The Final Bow: How does one announce the death of a great patriot?
By H. Boima Fahnbulleh Jr
They brought you home finally–colossus, man of vision and wit, philosopher of paradigms and concepts, leader of men, a fusion of the best and the brightest, a great and noble African, humble servant of your people and Republic–you have come home to rest forever in the bosom of the motherland and we who knew and followed you will now take our final bow!
How does one announce the death of a great patriot and stalwart fighter for social justice? How does one inform the people of this Africa that a fierce nationalist and passionate Pan-Africanist, a hero of many battles and an intellectual of sublime intelligence has left us forever? I am reminded of the words of Jose Marti on hearing of the death of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Latin America: ‘’You can’t speak with calm about a person who never knew calm; of Bolivar you can only speak from mountaintops, or amid thunder and lighting, or with a fistful of freedom in one hand and the corpse of tyranny at your feet.’’ Let the hills and mountains of our Black Republic echo the disheartening screams: Amos is no more!
In the valleys and villages of our country, in the hovels and shacks where those who only heard of this legend dwell, let the story be told of a humble man who felt for the people and lived his entire life thinking, dreaming and struggling for their progress. This man with so much courage, a leader of men, a humble fighter for his people’s freedom and advancement, a political tactician and strategist who combined political ideas, philosophical concepts, sociology and political economy to achieve a synthesis of pragmatism and praxis, and then placed all in the hands of young cadres for future battles that revolve around justice, liberty and equality has left us forever! Here was a man, the greatest of his contemporaries; the most brilliant of his colleagues; and the most decisive in the fight for justice but with the calculating genius of disarming the enemies with compromising gestures that did not erode his conviction. He was my friend, comrade and brother for fifty-one years in the struggle and now from afar, I bow in honour of his heroic memory!
The year was 1971 when our paths crossed to be forever entangled in the history of our Republic. He had travelled to Freetown, Sierra Leone to do research for his dissertation at Northwestern University in the United States. In Sierra Leone, he had to use the library and research facilities at Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone. I was a junior year student reading politics and philosophy and a noted student activist. As president of the Davidson Nicol Hall of residence, I had access to two guest rooms and surplus food on the high table every day. The comrades at Fourah Bay College informed me that there were two Liberian graduate students from the United States using the library. I went looking for them and found the two fellows standing before the Administrative Building. They were Amos Sawyer and Byron Tarr—both doctoral students in the United States. We introduced ourselves. I asked where they resided in Freetown and Amos replied that it was in a little hotel downtown and that they commuted to the campus of Fourah Bay College every morning. I told them that it was not necessary and that they could use one of the guest rooms in Davidson Nicol Hall and take their meals in the mornings, afternoons and evenings in the dining room used by students in my Hall. They accepted and transferred their things from the hotel downtown to the campus. This is how it all started, especially with Amos; the comradeship, the brotherhood in struggle with blood, tears and being witnesses together of the martyrdom of some of our gallant comrades!
On campus, Amos visited my room on several occasions and we spoke as if we had known each other for a long time. After his research work, he and Byron returned to the United States. I never heard from Byron but Amos sent a letter of thanks and appreciation which I still have in my library after fifty-one years. In that letter, he mentioned what he noticed about my interaction with my fellow students and concluded by saying that ‘’we must examine possibilities on our return to Liberia.’’ I understood him quite well. As for the students at Fourah Bay College, I knew what they told him as I was one of the leaders of the left-wing faction on campus and Secretary General of the Pan-African Nkrumahist Student Organization (PANSO). I wrote back, telling him that I was ready for any struggle regardless of the sacrifices!
We did consider ‘’possibilities’’ when we met again at the University of Liberia in 1978. Amos was my Chairman in the Department of Political Science. We shared the same office and in between lectures, we discussed the politics of liberation in the Third World. He was in MOJA and I joined the Organization as its stance on the politics of liberation was in sync with my ideas: In Angola, it was the MPLA that we endorsed not the tribal formations of FLNA and UNITA; in Mozambique, it was FRELIMO, not Renamo and other surrogates of apartheid South Africa; in Namibia, it was SWAPO; in South Africa, it was the ANC; and on the question of the African revolution, it was the NKrumahist approach of uncompromising opposition to racism, exploitation and lingering colonialism. It was in MOJA that I studied Amos at close quarters. He was unassuming but dignified; a good listener with a keen intellect. He was highly respected and revered by all the cadres and militants. I could see that he was a deep thinker; a giant in the body frame of an average individual; a courageous militant who did not shy away from danger and a fighter who stood aways in the forefront of militants and never behind them.
He went into the Mayoral campaign for Monrovia and I asked him why the futile exercise? He told me that the system had to be tested in order to see whether there were democratic organs in place for popular participation and the enfranchisement of the people. He campaigned everywhere, even in the luxurious corridors of the elite! I went with him to West Point and other slum communities where elements of the elite who supported him could not accompany us. I joked with him about the champagne radicals who wanted change from the stultifying grips of the True Whig Party but could not go into the hovels of the masses. He cautioned me about unity as against sectarianism. I understood and respected him as our leader who was determined to build a united front. He was also our teacher who led by his intellectual brilliance. Th Mayoral campaign was stopped by the government because of tension in the city. I had no doubt that he would have won and possibly led us into the presidential campaign that was slated for 1982!
The rice demonstration of April 14, 1979 endeared me to this courageous and selfless leader profoundly. On the eve in the darkness of night, he led our delegation from MOJA to the graveyard on Gurley Street to meet with the delegation from the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). The meeting was interesting for what it revealed about PAL. The leaders of PAL had called for the demonstration and our delegation wanted to know about preparations and the itinerary of the march. Amos, calm and self-assured, asked about the demonstration going awry and the means at the disposal of the leadership of PAL in case of any eventuality. I knew Amos and understood his query. This man was a deep thinker and a revolutionary par excellence. The PAL leadership told us then that it had bought medical alcohol and plaster to cover superficial wounds. Amos said then that the reaction of the authorities could be serious as any confrontation would signal a major challenge to the True Whig Party in the contemporary era. The PAL leadership seemed not to be aware of any impending disaster and said as much. Amos said that I would be MOJA’s point man and that our militants would participate in the demonstration in solidarity. We left the meeting and walked away in silence.
When we got into Amos’ car he only asked ‘’Bo?’’ This was a loaded exclamation, his way of expressing his innermost doubts. He knew the consequences of a confrontation with the True Whig Party in an era of Africa’s resolve to deal with the intransigence of colonialism by armed struggles. He was gifted in perspicacity and no matter his doubts, he was aware of the logic of history being a student of Fanon and the Algerian revolution. My retort to him was: ‘’Those PAL fellows are on a suicide mission.’’ Amos said nothing as we drove away. I knew the leader was thinking for us and at the end, he would lead us in the right direction. Against this background and with Amos at the office of MOJA on the morning of April 14, 1979, I left for the headquarters of PAL as instructed by him after taking a slight bow and listening to his caution: ‘’Bo, be careful.’’ I promised the leader that I would be and headed for the office of PAL on the morning of April 14, 1979. I had no fear as I knew that our leader was in the office, thinking and analyzing.
I returned to the office an hour later to brief Amos. I told him what I had observed. He invited me to drive with him to his place in Sinkor to get some documents and be back at the office before noon. I knew he had many things on his mind and the drive to his house would allow him to get my reaction to some of the nagging issues. We arrived at his house and he sent his loyal house help (Benjamin) out to get some soft drinks. I knew Amos drank beer but he had sent for only soft drinks, no doubt in deference to me as a teetotaller. The drinks came and I joked that we were possibly having our last drinks on earth. He sniggered as was his way when he was in a pensive mood. We drank quietly for a minute and then from afar, we heard the blare of a siren. The leader looked at me and ordered: ‘’Bo, time to go.’’ We got into his car, leaving Benjamin starring at us with a look of sadness and incomprehension on his face. As Amos turned the car onto the main thoroughfare, we saw an ambulance speeding on three tires on its way to the main hospital and instinctively the leader followed it.
We got to the main emergency entrance and noticed the removal of a badly wounded young man from the ambulance. He had been shot in the left eye. Amos got down from the car and some health workers ran to him. He turned to see if I was coming out and ordered that I sit in the car. My leader had spoken and so I remained in the car. The health workers told him that the young man was the first fatality but there were many wounded from gun shots already in the hospital. Amos got into the car and we drove back to the office on Ashmun Street in absolute quietude. There was no air conditioning in the car and as we drove around the headquarters of PAL, we could smell carbide and heard the staccato of machine guns! I was getting anxious and exclaimed: ‘‘They are going to kill us all and we have no guns to fight back!’’ Amos said nothing as he drove on in deep silence. We reached the office but there were only two cadres around. The rest of the militants and cadres had gone to join the demonstration when they saw the multitude moving in the direction of the office of PAL. It was then that a young man ran to Amos and told him that thousands of people were heading for town but had been blocked by the security forces from proceeding. The situation was tense the young man said and there could be a massacre!
Amos, his courage showing through his piercing eyes, told me that he was going across the Bridge where the people had been stopped and that I should remain at the office. In the heat of battle, one does not question the judgement of a brave and decisive leader. I stayed behind and Amos drove away. It was within an hour that another young man came running to the office. He told the story of how Amos had been stopped at the checkpoint by the security forces but that he was determined to get into the middle of the crowd on the other side and talk to the people. There had developed a standoff and the people who recognized Amos were screaming for him to be let through. The security forces were determined to keep him from the people but our leader was determined to get across. At that moment, with tension rising and a defiant people determined to reach into town to make history or be martyred in the process, some sturdy men, their shirts drenched in sweat and their bulging biceps reflecting their anger, pain and tension, told Amos to get back into his car which he did. The men, vanguard of the legions that were coming into town lifted Amos’ car from the street onto the wide sidewalk and he drove to meet his people!
I listened to the young man with joy and satisfaction although anxious. This was the Amos I knew, a courageous fighter and a leader of men. I murmured to myself: ‘’Only a leader like Amos would do such; going to the people in a time of danger, to reassure them; a bonding of comradeship and a message of standing together! My admiration grew for this freedom fighter, a man of ideas and of immense strength; one with whom I could go to the barricades any day and anytime! In all serious battles, especially revolutionary battles, men follow brave leaders, not the knavish rascals who are too cowardly to put their lives on the line because they want to survive and inherit power! Men of courage and commitment must be led by leaders of infinite decisiveness, revolutionary zeal and superior intelligence! Here are the defining characteristics of that noble African, Amos C. Sawyer—a lion made in the image of man; a leader who sacrifices and a genius of the highest genre!!
After the massacre of the people’s children on April 14 1979, the authorities threw us in dingy cells to await our capitulation or execution as examples to those who wanted to question the historical lies of exploitation and class dominance. We were rounded up by the dozens, cadres and militants from the length and breadth of our country and dumped in overcrowded prisons anywhere space could be found. The indictment came the next week—treason! We went to Court and our young lawyer, Counsellor Emmanuel Berry put up a spirited defence which annoyed the Solicitor General. The Judge, a beauty with brains—Emma Shannon Walser—appeared sympathetic to the young men who were prisoners. There was a further uproar and the trial was adjourned. At the entrance of the Court while we were being ushered into the police vans, I noticed a young brother who knew Amos very well. I raised a clenched fist to him and the people around shouted: ‘’All power to the people!’’ I settled in the van and murmured: ‘’That was for you Amos!’’ In my cell that night, I thought of Amos and knew that he would not be dispirited but incentivized to seek our escape from the gallows. I knew the authorities would not harm him as he was feared and respected by them. It was obvious that he was outside working as usual and then a hymn that my late mother loved so well came to my mind and I whispered about him:
Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives all
fear is gone;
Because I know
He holds the future
And life is worth
just because He lives.
We were released subsequently and Amos came to see me. He joked heartily that I had put on weight and that maybe the prison rest was necessary. I knew when the leader was teasing and laughed uncontrollably, telling him that he had sent tubs of food to the prison to fatten us for the slaughter. We went into the future together, lecturing and discussing in our respective classes at the University of Liberia. A year later, there was the coup d’etat on April 12, 1980. I was called to serve as Minister of Education and went to see Amos. The leader cautioned me that this was the military and that I should be careful. I understood and went about my work while still lecturing at the University free of charge. An event occurred a week later when Amos was called by the new military leader and I was around. In Amos’ presence, some soldiers brought in two former officials of the True Whig Party who had been stripped naked and were clutching their clothes forlornly in trembling hands. Amos screamed: ‘’This is not the way. This is not how you treat human beings.’’ I saw that he was disturbed greatly by the spectacle and whispered to him: ‘We have to be careful Bo. These are military men that we do not know. You cautioned me few days ago.’’ Amos left the palaver hut behind the Executive Mansion and never went to see the military leader again until two years later when he was called to be the Chairman of the Constitutional Drafting Committee.
In 1984, the military authorities arrested him for planning a ‘’socialist coup.’’ It was obvious to everyone that this was a barefaced lie, spewed by unconscionable men to keep the leader out of the pending elections for the presidency. The students of the University of Liberia who saw through the childish lie protested but were crushed by the military authorities. I was manhandled before the University together with Brothers Matthew Jaye (later Senator from River Gee) and Dennis Kaine. We were dragged out of my car on our way to my house in Sinkor, hit and pushed around. We were released later that day. Amos in prison heard of our ordeal and sent his regrets. I sent back and asked him what was to be done. He instructed me to return to Europe where I was living in exile and contact brothers for the registration of the Party—LPP. I followed his instructions and delivered his message. The leader was later released from prison and from exile in France, I sent him my fraternal greetings and expression of solidarity! LPP, together with the UPP which had evolved from PAL were banned by the military from contesting the pending elections for what the military fascists and their civilian henchmen labelled as ‘’having socialist tendencies,’’ the exact platitude spewed out by the True Whig Party in years gone by. The lesson was obvious to many of us in exile: in the face of tyranny, it is futile to raise clenched fists and shout slogans and battle cries! This is a recipe for suicide!! When the iron is red hot on the anvil, it is time to strike!! Tyranny only understands the logic of its dominance. This is the lesson of history!!
In November 1985, the forces struck. They were unsuccessful and the tyranny bathed the Republic in blood and tears! In the 1990, the uprising began in earnest. I met Amos in Accra and told him that ECOWAS was putting together a peacekeeping force and I had suggested to some leaders of ECOWAS that he should lead an interim government as he was a unifier. The leader, this giant of courage and exemplary bravery, looked me in the eyes and opined: ‘’Bo, I was not made by God to be a political leader.’’ He was serious about this position and I retorted: ‘’Bo, this is not the way. God made no man to be a leader. It is history that imposes obligations on us all.’’ The leader finally accepted and became interim President. I had to leave him in Monrovia two years into the interim presidency as my little one was dying of cancer in London. As soon as the little one gave up the ghost and went to sleep among the dead, the first call I received came from Amos. His message was touching: ‘’Bo, the little one is resting now. Take heart and embrace the sister and the other kids for me.’’ I thanked the leader and he handed the phone to Byron Tarr who said: ‘’I have been there Boima and know how you feel.’’ It was twenty-four years since I met these two fellows at Fourah Bay College and now, in the darkness of my sorrow and grief, they were together again, offering me condolences.
One last episode that put this Olympian on the pedestal of a superhuman being that must be told for a thousand years and will eventually bestow immortality on his iconic personality and that has to do with the attack on Monrovia in 1992. The hostile forces had surrounded Monrovia and the ECOMOG troops were under pressure and retreating. The ECOMOG commander, the gallant General Olurin of Nigeria, with a rifle in his hands and combat gear on him rushed to the Ducor Palace Hotel where Amos had his residence as interim President. The General told him that things were difficult and that his troops could not hold on for long. His advice to Amos was that he be escorted to an ECOMOG boat to sail out of Liberia to safety. Our leader looked at him, the passion in his eyes, the undaunted defiance in his voice and said: ‘’General, I will stay here in this city with my people. If it comes to the final hour, we will fight and all go down together. I cannot leave the mothers, babies and stalwart men and sail away to safety. I will be here until the final battle around this derelict hotel.’’ General Olurin got up, saluted our leader and went out to mobilise his forces. This resulted in the crushing defeat of the hostile forces and the willingness of their leaders to resign themselves to a compromise that would lead to elections.
Hasta la Victoria Siempre, Amos! We will follow your teachings and remarkable example. The people’s cause you championed well. They will make history Amos, they certainly will after living through the betrayal and cynicism of exploiting groups and classes. Accept this my final bow leader with a hymn of battle from another people in a distant land:
The people’s flag is the deepest red.
we‘ll keep the red flag flying here.
Well done Amos for the sacrifices and solidarity in the struggle!
May the revolutionary soul of this farsighted and brilliant leader rest in peace