Reflections on a Good Man and a Great Liberian

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A pall has fallen across the face of our country, a melancholy has possessed us. One of our own, whose greatness we cannot but extol, has left us. Gone to join our ancestors in the full knowledge that it is Not Yet Uhuru. We carry on his work for a better Liberia. We are undeterred because we deserve better and know that another Liberia is possible.

We mourn Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer, patriot, towering public intellectual, teacher-scholar, man of the people, servant-leader, architect of One Person One Vote for all Liberians, champion of equal rights for all, who taught us that Liberia belongs to all its children, that we the people matter. We mourn the David who flung that stone against the old order and beckoned a new Liberia, an open and inclusive Liberia, where all of us are equal, all of us have access to power, where merit and competence is rewarded and all can participate in governing our homeland. We will miss him, we will honor his memory knowing fully well that the struggle for justice, for human rights, and for equity continues.

I first met Amos Sawyer when I was 16 years old. I am now 61. It was July 1976 and the place was Gbarnga, Bong County. He was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Young Catholic Student Movement, the YCS. The meeting was held at the St. Paul Catholic Seminary, headed at the time by Monsignor Robert Tikpor. Sawyer on the podium was clear and articulate, his remarks incisive, as he challenged us to love our country and our people. He told us that day that we Liberians were all equal and no one, not one of us, was better than the other. I had not heard, up to that point in my life, any Liberian who was as inspiring and who exuded so much courage and confidence.

When my classmates in Zwedru’s Bishop Juwle High School Class of 1978 met to discuss its choice of a graduation speaker, I proposed that Dr. Sawyer serve as our speaker. The choice was not an easy one though, as it met with the opposition of the School Administrator who was not pleased with our decision. But we held our ground and we got our way in the end and Sawyer came to speak to us. We were mesmerized.

As a freshman at the University of Liberia, I had to do a Social Science course and Dr. Sawyer was one of several lecturers. He taught a course on ‘Liberian Society.’ The first research paper written by him that I read was titled: ‘The Unequal Distribution of Educational Facilities in Liberia.’ It was an eye opener for it laid bare the basic contradictions in Liberian society and the institutionalized inequality in the system. It was a theme he would return to again and again in his writings. Over subsequent years, I was to read several other works by this illustrious political scientist. I even had the great privilege of reading and giving him feedback on several of his manuscripts prior to their publication. That was Sawyer for you, always reaching out, always collaborative in his approach, whether in his scholarship or in his politics.

The 1970s were a period of a great awakening among broad swaths of the Liberian population. Following the death in 1971 of William V. S. Tubman, Liberians began to clamour for change and movements for democratic reform arose after the end of Tubman’s long autocratic rule. Dr. Sawyer was at the very heart of this emerging democratic ferment, which included the formation of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), The Revelation newspaper, the Coalition against Gambling, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), and the Sawyer for Mayor campaign. However, there were setbacks in the Liberian peoples’ struggle for a more inclusive, more open, and more just society.

When non-commissioned army officers staged a coup d’etat in 1980, we were not sure which direction we were headed as a country and as a people. After it started to become clear that the military were not inclined to return Liberia to civilian rule, popular pressure, oftentimes led by students, began to build on the military leaders to fix a schedule for their return to the barracks. A Constitutional Commission to write a new constitution of Liberia was established and Dr. Sawyer was named as its chair. It gave some of us reason to hope that a new Liberia was possible. But it was not long before we began to encounter the wrath of military dictatorship in our country. The military leaders side-lined Sawyer and his team, and appointed a new group to rewrite Sawyer’s draft. The new group customized the proposed constitution to suit the military’s ambition to remain in office in civilian garb. Clamping down further on any opposition to its plans to further entrench itself in power, the dictatorship also banned the Liberian National Students Union (LINSU) and LINSU’s leadership was forced to flee into exile. I was thus catapulted into the leadership of LINSU at a time when LINSU had become the most vocal opposition to the military dictatorship.

Six student leaders including myself were arrested and charged with treason. We were tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to death. Twelve hours before our execution, in response to popular protests, the military dictatorship granted us amnesty and set us free. Again, in 1984, I was arrested for leading a protest against the detention of Dr. Sawyer and Dr. George Kieh, Jr., both of whom at the time were staff of the University of Liberia. Our protest actions were viewed by the military dictatorship as a challenge to its authority. I was arrested along with several other Liberians and charged with authoring anonymous leaflets criticizing the government.  During one of my interrogations, I was told that if I said Sawyer was the one writing the anonymous leaflets, I would be set free. The interrogation was in the form of a mock execution with several military men holding AK47 rifles to my head. The interrogation happened at midnight at a rubber farm on the road to Bromley Mission. I refused to say what they wanted to hear. I was bundled up and returned to the Post Stockade at the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. I don’t recall ever telling Dr. Sawyer this story. The story was first made public in a book by the US-based Lawyers for Human Rights entitled: Liberia: A Promise Betrayed.

After I was obliged to leave Liberia in February 1985 for exile in the United States, I worked with Dr. Sawyer and several other Liberians in an organization called the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia, formed after an election universally regarded as fraudulent and rigged. ACDL was based in Washington, D.C. and hosted by the Society of African Missions (SMA Fathers). A broad-based coalition of Liberians with different, sometimes opposing, interests, ACDL’s main objective nonetheless was the return of Liberia to full-fledged constitutional democratic rule. ACDL was short-lived however as Dr. Sawyer, called upon by the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to lead the transitional Government in Liberia, and ever ready to defend our country’s cause with valor unpretending, rose to the challenge presented by the outbreak of civil war.

When I returned to post-war Liberia in 2003, I was appointed Executive Director of the Center For Democratic Empowerment, a civil society organizations that had been started by Dr. Sawyer and Sen. Conmany Wesseh. I served in that post for 4 years, working to consolidate our democratic gains.

Looking back on all of my political activities, inspired by Dr. Sawyer and others including HB Fahnbulleh Jr, Togba Nah Tipoteh, Dew Tuan Wleh Mayson, Siapha Kamara, Dusty Wolokollie, and Conmany Wesseh, we were informed by the quest for a better Liberia, where democracy and basic freedom including free association, free speech and respect for human rights would be fully respected. I know I am a better person today because of the enlightenment I gathered from all of these illustrious sons of Liberia, but principally Dr. Amos Sawyer. We mourn a great servant of the people and are privileged to have walked alongside this statesman. I am honored to have been in his company, delighted to have shared many meals and conversations with him, proud to read and re-read his works, to drink from his knowledge, and content to have known him for almost half a century. We say, farewell, Sir

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