crucible called Yugoslavia (more precisely Bosnia). Why so? Stay with me a bit, if you want to learn all about peace, you first must study why people hate, not look at people who have enjoyed peace for more than 200 years. Counterintuitive but it is real. That's why pathology (where we study diseases in dead people) is so vital to healthy medical practice).

In his story, Letter from the Year 1920, Ivo Andric, 1961 Yugoslav Nobel Laureate in Literature writes: 

"Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred," says one of the characters, a doctor of Jewish origin. This uniquely Bosnian hatred should be studied and eradicated like some pernicious, deeply-rooted disease. Foreign scholars should come to Bosnia to study hatred, recognized as a separate, classified subject of study, as leprosy is." (Letter from the Year 1920).

As we go along , we must also look at two concepts from a local Liberian compendium of indigenous knowledge systems: (1) “kpɛ” (bitter aftertaste)  and  (2)” kpɔ̃tɔ̃”(lingering residual of animosity). We have to find our own ways to understand and eliminate the bitter after taste of historical misunderstanding and then how to effectively and adroitly get rid of that lingering residual of animosity arising out of centuries of mutual side by side existence in the same geographic locale-a phenomenon often seen in many other parts of the word, which they too had to deal with and solve. We too can do the same instead of going down this downward spiral.

Now to the three meticulous historical documents by three fine American researchers that we should encapsulate in all this for the sake of our future and that of our children (We will leave the works of British researchers and law makers out for now because when the real time came to make a real difference, I guess Perfidous Albion or so set in and they got cold feet).

For example, Sir John Simon of the British Foreign Office on May 29, 1934 wrote to his counterpart that: ‘it would be a dereliction of duty to civilization if the misgovernment of the native tribes of Liberia were to be allowed to continue.’ However when the real test of putting this to work, they were missing in action (for reasons best known to themselves but the historical archives are there).

1. George Schuyler who visited Liberia in the 1930s (the era's mistakes for which we are paying for now and beyond, if we don't wake up) and saw what he saw, as a journalist, he posted his message in a controversial fictional form, in the book, “Slaves Today.”

Having disposed of the noble young couple at the center of his novel, Schuyler hammers home a political point. In a rigged election (a forte of Liberian government as in King vs. Faulkner, Barclay vs. King; Doe vs. Doe and more recently but a bête noire to lasting peace), Sidney Cooper Johnson, Edwin Barclay's alter ego, defeats Tom Saunders, a reform minded lawyer and tribute to the indigenous majority, whose character is based on that of Thomas Faulkner. Corruption triumphs; the administration continues; the traffic in human flesh continues unabated and peace becomes more elusive...

2. Raymond Burrell, of the US Foreign Policy Association, visited Liberia and wrote extensively on Liberia and foresaw this mayhem coming and warned against it. Thirty five years after his warning, we began our descent into the abyss. His book is: Liberia, A Century of Survival, 1947, Univ of Penn Press.

For example, in this book, Raymond Buell wrote: “Unless something radical is done to narrow the growing gap between the governing oligarchy and the Liberian people, it is not impossible that within twenty five years fighting in Liberia will break out, as it has recently done in Java and Indo-China. Indeed, such fighting might have broken out except for the presence of American troops in Liberia’. Prior to Mr. Buell’s warning the historical archives showed  eg: that the United States, having sounded its alarm in 1929 about the conditions of Liberia’s indigenous, had by the mid-1934 begun to wash its hands off of them (A.E. Yapp to Foreign Office, October 22, 1934, press clipping from West African Review, October 1934, FO, 371/18043).

Mihály Munkácsy - Painting of Ecce Homo!
Ecce Homo- A scene from the Trilogy of Christ by Munkacsy Mihaly (1896)

3. Ibrahim K. Sundiata who visited Liberia right before the 1980 coup wrote extensively on Liberia including the following prescient commentary: The reform minded, unselfish Native intellectuals-men like Twe and Dr. F.W.M. Morias, etc. and the idea of a native republic received little support from any quarter (anywhere from the outside world)..

Yet it was here, the greatest possibility of change.  Had native home rule become successful, the 1930s would have seen a significant shifting of elites. An indigenous, Western educated elite with strong connections to the traditional rulers (eg. Senyo Juah Nimley) and political groupings could come to the fore.

The political structure of Liberia would have come to resemble that of many African states in the postcolonial period. It is evident that, in the thirties, the idea of a West African Republic representing such a union of forces presented an anathema to a wide spectrum of outside opinion. Unfortunately, this attitude served to perpetuate a situation that eventuated in more than a decade of bloody civil war... (The Native Problem, by I.K. Sundiata, 2003).


There in lies our challenge and our opportunity as well. This is the duality the Chinese call Wei-ji.


Thank you for your attention.


Lawrence A. Zumo, MD