Reflecting On My Interaction With Past Liberian Students’ Leaders/Activists

By Atty. Philip N. Wesseh(PNW)

One of the things that every journalist, especially those who daily glean news for publication or broadcast is to always develop  strong contacts with certain groups, organizations and individuals. One of the groups over the year that I interacted with as a reporter and editor with the DAILY OBSERVER in the 80’s and also after the civil conflict in the 90’s onward, was the student populace, especially those who were in charge of students’ leadership and others who were responsible to speak on behalf of students. Some of the students fell in trouble with the military regime for this advocacy and activism.

Some of the many students that I interacted with or others whose activities I followed as student leaders and activists during and after the military regime, as well as the civil conflict were the late Wuo Tappia, Pewu Zubah, Samuel Kofi Woods, Alaric Tokpa, Gardiminar Flomo, Lavala Momolu, Benedict Garlawolo-, Dugbe Nyan, the late Tarnue Mawolo, Theo Bettie, Edward Farley, Sando Wayne, Tiepo Nah Tiepoh, the late Augustine Nyeswa and Mabutu Nyenpan.

Others were Edward Wesseh Savice, Nimely Dennis, Oblayon Nyemah, Richard Panton, Milton Garbe, Peter Kieh Doe, Elijah Sieh, Tiklo Konton, Abraham Massalley, Eric Morlu, the late Teah Farcathy, Harris Tekeh, Augustine K. Ngafuan, Christine Baker (now a prophet in the United States) Christine Herbert, Thomas Nah Doe, A.B. Kromah, Jenebah Kamara, Nagbalee Warner, Jallah Dorbor, Thomas Du, Socrates Nimely, Karku Sampson, Urias Teh Pour and Samuel Tweh. Let me also say that there is one who I only know by the name, Kokolo, a very argumentative fellow. I really don’t know whether he is still around.

Because I built strong ties with this group of people in my news gathering and reporting activities, we developed a bond of friendship to an extent that they relied on me whenever they wanted something published in the DAILY OBSERVER, which was the leading independent newspaper in the country. Dugbe Nyan and I became so close that he invited me to his uncle, the late Ben Donnie’s wedding at the Capitol Building.  I was even invited to a memorial program organized by the students for the then fallen Mozambique leader Samora Michel, who was killed in a plane crash in the 80’s. The service was held at the Brown Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Benson Street.

Two persons who also contributed to me being acquainted with lots of students were Mr. Sando Moore, then Photo Editor of the Daily Observer and Mozart Dennis, an arch photojournalist, now in the United States, who was intrinsically interested in students’ politics and activism. Mr. Dennis, then a photojournalist with the DAILY OBSERVER, knew these students by names and also their residences.

The first group of students was those from the Student Unification Party (SUP), which was founded in 1970 in the home of one Frederick Gobakollie in Monrovia. At some points in the 80’s some students, some of whom were members of SUP, seemingly fed-up  with the hegemony of the SUP rule, decided to form other political parties. The first was the Student Integration Movement (SIM) and later the Student Democratic Alliance (STUDA). It is worth noting that  during some of the electoral processes on the campus, both opposition parties combined, but SUP still emerged victorious and is today, still in power.

The party only suffered one defeat since then from an independent campaign led by former broadcaster journalist, Kwame Clement, now a lawyer in the United States in 1981. Mr. Clement’s vice standard bearer was the former Muslim scholar Abdullah Tunis, founder of the Repentant Muslim Group in Liberia. During that election, which was the first after the 1980 military coup, SUP featured one Emmanuel N’ Singbe as its standard bearer and Tiawon S. Gongloe as vice standard bearer.

Another historic election was held in 1986 after a protracted ban on student politics by the then military government of the late Samuel K. Doe. At the time, Samuel Kofi Woods of SUP emerged victorious, with Larry Younquoi, as his vice standard bearer. They defeated Mr. Theo Bettie of SIM. Mr. Bettie is now an executive at the Central Bank of Liberia.

As I reminiscent about my activities as a cub reporter, later a senior reporter and now an editor for the past 30 years, I have decided to highlight this group of Liberians because it also benefitted from my interactions and discussions with them. Actually it was not always about publishing stories, sometimes, it was about discussing issues of national concern.

In all fairness, I admired the level of academic excellence, research on topical issues and reasoning whenever there were discussions. Many of them were oratory to an extent that wherever any of them appeared, they attracted many persons to listen. One of the common places they gathered was the circular palaver hut on the main campus of the University of Liberia. Besides, another important aspect of this group was the camaraderie that existed among them for which they developed a common identity of referring to themselves as “Bo” (a Sierra Leonean slang which means, friend) whenever they met.

Socially and economically, they saw themselves as the underprivileged and down-trodden, for which they denounced those who they saw living affluently and luxuriously. For those kinds of persons, the students, especially those of SUP, at the time referred to those kinds of students as “Bourgeoisie,” or “petit bourgeoisie,” a term borrowed from the French, which, according to dictionaries mean, “people at middle class; people who are neither the aristocrats nor manual workers; the social class between the aristocracy or very wealthy and the working class.” At the time, this group of students, especially those from SUP denounced anyone of their colleagues who appeared in such manner and style and so as a sign of identity for being in the struggling class, they were usually clad in khaki shirts.

But one thing that I still like about them was that they were very studious, and did not take their studies for joke despite the time they spent intellectualizing on issues. There was no room for mediocrity, as I see around among some young people, who should be preparing themselves to face future challenges.

My interest in students’ activities dated back during my school days at the William R. Tolbert High School (now D. Twe Memorial High school) in New Kru Town, in the 1980’s when, I was also involved in student politics. Before joining the mainstream media in 1983, as a cub reporter with the DAILY OBSERVER  with assignment in the Borough of Kru Town, one of the events that I followed was the arrest and trial of many student leaders during the military regime of the late Samuel K. Doe, who later metamorphosized into a civilian leader in 1985.

Among the student leaders was Mr. Ezekial Pajibo, whose alleged involvement was of interest to some of us in New Kru Town because he was like a resident of the area, as he had a family base, not too far from my former high school, D. Twe Memorial High School.

It can be recalled in 1982, a year after the coup in this country, several student leaders were arrested for allegedly violating the ban on students’ politics. Following the coup, one of the measures taken by the military, under the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) was a ban on students’ politics, something that was rejected by the students, for which they protested, thus resulting to them being arrested. Those arrested at the time were Alaric Tokpa, secretary of LINSU; Siapha Blackie, president-elect, University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU); Nyomo Klon Brownell, president-elect of the W.V.S. Tubman College of Science and Technology; Ezekiel Pajibo, president-elect, LINSU, and Menyogai Wilson, president-elect of Ricks Junior College Student Union.

On Tuesday, January 19, 1982 the six student leaders allegedly published and circulated a statement in connection with the Government’s decision that there should be no political activities on campuses. The students at the time were ordered arrested and to face trial by the Tribunal, and that “any penalty handed down by the Tribunal would be duly executed by Government”.

The student leaders later turned themselves in at the Justice Ministry after government warned that if they failed to appear by 4:30 p.m. they would be considered fugitives and all legal means would be employed to have them arrested and brought to justice.

Another important event involving students was on August 22, 1984, a year before the general and presidential elections, when soldiers under the orders of the then Commander-in-Chief, President Doe ordered the soldiers to quell a protest on the main campus of the University of Liberia by the students. The then Defense Minister, Gray D. Allison, was ordered to “MOVE or BE REMOVED,” meaning that he must do everything feasible to ensure that the protest was brought under control or stand to lose his job as Minister of Defense. It was based on this “Move Or Be Removed” order that the soldiers moved on the campus. The students at the time were protesting the arrest of some of their professors, including Dr. Amos Sawyer, who now heads the Governance Commission and Dr. George Klay Kieh.

As a young reporter, I was on the campus during the protest. But when we spotted the moving soldiers, like hungry animals chasing their preys, some of us ran for our dear lives through Jallah’s Town. Later, I gathered that the soldiers did not act professionally, as some protesting students including females were manhandled, humiliated and beaten. It was also alleged that some students were missing as a result of the soldiers’ invasion.

Interestingly, the aftermath of the incident at the UL campus at the time, posed a serious problem to the editorial staff of the DAILY OBSERVER newspaper in deciding the kind of headline to use. Because of the gravity of the situation, some suggested that the appropriate verb would be “invade.” But being fully aware of the security situation at the time that the press was not totally free, the editorial staff after brainstorming for some time, settled down to use the word “move,” thus resulting to the headline- “Soldiers Move On UL Campus.”

My principal reason for writing this piece is to recount the struggle the students, including my former economics instructor, Tarnue Mawolo, whose funeral is tomorrow, encountered those days to attain the status they have today by occupying positions of trust. This piece is therefore to send a message to the young people, some of whom are invoked in students’ activism and leadership to emulate the good examples of these former students, who despite their role in students’ activism took their studies seriously and are today adequately prepared to the future challenges. Besides, the recent entrance results of the University of Liberia, in which it was said that all of the candidates failed, also moved me to do this to avoid such a disgrace that had befallen the nation.

Incontestably, most of these former students’ leaders and activists are now steering the ship of state of the country, whether in the private or public sector. Indeed, they find themselves in these positions because they prepared themselves for this day.

Considering the determination of the former students’ leaders and activists in the past, it is necessary that young people who find themselves in similar positions learn their lesson seriously. Whether these students are from high schools or from various universities, their education must be paramount to whatever activities they are involved in.

Another thing worth mentioning about these former students’ leaders and activists for which I still respect them is that they never allowed themselves to become stooges or protégés for politicians  or ant other person else. They stood their ground in the interest of the country, especially the “masses” and student populace. They called a spade a spade. I should not be misconstrued as saying that they did not admire some politicians or political activists.

Also, to note, the students’ leaders those days were very cohesive. Sadly today, there is too much infighting, commotion and confusion among the student groupings. Some students allow themselves to be used by certain individuals. This observation should not be seen as suggesting that the students those days did not have differences. Naturally this is impossible given our idiosyncrasies as human beings. There will always be differences, but at the end of the day, as we always say in Liberia, there must be a common ground to move forward, as conflict in human existence is inevitable.

A sad situation took place several months ago when there was a so-called problem between the Finance Minister, Amara Konneh and Rep. Acarous Gray of Montserrado County. During that time, we saw people, including students being used as supporters of these two individuals. The situation became so serious that police had to intervene to avoid a chaotic situation. This could not happen in the past, as students and their leaders as proxies and stooges for politicians.

To conclude this piece, which I dedicate to the memory of Tarnue Mawolo, for providing me the rudiments and fundamentals in economics that guided me through that course at the University of Liberia, let me restate my admiration for this fallen brother, who while alive affectionately called me by my nickname, “PNW”. Also, let me say that it is necessary that today’s students’ leaders and activists emulate the good example of those whose footsteps they want to step in by taking their studies seriously.

Yes, those days, these students’ leaders and activists also socialized and intellectualized, yet one thing they did not take for joke was their studies. Today, if these present young people want to be useful and productive future leaders, they must learn from the examples of those who once served in those positions. Should one do an assessment of those past leaders, as some of the names have been mentioned in this piece, it would become unambiguously clear that they are in high positions in both the public and private sectors. This piece would not end if I decide to name all of them, with their positions or roles in today’s society.

My only plea to upcoming future leaders is to take their studies seriously for their rightful place in tomorrow’s Liberia. To my former teacher Mawolo, I mournfully say with heavy heart, “Rest in Peace.” It is not how long you lived, but what you achieved while alive. Indeed, this brother has left his indelible footprints on the sand of time. I am a living witness. I Rest My Case.