Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Ethnicity is a critical point of rally in political situations, particularly in Africa where ethnic politics has dominated at the expense of nationalism. Liberian politics is a good tool for experimentation of the test of ethnicity in African politics to be used in any political laboratory. The first ethnic group to dominate the politics and socio-economy of Liberia was the minority group of settlers referred to as the Americo-Liberians. In the 1980s emerged a group of indigenous African tribes who succeeded in violently overthrowing the Americo-Liberian hegemony that ruled for over a century.

The new class consisting of indegionous tribes could not unite on a front of pursuing a real political and economic agenda or ideology that could direct political and economic actions for the country, but soon sank into feuds stirred by ethnic alignments. Finally, the leader of the juntas and his tribe succeeded in the fight and his ethnic group succeeded in taking control of the state. What came after were raids, and attempted genocides on rival tribes. The attempt by the NPFL to physically eliminate certain tribes in the early 1990S by a declared genocide tells the rest of the story.

Varying dimensions of ethnic politics are all over Africa: Rwanda saw the Hutu-Tutsi horror. South Africa remains governed by black African tribes with no prospects for white minorities. Sudan is nearly divided into two states of Arab North and Black African South. Liberia presents a different typology because Americo-Liberians since 1980 are becoming assimilated into African tribes that neighbor their settlements. Additionally, no tribe in Liberia is so dominant to secure an electoral victory independently.
Electoral processes in Liberia, like the last one conducted in 2005, can further give sufficient evidence of the ethnicization of Liberian politics. In 2005, every tribe that had a popular candidate foresaw a chance to win the presidency. Like the Bassa saw a president in Brumskine, The Kru did in Weah, the Vai in Sherman, the Gola in Johnson-Sirleaf. The Mandingo was a visible monkey-range resulting from inner conflicts and the declaration of a lifetime loyalty by one of its organizations for candidate Johnson-Sirleaf. But the Western Mandingo went the other way and supported their son, G.V. Kromah as was demonstrated by the overwhelming success of his party in Lofa County.

These tribal dimensions of politics in Africa lay the basis for which politicians hide behind ethnic groups in pursuing their hidden agendas like the Krahns and Mandingoes saw their liberators in the 1990s. Since the civil war ended, lessons from the politicization of tribes as thought by the war has been well learnt by other tribes. The only ethnic organization that committed its members to a political party, and in the name of all its kinsmen, was the National Mandingo Caucus. This declaration of lifetime loyalty by the Caucus to the candidate of the Unity Party, according to observers, portrayed a loathsome betrayal to those who led liberation struggles when the tribe was nearly wiped out by attempted genocide. This is not however the issue. This premise has been set to give a brief look at the essence of tribes in African politics vis-à-vis the adverse political consequences (mostly persecution) that follow when a tribe falls on the wrong side of the coin.

With what Liberian Mandingoes went through before reaching this far, their professed role in the 2005 elections that was widely criticized and seeing as an internally divided tribe, and the way forward as some local organizations like the elite-based Mandingo Caucus ( NMC) and the so-called grassroots-based Concerned Mandingo Society are working toward are central to this article.
It is with no doubt that this writer declares that the Liberian Mandingoes are most often criticized and reduced to non-citizen status by other Liberians. This has been experienced all over the country, and in many cases they are referred to as foreigners - Guineans or Malians. The driving force behind this resentment has not been established, but several factors may be assumed to be stirring such unfounded hatred against the Mandingo tribe in Liberia.
First, there is plausibility in concluding that Mandingoes in Liberia are despised for their uncompromising religious belief in Islam. The Mandingo tribe has demonstrated a strong belief and commitment to Islam, and with all the challenges of the society, it has been difficult for them to be converted to other faiths. Therefore, as Islam is resented by non-Muslims, the Mandingoes are as well resented. To some extent, some people in Liberia have come to make Islam synonymous with Mandingo, and that whosoever is a Muslim, is a Mandingo.

Second, another reason behind the public resentment of the Mandingo tribe could be on the basis of sheer jealousy as a result of the economic and commercial strides made by Mandingoes in the country. Currently there is a reported dominance of certain local trade industries by the Mandingoes – transportation, motor garage, petroleum industry, etc.
The above are just cited as sources of external hatred for the Mandingo community which are baseless and unfounded. This needs not to bother the community. What the community needs is to push forward in unison with purpose and objective.
The most important thing is the internal dispute and sometimes negative classifications that occur within the Mandingo community, and this is where the outsiders see as leakages in their attempts to demeaning the Mandingoes in Liberia: there is a complete disunity amongst Liberian Mandingoes, and the Mandingo ethnic group is the only ethnic group so far seeing in Liberia with a well established elite organization riding and collecting political olive branches using the name of the entire tribe.

The most controversial and what by chance made the National Mandingo Caucus popular in Liberia was its declaration of the vote of the Mandingoes for candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the 2005 presidential elections. So many reactions have been written to that effect, and debates have opened and closed on that matter. But the mere fact that such declaration of support by a club of less than twenty men in the name of thousands of innocent people nursing souls of persecutions simply because of the same tribe was a social disservice and complete misrepresentation tantamount to an act of quisling. No one has a moral ground to question a club of less than twenty for their personal political opinions, but to be brave and use the name of an ethnic group in a country where political persecutions are targeted at tribes on the bases of their proximity to presidents or politicians was a mournful and dreadful political error.

Most of the arguments against the caucus at the time can now have sufficient evidence to prove that the few guys used the tribe as canon fodder to obtain positions and business contracts in the government of the candidate they supported. The following are true and indubitable: Most of them are holding positions in the current government; some of them have government contracts; the Caucus has not been heard since 2005; it has made no representation for the Mandingo community anywhere since they attained their objective of entering government and winning contracts; it cannot boast of a roster with fifty registered members.

If this had happened and the community remains loosely connected or its source of unification for purpose remains undefined, then there is a need to revitalize, reform, remake, or design some institutional mechanism that will give leadership direction to the entire Mandingo nation in the Liberian state. The Mandingo nation in Liberia stretches across the territorial landscape of the country. It is one of the few tribes that adapt and settle nearly in all parts of the country. This ubiquity of the tribe in the country which is primarily due to the meaningful trade and commercial activities of its members should be seen as a solid point of rally and strength, not as a point of division as it is unfortunately happening. It is regrettable to observe that people most often refer to others as Lofa Mandingo, Bong County Mandingo, Nimba Mandingo, Monrovia Mandingo, and sometimes Gbonyiaka or Konyianka.

On the other hand, there is a considerable number of people of Mandingo origin who are currently identified with other tribes like the Vai, the Gbandi, The Gio, Manos, Kpelle, etc. Some of these resulted from intermarriages. And some people who are by nature and origin Mandingo are currently identified with tribes in settlements where their grandparents settled during commercial or Islamic missionary activities. These people are most often seen differently by other Mandingoes and sometimes face serious identity crisis as a result of resentments in their settlements and even the tribe (Mandingo) of their origin. The Vais, for example, would refer to people in their settlements-The Kannehs, Nyeis, Kromahs, etc- as Mandingoes, and the Mandingoes would refer to them as Vai. The Massaley’s and Dukuly’s, like the ones from Gbarpolu and Bomi County would be called Mandingoes by the Kpelle, and the Mandingoes would call them Kpelles. There are many other cases of identity crisis for people who are originally of the Mandingo tribe.

These references are made in attempts to question the true identity of people. But what happens in the final analysis is that it further divides the community and opens spaces of distrusts amongst members of the Mandingo tribe.
The tribe is numerically large and economically potent to make significant impacts in the country that no one can question or detest. But making positive impacts can only be achievable with a untied community fronting a common cause. Descriptions in the forms of the regional or dialectical differences in the community are only tantamount to weakening the strength of the community.

I n the midst of these challenges, the current social and political discrepancies that exist in the community with two organizations claiming supremacy or control, further frustrate the prospects of uniting the Mandingo nation in Liberia despite its unique culture, religious commonality and economic viability of its members. These two organizations, the National Mandingo Caucus of Liberia (the elites) and the Concerned Mandingo Society of Liberia or COMASL (the so-called grassrooters) are struggling daily to terminate the existence of each other. The COMASL which has membership in various Mandingo dominated communities pays political loyalty to the perceived liberators of the Mandingoes, but it did so in 2005 by actions left with the discretion of its members, while the Caucus openly declared its loyalty to the candidate of the Unity Party (perceived to be a supporter of the movement that attempted a genocide against the Mandingoes). The dividends from politically auctioning the Mandingo community in 2005 is currently being enjoyed by the Caucus, and it is on the basis of its political propinquity to the status quo and the financial muscles of its members that the caucus is claiming absolute supremacy and it is now inviting all Mandingoes to a national convention with attempts to also merge the COMASL into the structure and objectives of its organization either overtly or covertly. COMASL on the other hand claims supremacy on the basis of its nearness to the people and ability to spontaneously mobilize the people at any given time.
The struggle between the two groups is creating more distrusts in the community as Caucus members and COMASL members are usually engaged in destructive criticisms, but none can actually boast of a meaningful social benefit to the people for the past two years. Does the community actually need them, or does the community really need an umbrella organization? The essence of their existence shall only be determined by the Mandingo community if indeed they are engaged into meaningful programs that yield benefits to the community, or if they actually provide true leadership to the people.
As the Caucus convention nears, it is prudent to find common grounds and allow for the emergence of more Mandingo organizations in the country that must compute with development activities, but not to compute for supremacy only to impress upon others that it has full control which lends it the authority to determine which political movement the Mandingo community should support when national elections nears.
We expect to see from all Mandingo organizations in the country efficient systems of governance, social service programs, cultural activities to unite the people, and empowerment programs that will help the community to continue making meaningful contributions to the development of the country.

The Gbarnga convention, as called by the National Mandingo Caucus, must not be left with the tradition of the caucus, but must see as a priority the need to serve the community with a sense and commitment void of cynicism and cronyism. This convention must be able to carve out ways of intervening and addressing some of the problems face by the Mandingo people in Liberia, including the looming land disputes, and if possible the mandate and function of the caucus must be clearly defined, so as to make public its function and essence of existence. In this way, one would easily know which organization is specialized in social services, development activities, cultural affairs, or political activism and mobilization in the community.

Finally we expect to sharpen lot of contradictions in Gbarnga, and to perforate some of the balloons of impression-making and impersonation. But above all, we hope that the Gbarnga convention will be successful and will provide for a new beginning.

See you in Gbarnga.