FULL TEXT: Keynote Address by Ambassador Lewis G. Brown at Liberia’s 171st Independence Celebration in Canada
Mr. President and Officials of the Federation of Liberian Associations in Canada,
Mr. President and Officials of the Liberian Association in Vancouver,
Officials and Members of Other Diaspora Organizations;
My fellow Liberians:
A few days ago, we celebrated the 171st Independence Anniversary of our country. Amid the prevailing economic difficulties at home, the celebrations may not have been as colorful or festive as many would have wished. Celebrating our Independence, at home and across the Diaspora, is an opportunity we should not allow ourselves to miss whatever the intervening circumstances.
This is why I thank you for the invitation to celebrate with you here, in far away Vancouver, Canada. However, and wherever we may be constrained to celebrate our country’s independence, neither the extravagance of the pageantry, nor the lack of it, should subtract from the substance of our shared experiences over our ongoing journey for the last 171 years.
For 171 years, amidst the ebbs and flows of tempestuous waters, our ship has continued to sail. We may not have moved as fast as we possibly could. But together, we have endured. And despite the many tidal waves which occasionally threatened our ship of state, to the global admiration of many, we have continued to survive the journey we embarked upon so many years ago – a journey to build a unified nation, to govern ourselves democratically, to provide equal opportunities to all irrespective of our differences, and to continue to decide for ourselves where we wish to be headed, and how we wish to get there.
171 years later, often over self-constructed roadblocks and hurdles – over many broken promises, false starts and wasted opportunities; over stultifying wars of self-destruction and numerous conflicts; over nagging inequalities in incomes and opportunities; over economic marginalization and political exclusion on account of our repeated temptations to be defined by the superficial and self-limiting differences in gender, religion, tribe and political associations rather than the rich tapestry of unity in our diversities; over a massive drain of many of our brains including doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers and nurses, even as the motherland cries out for their services and expertise; over exogenous factors of depreciating prices in our major exports and the paralyzing attack of Ebola – 171 years later, here we still stand. Our ship may have been battered, our bodies bruised, and our needs ever-rising; yet, we have sailed on.
Our flag may have had to be lowered, the course of our sail altered, our hopes faded, and our progress slowed; but we have found the resilience to sail on. Our common destiny was, and still is too important to be ever abandoned by the changing fortunes of our decision, made almost two centuries ago, to travel together, in building a nation for which our children, and their children can be proud.
My brothers and sisters;
As I reflected on the theme of your program, Togetherness for Success, I was reminded about how your theme resonates with our National Anthem. It was nearly two centuries ago when we officially adapted the words penned by Daniel Bashiel Warner, our country’s third President, to be the lyrics of our National Anthem. The song seeks to inspire us. It defines us. Like a compass, it directs our path. More often than not, we sing it, as we just did, with unrelenting pride, as well as we always should. “All Hail Liberia Hail” is forever seared into the national consciousness. But have we always tried to live out its meaning?
There can be no doubt that the National Anthem is an everlasting appeal, as se journey, to the highest levels of our citizenship. There can be no greater value for our citizenship than to offer our hearts and our hands in defense of our country’s cause. There is to be found no greater service than to give our feet, our voices, our minds and our competencies to the advance of our country – not because it is necessarily easy to do. But because it is the right thing to do. If we do not build our country – if we do not give of ourselves to its progress – it will neither be built nor will our country progress.
And yet, while presenting us with the highest appeal to our citizenship, I dare to think that the National Anthem may also have unintentionally resigned some into a false sense of fatalism believing that our progress, or lack thereof, may not necessarily be reliant on the employments of our diligence and collective commitments. The unintended temptation is to let ourselves believe that regardless of what we may do, or not do, somehow, it will not really matter – somehow, it will bear no consequence. Somehow, we will remain that “home of glorious liberty”, not because we must necessarily work that it becomes, and remains so, but because God commands it to be so.
Let me be clear: The Almighty God loves our land. There can be no doubt that He has blessed us with more than our fair share of natural resources. But even if the Almighty commands us to be, and remain “a home of glorious liberty”, surely it has to be our duty to demonstrate trust in His command by making the enabling laws, removing the restrictive ones, interpreting those laws courageously, justly and blindly, and enforcing the laws on all without fear or favor. This is how we keep our country “a home of glorious liberty”. Our destiny to be “a home of glorious liberty” is not by fate. It is a destiny to be achieved by dedicated, diligent and honest works.
Even with God’s command, Liberians, we are destined to reap only that which we are ready to sow.
And so, across the three coordinated branches of our government – in our communities, political parties, schools, homes, churches, mosques and hospitals; in every village and town, and all across the Diaspora; what we do, and how we do it will always bear consequence on whether we be, and remain, “a home of glorious liberty”. It cannot be enough that we sing about God’s command for our country. We must act on God’s command. We must move ourselves to doing the glorious things – to doing the right things – that will actually situate our country, and transform it into “a home of glorious liberty”.
The God we serve, and to whom we rightfully referred in our National Anthem, may be above to prove our rights, but here below, in our interactions with each other, surely we can respect and protect each other’s rights to be equal in citizenship.
The rights that our God above wishes to prove for our nation is not just the rights our nation may possess against other nations of the world. It also includes the unhindered right to belong to a different political party, to hold a different opinion and to be heard. It includes the right to disagree without seeming disagreeable, to be heard before being judged, to work, to worship differently, and to live in peace, security and happiness.
Yes, God does want us to “over all prevail”. Over our failing institutions of learning, He certainly wants us to prevail. Over the difficulties of our economy, He also wants us to prevail. But again, it is not enough that God wants us to prevail. We, too – all of us, working together – must want ourselves to prevail.
We were reminded, a long time ago, that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Of course this is true of the progress of our country.
However possible, Liberia’s progress will never be rolled into reality on any wheel of inevitability. All of us must give of ourselves to achieve that progress. We have seen that as long as you are a Liberian, however way we may elect to separate and or identify ourselves, or wherever you may elect to hide; the historic truth is that we will all rise, or we will all fall, together. A better country guarantees our collective rise. A failing country can therefore only guarantee our collective fall.
Hear me my fellow countrymen and women: Liberia is our collective business. After 171 years, if we have not advanced as we know we could – if our progress is too slow or unacceptable; if we are too lagging behind many nations of the world, some of whom we were proud to assist into independence – the fault does not lie with God above. It lies here below – here with us, and in each of us.
Yes, God may have commanded that we be “a home of glorious liberty”, but almost two centuries later, how can we propose to be one, when our future is threatened by the lack of quality education to too many of our children? Nearly two centuries later, even with the abundance of fertile land with which we have been richly blessed, we still cannot feed ourselves! Almost two centuries later, we have continued to consume what we cannot produce.
No, God has not failed us. We have failed God. We have failed ourselves!
171 years ago, when the national song was adapted, our name may have been new, our fame, as yet, green. We really cannot say this anymore! The history of the world has the name of Liberia, one of two African countries that was seated at the table to form the United Nations. We were there to form the Organization of African Unity which is now the African Union. We were there to form the Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas.
No, our name is no longer new, and our fame is no longer green. But how mighty have our powers become? How united have we become? How united have our hearts become?
After traveling together for almost two centuries, can we truly say we have done all that we could have done to lift our country up – to lift each other up? Or, are we more likely, even today, to tear our country up, and to pull each each down?
No, God has not failed us. Over the course of our 171-year journey, we have failed God. We have failed ourselves.
Here, too, is what is also true: We can redeem ourselves. We can make the next 171 years better than the previous. We can achieve God’s command for our country. We can be a “happy land”. We can be “a home of glorious liberty”.
First, we must own up to our shared responsibility for our progress, or the lack thereof. In 1847, when we woke up the world to our Declaration of Independence, we promised ourselves, and communicated to the world, friend and foe alike, that we would be responsible for ourselves. We declared that our destiny would be decided by us, and for us. We proposed to write a new chapter in the evolving story of mankind challenging the conventional wisdom, in our profound claims that notwithstanding the marginalization and exclusion by reason of the color of our skins, we can and would govern ourselves – that we would manage our affairs, and raise a new nation not just of which others would be proud, but also of which all Liberians, and oppressed peoples everywhere, would be proud.
We called ourselves Liberians – born as we were, our of the quest to be free. Therefore, no Liberian must ever be the subject of marginalization or exclusion – no Liberian must experience the pangs of oppression or the absence of freedom – if we are to continue to lay just claims to that Declaration.
And we declared ourselves a republic not necessarily because we thought a republic would be easier to manage but because we knew that a republic would give us the chance of governing as inclusively as possible, as it conferred all powers to be inherent in the people. And importantly also, that a republic would enable us to be more transparent and accountable to each other as well as continuously steer us along the higher roads of more justice, and not less; more equality, and not less; and more freedoms and protection of rights, and not less. This is the embodiment of the profound Declaration of Independence, to which all Liberians are heirs.
Secondly, we must attend, with national urgency, to feeding ourselves. No independence can long endure where a nation cannot feed itself. The same is true: No economy can survive which spends its foreign exchange on consumables. Quite simply, it is unsustainable.
We must return to our fertile soil, invest in growing what we eat, and export what others need that we have the soil to grow, not as a matter of choice but as a national emergency intended to maintain our independence. Subsidizing consumption, or seeking to regulate the prices of export commodities without harnessing our own productive capacities in agriculture, is not just unsustainable as we continue to experience, but it also traps us in a vicious cycle of fear, political and economic insecurity, and effectively undermines the truer meaning of our independence.
Thirdly, we have to inform our national psyche away from the temptations of instant gratification. Over the 171 years of our travel together, if there is one lesson we are wise to never forget, it is that there really are no shortcuts to success. Add that to the fact that we cannot be traveling together and yet not share in the collective benefits of our travel, together. All of us, both in the present and in the future, must feel the same ownership we share for the failures of our country, as we must also share in the successes, benefits, and the wealth with which our country has been blessed.
Too often, we have lent ourselves to short-term gains at the expense of the longer term objectives. We have seen that by pursuing these so-called quick gains, we have ended up losing over the longer term. How many so-called foreign investors have laughed their way into wealth that should have been for our country, and left us poorer for it, only because we settled for instant gratification in the management of our natural resources? Instant gratification has seen us become poorer over time, and leaves succeeding generations with burdens they did not help to create in the face of what could otherwise be the enormous wealth of our country.
Instant gratification has left our hospitals without equipment, beds and needed drugs; our communities without safe drinking water and sanitation; our schools without highly trained teachers; an economy constantly threading water and awaiting the next cycle of its inevitable free-fall. The pursuit of instant gratification does not make us better. It ensures that we, and certainly our children, are doomed to be poorer than we are.
After nearly two centuries, its time to shift the paradigm of investments so that our country actually shares in our wealth, for the long term, rather than sell off our natural resources for instant gratification, in the short term. Liberia’s natural resources do not only belong to us today. They also belong to our children, the Liberians of tomorrow.
Fourthly, in deeds and in expressions, we must strive to be honest. Of course all of us who are leaders have a higher duty here. There is hardly a better way to persuade a good behavior than to lead by examples. We sow seeds of doubts, and possible dissent, when as leaders, we ask others to follow where we are not ready to lead.
However, being honest and trustworthy have to also be the patriotic duty of all citizens. When we deceive, we lay the foundations to be deceived. When we mislead, we too head in the wrong direction. And when we cheat, we hurt ourselves, our country, and undermine its development from which all of us are likelier to benefit and enjoy. So, in leadership or ordinary citizenship, we must become the exemplars of not just what we wish others to be and do, but what is right and good for our collective progress.
Fifthly, we must not be afraid to embrace excellence, encourage the pursuit of it, as well as celebrate the sacrifices and achievements of each other to be better. For too long, we have settled for mediocrity. For too many of us, it is okay to just be able to get by – to just graduate from high school, to just graduate from college, and to just participate. We can do more than merely exist on the periphery. We are really better than the limits we impose upon ourselves by the restrictive mindset that its okay to just be here.
It is not okay to limit the possibilities of our nation, or to shrink the size of our dreams, if we are willing to work to achieve it. Mediocrity has kept us small. Small dreams only keeps us small. It’s time to imagine that in all that we do, and think, we can be bigger, and better.
Finally, across the Diaspora, here in Vancouver, or back home, it is time to truly defend the country’s cause – meet its multiplicity of challenges – with our hearts, and our hands. It simply cannot be enough in all that we aspire to do, as citizens of a needful country, to have a heart and offer no hand; or give your hand without your heart. Only by truly doing both can we aspire to the quality of service that our country needs over the next 171 years.
This brings me to the rising tide of criticisms against our country. It is absolutely okay to criticize. It is even better to identify solutions as to how things can be improved and done better in our criticisms. However, how can we justifiably criticize those who may be trying, even if they don’t know, when you who claim to know, would not even try?
Of course JFK can be better. But your criticisms of JFK is useless, in my opinion, if you are a qualified doctor or nurse, and you are working here, under obviously better conditions and for better compensations, while others are grinding it out daily to serve their needy compatriots back home, as best as they possibly can, with their monthly earnings barely amounting to the cost of your gasoline bill for the month.
If all of us leave our country for the better salaries and conveniences that are available outside – if we are all scared to be criticized and blamed – where would our country be? How will it progress? Each of you, with the qualifications you possess; you also represent our progress. You can also lend your hearts and your hands. They belong to Liberia too.
You can actually help to raise the quality of service – push us, by your examples of higher commitments toward doing things better – toward a new culture of excellence. It does not have to be in the employ of the government, but you – yes, it can start with you – can also impact our forward march to be “a home of glorious liberty” which God has commanded.
You claim to know of a better way? You’re committed to a higher standard? Offer it to your country. Even if the government “rejects” your offer, the people will not. Yes, the change we seek in the quality of standards – in the pursuit of excellence – can begin with you, too!
I feel compelled to conclude this point by saying, all too often, the problem we have faced is not in not knowing what is right. It is in applying what we know to be right when given the opportunity to do so. We must therefore commit ourselves to be different. We must each become the actual change that we seek. No one can affect the next 171 years of our journey toward nation-building – indeed no one can make us better; make our country better – than ourselves, with not just our hearts, and the hands of others; but with our hearts, and our hands!
In the end though, it is important to never forget that we did not come to where we are overnight, nor did we arrive here by some form of Osmosis. We have traveled together for 171 years. Whatever you diagnose our country’s problem to be, we arrived here deliberately through years of causes and effects. Whatever you imagine our challenges to be, no matter where you may be, it affects us all.
Make no mistake: We will not fix all of our attending challenges overnight. But it is wrong to continue to imagine that we can do nothing to affect our problems. Of course, we can! For 171 years, we have raised our voices in passionate unison, singing heartily and faithfully that God has commanded that we be, and remain, not a home of glorious parties, and a divided land but “a home of glorious liberty” and a “happy land”. Important as political parties are and must continue to be, we have failed, and rightly so, far too many times, in the mistaken notion that rather than a home of glorious liberty, we can succeed in constructing Liberia into a home of glorious parties.
What we must attend to truly become, for the next 171 years, even with our political parties, is “a home of glorious liberty” and a “happy land”, where all regardless of political associations are subjects of the same law and equal beneficiaries to all of the available opportunities of our country – where each child has a better chance to better their parents; where we honor service to community and country; where statesmanship dwarfs partisanship; and where no presenting challenge of our nation is ever too big for all of us to resolve.
This is how we can succeed – this is how we were meant to succeed – pulling ourselves together rather than being pulled asunder. And this is where we must set our collective sights.
With the dawn of each new day, these are the goals we must strive to achieve for the next 171 years – the goal of strengthening the bonds that will unite our hearts; the goal of actually lifting each other up, and thereby, lifting our collective spirits; the goal of elevating the common values of our Liberianness by which we measure ourselves not by the mightiest of us, but by the least of us; the goal of enabling all of us to march forward, together, dedicated and renewed, each day over the next 171 years, committed to making ourselves and our Liberian society, better. We can do this. I know we can!
At home, or in a strange land, we must do more than wave our flag. We must do more than sing the National Anthem as loudly and as proudly as we possibly can. It is time to mean what we sing. It is time to work for what we believe we have been commanded by God to have. It is time to reach for God’s command for our country. It is time to work – one for all, and all for one!
This is how we will lift our country. This is how we will lift ourselves. And this is how we will, truly, over all prevail.
Happy belated 171st Independence Day to you, and to Liberians everywhere. I thank you for your kind attention.