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By Isaac Vah Tukpah, Jr. (April 3 2006)  

"...Ethnicity and ethnic identification can be transformed into positive cogs in the development of a national identity. However, we cannot induce the inter-generational hatred or prejudice as the impetus for our personal development and aggrandizement at the expense of diminishing the opportunities of those who are of other ethnic persuasions....”

Let’s stop pretending folks. If we think Country versus Congo is not an issue, we will be back in the time machine to 1980. Yes, the economic dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots is evident, but it is more an underlying dimension of the country versus congo rather than the primary reason for our current pitiful state of nation as some of my more educated brethren have postulated. The economic divide exists because the country and congo divide existed. If the congo man did not think himself superior to the indigenous man, he would not have subjugated him to indentured servant status for the majority of the life of the nation. The subjugation of the indigenes and basic exclusion from participation in the wealth and power of the nation combined with the continuous effort to maintain the status quo led to the destruction on our nation Obviously, wanting to sit at the boss man table but not given any opportunity to do so, force was the last resort to enact any change. With force came the coup, brutalities, senseless killings, and levels of corruption and impunity we had never seen before. We have to put the dirty laundry on the counter top and sort through them to determine what needs dry cleaning versus want needs to be washed and press versus what needs to be thrown out totally. We all know this is not solely an economic inequality issue. It goes beyond that. I know I have heard this statement so many times, “because that country ass got money now so he thinks he congo (or kwi) man? And that statement comes from both indigenous and Americo-Liberians. There are the indigenous haters who see one of their own being successful but not looking back to pick them up with him and then there is the congo hater who despises the fact that the country man thinks he’s his equal because he has education and money. On the flip side, I have heard statements line “no congo man can ever be president of Liberia again.” Where do we start? Well, I believe we have to open the forum for discussion. We have to lay our issues on the table, valid or not, for thorough examination, discussion, and testing. We have to realize that Liberia is for all of us and as rich as it is, if managed properly, we can all live in harmony. The congo people are not going anywhere and the plight of the indigenous Liberians have to be improved, whether by specific government programs or by the collective efforts of all Liberians.

Don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few Liberians on both sides of the divide who really want a Liberia of equality, one based on merit and opportunity devoid of nepotism, tribalism, classism, or marginalization of any particular group. However, as is typical in any society, the bad deeds tend to outweigh the good deeds and are more visible. There is no need for these dialogues to be acrimonious or hostile however they should be honest, intense, and direct. It is our inherent national responsibility to make every effort to eradicate this cancer from our midst by being more conscious of each other sensitivities, helping each other strive for a higher level of civilization and exposure, ensuring that quality education is every citizen’s right rather than a privilege, sharing our knowledge and understanding, and most importantly that the rule of law serves the purpose for every citizen and is not modified or customized based on position, power, or connections. We have to eliminate the radical thoughts and behavior that are spawned from ignorance or greed. Ethnicity and ethnic identification can be transformed into positive cogs in the development of a national identity. However, we cannot induce the inter-generational hatred or prejudice as the impetus for our personal development and aggrandizement at the expense of diminishing the opportunities of those who are of other ethnic persuasions.

Part of the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s responsibility should be to delve into the root causes of why people demonstrated certain behavior, carried out certain acts, or enabled certain activities to go on without any intervention. In a lot of cases, if Liberians had cared about each other or acted as their brother’s keeper, a lot of unnecessary deaths would have been prevented but because the target(s)/victim(s) in a lot of cases were not ethnically similar, there was no dissenting voice to prevent their demise. I have heard a lot of instances where lives were saved because of ethnic commonality and likewise where lives were lost because of ethnic dissimilarity. Now that we are in a period of peace, we have the opportunity to delve into such issues and make every effort to eliminate this cancer.

There has to be some deep, ingrained psychological issues at play here for a broke, semi-literate, unproductive, inarticulate, congo person(s) to look down upon and intimidate a well educated, upwardly mobile, highly productive country person. In the same token, I think it is incomprehensible how the indigene tends to feed into the false sense of congo superiority and consequently carries unnecessary baggage, insecurities, and negative emotions. We definitely need more than dialog and analysis to get over some of the complexes that exist. There needs to a complete transformation of our value system and our respect for our fellow men. There also exists the issue of “comfort.” A lot of times, because of a lack of common ground and the fear or reluctance to get to know each other, country and congo folks tend to function/behave abnormally or uncomfortably when they are out of their element and in the environs of others and to some extent avoid the company of each other. We need to release our mental limitations of association and similarities and deal with each other with basic respect, human decency, and on individual merit uninfluenced by tribe, shade of skin, acculturation, economic status, or lineage.

Another major fallout from the congo versus country dilemma is the lack of social consciousness for our fellow man. I believe that because there has been no overarching connectedness over time between the congo and the country and subsequently between the haves and the have-nots, majority of the multi-national concession deals that have been made have come with no overriding social benefits for the mass of Liberians who work for the muti-nationals and stand to benefit the least from their profits. Working conditions, basic employer responsibilities, basic employee rights, environmental concerns, and contributions to community development have not been a fundamental aspect of these contracts or a major concern of the Liberian negotiators because they are not affected by the absence of such provisions from these contracts. Going forward, it is my fervent hope that the GOL representatives and negotiators can focus on the inclusion of social benefit provisions for both local and foreign investor partners, especially for large scale investments. Given the high profit margin that these contracts tend to yield and the fact that labor is so cheap (and will remain cheap for a long time to come), Liberians need to negotiate for the ultimate benefit of Liberians and not simply because of the potential kickbacks or subcontracts that they or their cronies can benefit from such deals. It should be a conscious effort on the government’s part to ensure that our investment partners are fully knowledgeable of the inequalities that exist, its effort to bridge the divide, and its expectation that the investor partner will play an active role in helping facilitate our nation building process.

According to our president, “Unlike many privileged Liberians,…” she claims “…no American lineage.” Her “…grandparents were indigenous Liberians; the fourth was a German who married a rural market woman. That Grandfather was forced to leave the country when Liberia in loyalty to the United States declared war on Germany in 1914." Given her background, I believe the word “privileged” was used in the positive sense and not in the negatives sense as has been misconstrued by many. For me, privilege is not limited to economic benefits but extends to the fact that though her roots were predominantly humble and indigenous, she rose above the odds to what she is today and realizes that her status of education, financial worth, experience, and opportunity has far exceeded that of the average Liberian. I believe more Liberians should use her as an example of relegating your ethnic orientation to the background, focusing on self-development first, nation building second, and building diverse relationships. It is great to forge a cultural or cohort identity for positive reasons, like regional development, self-empowerment, community development, and other non-profit purposes. However, a lot of ethnic (including congo) groups and associations’ energies have been directed to funding activities not in the best interest of nation building or forging a cohesive national identity. It may be tough to legislate such activities but more conscientious tribal members should serve as national watchdogs to ensure that rhetoric of hate and divisiveness are not being spread in such forums.

As witnessed on the road to the presidential elections, Liberians are deeply divided on tribalistic and moral values. Even with the effort of the new government to strike some ethnic, gender, and age balance to its officials there is still significant criticism or in some cases optimism for the number of “congo” persons in the new administration. We have to bridge this divide and to do so, we must speak honestly, openly, freely, without prejudice or sycophancy and work together as one people with a common goal of national unity. We must take this new lease on our national life as an opportunity to deeply consider the issues that took us down the path of self-destruction and to establish a national plan of action to address them and pre-empt them. No longer can we be apathetic and consider the future of our country the “people’s thing” regardless of whether we are on the ground or in the diaspora. Each voice must be given the opportunity to be heard, the opportunity to grow, the opportunity to learn, and the opportunity to bridge the social and economic divides. The future of Liberia rests not with those who are educated, have great opportunities, or are economically viable, but it rests with those who are currently disenfranchised, unable to scratch a meager livelihood, the uneducated, the ex-combatants, the generation of dispossessed youths, those seriously psychologically afflicted by the years of war and hopelessness, basically the majority of our people. Only when we can begin to see tangible results of uplifting the underprivileged, only when they believe that they have a shareholder’s equity in the land, in the fruits of their labor, in the justice system, and in their communities can we begin to be comfortable in our small steps towards nation building.

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