Analysis: Nobel Laureate Gbowee Seizes Her Moment – Liberia’s Independence Day Orator Speaks Urgent Truth to Power
Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Monrovia – President George Weah’s bold endorsement of Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee as the orator of the 172nd Independence Anniversary comes at a critical time for the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change, a party whose followers have, for more than a year now, exhibited a thin skin toward criticisms of a legendary figure and a government riding a tidal wave of unfolding realities drawing striking similarities to the preceding government it once took to task for failing to address the plight of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Gbowee showed up Friday, preceded with a reputation for not holding back or mincing her words – when it comes to the burning issues of the day.
No Holds Barred Persona
“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?”Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Independence Day Orator, 2019
In 2012, she took former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, with whom she shared the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to task over corruption and nepotism.
The Nobel Laureate declared in October 2012 that the nepotism of Sirleaf’s government was symbolized perfectly by the high positions occupied by Sirleaf’s three sons. Robert was head of the state oil company and a senior economic advisor; Fumba, head of the National Security Agency; and Charles, deputy governor of the Central Bank.
Gbowee also took Sirleaf to task for not doing enough to address poverty in Liberia. “In her first term she developed infrastructure. But what good is infrastructure if people don’t have enough to eat? The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt poor, there’s no middle class.”
Gbowee said at the time that she could not sit by idly and keep quiet. “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,'” she told the BBC. “And when tomorrow history is judging us all let it be known that we spoke up and we didn’t just sit down.”
On the 172nd Independence Anniversary Friday, the Nobel Laureate had no intentions of sitting down idly; holding no punches and taking on all specters of the Liberian society she categorized as – the Ruling Position, the Opposition and those sitting on the fence with no Position – each, she said coming with rhetoric and hate messages much worse than those heard during the dark days of the civil war.
Using the broom as a sign of symbolism to hit home her point, the Nobel Laureate said: “A common symbol of unity in this country is the broom. Please allow me to invite three guests that I brought to join me on stage to help me illustrate this point. Let’s study the broom for a moment. A broom isn’t a broom before its tied together. Before being bound together, a broom is a collection of straws scattered with no defined purpose. The scattered straws remind me of the current state of three groups- the No Position, the Opposition and the Ruling Position.”
“When the three groups come together, united by the cord of our common values: transparency, truth, equality and love for country, we turn an unproductive situation, an unproductive nation around. When the three groups come together in service of our nation, we will have true peace. Let us remember that peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of the conditions that gives each person a purpose. Peace is all we have standing between our country’s development or sliding back.Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Independence Day Orator, 2019
Madam Gbowee described those with no position as the biggest group with the mentality of the smallest minority. “No Positions are the ones that suffer the most in our society. Their children are the key recipients of the messy education system. They are the ones who suffer the poor health care system. Justice for most No Positions is nonexistent. They live in abject poverty and can barely afford a meal a day. They are the everyday Esau’s: their political alliances and choices are never developmental driven but driven by stomach infrastructure. They fail repeatedly to look at the plans or even ask for plans from politicians. Rather, they take cash, t- shirts and bags of rice. I agree things are tough. Life is hard. People are hungry. But if we fail to ask the hard questions when we have the power, why are we surprised when we elect SGGs: “Steal, Grab and Go”. No Position has the “government must” and “that the people’s thing attitude”, and they refuse to get involved constructively and creatively in national issues, including issues affecting their daily lives.”
Breaking down the Opposition, the Nobel Laureate lamented that depending on which period we find ourselves; the group of recycled politicians or wannabe politicians often claim to have all the answers for our national problems, including peace and reconciliation. “Opposition suffers from a severe case of amnesia. They refuse to acknowledge that they too have contributed to our national crisis. Opposition is often so desperate for power that they are willing to align with murderers, criminals, con artists and just about anyone to achieve their goals. One interesting thing about the opposition is that their enemies of yesterday can easily be friends of today and critics of yesterday can quickly become praise singers of today.
The Opposition, in most instances, operates from a place of intense irrationality with no room for common ground. The opposition is suspicious of every and any interaction with the ruling position, labeling anyone that interacts with the ruling position a “sell out” or a regime collaborator.”
As a result, she said it makes it difficult for politicians to interact across the divide and increases the level of deception and two-facedness in our daily political interaction. “The Opposition in many instances perpetuates “Us versus Them” rhetoric, increasing the division in our country through their words and actions. There is no space for collaboration and partnership to solve the people’s problems.”
Throwing jabs at the powers of the day she labeled as Ruling Position, Gbowee slammed those who assume power with “Da Our Time” attitude, winner takes it all.
Said the Nobel Laureate: “The Ruling Position has a severe sense of entitlement, believing they have the right to a certain position and lifestyle. They have no room for criticism and anyone who holds views contrary to the agreed upon view is seen as the enemy. The Ruling Position expects blind loyalty; which turns the story of the “Emperor with no clothes” into a reality.”
Madam Gbowee continued: “Leaders are fed a diet of unnecessary praises and lies by members of the Ruling Position. All for one purpose: jobs. Jobs that they are in most cases not qualified for. Political appointments within the Ruling Position have absolutely nothing to do with qualifications but rather a person’s ability to sing the political anthem of the day. “Pressure” in one case or “Gbeyama” in another case. The Ruling Position gives rewards not on the basis on excellence but on the basis of who can denigrate their opponent the most on social media and other platforms.”
Pointed Jab at the Three Positions
This category she says, creates a culture among young people that competence and education are not necessary tools for ascending to any position.
Explained Gbowee: “The Ruling Position often has misplaced priorities. Their development agenda is nicely written on paper but implementation is basically their private projects. The Ruling Position, like the Opposition, also suffers from a severe case of amnesia, forgetting their actions and reactions when they were opposition. For generations, we have lived in this vicious cycle of Opposition and Ruling Position. When Opposition becomes Ruling Position, too often they adopt the same practices that they used to critique.
When the roles shift, the situation remains the same or are exacerbated.”
The sad reality, according to this year’s Independence Day Orator is that those at the bottom of the economic ladder continue to feel the pinch of the frailties of all three positions. While Ruling Position and Opposition continue to argue about who is right, our country is gripped by many vices.
Our young people are feeling hopeless. Drug addiction has taken over Liberia. Education is perceived as a mess by both sides of the divide. While Ruling Position and Opposition go at each other’s throats, our children’s futures are being mortgaged, natural resources are sold to those who have no development agenda for the Republic of Liberia. While these groups argue about ideology, Liberian women are raped, abused, maimed with no form of justice. Our country continues to lag behind our neighbors while these groups clash. Fellow Liberians, the beauty of these three groups is that they’re not static and regardless of their positions, they all have to share a common space.”
The end result she averred is the space called Liberia. “Friends, I was once told that the meaning of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome. We cannot continue to conduct business in this county as we have done since 1847; 172 years and we are still searching for what it is that brings us together. If I may take you back to the questions that were asked of me during my listening tour, I honestly did not attempt to respond to any of these questions or comments.”
The orator said it is important for the three groups of Liberians to find a common space for the betterment of Liberia. “When the three groups come together, united by the cord of our common values: transparency, truth, equality and love for country, we turn an unproductive situation, an unproductive nation around. When the three groups come together in service of our nation, we will have true peace. Let us remember that peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of the conditions that gives each person a purpose. Peace is all we have standing between our country’s development or sliding back. To have peace, to really have sustainable peace, as it is said in our national anthem, we must unite together through our common values and collective efforts. For we are truly stronger together.”
In using her space and platform to speak truth to power, Gbowee says she sought not just to prevail on the government of the day, her personal opinion, but rather to spark a conversation about shared values and how we can build a future where together we are stronger. “As hard and controversial as each of these questions and concerns may seem, these are legitimate concerns and I must state that not one was spoken out of spite but out of hope that things would be better. What I heard in these concerns is the reality that for Liberians to be stronger together, we need to address health issues, teenage pregnancy, teen prostitution, drug addiction and many more. We need affordable and accessible health care for mothers and babies. I heard that we need to address education.”
Harsh Conditions; Harsh Realities
Gbowee’s speech came amid mounting concerns over the extravagant show and celebration the government of the day put up with visiting Presidents from Guinea, Senegal and Nigeria on hand.
Barely 24 hours earlier, the Alternative National Congress (ANC), of Mr. Alexander B. Cummings, rejected an invitation from President Weah to attend, citing the massive spending associated with the celebration.
The ANC said it could not accept an invitation to dine and wine with the President at the 172ndIndependence Anniversary luncheon when the nation is going through extremely challenging economic times and the government renting executive cars from Guinea and executive motorbikes rented from Ghana.
Gbowee hit similar theme Friday when she urged the government to address the harsh economic conditions because families can barely find food to pay their children’s school fees or buy basic necessities.
The Independence Day orator said it is for Liberians to sit individually and collectively and do some serious soul searching on where we want to go as a nation. “For us to be stronger together, we must agree on a set of collective values that we will live by and teach to the next generation. Values that will guide our national politics as well as our everyday life.”
Direct Jabs at President Weah
In her most pointed aim Friday, the orator took President Weah to task for the limited number of women in his cabinet. “It is not acceptable for us to have only two women in cabinet. I, Leymah Roberta Gbowee, Nobel Laureate challenge any Liberian to tell me that the men in this country are smarter than the women, hence the men should be given prominence in jobs and elected position. I believe that it is high time that the women who fought through tears and blood from the founding of this country to the bringing of peace to this nation should be given positions of leadership based on their competence.”
As a self-declared feminist in chief, Madam Gbowee called out the President to walk the talk. “It’s time to stop the old boy’s network.”
On corruption, the orator challenged the President and the legislature to go beyond lip service. “You must walk your talk. You cannot preach against corruption and then not declare your assets and keep it locked up. Show us what you came with so that in a few years when you’ve got two houses, we can know that you already had those resources in the bank. Second, truth. Truth has evaded us in this country. We lie to gain prominence, to gain positions of authority. Let us stop lying. Truth will bring unity. From generation to generation, our leaders have been fooled by religious and traditional leaders. Bishops have become partisans. Pastors and Imams have become praise singers. Traditional leaders repeatedly twist our cultural practices to please a powerful few, giving unmerited traditional titles.”
At 172, Liberia has come of age and the latest orator for what is inarguably the biggest platform for anyone to speak truth to power, did not disappoint. The timing and the message hit closed to home for a nation on the receiving end of a recurring cycle of impunity and in Gbowee’s own words, “a don’t care attitude” towards progress”.
Nevertheless, political observers say, President Weah deserves some credit for embracing a rare voice of reason to speak truth on such an important stage, in contrast to the government’s first year in power when it settled for one of its own, Finance and Economic Planning Minister Samuel D. Tweah as orator. But like many before her, Gbowee is no doubt hoping that her message is in sync with the powers that be, even as some post-speech observers took to social media Friday to suggest that President Weah, who doesn’t take kind to criticisms, may not receive the content of what was said with a grain of salt, and could reprimand his aides for allowing such a fiery voice to address this year’s Independence Day Oration. What many would most likely agree on however, is that the message hit closed to home for many; and the messenger, on point.