Redeeming Liberia for Liberians: Cuttington Commencement Address

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I referred the audience to a story on the World News page of our newspaper, the Daily Observer, which reported that same week in December, 1989, that the Berlin Wall, built by East Germany’s communist dictator, Walter Ulbricht, was being torn down in a spontaneous revolt by his own people.  The day of reckoning had come for Ulbricht, the East German Communist regime and for the entire Communist empire, described by Sir Winston Churchill as “the Iron Curtain.” 

 

REDEEMING LIBERIA FOR LIBERIANS

Commencement Address by Kenneth Y. Best, Publisher and Managing Director of the Daily Observer Newspaper  to the 53rd Commencement Convocation of Cuttington University Cuttington Main Campus, Suakoko, Bong County, Liberia Saturday, June 28, 2014, 10 O’clock A.M.

Bishop Hart and Members of the Board of Trustees; Members of Government; President Tokpa and Members of the Faculty and Staff; Parents, Guardians and Supporters; Members of the Graduating Class; The Student Body; The Entire Cuttington Community; Members of the Media; Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen; Friends:

Permit me first to extend to you, Bishop Hart, President Tokpa, Members of the Faculty and Staff, members of the Graduating Class, the Student Body, and the entire Cuttington Community my profound thanks and appreciation for inviting me to deliver the Keynote Address on this important occasion, the 53rd Commencement Convocation of Cuttington University.  I consider this a unique honor done my family and me, especially given the fact that this is the second time you have invited me to deliver your Commencement Address.  

The first was on December 12, 1989, during the Episcopacy of Bishop George D. Browne and the Presidency of Dr. Melvin J. Mason.

On that occasion, I was very critical of the way our country was being run, by a gang of greedy, corrupt and wicked men, and of the effective marginalization of Liberians in their own economy.  I gave a historical account of the active involvement of Liberians in business, beginning in the early days of the Republic, and called on the Liberian government to take concrete measures to empower Liberians in business.  If this were not done, I warned, the nation would be headed for trouble again, because in the life of every individual and nation, there always comes a day of reckoning, when everyone will be called to account for his or her deeds or misdeeds.  

I referred the audience to a story on the World News page of our newspaper, the Daily Observer, which reported that same week in December, 1989, that the Berlin Wall, built by East Germany’s communist dictator, Walter Ulbricht, was being torn down in a spontaneous revolt by his own people.  The day of reckoning had come for Ulbricht, the East German Communist regime and for the entire Communist empire, described by Sir Winston Churchill as “the Iron Curtain.” 

Yes, it was in a speech at Fulton, Missouri in the United States, on March 5, 1946, that Churchill warned of the rise of  communism in Europe:  “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” he warned.

And I, too, warned our own leaders and people that if the situation were not reversed for the good of the Liberian people, the day of reckoning would come for them and for all of us, when the walls of shortsightedness, selfishness, greed, corruption, mismanagement and wickedness would come tumbling down!

I had absolutely no clue that the words I had spoken would come so soon to pass.  I was only speaking from my heart, and from my observation of things happening around me.

Some of you were not yet born, but will recall from history that exactly TWELVE DAYS later, on December 24, 1989 Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) crossed the Ivorian border, entered Buutuo, Nimba County and  fired the first shots of their invasion.  This immediately ignited the calamitous civil war that would topple and kill the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe and most of his closest associates.  And because Taylor was himself equally or perhaps even more greedy, corrupt, and unpatriotic, he kept the war going for 14 years, devastating the country’s infrastructure and causing the massacre of over 250,000 people.  Taylor told his ruthless and corrupt associates that they were free to do anything they wished, for his regime would be in power until 2025.  What he, like President Samuel K. Doe, and President William R. Tolbert whom Doe overthrew and brutally murdered—what Taylor did not know was that his own day of reckoning would most certainly come.  

Indeed it came, for him, for his son Chuckie and their entire destructive and murderous regime.  Where are they today is a question moot, whose answer is known to us all.

This leads me back exactly a century earlier, to 1889, when the man we all know as the Education bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia, the visionary Rt. Rev. Samuel David Ferguson, founded, on February 22, 1989, our esteemed and beloved alma mater, Cuttington College and Divinity School.  It was on that day that Bishop Ferguson laid the cornerstone for the first building, and named it Epiphany Hall—the name that we joyfully and reverently call when we sing our beautiful Cuttington Ode. 

It is indeed fitting, I believe, that we should recall the great contribution of another Episcopal Bishop, who made a distinctive mark on Cuttington and Liberia—Bishop Bravid W. Harris.  It was he who convinced his friend, President William V.S. Tubman, to agree to transfer Cuttington from Harper, Cape Palmas, Tubman’s own home town, to Suakoko in faraway Bong County.  Bishop Harris broke ground for the new Cuttington in Suakoko on April 17, 1948 and pledged that the rebuilt college would “assist in the molding and development of such fine characters, that those who pass from under our influence will be able to make their constructive contribution to the society of which they are a part.”

Permit me, at this juncture, to reflect briefly on the question of power, and how people in different places use it in very different ways.  Jesus Christ, the most powerful person that ever walked this earth, used not one ounce of his power for or on Himself.  As we all know, He used it for good—healing, giving hope and restoring life.

A bishop in all ecclesiastical traditions has a lot of power.  But to what use did Bishops Furguson and Harris apply the   power that was available to them? They used power to lay the foundation for the education, enlightenment and training of future generations of Liberians and Africans, to help usher them, their country and their continent, out of the quagmire of ignorance, poverty, disease and underdevelopment.

That is how, from faraway Harper, Cape Palmas, where this great institution was first established, to the rural habitat of our legendary Paramount Chief, Madam Suah Koko, it was possible for a poor, barefooted lad from Sinyea, born of unlettered, farming parents, to rise from poverty and deprivation to become the first President of Cuttington University!  I refer to none other than Dr. Henrique F. Tokpa.     

Let me congratulate you, Dr. Tokpa, Bishop Hart and the Board of Trustees,  Faculty, Staff and Student Body, for leading this Cuttington through its first decade of existence as a full-fledged University, and maintaining its integrity and prestige as one of the preeminent institutions of higher learning in West Africa! 

Let me also congratulate the parents and families and all people of goodwill who have supported these young people graduating today, for your love, commitment and sacrifices that have empowered them to reach this important milestone in their lives, graduating from the great Cuttington University.

I would like, too, to highly commend President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Counselor Yvette Chesson Wureh, former Foreign Minister Olubanke King Akerele, the women of Liberia and their international partners for their vision and energy in building on the Cuttington Univerisity campus the Madam Suah Koko Center for Women Empowerment.  It is a fitting tribute to this legendary Liberian woman, and we are happy and proud that it has been erected on our historic and beloved campus!

It is also commendable that Cuttington University is doing what a university does—confers upon its tested and accomplished scholars not only undergraduate, but also graduate degrees, first in Education and Theology, now in Business and Health Sciences.

Let us redouble our efforts to help Cuttington University forge ahead to establish more Colleges in strategic disciplines that will ensure that Liberia makes the great leap forward in agriculture, agro-industries, business, industry, manufacturing and technology.  

Cuttington should lead the way to revive Liberia’s vanishing culture

by encouraging and enabling Liberian parents and the schools to teach their children to speak Liberian languages, and learn Liberian history and Liberian culture.  Cuttington must train historians and people of letters, who will write and publish books and literature for our own academic requirements from kindergarten to University level, and put Liberia on the world literary map.

By now you figure this is quite an overwhelming list of things Cuttington must do. But you do acknowledge that the above list is not exhaustive.  Let me add one more thing that is so critical that it takes priority among the major issues we must tackle as a nation to retain and safeguard our very sovereignty.  What could that be, Mr. Best? you ask. Is it the economy?  No, my  friends.  The economy is very important but it is only a symptom of something that is crippling our nation.  Is it Ebola, HIV-Aids, malaria and all the health issues we can’t seem to manage? No, my fellow Liberians.  Health issues are alas only a warning sign of the cause of our national dysfunction and inability to develop.  Then it must be corruption or politics or religious division, even witchcraft perhaps.  No, those kinds of issues that we are so preoccupied with just blindfold us and keep us from even making it to Brazil, so to speak.

In my humble view, the priority issue that outweighs anything on the long laundry list of problems to fix in Liberia is our EDUCATION SYSTEM.  Liberia once had many strong academic institutions—the College of West Africa, which trained most Liberian leaders, St. Teresa Convent, St. Patrick’s, St. John’s, the Lutheran Training Institute, Bishop Ferguson High and the Booker Washington Institute.  Most of them were established by missionaries.  Many of our Liberian luminaries on the national and world stage passed through those halls of learning and went forth into the world well prepared. 

Speaking of the sound learning our pupils of yesteryear received, how many of you know that Edwin J. Barclay wrote “The Lone Star Forever” when he was only 19 years old? Yes, he was a genius, but the school system, CWA in particular, helped him develop the capacity for brilliant, creative thinking and taught him proper English to express it.

The sheen of academic excellence began to fade once the missionaries left, and now many of those once famous schools are on life support with crumbling and inadequate structures, lack of instructional materials and,  most serious of all, critical shortage of qualified teachers and under-compensation of qualified ones. Many of our schools are overcrowded, lack books, laboratories, libraries and other learning materials,  drinking water, toilets, recreational facilities. 

Those young children who are not in school can be found on the streets selling cold water, candy, etc. or in the markets and down waterside being breadwinners at age seven and up.  Tens of thousands of our young people are loitering and languishing with no means of an education or skills training.  The ingredients for civil strife are within the grasp of anyone who has the nerve or stupidity to choose violence to attain power.

This problem is so huge, it calls for hundreds of millions of targeted, sustained expenditure of US dollars over several years to fix.  Where will that money come from in this era of budget shortfalls?   If we are crying about lack of funds for our education system today, my fellow Liberians, we will weep even harder tomorrow by “the rivers of Babylon,” where we are strangers in our own land because we have not invested in the education and training of our youth.

The government must join forces with private citizens and willing partners to raise the funds needed to begin the work of building our academic system from the foundation to make up the time lost by our youth during the civil war and as a result of our foolhardy neglect.

Yes, we can do this.  We have the abilities and the intellect to design an education system that produces youth, men and women who love and fear God, love and support one another, are passionate about and committed to Liberia and to our families; an education system that imparts  not only knowledge and skills but also high moral values, good character, respect for the rule of law,  work ethic, professionalism and integrity, a love for learning, critical thinking and the development of an inquiring mind that knows how to ask critical questions and work to find the answers.

Let me now move on, to dwell briefly on the theme of this Address: Redeeming Liberia for Liberians.  I begin with a brief and blunt statement to this audience and to our people everywhere: Liberians, we are losing our country to foreigners faster and more irrecoverably than ever before.  And unless we wake up and start working conscientiously, patriotically, smartly and hard to take it back, one day Liberia will be lost and we will have to lease from these same foreigners the land to make our farms and build our homes and businesses. 

Let me tell you, at the beginning of this discourse, that some of our leading Liberian families, and not so prominent ones, are leasing their prime properties to foreign businesspeople for 30 to 60 years, mortgaging the future of their posterity for pittance. 

Many of these families do not even know how long their children and grandchildren will live to benefit from their drastically delayed inheritance which, come to think of it, may be lost forever.

Many of the nation’s assets, including huge tracks of agricultural land, petroleum blocks and mineral deposits, are being assigned to foreign conglomerates with no Liberian participation.  In any country around the world, these are among their most treasured assets.  If the people are not partakers in the benefits of these assets, such countries and peoples are doomed to poverty and inevitable conflict.

The Liberian government and its President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, should immediately reverse this disturbing and dangerous  trend and ensure that the Liberian people, take substantial ownership in the all the nation’s resources.    Furthermore, in order to bring Liberians into the money economy and establish a strong Liberian middle class,   every company that is investing in Liberia, from merchandize trading to real estate and industrial enterprises, should have at least one substantive and credible Liberian partner.

The World Bank and other international financial institutions may advise against this. But we must never forget that Liberia, when most African nations were still colonized, was one of the signatories to the creation of the Brettenwood Institutions, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the International Finance Corporation.  Yet, even in the midst of our agricultural, mineral and now petroleum wealth, Liberia and Liberians are still among the poorest nations and peoples on earth!   It is incumbent upon the Brettenwood Institutions themselve to answer the question, how come?

But the time has come for Liberia as a sovereign nation to make her own decisions about her future and the economic and financial integrity, peace, wellbeing and stability of her people. 

We cannot and must not continue to allow foreigners to come here with nothing and become rich off our resources,   while our people remain perpetually poor, deprived and powerless in their own rich country.

Let me ask this audience a question: Who were the chief beneficiaries of the presence of over 15,000 highly paid UNMIL personnel in Liberia for the past 11 years, since 2003?  Were they Liberians? Please answer. You are right.  The answer is a resounding No! It was foreign businesspeople who not only sold UNMIL and other international entities and personnel the goods and services, but housed them in buildings these foreign businesspeople rushed to build on the very lands I earlier alluded to, lands leased from Liberian families and churches.  Mark you, many of the families and churches had enough assets to go themselves to the banks and borrow the money to put up these buildings; but they lacked the vision, creative energy and patriotism to do so.

Let me at this juncture proffer another critical proposal: that Cuttington immediately begin, from the coming academic year, a deliberate and well researched, planned and tutored course in ENTREPRENEURIAL CAPACITY BUILDING, to train Liberians to become businesspeople.  I throw out this challenge to all universities, community colleges and high schools in Liberia.  We must begin to develop a Liberian business class that will participate actively in the business sector and the economy. 

The Government, I repeat, can make this happen by making it mandatory that ALL foreign businesses, whose operations are US$50,000 or more, have a Liberian partner.  Suggesting partnership with foreign companies alone is not enough. We have to know how to partner in our own interest. We have to be clear what is our best interest  and be focused on it.

If the government does not pay keen attention to this challenge and DO something CONCRETE AND DECISIVE about it NOW, our people will remain poor, powerless and hopeless, believing and knowing that they have no stake in what is called Liberia.  They will, therefore, be ready, eager, willing and able to take part again in any insurrection that will spark the destruction of the country’s infrastructure.  Remember, that is just what they were led to do by Charles Taylor and his band of rebels that totally destroyed the Mount Coffee Hydro, the water system in Harrisburg and everything else in Liberia, plunging the country more than 50 years in regression. 

Redeeming Liberia for Liberians is an urgent national call to restore commonsense, sanity, patriotism and ownership of this country to those to whom it belongs—the Liberians.  Alas, the people who have come here bring no money of their own but built what they have on any and everything they found here.  They are the ones who definitely believe they are the new Liberians, the veritable owners of Papa’s land.  They demonstrate this not only economically and financially, but also politically and judicially by telling the poor Liberians, “take me anywhere and it is you who will leave there, but not me.”

I know of no country in the world which has given foreigners in their midst that kind of power—power over our lawyers, judges, politicians, our government officials, even the poor man and woman on the street who is thus reduced to vulnerability, subservience and powerlessness.

Changing this woeful and dangerous state of affairs is extremely critical to our peace.  If it is not changed, we will have no peace.  I gave this warning in 1989, exactly a quarter century ago.  Now here we are today, far worse off than we were then.  We must arrest this terrible trend that can lead us only down the path to more trouble.

But wait! I also gave this identical advice 18 years before my 1989 Cuttington Speech!  In an address at the Booker Washington Institute in 1972, I called for the development of a Liberian merchant class.

The failure of our people to listen and to act in their own best interest confirms unmistakably that something is terribly wrong with our educational system.  For what is the purpose of education if   not to uplift and move a people forward?  In Liberia, we have not been lifted up; nor have we moved forward.  We have become serfs and tenants in our own country. 

Let Cuttington take the lead in reexamining the purpose and goal of education, and what form it should take to fulfil that purpose and goal.  Let me begin by proffering this idea:  the ultimate purpose of education is to LIBERATE the human mind, spirit and condition.  In today’s world, in the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves in our own country, we cannot pursue knowledge for knowledge’s own sake.   Each of you graduating today, having learned a lot, do have something to teach somebody.  It is incumbent on all who have a stake in education—and that means not just the government, but all of us, to impart sound learning wherever we are—and let that learning be for the liberation of our people’s minds, spirits and conditions. 

To the Graduating Class, I urge you NEVER forget the advice which Bishop Hart gave you last Sunday: Use your talents wisely; and eschew selfishness, greed and corruption.  Always remember Solomon’s ancient but lasting and critically important advice: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.”

As you walk out of Cuttington’s hallowed halls today, remember her motto: be “Holy and wise” and lead your lives as such!  In all your learning and doing here and in the future NEVER FORGET GOD!  It is He who will guide, protect, sustain and prosper you in everything you do, and keep you moving forward.

Love your country—it is the only country you have.  Go out and use everything you have learned here to make a difference for good, not for evil.  Your country is in trouble, for there are many from outside who are determined to take and keep Papa’s Land.  DON’T LET THAT HAPPEN!  And how can you do that?  By going out as patriots, and leaders, and SERVANTS of your people; by applying yourselves well in whatever your hands find to do, by being effective, honest and patriotic. 

The job market is tough.  I call on the Ministry of Justice, particularly its Immigration arm, and the Ministries of Commerce and Industry and Labor to do everything to find our high school and college graduates jobs in the business houses, instead of continuing to allow the invasion into our country by foreign young people to take the jobs that Liberians can be trained to do.  This, too, is an advice that the government can ignore at its own peril.

What I have just told you answers the question you may now be asking me: Mr. Best, who are the redeemers and how will they redeem Liberia?  The redeemers are right here sitting beneath my voice: I begin with myself, for I am an employer.  If you go out and start a business, you are a redeemer because you are putting bread on someone’s table and also rendering your customers a service.  You are a redeemer if you expose corruption and disallow impunity.  You are a redeemer if you teach somebody something that will help him or her climb the ladder of progress.  You are a redeemer if you are a conscientious and responsible, honest, disciplined, time-conscious and productive worker who takes initiative, because you are setting an example for many.  You are a redeemer if you selflessly, willingly and cheerfully help somebody else, in the same way many have helped you through life.  You are a redeemer if you love your country, your families, your people and do everything in your power to help them and Liberia to succeed. 

You are a redeemer if you become part of an emerging Liberian middle class that we hope will soon arise with confidence and determination to take charge of our economy.

 

I thank you.