National Oration by Leymah Roberta Gbowee on the 172nd Independence Anniversary of the Republic of Liberia, July 26, 2019
H.E. George Manneh Weah, President of the Republic of Liberia, H. E. Jewel Howard Taylor, Vice President Republic of Liberia, His Honor Frances Korkpor Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, Hon. Bhofal Chambers, Speaker and Members of the National Legislature, Hon. Albert Chie, Pro Temp and members of the Senate, Dean and Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Officials of Government, women of Liberia – women oh women – members of the religious community, members of the traditional council, foreign guests, business leaders, students, members of the fourth estate, fellow citizens.
This is another great day the Lord has made and I will rejoice greatly and be glad.
Every year, a Liberian is given the task of being National Orator. When you sit from outside, it seems like a really beautiful and colorful experience; which in fact it is. The pressure that comes with this national duty is beyond description. Everyone has a piece of advice on how you should proceed. I have a sister who asked me to include everything in this speech from how to be better Christians as Liberians, to morality and infidelity, to domestic violence issues, just about everything. I have received emails on different thematic concerns and what I needed to say. People have asked me to come and speak the truth, others just wanted it to be the typical Leymah style speech straight from the heart. These requests added additional pressure to the already mounting expectations.
July 26 is one of the few moments where almost all of the population and diaspora community gather to listen to the National Orator, hopeful that the message will speak to issues that are important to their daily existence, the future of their children and the growth and development of the nation. Many also listen to this moment hopeful that the designated speaker will recommend solutions to national issues and that government will take strides to implement some of the recommendations.
When gathering my thoughts in preparation for this speech, I drew on a daily practice that I frequently use to guide my steps – which is to sit back and do an analysis of the situation that I am confronted with or my interactions. What I deduce from all these requests back and forth is that Liberians are generally concerned about their nation and all they wish for is the very best. This concern cuts across all counties, ethnic, gender and financial lines and it is not aligned to any political party or movement.
The theme for today’s celebration is really befitting for the times that we find ourselves in, “Together We Are Stronger”. We are at a place in our national’s life where it is very important for us to begin to speak the language of unity, this language of unity and togetherness is a language that we have used from the founding of this nation. Our national anthem propounds this message of unity, our pledge to the flag speaks of it, in our traditional and native languages we have very special ways of speaking about togetherness. The Kpelle people say “Kukatonon”, the Lorma people will say “Zeewelekeze”, every tribe in this country has a special way of speaking about togetherness.
The question that kept coming to my mind is: for a nation that has so many ways of preaching togetherness and so many symbols of national unity, why do we need to focus on this now and why do we find ourselves drifting further and further away from the dreams of our founding fathers and mothers? Why has unity evaded us? Why is unity like a mist in this land, we preach it, we proclaim it but we unfortunately cannot hold on it?
To help me answer these questions, I did a mini tour of different communities in our country, trying to get views of Liberians – technically seeking help from ordinary Liberians to craft this speech. I wish my team and I had created a video documentary for everyone in this room to watch. From Bong to Bomi, Cape Mount to Center and Randall Streets, students, teachers, religious leaders, petty traders, sex workers, also our neglected brothers and sisters commonly called Zogos and Zogees. I wanted to hear from all of them about how we as Liberians, can be stronger together.
The themes were consistent. The recommendations were synced. Some wanted to go straight to the point whilst others thought it was important to talk about why we are not together in the first place. Others felt it was important to define “togetherness” before we could even proceed. The youngest respondents were between 10 and 13 years old.
The tour also had a very interesting spin. On many occasions, I was being questioned by my participants:
- How can we be together, Madam Gbowee, in the presence of very harsh economic conditions? How can we be stronger together when corruption is still at its peak?
- 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?
My 13-year-old, very intelligent friend asks, “how can we be stronger together when too many wrongs are never corrected and are allowed to continue from one regime to the other?”
One question in particular resonated with me and has stuck with me as I prepare my remarks. The question was: how can we be stronger together when our country is divided in three parts – the Ruling Position, the Opposition and the No Position – and each comes with rhetoric and hate messages that are worse than the war rhetoric?
I pondered on the three divisions that were mentioned and decided to probe further on what those three equal parts really represent in our society.
Let me start with the first category, the No Position.
This is the biggest group, but it comes 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. No Positions hold government responsible for everything including the garbage they throw out the windows when seated in public and private transport.
The ‘No Position’ group feel that they are separate from politics and decisions. But this means they have allowed themselves be played like a game of tennis or a soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. By having no position, they tell themselves they are excused from the dilemma we face as a nation.
The second category is Opposition.
Depending on which period we find ourselves, these are a bunch of recycled politicians or wannabe politicians. They 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, labelling anyone that interacts with the ruling position a “sell out” or a regime collaborator. This 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.
The third category is the Ruling Position.
They come into power with “Da Our Time” attitude, winner takes it all. 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. 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. This creates a culture among our young people that competence and education are not necessary tools for ascending to any position.
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. 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 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. My role is not to tell you my personal opinion, rather it is to spark a conversation about our 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. Our young people need quality education that prepares them for the future. I heard that we need to address youth unemployment. We must create viable employment opportunities for our youth population beyond pehn-pehn riding.
When young people are positioned to be job creators rather than job seekers, it makes it almost impossible for people to be lured into picking up arms and creating instability for a few to be powerful. I heard that we need freedom and justice. When the needs of all are considered, it is easier for people to vision and dream together, peace becomes a collective reality, reconciliation comes more naturally. We must address the harsh economic conditions because families can barely find food to pay their children’s school fees or buy basic necessities.
Fellow Liberians, it is time we 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. The Bible says “…two cannot walk together unless they agree”. It will be near to impossible for us to be stronger together if we have not agreed on the values of the journey of togetherness.
The values that kept coming up time and time again in my listening tour are transparency, truth, equality and love for country above self.
Transparency is something that we heard repeatedly.
Mr. President, members of the Legislature, the fight against corruption is not in words, it is in action. 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. It’s time for us to bring truth back into the national history.
Third, is the value of equality. Liberia is not a political party. Liberia is a nation for all Liberians. In order for us to move forward together, we must recognize that men as well as women, the blind, the physically challenged, and youth groups are equal parts of the society. Mr. President, I will address this to you directly. 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, you are being called out to walk your talk. It’s time to stop the old boy’s network.
Finally, love for country above self. Liberia is our “Land of liberty”. The reality is that despite our differences, this is our home and we share a common duty to move Liberia forward by taking responsibility as civilians and not expecting government to take on the tasks that are in our own hands. A typical example could be taxi drivers putting bags in their cars to help passengers stop throwing rubbish in the streets. We, all 4.5 million of us are called to use our unique gifts and talents in service of Mother Liberia.
Fellow Liberians, 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 groups are separated and scattered from one another we are unable to work together to meet our common goals. We cannot be coordinated and we move in opposite directions from one another. To become a broom that cleans the house, the hundreds of tiny straws need to be held firmly together with a very strong cord at the top. Similarly, 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.
Leymah Gbowee, is a 2011, Nobel Peace prize Winner
Main pic: Laymah Gbowee, picture credit: Los Angeles Times