The purpose of this piece is two-fold.
First, I want to share my observations and comments about Dr. Emmanual T. Dolo’s response to Honorable Bai Gbala’s “Assertions about African Intellectuals in the Diaspora” (
A Response To Gbai Gbala’s Assertions about African Intellectuals in the Diaspora).
Second, I want to relate aspects of my observations and comments to two issues—how to arrest the physical and verbal violence and how to heal the wounds of the Civil War. For all practical purposes, in my opinion, these two issues top the formidable challenges that stand in the way of progress as we struggle to piece together a functioning and caring Liberian society.
Mr. Bai Gbala’s article about whether exiled Africans have the right to criticize conditions at home appeared in The Perspective Web Magazine on November 5, 2004 (Those Intellectuals …). First, let me share the little that I know about Hon. Bai Gbala. When Mr. Gbala served as Presidential Advisor particularly during the early days of President Doe’s administration, he made quite an impression on me whenever he appeared on television to make a statement. Not only was he articulate in his statements but also he appeared confident. More importantly, I found the aura of experience he exuded particularly admirable.
At the same time, I also learned that Mr. Gbala had been living in the United States for a long time prior to joining the Government of President Doe. Beyond that, I did not know the history of his going to the United States—whether it was forced or voluntary. Even now, I suppose because of recent events in Liberia, Mr. Gbala lives in the United States. My only contacts with him are electronic mails we exchanged and telephone conversations we had recently. We have never met before.
When I read Mr. Gbala’s article, two factors dictated my reaction of disappointment. First, my fond memories of him during the early days of President Doe had not faded. Second, I assumed it was obvious to all conscientious Liberians that the BBC Focus on Africa query that precipitated his article could not be wholly related to Liberia. Based on conversations I have had with numerous Liberians, I, on the whole, believe strongly that, whenever Liberians acquire citizenships in other countries, they do so as a matter of survival and not for reason of turning their backs on Liberia.
Moreover, I thought it was also apparent that a significant number of Liberians residing in the United States, for example, who have gone on to secure valuable properties did not plan to come to the United States. Unsafe political conditions in Liberia and the Civil War they engendered forced many Liberians to flee for their lives. These Liberians have gone on to secure the necessities of life in their respective places of refuge because of the relative stability they enjoy. While indeed there is no place like home, I do not believe that these Liberians have forgotten the specter of having to build and rebuild one home over and over and each time having to lose it to vandals and pillagers who not only make away with roofing, tiles, commodes, and anything they can lay their hands on but also have the temerity to sell the stolen properties to their real owners.
Against this background, when Mr. Gbala suggested that the intellectuals he described in his article “have correspondingly failed to fulfill the responsibility and obligation conditional to the enjoyment of the right of free speech to criticize,” meaning that they cannot sit abroad and question the conduct of political leaderships in their home countries, I felt strongly that he had violated not only me, but also many grieving Liberians who, in spite of the relative comfort they enjoy in refuge, struggle daily to cope with separation from the country they love so passionately.
Still further, I considered Mr. Gbala’s particular mention of “Those intellectuals who, when asked or told about returning to their homelands, ask in response, “What am I going back to that country for?” as, perhaps, an instance of not being aware that tears are not the only signs of crying. While such a response appears to some to mean that the respondent has severed ties and turned his/her back on Liberia, for example, others may suggest that such a response deserves to be heard with a “third ear,” an ear that seeks to go beyond what the respondent says by exploring why he/she responds in that way.
In view of the foregoing, when I read Mr. Gbala’s article, I was at a loss. My first question was: where does Mr. Gbala leave himself if he, without any caution, sides with stripping exiled African intellectuals of their rights to be a part of the national conversations in their homelands? Next, I said to myself, does acquiring the necessities of life amount to turning one’s back on one’s country? Is he, for example, equating my flight from Liberia to the United States for safety to a lack of concern for my country and unwillingness to return and make a contribution? Is he, in essence, blaming the victim?
Quite frankly, while a visceral reaction to Mr. Gbala’s article, though not warranted, may be understandable, I think that such a reaction should be contained and allowed to dissipate quietly rather than channeled into a public forum where, like Dr. Dolo’s, it has the potential to do more harm than good.
The issue is not how Mr. Gbala came across in his article. The important thing is how we who feel violated respond. I think it is perfectly legitimate for Dr. Dolo to raise issues about Mr. Gbala’s participation in policy formulations during his long public service in Liberia. In fact, I think that he may be right on the issues. However, it is not enough to be right.
The truth of the matter is that Dr. Dolo’s language in responding to Mr. Gbala’s article is bereft of sensitivity as well as civility. I wonder whether, with this kind of language, Dr. Dolo has the heart and mind to see Mr. Gbala as someone’s father, husband, brother, friend, a community leader, and a human being capable of loving and being loved, although, like all of us, he possesses his frailties?
If you want to know what I am up to with the preceding question, note that the friend Dr. Dolo consulted before writing his response described Mr. Bai Gbala’s ideas as “absurd.” From that point on Dr. Dolo launched his tirade by describing Mr. Gbala’s article as having “little or no intellectual value” and “misguided”. He went on to suggest that Mr. Gbala could be “deluded into thinking that he still has the power to muzzle people into silence” as he did during the Doe era.
Continuing with this line of language, Dr. Dolo described Mr. Gbala as not only being colossally arrogant but also needing to be awakened from “metaphorical slumber” and reminded that he is partly responsible for “the fate of Liberian scholars” and African intellectuals in exile. To him, Mr. Gbala “may lack the clarity, perhaps the critical expertise to decipher that rebuilding Liberia will take evidence-based best practices; that are by-products of empirically validated research, which intellectuals conduct to inform policymaking and spur good governance”.
Still further, Dr. Dolo believes that Bai Gbala did not have the requisite “acumen” for the role of presidential advisor. He, nauseatingly, describes Mr. Gbala as an opportunist and a masquerader who is trying to ‘reinvent” himself. To him, the only worthy invention of Mr. Bai Gbala is his article on decentralization, a topic to which Dr. Dolo wishes Mr. Gbala confines himself. With this kind of vitriol, am I out of order for asking whether, to Dr. Dolo, there is anything substantive left of Mr. Gbala’s being?
Obviously, this manner of flexing intellectual prowess leaves little room, if any, for a dialogue. However, I have no difficulty in cutting to the bone and agreeing with Dr. Dolo where his arguments hold water. In this respect, I vote with him on the point that “intellectual pursuits are worthy” but I do so, in Father Robert Tikpor’s words, “with a difference”. I believe that intellectual pursuits are worthy if they advance a noble cause. They must have as their goal the quest to inform and enhance human understanding and progress.
In my judgment, the language that I summarized above puts a human being in a box and rids him of the capacity for good. As such, I do not believe that the liberty to weave words brilliantly in order to belittle others is a manifestation or a true measure of intellectual ability. How could capitalizing on the failures of others and rendering them useless to society advance any noble cause? Should serving one’s country in a government that turns out to be repressive and undemocratic be a basis for forfeiting one’s God-given rights to grow and become better?
This fighting and offensive language aside, Dr. Dolo comes across as though all it takes to establish good governance firmly in Liberia is a cadre of intellectuals with a repertoire of “evidence-based best practices; that are by-products of empirically validated research”. If the answer to Liberia’s problems were that simple, I do not believe that the country would be in such dismal shape as it is today. Indeed Liberia, too, has its share of individuals with advanced degrees. As Liberia nears “rebuilding and redefining the contours of concrete skill sets needed to erect an infrastructure for a modernized society,” the need to recognize and understand that flesh and blood will be involved and that the process will not occur in a vacuum cannot be overemphasized.
Mr. Bai Gbala may have been associated with policies during the Doe administration that may have been partly responsible for the troubles in our country today. The wounds those troubles have created are deep and real and I, in no way, want to question their existence or diminish their effects. However, if calls to refrain from simplistic analysis of events in complex organizations, like a government, and, accordingly, apportion blame, are to be heeded, my expectation is that intellectuals must be the first to comply.
For this reason, I have indicated in the past and I do so now that, no matter what role Mr. Bai Gbala may have played in his capacity as presidential advisor to President Doe, he is still a human being with dignity. By tradition, not only is it proper to respect him because he is an elderly member of the Liberian Community but also it is proper to respect him for his long service to our country. More importantly, his rights are no different from ours. They must be protected.
Beyond respecting our elders, honoring those who have dedicated a significant part of their lives to serve our country, and protecting the rights of every Liberian, there are practical reasons for doing all of these particularly for those of us who want to use, in Dr. Dolo’s words, “evidence-based best practices; that are by-products of empirically validated research” to establish an enduring “infrastructure for a modernized society” that works for all Liberians.
First, the Manos of Nimba County have an adage which says, “Mat making begins on an old one”. Not only does this adage hold true for those who engage in enduring human enterprises but also intellectuals, particularly those who conduct “empirically validated research,” subscribe to it. No research is divorced from previous research. Similarly, in nation-building, extant knowledge is a resource and also a foundation for future progress. Unfortunately, there are those who treasure existing knowledge only when it advances personal academic or intellectual pursuits yet are quick to dismiss as spent and useless their fellow citizens who possess tremendous insights into the workings of government only because they were associated with failed governments.
Second, and, on a more personal level, Mr. Bai Gbala has friends, relatives, and a family. More importantly, he is a member of the Krahn ethnic group among whom he is respected and regarded. The family members, friends, relatives, and members of Mr. Gbala’s ethnic group have their own families, friends, relatives, etc. extending to a network of families, friends, and relatives that literally has no borders. It is this network of families, friends, and relatives that populates Liberia. It is intellectuals from within this network of friends, families, and relatives that we will draw upon to “erect an infrastructure for a modernized society”.
I believe that it is unthinkable to have these people internalize verbal violence perpetrated through the use of the kind of language I summed up in paragraphs 12, 13, and 14 above and expect them to fall in line tomorrow and accept “evidence-based best practices; that are by-products of empirically validated research” to build the Liberia we dream of. For this reason, it is critically important for “intellectuals” to discern the difference between exchanges that belittle and strip people of their dignity and conversations that inform and not only bring about progress but also help us to heal the deep wounds in our country.
The sensitivity I am calling for is particularly needed at this time because the once cordial relationship between the people of Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties was almost irreversibly destroyed as a result of events during the time of President Doe and the Civil War. Any son or daughter of Nimba County or Grand Gedeh County who possesses a full grasps of the issues between our people and, more importantly, cares about bridging the divide also understands that whatever any member of these two communities says is dissected and chronicled with potential repercussions for restoring the relationship. In this respect, I was particularly taken aback by the dearth of sensitivity in the tenor of Dr. Dolo’s article.
I write because I want Dr. Dolo, the “Oldman” (Hon. Bai Gbala), and I to live not only in a “free society” but also in a “responsible society”. Indeed we have a free society in Liberia where everyone is free to say and do anything without any regard for the consequences. Recently in Monrovia, for example, a driver dragged a policeman almost to his death for having stopped him for driving a vehicle without the proper license plate. About two weeks ago, an attempt by a private citizen to forcibly evict people from his land without going through the courts resulted in deaths and burning of churches and mosques in Monrovia. And just days after the church and mosque burnings, a policeman in Duala, Monrovia was doused with gasoline and set ablaze for having advised street gasoline vendors to stop the practice owing to safety concerns. These are just few examples of the things people say and do in Liberia with impunity.
In a nutshell, the road to succeeding in erecting “an infrastructure for a modernized society” in Liberia begins with us, particularly the intellectuals. Not only must our words be measured but also we must be judicious in avoiding needless exposures of the weaknesses of others. The tenor of our discourse must never be divorced from the context and nature of our social relationships. Our conversations, again, must inform and heal rather than divide and destroy.
True love for Liberia begins with the recognition that all Liberians want the same things: opportunities to raise a family and become productive members of a functioning and caring community. The healing needed to put us firmly on the road to building such a community requires a deeper and more meaningful conversation, one bereft of languages that demean the individual and excite his/her spirit to cause harm in words or in deeds.