By Cherbo Geeplay
The pan-African progressive community is hugely grateful to Dr. Amos C. Sawyer for his contributions to Liberia’s development and his personal sacrifice as an activist, leader, professor, and public servant. Sawyer’s recent announcement to leave the political stage is indeed the end of an era, but it is also the beginning of another! It was a daunting task to write this tribute in honor of an esteemed pan-Africanist and statesman. Perhaps poets are not good prose writers.
“We can write the new chapters in a visual language whose prose and poetry will need no translation,” said Ernst Haas. Please forgive me if my attempt at prose here fails!
End of an Era
“I announce today my retirement from partisan politics in Liberia. I have been a member of the Liberian People’s Party since its founding by Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) in 1980 at MOJA’s Second Congress,” Sawyer said at a press release issued by his office last week. He added that he intends to continue his engagement as a senior scholar and citizen and will work alongside others to sustain peace and reconciliation in Liberia.
Sawyer together with his peers founded MOJA in the early 1970s – a pan-African agency aimed at supporting grassroots efforts in African countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, struggling with colonialism. MOJA diligently campaigned across the continent for a free Africa, and especially in Liberia, against the True Whig Party’s (TWP) colonial settler state and the hegemony that imposed the oligarchy. MOJA was involved with Amilcar Cabral and his African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), Namibia’s South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). Sources say “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 to the independence declaration of Guinea Bissau.”
Staring Down Sgt. Doe & Taylor’s Dictatorships
Sawyer has always been involved with political pluralism as a change agent in Africa, especially with Liberia’s reform efforts for sustainable development. Under what was meant to be a transitional government after Samuel K. Doe’s brutal seizure of power in 1980, Sawyer was invited to chair the Constitutional Commission to draft the new constitution for Liberia in 1986. But Doe’s dictatorship was unforgiving in its brutality – his penchant for carrying out summary executions and leading by fiat and decrees was becoming renowned across the world. It was at this point that Sawyer’s activism would meet head on with Doe’s tyranny; Sawyer, crying and protesting, was imprisoned at the notorious Post Stockade in Monrovia for questioning the dictator. However, the students he taught and mentored at the University rose up in defiance and opposed Doe, parading the military dictator’s empty casket in the streets and on the University campus. Doe, the “strongman” ego was so bruised by the non-violent act that he sent his soldiers to the campus to rape, beat and kill the students. These horrendous events took place on August 22, 1984, while Sawyer was in solitary confinement. The students demanded his immediate release, with the civic society also joining the uproar. They were resolute even in the face of bullets. National and international condemnations also poured in from all directions as Doe’s vicious tactics claimed the world’s attention. Doe, his so-called People’s Redemption Council and his brutal military dictatorship had no choice but to release the acclaimed University activist and professor.
Dr. Sawyer was also uncompromising when Charles Taylor was in power. He continued his work with conflict resolution and building peace, and founded the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE). CEDE’s profile grew as it sought to cater to the interests of the state and its people. Due to his progressive tendencies of advocacy and for asking too many questions, Sawyer yet again incurred the wrath of President Taylor, who was a former rebel leader and was chased out of the country by Taylor’s NPP-led government.
Sawyer returned to Liberia in the 1970s, armed with a doctorate. He shunned the traditional route taken by returning Liberian expats of working in a posh government office, instead taking up a teaching position at the University of Liberia, hoping to mold the minds of students. The civic and political education he imparted to budding Liberian students and his work with his progressive comrades during what was a de facto one-party state under the True Whig Party’s oligarchic regime would open the eyes of the downtrodden and ignite a civil discussion. MOJA and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia or PAL lead the charge for change. Sawyer has always been modest about his contributions to the state and to Africa, portraying his legacy principally as a school teacher. The truth is, he is an astute academic and global citizen and is known among both progressive militants and intellectuals. His legacy is also carved in stone because of his historic run for the mayorship of Monrovia in 1978. It shook the establishment and perhaps singularly ushered Liberia into a new era as a multi-party state.
The 1978 Mayoral Election: Legacy
That Amos Claudius Sawyer had embraced “activism with scholarship” is not surprising; Dr. Sawyer’s intellectual acumen is fascinating. But it is also his determination for systemic change through his activism that positioned him as a historical figure in Africa, and more so at home in Liberia. This can be seen in his historic 1977–78 run for mayor of Monrovia against Chu Chu Horton, the TWP government’s candidate. Here was the hegemonic 130-year old de facto one-party state, parading itself in foreign capitals as a democratic administration while holding a tight grip on power – a government that was unwilling to hold a mayoral election for just one city in the country. And here was Sawyer pushing to become the mayor of the largest city in the land – a push that saw the True Whig Party staring at defeat!
The currents of the 1978 election lit a critical fuse in the years that followed – times had changed and with them came a reckoning that dismantled the totalitarian state he was opposing through constant protests. The TWP had no answers to his candidacy, which not only set a nation free from tyranny but also established a true multi-party democracy, fought for and won by pan-African progressives, and which is taken for granted today.
Men like Sawyer and his peers, such as H. Boimah Fahbbulleh, Togbah Na Tipoteh, Bacchus Matthews, Chea Cheapo, Oscar Quiah, Dew Mason, Alaric Tokpa, Tiawon Gongloe, and many other pan-African progressive comrades and cadres whose names are too long to be mentioned here, spilled their blood and sweat for systemic change were martyred in their struggle Many men and women lost their lives, struggling against the tyrannical regime. Their efforts to defeat the colonial settler state and the military dictatorships from the 1930s to the 1990s can never be denied – they toiled to give the people their freedom and establish a multi-party democracy as a guarantor for a free and progressive society; their credentials can never be blemished by detractors bent on historical revisionism to soil one of history’s most glorious moments of sacrifice on the Mainland.
A Marathon Search for Peace with Charles Taylor
It is no secret that, throughout the 1990s, when Sawyer served as Liberia’s interim leader, he engaged in an exhausting marathon process to broker peace with Charles Taylor in an effort to find lasting solutions to the Liberian crisis. He was rebuffed by Taylor at every point, who had the biggest gun while holding a large portion of the country and its people hostage. After four years of effort, Sawyer finally gave up the quest to convince Taylor. With West African government resources, both human and capital, draining in Liberia, they were eager to put the Liberian crisis behind them. There were meetings in Bamako in November 1990, Lome in January 1991, and Yamoussoukro in June–October 1991. But the first seven peace conferences, including all four in Yamoussoukro, failed. In 1994, Sawyer gave up the interim presidency to step down as part of the peace process, and subsequently, Taylor was elected president in 1997.
In 2010, Amos C. Sawyer was in Manila in the Philippines to collect the prestigious Gusi Peace Prize. The prize received 1,490 nominations annually, from which only 10–15 recipients were named. It was indeed a laudable honor. That year, the erudite former interim president shared the stage with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The Manila-based foundation said that Sawyer “has led numerous missions on peacebuilding and elections observation and has been deeply involved in the strengthening of civil society and the building of African capacity to sustain institutions and processes of democratic governance.” Gusi Peace also paid a tribute to him “as a Member of the Panel of Eminent Persons of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), an affiliate of NEPAD. The Panel of Eminent Persons, at full strength, consists of seven distinguished Africans.” Sawyer, 76, was, at the time, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Africa Centre for Development, and Chair of the Liberian Governance Commission.
In 2011, the former interim president was accorded Liberia’s highest distinction – the Grand Cordon of the Knighthood of the Most Venerable Order of the Pioneers. In 2015, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) by the University of Liberia, and in 2017, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) by Indiana University. He earned a Master of Arts (MA) degree from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, United States, and an MA in Political Science in June 1970, after having completed a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in History & Government in December 1966 from the University of Liberia.
In 1992, Sawyer published The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenge, which explained the imperial presidency and the abuse of patrimonial powers with patronage and impunity. In his 2005 Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia, he argues for redeeming the fortunes of the state “within the context of new constitutional arrangements and governing institutions that differ markedly from those of the past.”
Cherbo Geeplay is an award-winning poet and General Secretary of the Progressive Action Front or PAF. He can be reached at email@example.com.