Celebrating Thomas Jaye: ‘Oracle’ of Liberian SSR and Illustrious Pan-Africanist

An oracle is a person or agency considered to provide wise and insightful counsel or prophetic predictions or precognition of the future, inspired by the gods._ Wikipedia

 Death is like a cap that we all must one day wear. On 31 July 2020, it was the turn of Thomas Jaye, Professor and Comrade, to ‘wear the cap’. TJ, as he was fondly known to his colleagues and friends, charted a path of dedicated service and commitment to humanity.

For TJ, the people of Liberia were his window on that humanity and this perspective was deeply instilled in his very essence. Yes, TJ was a relentless Pan-Africanist and global citizen but his very core was defined by his Liberian roots, his humble beginnings and his tremendous respect for, literally, the Liberian people.  He was driven by a sense of duty to the Liberian people, not just a privileged few, and he had an abiding faith in that eventual outcome. He was a people’s man, and a man of the people.

TJ lived a life of service to the Liberian people, an important element of which was his passionate commitment to ensuring a participatory approach to the transformation of security governance in Liberia. Those familiar with the complexity of transforming the Liberian security sector after years of civil war would remember that there was no clear path ahead in those days. There was a potpourri of international organizations and bilateral actors:  those with the money sought to drive the reform process. Yet, TJ’s depth, his extensive network at all levels, his sheer knowledge of the history of Liberia, and his consistently principled stance established him as the ‘reference point’ for anyone seriously engaged on transforming the security sector in Liberia. Everyone turned to him for his insights, and those who did not turn to him could not afford to turn away from him because of the authenticity and profoundness of his insights. He was indeed the ‘oracle’ of SSR in Liberia.

TJ was the arrow-head of the Security Sector Transformation Advisory Group, an informal consortium linked to the Governance Reform Commission and comprised of the African Security Sector Network (ASSN), King’s College of London, and the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). He played a defining and lead role at all major stages of the reform of the security sector in Liberia, including the development of the National Security Strategy. At a time when many saw SSR as being narrowly focused on how best to ‘train and equip’ uniformed personnel, TJ recognized that an organic social contract based on national reconciliation was the basis of security in Liberia. With his characteristically calm but steely resolve, he was keen on and contributed immensely to the Liberian national dialogue on SSR, which was held at Corina Hotel, Sinkor, in 2005.

While many African elite, politicians and intellectuals alike would often make reference to ‘the people’, ‘my people’, I have been over the years struck by how literally, consistently and deeply TJ was driven by his faith in, and immense respect for ‘my people’.  This gave him a unique combination of humility, depth, and credibility that kept him grounded yet revered. I recollect how, as part of the national consultations for the National Security Strategy, TJ had insisted that we include a call-in FM radio programme so that ‘ordinary Liberians’ could have their say. During the programme, a woman called in from ‘West Point’ (Monrovia’s popular shanty town) who argued forcefully that, given the rampant incidence of fires especially during the dry season and the density of the houses in ‘West Point’, the Liberia Fire Service (which was notorious for lacking the requisite resources and capacity) was more relevant to ‘security’ than the army and the police which appeared to be the priorities. It was a unique and humbling experience which validated TJ’s grassroots SSR approach, and reminded all the ‘experts’ how little we knew of what we thought we knew.

TJ was many things to many people: loving father, brother, uncle, a deeply thoughtful and insightful scholar, prolific author, policy analyst, passionate activist, nice colleague, good friend, and to some of us, a brother. His son, Mubarak, can be proud of a legacy of integrity and purpose, worthy of emulation. His father, wh fought consistently and genuinely for the betterment of the people. TJ will be sorely missed, and fondly remembered.

Adedeji Ebo was Head of the DCAF Africa Programme (2003-2008) and thereafter Chief of the Security Sector Reform Unit, United Nations (2008-March 2020).

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