It was an unbearably hot morning in Mamba Point. The calm ocean breeze tried but failed in its attempt to alleviate the scorching 7 am heat along the Atlantic Coast. I had just walked outside my hotel to join colleagues in a van heading to the Ministry of Health for a day’s work. An unexpected commotion annihilated the morning peace. I couldn’t see from my vantage point, so I ventured to ask a young man standing at my hotel gate what the noise was about. “Dey man den wanted to jeek the woman bag, but God see them.” Just as he ended that sentence in one breath, he joined a chorus of voices, “Your take them to the beach and kill them!” Another young man in full strides like an Olympian sliced his way through onlookers with no regards for fellow pedestrians.
His first sentence stirred my interest, but it was his second sentence that really aroused my senses, “Dey will die this morning,” he said. I quietly inched my way toward the gathering crowd of mostly bear-chested, muscular young men. I confess these brothers challenged my masculinity with their well-toned bodies; no doubt I have access to better servings of nutrition than they, but somehow they are better sculpted than I could ever dream.
The scene that emerged before my eyes, however, betrayed my admiration for bodies that seemed hue from igneous rocks. Yells of “Your go kill man den!” filled the air with relaxed calm, as if killing suspected thieves was a routine event. Two young men, twenty-something is my best guess, were suspended in the air, held by two groups of four men – hands and feet stretched out – while others punched, kicked, slapped, stoned, spat on, and did whatever seemed appropriate to do to suspected thieves. Just like that, these two young men were being led to the beach to be killed.
Fortunately for them, the lone female officer on duty at the US ambassador’s residence heard the commotion and came running down the hill. Her intervention kept those thieves alive. She handcuffed them and assured the mob that she would take them to the nearest precinct.
In subsequent conversations after that incident, it became clear to me that mob justice was more common in my beloved Liberia than I could ever imagine. In fact, in the five weeks that I was in Liberia, the media reported at least one instance of mob justice per week. For example, there was the Ganta incident when businesses were destroyed after a motorcyclist went missing and his peers took the law into their hands to avenge his death. There was also the incident of two missing boys whose lifeless bodies were found in the backseat of a car belonging to a local Nigerian businessman. The man’s house and several used cars were burned by a mob consisting primarily of his neighbors. In addition, a suspected thief was found lying dead on the street outside LBS studios in Paynesville.
In each of case, the mob’s action indicates a lack of faith in law enforcement and, by extension, the entire legal system. These acts of barbarism reflect a dangerously weak legal architecture that exposes citizens to a myriad of vulnerabilities. In such a dismal context, citizens are compelled to take matters into their own hands. Subsequently, and the ensuing emotionally charged encounters can engender disastrous consequences.
We, as a democratic society, cannot afford persistent mob justice. It weakens the foundation of our society – moral, economic, social, and political, – compromising our strength and our unity. It renders all of us susceptible to this illogical and highly temperamental street justice. There is no established rule about how sanctions are determined and executed under a system of mob justice; as such, all citizens are at the mercy of a mob.
The remedy is formidable but not impossible. There are small steps we can take to mitigate mob violence, and we can begin today. First, the hour is ripe for a national dialogue about the dangers and illegality of mob violence. We need to talk among ourselves; we need to have an honest, open conversation about this plague that has besieged our nation. Led by our elected leaders as well as leaders from the civic and religious communities, we must engage in open, honest, and thoughtful national dialogue about mob justice.
Second, we must hold people accountable through a process of restorative justice.
In addition to sustained national dialogue, it is important to build an independent and resilient judiciary. This is far too important to be left to chance; it requires a deliberate plan with clear strategies and benchmarks.
All Liberians must recognize and affirm that mob justice is antithetical to our values and our interests.
Mob justice ain’t justice!
So, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day I saw the amazing Africa Umoja at the Rialto Center in Atlanta. What a show! Africa Umoja brings together exquisite music, scintillating dance, and theatrical drums to tell South Africa’s story. Beginning with the period when African tribes lived undisturbed on the land, it covers the arrival and eventual dominance of White settlers, the long struggle for freedom and equality, and concludes with current efforts to build a Rainbow Nation. It’s a beautiful story that unites a beautiful people. It’s a story around which millions of people coalesce. It is story told with unbridled excitement and pride.
It really got me thinking about Liberia – the Liberian story. What is it? When did it begin? Really? And don’t tell me 1822 or 1847. But why not there? It’s a fair question. What’s the narrative that units us as Liberians? What’s the thread that holds us together? I have struggled in the past two weeks to arrive at an acceptable response. And it frightens me that a uniquely Liberian narrative evades my imagination! Because without a unique Liberian story – without a distinct Liberian story that respectfully includes all of us – how do we know what to build?
Maybe the absence of a clearly articulated “Liberian narrative” explains the deficiencies of patriotism that proliferates the Liberian psyche. The absence of a well-told Liberian story means that we, as a people, do not profit from the tremendous benefits of a national narrative.
A Liberian story would incite us to nation building, because our story would remind us of where we come from, who has gone before us, and what we have done in the past. We need a sense of our collective past so we can plan and execute our collective future.
In addition to inciting us for nation building, our story would inspire us to take pride in our homeland. I am yet to meet a group of people who scorn their homeland as much as Liberians abhor Liberia. How else can we explain theft in the public sector if not deep hatred of the Motherland? How else should we explain our entrenched inability to build or do anything worth celebrating? Really, when was the last time we did something big as a nation? Nothing inspires us about Liberian because we do not have a Liberian story to tell.
Finally, a Liberian story will help us aspire to a future unfathomable to all observers. Our story will help us believe in a future where democracy, free market, liberty, rule of law, justice, equality, and true Liberian Brotherhood – and Sisterhood – are the culture of our lives.
So, let’s begin to write and tell a unique Liberian story, one in which every facet of society has a voice and equal stake. Man, I want to hear a Liberian story. One upon a time, time…
Liberia is currently hemmed between commitments to constitutional conformity and concern for public well-being. Both are important. The fight against Ebola is important, and demands our total attention. At the same time, our constitution calls for regular elections, a key feature of our nascent democracy. Navigating this delicate balance is where our government and politicians find themselves.
It is critical that our leaders investigate their own motives for constitutional compliance in a time of Ebola. It cannot and must be that we are complaint because it sends the right message to the international community – important as that might be. Our compliance cannot be based on a desire to save face. It cannot just be about public image, because holding elections while Ebola kills our compatriots has to be about us, and only us. It has to be about our collective future.
I hope we use this platform to teach our children that democracy is so important – existentially indispensable. That those who will inherit the legacy of our democracy deserve to know that nothing, not even Ebola, can or should curtail our values. That we, as a people, will defend democracy with our very lives.
On the other hand, Ebola has already demonstrated its vicious nature. Our temerity to hold elections in a time of Ebola should not cause us to slack. We must remain vigilant. We must keep our eyes keenly focused on Ebola, and continue to devote all necessary resources to mitigate its wrath. It cannot be a case of one eye on Ebola and one eye on elections. No, it must be both eyes on elections and both eyes on Ebola. We can do both, and we must do both. The lessons for posterity are invaluable. Let’s show our children we are capable of doing something big, and doing it right.