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Liberia, Amara Konneh, The Mandingo Tribe and Our Collective Problem

The darkness and poverty in Liberia (especially in the Capital Monrovia) excludes no tribe

Liberia is a country of several dialects and tribes. The Mandingo ethnic group is one of the legitimate and historic tribes of Liberia. Despite the many dialects and tribes in Liberia, inter-marriages, trade, cross-cultural habitation and the English language are the instruments that connect all Liberians. However, as a country, our various tribal dialects, sub traditions and unique values enrich our national culture. We are one nation. Therefore, despite the differences in tribal hegemonies, sub traditions, norms and the dialects we speak, we are committed to our motherland Liberia as one country.

But there seems to be one passively unknowing shameless guilt that majority of Liberians from the other tribal groups bear: Subconscious hatred for the Mandingo ethnic group of Liberia. While this level of loathing is wrong from a more humane stance, it is also very irrational and dangerous for Liberia as a nation, and here is why.

Ex-finance minister Konneh (left) and ex-deputy finance minister, Kollie (right)

Believe it or not, the Mandingos are Liberians, and they are not going anywhere. The rest of Liberia either accepts this reality or continues to live in a bubble of self-pity, pointless hate and self-destruction. If anyone who claims to be a Liberian hates the Mandingo ethnic group, he or she really does not love Liberia, because if a Liberian truly loves Liberia, then loving and appreciating a legitimate Liberian tribal group is a necessity.

That said, it is an explicit reality that Liberia has multiple problems. But many of these problems are individually created but collectively inflicted; they are not tribal as some would narrowly suggest. However, and over time, majority of Liberians have failed to judge one another base on individual’s merits or demerits. This happens simply because, as a nation, we have reduced ourselves to wearing the lenses that frequently see issues and problems collectively rather than singularly. This also happens because we have nurtured a culture of being subjective rather than being analytical. When people are subjective in thinking they often fail to see the bigger picture of things, and their judgment is frequently one of suspect. This is the problem with majority of Liberians when it comes to the way they view our Mandingo brothers and sisters, including Amara Konneh.

Amara Konneh, a former finance minister of Liberia in President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration, is not a saint; he is not perfect. He is as sinful as any one of us. Therefore, he is not immune to faults and criticisms. But no one has the right to criticize or dislike him simply because he belongs to a tribe or family. To do so underscores the true meaning of stupidity.  This is why when I hear people say Amara Konneh is a good guy but being Mandingo would affect any political ambition he has, it blows my mind off.  It is like saying one cannot accept Jesus Christ’s message of salvation, peace and love because he came through the Jewish nation, or that the Prophet Muhammad’s message of belief in One God, praying to God five times a day and giving humanitarian assistance to the needy is unacceptable simply because the Prophet was born Arab.  Let us judge people for what they are and not what tribe they come from.  If any one disagrees with Konneh it must be based on issues, facts and actionable events, and not because he is a Mandingo man who subscribes to the Muslim faith, as a matter of choice as does every other Liberian in matters of religious preference.

Most recently, Konneh has been invited as a keynote speaker at the annual convention of the Federation of Liberian Mandingos in the Americas, held in Minnesota. He accepted and drafted a speech that suits the occasion. This is normal. When bankers invite a keynote speaker for their industry program the speaker is not expected to go there and talk about medicine. When the invite comes from doctors, commercial farmers etc., they too do not expect the speaker to talk about aviation. This is just common sense, plain and simple.

So, Konneh’s speech as I read a glance of it, was tailored to his audience––the people that organized the occasion.  As a mid-level Africa-based World Bank official, Konneh would have elected to write a long speech about the World Bank, but if he did, some people, including the author of this article and perhaps many of the event’s participants, would have said he is boasting and that the speech has no relevance to the occasion to which he is invited.

Despite tribal differences, all Liberians are one

Nevertheless, there are still some Liberians that, somehow and artificially, have developed problems not only with Konneh’s written speech but his humility and desire to honor a request from a bona fide Liberian group as a keynote speaker simply because he is Mandingo addressing a Mandingo association. What is wrong with Amara Konneh speaking at a Mandingo’s convention? Is there a difference between Konneh and other prominent Liberians who have spoken at their tribal conventions upon invitation?

In the last three to four years, the River Gee County Association in the Americas (which is technically a Grebo tribal association) has invited the likes of Senator Conmany Wesseh, Senator Matthew Jaye, Dean Nagbalee Warner of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia and the author of this article (Jones Nhinson Williams) to speak at their various conventions throughout the United States. Everyone just named is Grebo, and apart from the author (Jones Nhinson Williams) of this article who works for government in the United States, the rest of the other people have served in the same Liberian administration as Konneh. But not a single Liberian complain nor criticize these people for speaking to their tribal group.  Accomplished international human rights lawyer Samuel Kofi Woods, Senator Milton Teahjay (all Kru men) and others have spoken to members of the New Kru Town Association in the United States. The list of people who have spoken to the Bassa and other tribal associations in the U.S. is countless. We never heard any one complain.

Notwithstanding, we see all these mean Facebook’s comments about Konneh’s speech and his participation in the Federation of Mandingo Association’s convention because majority of Liberians have this subconscious apartheid mentality about Mandingo people in Liberia. This is wrong and must stop. Do I think all members of the Mandingo ethnic group are good people? Absolutely not. Do I think Amara Konneh did not make some mistakes as finance minister? Absolutely not. But this is not the issue and the reason for concern. What is troubling is the fact that some people have problem with Konneh for no fault of his own. No one chooses their tribe. Konneh did not choose to be Mandingo. Neither did any one of us choose our tribe. And by the way, the Mandingo people are among some of the best people any one can find in Liberia and West Africa. This does not mean we don’t have individual Mandingo people who are terrible. Every family, tribe, community, society, and country does.

President Sirelaf (left) and Konneh (right) during Konneh’s departure ceremony from government

I have had and continue to have serious governance and policy differences with the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberian administration in which Amara Konneh served as a cabinet member. However, that does not erase the fact that he demonstrated some degree of leadership, openness and creativity during his time in government. Through his efforts, the world can watch Liberia’s financial transaction on the global financial market on Wall Street. That is innovation and that is what Liberia and Liberians expect. He was also honest enough, to admit, during a speech in Philadelphia few years ago, that most of Liberia’s financial resources under Presidential Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration are consumed by a few. He also faced attacks, insults and threat of a jail time when he single-handedly tried to reduce the exorbitant salaries of lawmakers and the appropriation of certain elected offices in Liberia. When the lawmakers ganged up against him, the author of this article was one of those that came to his rescue in a publication.

Do I think the Liberian government under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a failure? Of course, I do. Do I believe a lot of corruption occurred at the Ministry of Finance and at the Central Bank of Liberia? Of course, I do.  The recent Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI) loan program is a classic example of the kinds of fraud that took place at the ministry.  But that was after Konneh’s departure and he has no implication therein, assuming he was even there at the time.   Do I believe that they (officials of government) could have done far better than what they did as a government? Of course, I do. Do I fault them (government) for not creating more private sector jobs and not ensuring that the central elements (energy or electricity, good roads and improved healthcare) of economic development were a priority in 12 years? Of course, I do.   Do I think Konneh and others who served in the Sirleaf’s administration need to provide an account for their stewardship in government?  Of course, I do.  But we cannot cast a blame on an individual simply because he belongs to a tribe. Neither should we dislike any one simply because he or she belongs to a tribe too. This is what some people do in the case of Amara Konneh, and it is sad and illogical.

The so-called hatred against the Mandingo tribe in Liberia is rooted in indoctrination. The settlers that wrote our history did not do a good job because they lied and planted a deceptive piece of art called “Liberian History.” In their falsehood code named “Liberian History,” they did not just write that Liberia was “founded,” they also listed tribes and people that they could manipulate and control. Anyone who disagrees with them was outcast and portrayed as non–Liberian. Clearly, the Mandingo ethnic group falls in this category because they practically refused most of the early impositions of the settlers.

Map of Liberia

The settlers have given an indelible impression to the rest of Liberia that the Mandingo tribe is an illegitimate group in Liberia. This is false, wrong and should be considered an offense to any true Liberian history. The fact that we have Mandingo people in other African countries is and can be no excuse to falsely believe that what the settlers implied is true. Like the Mandingo tribal group in Liberia, there are other tribal groups in the country that are found in other African nations.

Kissis are found in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Kenya. Majority of the Kpelle tribal group is found in Guinea and other places. The Lormas are in Guinea and some parts of Zimbabwe. The Grebo are found in the Ivory Coast and are said to be related to the Ashanti tribe of Ghana and the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. The Krahns are largely found in the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. The Vais and Golas are found in Sierra Leone and are largely an offshoot of several Mandike tribal configuration. The Bassa are found in Cameroon and other places, including Nigeria. The Kru are found in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. Every tribe in Liberia can be found in another African nation even though migration and social evolution, over time, have diluted the dialects they speak today.

What we need in Liberia is oneness. No home, family and community can be strong, happy and peaceful without unity. What will happen if every Liberian tribe goes their own way? What will continue to happen when we suspect fault about one another from tribal lenses? What will happen when we always judge people not on their personal record and behavior but from their involuntary membership in a tribal group? Our nation will break into pieces. One will not care for the other. A divided house, family or society cannot face an enemy. A society, too, cannot do without unity. If the rest of Liberia continues to be suspicious of and hate our Mandingo brothers and sisters for being members of the Mandingo ethnic group––a destination that they did not ask to be, but that God chose for them — then we as Liberians will never have a united country; integration will be far-fetched, and peace will continue to be illusive.

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Jones Nhinson Williams

Jones Nhinson Williams is a Liberian philosopher (born in Pleebo, Maryland County but hailed from River Gee County) firmly educated by the Catholic Church. He is an American trained public policy, labor market information, strategic management, and workforce development professional with accomplished global experience in job creation and institutional governance.
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