DR. H. BOIMA FAHNBULLEH, JR.
I speak to you all today from my heart and I hope you will listen to me very carefully and try to understand that the future of your children can be decided by the way you think and act now. Over the years, you have suffered a lot. Your country is destroyed; many of your friends and relatives died during years of war. Your children are looking into the future without hope. Many of your daughters are scattered across West Africa living a sorrowful and shameful existence. Many of your sons have fallen on hard times and taken to crime out of hunger, hopelessness and anger! Our people are not different from other people. The Liberian people do not love suffering. They want peace, happiness and the space to work, earn a decent living and bring up their children who will grow up to be hardworking teachers, marketer’s, carpenters, doctors, nurses, farmers, taxi drivers, police officers and soldiers.
The dream of all parents is to see their children become good citizens in a country where people respect others because they are all equal in the sight of God. A nation is made up of people who believe that they are one people because they believe in themselves, in the possibility of becoming someone if given the opportunity. A nation brings people together when the laws protect everyone and the wealth of the country is used for the benefit of everyone. A nation develops its culture from the everyday practices and activities of its people. The people see themselves as one when they feel satisfied that no one will beat, cheat and bully them without facing the law of the land. In order to bring a nation together, you must first bring the people together by letting them hope together, dream together and work together for the benefit of themselves and their children.
A nation cannot be unified and a people brought together when some people are above the law and do as they please in society. In a society where injustice is all around, there is anger, frustration and bitterness. In a nation where the people’s children are seen as cheap playthings for rich and powerful men and women, there is pain and this can be seen on the faces of those who suffer if you take time to look. In a nation where men and women are cheated and laughed at because they come from another group, tribe or clan, there is bitterness and you can see it from the look of hatred and anger—that is if you look carefully! But how many of us take the time to notice the pain, anger and bitterness of our fellow citizens outside of election time? How many of us are honest enough to say what we all know but afraid to express–that is that we have not built a nation?
After 158 years, we all know that there is a space called Liberia! We know that in this space there are many tribes—some with developed systems of human interaction. We know that in this space there has been a history of conflicts, wars and distrust. We also know that the history of this space reads like the history of conquest by one group over others. In this space, we have done horrible things to each other over the years simply because we have lived like strangers in this space. There are many of us who have not gone beyond our towns, villages and communities. Even when we move into the city called Monrovia, we are most often forced by necessity to go where our tribesmen live and we thus find ourselves in New Kru Town, Vai Town, Buzzi Quarters, Bassa Community or in places where the poorest of us gather—West Point, Clara Town, Logan Town, Newport Street, etc., etc.
Our idea of a nation over a century and a half has been formed by the small spaces we occupy in this large space called Liberia. This has been our major tragedy. After fifteen decades, we are strangers to each other because only strangers treat each other the way we have treated one another over this century and a half!
Why have we failed to build a nation—that is to bring the people together as one with a common destiny? The reasons are many and the historians have given different interpretations. But one fact stands out: a nation cannot be built when there are those who see themselves as masters and regard the others as servants and slaves. The history of South Africa demonstrates this very well! A nation is built by having all the people regard themselves firstly, as equal citizens; secondly, as equal partners in work and development and thirdly, as equal compatriots who succeed because of their talents and not because of birth, name or connections. Why did we fail to bring our people together after all these years? Maybe we have not honestly looked at ourselves and the way we have done things in the past.
The history of this space called Liberia has always been the history of those who ruled. This can explain the reason why people fight for power so brutally, cunningly and dishonestly in this space, thinking that by ascending to power, they are making history and creating for themselves a place in the folklores of the people. There is hardly any history of the working man and woman, of the rubber tapers, carpenters, farmers and ordinary people. There is no history of those who built the old frame houses; those who built the roads into the plantations; those who built the canoes for traveling and fishing. In short, there is no history of the people. What we have read since childhood is the history of those who ruled this space—whether gloriously or ingloriously. This history is that of a group, a segment and is not enough to forge the unity needed for the building of a nation.
In recent times—going back to the thirties—this was what Juah Nimley tried to express: the opening up of this space for the inclusion of all the people, their culture and historical experiences in order for us to create a nation of equal partners with our rich diversity in unity! Those who ruled then and wrote their history refused to listen!! And then there was Edwin J. Barclay who tried to open up this space by fusing the aspirations of all his countrymen. Again, they refused to listen.
Then came Didho Twe, Nete Sie Brownell, Raymond Horace, David Coleman, T.R. Bracewell, Kollie Tamba, Du Fahnbulleh and again and again, they refused to listen! These men we mentioned wanted a nation, not a geographical space, but those who ruled dismissed the idea and aspirations.
This space called Liberia created a deformed culture in the process of exclusion. The dresses of our noble kings and chiefs were laughed at and considered uncivilized. Our traditional dances became spectacles of entertainment for city dwellers and visiting tourists instead of the deep cultural expressions of resistance and creative activities. Our traditional schools of spiritual reflection and enlightenment became associated with primitive living. While those who ruled condemned the cultural practices of the majority of the people who lived in this space, they went to the extreme and imported the habits of perfect strangers. The tailcoats and bowler hats, evening gowns and gloves became the dresses for state occasions. Do not mention the heat of the tropics and the inappropriateness of this kind of dressing!
They based everything on a kind of American influence, which in reality was deceptive. Let me clarify here. In America, the leading sporting activities are American football, baseball and basketball. We were too poor to buy the outfits for football and baseball and so we settled for basketball, which allowed one to even go half naked. In America, they love hot dog, popcorn and apple pie. Here, we could not afford any of these! So where was the American influence? It existed only in the imagination of those who ruled because their history was a sad portion of the history of those who ruled America.
This was the sad state of the space we called Liberia for over a hundred years. Here was a space with abundant wealth, hardworking people and fertile land, but we lived in poverty, hunger and backwardness. We lived like strangers because the roads did not connect our villages, but ran from the city to the plantations and mines. Even on the plantations and mines, we lived apart from the others—be they strangers from overseas or our compatriots from the city who had been privileged to attend the universities in the country or had attended others in Europe and America. At times, we could not identify our compatriots from the strangers from overseas because they behaved the same despite the skin differences!
We all called ourselves Liberians but we all had different interpretations of our Liberianess. In reality, the space we occupied had no sense of national identity, no togetherness of our aspirations and dreams; no combination of our hopes and efforts; and no cultural framework for national respect. Against this background, we shifted our identities depending on circumstances: Flomo became John; Yarpakro became Benson; Gumpu became Anderson and Tambakai became Tommy. We abandoned our heritage and turned to those who were themselves grappling with the crisis of identity to approve of our identity! This was the state of affairs in this space when some young men returned home from school in the United States.
They returned with a dream: that this space called Liberia could become a nation of equal partners and with its abundant resources; the people could develop together and share a common experience in nation building. These young men hoped that what they had learned in America could be put at the service of all their people and not at the service of only the rulers and their foreign friends. Theirs was a demand for a nationalism that would bridge the social divide and bring the people together to create a common history. This collection of young men and women constituted that group we called “the progressive forces.” These young men and women began their long march for the building of a nation by affirming their identity. This was the first step in the reawakening of our cultural heritage. They came back to Africa as Africans and carried within their hearts the dreams of the patrons of modern African nationalism. They reverted to that identity which could only be dynamic within the vibrancy of African culture. With this culture as a symbol of pride and not one of shame, they agitated for an Africa built by workers and enjoyed by workers; serviced by marketeers, carpenters, small traders, rubber tapers, taxi drivers and enjoyed by them; an Africa pushed into the light of knowledge and enlightened by teachers, students, scholars and the clergy and appreciated by all of them.
These young men wanted to build a nation in Africa, the same as those dreamt of by Patrick Lumumba of The Congo; Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana; Modibo Keita of Mali; Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea; Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau; Felix Moumie of Cameroon; Mallam Aminu Kano of Nigeria; Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela of South Africa; Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; Didan Kimathi and Stanley Muthenge of Kenya; Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt; Ahmed Ben Barka of Morocco; ITA Wallace Johnson of Sierra Leone; Edward Blyden, Albert Porte, Wiwi Debbah and Wuo Tapia of Liberia; Agostinho Neto of Angola; Samora Machel of Mozambique—to name a few. Theirs would have been an Africa of resistance to merciless exploitation and social backwardness that have seen Africa slid down the scale of human achievements in all areas.
This was the essence of the struggle in this space called Liberia. We wanted to forge a nation of equal partners based on our common historical experiences like the building of trade routes between the tribal entities before the coming of the Portuguese; or the development of languages among the Kwa and the Mande-Mel people; or the similarity in sculptures, drums and dances among the various cultures; or the system of kingship and governance in all our cultures. In addition, the shared historical experiences among the settlers and the people in Grand Cape Mount, Grand Bassa, Sino and Maryland could have served us well with new interpretations! This was the basis on which we agitated for a re-examination of the history of our people. We also expressed our identity by upholding with pride the names of our forefathers and walking with dignity in the lappas and gowns of our people.
We came home as simple men not in search of jobs and wealth, but in search of a nation and a people. We found the outline of our nation by examining the history of resistance of those who refused to yield to the injustices in the society. We knew that in the history of resistance could be found the true history of the people who inhabited this space called Liberia. And so we went back to the history of those who did not rule but spoke truth to power! And what we found excited us and made us believe that it was possible to create a nation in this space. We spoke of the need to open this space and allow all the people to participate in the political process. We challenged the old stories of conquest, of domination, of rule by one segment of society.
This was the context in which we called for the abolition of the property clause in the old constitution, which had existed since 1847.
We knew that in building a nation it was impossible to exclude the majority of the people who did not have property because vast tracts of land had been taken away from the people in towns and upcountry.
We shouted to high heavens that it was wrong for public positions to be given to people based on names and family connections. We argued that a nation is never built when wealth is controlled by a few and the majority of the people in the space are forced to live in horrible places called West Point, Clara Town, New Kru Town, Vai Town, Smell No Taste, etc., etc. We shouted our lungs out that education is a right and not a privilege and that the people’s children should be given the opportunity to go to school and enlighten themselves. We pleaded that although the constitution had faults, yet it guaranteed certain rights and one such was the right to assemble and petition the government. We pronounced the declaration of independence in the old constitution that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This was where we were when in April 1979, soldiers were brought out of the barracks to stop the exercise of a constitutional right—that which dealt with the right to assemble in a peaceful manner and petition the government for the redress of grievances! It was never understood by those who called out the army in 1979 that when guns become decisive in the settlement of political and economic disputes, then historical grievances will be settled by guns also! This was the tragic lesson that most people have still not understood. They want to bury their heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and blame the progressive forces by wrongly arguing that “they started it.” Did we now? Where during the decade of agitation for democratic rights did the progressive forces ever called on the army? We called on the people to seize their rights and build a future for their children! It was our right to explain to the farmers, the market women, small traders, teachers, rubber tapers and ordinary people that they had the right to live like human beings and to enjoy the wealth of this space called Liberia.
The army and violence were introduced by those who felt that they could continue making their history at the expense of the common people. They gambled that those who held the guns would continue saying “yes sir” as old. But things had changed! We did not know the army but the army had heard the cries for justice. The hardest of men with guns can be moved by the sight of dead students, weeping mothers and distraught fathers. In addition, they can feel pain and sadness at the sight of young students and lecturers thrown into prison for simply stating the truth that the beginning of slavery starts with the denial to the people of the bare necessities of life.
Let us ask those who have condemned the progressive forces all these years for the tragic history of this space. Were we wrong to demand justice for the majority of the people? Were we wrong to argue that in order to build a nation the people must be treated like human beings and not allow to waste their lives in horrible slums like West Point, Clara Town, Newport Street, Buzzi Quarters and all the terrible places which are not decent for even animals to live not to talk of human beings? Were we wrong to demand that the rubber taper’s sons and daughters, the market woman’s children, the carpenter’s daughters and the ordinary people’s offspring be given decent education so that they too could become leaders in their various fields tomorrow? Were we wrong to shout that Flomo, Korto and Yarpakro should be given equal opportunities like all the others and through merit occupy any position in the land? Ask yourself the question: why in 1980, after 133 years of independence, did it have to take guns to change the political landscape in this space and put the first son of the majority of the people in the Executive Mansion?
Why if you had a nation—which is a community with shared values and aspirations—did it take such violence over the years to bring to the political forefront the Mamadees, the Sayes, the Toes, the Flomos, etc., etc. Your national anthem says: “In union strong success is sure, we cannot fail….” But you failed and have produced a failed state. Why? Because you had no union! How is it possible to build a nation when some of us feel that we are better than others because of birth and family connections? How can we build a union when those from a particular background must always be standard bearers why those from other background are chosen as running mates? Why can it not be the other way round that for once you from a particular background accept to be running mates to others from other backgrounds? Is it right that you must always rule over a people you treat as strangers except during elections? Is it because we hold these views that you condemn us as those responsible for the tragedy that has befallen our people? Would you rather we had kept quiet and allow the injustice and mockery to continue? If we did then, we would not have been men and women of conscience.
We took a position over two decades ago that it was possible to build a nation, united in dreams and aspirations because we are all equal and believe in liberty and justice for all! We have been disrupted from laying the foundation for this nation of equal partners by coups and counter-coups, wars and the rumours of wars, rebellions and counter-rebellions, but we have remained firm in the conviction that a nation can be built in this space. Due to the fact that we have held on to the conviction that we will fight for justice wherever and whenever, some have called us re-cycled politicians. We do not run away from accusations. We explain why they are made against us and let our people be the judges. If injustice is re-cycled from one regime to another, then we are re-cycled because we will fight against injustice wherever and whenever! If the exploitation of the people is re-cycled then we are re-cycled because we will struggle against exploitation and man’s inhumanity to man!! If the poverty of the people is re-cycled from one government to another then we will always be re-cycled because we have made a pledge with our conscience to struggle against poverty and the abuse of the African people.
For any people determined to build a nation, it is necessary to have men and women who are re-cycled in the cause of justice, liberty and dignity. These men and women must be identified and must be followed for the common good. And this is why we pray in the words of Josiah Gilbert Holland:
“God, give us men! A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honour; Men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty, and in private thinking;
For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land and waiting justice sleeps.”
Compatriots, come join us to build a nation. Let us empower the people and their children by allowing anybody to be standard bearer of any party and not just certain people from certain background. Let us engage the people in debates and enlighten the young minds so that they do not just follow anybody, especially those they are smarter than! Let us open the economic space which would allow the farmers, the small traders, the market women, the ordinary people and the teachers to make a decent living through hard work and own property in the land. This would give them a stake in the new nation. Let us decentralize power by decentralizing wealth which would make farmer Kollie a millionaire through hard work just as it has made businessman “Hashim” and “John Peters” millionaires. It is not power which is centralized in our society. It is wealth. There is power in the schools, the churches, the mosques, the villages, the communities and in the separate branches of government. But it has made no difference to the status of those who hold it if they are poor.
One thing is certain: rich men and women do not easily yield to injustice and bullying. Poor people do! Let the people be economically empowered in order to feed their families and get respect from their children. Let men and women find the means to live decently and they will stop selling themselves cheaply.
Young people, this could be the beginning for you and your children tomorrow. Stay in school, learn and understand the world around you! The teacher who teaches well plants a seed. The student who stays in school, learns and develops the skill for nation building is the one who harvests the bountiful resources of the land. This is the way it should be! Knowledge is power and in the political arena, a people succeed when they entrust power to knowledge. Power without knowledge is a very dangerous thing. Knowledge without power can still fertilise the minds of men and make them dream great dreams of future progress and prosperity.
This is our message to you our people—especially the young ones. Listen to us—the progressive forces. We who carry within our hearts the tragic history of our people—listen to us for once! We can build a nation together—one founded on brotherhood, equality and justice. It is not too late to trust us and to hope. It is said that the greatest darkness comes before dawn. You have seen this darkness that brought with it the harvest of the locusts and with it the misery of the people. Now the dawn of justice begins with you by our side. Let us together begin the march of the common people into a future with justice and liberty for all.
The above speech was delivered by Dr. Fahnbulleh to partisans of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy at a convention in 2005,