By Kennedy Emetulu
The sentiment that some African countries we have done a lot for pursuant to our foreign policy are not appreciative of what we have done or that they are insulting us is not true and that’s not a great sentiment to express even if there’s any level of truth in it, except where such countries are engaged in a war of aggression against us or proved to be involved in activities inimical to our national interest, whether alone or in cahoots with others. Nations are not like individuals where you expect a good turn to be appreciated by words or deeds by the beneficiary and to be noted by the benefactor and possibly known only between them. In the case of nations, while such expression of gratitude is expected, you don’t get to see the full facts of them in one or two excerpted speeches by the leaders of the beneficiary nations. I mean, look at the excerpts chosen by Professor Adesanmi. They do grave injustice to Liberia and Liberians.
If one looks at the whole inauguration speech by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for instance, what you immediately see is her eagerness to address Liberians about the new vision, the new hope after two horrible wars that nearly took out the country from the map! She started with a prayer for Liberians lost in the conflicts, paid homage to her parents, prayed for the ailing Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis, the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Monrovia, now late – a tower of courage, strength and support for many afflicted during the war, a speaker of truth to power. She went on to thank the people for voting for a better future, promising that her government embraces this new commitment to change. It was after this she began her greetings of the foreign dignitaries and before even the remark excerpted by Professor Adesanmi, she said this:
“My Fellow Liberians: Today, as I speak to you, I wish to state that I am most gratified by the caliber of the delegations of Foreign Governments and our international and local partners who have come to join us to celebrate this triumph of democracy in our country. I am particularly touched by the presence of the African Union Women Parliamentarians and others of my sisters, who are participating here with us today in solidarity.
“I wish to pay special recognition to several African Presidents who are here today. His Excellency Mamadou Tandja, President of the Republic of Niger; His Excellency Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; His Excellency John Kufuor, President of the Republic of Ghana; His Excellency Thabo Mbeki, President of the Republic of South Africa; His Excellency Tejan Kabbah, President of the Republic of Sierra Leone; His Excellency Blaise Campaore, President of the Republic of Burkina Faso; His Excellency Amadou Toumani Toure, President of the Republic of Mali, and His Excellency Faure Gnassingbe, President of the Republic of Togo. All of you, especially the Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have spent invaluable time, energy, and the resources of your respective countries to help guide and support the process of restoring peace, security, and stability to Liberia.
“To General Abdu Salam Abubakar and his Team, we thank you. We adore and respect you for your persistence and commitment in the successful implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which gives closure to 14 years of civil conflict with my taking the Oath of Office today.
“My dear Brothers and Sisters of West Africa: You have died for us; you have given refuge to thousands of our citizens; you have denied yourselves by utilizing your scarce resources to assist us; you have agonized for us, and you have prayed for us. We thank you, and may God bless you for your support to Liberia as well as for your continuing commitment to promote peace, security, stability, and bilateral cooperation within our (sic). We thank you, and may God bless you for your support to Liberia as well as for your continuing commitment to promote peace, security, stability, and bilateral cooperation within our sub-region – and beyond”.
The above were exactly the things she said in that speech before the portion excerpted by Professor Adesanmi thanking Laura Bush and the US delegation, after which she went on to acknowledge the Transitional Government of Gyude Bryant, salute the Armed Forces of Liberia and the United Nations Military Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) before getting down to the nitty-gritty of what her administration will actually do for the Liberian people.
Of course, Nigeria helped immensely, no doubt; but we didn’t go in there as just Nigeria. We went there as part of an ECOWAS initiative and even though we naturally committed more resources to it as the head of the group and as the richest nation amongst them and undoubtedly the regional power, we weren’t doing it to be singled out for praise in an inauguration speech. Sirleaf did the right thing by praising all Liberia’s West African brothers and sisters. To be honest, I found nothing more powerful and poignant in that speech than when she talked about West Africans dying for Liberians, giving them refuge, agonizing with them and denying themselves scarce resources in order to help Liberia and Liberians. How else do we expect her to appreciate us on the occasion than she did in that speech by appreciating our effort as part of the ECOWAS group, acknowledging President Olusegun Obasanjo and particularly singling out General Abdulsalami Abubakar for extended praise for his role in negotiating the peace process?
Clearly, the speech was not programmed as a “Thank You” speech. That she acknowledged the presence of the African leaders and Laura Bush, the then First Lady of the United States is just protocol, quite apart from the fact that the story of Liberia is strongly linked to the United States. Liberia was the first independent state in Africa in 1847(outside Ethiopia that was never colonised), because elements from the United States and freed slaves founded it on the same principles of freedom that ruled at home. It didn’t start off as a colony; it started off as a beacon of hope to black people everywhere, black people who went on to attempt to kill the dream, of which the occasion Sirleaf was speaking at was just one in several of such attempts to salvage that dream. And yes, after more than a decade of ECOMOG shilly-shallying in Liberia, the United States was very instrumental in directing affairs through pressure on ECOWAS with the formation of the new ECOMIL in 2003 which finally stopped the rebel forces trying to occupy Monrovia at the height of the peace talks during the Second Liberia Civil War. ECOMIL was the force that held ground before the arrival of UNMIL. It should also be noted that despite attempts to pretend otherwise, the UN has always been involved with the Liberian affair from the beginning through the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL), set up by Resolution 866 of 1993 and they have always been fully on the ground in Liberia. So, honestly, if we read the whole of that speech dispassionately and not just the excerpted portion or the editorialising that Professor Adesanmi has encased it in, we will come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with that speech in its intent, structure and tenor. I will go as far as saying it is a brilliant speech by any standard.
The second excerpt by Professor Adesanmi is even more routinely appropriate. President Sirleaf was visiting the United States and was addressing her hosts. So, what do we expect of her there than to say those things she said? Should we be angry that again she thanked God, thanked the people of West Africa whom she said give hope to her people? Is it inappropriate to praise President George W Bush for exactly what she said there which is that Bush’s “strong resolve and public condemnation and appropriate action forced a tyrant into exile”? Is this a lie? Now, let’s be honest, we were all witnesses to what happened at the time. Or did we not all read the infamous Charles Taylor “Farewell Speech” where he lampooned the same United States in August 2003?
Of course, we all know why! This was because of President George Bush’s insistence that he must step down for there to be peace in Liberia, despite Taylor’s cosy relationship with Nigeria’s then President, Olusegun Obasanjo and a lot of the members of the Nigerian military that served in Liberia and other members of the Nigerian ruling elite with economic interests in Liberia under the protection of the murderous Taylor regime! Yes, we were helpful, but we know our ruling class from the day of Ibrahim Babangida through Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar and Olusegun Obasanjo were hands in glove with Taylor ruining that small country in the name of private business arrangements! If not for Bush’s insistence, Taylor would have remained to continue killing his countrymen and women, because the most likely people in the region who could stop him, Nigerians were in his pocket! In the end, Obasanjo had to put together an arrangement for him to come to Calabar in Nigeria from where he was shipped away to the Hague in murky circumstances! To be honest, I’ve met quite a number of Liberians who do not think Nigeria’s hands are clean over the affairs of Liberia, despite the help we offered through ECOMOG and all that.
The point I’m making here is that excerpting speeches to indicate that Liberia does not appreciate Nigeria’s effort is fraught with dangerous injustice, because one or two speeches during some public occasion does not or do not say the whole story. There are many ways countries relate or show appreciation to one another in the international system. Not all of these would readily be detailed in the public domain. In fact, if we want to use presidential speeches on occasions to indicate shows of appreciation, Ellen Sirleaf speeches on Nigeria would yank the scale. See these, for instance:
See how repeatedly she shows appreciation to Nigeria on the occasion of being honoured by the Nigerian Defence Academy:
See how she gave Nigeria pride of place ahead of the US right there in Monrovia:
Here is the Liberian Vice President doing his own extolment of Nigeria:
There are countless speeches of this nature. We all know that the Liberian leadership and people in their government are always in Abuja and other parts of Nigeria for one thing or the other, so this whole idea of them not showing appreciation has no basis really. It certainly has no basis if we are going to be looking at excerpts of speeches.
The same applies to this whole story about South Africans insulting Nigerians or not showing appreciation. I don’t know what constitutes this supposed insult or how it is that whoever is behind these stories come to the conclusion that they haven’t showed appreciation. Whatever Nigeria did as part of the fight against Apartheid or to restore peace in Liberia is part of her responsibility as a responsible member of the international community (along with several others in each case) and rather than waiting for those we have done these things for to come and prostrate before us, we should be looking to show that same responsibility we show outside at home because, let’s face it, most of the aggro we get from others mostly revolve around the serial failure of our leadership at home. For instance, we watched in 1995 and 1996 how the Sani Abacha government carried out a sustained attack against then President Nelson Mandela, because he refused to kowtow to the consensus of the then members of the Organization of African Unity and the Commonwealth to let Abacha be. Ultimately, the old man has been proved to be on the right side of history, but not before Abacha’s minions led regrettably by Tom Ikimi and Bashir Tofa have lampooned Mandela, describing him as an ingrate for not supporting Nigeria, as though support for the murderous Abacha equated to support for Nigeria. They even organised special rallies where government hirelings and rented crowd protested against Mandela in Abuja! And this was in spite of the fact that Mandela did everything to get the Abacha regime to see reason, including dispatching Archbishop Desmond Tutu to have confidential talks with the Nigerian leadership before the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Today, I have no idea what the complaint is about, but if it is about President Goodluck Jonathan not speaking at the Mandela memorial service, then, for the first time, I have to agree with the president spokesperson, Reuben Abati when he described this as much ado about nothing. Six leaders were chosen to speak and that is not indicative of how South Africa feels about any country. I certainly do not think we should be judging international relations on the pedantic levels of excerpted speeches or unprovable insults. As I stated earlier, I agree with Professor Adesanmi’s exhortations and conclusions, even if I do not agree with how he got there. There is no use screaming outrage over how we perceive others to have treated us. Our responsibility is to think critically about how and why we got here, but I do not think we should be blaming ourselves for spending big on others in defence of values that are dear to humanity, no matter how we think these others feel today about us. Yes, there is a connection between how some of us feel about others’ feeling for us with the quality of our leadership at home. Chinua Achebe diagnosed it proverbially with that old woman who’s always up in arms when bones are mentioned in a proverb. Citizens of the world have a right to judge our governance as fellow members of the international community and it does not help to attack them with retorts such as saying it is not their business or that they should not stereotype and all that. Of course, we can deal with each individual case of ignorant criticism, but the problem is not in our stars; it’s with us.
Let us therefore begin to seek ways to get the type of leaders who can think properly and deploy critical intelligence into position. As individuals and members of civil society, we have to ask ourselves the tough questions about exactly what type of country we want. Unlike Pius Adesami though, I’m not hopeful about 2015 for reasons time and space will not allow me state here with the appropriate analysis. But suffice it to say that the best 2015 can do for us if we play it right is to be a proper springboard for the kind of future we desire. I mean, if anyone is expecting that a vote for anybody under the structure and system we have now is going to herald any change, they’ve got another think coming. Our task is to situate an appropriate foundation upon which we can build our dream of the future, not hope that a foundation built on very shaky grounds will sustain our dreams once we vote in those we think are the right people. The tide will sweep the good, the bad and the ugly; so, let’s begin to think how to protect ourselves against that tide first in order to have the right conditions to build the kind of nation we want. It’s no tea party, I know; but there are no short cuts.
Full Ellen Sirleaf’s inauguration speech: