Beyond National Statesmanship: The Gem that was Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer


MONROVIA – Amos Claudius Sawyer was larger than national statesmanship; he encompassed a moral voice in an age of amoral politics; a moral political tutor who helped to pull Liberia back from the precipice of annihilation. He defined an era of restless resistance to monstrous and grievous national wrongs. This is why his passing on February 16, 2022 leaves an irreplaceable national void to be filled only by national recourse to the mores, values and principles that propelled him to heights of national significance.  

My first close interaction with Dr. Sawyer occurred  when he handed me my high school diploma at the  William V. S. Tubman High School graduation ceremonies in 1993. He was the guest speaker and I was to deliver the valedictory address. What could I say in the presence of  Dr. Amos C. Sawyer? A man whose every word and didactic excursions  on the tragedy of our  national  conflict I had previously imbibed; and whose  evocative  eloquence egged a nation on to  a higher national purpose  in its darkest hour. It is a testament to how much intellectual awe I held the man that I do not remember what I said on that occasion, more than likely because of what he said: that    “mastery of subjects is not achievable by mere superficiality of knowledge.”  

It was a ringing Sawyeresque admonition to members of my generation whose educational opportunities were being destroyed by war. He was urging us to dig deeper and strive to be the best in an era of eroding standards  and diminishing human capital. He  would  mount  countless preaching forays as President of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) to rally the country against war and decry the plundering and pillaging of Liberia through “a bonanza of international gangsterism .” He would inveigh against the abuse and  drugging of young children as fighters, rallying parents to help prevent the destruction of the nation’s youth and  calling on them to “ look at your child when you go home.”  He would tirelessly inspire the nation never to give up on peace despite numerous failed peace conferences, to extinguish any false “stupor of complacency” that may impel Liberians toward an acceptance of a divided country as a new normal of sorts  because of the difficulties of peace.

The choice of president of IGNU naturally and rightfully fell on Dr. Amos C. Sawyer. No other Liberian was more deserving or more qualified.  Amos Sawer had been the quintessential  and proverbial Liberian scholar in the consciousness of the nation. Years of outstanding scholarship at the University of Liberia and at Indiana University enabled him to weld the fields of history and political science  into a praxis of policy and   governance on Liberia, culminating in his authorship of The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenge. Beyond scholarship, Dr. Sawyer also challenged the True Whig Party administration by attempting to contest the Monrovia mayoral  elections against the TWP candidate Francis Chuchu Horton. Fear of the popular professor may have aborted those elections. After the coup, Sawyer was appointed as chairman of a 25-member National Constitution Commission, which provided a draft constitution that was reviewed and revised by a subsequent 59-member Constitutional Advisory Assembly. The Amos Sawyer Commission  lay the substantive theoretical frame of our national constitution; the Edwin Beyan Kesseley Commission  merely added the political icing. And  during the 1980s, Sawyer  was imprisoned for his political views, an outcome that led to student protests and killings at the University of Liberia. So when representatives of political parties and civil society organizations convened in 1990 in The Gambia under the auspices of ECOWAS to structure an interim leadership for Liberia, the name Amos C. Sawyer could only naturally emerge.

In the demonology of Liberian political  criticism, all political leaders who serve the country at the highest levels are ‘not deserving of heroic status or are not worthy of praise.’ Praise of national leaders is heavily politicized and factionalized depending on who  or which side is in power or which side is doing the praising. National holidays of two presidents is sustained merely by statute but the country remains heavily divided on the desirability of the celebrations. Joseph Jenkins Robert’s willing of his wealth for the nation’s education is not much regarded since that ‘wealth was supposed to be for the people in the first place.’ William V. S. Tubman’s legacy remains hugely controversial though he largely retains his  popularity among the much older generation. William R. Tolbert’s legacy is similarly mixed. He appears pragmatic with a number of development programs and initiatives but the ‘ benefits are too skewed to family members  and others of his political cabal.’ Samuel Doe has been vilified by the Liberian intelligentsia on abuse of human rights, but today in the popular consciousness of Liberians, ‘he is a celebrated president who placed the country on unprecedented development trajectory and who was undermined largely because he was a native president.’ Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf ‘ did not avail the level of development commensurate  with the level of  support received from the international community.’ And George Weah, no matter how much development he avails is ‘ not presidential enough for some since he brings a different style and taste to the Liberian presidency and has a background atypical of most presidents.’ Of course, the legacy of Amos C. Sawyer has been and will be similarly framed.

But criticism against Dr. Amos Sawyer cannot really  withstand informed scrutiny.  Sawyer was merely an interim president who had very limited scope to achieve what  President Sirleaf could or what President Weah can accomplish: limited budget and diminished territory. IGNU’s  sole role  was to create a haven of peace for constructive governance and a space for dialogue with contending rebel factions, especially the NPFL, which saw the IGNU as a machinery to obstruct the political ambitions of Charles Taylor.

Sawyer’s two major criticism was that ‘ he changed the country’s money’ and  that ‘ he manipulated the peace process to prolong his interim stay in political power’. These two criticisms  can  easily  be rubbished.   Changing the face of the national currency  was an optimal politico-economic decision. The IGNU had  to reestablish the monetary base of the country after the significant  currency looting that happened at several commercial banks during the war. A major indicator  of legitimate control of a government or of country is control of currency and this had to be asserted. IGNU’s decision to change currency is similar to the ongoing currency reform being undertaken by the Central Bank of Liberia to reestablish the monetary base and instill confidence in the country’s legal tender. If this exercise is being done more than 30 years after the war, it had to have been done immediately after the war.

The charge that Sawyer manipulated the peace process is an even more  frivolously one. There was nothing to manipulate. The NPFL was intransigent on a war of attribution as a means to political power. When Charles Taylor wept profusely after winning the 1997 elections, I interpreted the weeping to mean a regret for wasting too many lives and causing too much destruction when in fact the  the Liberian people were enamored of his leadership.  Forget the false narrative that ‘Liberians voted  for Taylor because they were afraid of war.’ For one reason or another,  Charles  G. Taylor was extremely popular from the day he launched his war to the day he left Liberia. I was in the streets with hundreds of thousands of Liberians in 1995 to welcome Charles Taylor to Monrovia, the capital  he had come to see as a nemesis. Surprisingly, he was given a hero’s welcome. The question is why did Taylor not surrender to elections in 1992 or thereabouts  when he was this popular? The result may have been even wider than it  was in 1997. So ultimately, Amos Sawyer was never really the enemy although the powerful and effective   NPFL information machinery rained invectives on the learned professor portraying him as some bugaboo of the national peace process.

Despite these distractions and the larger challenges of securing peace, Amos Sawyer soldiered on for his country, knowing more than most that caving in to warring factions was  to legitimate autocracy in its most virulent form of tyranny, a subject on which he was an expert.   And so he pushed ECOWAS and ECOMOG to remain vigilant and increase troop presence and flow of resources  to safe-guard Monrovia, whose collapse would spell larger doom for the country. He was vindicated in his 1992 Octopus victory against the NPFL and was fully justified in the decorated departure given to ECOMOG Force Commander Major-General  Tunji Olurin of Nigeria, who led the ECOMOG forces during the Octopus assault on Monrovia.

Amos Sawyer left office in 1994 and a new transition government of warring factions was installed. On April 6, 1996 major fighting ensued among the warlords in Monrovia, proving  that Amos Claudius Sawyer was never the problem in Liberia’s peace process. Elections were held in 1997 after which many a   skirmishes and battles transpired in Monrovia.

It is these histories that vindicate the legacy of Dr. Amos C. Sawyer. He availed extraordinary leadership to his country at a time it was most divided and factionalized. In the years since the end of conflict, he has worked tirelessly to firm up governance, to situate national policy and national institutions  as the lynchpin of development and transformation.

After the election of President Weah and prior to his recent ailment, Dr.  Sawyer engaged with the new administration on a national civics program forprimary, middle and secondary school students. The program is at its finishing stage and would involve publication of civics books for grade students. Long out of the mainstream governance, Dr. Sawyer’s interest lay  in  developing informed  voter-citizens endowed  with practical knowledge of their country’s   history  and the workings of its society. President Weah had long   given his full commitment to seeing the civics program through.

Relations between the two national statesmen remained warm for  decades.  It was Sawyer who   conferred the title of Sports Ambassador on the national superstar George Weah in the nineties,  long before he waded into politics, granting  the Ambassador the  deserved recognition for his immense  contribution to sports. Respect for their individual accomplishments remained mutual.

Some time  in  2012, I met Dr. Sawyer at the office of the Governance Commission. I was then a consultant at MFDP and he had sent for me to talk about the CDC. He said to me: “My young man, I see a lot of promise and potential in the CDC, but y’all got  some small work to do on messaging ”. He continued, “The biggest problem I see with the party is message dissonance. Too many people talking for the party and saying many different things and the absence of a coherent message coming out is not good as a political or  electoral strategy. We need to work on that. ”

I conveyed the advice  to the party leadership and changes were wrought. The CDC purged a few militant elements whose discordant  messaging annoyed key members of the international community. The party launched a policy of constructive engagement with the Unity Party administration,  disavowing a zero-sum politics of nihilism in the interest of national peace and security. Ambassador George Weah accepted a position as National Peace Ambassador, an easy option since the man himself had led national disarmament campaigns. He squelched the ‘Ellen Step Down Campaign’ touted by hardened elements of the CDC,  a move that cemented the policy of constructive engagement. Refined messaging and coalition building became the norm as the CDC braced itself for 2017. What Amos Sawyer saw as a political promise was ultimately fulfilled in 2017.

So  while invisibly holding a definite political suasion or supporting  particular political causes, Dr. Sawyer  presented himself as largely beyond partisan politics and would consult with varied sides of the political divide,   even if he was  totally not espousing or  supporting their particular viewpoints. When he recently announced  his withdrawal from active partisan politics, his reputation and role as consultative national political statesman preceded that announcement.

 And so on  February 16, 2022,  the nation endured a colossal loss. It would require volumes to do justice to the life of Amos C. Sawyer and no one volume may even suffice. He advanced national peace and worked to restore Liberia from plunder to constructive governance. He deserves a fitting national memorial but we can begin by memorializing him via rigid adherence to the democratic precepts and norms that were the mainstay of his public and political life.

Our profoundest condolences go to his  beloved wife Comfort Sawyer, his son Frank Sawyer and to the  rest of the family. We can only  encourage them to  take great solace in his life and accomplishments! Our  teacher and moral compass now belongs to the ages. Our generation, our democracy and our nation owe him everything!!

Samuel D. Tweah, Jr is Liberia’s Minister of Finance and Development Planning.

He can be reached at [email protected]