By Nvasekie N. Konneh (September 8th 2005)
Note: Speech delivered by Nvasekie N. Konneh at the inauguration and installation program of the Minnesota Mandingo Association, in Minneapolis, Minnesota on August 27, 2005
To the outgoing President and members of his administration; Mr. President and Vice President elect of the Minnesota Mandingo Association; other elected officials; platform guests; brothers and sisters from far and near; I bring you fraternal greeting of peace and love from my family, brothers and sisters from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and other places. All of our brothers and sisters in these places wish you God’s blessing as we assemble here tonight for this important occasion.
Since my arrival yesterday, I have enjoyed your company and I can’t thank you enough for that. You have treated me like a true brother and I appreciate that very much. On behalf of all our people, I express thanks and appreciation for this invitation and warm hospitality you have accorded me.
As we proceed, I seek your indulgence and permission to speak on the topic, “Reconciliation is the way forward.” It’s my hope that whatever message passed on tonight will find an acceptable space in the minds and hearts of our people everywhere.
The race for the leadership of this illustrious organization, whatever it was, is over and a new chapter is opened. At the end of the whole exercise, someone had to win. It’s that result we are here tonight to validate and celebrate so that those given the mandate of the community can go ahead with the agenda that was sold to the people during the course of the electoral campaign. Those elected can only succeed with that agenda when all of you put your own weight behind them. You cannot sit on the fence and only be critics. You must get involved at every level to make sure the objective for which you have elected this new administration is carried out. At the same time, we will urge the new administration to seek the advice of the outgoing administration on the way forward.
The election of this new administration, coming on the eve of the general elections in our country, Liberia, is very important. It shows that even in our little communities, the concept of democracy is taking root. If we are practicing democracy in our community organizations, there’s no reason why we should not practice it on the national level. Just as you exercised your franchise in electing this new administration, the Liberian people will exercise their franchise on October 11, 2005, for a new leadership. Just as your election went peaceful, we all must pray and work so that the elections in Liberia will go peaceful and usher in a new era of peace and stability. But regardless of the election and regardless of who becomes the next Liberian president, he or she will have to prioritize reconciliation and even at that, we cannot truly reconcile if we cannot be tolerant of our diverse cultural and political differences. We must understand that tolerance for each other is the first step towards reconciliation.
No family or nation can go through fourteen years of fratricidal warfare and expect to come out of it unscathed. We accused and abused each other; we maimed and killed each other; and we did other terrible things to each other. Now, the question is: how do we resolve all these issues and move on as a nation? Some are calling for war crime trials and others are calling for reconciliation. The best approach from my vantage point is reconciliation. We all have done wrong to each other. We are all hurt and bitter.
Most Liberians supported the war from the beginning with the full knowledge that the so- called liberators were also killing the civilians, something the government of President Samuel Doe was accused of. The rebels killing of other civilians because of ethnicity and religion was justified by many Liberians on the premise that the government soldiers were killing other civilians of certain ethnic backgrounds. So what we have in Liberia was a war of many dimensions with one group’s brutal murderers being another group’s liberators. From all we have been hearing, people are only concerned with death that affected their own group and not those of others. Some have said they stopped supporting Charles Taylor when he killed their partisans. Some have said they stopped supporting Taylor when Jackson F. Doe, Gabriel Kpolleh, or Moses Duopue, or Elmer Johnson was killed. But between the start of the war and the killing of their allies, hundreds or thousands of people were killed. The lives of Jackson Doe, Gabriel Kpolleh, or Moses Duopue were no better than the lives of other people that were killed in the mosques, churches, and other parts of Liberia. On that note, how can we be sure that ordinary people who were killed factor in the analyses of those calling for war crime trials? These were ordinary people with no known recognition. Doesn’t it sound hypocritical today that some people will call for a war crime trial when their calculation of what constitutes war crime does not include those that they did not shear tears for during the early days of the war? So this was a war in which we all supported the wrong doings against each other. This being the case, we all must atone for our sins and forgive each other.
If we must move ahead, we must let go of the hurt feeling and the bitterness. We cannot do so if we are not tolerant of each other. We must create a situation where we must be allowed to vent our anger and frustration and at the end of the day, we must say to each other, I have forgiven you for whatever you might have done to me and please forgive me for whatever I might have done to you.
We are all one big, national family. We even have family ties across tribal and religious lines. My own background is one example of this. My grandmother, the mother of my father was a Mano from Gbei Tengbein in Nimba County. My late father was a direct nephew of the Mano and by extension I am a nephew of the Manos as well. In this regard, if a Mano man hurts me he hurts himself. And if I hurt a Mano man, I am hurting myself. That’s what makes it compelling that we must reconcile and move forward with national reconstruction with reconciliation as its foundation.
As we discuss the issue of reconciliation at the national level, let’s come down to our own community level. We have some issues that we all have been afraid to address for fear that we may further divide ourselves. These are issues we disagree on and discussing them have been a taboo because we don’t want people to know that we have a problem among ourselves. Traditionally, we are still together. When someone dies in our families, when someone is getting married, when we are having baby naming ceremonies, you see us come together. Our division is therefore political. We all profess to have the best interest of our community at heart, but we find it difficult to find a common ground to work together. So if we are to move forward to take our rightful place in the new Liberia, we have to be willing to talk about our differences. We have to develop the courage to sit together and harmonize our differences, be it political or otherwise. How can we want to talk to everybody about reconciliation when we have our own issues that we don’t want to talk about? Why should we be afraid of talking to each other? We need leaders that are willing to make those extra efforts in working for us. Leaders that are willing to make that extra sacrifice for reconciliation and unity in Liberia and particularly within our own community. That is the challenge for you and me.
Since the end of the ULIMO struggle the idea of reconciliation among the Mandingoes in and outside of Liberia has been on everyone’s mind but how to approach it has been the difficult part. Many initiatives in the past have failed to materialize as a result of intractable disagreements. Other factors of failure have been the weak leadership demonstrated by those entrusted with the responsibility to make things happen.
For the Mandingoes of Liberia, the ULIMO struggle was a bittersweet experience. While the Mandingoes in general applauded and supported the efforts of ULIMO, not everyone approved the way the leadership conducted the affairs of the organization. Those that opposed the leadership in any shape or form were ridiculed and called all sorts of names. They were labeled as “enemies of Mandingo progress.” Relatives and friends that have been bounded by religious and cultural ties over the years see themselves on opposite sides of this divide, and it is often acrimonious. People viewed each other with deep suspicion. Because of this, we have not been able to create the forum to talk about our issues and find a common ground. Often time we hear people saying we must reconcile our differences and unite. All the talk of reconciliation has been nothing but talk without any concrete action taken. Attempts have been made here and there but someone has ridiculed every one of those attempts. I don’t trust this person therefore I will not attend any reconciliation effort undertaken by him.
So what is preventing our own process of reconciliation is that we don’t trust each other, we don’t have patient to listen to each other, or we are too busy looking for money that we don’t want to spare any time to discuss about the important issues affecting us. We have heard so much complain about why we don’t want to come together but too little concrete action taken to make reconciliation a reality. For genuine reconciliation to take place, we all have to do something beyond talking. We have to show commitment if we truly believe in reconciliation. We have to work for it. If we don’t have the time we must support those who have the time.
There are some who have attempted to create such a forum and there are those who view everything with suspicion and will do anything to make sure no success is achieved. Whether or not anything was achieved, we must commend those that attempted in any shape and form to create the forum for reconciliation. One example of this was the Mandingo Reconciliation Conference held in Philadelphia and New York last year. The fact that it took place at all and some resolutions were concluded indicates some progress, however minimal it may be. Some documents were produced and those documents can always serve as a reference for future attempts at reconciliation. Those documents simply indicate that there are compelling reasons for reconciliation among us. All we have to do is to demonstrate the courage to overcome the past distrust of each other and unite for the future. We must exercise tolerance for each other’s views. There can be no reconciliation if we all define it from our own narrow perspectives. While we may consider our own version of the issues to be the only truth, we must also know that the next person has the right to hold on to his views as the only truth. The way we can arrive at the final truth acceptable to all is when we put all the facts on the table. That’s the way forward for us as a nation and community.
As of now, we have filed the necessary papers for setting up the Liberian Mandingo Legal Defense Fund (LMLDF), which came as a recommendation from the Reconciliation Conference held in Philadelphia and New York. The LMLDF will serve as a legal watchdog organization against ethnic and religious discrimination and challenge laws that unfairly disadvantage our people. We will encourage everyone to contribute to this fund.
So tonight, I challenge this new administration to not only talk about reconciliation but to do something about it. Join other forces to make the dream of reconciliation a reality in our community and within the entire Liberian nation. Have the courage to study the past. Appreciate the good things that were achieved, but also look at the failures and see why they happened. In every human endeavor, success and failure must be expected. While we must appreciate and celebrate the successes, we must also investigate our failures and know why they happened. That way we can better prepare for the future.
To the new president and members of his administration, please be advised that you are accountable to the people that voted you into office. I hope you will deliver on the promises you made to them so that at the end of the day, we all can celebrate not only a victory, but also a success that we all can be proud of. I wish you God’s blessing and good tiding as you move forward. Thank you all.
Nvasekie N. Konneh is a Liberian writer, and nine year veteran of the United States Navy with his last years in the navy on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower , an aircraft carrier based in Norfolk , Virginia . Nvasekie Konneh is the author of the book of poetry, “Going To War For America .” He’s working on his second book, “So Far Away On The Distant Sea .” He is also the Future Editor of the Limany Web Publication, www.limany.org . He can be reached at KonnLove@aol.com ; or Nvaskonn@netscape.net .