ETHNIC IDENTITY-BAITING has several characteristics. First, the perpetrators politicize ethnic difference. Second, they manipulate ethnic difference to cause unreasonable fear. Third, they use the mistrust as a basis to purge their perceived rivals from positions of power. Fourth, having eliminated their “rivals” from power, they then use the opportunity to plunder national wealth for personal gains.
By this time in our history, we should be aware of these sinister tactics not only because they hurt all of us so deeply, but also because these despicable practices reversed the development of our country. They devastated the social fabric.
Surprisingly, it seems that some amongst us have yet not learned this agonizing lesson or recognized the enormity of what is at stake. If we are to save Liberia, we must save it from the tyranny of prejudice in all its extraordinarily damaging manifestations.
The carnage of the warring years painfully showed that something was terribly wrong with our country. A rift which had been widening dangerously along ethnic lines in our society was never confronted. Thus, the resulting outrage ate at the core of our existence. The historical tragedy, the “original sin” of dividing Liberians into social groups, Americo-Liberians, indigenous people; the accompanying stark and notorious opportunity gaps; exploiting their differences; and the further divide of Liberians into ethnic groups: Manos, Mandingoes, Gios, Krahns, Lormas, Kissis, and so forth, and also manipulating those differences, are fundamental starting points for how many of us still see one another – through the lens of ethnic identity or other superficial distinctions, gender divide being no exception.
So, when I saw an article in the December 4th edition of the Frontpage Africa newspaper, which seemingly pit Manos and Gios against the other in the Nimba County senatorial race entitled: “Manos Rallying to Unseat PYJ,” I cringed. I worried about the simplistic use of ethnic identity, which has the tendency to foster artificial divides and even serve ulterior motives. A casual, less critical examination of the article might write off the contents as an attempt by a reporter to describe the sentiments of constituents in this race. But when one sets this discussion against the backdrop of our tortured history of ethnic conflict, it invites thoughtful scrutiny. This news article underestimated the crucial influence that ethnic identity holds in Liberian politics. We should be encouraging our leaders to engage all constituencies, and not just their own tribal or ethnic ones. Policies and ideas should drive debates within our national and local elections and not ethnicity. The idea of ethnic communities as winners and losers could be reinforced, if such a tendency persists in our national discourse. The reporter could have sought to compare the public records of the contestants without evoking an ethnic diatribe.
The notion that Manos and Gios have an uneasy relationship may be a product of the imaginations of outsiders, but not a reality that we (Manos and Gios) see readily. In any democratic society, Liberia being no exception, rivalry is often built on unequal access to power, resources, and perceptions that leaders favor their own. Therefore, for two or more daughters or sons of Nimba to decide to run against one another, should never be interpreted through ethnic lens. Agreements and disagreements between Liberians on politics and policy should be just that, and never be correlated to their ethnic identity. Regardless of how we vote, we should appreciate the fact that unprecedented coming together of the various ethnic groups is emerging in the aftermath of the war. This has convinced hundreds and thousands of Liberians, that ethnicity is just a mere social category of cultural significance and not a pre-assigned quality that defines a person or a group of people.
That said, I am concerned about how ethnic identity and religious identity to a lesser extent, have tended to distort our politics and social relations, even when we have made incredible strides in building a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society. I want to speak directly to what “ethnic politics” is and how Liberians who aspire for a more peaceful and stable nation having seen the gruesome nature of ethnic identity-baiting should call those who exploit ethnic identity out and oppose them, no matter who they vote for and what policies they subscribe to.
As a son of Nimba County and a Liberian more importantly, the efforts by some to again introduce ethnic identity in our politics, pitting Manos and Gios against the other is the kind of ethnic identity-baiting that contributed to the war. These coded messages that aim to split people and bring disharmony should be confronted with all the energies one can muster regardless of our political views and ethnic identity. This vicious wrong-headedness must be condemned. The same ethnic identity-baiting that fiercely divided Krahns and Manos and Gios, and Mandingoes was a deliberate political strategy of separating kinsmen from one another. We should all agree that in Nimba County or elsewhere, people of different ethnic identities will be on opposing sides politically. But it is irresponsible and contrary to the values of promoting national reconciliation and cohesion to misuse individual quests for political power (a democratic right), as part of an ethnic-baiting strategy to sell newspapers or achieve any sinister purpose.
Liberia, in the aftermath of war that meted out egregious suffering without discrimination must forge a “big tent” open and welcoming of an ethnically changing nation, characterized by intermarriages and close personal ties across ethnic divides. Any message with covert divisive ethnic overtones or undertones should be rejected entirely. The emerging political contest between or amongst various Nimba citizens should be allowed to take its course in a civilized and democratic manner, and not be infected with rancorous ethnic-baiting. Diversity in our politics and social relations is a value that all Liberians, Christians, Muslims; on all sides of the political spectrum, should support. Ethnic identity-baiting is a national cancer and we should go full trotter in seeing it as a non-partisan cause to fight against.
This coming election let us make sure that as Liberians, we are clear about that. For Nimba citizens, let us make sure that we are no one’s pawn to score political points at our expense. We must refrain from ethnic identity-baiting and the use of other coded discriminatory messages or damning political rhetoric. We must use our numerical advantage as a political capital to the utmost benefit of our citizens. That is, only if we stand together against ethnic identity-baiting.
The architects of ethnic identity-baiting, who promoted fear tactics in the pre-war and warring years, should see now the disgusting spectacle that came out of their polarization. A whole nation died unto itself. They should see the suffering and strife that their poisonous injection of ethnicity into politics wrought – the slaughtering of more than 200,000 of their kinsmen and women. Their tirades and rants bred animosity and hate and tore households and communities asunder. We know or at least should know by now how toxic the mix of ethnicity and politics can be. For all these, we should never again tolerate such a narrow-minded, irrational, saber-rattling that passes for political discourse or journalism.
True, the nation’s ethnic divisions have not disappeared. True, class, health, poverty, education, and other disparities remain sharply drawn with unemployment and crime concentrated where the poor live: in slums, remote/rural areas. But we will not solve these problems by politicizing ethnic identity, but rather exacerbate them.
Emmanuel Dolo lives in Duazon, Liberia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.