A Crucial Missing Link In Our Evolving Democracy

By Pindarous W.T. Allison

Youth Development & Communication Practitioner, Transitional Justice Fellow and Human Rights Advocate (Cell:0886-534-825/0777-534-825; Email: pindarous@gmail.com)

Post war Liberia has embraced the war time idle attitude of sitting together to discuss the prevailing circumstances or current development in the community or society; be it domestic, social, academic or history. During the war, industries were closed down, businesses ran dry, and sources of livelihood were affected that people got trapped to sitting home idly and all they could do was to assemble and play games (cards, checkers, lulu, chess and scrabble), and hold discussion on anything that would take the time of the day. Overtime, gathering and discussing became a way to keep the time and in a way became a duty, like a job. These general discussions were usually, like in the rural setting held in open spaces in the community: under a tree, in a hut or at a town square. Also, like in the rural settings, kola nuts with pepper and palm wine or cane juice were served while conversation was being held.

Similarly, in exile as refugees, Liberians did not have anything like jobs to do; they were being taken care of by the various organs of the United Nations (UNICEF, WFP, RED CROSS, MSF, etc). Like Liberia, with nothing to do, the practice of keeping the time with general discussions and games got rejuvenated. Kola nuts with pepper and palm wine or cane juice got replaced by another kola nuts of the Mandinka tribe of Francophone nations called bitter Kola due to its bitter taste and a herb tea known as ‘hythaie’ in the Mandinka language. Bitter kola and hythaie have some things in common, among which are the taste of bitterness and the ability to keep you going strong for a while without food.

After the war and back to Liberia, the hobby of gathering and holding general discussion became habituated; this time with a coined name for the venue of such gathering being ‘Hythaie Center’; a place to go like the refugee days in French speaking countries, to eat bitter kola and drink hythaie while discussing the politics, economy and social issues of the country; a place to vent out anger and frustration, to exchange views and overall ‘intellectualize’.

Every day, people gather at these centers in different locales to listen to speeches of anger, frustration, lamentations and sheer filibustering of the so called intellectuals on the ‘mal-governance’ of the government and suffering of the Liberian people. High unemployment and low opportunity for growth in the economy; corruption, less transparency and accountability; and the struggle for political power have all justified the establishment and sustenance of the hythaie centers as the fifth estate of the Liberian society.

Rather than the original workshop of idle minds passing the time, Hythaie Centers are fast metamorphosing into a democratic space, hosting and promoting the tenet of free speech and speechmaking Today, they have become post conflict Liberia’s unofficial centers for public policy discussion and opinion polls. The former Assistant Foreign Minister Hon. Samuel Toe equates them to ‘court of public opinion’, as they have evolved into spaces where Liberians people speak out freely on issues of concern, educate each other on a range of subjects and/ or invite public figures for explanation of government’s policies and regulations

Officials of government and development partners have included in their mapping list for public engagement, Hythaie Centers as one of the key areas they would go to hold policy discourse. Even the President of the country and cabinet members of the government have made numerous visits to the centers and have held conversations with the attendants in an attempt to either explain government policies and development plans or to hear from the attendants about their concerns and recommendations for the governance of the State.

The centers are fast growing and the discussants or intellectuals are multiplying by the numbers. Almost every community has identified a space and squeezed in an ‘Hythaie Center’ for verbal engagement. Academic institutions and public policy and governance entities are becoming second to the hythaie centers. Most of the centers have leadership structures to supervise and coordinate the activities of the centers. A mixture of personalities: smart, well meaning, educated, informed, articulate, employed, healthy, and the opposite of these qualities all go to the hythaie centers to discuss and pass the day. At the end of the day, a lot of transactions go on between and among the attendants-the employed, helping the unemployed; those with cash helping to pay the transportation fare of others, while some are providing detail information on existing opportunities for their colleagues to take advantage of. Surprisingly, if not cheerfully, some cabinet members have been drawn from some of the centers to serve in government.

The tenets, practices and structures of democracy have evolved overtime in various forms and manners in different settings and nations; hythaie centers and free expressions are two of the leading fruits of the evolving democracy of post conflict Liberia, which must be embraced and nurtured. Thanks also to the government of President Sirleaf for the political will and leadership that is fast enhancing free speech.

This article is casting a lens on the challenge in this growing space for participatory democracy in order to attract peoples’ attention to the need for immediate and appropriate action for control measures. Free speech in Liberia is currently being accompanied and hosted in norms which, if not properly guarded, could prove counterproductive to our national growth and development, especially to the growth and development of the younger generation. The challenges of excessive and unguarded free speech must be tackled and addressed if it must contribute and serve our democratic establishment and growth as well as human development.

Speech making, filled with verbosity, is the general practice by a growing number of Liberians; especially those who feel that they were the most affected and feel that this government should do everything as soon as possible to fill in the gaps created by the war. These critics, some of whom are young find everything about the society to be wrong. They go around seeking forums to make statements, to express their views and or present an opinion on an issue bordering on politics. In their speeches they dwell more on the persons than on the issue. In their expression, they show no regard for status, age and gender. Usually, they use borrowed words, jargons and phrases (without reference), as well as gestures and intonation either heard from a discussant in a different forum, a guest speaker to an occasion or public official to constituents. One of their lead role models in public speaking, whose tone and style of public speaking they strive so hard to imitate is H. BoimaFahnbulleh, one of the ‘progressives’ of Liberia in the 70s, later becoming Minister of Education in the Samuel Kanyon Doe’s Government and now Security Advisor to President Sirleaf.

Their speech is also often replete with different words meaning the same thing (synonyms), threats, insults and comical expressions against the object of discussion. Examples include: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to express, elucidate, explicate, expound illuminate and articulate my disappointment, frustration, disgust, abhorrence, repugnance, repulsion and dislike against the bunch of rogues, scoundrels, scalawags and reprobates parading the corridor of power and masquerading as bourgeois; misguided neophytes, zombies and buffoons occupying the seats of public trust; octogenarian and fast dying peddlers, syphoning the country’s money and absent-mindedly leading the country into complete bankruptcy and chaos. This corrupt government with its cartel of gamblers, warmongers and criminals will face the thunderous wrath of the masses, echoing through the streets of Monrovia and reverberating with sparks from conflagration, aiming to consume the thugs and pillagers posing as government’s officials. We are not surprise that there will always be belly driven sycophants who will always line up in the bandwagon of praise singers, ours is not to relent but to remain steadfast in battling these angels of demons and liberate our country from the hands of Lucifer himself, who has now taken on a female structure and sitting at the helm of power’; the Hague is there final destiny. The likes of these phrases have been their chorus and recitation in their expressions.

Some folks have occupied themselves with this practice that it has become a way of life; going from one forum to another, from one public discourse or radio talk show to another, to state their disagreement, support or critique against a person or system, repeating almost the same words and phrases of anger, hate and vengeance. Arguably deliberately or unintentionally, they have become what I would refer to as “intellectual mercenaries”. Some of them get hired and given a pay to take on an extremely critical posture of attack against a person, organization, system, policy of government or official in government targeted by the hirer.

Inherent in this attitude of political speechmaking is the tendency to find fault, criticize and condemn; no appreciation of any good done or progress made. It defeats their purpose to see anything positive The information they put forth, which forms the basis for their condemnation is usually imbalance, unverified, one-sided and more of a hearsay. Sardonically if not ignorantly, these people walk the street and in communities with their heads high, priding themselves as learned individuals, with people of their kind, surprisingly in the majority, hailing them and referring to them as ‘intellectuals’.

These self-proclaimed intellectuals have become the dominant voice in the electronic media and in the communities. They would speak on issues in Lofa, Nimba, Grand Kru or River Cess County even though they are in Monrovia and possibly have never gone to any of these places before; and speak in such a manner as if they were there, that the information was not passed on to them directly or from a second or third party. They would speak on various subjects and state quotes whose authors they do not know and from books they have never read. They most likely would not use phrases such as “I have learned, I have been told, I have heard from or I have read in the daily, on the net, from this report or journal”; they would speak on as if present and speaking from firsthand information. Some dailies of the print media would quote them or refer to their points as a reflection of the sentiment of the people or a counter balance to a story written. Political commentators or public talk show hosts on radio often invite them or give them air time through the phone to contribute to the topic being discussed. In a case where they would be given air time to contribute to a discussion, their beginning statements, which they would refer to as the premise of their point would be a panoply of the already mentioned longwinded words and phrases said in the same style and tone to make their point. Most times, some of the choruses of words and phrases in their so called premise are far from the subject and conclusion but must be said just to prepare them for their input.

Expression of one’s thought or view is essential to his or her growth; the ability to express is preceded by confidence in oneself and courage to speak to an issue. Hence, public speaking builds your self-esteem and provides for society an opportunity for multiple views on a subject matter. It improves your articulation, diction and broadens your comprehension horizon. It motivates you to constantly pursue information and knowledge in order to consolidate your knowledge base which onwards imparts your expression and speechmaking. The pursuit of information includes all of the followings: reading of books, dailies, and journals; listening to news, holding conversation with experts on a subject, inquiry to verify an information, and conducting a research Also, expression of one’s thought is a right declared under the Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR) and guaranteed by the constitution of Liberia; it cannot and should never be denied without tangible cause.

Notwithstanding, the right to speak one’s mind is not absolute, it carries with it responsibility which should always be considered by the speaker. Your freedom of expression should in no way falsely tarnish the hard earned reputation of a person or institution without evidence; neither should it incite violence, hatred and the possibility of mass killing. Unfortunately, this aspect of responsibility with freedom of speech is a growing challenge in the speechmaking practice amongst most Liberians today, especially with some of the so-called intellectuals; it is a crucial missing link in our evolving democracy. In their speeches of anger, frustration and assertions, the speechmakers or self-acclaimed intellectuals would make accusations that require verification, rain invectives on persons of authority without regard to manner, resort to remedies that defy and disrespect established procedures, authorities and channels for redress; and they would speak to people of respect and to authorities in manners that are disrespectful, all in the name of freedom of expression. President Barack Obama of the United States said and I quote: “Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech”.

Civilize and honest conversation, as well as intellectual engagement demand that information should state sources and references; accusations should be accompanied by evidence, and name calling such as murder, rogues, forger, fraudster and rapist amongst others should be backed by verdict of conviction from a competent court of jurisdiction. In the absence of submission to these standards, we leave ourselves less intellectual than we assume; we will be considered less serious minded by people who observe and respect these standards as conventionally established and accepted practice. Lastly, it is important that we observe these rules because the hythaie centers are usually filled with knowledge seekers, students and half literate persons who want to perfect their knowledge and speech by learning from the speakers in the centers.

Also at the hythaie centers are a group of young people who have come to listen, learn and go back to their communities to restate, sometimes verbatim, what they have heard. According to Aaron Weah, former Policy Analyst with the Governance Commission of Liberia and now with the Talking Drum Studio, this category of young people is cynically referred to in Nigeria as ‘Village Champion’. Village Champions are the leading intellectuals in their respective communities but less comparative in bigger centers. Hence, they regularly visit the bigger centers to listen to informed and articulate speakers in order to improve their diction and education on issues and then go back to their respective communities with the new words and information learnt to restate them to their followers. Hence, if we fail to observe and apply the standard rules of conversation or speech making, we are unintentionally affecting the intellectual growth of a huge number of young people whose attitude in conversation will remain unpolished and faulty against intellectual standards and practice.

Not accepting corrections or refusing to admit to misinformation is a none likely and unacceptable attitude in intellectual circles. Raining invectives and being unnecessarily sarcastic are very rare practices or no go zones for intellectuals. Hasty attack on peoples’ reputation is wrong and the usage of many words meaning the same thing is useless and unadvisable. You do not need to be loud, arrogant and forceful to make a point; neither do you need more than one word meaning the same thing to prove your eloquence and verbal prowess; nor do you need to be insistent that what you think and feel is right against what is being declared by the rightful authorities.

In conclusion, free speech making and becoming an intellectual requires sensitivity and submission to internationally established standards and best practices; refusal to accept and apply these measures does not make you any better than your accused. As we enjoy the tenet of free speech and pursue our ambition of becoming intellectuals, we can only improve and be taken seriously if we do not adopt nuances contrary to established norms. For me, the onus for addressing this challenge is in two folds: first on the government to invest and improve the educational system; which will get more Liberians well educated and thereby appreciate and conform to standard practice. Secondly, the public media channels such as the hythaie centers, radio talk-shows and televised public discourse which are the visible comfort zones for free speech must themselves begin to observe and exert the rules. That too will contribute in building the awareness and grounding the practice of proper speech making and information dissemination.

Former Assistant Minister Toe asserts that the challenge of poor and /or disinformation at the Hythaie Centers is only a reflection of the low educational standard of the larger Liberian society; and that because more Liberians are undereducated, they therefore miss out on what is required in such informal spaces for education and information sharing. He thinks it is an unrealistic expectation that the Hythaie Centers and public media channels can correct the wrongs rather than the schools and educational system doing the job. As a way out of this quagmire, Mr. Toe suggests a root and branch improvement in the educational standard of Liberia as a necessary precondition for bettering the situation.