The ricochet of Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee’s 2019 Independence Day oration is still felt in the corridors of the George Weah-led government, begging the question, who was responsible for tipping Gbowee in what has become a defining moment of truth that redefined the spirit of the ’26, if only for a moment in time.
After all, Gbowee had been no stranger to controversy. Nearly a year after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Gbowee, in an October 2012 BBC radio interview, slammed Sirleaf for not doing enough to combat government corruption. In her statement which coincided with her resignation as head of Peace Commission, a group designed to report on human rights violations during the war, and to promote peace and security, the Nobel Laureate said her criticism of Sirleaf was not personal. “I’ve been through a process of really thinking and reflecting and saying to myself, you’re as bad as being an accomplice for things that are happening in the country if you don’t speak up. I also want to make it clear that my speaking up against these things does not mean that I hate President Sirleaf or that I am anti her regime.”
Gbowee also threw pointed jabs at Sirleaf as she urged the President to dismiss her three sons from government positions as a sign that she was sweeping out nepotism.
While answers have been in short supply as to who was the brain behind tipping Gbowee to address the 2019 Independence Day, the selection of speakers since the Gbowee snafu, has drawn many political observers to one conclusion: That there may never be another lapse in judgment by anyone in the Weah administration to make a mistake deemed detrimental to a government exhibiting intolerance to opposing views since the infancy of its ascendance to power.
Perhaps even more revealing was the unfolding reality that the administration was afraid of experimenting with someone unfamiliar, who like Gbowee could use the platform to criticize or dissect the government, ahead of next year’s crucial 2023 presidential and legislative elections.
Playing it Safe: First Tweah, Now Diggs
For Gbowee, the questions were many: “How can we be stronger together when individuals who were poor yesterday are now living in mansions and driving cars that cost enough to fund good schools for our children? • How can we be stronger together when women are still dying in the hundreds during the process of giving birth? • How can we be stronger together when there is a serious war on the bodies of women without any legal recourse in many instances? • How can we be stronger together when there is a prevalence of selective justice? • How can we be stronger together when political appointment is based not on competence but party affiliation? • How can we be stronger together when our educational system is a huge challenge? How can we be stronger together when we can’t feed ourselves? • How can we be stronger together when interests are never national but individual?”
In playing it safe, this year the Weah administration has tipped its Minister of Commerce, Mawine Diggs, also a long-time friend of the President, for the big stage. This follows the footsteps of likewise safer bet, Finance Minister Samuel D. Tweah, who used the platform as the first speaker in the new government in the ’26 oration of 2019, to trumpet the rare opportunity to illustrate how President Weah’s grandmother, Emma Forky Klon Jlaleh Brown, refused to allow her grandson to fail even when he was rejected by his society.
Minister Tweah lamented: “Born to extreme poverty on the rocks of Gibraltar, Clara Town, George Forky Klon Jlaleh Gbakugbeh Tarpeh Tanyonoh Manneh Weah had to live off the streets to make a living for himself. Inspired by his grandmother to face the adversities of Liberian life, Weah was able to lift himself up by the bootstraps from the pangs of poverty. Like the Founding Fathers of his country, his path to success and achievement was never clear. Even in football where he was naturally gifted, George Manneh Weah was told that he would amount to nothing. Coaches told him he was either too lazy or too slow or that he had to train much harder. Young George took all these criticisms or admonitions in stride, patiently working hard to improve and master his footballing skills. Liberians soon saw that mastery through his brilliant performance on the national team.”
Tweah did as was expected. He toed the government and ruling party line while trumpeting the new President’s rise to power as a change moment for Africa’s oldest republic.
For Tweah, a firebrand of the grassroots CDC, who proved to be a thorn in the flesh of former President Johnson-Sirleaf, the oration marked an ironic twist of fate: The once fearful face of the opposition was now a ruling party shouldering the expectations of a nation on the rebound from war, nurturing its first democratic transition since the end of the civil war.
Sycophantic Turn: ‘Splendid Oration’ of ’51
Since 1847, when Liberia became independent, orators of the Independence Day have used the stage to either toe the line of the powers of the day or brave the storm to speak truth to power.
Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, Professor Emeritus at the Alfred Walter Negley, Sawnee University of the South and a former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, states that the idea of the oration was originally aimed at giving thoughtful Liberians an opportunity to address the state of the nation.
Delivering the oration for Liberia’s Independence Day on July 26, 1951, Oscar S. Norman, Secretary of the Interior drew praise from everyone associated with the powers of the day in the administration of William V.S. Tubman, for what was described as a splendid speech marking the independence of Africa’s oldest republic.
Tubman was in the seventh year of his 27-year presidency, now ranked amongst the longest-serving in the history of Africa.
McKinley A. Deshield, Postmaster General of Liberia, in a letter to Norman dated August 9th, 1951, wrote: “I wish to extend in you my sincere congratulation for the splendid and very able address delivered by you on the occasion of the one hundred and fourth celebration of the Independence of Liberia. Besides depicting the activities of previous administrations from the founding of this republic up to the present, which was highlighted by the keynote of “Unification” the subject of your address, many other inspiring thoughts were acutely disclosed. You are therefore worthy of praise for your painstaking efforts in collecting such material which you amplified into an address of great merit, thereby tending to serve as both an inspiration and impetus of rising generation of our beloved country.”
At the time, Richard A. Henries, a future Speaker of the House of Representative, trumpeted the orator for urging every true and loyal Liberian to support Tubman, who described as, “our illustrious, brilliant and farsighted Captain of the Ship of State in his effort to develop the human resources of the country that Liberia might continue to roll forward into greater and broader destinies.”
For Dr. Dunn, some past orators defied the norms of convention.
One was, “the 1855 oration by Rev. Alexander Crummell, under the theme: “The Duty of a Rising Christian State: The World’s Well-being and the Means by which it may Perform the same” which Dr. Dunn asserts, seems sufficiently suggestive of an early purpose.
Crummell was a pioneering African American minister, academic and African nationalist who moved to Liberia in 1853 to work to convert Africans to Christianity.
Similarly, Dr. Dunn says, Edward Wilmot Blyden’s 1867 oration, “Liberia is a Means and Not an End,” is also clearly suggestive.
“My sense from these examples is that public intellectuals and other thoughtful Liberians were called upon to offer their reflections on the “state of the nation,” and the requirements for progressive change going forward. During the Tolbert administration, we had orations by Dr. Edward Kesselly, Dr. J. Bernard Blamo, Professor Yancy Peters Flah, and Ambassador James B. Freeman. Each of these spoke explicitly and clearly to the imperatives for change that characterized the decade of the 1970s.”Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, Professor Emeritus, Sawnee: The University of the South, with years of experience in foreign policy, international relations and African Studies, Former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Orator, 132nd Independence Day
’44 Oration: D. Twe Champions Aborigine’s Cause
Blyden was an educator, writer, diplomat and politician and one of the early West Indies residents to join the wave of black immigrants from America who immigrated to Liberia. He is widely regarded as the father of pan Africanism and is noted as one of the first people to articulate a notion of “African Personality” and the uniqueness of the African race. Blyden’s ideas influenced many twentieth century figures including Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah.
According to Dr. Dunn, Momolu Massaquoi’s 1921 oration, “Readjustment and Development of Liberia as an African State” spoke volumes as to the need to Africanize the Republic of Liberia, including the integration involving repatriate and indigenous Liberia.
Massaquoi, a politician, diplomat and monarch of the Vai people of Sierra Leone and Liberia, served as Liberia’s consul general to Germany from 1922 to 1930, and appears to be the first indigenous African diplomat to modern Europe.
Massaquoi’s theme, according to Dr. Dunn was brought forward in Norman’s oration of 1951 which pointed to the important measure of integration accomplished to date.
Additionally, Dr. Dunn asserts that Plenyono Gbe Wolo’s 1929 oration, and Didhwo Twe’s 1944 oration, “The Future of Liberia,” in which he continued to champion the cause of what he called the “Aboriginal population.”—both were early voices from the indigenous community.
Wolo, the son of the chief of the Kru ethnic group, was the first Black African to graduate from Harvard in 1917.
Didhwo Twe, became a representative in the Liberian legislature and a presidential candidate in the 1951 general elections. He was an advocate of Liberian native rights and the first Liberian of full tribal background to officially and openly seek the Liberian presidency. A US Library of Congress document shows that Twe had a good friendship with Mark Twain and that “Twe assisted Mark Twain with his book, King Leopold’s Soliloquy.
Past Orators Addressed ‘State of Nation’
Dr. Dunn gathers that his sense from these examples of past orators, is that public intellectuals and other thoughtful Liberians were called upon to offer their reflections on the “state of the nation,” and the requirements for progressive change going forward. “During the Tolbert administration, we had orations by Dr. Edward Kesselly, Dr. J. Bernard Blamo, Professor Yancy Peters Flah, and Ambassador James B. Freeman. Each of these spoke explicitly and clearly to the imperatives for change that characterized the decade of the 1970s.”
While the Weah administration has come under fire for playing it safe in the selection of Independence Day orators, some recent speakers like the Rev. Dr. Simeon L. Dunbar, who served as orator in 2020 used the platform to warn that the future potential of Liberia might be jeopardized if injustice, rampant corruption, disobedience to the rule of law, nepotism and tribalism continue to be condoned. “To win these battles certain requirements must be met,” Rev. Dunbar said. “You cannot go to war and expect to subdue the enemy and win the war without the appropriate war-winning plan and strategies.”
Dunbar’s critique came in the backdrop of the now infamous June 7 protest, drawing the world’s attention to reports of widespread corruption under the Weah-led government and the alleged disappearance of billions in the local currency from the Central Bank of Liberia.
During the reign of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, orators like Dr. Dunn, used the platform in 2012 to challenge the government and people to rethink and debate the appropriateness of the national symbols, notably the nation’s seal, motto and flag. “As we all know, the national motto, the seal and the flag refer to a divided people: those who created the Republic and their descendants versus the majority of the population, belonging to one of the sixteen tribes that already lived in the region known to the outside world as ‘Pepper Coast’ – before the arrival of the first immigrants in 1821.”
Similar message was trumpeted by the visually impaired professor, Dr. Sakui Malakpa, who in 2008, used the platform during the Sirleaf era to among other things, call for the rewriting of the nation’s history to reflect the true history of the founding of Liberia. Professor Malakpa of the University of Toledo, USA, declared that the new identity should be reflected in a change of name of the country’s capital, Monrovia, because it does not reflect Liberia’s indigenous heritage. Then American President James Monroe, Dr. Malakpa recalled, was a man who had great disdain for the black man and therefore should not be honored as a symbol of liberation for repatriated slaves. Changes in naming, Dr. Malakpa added, must meet national consensus, not ethnic sentiments.
In 2014, Dr. Elizabeth Davis Russell, President of the William V.S. Tubman University in Harper, Maryland County, proposed a transformation of minds, attitudes and behaviors, as Liberia rebuilds from the scourge of the deadly Ebola virus outbreak. The orator observing that, in the face of competing priorities of infrastructure development, education and healthcare, it is of utmost importance to seriously focus on the human factor.
The orator stressed that public and civil servants must take the lead and refrain from dishonesty. She urged Liberians to be moral in their performance, practice personal responsibility and avoid blaming others. “We currently see too much emphasis on self-aggrandizement. There is what I call the beating of the chest, followed by the question, do you know who I am with the expectation that we should pay homage. Instead, the approach should be. I am your public servant here to serve you. What can I do for you?”
Unscrupulous laws are being passed as lawmakers, elected to serve the people have become spectators, and constituted tenured positions of integrity institutions are suddenly being overturned without debates or input from the public. Suddenly, just as things were yesterday, they remain today. After 175 years of existence, the old refrain has never been truer than it is today, the more things change, the more they appear to remain the same
Clergy Orators Identify ‘Missing Links’
During the 2010 oration, Catholic Prelate, Monsignor Dr. Father Robert Tikpor used the platform to identify what he referred to as the three missing links which are indispensable for national unity. Dr. Tikpor said the bond of blood, language and faith are crucial in the attainment of national unity.
Father Tikpor listed insidious poverty which, he said has been exacerbated by selfishness and greed, unceasing corruption in high places and a lack of patriotism. Personal interest, he noted has been placed above a common national interest. “As a result, when the test of a civil war came, we were a divided, tormented and easily turned apart people,” the clergyman recalled.
Dr. Herman Browne used his turn at the platform at the 2017 Independence celebration to urge Liberians to go back to basics by demonstrating respect for constituted authority, justice, honesty and values whether divinely commanded or socially approved to cultivate a wholesome functioning society. He noted that in every home or family, in every school or playground, in every church or mosque, in every institution or workplace, these should be demonstrated and demanded of all.
The National Orator said respect for constituted authority begins at home – with parents and guardians – mother, father, uncles, aunties, grandpa and grandma. He said that in life, we are all under authority. He maintained that law and order should be rhythm of family life that enable relationship and trust to be built; where boundaries are establish and the common good was indistinguishable from the upholding of this order.
Dr. Brown also used the occasion to commend members of the Liberian media for their tenacity and commitment to hold public officials accountable and expose matters that should rightly concern the public.
Recurring Season of Complacency, Mediocrity
The Weah government’s choice of Independence orator in Diggs comes amid what many say has been the minister’s poor handling of the recent rice shortage and uncertainty over allegations that illegal Import Permit Declaration (IPD) have resulted in low quality, imported eggs, biscuits and other essential commodities and goods with under-declared value, all of which are depriving Government of legal revenues.
In recent months, some businesses have also complained that Bureau Veritas (BIVAC), whose duty it is to inspect imported goods through the Ministry of Commerce, has not been carrying out inspection despite having an agreement with BIVAC to inspect.
Many political observers fear that Diggs will more than likely follow the trend of Finance Minister Tweah, in trumpeting the government’s gains while ignoring the many missteps and obvious signs of discontent brewing in the country now.
It is becoming more difficult by the day to declare the Independence Day happy, when many families are still struggling to put food on the table, when kids continue to be breadwinners for their families while young girls prostitute themselves just to survive. All this in a country where rape is at an all-time high, greed and corruption have taken over and the abnormal have suddenly become the norm. Like the deadly Covid 19 virus, Liberians have become accustomed to embracing bad governance, corruption and greed. “My ‘26 on you” has become a cliche-ridden term when even the usual givers have themselves become preying mantis in search of their own handout.
Pardon the expression if the ‘26 is an unhappy one this year, but the onus must be on each Liberian to re-examine what is consider the norms. When the clock strikes midnight, another ‘26 will be gone like a fart in the wind, as those struggling to get by prepare to live another day, in this unending circle of complacency and mediocrity.
After 175 years of independence, Liberia appears to be trapped in a recurring season of discontent, brought on by flashes of sycophancy which from all indications have become the norm.
This was evident during the 27-year reign of President Tubman when every civil servant was forced to contribute a month’s salary each to the aged-old True Whig party, which had ruled Liberia since the 1870’s. Although, Tubman’s successor, William R. Tolbert eliminated the practice, the normal practice had become an acceptable way of life, embraced by the many under the spell of sycophancy.
These days, some Liberians with access to the powers of the day, continue to believe that they are more patriotic than others.
Liberia and Liberians have had to endure hardship, pain and suffering for 175 years because its citizens have become complacent with mediocrity and allowed themselves to stand for nothing while falling for everything wrong, to the detriment of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
As the country celebrates 175 years of existence, repetition of some of the many ills that brought Africa’s oldest republic to its current predicament, continue to linger and those suffering the most appear content with the way things are while continuing to cry about how bad things are.
In the halls of the national legislature, the practice of checks and balance has become scarce although Article III of the Constitution stipulates the Legislature as one of the three branches of government that ought to be equal and coordinated based on the principle of checks and balances.
Unscrupulous laws are being passed as lawmakers, elected to serve the people have become spectators, constituted tenured positions of integrity institutions are suddenly being overturn without debates or input from the public. Suddenly, just as things were yesterday, they remain today. After 175 years of existence, the old refrain has never been truer than it is today, the more things change, the more they appear to remain the same.