By Moco McCaulay
Liberia celebrates its 165th Independence Day on July 26, 2012 as Africa’s oldest republic. And the significance of this day should stand as a day of celebration not just for Liberians, but for Africans and people of African descent in the Diaspora.
For, even as the intractable claws of slavery callously stifled the humanity and freedom of so many people of African descent across the seas in America in 1847, a group of 12 men, many of whom were themselves considered nothing more than chattel properties in America from whence they immigrated to a benighted colony on the shores of West Africa, took the improbable step to declare their colony “a free, sovereign, and independent state, by the name and title of the Republic of Liberia.”
And so Liberia became an independent nation on July 26, 1847. The improbability of an independent nation ruled by black people, at a time when inimical forces of oppression were bent on curtailing and even denying the humanity of people of African descent must have surely inspired pride in many a slave, even as they toiled in drudgery on the cotton fields in antebellum America.
Liberia was therefore viewed as an inspiration and a nation of promise for people of African descent everywhere. And, especially during the dark days of colonialism in Africa, Liberia stood as a bastion of hope for colonized Africans that their nations too would one day become independent, not unlike Liberia.
But 165 years later, as Liberians celebrate their country’s momentous Independence Day, it is hard not to see how the once succulently promising fruit of Liberia’s lofty independence ideals has fallen so despicably far from the awe-inspiring Tree of Promise and Inspiration that it stirred in Africans and people of African descent around the world.
Liberia was such an inspiration that one of the champions of Nigeria’s Independence and later, the country’s first President, Nnamde Azikiwe, is said to have been so moved by this lone independent republic in Africa as a young student, that he vowed to study Liberia’s history and diplomacy, and “to understand them in such detail, without ever stepping on the shores of Liberia, that Liberians themselves would marvel at this feat.” (ref. Charles Taylor and Liberia by Colin M. Waugh) Young Azikiwe would write his Ph. D. thesis entitled: Liberian Diplomacy, 1847-1932 about this “glorious land of liberty” in all of Africa. And it certainly wouldn’t be out of place to conjecture that Azikiwe’s struggle for his own country’s independence was most likely inspired by his personal approbation for the Liberian nation.
Nowadays, and notwithstanding having accomplished another trailblazing feat with Africa’s first female democratically-elected President, you would be hard-pressed, if at all, to find people from other African nations and people of African descent around the world who would still place the Liberian nation on a pedestal for inspiration.
And that is because, as the 6th poorest country in the world, with an estimated gross national income per capita of US $265 (PPP) according to the UNDP 2011 Human Index Report, and an estimated 85% unemployment, modern Liberia has all but lost its luster as a nation to derive inspiration from.
Rather, with a fantastically brutal recent civil war past, noted for having “topped and surpassed all other wars in form and character, in intensity, in depravity, in savagery, in barbarism and in horror,” (ref. The Mask of Anarchy by Stephen Ellis) with its horrific displays of cannibalism, modern Liberia is a nation whose lofty ideals of freedom, which apparently drove its quest for independence, seem to have been coarsely dashed in the abyss of misrule, corruption, nepotism, impunity and other vices of leadership.
Liberia has paid a high price in blood for these vices of governance which have plagued the nation. But that notwithstanding, they seem to be rearing their ugly heads again under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just peruse any of the latest reports by independent watchdog groups such as Amnesty International, International Crisis Group, and even the US State Department who have accused President Sirleaf’s administration of not doing nearly enough to clamp down on those vices that catapulted the nation into an all out war.
Making note of the despicable and pervasive inequalities in Liberia just before the 1980 coup, Dr. Amos Sawyer is said to have described the Liberia of those days in these words:
“Socially, Liberia constitutes two worlds: the one of the haves is characterized by affluence and an ostentatious life style. The symbols and trappings of wealth and the good life are brazenly flaunted. This is the world of Cadillac, Jaguars, and Mercedes Benzes; a world of stripped three piece suits, sprawling mansions and video recording sets. Liberians of this world are amongst the most suave, cosmopolitan and jet-setting types of Africa-more in tune with the fashions of New York, Paris, London and more comfortable with the trappings of western luxury living than any other group of socialites in Africa.
Existing side by side with this luxury group, and being shamelessly exploited by it, are the poor people of Liberia parched by the wretchedness of poverty, dazzled by the endless possibilities available to the affluent, languishing in the squalors of the city and the harshness and austerity of the rural village.”
Except for replacing Cadillac and Jaguars, maybe with Hummers and 4 Runners, and video recording sets with DVD players, as I walked the streets of Monrovia, Dr. Sawyer’s description almost seemed prophetic, only that, as it is profoundly accurate of today’s emerging Liberia, so was it in the past.
The question that buffets my mind is: How can our leaders and society be repeating these same mistakes of the past, when we are all too aware of the high price our nation and people have paid for those mistakes by past leadership?
It seems to me that this is a question that we Liberians haven’t spent enough time earnestly discussing to try to arrive at honest answers. That notwithstanding, it would seem to me that it is a question that must be answered through a broad national discussion for our nation to begin to truly find its footing on a surer path to peace so that we can begin to earnestly eschew those mistakes of the past and rekindle the promise of Africa’s first independent nation.
Happy Independence Day! And Long Live Africa’s First Republic!
- Liberia: The Pain is Profound (owcl.wordpress.com)
- Liberia’s Baby Blues - No Policy for Pregnant School Girls (ipsnews.net)
- Liberia minors ‘used in raids’ (bbc.co.uk)
- You: Liberia: More Trouble For Sirleaf? (thedailybeast.com)