G. Baccus Matthews Remembered At 76 -What Would He Say Today About Progressive Struggles?

MONROVIA: While it is true that Liberia’s acquisition of political independence was not at the price of costly revolutionary struggles as is the case with some nations, it is not true that the obtainment of democracy, human freedom, civil liberties and the somewhat less-dictatorial leadership came on civil platters. Even before the ruinous civil conflict which some pundits erroneously attribute to a struggle for democracy, there were dauntless men and women who surrendered their lives and comfort to the Golgotha of the status quo so that Liberia was jerked from the claws of despots and unilateralists to the solid shores of pluralism and freedom. At the top of the list of such unrepentant revolutionary icons was the legendary paragon of exceptional standing, Gabriel Baccus Matthews, whose 76th birthday is today, May 8 and could have witnessed stampeding celebration and colorful adoration had he not passed off untimely in September 2007. G. Bac, as most of his adherents commonly called him, delivered a couple of time-tested orations on the dividends of Liberia’s historic struggle to end brutal oligarchical rule, one of which speeches his sworn disciples have shared with The Analyst and it is published BELOW:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY GABRIEL

Gabriel Baccus Matthews

(1948-2007)

Trailblazer in the struggle for multiparty democracy in Liberia

Today, May 8, in commemoration of Gabriel’s 76th birth anniversary, we are publishing one of his speeches delivered in Monrovia on April 14, 2004, the 25th anniversary of the rice massacre.

“MY ROLE IN THE PAST, MY HISTORICAL OBLIGATION IN THE PRESENT”
_____________________________________________________________

INTRODUCTION

Today April 14, 2004, marks the 25th anniversary of the violent crisis which developed on the streets of Monrovia when the government using force of arms, confronted citizens of Liberia as they sought to peacefully protest a proposed increase in the price of rice.

The arms which the government introduced on the streets on April 14, 1979, and which have never left for 25 years, will tomorrow, April 15, begin to be removed by United Nations Forces. The 25-year period, since April 14, 1979, is a chapter in the history of the country which, admittedly, I helped to open. I do wish to comment on some of the events of this period, at least to the extent of my involvement, so as to help bring this chapter to a close today. My purpose is not to defend my actions over the years, but, rather, to explain them. It may help all of us to understand why I believe I have an historical obligation to take steps which could probably redirect some of the progressive forces which have now lost their bearings.

Let me tell you that, many years ago, I made a promise to myself that I would make public statements only when I must. As such, over the years, I may have appeared to be silent most of the time. However, when I have had a reason to speak out, my assertion profile has been to publicly define the problem I see, and to declare what I think we should do about it. By training and experience, I claim to be politician. My advocacy of public causes began in 1975.

Liberia was a country which had been going in a wrong direction from its inception. The best it had produced was a one-party state which was characterized by mono-ethnic group. The one party, which had been in power for more than 100 years, featured one candidate for every position during elections. Each candidate was selected by a caucus of the party’s hierarchy. This was not democratic, and it, certainly, was not inclusive.

Surprisingly, Liberians accepted this state of affairs for years. Unfortunately, too, some of our most prominent politicians today participated in that order and helped to maintain it. In January 1978, I held meetings with the President and senior officials of his party and gently warned that the country was a disaster that was waiting to happen. I urged them to cooperate with the opening up of the political process for mass participation so as to give the country a future. I notified them that the continuance of a one-party state was unacceptable, and that I would organize citizens for the creation of a multi party system.

I told Liberians that their condition could not possibly change unless they were organized to demand that change. I advised that we should operate within the scope of the law, and that the operational framework will have to be a political party. I said I would show them what to do, and how to do it, but they would have to do it themselves. While we were engaged in institution building, encouraging the citizens against their fears, and showing them how to organize themselves, a critical concern arose.

THE RICE CRISIS

In March 1979, the government announced that it intended to increase the price of a 100lb bag of rice from $22 to $30 US Dollars. Checking at home and abroad, we found the commodity cost was under $10.00 USD, but adding insurance and freight charges, custom duty, price stabilization fee, along with port and handling charges, took the cost to about $15.00 USD a bag. Importers were therefore receiving about 50% profit after all costs. The plan of taking the price to $30.00 USD, and therefore the profit to 100%, was pushing it too far in a country where 90% of the active labor was unemployed. Who stood to benefit from an increase in the price of rice?

The President, who had won the national prize for being the producer of the largest quantity of rice in the country, stood to benefit immensely. A brother, a businessman, was the largest importer of rice. One of his daughters also had a rice import license. We found that some senators, who were friends of the president, also had licenses that were managed by expatriate businessmen. We informed the public of that we had learned, and government did not deny anything. We publicly announced that any price increase would be unconscionable, and it would pose a threat to the survival of common people.

We called on the public to participate in a mass demonstration and peacefully protest by way of a march through the principal streets of Monrovia. We provided notice to the government, and the president asked for a meeting. He said our intended action had never occurred in Liberia before, and citizens do not say “no” to the president. He advised against our plan, and told us that it would be illegal. We suggested that the government should read the constitution and laws of the country, and respect them, as we would.

The threats began quietly, and we ignored them. The government then played its ultimate card by announcing that anyone who got on the streets on that scheduled day would be shot. It underestimated our resolve, but we expected it to obey the law. If the government wanted to stop us, it could have sought a restraining order from the courts. No one who is forming a political party, and therefore operating within the rule of law, would disregard an order of the Honorable Supreme Court. By the government’s estimate, about 15,000 citizens came out in the streets. It said 40 persons were killed. We placed the number to be at least 100. There has been a debate, over the years, as to whether we should have call off the demonstration, even if we believed the government to have been wrong. The number of persons who came out that day, despite the death threat, proved that the citizens were serious about not paying $30.00 USD for a bag of rice, come what may. Moreover, the constitution was on our side; individuals were trying to stop us, not the law. And then, let me say it: I am a leader of men; if I am not ready, I should shut up.
If I say it, I must mean it; and if I mean it, I must do it.

And I did it. For political reasons, too, we have to give the citizens a chance to prove for once in Liberia, that they were ready to stand up against the things that were wrong. It was their seriousness on the streets which guaranteed their victory in the courts for the registration of an opposition political party. Only the strong can succeed in making a demand on power. The Nete-Sie Brownell Commission, which investigated the April 14 crisis, found that the government acted wrongly.

Someone had to be responsible for the error and, as such, the Justice Minister was dismissed. An unconditional amnesty was declared to free us from jail as we had been charged with treason. After the demonstration, the president announced that the price of rice would not be increased. Instead, it would go down to $20.00 USD. All in all, the people had won. Those who questioned our figures now realize today that, even after 25 years, importers can still make rice available on the Liberian market for less than $20.00 USD a bag. History has absolved us; time has proven us to be right.

THE MIDNIGHT MARCH & THE COUP

Ladies and gentlemen of the press, over the years, there has been only one critical action I took which was not preceded by public discussion. It was a security matter about which the government and I kept silent afterwards. The occasion was the night of March 3, 1980. Some of you may recall that, in January 1980, we succeeded in legalizing an opposition to the True Whig Party. A month later, I alerted the president of credible information I had that senior officials of government were planning a right-wing coup d’état. To my surprise, the president knew what I had learned, and much more. However, he was not sure whether it was one or two different groups of government officials, but he said he was trying to ascertain the possible involvement of external influence. I asked him, “Why don’t you arrest them?” While indicating that, if he would, I would help to organize public support for the President of Liberia.

He replied, “but these are my friends.” I ventured to inquire why they are doing this. And he answered, “What I have permitted you to do pose a danger to them.” Even though I did not say it to him, I left realizing that, if we didn’t help each other, then either of us or both of us could end up getting killed. Some weeks later, on the night of March 3, 1980, I was made aware that the President had been encouraged to visit the border town of Butuo, Nimba County, to inspect development projects which would prove not to be what he was told. I further learned that he had been encouraged to carry with him some of his most loyal troops from the Executive Mansion Guard Battalion. I doubled-checked everything I had been monitoring and became convinced that, indeed something was amiss. It was around midnight. I awakened about 500 persons who agreed to march with me that night to the Mansion, to thereby abort something in the making. Starting all the way from West Point, I expected the action to be bold enough to create a general security alarm in the city. We did not encounter single security personnel on the streets that night.

As we approached the Mansion grounds, the soldiers on guard called on us to halt. I told them who I was, and asked them to lower their arms, they did. I made the crowd to sit on the sidewalk. I then told the soldiers to lock the gates, and they cooperated. Strangely enough, I heard the bugle blow, but it was not followed by any troop movement in the yard. The concrete fence as it is, was not there then. Soon, senior government officials began to converge at the Mansion. After a brief while, a high-ranking security official came out to me and said that the government wanted to know why I was there with a crowd. I inquired as to whether they were in communication with the President in Butuo.

He affirmed that. I said he, the President, should be informed that I was there impelled by the last discussion I had with him, and that he should return to Monrovia immediately. I stated that the crowd and I would remain in our position until daybreak. The same security official later revealed to me that some of the government officials had asked the President for permission to evict us from the area; but the president refused. The President returned to Monrovia on March 4. But, up to March 7, he seemed unable to decide what to do. We, therefore, made a decision which we thought would serve the interest of everyone. We issued a call for the President to resign. As we invited the public for an extraordinary mass meeting, at which we would call for the President’s resignation, a senator asked the president for permission to attend, so as to provide a briefing to the government.

Pleased by what he heard us say, he shook our hands and, with tears flowing from his eyes, begged us to be resolute. He pledged to help us, and noted that many senators would support our position. He fulfilled his promise by getting our statement aired on the government media. The call thereby went beyond those who attended the meeting. We were ordered arrested on a charge of treason.

A few weeks later, on April 12, 1980, seventeen enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia, maybe now the third group of coup plotters, stormed the Executive Mansion and assassinated the President who supposedly, was being protected by 500 troops. One of the first acts of the coup makers was to order the release of all political prisoners. Upon daybreak, we were released, and I was invited to meet with them. I went accompanied by two other party leaders. We told them that we would cooperate in exchange for a commitment that they would help the Liberian people get a multiparty constitution.

For three days thereafter, before we assumed ministerial positions, we worked with them and helped produce a case study in effective crisis management and damage control after a coup. The long-term frustration with and ethnic resentment which Liberians harbored against the government were not permitted to get out of control. Of course, we know today what Liberians are capable of doing to each other. Three years later, during the program at which the head of state received the draft constitution from the constitution commission, he called on would-be politicians to resign from the government. We understood. We had helped him, and he had delivered on his commitment. We could now all go our separate ways.

REBELLION, RESPONSIBILITY & RETRIBUTION

Ladies and gentleman of the press, in December 1989, rebel forces launched an insurgency from across the border in an attempt to seize power by force of arms. Even though we were opposition politicians, and certainly not flag wavers for the government in power, we had an interest in ensuring that the democratic process was not aborted. We called on Liberians not to support an illegal seizure of power irrespective of the problems we may have with our leaders. We publicly declared that we would mobilize support, in and out of the country, to ensure that the democratic gains of the Liberian people would not be lost, and that nobody would ascend to power by force of arms. Over the years, we have done everything we could, with tenacity, to discourage forces which have not understood this fact. All the presidents in the sub-region, and beyond, know and are convinced of this singular commitment on our part.

Ladies and gentlemen of the press, before the crisis of April 14, and beyond, we have been teaching our people that change is possible through peaceful means; that even one man can make a difference; that a man must stand up and say no relying on his conscience, that on one needs a gun in order to be a man; that a man who picks up a gun declares his weakness.

Our teaching was brought into question on the street, on April 14, 1979, when the police opened fire on unarmed civilians, and soldiers had to use their rifles to help defend the public. The government had created a situation which taught a dangerous lesson: the people saw the rifle as a relevant instrument in their defense against tyranny. From that day, the progressive forces began to be divided not over the need for change, but over the method by which that change should be brought about. The building of political institutions began to appear as a long, tedious, and boring undertaking. For some progressives, armed rebellion increasingly looked a shortcut worth pursuing. Our Liberian rebel leader said of himself and his fighters, “I am a sea turtle. I lay my eggs, keep moving on, and never look back”.

I, for my part, have sometimes referred to myself as a goose, a female duck fowl. I lay my eggs, wait around for the eggs to hatch, and have been available for the ducklings to see me, and follow me, single –file. They were not to be distracted to follow anything else that moves, as I know ducklings have the tendency to do so.

Even though I have remained on these grounds, over the past 25 years, since April 14, 1979, some of my ducklings have increasingly left to follow whoever brandished a rifle before them. But these are my ducklings; I see them, and I know them. Some became active militarily, and are now politically dead. Many succeeded in creating chaos in the West African sub-region. But who distracted them? I heard one North American leader say, in a meeting several years ago, that he trained some Liberians rebels’ forces, delivered by a Liberian leader and two Liberian politicians, upon the request of some West African presidents. The rebel forces in Liberia were all trained, armed, and dispatched from the outside. They all crossed international borders.

Were these Liberian boys, some being my ducklings that went astray, acting alone? Today, they have been accused of serious crimes. But these offences were committed in Liberia and are cognizable under Liberian law. These Liberians should be tried under Liberian law. They must feel the full weight of the law of the people whom they have aggrieved.
We are afraid that we do not know the people who helped to send them, and our fears are informed by the fact that some individuals we know, who should rank high on the accusation list, seem to have been forgotten by those who may now wish not to remember them. All should be tried. Bias by some forces in the international community is basis for circumspection.
If people perceive inadequacy in the Liberian courts, they should respond to their perception by offering capacity building assistance. Foreigners who provided arms, training and direction to Liberian rebel forces, by which murder and mayhem were committed in Liberia, are, in fact, their commanders who must also accept responsibility for the acts of their men. We call on the international community to help identify them so that they, too, may be prosecuted in their own country and under their own laws.

THE PROBLEM TODAY

Ladies and gentlemen of the press, tomorrow is a new day, the era of the past 25 years will behind us. We must look forward and not be like a cat which comes out of a bag moving backwards. I have invited you today because I see a critical national problem, and I wish to declare what I think we should all seek to do something about it.
After many years of war and disorder, Liberia needs to be clean up. The country is polluted by evil, lawlessness, corruption, dangerous drugs, sexual exploitation, deviant behavior, the abuse of women and children, etc…. Today, Liberia is rat race, and only the rats are winning. Here, there are no angels, and the cleanup campaign must spread across the board, from everyone to everyone. Rules must be respected.

Discipline must be restored; systemic must be established. In Liberia today, none is afraid of doing wrong. If we check closely, we may find out one of every five persons on the streets deserve to be in jail. This applies to the market woman who sells rice from the cup which is less than a pint, to the man who sold her a bag of rice which proved to be less than a 100lb. It goes to government officials who would find it hard to explain, even to their wives, how come the salary of less than $50.00 USD accommodates an expenditure pattern in excess of $5,000 US dollars monthly. It also goes to the expatriate vendor, running around with a voucher to collect fund from government for goods supposedly delivered to a government agency which, in actually, have never entered the country. Liberians should pray that they never get a serious leader to run this place. It will be meaningless to attempt building anything constructive on what obtains on the ground.

The ground has to be weeded; it has to be clean up. As if it were a farm, any good seed planted, here and now would simple be stifled by wild grass. But a cleanup campaign requires cleaners who are themselves clean. Over the years, progressive elements of Liberian society could be called upon to be in the vanguard of mobilizing the citizenry for the achievement of a national purpose.

Today, however, given what has happened to all of us, and to the country at large, there is a well-founded reservation in calling on progressives to lead the process of renewal. Yet, we should not lose hope because Paul was once Saul, and political redemption is possible.

A CALL ON PROGRESSIVES

I would encourage the progressive, old and new, to meet, in a few days, to work out a road-map towards our cleansing and readiness for public duty. At least, some of us are on record as having declared a commitment to change, and would agree that those who would seek that change must begin the process with that over which they now have control; that is, themselves. I concede that I helped to open the eyes of the Liberian people by raising the level of consciousness which awakened dormant forces. I admit that when my ducklings’ eyes were opened, some got distracted from their original purpose and mission.

For good or bad, they are my ducklings. I do not deny them. I do not accept responsibility for their actions, but I declare and accept that I have a historical and moral obligation to now help them find their bearings and get back on line.  We therefore, call on all progressive forces who, for one reason or the other, got caught up in factional fighting, to begin their cleansing process by surrendering their weapons to the United Nations Forces. We appeal to all other Liberians bearing arms to also surrender their weapons. We are calling on all of them to cooperate fully and avail them of whatever opportunities may be offered towards their rehabilitation.

We also appeal to all those some of them may have wronged to please forgive them and even pray for them that God may give them, and all of us, a new heart and new direction such that Liberia will never again be visited by the scourge of war. In the weeks ahead, we shall encourage consultations among opinion leaders within the ranks of the progressives. We must work together to evolve a consensus as to how the progressive forces can prepare themselves to be relevant in helping to build a new Liberia.

                    In the cause of the people, the struggle continues!

4 Comments
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  3. Christopher J. Nippy says

    HAPPY HEAVENLY EARTH ENTRY DAY TO A NATIONALIST, A BROTHER, A TRUE FRIEND AND DISTINGUISHED PATRIOT

    BY: Christopher J. Nippy

    Behold he was created to reign in the Liberian society not as a prophet, a president or a job speaker; his Mission has always been about making a difference the eventful happenings which is in everyone’s interests; his earthly journey was meant to positively radicalize the minds of the youths, labor workers and unions, students and teachers; doctors and nurses; carpenters, plumbers and welders; contractors and construction workers; draftsmen and engineers ; masoners and steel benders- and sundry consciously mobilizing Liberians to regineer, retool and redife a path to National Participation in building the Republic of Liberia. No he was not sent by our Creator to fill his pockets with the spoils of a temporary status as being in “Power” at the exclusion of his friends, followers and the 500 men and women who marched with him during the midnight hours of March 7, 1980, without a single armed man- Police or Soldier found in the streets; with like minded Liberians they reached the Executive Mansion, thus accomplishing the Mission to protect the Seat of Government when President William Richard Tolbert had travelled with an elite group of 500 Executive Mansion Guards under the leadership of General Charles Railey, Commander the Gbutuo, a bordering town between Liberia and La Cote D’Ivoire.

    Genuine Leadership
    True leaders are tested; their tenacity and resolve are strips they wear on themselves as Jesus during his period in the Garden of Gethsemane would be beating as a prelude to being crucified for mankind. Prior to the radiance of the light of thoughness flashing about and around him, his leadership abilities were flushed out as a student of the Trinity Parish School which was once housed on the spot where the Jean Travel Building/Former Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs on Randall Street was. Before the school morphed to the Beverly Harris Episcopal (BW HARRIS) School, G. Bacchus Matthews as a Student Leader and Administration of the TPS (an acronym) were embroiled in a serious conversation which was centered on why “Poor Students” were being put out of school for small dollars their parents could not afford; he argued the school being an Episcopalian institution, it should helped the poor people’s children by spreading the payments over the period of the school. year; of course the school’s authority formed decision was centered on paying teachers and purchase of needed academic materials……..it lasted for a while, but was resolved………a win, win for everyone! Few years thereafter, the name of the school was changed to The Beverly Harris Episcopal School and its new location -Broad Street in 1960/’62.

    A Fearless Leader
    True to his leadership abilities, it will be proven in less than five when the school had moved to its permanent spot, there will be another fight on the hands of Rev. Father Johnson, its first Principal, Vice President Onike Cole and G. B. Matthew for the organization and formation of an institution woven from Cassock of Bishop Harris’ Priestley Garment; and although it seemed difficult at first, the winner would be Gabriel whose fire brand tenacity overwhelmed the Church, culminating to converging on his quest to form for the first time, a Boy Scout Troop Number Two after Troop Number One-the St. Patrick’s Troop . For the second time, Gabriel Bacchus Matthews’ quest to establish himself as a leader was cemented……..he became the Troop’s First Scout Master, after Andrew Cole, who is now a Medical Doctor residence in the US. He will continue to shape and sharpen his leadership’s when he, his mother and Timothy moved from Gurley Street to Benson Street, Snappers’ Hill just under a Plum Tree less than 15 feet close to a Lebanese Store next the curb of Newport and Benson’s Streets. From there this luminary who never held a pistol or raffle would leave for the US along with his younger brother to study.

    The Window of Political Change

    True to the Scout’s Moto:” Be Prepared,” Bacchus was always prepared to do something new or change or reorder a faulty system to a better one, not to make name for himself for egocentric purposes, but for the general well being of everyone; he was prepared to risk his life to demonstrate that with a clean heart, a single individual can make a huge difference as a “Catalyst” whether he would be disliked, shouted at which his mother did most of the time or be murdered for his conviction, that he was doing the purposeful or right thing to or by changing a bad system to good; a good to better and looking at the progress level and being dynamic, he would advance a thought pattern to change from better to best in a progressive manner. And sooner or later, he was able to define himself as a “Progressive Leader” in the US.
    Having identified within himself his progressive nature, the former Scout Master was ready to change a hundred years of one party dominance of the country’s one party system – of the first Liberian leader, Edward J. Roye, who was murdered by his compatriots- the Grand Old True Wig Party (TWP) whose symbol was a ferocious Elephant.

    After a series of consultations within the ranks of his stalwarts, the Progressive Alliance of was born in the US, but had to come to Liberia to plant a “Political Seed” to eviscerate the TWP from the Political Scene by using Monrovia as the window for the political change he had envisioned to bring about “Multiparty Democratic Practices instead of the once- Say so one, say so all! On the ground in Monrovia, the “Political Seed ” would germinate and sprout from its decade shell to multiple throughout the republic, from nort to south and from east to west becoming a “Voice” of and for the “Voiceless!” This brings to mind how a small pebble thrown into a body of water, can cause serious”Ripple Effects ” capable of sinking the biggest vessel on the ocean.

    By 1972, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) had gained full throttle without being stopped; starting off its Port Headquarters on Gurley Street in the the home of old man Richard Gaye, the Scout Master now Captain of the PAL Progressive Ship would be charged with intellectually conscioustizing Liberians of all works of the country; thus culminating to the April 14, 1979 Rice (Pusawa) Rice Riot which turned violent because the government thought the raffles could STOP the resolve of the Peasants throughout the billewick of the republic……..the rain came down as the thunder was accompanied by the powerful radiance of lightening; the people were over charged without guns, but with “Valor Unpretending” to stand before the barrels of the M1s, AK 47s and the Police with the Colts and Smith and Wesson Revolver; they were no match, because Liberians were determined to protect their stomachs from being tempered with and to throw out the “Elitist True Wig Party- TWP through the window of political change!

    So, my dear Gurley Street Childhood Brother, in your death, I remember you as if you were alive; I remember you today although your Earth Entry Day was May 8th, my memory is alight with your”Excellent Deeds” to achieving Multiparty Democratic Practices, where everyone is permitted to participate and people are not left to participate due to a friend keeping untruths as truths to undermine the “Character ” of a friend because the pedelum has favorable swung on their side.

    Rest in blessful peace my dear Brother and Great distinguished luminary; you are gone, but shall always be remembered – HAPPY 76th Commemoration of your Earth Entry Day……. sleep on G. Bacchus Matthews!

  4. Christopher J. Nippy says

    I need to structurally reorder some clauses and phrases and spellings; unfortunately, I am not allowed to “edit” my comments.

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