By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei,
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 crisis has resigned from “partisan politics.”
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 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 Ph.D. at a very young age in 1973. At the time he completed his Ph.D. opportunities abounded for him to have joined the existing system of amassing wealth and living large by endorsing the then political establishment. While many young people with a 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, MOJA 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’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 introduce 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 activist 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 a 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 a certain peculiarity about Sawyer’s role as an academic which has positioned him well in the field of governance and conflict resolution, and 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 was previously engaged with two main reform projects that are Liberia’s largest postwar reform and are expected to in the coming years 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 the active participation of civil society. Sawyer has committed his last few years of practice and scholarship to constitutional reform and governance reform in Liberia.
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 at the beginning of the country’s civil war in 1990.
Still thinking about his love for the classroom as a 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 the 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 to 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’. It is this that we celebrate him most, as an eminent son of Liberia and the whole of 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 model 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 says, “Ultimately, everything is possible once you have good intentions and work hard”.
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 was 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 Liberians 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. This article was first published on June 15, 2015, by the Liberian Listener, to mark the 70th birth anniversary of Dr. Amos Sawyer. I was slightly edited to bring it up to date
Main Photo: Amos Sawyer /Alchetron