By Jackie Sayegh
I wrote this more than six years ago and I find that it is as relevant today as the day it was written. Happy Birthday, Liberia.
I happily turned to my daughter Chris and said, “Today is Liberia’s independence day”, to which she replied, “independence from which country?” That stopped me dead in my steps. Yes, independence from which country? Perhaps this day than should be called our National Day.
As a student of Professor J Pal Chadhuri, who taught Liberian history for many years at the University of Liberia, I am well aware that Liberia had to declare its independence in order to protect its borders from annexation by France and Britain. Yet if it was not a protectorate of the United States or any other major power of the time, surely effective occupation could have been the legitimate path to sovereignty?
Be as it may, although independent, our dependence on help as a nation cannot be denied. Here I am not really speaking of other types of help–as all countries need assistance in one manner or another–but about the sense of accomplishment that does not look to other countries for approval. Can a country then be free? Can a country be really free that depends on another country for its basic food supply? Its validation? Its benchmarks to progress? If a country is not going the way of madness or chaos as we have in many countries around the world but is instead progressing steadily as Liberia is, does it need to have all of its efforts scrutinized and commented upon?
Interestingly, my daughter brought home a document when her class was studying American history in 9th grade. As I read the document with her, I was struck by the rationale of the author. As he defended the US’ right to break away from England, Thomas Paine wrote “To know whether it be the interest of the continent to be independent, we need only ask this easy, simple question: Is it the interest of a man to be a boy all his life? The answer to one will be the answer to both… America, till now, could never be called a free country, because her legislation depended on the will of a man three thousand miles distant, whose interest was in opposition to ours, and who, by a single “no,” could forbid what law he pleased.” Of course, he was speaking of King George and the American fight for independence, but the question can be applied to any country that finds itself in this predicament of being dependent “Is it the interest of a man to be a boy all his life?
This beautifully worded argument for independence struck a chord as I read. Can we as Liberians be free in the truest sense if we continue to look to another country for validation? While it is true that countries depend on each other, Liberia’s dependence must be diminished. Our nation’s validation should come from within, not from outsiders with report cards and checkmarks to see if we have passed some kind of test. We must own our development agenda as well as our destiny.
As the Liberian educator Edward Wilmot Blyden wrote “If you are not yourself, if you surrender your personality, you have nothing left to give the world. You have no pleasure, no use, nothing which will attract and charm me, for by the suppression of your individuality, you lose your distinctive character.” Or as I like to tell my daughters, “If you follow in other’s footsteps, you leave no footprints of your own.”
True freedom lies in dependence on oneself and as Liberians, we must try to do so. Our ancestors knew this and although a small country, Liberia fought for its right to survive, and this we must never forget. Our freedom, whether it is symbolized in the words “independence” or “national” day, was won with blood, sweat, tears, and yes, deaths. This gives us a legitimacy that no power can question. To quote Franklin Roosevelt “In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.” And in this case, Liberians must stand for themselves. We must rise to the occasion, straighten our shoulders and get to work. We must always feel as Sir Walter Scott wrote in The Last Minstrel: “Breathes there the man with soul so dead / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land! If we have, then we must prove it so. Happy Birthday, Liberia.