By: Stephen B. Lavalah
The quest to alter Liberia’s national symbols has resurfaced once again since President William Richard Tolbert constituted a National Commission to give consideration to possible changes in the national motto, national flag, national anthem and the Constitution of Liberia. Tolbert’s Commission established by an Act of the National Legislature approved July 22, 1974 comprised of a Chairman and fifty members with five representatives from each County and one from each Territory. However, scores of Liberians likewise foreigners are yet to figure out the outcome of the commission’s mandates and many ponder about what were proffered by some of the brightest and finest statesmen and stateswomen in Liberia.
Like Tolbert, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has endorsed the change of Liberia’s national symbols through the setting up of the National Symbols Review Project, which is spearheaded by the Governance Commission. The proponents hope to review the National Flag, National Coat-of-Arms or National Seal, National Anthem, and National Awards of the Republic of Liberia. They intend to solicit input from Liberians across ethnic, religious, generational, gender and educational divides so as to ensure a broad-based and inclusive process that is expected to yield timeless symbols reflecting Liberia’s past, present, and future. They claim the review process will solve Liberia’s national identity problem and nurture genuine reconciliation. They profess that national symbols review is an imperative of our time and a necessity for achieving the clichéd Vision 2030.
Amidst the glamour rhetoric and grandiloquent speeches, opponents believe that the review of the national symbols will in no way resolve Liberia’s extreme hardship, abject poverty, appalling education system, dreadful healthcare, frightful unemployment, unacceptable inequality and unbearable cost of living. The opponents have argued that the entire National Symbols Review Project is a concocted plan to squander state resources under the pretext of so-called nationwide consultations usually involving only a few elites or members of the ruling establishment or connected individuals. In the same vein, many have strongly detested that the review of national symbol is not a priority issue for Liberia in this 21st Century, especially when budget shortfall has become prevalent and the country is still ranked among the world’s poorest countries with 76 percent of the population living below US$1 a day while 52 percent living in extreme poverty of under US$0.50 a day according to EuropeAid 2012 report despite the highest ratio of foreign direct investment of Gross Domestic Product amounting to US$16 billion since 2006.
While some prominent and well-educated senior citizens are strategizing to change the national symbols to reflect Liberia’s past, present and future; the inherence historical contradiction about the country’s national symbols still remain unsettled as a result of Liberia’s moot history. Consequently, a good number of Liberians from all walks of life have begun pondering with keen interest about lots of questions than answers, which include but not limited to: What difference will it make by changing the national symbols? Will it further divide or unite Liberians? Is national identity obtained only through national symbols or the mindset of the citizens? Will the change of the national symbols foster true spirit of patriotism or will it serve as a breeding ground for conflict? Will it enable every Liberian to achieve their full measure of happiness as well as produce the best expertise in science and technology, agriculture and food production, business and entrepreneurship, and possibly in all aspect of human existence? Is it another medium to provide jobs for cronies or a reformist approach to resolving Liberia’s critical problems? Where the warlords and architects of the 14 years of brutal and barbaric bloodshed ever conscious of the national symbols being icon of unity, pride and freedom? With all of these questions on mind and many more yet unanswered, a number of Liberians and even some foreign counterparts are still doubtful if the review of national symbols could ever make any difference in transforming the country from a fragile state to a more consolidated nation, where the economy flourishes, justice prevails, and everyone enjoys dignity of labor and the pursuit of happiness.
Changing the Mindset
It is an undisputable fact that many countries around the world have changed their national symbols with Liberia being no exception. Nevertheless, these changes usually take place when citizens are engaged, educated and empowered to make informed decisions and smart choices. Patriotism, National Identity and Genuine Reconciliation cannot be achieved through the mere change of national symbols, but the change of mindset of Liberians to alter the change the country so desire. It is an obligation, dedication and conviction to serve the country selflessly beyond personal aggrandizement. It is a mark of good citizenship and loyalty to country, founding documents and respect for fellow citizens. No matter what national symbols, it should create a sense of hope, cultivate unity in diversity and foster pride and values among citizens. Therefore, the quest about changing the national symbols simply does not hold water in post-conflict situation like Liberia where resources are scarce and education deplorable. As a matter of fact, it is not the national symbols that cultivate sense of national identity or patriotism or reconciliation; it is the mindset of the people to accept it.
Liberians must be unshackle to demonstrate a special affection for their country, nurture a sense of personal identification and learn to seek the well-being of their fellow citizens as well as adopt the spirit of willingness to sacrifice for the common good of their country. The people across this great land and those in the Diaspora have got to envision a new Liberia that is greater than religion confessed, dialect spoken, county of origin, place of birth or family name. Liberians need to understand that the country is bigger than the sum of individual ambition and greater than their quest for power or wealth. The time for reform is upon this country and there should be absolutely no moment for “Native or Indigene” or “Congo or Americo-Liberian”. Each and every Liberian should begin to exhibit a high degree of patriotism and respect for constituted authority and avoid the myth that the founding national symbols reflect the aspiration of the minority Americo-Liberians.
The perceived fundamental error on the part of the founding fathers which some astute Liberians claimed have resulted to independence without any holistic identity cannot be solved by mere alternation of national symbols, but change of citizens’ attitude towards their country. It is not the changing of the names of places, structures, features, design of flag, seal, and motto that determine national identity, reconciliation, peace and prosperity, but rather it is the number of civilized citizens. Take for instance; the dominant black South Africans who suffered from the apartheid regime did not struggle to change the names of places like Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg etc. to any of the country’s eleven official languages to which the state guarantees equal status. In spite of the difficulty and hardship meted out against Black South Africans, they have learned to forge ahead with a sense of identity and the courage to embrace each other. Moreover, the tussle between Native American Indians and Europeans did not change the naming of places in honor of American Indians. In fact, about half of the states got their names from Indian words. For typical examples, the name Kentucky comes from an Iroquoian word (Kentahten), which means “land of tomorrow” whereas Connecticut’s name comes from the Mohican word (Quinnehtukqut), which means “beside the long tidal river” and many other states. With all the pluralism and multiculturalism of American society, most if not all American citizens feel like part of a team and uphold the values of their founding fathers.
So, it is up to Liberians to rethink, revision, restrategize, revamp and begin the work of remaking and rebuilding Liberia by accepting and appreciating the country’s rich diversity, culture, tradition, arts, music and vernaculars. The time has come to stop shaping blame on the founding fathers for their mistakes and re-examine the governance structure, education, health, agriculture, commerce, as well as recognize the dignity and worth of every person. The moment has come to stop the dependency syndrome and begin today working to move Liberia forward through volunteerism and social responsibility. Consider Liberia as one common patrimony and stop engaging into all sorts of unwholesome and mendacious practices, which have put the country backward for far too long. Think about competing for jobs on the international scene rather than focusing on presidential appointments or some kind of political employment. In years to come, Liberians must take the lead to become Secretary General of the United Nations, head of the African Union and many more.
Time to Rethink
As Africa’s oldest republic that has been in the limelight and citadel of topnotch education, quality healthcare delivery system, innovative businesses, state-of-the-art facilities, indispensable agricultural products and exploration of minerals; Liberia has got to regain its rightful place among the comity of nations. From this moment onward, Liberians must begin to work assiduously so as to resolve the issue of knowledge gap. The country can no longer afford to have a more educated older generation while bulk of the young people who constitute over half of the population are busy playing lottery. The country can no longer afford to have foreigners controlling the entire private sector. The country can simply not afford to continue begging for handouts and bailouts. Now is the time, for every Liberian, no matter the name or color or age or gender or religion or social status to wake-up, shake-up and standup to begin the work of remaking Liberia. There should and much be absolutely no turning back to the status quo.
The time has come for Liberians to begin to advocate for the change in the system of governance so as to ensure accessible, affordable, effective, efficient and premier education for all. With education for all, young minds would be harnessed to build new roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals across the country. Education for all would ensure the construction of factories and production of high-tech industrial equipment. Education for all would also create avenue for the erection of basic infrastructural facilities to better the standards of living and improve clean energy and water. In addition, education for all would fill the knowledge gap through the development of human resource capacity of young people thereby yielding more medical practitioners, engineers, business tycoons, entrepreneurs, social workers, educationalists, agriculturalists, scientists and other specialists to tackle the challenges now and many more to come.
In this fast-moving and competitive world, let the word go forth that the task before this generation of Liberians is not the mere change of the country’s national symbols, but to inculcate in the minds of each and every Liberian a sense of belonging, oneness, respect for human dignity and the rule of law as outlined in the founding documents.
About the author: Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder & Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES), a passionate, non-profit and voluntary grassroots youth-led development organization. For more information about our work in Liberia, please visit http://www.liberiayes.org. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent YES.