k-moses nagbeOp-ed 

The vexing questions on the national symbols of Liberia


By K-Moses Nagbe



THE IMMORTAL SHAKESPEARE CAME to mind recently, after reading a passionately written article appearing in Running Africa, a Liberian-owned electronic magazine. The article focused on the vexing question of the national symbols, which seem to link Liberia perpetually with America. There is the Liberian flag. There is Liberia’s pledge of allegiance. There is Liberia’s constitution.  According to the article, all these are simply minuscule replicas of America. Did the pioneers lack ingenuity?  Couldn’t they have done things a little better? As it was in the past, particularly at the start of the 1970s, when there was a loud call to revisit Liberian official symbols and statements, the coup days of the 1980s added more fuel. And now comes Millennium 2000.

WHILE IT MAY BE tenable for this call—explicit or implicit, loud or soft—to rise on the horizon of our common patrimony, it seems to me more profitable at this point of our history to look beyond our Star, to ourselves.


Pioneers and Destiny

AT THE START OF every institution or any organization, while excellence is no doubt uppermost in some, if not most, minds the need to make progress remains critical—meaning a life or death matter. A bunch of African Americans hounded by a largely insensitive Anglo-Saxon society needed to have a place called their own. When Elijah Johnson refused the deal with a British captain to plant a British flag on the soil of the fledgling colonies, a deal purportedly necessary to fend off anxious and bitter native Africans, Johnson was focusing on the call of destiny. Many years later, when Africa’s Kwame Nkrumah said, “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all other things shall be added unto you,” he was focusing on the call of destiny.

AND YET IN HUMAN affairs, there has often stood the paradox of love and the dilemma of history:  that desire to break away for the sake of freedom without successfully nipping off the trailing desire always to remember the history of one’s origin. Anyone scanning the history of a once victimized society or a once victimized group of people will find traces of its origin tied to some dominant group. For example, if we scan the history of the United States of America, its highways, its towns, its cities, etc., we are likely to find up to a thousand symbols and statements to remind us of that nation’s origin from Europe, particularly from Great Britain.

THE FACT THAT LIBERIA carries the symbols and statements of America is an inevitable attestation and a reaffirmation of the origin of that modern nation state. I take it that some nations are born of political turbulence; some, born of economic turbulence. Some of course are born of a combination of both. While either way there is a struggle, nations born of political turbulence are more likely to seek at all cost the effacing of traces of the heretofore dominant power. (We must remember that politics tends to top the chart of explosive human interactions.)  The desire to break completely from a dominant power has been true in the case of those countries, which have been under direct and intense colonial rule—e.g., Ghana, Nigeria, etc.

IN THE LIBERIAN CONTEXT, while the pioneers’ call for independence had a political urgency, the truth was that economic urgency was paramount. After all, with independence, Liberia as a nation (regardless of being a slim cluster of colonies at that time) would enjoy due deference from the British and the French who were engaged in commerce and trade on the Grain Coast. With the clout of independence, Liberia would make or dissolve contracts. It would complain to an international audience and most probably receive a hearing, even if not a redress.  Ironically, for covert or overt warning to international predators, the present national (and controversial) symbols and statements affirming the nation’s historical origin (namely the United States of America) became an asset rather than a liability.

IN ESSENCE, THROUGHOUT HUMAN history, pioneers have often lacked the luxury of time and therefore the tolerance of philosophical contemplations capable of needlessly stalling progress. On that note, anyone studying the evolution of Rhode Island, for example—yes, that state in the United States of America—will simply smile at the vicissitudes of humanity. Poor Roger Williams, the founder of that state, was ostracized for religious dissent.  In the founding days of the United States of America, anyone who professed democratic ideals became a pariah. Perhaps that was natural. With needless bickering and contentious rancor among the men and women coming to the New World, tolerating opposing views seemed dangerous because such views were likely to impede any major decision-making process. In that context, progress could decelerate and at worst tragedies could be unleashed. Hence, in the early days of America, democracy was put not on the back burner but in the fridge. Today in America, democracy has risen on the chart. Not only that. But it has become America’s commodity, as it were, to be exported to other lands.


Plagiarism and Adaptation

IT ALSO SEEMS TO me that the passing of time and the refinement of research tools and strategies have seriously impacted the focus on plagiarism, because ideas, words, and documents can nowadays be easily traced to specific individuals and institutions. (In passing, Maurice Isserman has an important article on plagiarism in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It makes good reading.)

As ideas and phrases and statements floated about in the world, long before the perfecting of transport and communication technology, such ideas, phrases, and statements were simply treasure-troves to be used and celebrated, as long as they furthered the course of human progress and decency, if not human peace and harmony. William Shakespeare is celebrated today as the singular most important writer in human history. Yet, records show how, without conspicuous source references, he copiously gleaned ideas from Greek and Roman history and civilization. The founders of America, who penned the celebrated Constitution of the United States of America, had, without conspicuous source references, copiously gleaned ideas from other European nations, thinkers, and writers. Here, one cannot easily leave out the French political philosopher Charles Louis Montesquieu now credited with thoughts on the separation of powers (the basis of liberal constitutions).

IN SUBSTANCE, WHAT WAS was done long before the perfecting of transport and communication technology needs to be assigned to adaptation, and not to plagiarism. Liberians need to treasure that and move forward. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we meet Cassius aflame with envy. Why is it that this one Caesar has become a household word? Why is it that he is ceaselessly celebrated? Then came the inevitable moment of truth: “The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” That is to say, in life humans have the genius and the capacity to either make or break themselves. There need not be divine intervention.  When we were released by God to take this earthly journey, we were endowed with talents to help us till, master, and own Mother Earth, no matter the circumstances we’d face from time to time.

BUT LET’S RETURN TO  the Liberia-America relationship. There have been great moments in the history of our nation when our kinship with America has been more an asset than a liability. Now, by this, I don’t seek to affirm that Liberia has received a spectacular store of benefits as we would have liked to see. But no doubt, we’ve received a share that usually splits our faces into happy halves. Remember the broad grin that crossed Liberian faces when they were called Les petit Americaine  (small Americans)? Remember the buoyancy we continue to feel, either overtly or covertly, when we pull US dollars out of our wallets, even though we inhabit the African continent? Remember the prestige we enjoy when our educational background is traced to the United States of America?

Of course, there is always that residue of the intangible benefit of prestige. Let us not always despair over the disquieting spots in our ties with America, even as naturally understandable as the need for despair may seem. Perhaps our relationship with America will continue to be a love-hate relationship. After all, this love-hate phenomenon is a part of human nature. We all desire things from loved ones—be they siblings, parents, spouses, children, or friends—but given particular circumstances, we may not get even half of what we desire from such relationships. Denouncing or renouncing any such relationship cannot eliminate the historical record of such relationships. For better or for worse, the history of Liberia (including what the pioneers did or did not do) is in its own category incomparable to that of other African nations. As long as free slaves came not from Europe but from America to found a modern nation-state, the historical trace will wend its way into the grove of our national life. Although we are no doubt Africans, we ironically are inextricably bound to the United States of America, even if it means simply in the context of the flag, allegiance, and the national constitution.

HUMAN WONDER IS NOT  always in the defects that humans have, but in what they do in spite of the defects to make their society or their world a comfortable and respectable place. As I see it, loving our country by broadening the horizon of education, by feeding the country our talents and skills, by showing common human decency, and by living each day, poring over practical ideas that will never turn us back to rancor and bloodshed goes beyond the uprooting of what Founders of the Nation, in their critical hour of desiring nationhood, set in place.

NOW, FOR THEIR PART, it is left with Americans—be they in the White House or in Congress— to think they are not obligated to bring relief to Liberians, both in Africa or in America. Their forebears linked themselves with our forebears through the Atlantic Slave Trade long ago. They, now in the better position, ought to lift us up significantly, for God’s sake! For example, what is this delay with granting respectable immigration status to law-abiding Liberians in the United States? What is wrong with providing Liberia the much-needed economic succor? I said, what is going on?


–From LIBERIA, WHAT ELSE, an anthology of my reflections on  Liberian independence and the struggle for sustainability.


Main Photo: K-Moses Nagbe


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