By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei,
Today June 15, 2015 marks the seventieth birth anniversary of Prof. Amos Sawyer, a man who has for over forty years played a leading role of a scholar, activist, leader, and mediator in Africa’s most troubling and sometimes complicated political crises.
Sawyer was born on June 15, 1945 in Sinoe County in Southeastern Liberia to a lower-middle class family. His parents meant well for the family and wanted to change the social status of the next generation of the family, thus they strove for young Sawyer to attend one of the best schools then in Southeastern Liberia, Cape Palmas High School. After Cape Palmas High School, all of Sawyers’ education financing were funded through scholarships gained through outstanding academic performances. This is just to give a brief background of the humble beginning from which, Prof. Amos Sawyer, one of the greatest Liberian of his generation started it all. The clear message from the life of Sawyer and probably many others around us is that one can change his own destiny and from a humble beginning, make far-reaching contributions to the advancement of society.
An attempt to write a full biographical sketch of an outstanding statesman like Amos Sawyer would require extensive research and probably end up producing thousands of pages. I therefore seek not to go on such an expensive route. This tribute in commemoration of his seventieth birth anniversary is an attempt to highlight his contributions to his dear country, Liberia. But again, one cannot discuss Sawyer’s meaningful contributions to academics, politics and conflict resolution by limiting the exposition to Liberia. It would be an incomplete discourse. Thus we consider Sawyer, not just as a Liberian statesman – as proud as we Liberians may be of his numerous achievements and contributions – we also share him with the rest of Africa as his services and ideas have had penetrating influences on African societies from civil society movements, to governments and regional organizations. This tribute therefore calls attention to Sawyer not in the limited role as former Head of State of Liberia, but as a distinguished African Statesman.
Originating from Southeastern Liberia, Prof. Amos Sawyer rose rapidly in educational attainment and acquired a PhD at a very young age in 1973. At the time he completed his PhD opportunities abound for him to join the existing system of amassing wealth and living large by endorsing the then political establishment. While many young people with good education would seek material advancement by submitting to the status quo, Sawyer rather chose what Robert Frost would call at that time the “The Road Not Taken”.
He chose to defy the system by working to transform his country into an inclusive and functional state at the service of its entire citizenry. Indeed, this road was risky, dark, and dangerous and was not often taken, but with courage, Sawyer and others thought through and navigated a way out for themselves, thus liberating the vast majority of Liberians aspiring for change in an inclusive polity.
In the early 1970s he joined others and founded the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), a Pan-African political organization aimed at supporting liberation movements in countries still struggling with vestiges of colonialism like Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau and South Africa under Apartheid. While MOJA worked locally and campaigned against the extractive economic policies and political dominance of a minority settler government in Liberia, they actively supported groups like the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in Guinea Bissau, South West African People Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia, and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in Mozambique. Sawyer was actively involved with the PAIGC and even visited their camps in Conakry, Guinea at the height of their struggle. As a result of their efforts, MOJA was invited at the independence declaration of Guinea Bissau. Sawyer’s advocacy continued throughout the 1970s until the popular struggle well thought-out and carried out by the progressive was short-changed by a military coup.
Sawyer supported the reform of the country and engaged the military with constitutional reforms. He was appointed by the Head of State Samuel K. Doe to chair the Constitutional Commission, a position he took thinking it was a grand opportunity to introduced real change through the constitution making process. His commitment to constitutional democracy and advocacy against excessive presidential powers landed him into troubles with the military government thus leading to his illegal imprisonment at the notorious Post-Stockade prison in Monrovia. Several years down in the early 2000s, Sawyer continued his role as an activists working with the civil society movement through the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE). CEDE’s campaign for democratic governance and peace in Liberia clashed with Charles Taylor’s penchant for strongman rule, autocracy and illegal accumulation of wealth.
This again led Sawyer into troubles with Taylor and his ragtag militias. CEDE’s offices were ransacked and staff including Sawyer were violently assaulted. Like Mark Twain the great litterateur said at his 70th birthday dinner: “I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way; by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else….I will offer here, as a sound maxim, this: That we can’t reach old age by another man’s road”, so has Sawyer pursued a scheme in which he had paid numerous prices, made sacrifices at the expense of his life on the road he chose – just in the pursuit of his values of free, inclusive, and democratic society. That is Sawyer the activist.
Sawyer has blended activism with scholarship for the most part. His passion has been teaching and he proudly calls himself a teacher whenever he is asked about his life profession. As an academic he had written extensively and taught Political Science, and has directed studies in the practice of governance and politics of peace-building and reconciliation at Universities in Liberia and the United States of America. There is something interesting about Sawyer’s role as an academic which has positioned him well in the field of governance and conflict resolution. That is his ability to blend political theories with practice. Thus, he is both a practitioner and a scholar of governance.
This has given him a strong anchorage performing extremely well in positions he has occupied over the last few years as Chairman of the Governance Commission of Liberia and as a member and Chair of the Panel of Eminent Persons of the African Peer Review Mechanism (2010 – 2013), an African Union affiliated organization working to foster the adoption of policies, standards and practices that lead to political stability, high economic growth, sustainable development and accelerated sub-regional and continental economic integration through sharing of experiences and reinforcement of successful and best practice. At the APRM Sawyer presided over or participated in country reviews of South Africa, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, and Kenya all of which are today doing fairly well in building good democratic cultures and attaining high economic growth.
At the Governance Commission, Sawyer has presided over mega public sector reform programs that have aligned, realigned and even created new institutions aimed at addressing governance and service delivery challenges in Liberia. He has an unshakable confidence that the reforms will lead to an efficient service delivery system once implemented, but he always cautions that “reform outcomes, particularly in a previously dysfunctional state are felt mostly in the long term and not the short term”.
He is currently engaged with two main reform projects that are to be Liberia’s largest postwar reform and expected to reshape power relations in Liberia significantly: constitutional reform and decentralization reform. Both are aimed at ensuring that Liberia adopts a system of local self-governance in which citizens are empowered at the local level for self-governance with active participation of civil society. Sawyer has committed his last few years of practice and scholarship to constitutional reform and governance reform in Liberia for which President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf referred to him as ‘the architect of governance reform in Liberia’.
This reference to him by the President is just one evidence that Sawyer has earned for himself the distinction of being the intellectual leader of postwar state building in Liberia. That is Sawyer the scholar and practitioner.
As the French saying goes ‘Noblesse Oblige’ (Nobility Obliges), Sawyer’s strive for his academic and political values led him to nobility and that nobility has continue to bring upon him more obligations for service to Africa. He has been called upon to lead political mediations during transition periods in some of Africa’s most crisis-affected countries. In his native Liberia, he was petitioned by his peers to lead the country’s most critical transition in the beginning of the country’s civil war in 1990.
Still thinking about his love for the classroom as lecturer, he reluctantly accepted to be President of the Interim Government of National Unity. He served in that position for four years, and during that period he focused more on making peace, mediating the warring factions, and promoting civil society’s participation in governance and the peace process.
His tenure as President was during a challenging moment as the revenue base was low and most of the country was controlled by rebel factions. He however skillfully worked with international actors to stabilize the economy, protect the civilian population and secure a respectable position for Liberia among the comity of nations, despite the ongoing war. It is perhaps because of such distinguished service at a critical time that the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) continue to call upon him to lead electoral observation missions during critical transitions in African countries.
These transitions are mostly electoral periods flamed with tensions with potentials to relapse into violence if not properly mediated. At these missions he assesses the political and security situations, engages and mediates the parties, engages the civil society movement and encourages all parties to work within the framework of the country’s law and other international laws. Successful missions led by Sawyer in recent times were in Mali in 2013 and Guinea Bissau in 2014. Both countries were in dire straits of political instability under military dominance (Guinea Bissau) and rebel incursion (Mali). In March and April 2015 Sawyer headed Electoral Observation Missions for the African Union in Nigeria and ECOWAS in Togo. His role as Head of Missions facilitated peaceful dialogues among previously aggrieved and fierce political opponents, electoral commissions and civil society thus paving ways for credible transitions and processes of inclusive politics even after elections. That is Sawyer the mediator and leader.
In 2011, he won two distinguished awards in his native Liberia and in Asia. In Liberia he was decorated with the country’s highest honor for the services rendered the country. Decorating Prof. Sawyer, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf referred to him as someone “consistent in principle, consistent in courage and consistent in commitment”. He was also awarded the Gusi Peace Prize (a prestigious Asian Peace award) ‘for his work in the promotion of democratic governance and socio-economic development through regional integration in Africa’. Today he has been awarded a gift of life by the Almighty God and had reached 70. It is this that we celebrate most, and wish to celebrate more of such gifts with this eminent son of Liberia and the whole Africa as we strive to continuously benefit from his wealth of experience and knowledge and his courage to see a stable, progressive, and democratic society in Africa, particularly his native Liberia, to which he has dedicated his life. For those of us that appreciate his contributions to society, share his values for a free, just and democratic society, and modeling our lives within his shadow, we must emulate his virtues of humility, hard work, and patience, unquenchable desire for knowledge and consistency with principles. This, I know is a tall order, but like he always say, “Ultimately, everything is possible once you have good intentions and work hard”.