- - Thursday, July 27, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“It was the love of liberty that brought us here.” So runs Liberia’s national motto — a country founded by freed slaves, which declared its independence on July 26, 1847, 170 years ago. It was thus that Liberia became the first republic in Africa — one born under the principles of freedom and democracy.

As I stand as a presidential hopeful, it seems apt to reflect on this day — and how my country has lived up to these ideals. Like the United States of America, from where many of those freed slaves had sailed, our nation was also “conceived in liberty.” Sadly, our actions have not always matched those lofty principles — principles that have, however, endured. And today, again they inspire us as we seek to renew our nation.

Scheduled for October 10, this election marks a critical juncture in our country’s history: it will be the first democratic transfer of power since our civil war ended in 2003 — one of the bloodiest in a continent that has seen more than its share of violence. In fact, the last Liberian democratic transition was in 1944, when William Tubman stood unopposed for president (a telling sign that reveals a less savory side of our nation’s history).

The tale of my country is one steeped in pathos. Up until 1980, the True Whig Party — comprised of descendants of the free slaves — dominated Liberian politics and society. Whilst untainted by the hand of European colonialism, oppression crept into our proclaimed land of freedom. The inalienable ideals of Liberia had strayed.

Tension between the settlers who declared independence and those who already resided within the new Liberia’s borders defined our historical growing pains. Discontent simmered below the banner of liberty. Eventually, the imbalance of power set off a chain of events that would unleash the crueller side of human nature.

But just as we have strayed, so we can return.

Our reality can realign with the ideals we hold dear. Yet to move forward in this pursuit, we must resolve the contradictions of our past. First, opportunity must be equal for all irrespective of tribe, gender, age, religion, region or political persuasion.

Past equality, we need genuine economic empowerment — something over and above pure subsistence. This means having the dignity of work and the freedom from fear of an uncertain future. It is also freedom from dependency on well-meaning, yet initiative-sapping foreign aid. The daily life for the 85 percent of our citizens who are unemployed is at best precarious and at its worst desperate. For many, the demands of survival rob them of true autonomy.

I understand this at a personal level. I grew up knowing the reality of poverty, going to bed without dinner and waking up to another day’s hard work on the farm. Through determination and the grace of God, I have escaped my past circumstances. I want all Liberians to be free from the shackles of subsistence.

We must also turn our attention to justice. Fourteen years since the end of the civil war, and still warlords walk freely among our nation — some even standing in prominent positions in politics. We are told that revisiting the scars of conflict will reopen Pandora’s box. Yet this is scaremongering and self-preservation of the worst degree. The partisan efforts of the 2005 Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not go far enough. Our citizens deserve more. I am the only candidate standing on a platform of true restorative justice.

Independence Day gives us the perfect chance to reflect on both the past and future of Liberia. If independence is to mean something, it is freedom and human dignity for the individual and sovereignty and fairness for the nation. None of this, however, can exist without economic prosperity. As with other nations in Africa, this is within our reach, and we owe it not just to our founding fathers, but also to future generations to deliver on this promise.

And the enthusiasm with which all Liberians now embrace Independence Day gives me hope. It is testament to our desire for a united country, to move forward together, to refuse to live as prisoners to our past. It speaks to the imperative to shed the skin of tribalism and see each other for what we truly are: Liberians. Despite everything, we still stand here today — a country united in the pursuit of happiness. The dreams and aspirations of our founding fathers lie within reach.

The weight of history lies heavy on our country’s psyche. Yet it drives us to live up to the hopeful ideals of our founding fathers. We escaped the darkness of our past. Now we must establish a new Liberia. On October 10, the citizens of Liberia will decide at the ballot box which presidential candidate they judge to embody this.

• Benoni Urey is a presidential candidate in Liberia’s 2017 general election.

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