Bridging the Gaps of Development in Liberia


Syrulwa Somah, PhD
Executive Director, Liberian History, Education and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE) Greensboro, NC


Associate Professor, Environmental Health and Occupational Safety & Health
NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC

delivered at

 Margibi Association of America (MASSA) Annual Convention
801 West State Street
 Trenton, New Jersey

Madame Selina Boakai, Chairlady, Convention Committee, Margibi Association of America (MASSA); Mr. Rudolph A. Weedor, Interim President, MASSA; Honorable Levis Pieh, Superintendent of Margibi County; Madame Clarice Jah, Senior Senator, Margibi County; Representative Tarnue Sorsor of Margibi County; Mr. Arthur K. Watson, Former President of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA); Other officials, citizens, and friends  of Margibi County present; Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. 

I want to thank all of you, the officers and members of MASSA, for choosing for this year’s Convention the thought-provoking theme of “Bridging the Gap.” I think it is about time that every Liberian organization and individual sought to establish a conference on how we as a nation and people can bridge the many gaps in our political system in Liberia, dating from our colonial past to the current modern era. Indeed, the theme, “Bridging the Gap,” gives me the sense that you are fully aware that post-conflict Liberia is suffering greatly. I think you know that Liberia is suffering from unemployment, malnutrition, deforestation, corruption, inequality, drug, alcohol, and child abuse, poor school and healthcare facilities. I think you know that Liberia is suffering from demographic change due to political and economic migrations, technology, and the lack of economic growth and development, research planning, and democratization. 
Certainly, my brethren of Margibi County, if the lack of basic employment opportunities, infrastructural development, and efficient health and educational facilities in Liberia today are some of the “gaps” you want to bridge, then I am fully sold on the idea. But I should remind you that in trying to find meaningful solutions to the many “gaps” in the Liberian political and economic systems, the singular question that continues to stand out is: “which gap do we bridge first and how?" And secondary questions like “How was the gap created and by whom?” and “How can we close the gap?”  also make our challenge in bridging the social, economic, political, cultural, educational, and health gaps in Liberia even more pressing, if we do not want as a nation and people to continue to run the risk of repeating our past errors. Hence, I believe strongly that “bridging the gaps” in the Liberian body politic should be the first attainment toward any meaningful national development in Liberia.

To this end, I want to devote my presentation to you this morning to three key arguments. My first argument is that some of the current social, economic, cultural, and political gaps in Liberia today are a direct result of the colonial past of our nation. My second argument is that unless Liberians learn to depend on themselves by using local talent to develop the necessary local human capacity, the prevailing gaps in Liberian society will never be bridged. And my third argument is that any efforts to bridge the current gaps in Liberian society must include the controls of HIV/AIDS and malaria, two of the most common illnesses in Liberia today that continue to be a serious hindrance to the socioeconomic growth and development of Liberia.  These are the three key arguments of my presentation, and I shall shortly invite you to join me in exploring these arguments in much detail before I summarize my presentation with a few recommendations of what I consider the way forward.

Margibi and the MASSA Convention Theme

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I know you might be anxious to join me right away in exploring the three arguments of my presentation before you this morning, but I meant it when I said that I would shortly invite you to join me in such exploration. For right this moment, I want us to apply the theme of this convention to our own state of affairs as people of Margibi County. Margibi County by its very structure represents the unity of people of the former Marshall Territory and the former Gibi Territory. And I think you know that before the PRC government acted in the 1980s to grant county status to our two territories, the people of Marshall found themselves as a territory under Montserrado County, and the people of Gibi found themselves as a territory under Montserrado County at one point, and as a territory under Bong County at another point. But even as a territory, Marshall was home to the main international airport and largest rubber plantations company in Liberia, Firestone, while Gibi was home to the oldest vocational and technical high school in Liberia, BWI, and one of the two teachers training institutes in Liberia, KRTTI. In fact, Kakata, the former capital of Gibi territory and now capital of Margibi County, was and still is the first main thoroughfare for anyone traveling by land from Monrovia to Bong, Nimba, and other counties of Liberia except Grand Bassa, Bomi, and Grand Cape Mount counties.  Of course, Marshall Territory was named in honor of former U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, while Gibi was the name of the pit where the people hid after running away from the invading Mane. Thus literally speaking, Gii = slaves and bii= hole (slave town or slave hideout) near Wohn Town, an unburned farm that was later turned into a town. 

But the former Gibi Territory and Marshall Territory are no more. A new creation, Margibi County, is now the new home of the people of the two former territories. The international airport, vocational school, and other landmarks cited earlier are still part of Margibi County, but the most important transformation of Marshall and Gibi Territories into Margibi County is the unity of the people of the two former territories. It is as if the people of Marshall Territory and Gibi Territory were already one people divided by artificial boundaries so that when the opportunity came to come together in the new creation called Margibi County, there were no internal conflicts and lawsuits.  Now, tell me, is there anyone here who has any misgivings about the two former territories being transformed into Margibi County? I don’t think so.

You see many of us often like to share our sweet memories about life in Margibi-Liberia. Some of us would say that Marshall and Gibi merged to form Margibi, the gateway county and its city Kakata. Some of us would declare with emotion that Gibi was the mosaic or melting pot of Liberia’s various ethnic groups. Historians would venture that inter-ethnic conflict as the result of the Manes invasion (the Mani war) and the introduction or rice and iron pushed one ethnic group against another. But it was not long that the Bassa, Kpelle, Dan, Mano, Kissi, Gola, Krao, Lorma, Grebo, Wee, Vai, and Dei people of Margibi met at the location of the unburned farm (Wohn Town) and smoke the peace pipe. They threw their weapons of war into the Piimai River, near the unburned farm (Wohn Town), and all the citizens of Margibi County have been able to live in peace ever since.

Today, just as yesterday, any child born and raised in Margibi County is bound to learn how to speak the Bassa, Kpelle, Dan, Mano, Krao, Kissi, Gola, Lorma, Grebo, Wee, Vai,  and Dei languages that make up the tapestry of the local culture, communities, and chiefdoms. Margibi County, to me, represents both the microcosm of the greater Liberian society and the mosaic of a traditional culture that taught me and other youths of Margibi County the true meanings of what a healthy people can do to change their plight and bridge the gaps of suspicion, distrust, and cultural or linguistic difference.

To some Liberians, Margibi County was a place where the citizens collectively circled their problems in the Zoe Grove or Oracle beneath Bea Mountain and left no gaps behind to divide them.  And to the foreign missionaries, Margibi County, Liberia was place where loud, proud, and deep souls sang from the heart to greet them on arrival. Equally so, other would say that Margibi County is the place where one went and came back anew and spiritually strong. And others would remember Margibi County as the place where during the 14-year civil war in Liberia the Bassa, Lorma, Kpelle, Dan, Mano, Krao, Kissi, Grebo, Wee, Vai, and Dei prevailed on the conscious of the warring fighters to escape the area of Gibi proper, so that today history can be written about how our forefathers came together and ended the purveyors of such misery in their midst. Indeed,  ladies and gentlemen, I guess I have gone overboard in telling you how I feel about the coming together of the people of the former Gibi Territory and Marshall Territory into the new creation of Margibi County. I guess I have gone overboard in bringing to the fore deeply held fond memories about the place each of us call home. And I guess I have gone overboard in discussing in the level of unity and cooperation among the people of Margibi County in attempts at bridging some of the development gaps in the county.  But let me now return to the three key arguments of my presentation before you this morning.  Here are my key arguments:

My First Argument
My first argument is that some of the current social, economic, cultural, health, educational, and political gaps in Liberia today are a direct result of the colonial past of our nation. Liberia was supposedly founded in 1822 out of a “checkered legacy” of slavery, human degradation, and racial slurs and agitations in the United States of America. Our African brethren were seized along the African shores and taken to Europe and North America to work as slave laborers on large American and European plantations. The slave labors of our African brethren helped to build the economies of European and America, but when the time came for our brethren to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they immediately began to be treated as outcasts in American society. Well, in order to make a long story short, history tells us 88 settlers (33 men and 18 women) were boarded onto the merchant ship, the Elizabeth, with $33,000 on hand and transported across the Atlantic Ocean, far away from American shores, in search of a new homeland. The Rev. Samuel A. Crozer headed the first group of 88 settlers who settled in along the West African coast on Sherbro Island in the current Sierra Leone. But a year later, when J.B. Winn and Ephraim Bacon led the second group of 21 settlers to join the first group of 88, they met nearly all the settlers on the first expedition dead from hardships, malaria, and related tropical diseases. Again, for the sake of time and to avoid the temptation of turning this presentation into a Liberian history lesson, what I want you to observe with me is that Liberia was made in the United States, one of the most powerful nations in our common world. Yet American Liberia Project is more about a “Send them back to Africa” venture than about a serious effort to build a new a highly developed and industrialized homeland in Africa for the settlers. As a result, the settlers were sent back to Africa with no money to establish themselves, no industrial base to develop the local economy and infrastructure, and no economic blue print to develop a functioning economic system, and no agriculture development plan to accelerate food production in the new nation.  In essence, without a strong industrialization base, which is very critical for socio-economic and political development in any nation, the American Liberia Project was bound to face huge challenges from its very onset.

Moreover, history tells us that the manner in which White America brought our returning brothers and sisters and the natives with the same genotype together on the former Grain Coast created years of unnecessarily distrusts and wars between the two groups of peoples.  Even the historical wars such as the Battle of Crown Hill, the First Grebo War of 1876, the Second Grebo War 1896, the Third Grebo War of 1910, the 1852 Bassa War at Debai Town, the 1830 Gola War, the 1930 Sasstown War, the 1915 Kru War, and related inter-ethnic conflicts have done little to bring the people of Liberia today. The 1980 coup, the 1989 military invasion, and the 14-year civil war in recent Liberian history only point to the continuing mistrusts and distrusts between the two main demographic groups in Liberia, which acts of distrusts have continued to ruffle our political feathers and created the socio-economic, political, and cultural underdevelopment of Liberia. In other words, we have yet to recover as a nation and people from the many gaps created by the de facto colonial masters from the United States at the establishment of the Liberian nation-state in 1822, and that stillbirth of mistrust and distrust remains the source of our many pains and suffering in Liberia today.

My brothers and sisters, this was just the beginning of our gaps and woes in Liberia. The United States’ role in our national territorial and financial problems from inception, especially in 1912, when it negotiated a 40-year loan of $1.7 million created yet another economic gap. The sad story is that American, British, French, and German companies took over all of our nation’s revenue sources, mainly customs and other taxes that put our nation in receivership position. In fact, this was one of the reasons that our nation has come to depend on others to do for us what we could do for ourselves. And when World War I started, the United States and its allies demanded that all German citizens in Liberia be expelled while the Americans monopolized Liberia's rubber industry.  Liberia also came under tremendous pressure from the Americans, and expelled the Germans and liquated their properties to placate the United States. Indeed, the colonial masters created a great divide between the settlers and the natives of Liberia only to exploit the resources of our land. We therefore owe it to ourselves, as the current generation of Liberians, to draw upon history so that we can position ourselves to know from whence our current socioeconomic and political gaps came. There is an urgent need to bridge the gaps in our nation so that there is a mutual understanding and cooperation between and among all of us to develop our homeland.  So I repose to you all in this audience today my original question” “which gap do we close first?” considering that the Liberia we had is not the Liberia we have today. Liberia is greatly underdeveloped and less united today than at any time in our nation’s history, and we need to act and act now to close the many gaps before us.

My Second Argument

The second point of my argument is that we cannot position ourselves and bridge any gaps in any spheres in Liberia if we are not healthy and locally self-reliant and self-sufficient. Just look around in Liberia. In a country with unemployment rate as high as 85 percent as per public and private estimates, key jobs are given mostly to people imported from abroad rather than to new graduates of local Liberian universities and Liberian professionals stationed in Liberia. There are also issues of underbidding of Liberian owned businesses in public and private contracts by some of the companies from the home nations of our international partners, while local public and private firms, like the central Liberian government, are bent on hiring not local Liberian professional, managerial, and administrative talents, but non-Liberians. And just look around Liberia today and it will not be difficult to find experts from the IMF, World Bank, European Union, GEMAP, UNMIL, and the dozens of foreign-funded NGOs calling the shots. Here lies the continuing of this colonial gap that led us into war.

Brothers and sisters, we got wearied of the war and decided to come together to rebuild our homeland. But what is happening in the rebuilding process is some of the things that led us to fight among ourselves. We are seeing some elements of serious corruption at the highest levels of government and divisions across the Liberian political landscape. The issue of “them vs. us” is well-pronounced both in the Liberian Diaspora and Liberia today. People are afraid that others want to take their jobs, even where free services are being provided.  And so this is not an issue of lack of qualified Liberians because the brains are available to contribute to the reconstruction of Liberia. But when a Nigerian general is hired to reorganize the Liberian military while career Liberian military officers and generals walked the streets unend in search of job, then the issue is well beyond a serious “brain drain” problem in Liberia. The issue then would be that of not using the full capacity of our people in Liberia. I believe Liberia is unlikely to reap the desired benefits to the national reconstruction process unless we begin to develop and promote local Liberian professional, managerial, and creative talents to take over leadership positions in Liberia.

I would, therefore, suggest that we close the economic and employment gaps in Liberia giving hiring preference to qualified Liberians as opposed to feeding ourselves with the colonial breast milk of dependence on outside expertise in Liberia.  No nation has ever developed with heavy dependence on expatriate workforce in the manual, professional, and managerial domains, so Liberia will not be developed unless educated and qualified Liberians at home and abroad are recruited en masse to serve in managerial and other leadership roles in Liberia to stop the current dependence on foreign managers.

It is a disgrace to ourselves as Liberians to prefer to make foreigners our economic, monetary, political, and military advisors when qualified Liberians are walking the streets in their last pairs of shoes and coat suits in search of gainful employment to feed themselves and their families. Moreover, we have the tendency in Liberia to give more weight to professional and academic college degrees from European and American colleges and universities than professional and academic degrees earned at Liberian colleges and universities. Again, this sort of mindset bespeaks of the lack of respect for local intellectual, professional, creative talents, and the gaps they create in our social status. And the sad part is that we fought war in this country without learning our lessons. We fought a civil war in Liberia because some of us felt that we were not benefiting from what the Liberian nation has to offer to every citizen, in light of the country’s abundant natural resources and small human population. Yet today, we are acting as if the reasons for the civil war no longer matter.

Ladies and gentlemen, history is recurring event. What occurs in our past is bound to unfold in our future. We therefore need to guide our foot steps as we try to bridge the gaps in our society. The 14-year civil war shattered everything we had, so we need to work very hard and very smart to rebuild our lives and our country. But we cannot build up ourselves and our country if we continue to keep one another down and foreigners take over our country. Just think long and hard about what course of action we should take in Liberia for our national growth and development.

My Third Argument

I stated earlier that any efforts to bridge the current gaps in Liberian society must include the controls of HIV/AIDS and malaria, two of the most common illnesses in Liberia today. My third argument is that in an endeavor to find meaningful solutions to the health gap in Liberia, HIV/AIDS and malaria control and prevention must take center stage.  HIV/AIDS and malaria are national security threats, considering that more than 21,500 Liberians, mostly children, lost their lives to malaria every year, while HIV/AIDS has become the new health nuisance in Liberia. As a result, while the world's oldest man celebrates his 113th birthday in Japan, our life expectancy in Liberia, according to the Ministry of Health & Social Welfare and the CIA World Fact book, stands at 41.5 years to a person. It may be recalled that in 2003 life expectancy in Liberia was 48.15 years; 47.69 in 2004; 38.89 in 2005; 39.65 in 2006, and 41.13 in 2008.

Brothers and sisters, you might be thinking why it is that Liberia life expectancy dropping when the civil wars are over or why life expectancy was high during the civil wars and now it is low? Well, there are several reasons. First, some diseases, especially HIV/AIDS takes time to incubate. Second, during the early part of the civil wars we had malaria and other infectious disease to content with. Now we have HIV/AIDS and malaria in Liberia. HIV/AIDS and malaria, two main killers of our people, reign free in Liberia. Third, all other diseases that were lying dormant due to strong immune system have risen up because of low immunity.

Fourth, poor nutrition is one of the major causes of death. Firth, stress is a killer because it lowers the immune system. Sadly, the crushing of man’s self-worth by poverty in many instances results in the cheapening of human life. Sixth, fake drugs are prevalence in Liberia. When our people think that they are taking proper treatment, they are taking something that has no medicinal values. Seventh, lack of piped-borne drinking water. Eighth, poor sanitation which, included raw sewage, environmental pollution, garbage. Ninth, lack of unemployment. Tenth, violence. Let not these ten preventable killers and other ills define the lives of our people, and let us not be the wretched of life forever.

Indeed, in order to alleviate or reduce poverty and inequality in health services access and distribution in Liberia, and to lay the foundation for sustained economic, political, and cultural growth in Liberia, investment in health education and training should be the primary preoccupation of every Liberian or friend of Liberia. And it is in this context that I think Margibi County should be the county known for producing health professionals just as Idaho is known for producing potatoes or California for producing wine and dates in the United States.  Margibi County has BWI, KRTTI, C.H. Rennie Hospital, Cuttington University College Junior College, Du Side Hospital, Firestone Rubber Plantations, the German Rubber Corporation, and the Salala Rubber Corporation, just to name a few, which could serve as both economic and health stimulants in the county in particular and Liberia in general.

What Role Should Margibi Play in “Bridging the Gap”?
In reference to which of the social, economic, health, education, political, and cultural gaps in Liberia we should bridge as Margibians, I think we should start with the healthcare gap. The new Liberia that should include the building of more health facilities and the training of at least 5,000 national emergency responders (midwives and physician assistants) to combat malaria, HIV/AIDS and other common diseases in Liberia. In this regard, colleges and health centers in Margibi County, along with the University of Liberia, in conjunction with other institutions and health facilities in Liberia, should take a leading role in developing six-month to two-year physician assistant program that will training health workers to combat HIV/AIDS and malaria in Liberia. 

In Margibi County there is much despair on the faces of children and adults, as in other parts of Liberia, due to the effects of the civil war and the high rate of unemployment in our country.  But Margibi Country, because of its strategic physical location, can serve as a hub for medical treatment to the nearly 21,500 Liberian children who die each year from malaria, and the nearly 72,000 Liberians who have died from HIV/AIDS, according to the UNAIDS. The UNDP has also said that the rate of HIV infections in Liberia has claimed from 8% to 11 or 12% in the last couple of years. Moreover, IRIN quotes President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf when she launched her government’s new HIV/AIDS public awareness campaign in collaboration with the World Health Organization and the African Union as saying, “HIV/AIDS is now a serious problem in Liberia. The problem has been increasing very rapidly. Now we are talking an average infection rate of 12 percent [and] the rate of infection for women and children is higher.”

And the trend is even worrisome for Margibi County-Liberia and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa that, according to WHO and international health professionals, one in every 4 to 6 African children would lose a parent to HIV/AIDS in 2010.  In addition, in Margibi County, 80% of the people are unemployed, which makes the health situation in Margibi as acute as other parts of Liberia. Margibians therefore have a great challenge to come together and find creative ways to not only provide employment opportunities for citizens and residents of the county, but also help reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria in the county. And my hope is that MASSA will play a leading role in these regards.

The people of Margibi and Liberia ought to understand that health education in the new Liberia should enable our people to read, reason, communicate and make informed choices about treatment options for malaria and other common diseases in Liberia. This means that health education in the new Liberia should include individual and community mobilization for malaria control via an ongoing community radio campaign, with massive education components delivered in Liberian languages in creating public awareness about malaria and such other diseases.

Health education in the new the Liberia should seek to increase individual productivity and quality of life, since only healthy people can build the new democratic Liberia. This can be done by including health education in the national curriculum of Liberian schools, so that Liberian children and parents can become more familiar with malaria, HIV/AIDS, TB, and other diseases that afflict them. Through careful public health education, Liberian men, women, and children can learn what causes HIV/AIDS, and how to recognize the symptoms and prevent these diseases.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what the Cultural Revolution in China did in 1949 when Foot Doctors were trained in county hospitals and other facilities in large quantities to respond to basic primary care throughout China. The outcome was the barefoot doctors immensely contributed to health improvement.  As I speak, other developing nations, including India and Bangladesh, have barefoot colleges or managers to control HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other common diseases. Similarly, health and safety activities in the new Liberia should solicit and include the full participation of rural community leaders and women’s health groups at the town, village, and district levels. Such efforts should utilize traditional Liberian council of elders, herbal remedies, and other collaborative efforts and actions necessary to create a healthy Liberian nation and people.

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, friends of Liberia, for the good of all of us, for the love of this great nation and our unborn generation, please think of this -- the family of the new Liberia must think of this: If we are to succeed in this endeavor as a nation, every Liberian, whether educated or uneducated, has to be welcomed to participate in the national reconstruction process of Liberia. For if we must learn anything from the MASSA Convention Theme, “Bridging the Gap,” it is that we can never bridge the social, economic, health, education, political, and cultural gaps in Liberia unless we first put aside our individual differences and learn to work together to develop our homeland. I thank you.

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