There is a starkly ethnic nationalist rhetoric (callous and clueless) today that should frighten all well-meaning Liberians.
I am referring to the repeated tirade by those who narrow-mindedly assert that it is time for a “country man” to become the President of Liberia.
Nothing is wrong with an indigenous person aspiring for and achieving the highest office in the land.
That time is long overdue. However, when this aspiration gets framed as a form of xenophobia-inducing, exclusionary tactic, it poses extreme danger for the future of our emerging democracy which has not fully recovered from the devastation and traumas of protracted civil war.
It also negates the realities of governing a society that is becoming increasingly diverse across all socioeconomic spectrums.
We may be taking certain freedoms that we enjoy today, which were never accessible for granted.
What separates great societies from mediocre even failed societies are intolerance and hatred – denying a majority of the citizens from justice and opportunities.
The portrait of ethnic nationalist provocateurs who preach exclusion and intolerance is offensive and unbecoming of a country that prides itself as one built on a desire for freedom and fairness.
Admittedly, the freed slaves failed to achieve this noble goal. But should that be the reason for the indigenous population to not achieve it as well?
True, the Americo-Liberian political establishment had a woeful record on inclusion.
They wrote off the mass suffering and resulting anger of the indigenous majority as mere frivolous complaint, without basis and beneath their dignity to take seriously.
That is exactly why the quest for an indigenous President should not be tinged with vengeance exclusion or xenophobia.
The casualties of ethnic polarization, the fury of the oppressed majority have trails that we all rather forget.
Instead, the burgeoning seeds of mutual accountability and acceptance which are growing organically from the soil of past brutalities should continue to be nurtured.
The fight between tribalism and tolerance in Liberia – the resulting behavioral fallout that puts Congau and Country Liberians at loggerheads should come to an end.
The tragedy of this chronic illness in Liberia’s national life is that it delivers ordinary citizens powerlessly into the hands of predators who are waiting in the wings to ride the wave of their outrage.
That rage is driven in part by the hallow-eyed slums, towns, and villages that have been gutted by unemployment, illiteracy, drunkenness, and the illicit substance epidemic, poor health, or despair deaths.
At which time in Liberian history have we seen mentally ill persons walking the streets naked in nearly every city?
To focus on the growing gloom of the acutely poor as they traditionally have been approached – those whom the elites feel they have no moral or ethical obligation to help – will certainly incense the vulnerable populations further.
It will only widen the existing class divide. It will provide justification for the alienation narrative and neglect how far we have come as a nation.
We are not there yet, but we ought to harness the burgeoning social cohesion rather than embitter the underclass.
No well-meaning Liberian should embrace the divisive rhetoric. We must be committed to the social equality of all Liberians.
During political season, when the political elites look at the ordinary citizens, maybe they do so through anthropological lenses – seeing them as total strangers from a distant land.
There is a sort of holy kindness that the political elites offer those they perceive as politically unsophisticated during voting periods.
The elites forget that the ordinary Liberian is tired of being repeatedly used as a pawn for the personal gains of a few.
They demand dignity from the elites who look down at them through their noses. They want a pathway to peace that is durable. They do not want to go back to the “Us against Them” era anymore.
This is why all those vying for leadership and the citizens at-large must find a better way to end this nightmare.
The veiled wounds of ethnic bigotry are like a fire burn: even a mild touch can make you jump with fuming agony. Let’s not remove the scars from those wounds.
The genie cannot be put back in the bottle once you take it out.
Liberians of all stripes have to try harder this time. We cannot keep making the same mistakes that have helped to normalize and make it acceptable for such ethnic “cluelessness or even callousness” to fester.
If a country person is going to win the presidency, let them win it on merit. Let them be the best Liberian for that position.
I am not arguing that a renewed attention should not be given to the causes of ethnic, class, and gender divides in the society, which has held it back for centuries from realizing inclusion, equality, and optimal productivity of its citizens.
I will be quite silly to think so. Politics is definitely about identity and interest and it will always be so. But we must broaden those values. Identity must be national and interest communal and not parochial.
Some Liberians “curry a convenient deafness” when it comes to identity.
They make our multiple identities to disappear by casting all of the nation’s perennial problems in opposing ways: congau or country.
They ignore all the other sub-Liberian identities that constitute our rich diversity. By dividing the Liberian people in such a simplistic way, the lay public, ordinary Liberians, see through the mischief.
Ordinary Liberians know that such a mischaracterization does not reflect reality. Liberia’s sparse intellectual tradition is so harmful that it leaves our national conversation deprived of substance.
Thorny issues are neglected and when poorly informed people are invited to discuss these issues, informed citizens are not also invited to counter their baseless arguments.
For this reason, the “cluelessness and/or callousness” continues to afflict our society.
The ethnic bigots then lavish attention on ethnic identity as the trump card for winning the next Presidential race. But if that happens, it will affect governance negatively.
Will a President who wins merely because his supporters stoked ethnic fear be the President for all Liberians?
No. Would that person be the President for the multiethnic strata of the Liberian society?
No. Clearly, it is not a novel idea to say that exclusion is a recipe for hatred and protracted conflict in Liberian society.
And that should not be the place to start at so consequential a transitional point in our history. At this defining historic moment do we not want to heal rather than to reopen wounds of ethnic bigotry?
Should ethnicity remain a defining gulf in our society? Have we not made some levels of progress in peace building and reconciliation? Is it necessary to go back again before we go forward?
Congau and Country people alike should celebrate the day on which the nation will freely and fairly elect its first indigenous President.
But we should not mire that special achievement under the spell of a prejudicial undercurrent. We should not delegitimize the presidency of the first democratically elected indigenous President.
To use ethnic bigotry, a chronic condition in our national life to catapult a candidate to the presidency would be to make that person vulnerable and susceptible to unwarranted relegation and doubt that they are not deserving of the position.
Liberia is a society that sorely needs a healer who will genuinely pursue reconciliation. We will not overcome the realities of deeply entrenched patronage, corruption, inequality, brutality, and ethnic bigotry that have held this nation back by using chauvinism as the bridge to a multiethnic democracy.
We will pay a huge price if that becomes the case. We would have failed those who shed their blood for peace. We would have betrayed their trust.
Intolerance and narrow mindedness should not be our trump card. We need a sophisticated strategy for achieving this gallant goal.
The generalized cynicism among many indigenous people is understandable, but it is more important to alter the course of our hopes and history so that the ills that have caused the chronic dismay are never, never repeated.
We should not achieve this goal by stoking ethnic prejudice. An indigenous President should give all Liberians a free and full life overflowing with opportunities.
We should not plant seeds of doubts in minds of global players about the capacity of an indigenous President to govern without prejudice. It is time to give our prospective leaders reliable and sober advice.
There should be no room for ethnic identity first ideologues, who, are bent on dividing Liberians.
Any sign that a potential leader would govern out of the mainstream could jeopardize their candidacy.
A more constructive approach to this controversy requires the abandonment of invectives, diatribes, and attacks.
This does not mean that we must also abandon criticisms of the pernicious and hideous misdeeds that were meted out at one another in the past by both people of indigenous and congau stocks. We should find a moderate position in this particular quest.
The virtue of moderation might help those of us who favor the accomplishment of this historic moment by building a broad coalition of Liberians that cut across ethnicity, class, gender, age, and location to help consolidate the instant.
When such a critical mass is assembled, we would have amassed the best fighting force to ever take on the recurrent ills that have destroyed this society.
We are on the brink of a revolution. Liberians who suffered oppression should have a greater appreciation for the oppression of others.
Or a better sense of how to include everyone into the social fabric. Past wrongs, when made right by the victims in sensitive, careful, thoughtful and inclusive manners can have enduring effects on all affected people.
The paradox that we confront today is that what we never imagined possible in the 1960s, 70s, 80s even the 90s is at the verge of occurring.
The “castoffs” have a second chance. It is time to prove that you cannot underestimate the heart of an oppressed person or group.
Country and congau people alike who have benefitted lopsidedly from “ethnic and class apartheid” in Liberia dread its end. They use the unwarranted fear of retaliatory genocide against them to make their case.
Nothing scares those people than seeing the walls of “ethnic and class apartheid” falling. Justice and reconciliation can coexist. It is not weakness to take the high road.
In 1980 and 1990, we saw what happened. The desire for change was made steep in hatred and reprisal. But if we muster a dedication to forgiveness, we will heal the gaping wounds that have troubled our country throughout its existence and shift it in gear for continuous restoration.
Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D., Contributing Writer