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Keynote Address By J. Chris Toe, Ph.D.

At the 15th National Convention of the United Bassa Organizations in the Americas (UNIBOA).Long Branch Community Center
8700 Piney Branch Road, Silver Spring Maryland, May 29, 2005

My fellow Liberians and friends of Liberia:

I want to thank the chairman and board of directors, President DahnSaw and his outgoing corps of officers, the chair and the convention committee, and members of this association for organizing this magnificent program, for bringing all of us together for a worthy cause, and for asking me to say a few words. I also want to express my heartfelt appreciation to Joseph Sinyan and Mydea Reeves-Karpeh for initiating the series of events that led to my presence today.

Events like the 15th National Convention are important to all of us: they give Liberians and friends of Liberia an opportunity to help heal wounds that have been deepened in recent years by the killings of our brothers and sisters, the pillaging of our public wealth, and the diminishing of Liberia's status as a responsible member of the international community and the civilized world.

Equally significant is your convention theme, "Shining Past, Brighter Future", which calls on all of us to celebrate the achievements of this association and to share in its aspirations. This year's convention theme is also a clarion call on Liberians to remember the past as they commit to the future of our country. In other words, we are asked to bear in mind those events and practices that have gotten us where we are today.

There are Lingering Reminders of Our Folly
After decades of underdevelopment and neglect, evidence of how we have betrayed our past and endangered our future abounds and reminders of our folly are everywhere. Our country is poor, destitute and in debt, and our people are subsistent, illiterate and insecure. Although our problems made international headlines following a decade and a half of terror, violence, mayhem and carnage, Liberia is now transitioning from war to peace; a transition that is hobbled, troubled and needs intensive care. Our struggling transitional arrangements clearly demonstrate that the challenges our country faces today can be turned into opportunities only if we develop appropriate processes and institutions that will be led and managed by men and women who possess the right qualities and are capable of seizing the moment.

The challenges we face are formidable. Ex-combatants and child soldiers must be reintegrated into society to prevent the re-occurrence of wars, even in the presence of the world's largest peacekeeping force; the education system must be resuscitated; economic security must be restored as it remains elusive even in the presence of mammoth international assistance; the increasing toll of HIV/AIDS must be arrested lest it continues to sap the productivity of the population; and the rise of kleptocracy and incompetence to new heights, to a new art form, to a novel way of life must be thwarted if state resources are to remain public, not personal, assets. Liberia is a failed state, and we must come to grips with the fact that we have ourselves to blame for this failure.

I visited Liberia at the beginning of this month and returned about a week or so ago. I can tell you that Liberians are becoming increasingly frustrated as it becomes clear that their expectations of a peace dividend will not be satisfied in the short-term. Frustrations are also building as evidence mounts that government officials are more interested in their personal wellbeing than the public interest. This association and all well-meaning and intentioned Liberians have an obligation to call on Chairman Bryant and his boys and girls to stop misplacing national priorities, to desist from misallocating the resources of our people, and to refrain from squandering a unique opportunity for genuine peace and unity. We cannot condemn yesterday's excesses and yet continue yesterday's practices that have made Liberia a failed state.

The mission and objectives of this organization compel all of us to ensure that Chairman Bryant and his government do not reverse the march toward peace. We are obligated to make it known that there can be no business as usual in the last few months of this transitional period. My friends, if there is one lesson that lingers from recent events, it is that the guns may have been silenced but the conditions that led to the wars persist.

While successive administrations including that of Charles Taylor and his band of tropical gangsters can rightfully be blamed for bringing disrepute to Liberia, this transitional government must not be allowed to plunder the national treasury and then get away with it! Each and every one of us must stand up, speak out, do whatever is necessary to send a message of 'no more corruption' to the Chairman and the officials of his government.

Leadership for a New Liberia
My fellow Liberians and friends of Liberia:
Although Liberia is, without argument, worse-off today than at any time in the last half-century of its history, the opportunity and timing could never be better for profound change. I firmly believe that lasting peace and security, as well as genuine democracy and economic development, will one day find roots in our country despite the severity and immediacy of the problems we are encountering in post-conflict Liberia. My optimism is founded on the resilience of Liberians, and their willingness and readiness to rebuild their lives and their country. The support of the international community is another source of hope for a stable, functioning Liberia.

But ultimate and overwhelming responsibility for building Liberia lies in the hands of Liberians. We must find common ground to hasten the development and implementation of a credible reformist alternative to violence otherwise frustrations will once again get in the way of our people's newfound hopes and fragile confidence. True peace will never come to Liberia, and no amount of international peacekeeping troops can restore true security, unless and until the welfare of our brothers and sisters is as important to us as that of our own sons and daughters. We have a collective responsibility to return Liberia to its rightful place in the community of nations.

How do we overcome today's trails and tribulations and how can we bequeath a better Liberia to our children and generations yet unborn? One way to do that is to usher in a new political, economic and social leadership that is capable of feeding, clothing and protecting Liberians. We need a qualified and incorruptible leadership that will leverage Liberia's opportunity for unity, democracy and development. We have always blamed others for our troubles, and we have always looked to others for solutions. We can no longer continue to do this. Liberians must take responsibility for Liberia.

During my brief stay in Liberia, I saw and heard what I would term as both encouraging and discouraging. It was very encouraging to see that Liberians of all walks of life, especially those at the bottom, remain strong, determined and hopeful after years of wars that destroyed national governance, infrastructure, the economy and social cohesion. But it was very discouraging to learn that after a decade and a half of displaying enviable survival capabilities and independence, our people are yearning, hoping and praying for a leader, a savior, a messiah. I saw billboards prodding Liberians to pray for a leader who will save Liberia and I wondered: does Liberia need a leader or a leadership? Do we really want another dictator or autocrat, another big man or big woman? Or do Liberians need a national leadership comprising men and women who are dedicated and committed to Liberia, and Liberia only?

The October elections will represent a significant moment in our history, a memorable event in our lives. But they must be seen for what they are: they are not the ultimate panacea for what ills our country but should initiate a process that we hope will unite our people and enable them to build democratic institutions for development and prosperity.

We should not expect the upcoming elections to be everything for every problem we have encountered in the past or are experiencing at this time in our history. Past elections in Liberia have never proven to be effective means for bringing about desired change in our country. Furthermore, it is clear that Liberians do not have a 'savior' lurking among the current frontrunners for the presidency, many of whom are damaged goods, rethreads, and people of compromised and questionable integrity. All we should hope for is that the elections will produce a placeholder capable of motivating us to begin the march toward unification, democracy and development; a placeholder who will begin to unleash our energies. Such an outcome would be a significant improvement over the many disappointments of the past.

Now more than at any time in our history, Liberia needs accountable and responsible leadership. We must therefore elect leaders who will challenge our people and whom our people will challenge; leaders who will liberate our people from the bondage of ignorance and the claws of perpetual failure.

Allow me to share some other observations from my trip and to shed light on some troubling developments. First, there are many who are assuming that only one candidate is capable of attracting international resources because he or she has held positions outside of the country. This thinking is wrong and narrow-minded. Theory posits and empirical evidence confirms that nations will assist Liberia only if it is in their national and strategic interests. Multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund operate at the beckoning of their powerful master-nations. They lack true independence and are in essence hewers of water or water boys for the rich nations. An elected leadership therefore needs to ensure consistency between Liberia's goals and strategies and the interests of donor nations, and commit to good international relations, if it is to leverage our standing in the global community. Policies, processes and actions are the conditions for development assistance and debt forgiveness, not who you know.

Second, it is wrong and a stretch to also assume that graduates of certain big name institutions in the United States have a monopoly on knowledge and leadership, particularly when they are rumored to be in the pockets of business interests! The war taught all Liberians very hard lessons. Our people may know where they want to be in terms of national development, but they will not get there without economic empowerment, without the freedom to take responsibility for their future, without the furtherance and protection of their individual choices and rights. It is only then that Liberians can control their own future, their own political systems, and their own economy.

Successive governments in Liberia have given unfair advantage to foreign business people who have cornered our economy and have no intention to let go without a fight. Worse still is the fact that these foreign businesses make no significant investment in our infrastructure, as one would fairly expect of a group that controls the lion's share of a nation's production and income systems, and there are no indications that they plan to do so now or in the future. Therefore, we need a leadership that will motivate and empower Liberians to undertake every sphere of human endeavor, not one that is willing or poised to exchange our birthrights for a silver dollar!

Third, there are those who base their claim to national leadership on having stayed or remained in Liberia during the civil wars. Let me say this to the advocates or proponents of this view: I respect the decision you made to stay in Liberia during the war; however, the devastating effects of the wars which linger to this day have not spared any Liberian, whether he or she was at home or abroad during the hostilities. We all have a stake in what happens to our country and the direction it must take. The Cherokee Jeeps, Mercedes-Benzes, and Lexus automobiles that many public officials are driving on the pothole-filled roads of Monrovia were purchased on the backs of our people and through their sweat. Indeed, many of our people who would have torn down the glass houses these big shots have built with blood money have not done so because of the millions of dollars those who escaped the atrocities are transmitting via Western Union and Money Gram every year. These ungrateful, narrow-minded political contenders ought to be thankful that the sweat and toils of those in the diaspora are responsible, in a significant way, for the stability that is enabling them to live like kings and queens, albeit temporarily.

And fourth, I am constrained to state that banditry, excellence in sports, and the possession of a recognizable yet infamous name are not entitlements to political leadership. What Liberians need is a leadership that will begin reframing Liberia, re-imaging our national community as a people with common values and aspirations. Such a leadership must comprise architects, not tyrants; catalysts, not wimps; advocates, not hustlers; and prophets, not zealots.

Our burden, and indeed the challenge that all Liberians face, is not so much as continuing to enumerate the problems we encounter but identifying our commonalities, implementing appropriate solutions that will solidify the things we share, determining what additional critical tasks are outstanding, and going about the people's business which is to rebuild and reframe our country. It is this process, not a series of events and the masquerading of minor political actors as saviors, that will further our national unification and development objectives.

Now is the time to build institutions that will achieve these goals. We who have the wherewithal and the know-how must hasten the delivery of real goods and services to our people lest they forever lose hope and trust in our generation's leaders.

Concluding Remarks and Challenge

I know from personal experience that the Bassa people have played a major role in Liberia. In 1941, my father traveled from Grand Cess to Grand Bassa County to attend St. Peter Claver's High School, an institution renowned in those days for its academic excellence and moral training. He graduated second in his class in 1943 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Liberia, a master's degree from Emporia State Teacher's College in Kansas, and most importantly, to become an educator and a civic and church leader.

Before he died about 20 years ago, he wrote his autobiography in which he said, and I quote: "I cannot close this paragraph without expressing thanks and appreciation to Professor Reverend Patrick McKinna, Principal of St. Peter Claver High School, and Rev. Fr. Martin O'Mera, for being instrumental in my high school education [and thus for my contributions to uplifting the quality of education of my people]".

The Bassa people have a productive history and this association has that legacy to uphold. You must be in the vanguard of efforts to develop a consensus on our national values and the national direction. You must help Liberians to use the past only to better the future. And you must help Liberians to be bold, and to dream, think and act big. The Manhattan Project would not have produced an atomic bomb that contributed to ending the Second World War if resources were not brought to bear by the people of the United States on finding a solution to a national problem. We must challenge our leaders and ourselves; we must demand more in order to accomplish greater things.

I urge you to lead the way in helping Liberians at home and abroad to understand that there is no free lunch. We can never get everything we want without sacrificing something. Development will not occur in the absence of growth; growth demands efficient resource allocation and use of the most productive resources. Every one in Saudi Arabia does not drive a Mercedes Benz!

You must help educate Liberians that there shall be no savior for we have our fate in our own hands. What we need is good, effective leadership. This includes leaders who will develop a vision, inspire and motivate us, and establish clear goals and objectives. It also comprises managers who will transform the vision into reality by developing and implementing strategies to achieve and accomplish goals and objectives without favor.

You are obligated to help hold our current leaders accountable and honest in order to ensure that there is no recurrence of the past. Too many episodes and instances of corruption by government leaders are chronicled every day in Liberia. Help us to demonstrate that rule of law can exist even in a place like Liberia. Challenge our leaders to apply the law without favor….from the Executive Mansion to the Cavalla River; from the Office of the Speaker to the Nimba mountains; and from the Chief Justice's chambers to Lake Piso.

We owe it to our children to get it right this time around. Liberians must not take the easy way out…they must not take the easy route. Leadership demands remaining true to convictions; it means going it alone if need be. This association is part of the leadership for Liberia. Let your voices continue to be heard. That is the only way Liberians will see a brighter future; that is the only way this association will accomplish its objectives of rebuilding the Bassa counties and Liberia.

I thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here this evening. I wish each and every one of you God's blessing.

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