As the dawn of a seismic change in our political landscape nears - ethnic bigotry, the most important and persistent social problem in Liberia, is on the rise in increasing ways. Such dark practice which lies at the root of everything wrong with the country warrants a strong rebuke.
In critiquing the structures of culture and power in Liberia, many of us have arguably failed to move into a phase, where we have transcended ethnic identity to make the political, social, and economic environments safe spaces where our rich diversity can emerge.
But if we are to reconstitute the post-war state for today’s trans-ethnic, globalized context, we have to move away from embedding our diversity with fear, hate, and uncertainty. Only then will we change the underlying structures of our democracy so that it can promote social justice and equality.
Indeed, the goal of this article is to trigger fresh thinking about how Liberians in the post-conflict context might reposition our social change project to collaboratively plan – in concert with a new strategy of diversity – a different democracy that is more inclusive.
We must be prepared for a greater interdependence inclusive of all people of Liberian descent, whether born in exile or those who have received foreign citizenship due to their protracted displacement from the homeland.
I have read too many writings – articles and comments in recent times that intentionally or unintentionally pit one group against another – Country versus Congou; Liberians in the homeland versus Liberians in Diaspora; Liberians with foreign citizenship versus those with only Liberian citizenship.
Until Liberians can let go of this dangerous tendency to see the world in binary “us against-them” terms, the aspiration for peace, prosperity, and good governance will never be fully realized.
Yes! Our history has for too long been bugged-down in oppositional approaches to our social interactions with one another, but it has failed to reap any reconciliatory dividends.
That is why we must view those who seek to divide us along ethnic lines with grave suspicion. Historically silenced groups in the society can only magnify the fragmentation, if we keep reproducing the very “oppressor” and “oppressed” relations that we decry when we are the victims. I certainly do not mean we should not acknowledge our perennial governance challenges associated with ethnic and/or associated class divides.
Given our nation’s pervasive climate of dread and insecurity linked to ethnic prejudice and bigotry, we should do our best not to stoke the flames of ethnic and class divide any further, but seek to heal and recover.
The incoming government should experiment with new approaches to governing across difference. Building the cross-ethnic and intercultural skills of our leaders and citizens should be a priority venture. We need to strengthen the nation’s overall sense of community while reducing ethnic tensions.
A new framework for forging interethnic harmony will have to begin with an ethnic neutral public data system. Ethnic identity should be removed from all public forms. A short story makes my point. In a recent visit to a local government facility, I was asked to complete an admission form.
On that form, there was a slot for my county of origin and/or tribe. I refused to fill out this segment. I was told that failure to complete the slot meant I could not get the public service that I wanted. Promoting the idea that each person’s receipt of public service can be linked to their ethnic identity or county of origin undercuts our egalitarian desire for inclusiveness.
We must learn to see past the dual constructions that place groups in an “us-against-them” relation to each other. It is clear that within our educational, work, and other social settings, many Liberians share an inability to enjoy a deeper sense of human interaction across superficial differences.
For this reason, we hold on to the perverted logic that Liberians have only two choices when it comes to navigating our ethnic identity – country or congou. Those who hold this view are simply eroding the basic meaning of human identity and our mutual sense of belonging to one another as Liberians.
When we divide Liberians into these two opposite categories, we leave out a wide array of other Liberians that do not fit these categories. We make raw the lack of meaning in their lives. We disorient those Liberians born unto ethnically mixed parents, racially mixed parents, or those born of one Liberian parent and another from a foreign country. What happens to those Liberians who were born abroad and out of necessity had to acquire a foreign national identity.
Should these groups of people declare themselves as not being Liberians? In this world, a complex global space, the mechanisms defining social relations cannot be overturned without repercussions for the kind of society that we want to build.
To create a more democratic space for living, every single person who claims a Liberian identity should be given an opportunity to contribute to the collective enhancement of our communal lot. When one group strips others of the Liberian identity for selfish reasons, it negatively impacts the affected groups.
Do we want to build a new Liberia that is unable to provide a safe place for those who do not fit the binary exclusionary categories to nurture their Liberian identity formation? By doing so, are we saying that this is a society where we cannot free either country or congou people from their respective victim statuses imposed on them by our failed historical past?
Moving beyond our past calls for a new framework where both groups plus all others who claim Liberian identity can find a sense of belonging in an increasingly diverse space and shared meaning making. Change making cannot be a zero-sum game.
For how long should we keep making our existence a tug of war, each side with an antagonist? If it remains a zero-sum game, the energy exerted by one side will result in a proportionally greater response from the other.
There will always be resistance on both sides and an intense conflict will result as it did causing protracted warfare and massive destruction and displacement of lives – a vicious cycle that led us to this point. In this oppositional dynamic, ethnic and class tensions will only become heightened, exploited by the powerful, while the powerless and vulnerable suffer.
Certainly, latent and overt stereotypes, fear or trepidation about others, and even naked ethnic bigotry may be contributing to static levels of interaction and the slow pace at which social bonds are being forged between Liberians of different ethnic backgrounds.
There is a growing number of Liberians that did not live under the harsh periods of historic ethnic divide. We cannot keep rehashing the past in divisive ways without poisoning these young people. Discussion of the past should nurture civic identity, citizenship, and national and constitutional values and not a conflict-ridden ethnic identity.
Our country needs a radical reshaping to make it sensitive to difference in many spheres and people of diverse perspectives and ethnic identities. If there is a template for social change, which will consolidate our infant democracy and heal gaping wounds from the past, it will come from stemming the growing tide of binary partition that are reflected in the writings and utterances of some of our public officials or commentators.
Our political candidates need to be transcendental figures and speak against this growing wave of ethnically bigoted enterprise. Our democracy will be tarnished, if it is built on this form of narrow-mindedness.
Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D., Contributing Writer