By Amos Sawyer
Today we say farewell to Professor Dr. Patrick Lawrence Nimene Seyon, a distinguished Liberian public intellectual and progressive activist. Comfort and I and our family would like to convey to you, Barbara, his spouse; to Tuan, Juah and Marena his children; and to the other members of his family our condolences for his loss and to say to Barbara, thank you for taking good care of him and making him happy, especially during the declining years of his life. May God richly reward you all.
Patrick Seyon was wholly committed to the development of Liberia through the development of human resource capacity and the protection and promotion of democratic freedoms and good governance. His professional life was devoted to the pursuit of academic excellence, especially in the areas of higher education and professional training.
His preoccupation was working to make the University of Liberia a center of excellence in higher education and a crucible within which the socio-economic development of Liberia would be imagined and designed, and the required skills for development acquired or nourished.
For Patrick, the University of Liberia was a near-sacred venue for productive contestation, recognizing that knowledge can hardly be generated without productive contestation which brings out the best each of us has to offer our society. This view reinforced his commitment not only to the pursuit of high-quality scholarship but also democratic freedoms and accountable governance. And this is why Patrick Seyon was never among those at the University of Liberia who valued job security over and above the pursuit of academic excellence, and the quest for democratic freedom and good governance in the larger Liberian society.
His commitment to academic excellence through productive contestation was not always appreciated by some of his colleagues who were often ready to accept lower standards. He demanded high quality performance of students as well as colleagues. He would engage colleagues who consistently underperformed, sometimes writing unsolicited critiques of their scholarly works, including their master theses and doctorate dissertations. Needless to say, to their annoyance, to put it mildly.
But Patrick was equally hard on himself, always striving to do better as a professional, always striving to uphold the values he believed in. Though a full-time administrator with a whole lot of work on his plate, Patrick found time to participate in most of the major workshops, seminars and conferences held by the University—and not in a ceremonial manner. He presented papers, served as a discussant, and engaged actively in drafting and reviewing reports. He was an active member of the University of Liberia Teachers Association and of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Research.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, and Patrick L.N. Seyon were the leaders of the team of academics, education planners and technical staff that shaped the University of Liberia into an institution of higher learning that supported the socio-economic development of Liberia and put the University in good standing to become the incubator of ideas, visions and skills for the development of 21st century Liberia.
Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman was President of the University. Patrick served as Director of Planning and Development and later as Vice President for Administration. Mary provided the broad vision of where the University needed to go and Patrick and the rest of us sought to capture and concretize that vision. During this period, Patrick supervised the expansion of facilities of the University from the Capitol Hill campus to the main campus at Fendall.
The University of Liberia became a major partner of the Government of Liberia in the effort to design and implement a range of development programs. One of these programs was in the area of decentralization and rural development. Patrick was designated to lead the university’s involvement with the government in the rural development and decentralization initiative which was headed by Dr. Cyril Bright. The university was preparing to train officials and other functionaries of local government as part of the decentralization program and to development measures for the monitoring and evaluation of the decentralization and rural development initiatives. I was privileged to serve as one of Patrick’s associates in this assignment.
I recall Patrick’s enthusiasm about decentralization and its potential to increase participation, accountability and transparency in the governance of Liberia. I recall how he pushed to get the University on every major committee involved with this initiative. I further recall our many conversations about the revolutionary change decentralization would trigger in Liberia. Unfortunately, the implementation of the initiative fell behind schedule and was affected by the 1980 coup. It was only in 2005 that the government began to redesign a decentralization program which is now being implemented spasmodically.
Patrick’s quest for democratic and accountable governance in Liberia predated his involvement, as a university staff, in the government’s decentralization and rural development initiative of the late 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, Patrick wrote and published several commentaries on the flawed institutions and processes of governance in Liberia. He often said that Albert Porte was his role model, and like Porte, he was a voice for constitutional rule and social justice.
One of his celebrated essays was an open letter to Bishop Bennie Warner, written in 1977 during the controversy surrounding President Tolbert’s nomination of Bishop Warner to become Vice President of Liberia following the death of Vice President James E. Greene. Bishop Warner insisted on continuing to hold the position of Bishop of the United Methodist Church while serving as Vice President of Liberia. Patrick did not join the chorus calling on the Bishop to resign his position in the United Methodist Church—as did many others, including your humble servant. Instead, he exacted of the Bishop a contract with the Liberian people—a contract that would contain a scorecard that would be used to grade and hold the Bishop accountable for his performance as Vice President. Patrick was intent on subjecting Vice President Warner to the same level of scrutiny he had exacted of his colleagues and students at the University of Liberia and imposed on himself.
During the April 14 1979 Uprising, he worked unceasingly with Professor Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, President of the University and other faculty and staff members to protect the University as a site of dialogue in the search for constructive solutions without compromising the integrity of the institution or the wellbeing of its students and staff. His was a major voice calling for a full and independent investigation of the crisis.
His advocacy for accountability and constitutional rule was not subdued by the military coup of 1980. He continued, remaining true to his ideals and his commitment to constitutional rule in Liberia. He was an invaluable member of the Constitution Commission set up after the coup to design a new constitution for Liberia. Along with other members of the Commission, Professor Seyon fought hard to protect the integrity of the commission’s work, refusing to make opportunistic changes to the draft constitution to please the military leader or promote personal ambitions.
In 1981, he was arrested and torture by the military government, leaving him with scars which affected him for the rest of his life. Yet he never wavered or harbored grudges or assumed a sense of entitlement. He moved on, working for the cause of justice, the rule of law and good governance in Liberia.
When many of us were forced to leave Liberia to save our lives, Patrick was among those of us in the United States who formed the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL). He was elected the Chairman of the Board of Director of the organization and spent many hours meeting officials of the State Department, the Congress, civil society groups, and various Liberian community organizations in the United States. In ACDL, Patrick consistently took the position of advocacy for democratic governance and constitutional rule in Liberia without resort to the use of violence. He was the leader of those of us who stoutly and consistently refused to support Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia as the way forward.
During the formation of the Interim Government of National Unity in late 1990, Professor Seyon was appointed President of the University of Liberia. At that time, he was the most senior, experienced, and in the tradition of the University of Liberia, the most appropriate choice. He served in that capacity for a few years, restoring an environment for learning and rebuilding academic foundations which had been eroded.
20th century Liberia has not had a more selfless, dedicated and commit public intellectual than Professor Seyon. In the pantheon of leaders of higher education in Liberia, the name of Professor Dr. Patrick Lawrence Nimene Seyon will rank among the best. I am sure the University of Liberia will honor his memory appropriately in due course.
Thank you, Patrick, for all your efforts to make Liberia better. May you rest in peace, my friend, and may light perpetual shine on you.
Main Photo: Professor Dr. Patrick Lawrence Nimene Seyon