Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: An Era of Liberian Women Empowerment Or The Making Of Another Elitist Hegemony To Perpetuate Power? by James Thomas-Queh
From the very first day I entered a classroom (and only God knows when, but proud to say it was a government afternoon school then), I have always sat with an equal number of girls as well as boys. So for me, the parity of man-woman in positions (equal qualification, equal experience) has never been an issue; it is as clear and natural as day and night. But where I am beginning to have some reservation, and even foresee a danger ahead - is the overly publicised and near xenophobia of this gender promotion suddenly creeping over our society. And especially, just at a time when our country is under a female leadership at a crucial period; and when our prime focus should be the attainment of equal treatment, equal opportunities and equal justice - so that our nation will excel to a lasting reconciliation, confidence and trust building among ourselves, stability, development and progress.
The latest of this publicity blitz of female quotas or gender promotion which has taken my attention and thus given ground for this reflection, reads:
“The United States based group, Global Women’s Action Network for Children (GWANC) has granted to the Liberian government 50 scholarships for promising Liberian females to study in U.S. colleges and universities.
Making the disclosure that the scholarships have been provided at a joined news conference held at the Education Ministry Friday, the Public Relations Officer of the Public Diplomatic Section at the United States Embassy near Monrovia, Meg Riggs, said GWANC is pleased to announce the establishment of the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Program named in honour of the Liberian leader.” (see AllAfrica.com – Jan. 22, 2007).
Let me re-affirm once again our deepest gratitude and appreciation for any aid to our nation and people. Notwithstanding, suppose Liberia was today under a male leader, and some friendly foreign organization came to take away 50 of our most energetic and promising male youths abroad for whatever purpose – wouldn’t our most dynamic and charming girls have a legitimate right to cry out: scandal or flagrant discrimination against women? Or what difference was it a Doe in power, and some 50 krahn youths were selected to be sent abroad – wouldn’t we have shouted: tribalism? Or didn’t we accuse our settler leaders for giving scholarships to or sending only the settler children abroad for higher education? Ah, this reminder to our men. Didn’t we also accuse our leaders for providing scholarships for studies at home and abroad and jobs mostly to girls – and concluded then: “Because these girls were their mistresses or girl-friends?” And remember the courageous Calvin Cole, president of the University of Liberia student council in the late 1970s, who dared to accuse president Tubman of building a five-star hotel on the university campus as the girls’ dormitory, and while that of the boys was overcrowded and dilapidated.
So, can anyone now put their hands up and tell me when and how have Liberian men (at least those of my generation) discriminated against their women or in any way barred them from equal opportunities. Or else how could a Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf become such an erudite figure and president in 2005? Or how could an Angie Brooks-Randolph have ascended to the presidency of the UN General Assembly as the first woman in the late 1960s? Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman, first woman president of the University of Liberia in the 1970s; or the pugnacious judge Emma Shannon-Walser, and not to yet mention Chief Justice Gloria Scott – just to name a few among the many of our great and powerful women who have served as the engines of our national survival – in the bureaucracy, schools, hospitals, businesses, markets, and you name it. And during these developments, there was not a single movement (as far as I can recall) to champion the cause of gender.
But more, the women and great mothers of the Liberia have always been in the forefront of our national history. Mrs. Susana Lewis and other dedicated women crafted -with their bare hands -the first flag of our dear Republic. And the great Matilda Newport who, with her pipe, lit that canon that sent those “natives” scrambling into the Montserrado River and the Atlantic Ocean; and thus Monrovia was liberated by the settlers. (And even as an historical farce, the fact a nation created a false heroin to honour its women – is highly significant; it is the profound esteem, pride, respect and confident it has them). And no wonder our country was among the first of nations to adhere to the UN Declaration on the universal suffrage of women in 1948.
Yes, like men everywhere we have got our weaknesses: irresponsible husbands at times, careless lovers, and you name it. But on this note – I am in on way trying to exempt our women as innocent and angels. Notwithstanding, I have the certitude that there is no place on the entire African continent where women are so cherished and respected as equals by their men as in Liberia. And any attempt to discredit this fact and portray us otherwise or for what ever motives– would be a great disservice to the image of our nation and people.
On the other hand, if we today have recognised any exploitation of women – sexually or otherwise – it was by the rebels of Charles Taylor and others. But then the rebels also exploited every single Liberian; and while there were also women within their ranks and file as generals, influential advisors and partners. Or if we have now come to realise that our girls born babies irresponsibly – then the solutions could be found elsewhere and not on an excessive gender promotion only. The answer would be, first, to introduce sex education into our schools, reactivate our family planning institutions, and start a vigorous national campaign to sensitise all our young people to be sexually responsible (not only against HIV/Aids). And next, we must continue to redouble our efforts to find a job, market stall, small business, etc. equally for every single Liberian; so that we become economically independent. Then our men could be able to meet their family, financial obligations, and our beloved women would not be obliged to sell themselves out to our foreign guests and saviours in order to meet the needs of our forgotten extended-families.
Now back to those excerpts mentioned above. At the pace and trend of this recruitment – without any guarantee that those females scholarship recipients would return after their studies (knowing the developed world is in a dire need of cheap female immigrant labour –and not our men anymore -to serve in their old-folks homes, nurses, social workers, and the rest) –there is a real possibility of our country being emptied of its remaining strong and most stable potential, and in the process, our young men may never be able to also build a decent family life for the sustenance and continuity of our national existence.
There is also another reason that leaves me disquiet about this initiative of Global Women’s Action Network for Children (GWANC). We note that they are “mothers” whose action is geared to help “children” –those who suffered the brunt of the Liberian crisis - and beyond gender lines. So why didn’t they select 25 females and 25 males as a way of helping us develop our lost sense of equity since they come from a society ingrained in a culture of equal opportunities? And secondly, this organisation from the United States of America –the oldest democracy in the world - has taken upon itself to name its initiative as the “Ellen Johnson Scholars Program” in hour of our national leader. And mind you, it is prohibited and unacceptable in any functional democracy to name institutions or initiatives in honour of a standing president (and even while he or she is still alive as a former president). On the contrary, it has been a practice reserved strictly for dictators, tyrants, and autocrats or serve to encourage emerging democracies in the developing nations to transform themselves into dictatorships against the wishes of the people.
This is where I sense a further danger against our hard earned democracy. We should avoid any attempt to deviate Liberians from the popular mandate of the people, and to remain committed democrats, uniters and not again dividers. Let us do away with old habits and manipulations intended to entrench us in power.
A Reminder of Our Minority Elitist Groups Hegemonies As a Means to Perpetuate Power
Our history is sadly replete with examples of leaders who have relied on, used or attempted creating minority elitist groups and loyalists hegemonies to maintain themselves in power and establish a false sense of stability. It is no secret - it all started with the elitist settler class hegemony in 1847 - at the expense of the majority population; thus creating divisions, mass poverty, discrimination, illiteracy, hatred and a gruesome civil war in premium. But not before then there was the military junta in 1980, followed by a series of interim leaderships, warlords’ quartet, and Mr. Charles Taylor ended at the main throne in 1997. And during all this chain of events, we cried out aloud: “This is our time or This our thing.” But then we got it all dead wrong.
And what has this to do with the current euphoria and near hysteria of women empowerment?
Well, because for one thing, most of us Liberians are professional opportunists who can no longer see beyond our own immediate and petty personal gains or needs. As a result, we consistently ignore or are unable to foresee our national dangers and disasters. And once again the analogies are aplenty- that merit a repeated narration - going back to the tragic events as recent as April 14, 1979. In the aftermath, we saw our men and women in the army as our redeemers. We adored and glorified them as if they were differed from the popular masses of that day, and those many others who lost their lives for a just cause. We ignored that those gallant men and women were an integral part and parcel of the victimised majority population by the same political Establishment.
This difference established, followed with our unflinching support and confidence in the army – would propel these men and women at the helm of power on April 12, 1980. But we did not end there- with no time to reflect, examine and make a more critical analysis of our complex national ills and search for viable and lasting remedies – we quickly formed alliances within the junta power (some of us, never ever held a firearm, were made generals overnight), with all the privileges and entrapments. In the process, we were standing as witnesses and impotent to the naissance of an elitist military hegemony to perpetuate power.
Several of the junta’s members were against this emerging deviation from the aspiration of the people, but they were soon neutralised and eliminated. Among the last, and one of the most famous cases, was that of General Thomas Quiwonkpa, who was savagely crushed after an abortive coup in 1985, and followed by a brutal onslaught on the innocent Nimba community.
Then under the protection and in the name of the army, Samuel K. Doe succeeded in imposing himself as the first “elected” indigenous president. And with the intent to perpetuate himself to power, Mr. Doe felt back on his tribal affiliation (or used the name and a sector ) to establish a sort of elitist military-indigeno-Krahn hegemony. Some elements of other tribes adhered, and some even passed for Krahns. And why not – since we had also all passed for Americo-Liberians.
And this was all part of what Mr. Taylor came to revenge and correct – in the name of the people of Nimba and support and acquiescence from a sector of his own settler class – as he launched the total destruction of Liberia on December 24, 1989. But while Mr. Taylor was spearheading a genocide, destroying and approaching Monrovia – some of us were still supinely sitting there, drinking beer, champagne, wine and playing cards – under an opportunist, short-sighted pleasantry that “The war was not coming for us; it was a Doe-Krahn, Gio-Mano affair.” Sadly, it came to pass.
What was unknown then, however, was the fact that Mr. Taylor had long since premeditated his longevity in power. And by the time he finally became an “elected” president in 1997, to the date he was pushed into exile in 2003, and jailed later as an international war criminal – the man had married and re-married one million times. The purpose (apart from his own penchant for women), was in a desperate bid to re-create an elitist hegemony, reaching out as large as possible. Thus he started off by first marrying a girl from Nimba; then another from the settler class; one from Lofa, and another from the Mandingo tribe, etc. etc. But despite all those tricks, the man still failed miserably.
True, we are very short on history, but the lesson to be learned is clear: Anyone or a group who would try to ignore or by-pass the wishes of the people, and would seek to concoct unwarranted elitist hegemony as a means to stay in power – will ultimately meet a failure. And at the end, all the anti-isms may be unavoidable – something I would never like to predict upon the women of Liberia.
Parity Men-Women through Political Parties
In the developed world where parity men-women (in salaries and elected or high state functions) has become the new political fashion – they are seeking the solutions through the political parties’ machineries and mechanisms. Because to do otherwise (as we are attempting to do) would be a negation of reality (as women are already the most active and important work-force as precisely in Liberia), and also anti-democratic (because to aspire to an elected position of trust – it is an accomplishment through a democratic process - as we again demonstrated in Liberia), and carries the risk of encouraging sectarianism, self-interest, divisions and other whims of a dictatorial or autocratic power.
Thus our problem, as I can see it – has been two-fold. First, we have to learn to exist and play by the rules of a multi-party democracy, accepting that the process is a very risky business and a tricky beast to put under control and submission. Unlike a one-party state – here the character, strength and true-colour of a politician are quickly exposed. At the same time, surviving a political party is an uphill struggle. On the other hand, jumping or changing from one political party to another, has the risk to create a credibility problem for a politician, and also the propensity to weaken the same democratic system. The cardinal principles in this process are: positive results – nothing more and nothing less.
But since many cannot withstand these hurdles of an emerging democracy within our society – they tend to find the short-cuts to be in “things” and have the favour of power. So since the president is a female, well, “Let us all join the pro-gender movement and become its most ardent activists.” If given the chance, I am certain -some of these fellows could even put on dresses and pass for women.
To circumvent this opportunist mentality, and build a strong multi-party political culture through an independent, accountable, efficient, honourable political class – I have suggested in these same columns that we should state-finance the first two or three political parties in our recent presidential elections. I renew that appeal; democracy has a price.
This Advice to our illustrious Ladies, Mothers, Faithful, Loyal Companions
Thanks mostly to your relentless efforts and engagements, our nation survived this day. And you have done so not because of power, reward or ransom – but simply as a natural patriotic duty and honour. A role you have always so courageously played side by side with your men since the idea of a Liberia was born.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that the people voted overwhelmingly for Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Nov. 8, 2005, because they saw in her first and foremost as an outstanding Liberian, qualified with a wealth of experience and a defined political agenda to cater to all regardless of race, colour, tribe, religion, etc. – but not on the basis of gender. And the attempt to focus on “gender”– that could have the danger of creating sentiments of hostility against women. There is already a silent, malicious and anti-feminine domination joke spreading around town: “Where there are too many women, there are gossips and confusion abound over substance.”
And precisely because history tells us that we have already sent tribe against tribe, settlers against tribes, the book people against the unlettered, the educated abroad against the educated at home and the impoverished masses – let us not now set up our women, mothers and sisters against our men, fathers and brothers. The consequences could be even more devastating, and without any doubt, expose our nation to all kinds of unimaginable solutions. Well, God forbids should there ever be a widespread disillusionment and discontent at the failure of a female leadership.
And by the way, let us be fair to ourselves. It has been our own inherent snobbishness that impeded the women from entering en mass into some professional corps such as the army and police. Such professions were considered “low class” and obvious for “low class” people. The women who dared to go in were mostly those of some tribal background. And it can not be a surprise that we have Madam Mona Sieh as one of our most capable and efficient first female Director of Police – and not a Matilda Tubman or Susana Cooper.
In the same breath, let not construe, interpreted or confused my reflection as being against the efforts to improve the conditions of our markets and the development of the enormous potential of the market women, and of course, not leaving out the market men.
Our honourable ladies - while I still have a monopoly of this stage, please permit me to make a last plead in my defence. I know you may be tempted to stone or even lynch me through the streets of Monrovia for meddling in your “Thing” or putting my mouth where it does not belong – but remember this much: Beware, and do not allow others to use your good name and image for self-promotion, personal interest, opportunistic gains or political manipulation. Forever remain yourselves as you have always been – the guiding light and strength of our national survival – in perfect harmony and partnership with your men. You are our great and wonderful women!
This article appears in The Perspective
Tuesday, February 6, 2007