The Legacy of Liberian Statesman, Amos Claudius Sawyer, and the Quest for Transformational Leadership in West Africa “When the capable is not available, the available becomes capable” Words of Wisdom from Liberia

By Abdul Rahman Lamin

On 16 February 2022, Liberia lost a great son, who was also an acclaimed Pan Africanist and public intellectual of global standing. Amos Claudius Sawyer stood tall among men of his generation and was a role model to succeeding ones. Sawyer had a presence that would immediately brighten a room the moment he walked through the door, and an intellect that was equally stimulating. He was a doyen of ideas, much in the tradition of philosopher kings, who governed with ideas that helped shape the course of history in their societies and beyond. A committed activist and practitioner, who married scholarship with political practice for literally all his adult life, Dr. Sawyer was intimately involved in struggles to liberate his people from the shackles of oppression, and the twin challenges of ignorance and poverty. Sawyer’s simplicity of style and humility of engagement in both his public and private lives endeared him to his many admirers at home, in Libera, and across the globe. Little wonder therefore that when his sudden death was announced a year ago, many well-wishers took to the media to pay well-deserved tributes — with beautiful words painted in both prose and poetry — to the man and exemplary leader they had come to know for ages.

As someone who knew Sawyer, having encountered him many times and in different settings and capacities, it was only fitting that, like other well-wishers, I’d also venture to share my own reflections of this great man. However, it took a bit more time to do this, in part because I deliberately decided to hold off for a while, in the hope that allowing time and space between Sawyer’s untimely death and now, a year later, would make room for a much more nuanced reflection. I therefore hope that this reflection would have meaning beyond Liberia and resonate across Africa, consequently adding value to the powerful tributes that had preceded mine. So please indulge me if I repeat some of the great things that have already been recounted. If I do, my purpose is not only to emphasize what is already well-known, but to also offer a slightly new dimension to understand Sawyer: the man, the leader, and his impact on society.

In offering my reflections therefore, I have chosen to depart from a very wise saying that I learned from Liberia many years ago, which goes thus: when the capable is not available, the available becomes capable. The occasion was a scoping mission to southeastern Liberia that I participated in, along with other international colleagues, in November 2010. We had gone to explore the possibility of establishing a facility to provide educational services for Ivorian youth displaced by the then ongoing civil war in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, and now, scattered across various refugee camps in Liberia. Our mission entailed engagement with a range of stakeholders, including local education authorities in Grand Gedeh and Maryland counties, humanitarian, and development agencies, and above all, the refugees themselves.

In one of our first engagements, with the District Education Officer (DEO) in Maryland County, we managed to communicate the objectives of our mission, clearly highlighting our determination to recruit “trained and qualified” teachers in curriculum and instruction, capable of providing quality services to refugee students, mostly teenagers, to keep them engaged, and thus dissuade them from temptations of joining armed groups operating across the border in Cote d’Ivoire. To be sure, youth are often not among the top category of refugees prioritized by international agencies providing humanitarian and development assistance. Yet experience has shown, and indeed evidence suggests that, in fact, unless close attention is paid to the needs of these displaced young men and women, they will quickly become targets for recruitment by armed groups operating across porous borders, as the multiple conflicts in the Mano River Union (MRU) states of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire illustrated at the turn of the 21st century. It is that challenge that we had set out to address in Liberia in this specific situation.

In a very engaging discussion with our host, the DEO, he tried several times, in a very calm and diplomatic style to get us to understand that given Liberia’s own peculiar challenges of human resource constraints, barely emerging out of a similar conflict, his school district simply did not have the “trained and qualified” teachers we had meticulously outlined in our project document, and so painstakingly used as a talking point to convey our expectations during our deliberations. Following our repeated insistence on securing those “trained and qualified” teachers as the ultimate measurement of the “quality educational service delivery” that we intended to provide, the DEO finally ran out of patience, and bluntly said to our Liberian colleague to inform us that, in Liberia, “when the capable is not available, the available becomes capable,” referring to a wise and popular saying (or proverb) that is all too familiar across the country. Needless to say that we immediately got his point, and finally decided to go back to the drawing board, to review our own assumptions, and subsequently made the necessary adjustments, lest our project be dead on arrival.

After that sobering encounter, I reflected hard, over years, about what that local government official had taught us, and its wider implications beyond Liberia. After years of working in, and traveling to similar contexts across the continent, my conclusion was clear: the leadership and indeed governance conundrum that plagued Liberia and for that matter, Africa, was in large part exacerbated by the dilemmas of striking a balance between the narrative of “the capable and the available.” In many countries across the West Africa sub-region, the issue is not so much about having qualified, and competent professionals whether at home or elsewhere in the diaspora; the real issue was whether these “capable” professionals were in fact “available” and willing to serve, assuming of course that they were offered opportunities to get into the trenches and contribute their own share of addressing the multifaceted and complex issues facing their respective countries.

I’ll leave that question for a debate on another day, but for now I will return to the man behind this tribute: Amos Claudius Sawyer. You might be wondering how Amos Sawyer fits into this narrative of “the capable” and “the available,” and more significantly what his life of service to country teaches us, succeeding generations, as we harbor our individual but silent ambitions to contribute to the transformation of our respective countries. In my own observations of, and encounters with the late Professor Sawyer, I found in him to be a man who was not only “capable” but always “available” to serve his people and community. Whether it was during his early days as a young scholar at the University of Liberia in the 1970s, where in addition to his academic duties, he also contributed immensely to establishing the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and embodied the tenets of democracy, to advocate social change in the continent; or during the height of the ugly civil conflict in Liberia in 1990, when, at the behest of Liberian political and civic leaders, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders, he accepted the daunting task of serving as his country’s interim President, in an effort to give peace a chance; or during his twilight years, when he took up  the Chairmanship of the Governance Commission, at the request of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, while at the same time doubling as an Africa Union (AU) and ECOWAS Eminent Person on governance and elections across the continent, Sawyer was a man always capable and available to serve when called upon to do so.

Dr. Sawyer’s passion for, and never-ending desire to document the lessons of the history of governance in his native Liberia, and his clarion call on citizens to contribute to that process, as a civic duty, is about the finest as can be written of a scholar-practitioner in Africa. His views on democratic governance are well documented in his many scholarly and policy-oriented writings. A seminal one, Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia, published in 20o5, which explores among others, the significance of constitutionalism and institution building for a stable democratic order in Liberia, with implications for West Africa (my emphasis), is worth noting here.He did not only propagate theories on governance. As the lessons shared in Beyond Plunder illustrate, he fought hard for his ideas, and worked diligently to build democratic institutions in Liberia and the wider African continent.     

It is worth recalling, between 2009 and 2014, while based in Ghana, I had an opportunity to work closely with Sawyer on a project designed to write a new and inclusive history of Liberia, in the aftermath of the decade-long civil war, to educate future generations on the history of their country, and the causes of that brutal conflict. The history project was one of the key recommendations of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2009. The project would have provided a balanced account of why the Liberian state imploded in the late 1980s, culminating in a brutal conflict that engulfed the whole Mano River basin area, and conceptually challenged many doctrines and concepts in international peace and security, not least the age old Westphalian notion of state sovereignty, which was turned on its head, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, and incidentally the same year that conflict broke out in Liberia. In all these regional and international reverberations, punctuated by collapse of the Liberian state, Sawyer was always there, contributing his own bit in helping to bring back sanity to his country, and in the process also educating the world about the value of service for the common good, albeit at great personal sacrifice and pain.

As we reflect on Sawyer’s life a year after his death, citizens in West Africa should see 2023 as a defining moment in the sub-region’s ongoing quest for good democratic governance, a moment where transformational leadership, such as the one provided by Amos Sawyer of yesteryears begins to re-emerge. By my rough count, there will be about 10 different elections conducted in the sub-region, ranging from local/district/unit, to regional, to national assembly/parliamentary, and presidential elections, all of which will be faced with tensions between the narrative of “the capable” and “the available.” If the history of partisan and populist politics in the sub-region is anything to go by, it is almost inevitable that self-seeking partisans will once again seek to exploit this binary, to divide citizens into “us versus them” during this upcoming cycle.

For citizens though, approaching these defining moments in their respective journeys toward consolidating nascent democracies, built on the foundations of inclusive peace and development, must be one that allows them to step back and reflect on the legacy of one of Africa’s illustrious sons, one whose life has in fact taught us that yes, indeed these countries have both the “capable” and the “available.” Each country needs to make a conscious effort and take bold steps that will bring these two elements much closer, to work on addressing the many developmental challenges facing their populations. The first step in that journey begins with the election of transformational leaders who are themselves capable of seeing beyond the narrowness and bankruptcy of the politics of ‘us versus them’. I am quite certain that while Sawyer is no longer physically with us today, his spirit still lives on in the many citizens whose lives he so positively influenced, and to him, they owe a debt of gratitude, by uniting “the capable” and “the available,” in their respective polities. 

Dr. Lamin is a Sierra Leonean analyst based in France and writes in his personal capacity.

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