BY AMBASSADOR RACHEL GBENYON DIGGS
Good Afternoon! What a great opportunity and what appropriate timing to address the escalation of violence in our beloved homeland. Violence which is deferring the dream handed down in our Declaration of Independence “to evince to all that we are capable of equal advancement in all that adorns and dignifies man.”
Let me first ask you to join me in applauding the efforts of this dynamic group of women who are raising their voices against the “mindless menace of violence” that continues to stain our land and our lives. Violence, which promotes angst, agony, and anger, heightens the fears that threaten our fragile peace and drive many of our talents into exile.
Fellow Liberians, over the years we have sat back in deafening silence as violence became an acceptable tool in our society. I was fourteen years old in 1955 the first time I witnessed a public display of political violence. It was in the aftermath of “The Plot That Failed”, an alleged assasination attempt on the life of President William V.S. Tubman. Women were stripped and paraded through the streets, suspects were flogged while being taken into custody. I even remember a distinguished young medical doctor being stabbed in the heel with a bayonet while the public watched in dead silence. These incidents of violence led to the exodus of prominent Liberian families: the Barclays, Colemans, Dunbars, Horaces, Phillips among many. The onset
of the Liberian brain drain!
Summary killings were a recurring feature following the military coup in 1980. President Tolbert was brutally murdered in the coup. In their report, Liberia: A Promise Betrayed, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights stated that President Tolbert was disemboweled and buried in a common grave with two dozen of his security guards. The report further added “one incident during this period was to mark itself indelibly on the collective memory of the nation and much of the rest of the world.” Thirteen ousted officials of the Tolbert regime were tied to wooden poles at the Barclay Training Center and executed by a drunken firing squad. Thousands of onlookers cheered as the scene was recorded. I remember a dark cloud hovering over the country on that infamous day, April 22, 1980. Flogging with automobile fan belts and rubber whips cut from steel-belt radial tires became commonplace. Sometimes sand and salt water were sprinkled on the backs of detainees before flogging them. Summary executions were characterized by horrific brutality, including castration and dismemberment. Thousands of Liberians sought refuge from these atrocities. Setting the second stage of Liberia’s brain drain.
In the aftermath of the November 12, 1985, attempted coup, commonly referred to as the Quiwonkpa Coup, several hundred soldiers and civilians were executed without trials. General Thomas Quiwonkpa was killed, his body dismembered and publicly exhibited on the grounds of the Executive Mansion. The general was 30 years old, and left behind his grieving widow and young son. A prominent broadcast journalist, Charles Gbenyon, was bayoneted to death while in the custody of the Executive Mansion Guards. Gbenyon was Editor-in-Chief of the Liberian Broadcasting System television station and made the fatal decision to broadcast the event on the evening news. He was picked up at work and last seen in the back of an army jeep, stripped down to his briefs and handcuffed. He was taken to the Executive Mansion. An eyewitness reported that his head was actually ripped off with a bayonet, leaving the skin of his neck as the only tie between his head and body. Charles Gbenyon, taken away from his family at age 29, was my baby brother. He left behind his widow, an 18-month old son, a baby daughter, his parents and siblings who still grieve his loss. Our Dad walked alone to the Executive Mansion to beg for his child’s remains. The regime refused to release the body which was dumped in a mass grave near Camp Scheiffelin. How many other Liberian families have similar stories? Another exodus of families fleeing pervasive violence.
A bloody purge launched against the Gio and Mano ethnic groups, with the slaughter of an estimated three thousand people, provoked ethnic rivalries which fueled the First Liberian Civil Crisis. Over 250,000 killed. Untold atrocities and violence led
hundreds of thousands into exile. The world watched in horror the video-taped torture murder of President Samuel Kanyon Doe. To date, no one has been brought to justice. In today’s Liberia, citizens are gripped with fear at the alarming increase in violent acts. Rapes, murders, mysterious deaths and disappearances are reported daily, but are not being adequately addressed by the authorities. The most basic task of a government is to protect its citizens against violence, yet the Liberian authorities seem unable to uphold fundamental constitutional rights. Impunity and corruption remain the order of the day, presenting an ominous threat to the nation’s fragile peace! The slogan “No Justice, No Peace” rings true in today’s Liberia.
So what’s the path ahead?
Fellow Liberians, the challenges now call for clear vision and united action to rebuild Liberia with the same dedication and determination we have shown in rebuilding successful lives in exile. Turning our challenges into opportunities will define the reality we attach to the vision we dare have as a united people. Based on the experiences we have gained over the years, we are presented with unprecedented opportunities to mold and develop the institutions that form our national identity and ensure lasting peace and security for all Liberians, irrespective of ethnicity, class, or religion. Do we dare take up the challenges, using truth and reconciliation as our building blocks? Or will we stand by once again, idle, lethargic, critical, non-committal, and let these opportunities pass us by?
The upcoming 2023 elections afford us the opportunity to unleash the power in our voices. Let them hear the roar of our voices through our votes. Let’s teach our people to vote rights not rice. So many shy away from politics, but politics shape the life of every Liberian through the leaders we choose. Let’s vote out the “honorables” who serve us dishonorably. Always Liberia first! Now is the time.
This Advocacy Group of eminent women has asked us to pick up the gauntlet and join them in this fight against violence in Liberia. I firmly believe that Liberia’s greatest resources are the talents of its people. We have highly trained men and women, experienced in education, medicine, law, economics, politics, civic and social affairs. We also have skilled organizers and negotiators. All essential skills to address the problems dogging our beloved land. It is now the moral imperative of every person who considers Liberia his or her home to get involved in rekindling the beacon light of hope and harmony that attracted peoples the world over to our shores and made our small country a giant on the African continent and on the world stage. This is our challenge. Nothing we ever do can be more honorable.
We need a plan of action. It is in our own interest to remove the conditions that allow violence and criminality to thrive in our society. We begin a dialogue with all three equal branches of our goverment, the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary, put in place to safeguard our safety and security. They also hold the power over our lives. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “the men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when questioning is needed , for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
Let’s use our power now to find creative solutions to the complicated causes of violence. The simple truth is to tackle the complex set of factors at play. Deep-rooted and engrained social and economic issues pose serious impediments to progress. Poverty and inequality, high unemployment, food insecurity, breakdown of family structures, cultural and traditional practices, domestic violence, inadequate healthcare, lack of youth services, and most importantly, a broken education system are the ingredients that create violent behaviors. The challenges are indeed daunting, but united efforts could and would provide some solutions to the prevailing problems.
In my research for this paper, I was excited by a 2018 London-based initiative, the Violence Reduction Unit, which brings together teams of specialists in education, health, law, local government, communities, youth services and policing to effect change. The core principle behind the Unit’s work is that violence, while not inevitable, is preventable. This Unit works at the grassroots level with communities to ensure that they have the tools and resources to reduce violence. The Unit has established Young People’s Action Groups to ensure that young people have a voice in finding solutions. I passionately believe that with our talents and resources such units can be replicated in Liberia, through partnerships with government institutions, as well as traditional societies, schools, charities and others.
A myriad of our problems stem from a lack of resources. In my opinion, an expansion in economic opportunities in rural areas could lead to a shift in attitude in the cultural practice of Female Genital Mutilation. Girls married off at young ages could be linked to our dowry system, upon which many families depend for survival. Creating living-wage employment opportunities could provide an alternative to address the issues of status and income derived from these long-held generational practices. Thoughtful discussions and actions are required to effect meaningful change.
It would be remiss if I did not make mention of a laudable Liberian Initiative, the Koimenee Impact Foundation, providing help and hope to underserved youths, commonly called Zogoes, through drug rehabilitation, education, and skill training. Because of the prevailing economic climate, this growing population could have a serious impact on Liberia’s future. This Foundation is asking for a small monthly donation of $5US to underwrite the costs of workshops and seminars to help these youths develop life skills and financial independence. In the words of President Obama, “we must never tag young people as future criminals, but reach out to them as future citizens”. One cup of Starbucks a month could be life changing for a Liberian youth.
Let me end here, as I am certain that there are many brilliant ideas to be shared. I believe in the success of the Liberian Women Advocacy to End Violence in Liberia. Wasn’t it a group of Liberian women who prayed the devil back to hell and brought back peace, however fragile, to Liberia? We have the talent, we have the will, and above all we share a common ground of deep and abiding love of Liberia.