As customary, a Liberian must mount the podium each year to address the nation on the occasion of Liberia’s Independence Anniversary. For this year, the chosen National Day Orator, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who had already been criticized in some quarters for not being critical on the myriad economic governance lapses of the George Weah government as she had done with his predecessor, surprised all and sundry when she delivered a Technical Knock Out speech that dwelt mainly on togetherness. Leaving no stone unturned in her truth-telling delivery, Madam Gbowee exposed the key reasons for divisiveness among Liberians, zooming on three main groups: the government, the opposition and the fence-sitters (those who care less about what happens in the country).
Speaking at the sparsely parked Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex, Madam Gbowee said: “One question in particular resonated with me and has stuck with me as I prepare my remarks. The question was: how can we be stronger together when our country is divided in three parts – the Ruling Position, the Opposition and the No Position – and each comes with rhetoric and hate messages that are worse than the war rhetoric?”
Starting with the group of fence-sitters which she labeled No Position group, Gbowee acknowledged that, though they make up the biggest group, yet they come with the mentality of the smallest minority.
“No Positions are the ones that suffer the most in our society. Their children are the key recipients of the messy education system. They are the ones who suffer the poor health care system. Justice for most No Positions is nonexistent. They live in abject poverty and can barely afford a meal a day. They are the everyday Esau’s: their political alliances and choices are never developmental driven but driven by stomach infrastructure. They fail repeatedly to look at the plans or even ask for plans from politicians. Rather, they take cash, t- shirts and bags of rice. I agree things are tough. Life is hard. People are hungry. But if we fail to ask the hard questions when we have the power, why are we surprised when we elect SGGs: “Steal, Grab and Go”.
“No Position has the “government must” and “that the people’s thing attitude”, and they refuse to get involved constructively and creatively in national issues, including issues affecting their daily lives. No Positions hold government responsible for everything including the garbage they throw out the windows when seated in public and private transport. The ‘No Position’ group feel that they are separate from politics and decisions. But this means they have allowed themselves be played like a game of tennis or a soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. By having no position, they tell themselves they are excused from the dilemma we face as a nation,” she averred.
Touching on the second group which she categorized under Opposition, Gbowee said, depending on which period in which one finds oneself, the opposition are a bunch of recycled politicians or wannabe politicians. She said the opposition usually claim to have all the answers for Liberia’s problems, including peace and reconciliation, yet they suffer from a severe case of amnesia because they refuse to acknowledge that they too have contributed to the national crisis.
“Opposition is often so desperate for power that they are willing to align with murderers, criminals, con artists and just about anyone to achieve their goals. One interesting thing about the opposition is that their enemies of yesterday can easily be friends of today and critics of yesterday can quickly become praise singers of today.
The Opposition, in most instances, operates from a place of intense irrationality with no room for common ground. The opposition is suspicious of every and any interaction with the ruling position, labelling anyone that interacts with the ruling position a “sell out” or a regime collaborator. This makes it difficult for politicians to interact across the divide and increases the level of deception and two-facedness in our daily political interaction.
The Opposition in many instances perpetuates “Us versus Them” rhetoric, increasing the division in our country through their words and actions. There is no space for collaboration and partnership to solve the people’s problems,” she noted.
The Government – Ruling Establishment
Rounding up her Oration, Gbowee spoke of the third group, calling them Ruling Position.
“They come into power with “Da Our Time” attitude, winner takes it all. The Ruling Position has a severe sense of entitlement, believing they have the right to a certain position and lifestyle. They have no room for criticism and anyone who holds views contrary to the agreed upon view is seen as the enemy.
The Ruling Position expects blind loyalty; which turns the story of the “Emperor with no clothes” into a reality. Leaders are fed a diet of unnecessary praises and lies by members of the Ruling Position. All for one purpose: jobs. Jobs that they are in most cases not qualified for. Political appointments within the Ruling Position have absolutely nothing to do with qualifications but rather a person’s ability to sing the political anthem of the day. “Pressure” in one case or “Gbeyama” in another case.
The Ruling Position gives rewards not on the basis on excellence but on the basis of who can denigrate their opponent the most on social media and other platforms. This creates a culture among our young people that competence and education are not necessary tools for ascending to any position.
The Ruling Position often has misplaced priorities. Their development agenda is nicely written on paper but implementation is basically their private projects. The Ruling Position, like the Opposition, also suffers from a severe case of amnesia, forgetting their actions and reactions when they were opposition.
For generations, we have lived in this vicious cycle of Opposition and Ruling Position. When Opposition becomes Ruling Position, too often they adopt the same practices that they used to critique. When the roles shift, the situation remains the same or are exacerbated. While Ruling Position and Opposition continue to argue about who is right, our country is gripped by many vices. Our young people are feeling hopeless. Drug addiction has taken over Liberia. Education is perceived as a mess by both sides of the divide. While Ruling Position and Opposition go at each other’s throats, our children’s futures are being mortgaged, natural resources are sold to those who have no development agenda for the Republic of Liberia. While these groups argue about ideology, Liberian women are raped, abused, maimed with no form of justice. Our country continues to lag behind our neighbors while these groups clash.
Fellow Liberians, the beauty of these three groups is that they’re not static and regardless of their positions, they all have to share a common space. The space called Liberia,” Gbowee said.
For Liberians to overcome division and pull the nation from its current lethargic state, Gbowee recommended three things from the three groups: transparency, truth and equality.
“Mr. President, members of the Legislature, the fight against corruption is not in words, it is in action. You must walk your talk. You cannot preach against corruption and then not declare your assets and keep it locked up. Show us what you came with so that in a few years when you’ve got two houses, we can know that you already had those resources in the bank.
Second, truth. Truth has evaded us in this country. We lie to gain prominence, to gain positions of authority. Let us stop lying. Truth will bring unity. From generation to generation, our leaders have been fooled by religious and traditional leaders. Bishops have become partisans. Pastors and Imams have become praise singers. Traditional leaders repeatedly twist our cultural practices to please a powerful few, giving unmerited traditional titles. It’s time for us to bring truth back into the national history.
Third, is the value of equality. Liberia is not a political party. Liberia is a nation for all Liberians. In order for us to move forward together, we must recognize that men as well as women, the blind, the physically challenged, and youth groups are equal parts of the society. Mr. President, I will address this to you directly. It is not acceptable for us to have only two women in cabinet. I, Leymah Roberta Gbowee, Nobel Laureate challenge any Liberian to tell me that the men in this country are smarter than the women, hence the men should be given prominence in jobs and elected position. I believe that it is high time that the women who fought through tears and blood from the founding of this country to the bringing of peace to this nation should be given positions of leadership based on their competence. As a self-declared feminist in chief, you are being called out to walk your talk. It’s time to stop the old boy’s network.
Finally, love for country above self. Liberia is our “Land of liberty”. The reality is that despite our differences, this is our home and we share a common duty to move Liberia forward by taking responsibility as civilians and not expecting government to take on the tasks that are in our own hands. A typical example could be taxi drivers putting bags in their cars to help passengers stop throwing rubbish in the streets. We, all 4.5 million of us are called to use our unique gifts and talents in service of Mother Liberia.”
In concluding her recommendations, Madam Gbowee provided the analogy of the straws and the broom.
“Fellow Liberians, a common symbol of unity in this country is the broom. Please allow me to invite three guests that I brought to join me on stage to help me illustrate this point. Let’s study the broom for a moment. A broom isn’t a broom before its tied together. Before being bound together, a broom is a collection of straws scattered with no defined purpose. The scattered straws remind me of the current state of three groups- the No Position, the Opposition and the Ruling Position. When the groups are separated and scattered from one another we are unable to work together to meet our common goals. We cannot be coordinated and we move in opposite directions from one another. To become a broom that cleans the house, the hundreds of tiny straws need to be held firmly together with a very strong cord at the top. Similarly, when the three groups come together, united by the cord of our common values: transparency, truth, equality and love for country, we turn an unproductive situation, an unproductive nation around.
When the three groups come together in service of our nation, we will have true peace. Let us remember that peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of the conditions that gives each person a purpose. Peace is all we have standing between our country’s development or sliding back. To have peace, to really have sustainable peace, as it is said in our national anthem, we must unite together through our common values and collective efforts. For we are truly stronger together.”
About the National Day Orator:
Leymah Gbowee is a widely known Liberian feminist and peace advocate who was instrumental in organizing nonviolent women marches that led to the signing of the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Liberia’s long-running civil war.
The National Day Orator is the founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. The Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa provides educational and leadership opportunities to girls, women and the youth in Liberia.
She is a founding member and Liberia Coordinator of the Women in Peace-building Network (WIPNET) of the West Africa Network for Peace-building (WANEP).
Madam Gbowee holds a Masters of Arts in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA), a Doctor of Laws (LLD) honoris causa from Rhodes University in South Africa and the University of Alberta in Canada, and a Doctor Honoris Causa in Specialty Management and Conflict Resolution from the Polytechnic University in Mozambique.
She was named in 2013 a Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice, a Visiting Transnational Fellow at the Center for Research on Women and Fellow in Residence at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. Leymah was honored as a flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. She is the mother of six children.