By: James Kokulo Fasuekoi (October 13th 2005)
"...Reconciliation is possible in Liberia in spite of deep tribal and sectional divisions caused by the war. Liberians generally are resilient, friendly, kindhearted and forgiving people. In fact, it is because of their kind and soft-heartedness that many like Taylor took great advantage of and indulged into wild abuses of human rights.....”
One daunting tasks the new Liberian government will have to wrestle with is the process of reconciliation. This process is as important as the disarmament of defunct warring factions carried out a year ago. And in order for Liberia to recover from the trauma of war as well as acquire genuine peace and happiness, it will require the full participation of every Liberian. Having passed the first test, (Disarmament), we are now left with the two key (RR) Reconciliation and Reconstruction. But for now, we will treat Reconciliation.
In fact, why are we discussing the second most important of the three? Reconciliation, like reconstruction, can't take place in a vacuum. The word usually comes into play following a quarrel, a dispute of a higher scale, such that results to disunity, physical destructions of lives and properties thereby prompting a healing process. A clear example of this is the civil upheaval that shriveled our economy and caused us to experience one of the worst dehumanized conditions on earth.
Fingers pointing and reprisal killings created hatred among people which spiraled to families and tribes and in turn fueled longstanding animosity that turned deadly. Such hatred caused heavy toll on innocent lives in a war that lasted more then a decade with an estimated deaths of quarter of a million. Like Rwanda, the irony of our society today is that most of our wars' survivors/victims remembered some of those who hurt or murdered their loved ones. Some survivors/victims have had to endure heartbreaking experiences such as clustering in over crowded communities and displaced centers with some of those who hurt them. Such are the ones that turned a healing and unification process more titanic.
Meanwhile, warlords and their associates who carried out a systematic mayhem against their countrymen remained at large. Whether the peoples of Liberia will eventually pardon killers who hacked to death thousands of people at the expense of Reconciliation remains a debate. Or whether the incoming government will resort to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission style carried out in Rwanda and South Africa remains another question. However, because of the broad nature of Reconciliation, this article intends to straightly focus on that word with emphasis on our cultures.
OUR INTERRELATIONS: HOW CLOSE WE ARE TO EACH OTHERS?
Before going further, let us first examine our intimacy and how we are bounded as a people. In the 70s and 80s when the Tolbert Government saw the need to boost its popular Self-Reliance and Rally Time projects as well as enhance the country's reunification process initiated by its predecessor, it solicited the help of the Liberian Cultural Ambassadors Dance Troupe. Soon the troupe sponsored then by Mr. Jallah K.K. Kamara drew up two dance dramas: The Self-Reliance better known as The Farming Ballet, a portrayal of self sufficiency in food production, and The National Unity, which promoted the president's One Nation, One People and One Destiny policy. The National Unity Ballet begins with an introduction by each member of the country's 16 ethnic tribes. Except for the individual representing the Congos or Americo-Liberians who speaks English, everyone speaks his or her local dialect against the backdrop of melodious folk music. What we discovered years later was amazing!
One of several inescapable and undeniable facts that linked all of the country's ethnic groups is the vernacular phonetic of the conjunction, BUT. It became cleared that all of us, the Khran, Mende, Vai, Lorma, Gola, Mandingo and the rest, all pronounced it 'Kei'. Any surprise? Not at all! Perhaps it could be for similar reasons that American Artist and wife to former US Ambassador to Liberia, Susan Hardy Trewdell best framed us in her war paintings: LIBERIANS: One People...One Nation...One Blood!
Here is another scenario. While visiting Ganta, Nimba County in 1986 with former Nimba County Senator, Hilary Flomo Gbunblee, a dispute between some Mandingoes and Gios claimed the attention of the senator. While everyone awaited the judgment to start, people spoke in various dialects. But when the case began, everyone including the Mandingoes spoke Gio. To my surprise, the Mandingoes spoke Gio fluently that it was difficulty to tell the Gio from the Mandingoes and the Mandingoes from the Gios. What transpired during those few moments was sufficient to convince anyone that besides belonging to one human family, the truth is that Liberians are one people and indivisible.
The Kwa speaking groups of southeastern Liberia which include the Sarpo, Khran, Kru, Bassa and Grebo all have many things in common. Our intimacy with other fellow beings doesn't end in Liberia. Let's take Sierra Leone for example. Mende which is the largest tribe in Sierra Leone is interlocked with several Liberian tribes such as Gbandi, Lorma, Kpelleh, Mandingo, Vai, Gola and Kissi among others. In his own reasoning, the former Sierra Leone Ambassador to Liberia, Hon. Wilfred Karnu assessed that Liberia and Sierra Leone are intertwined. He points out, "the peoples of both countries shared common languages and cultures and that both wars were fought in similar fashion." His observation no doubt hold true in that my war experiences with Kamajor bush hunters in his country years ago confirmed this thought.
In the summer of 1997, my then AP/BBC colleague Nyenati Allison and I were on a patrol with Kamajor guerrillas in Farroh, a small town about ten miles west of the Liberian border with Sierra Leone when we stumbled upon a scoop we had been waiting for. On our way to Zimmi, a fresh captured Kamajor key hold, we encountered a friendly ambush. And few seconds, there came retreating Kamajors also known as "Dosos" from the direction of Zimmi. One was critically injured while others suffered slight bullet wounds. The panic-stricken fighters told a horrible story in Mende about the severity of the Zimmi battle and doubted any hope of maintaining control over the town. Kamajor Commander, Eddie Massaley in a rather belated attempt to quench our curiosity, quickly halted the briefings and called us aside to give a report that differ the reality at hand. Like any smart loosing commander would do, he pretended all was well but unfortunately, we could not proceed any further because, according to him, he needed to take his wounded men for medical treatment. Even my colleague Nyenati, a Grebo, who couldn't understand the dialect even, knew the commander wasn't telling the truth. The more we pounded him with questions the more Massaley turned angrier with the excuse that the safety of him men counts. What he didn't know was that I had clearly understood the communications between him and his retreated fighters. Mr. Massaley and his boss, Mr. Sam Hinga Norman was surprised when The Associated Press and the BBC blasted full accounts of the event.
From there on young Mende "Dosos" were warned to keep communications at a minimal whenever we were around. The more I interacted with them, the more I realized the Mendes and their neighbors, for example, the Lormas, had so much in common than either would ever imagined. The Mendes refer to spoon as 'metai', the same way it's called in Lorma. Lizard is pronounced, 'kolo' by both tribes. Before we took off for the frontlines, Nyenati and I were often the last two to be showered in a ritual Kamajor ceremony after everyone has taken turns. In the middle of the village square in Jendema, they would circle a top full of a mixture of water and herbs in a tribal dance. The mixture is known in Mende as "zor" while it's called in Lorma as "zorgee." It's believed to deflect bullets or becloud them in the sight of their enemy. Infants in most Lorma settings are baptized with the common versions against bewitchment.
So you see, when one takes a deep look at the intricate nature of our tribal languages and cultures and how we are all knotted together, he or she cannot help, but come to appreciate how blessed we are. And yet we seem not to realize it. The question, why we have to fight and killed so many of our own reechoes in our minds. Then again, we have to accept the fact that a few greedy and selfish ones took advantage of the division caused by old animosity and corrupted the minds of the offended party to wage war. Despite our misfortunes or past differences, our natural and blood links are so powerful that we as a people cannot allow the vices of war to confine us.
IS RECONCILIATION FEASIBLE IN A COUNTRY TORN APART BY BITTER WAR?
Yes! Reconciliation is possible in Liberia in spite of deep tribal and sectional divisions caused by the war. Liberians generally are resilient, friendly, kindhearted and forgiving people. In fact, it is because of their kind and soft-heartedness that many like Taylor took great advantage of and indulged into wild abuses of human rights. Taylor's absence from the country has given way to tranquility and happiness and in some ways, buried the bitter memories of the crisis. In as much as Liberians would forgive a wicked man like Taylor, they certainly can make peace with their countrymen.
HOW AND WHO WILL INITIATE THE PROCESS?
If there is any thing that unified adversaries at least for a while during the war era, it was both culture and soccer. Sports and culture are recreation that served as a unifying force. Since everyone seems to love either or both, we could use the both as a means to persuade old foes into embracing each others. Culture for instance can be use as an instrument to motivate people into accepting each others. I make these suggestions based on past experiences. Here is another example of how a cultural drama or crusade impacted both young and the old especially, the armed youths across the "divide" to disarm.
In October 1996, a peace and disarmament drive intended to persuade fighters to lay down their weapons took a 50 member performing artists of Liberia Cry for Peace across the country shortly before the start of national disarmament. The exercise initiated by Liberia Cultural Ambassador, Julie Endee Tarpeh gained success and was widely appreciated by former fighters. Initially, many had though that members of the group, bulk of who were female dances and actresses would be kidnapped by the rebels who were still armed to the teeth. But it turned out to be the opposite. A re-enactment of a civil war drama by the group in the various counties forced tears from the eyes of many including the rebels.At the end of the play, about a dozen child soldiers and two adult fighters inspired by the drama turned in their AK-47s and Uzis to the group's leader. The weapons were in turn passed over to the ECOMOG escort. Then ECOMOG boss, Gen. Samuel Victor Marlu who too had worried about the artists' safety at the start of the tour expressed deep satisfaction and commended the group's peace initiative during his farewell remarks to the nation.
Prior to the start of the cultural tour, Liberia Cry for Peace enjoyed both financial and unflinching moral support from every sector of society. And when it was time for the group to represent Liberia at the USA Atlanta Olympic held in 1996, everyone wanted to be a part and lend support to the artists. Both warlords Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kromah contributed nearly hundred thousand US dollars excluding the fifty thousand dollar pledged by the transitional government Other contributors were Chief Tamba Taylor and Dr. George Boley.
The oneness and massive support shown from every corner were clear example of how our heritage could be turned into a motivating instrument to foster unity among our people. All we will need is to solicit the goodwill of seasoned Liberian musical and cultural groups and leaders such as Mr. Jallah K.K. Kamara, Peter 'Flomo' Ballah, Julie Endee Tarpeh, Ma Gbassay Kiazolu, Kekura Kamara and Zumana 'Karmo Soko' Fofana to name a few. They will get to work and recreate fascinating and peace-oriented ballets such as The National Unity, The Farming Ballet plus more that will carry peace messages to the people.
When the Portuguese in the 70s invaded the West African nation of Guinea and failed, former dictator Sekou Toure turned to the country's artists in his attempt to reestablish a sense of hope and mend the shattered loyalty created by the invasion. The Guinean famous Ballet de African (Ballet of Africa) in collaboration with the rest of the cultural troops in the country launched a solidarity and cultural dramatic campaigns aimed at reassuring the Guinean people and the world that indeed, the country remained undivided and prepared to face any would be invaders no matter where such invaders came from. Sekou Toure's strategy was successful and thereafter, he turned the Ballet de African into an image building and money making engine for the country.
On the other hand, zoes being the supreme leaders in rural societies and clans could serve as a major force in this endeavor. Besides their gift of wisdom and power, they have unlimited sway over their clans and regions. In the absence of the central government, traditional zoes are next in line and what they say, usually become law. For centuries, they have used their own method of conflict resolution and succeeded in settling major tribal disputes without government intervention. But what really can we attribute their success to? There's only one secret to me. The zoes, unlike our politicians treat matters devoid of selfish or personal interest.
That's how the zoes managed to break the impasse at the historic Nimba Peace Talks of 1989 held in Sanniquellie. With such a good track record, the new government could count on the goodwill of our zoes in the reconciliation process.
In getting the zoes involved, the new government through its Internal Affairs Ministry would first assemble all leading zoes of the country including famous names like old men Sekou Dudu and Jallah Lone, have them hang heads before making a group tour of the country. In the various counties, they would hold meetings with locals including low ranking zoes and later have open discussion on reconciliation involving the various tribes in that area.
Where will the money come from to fund a tour of musical and cultural artists and national zoes to execute this crucial part of the peace process? Well, the new government will be expected to underwrite the cost. If for obvious reasons, it's unable to provide the funds to take on this important challenge, we may have to reach outside agencies such as United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in order to achieve this goal. The Ministry of Information Cultural Affairs and Tourism could also launch a fund raising musical-cultural festival and proceeds would go towards this project. All that will be required of the new government is to provide a strong moral support.
The success of this endeavor is largely depended on the total participation of every segment of society and as such, we all must lend our moral and financial support to make it work .We must all get involve and take solace in a popular adage that says; ALL OF US OR NONE OF US! For no more will we Liberians allow our differences to confine us!
About the author:
James Fasuekoi is a Journalist and cultural Artist.
to the war, he worked for most of Liberia's leading independent dailies
reporter-photographer. He also worked as a stringer for The Associated
during the war. Mr. Fasuekoi presently resides at Whitehall,