All posts by Robtel Pailey

‘Power of Words’: Developing a Culture of Reading Will Unlock Liberia’s Consciousness

I remember my first love.

It was a dog-eared copy of Breath, Eyes, Memory, a coming-of-age story loosely based on the life of its Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat. I found it on the bookshelf of my local library, a red-brick building in the heart of Washington, D.C., with life-sized Egyptian pillars.

I was 12, and the protagonist, Sophie Caco–an immigrant from Port-au-Prince who moves to New York to reunite with her mother–gave voice to my very own story of migration. It appeared as if Danticat were speaking through me, to me, and about me, all at once. This book was the closest I could find to an authentic Liberian story while abroad, far removed from the grotesque images of war and carnage on international newsfeeds. After reading it close to 10 times, I eventually bought my own copy.

Since then, Breath, Eyes, Memory has been replaced by a number of other loves, but none more gratifying than the love of reading. Whenever my world seems to be teetering on an edge, reading brings me back to center. Reading gives me the vocabulary to express myself intellectually and emotionally. Reading makes me appreciate the power of words.

The Ward Academy for Girls on Clay Street develops a love of science and technology amongst its students. Ward Academy students also read on a regular basis to strengthen their phonics skills.

The old adage is true that reading unlocks the imagination, but it also unlocks the soul of a person. It has the potential to unlock the soul of a nation like Liberia struggling so desperately to find and define itself. I’m convinced that if Liberia had a culture of reading, we would develop a critical consciousness. After all, good readers make critical thinkers, and critical thinkers transform societies.

But first, we need access to books. And I don’t mean any old books. The influx of books donated by well-meaning philanthropists may be helpful for now, but what we really need are books with cultural relevance. There’s nothing more empowering than seeing one’s reflection on the pages of novels, on the covers of historical texts, or in the bylines of anthologies. And there are a number of promising initiatives that promote this kind of reading culture.

The Liberia Association of Writers (LAW), in collaboration with CODE Canada, recently started producing children’s books by Liberian artists. At the moment, LAW is collaborating with the Ministry of Education to introduce these books into the elementary school curriculum. And One Moore Book (OMB) (, a publishing company established by Wayetu Moore, a young Liberian social entrepreneur based in New York, was founded in January 2011 to publish culturally sensitive children’s books for countries with low literacy rates, like Liberia. Moore and her four siblings, all artists in their own right, wrote, illustrated, and published the first series of books about Liberia.

At the end of this year, OMB will launch a Haiti series featuring Haitian writers and edited by Edwidge Danticat. And next January, OMB will publish a Liberia Signature Series, featuring veteran Liberian writers Stephanie Horton and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. The Series will also include Gbagba– a book written by me and illustrated by Liberian artist and FrontPage Africa layout editor Chase Walker–which educates children about corruption. My goal will be to ensure that every 10-year-old child in Liberia has his/her very own copy.

I am hopeful that with initiatives like LAW’s and OMB’s, Liberian children will begin to appreciate who they are while also developing a critical consciousness about the world around them. A case in point, I recently bought children’s books written by Liberian authors for my three-year-old cousins, Mardie and T-Girl. They now carry the books to school, to bed, to the bathroom. Even though they cannot read, they make up stories from the pictures, silencing my deep alto adult voice with their loud, high-pitched children’s chatter. I can see a spark in their eyes whenever we read together.

The Ward Academy hosted its first “Reading Is Fun” Program in 2011, in which Liberian professionals were invited to read to the students. Robtel Neajai Pailey engages with Ward Academy students on April 13, 2011.

To develop that spark of consciousness in all Liberians, we must build a library in every county capital. Monrovia already has one. Michael Weah and his team at the We Care Library, a spacious second floor suite on Carey and Gurley streets in Central Monrovia, have done a phenomenal job of cataloguing hundreds of books of all kinds. The library even has shelves sectioned off for Liberian authors, with the likes of well-known writers C. William Allen, D. Elwood Dunn, Bai T. Moore, K. Moses Nagbe, Angela Peabody, and Wilton Sankawulo, as well as emerging writers Watchen Johnson Babalola, James Dwalu, and Elma Shaw displayed. And before it went on hiatus, the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings was regularly displayed on We Care computers.

But we need more We Cares around the country, especially on university campuses. I remember the challenge of teaching English composition and African literature at Stella Maris Polytechnic and the University of Liberia, respectively, without books readily available in-country. I would take my students’ assignments home to grade, and spend half the evening crying over pages bleeding with red-ink correction marks. There were so many errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar, but I was always mindful that these students neither had the foundation in English instruction, nor the books available to emulate good writing.

The students constantly complained that they had to read novels in my class without fully appreciating that readers make better writers. Monrovia-based colleges/universities should lead the way in developing a culture of reading by establishing one large inter-university library, accessible by registered students and open to the public. Small, micro university libraries here and there are not the solution. We can demand that a portion of all social development funds be used for library construction and maintenance.

We also need bookstores, and I don’t mean reserving a few shelves on grocery store stands. I mean a mammoth bookstore that could be franchised throughout the country when the time is right. Right now, the space underneath the Ministry of Education on Broad Street seems to function as our national bookstore, but pirating books with little respect for copyright laws is not the answer. This is where public-private partnerships come in. Instead of opening a village of entertainment spots that sell ‘five for five,’ entrepreneurs should be thinking about selling books at an affordable rate. The demand will follow.

I know that developing a culture of reading requires capital, but it’s an investment worth making. Just as we recognize the importance of physical infrastructure in national reconstruction, we must think of books as the intellectual infrastructure needed to protect that development. We must develop a thirst for knowledge that only a love of reading can quench. I discovered that when I was 12.

It is not too late for Liberia.

Liberia: Going Home the Same Way They Came: Buduburam on My Mind as D-Day Nears

Perched on vast acres of land dotted with concrete buildings marked in colorful chalk, Buduburam Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, has always been a place of transit for Liberians. Camp dwellers are like expectant passengers on a flight whose destination is still undetermined. Most of them hope to land in America, or somewhere in Europe, on a resettlement package. They hope to be anywhere but here.

I remember making the two-hour journey in 2002 to the Camp every Friday at the crack of dawn to teach English at the elementary school. Back then, I was a 20-year-old study abroad student at the University of Ghana-Legon, an idealist with many causes. Refugees, and particularly Liberian refugees in Ghana, happened to be my latest crusade.

When I enter the Camp in May for the first time in nearly 10 years, Buduburam looks like a town hit by the plague. It is virtually empty. In 2002, there were over 30,000 refugees at Buduburam. Now about 5,000 remain. Nearly 19,000 refugees have been repatriated to Liberia since October 2004, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ghana. Just 118 Liberians were resettled to third-party countries from 2007 to 2010.
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Interviews with Brenda Hollis & Stephen Rapp, current and former chief prosecutors of the Special Court for Sierra Leone; Charles Taylor’s defense attorney and daughter & others on the Charles Taylor guilty verdict

Following the recent guilty verdict delivered to Charles Taylor [read my commentary here]  I conducted a number of interviews in the Hague immediately following the verdict.  To listen to the interviews, visit SOAS Radio 

Reflections on Charles Taylor and Justice

Much has changed since I covered the first day of Charles Taylor’s trial for Pambazuka News on June 4, 2007. That day, he failed to show up to court, calling the case against him a “farce.” Today, he was in full view, stoic, resolute and somber. As I sat in the public gallery of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon building at The Hague, peering at the man portrayed as the most notorious African warlord in contemporary history, Taylor’s fate was solidified by one word: “GUILTY.”

After nearly nine years in limbo, Taylor was convicted today on all 11 counts of crimes against humanity and violation of international and Sierra Leonean law in that country’s civil war spanning November 1996 to January 2002. Taylor is the first head of state – and the first African – to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremburg trials of 1946. The UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was mandated in 2002 to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the war that destabilised much of West Africa and stunted economic/political activity. Taylor’s trial is the last one.

Sierra Leone and Liberia have both been touted as post-conflict success stories, following what some would argue is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ externally imposed system of state-building. But while Sierra Leone and Liberia have attempted to emerge from the ashes of civil war, the specter of Charles Taylor has always hung over their fates like an ominous cloud, forever linking the two neighbours beyond their peculiarly similar historical trajectories. Taylor may have wreaked havoc in both countries, but he has languished in a Hague prison for the past five years, facing the full weight of international law for only aiding and abetting rebel factions in Sierra Leone’s civil crisis, privately providing arms and ammunition to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) while publicly promoting peace as a standing head of state in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

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The Promise of April 12: A Preface to Liberia’s Complicated Biography

April 12, 1980 is often described as the beginning of Liberia’s end. I think of it as the preface to Liberia’s long, complicated biography, the beginning of our awakening. It was a day when our pomp and circumstance left a deafening echo; when we were all exposed, laid bear by the realization that being the first African republic meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.

It was a day when the bubbles in our carefully watched ground-pea soup spilled over; when the chunky pieces of that brew refused to blend in. It was when we imploded and exploded at the same time.

It was a day of ‘enough is enough.’ We all have one of those days, when we decide to throw caution to the wind, when we decide to step out on faith, even if the consequences might be dire.

April 12 held such promise for Liberia. It was a day when marginalized Liberians finally realized that the system could work for them, that ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time.’ It was a day when we all realized that oppression is man-made, and that another Liberia is possible.

Unlike most people, I don’t think the 28-year-old revolutionary zeal of Samuel Kanyon Doe was misplaced or misguided by ‘invisible [CIA] hands,’ necessarily. Doe was probably very committed to change, to dismantling a system that was rotten to the core.

One day, his story will be written, and we will discover that the young man who boldly entered the Executive Mansion in 1980 was very different from the head of state who sat half-naked on a concrete floor in 1990, begging for forgiveness while his executioners emasculated and tortured him. On April 12, he was a hero to many.

I was born on April 12 in a time of relative peace two years after the 1980 coup, so I’ve had 30 long years to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle, to question why some of us mourned while others celebrated. My relationship with April 12 has always been ‘complicated.’ Today it is a day of meditation and contemplation.

Those born in April are known for their bravery, fierceness and commitment to equity and fair play. They often pay a price for that courage with social isolation. People born in April say the things that everyone else is afraid to, and do the things that people dare not.

We naively believe that the underdog can and should prevail. That’s how I view Doe’s actions on April 12, as the underdog attempting to rage against a machine that he probably wasn’t completely prepared to change.

Whenever I think about what April 12 signifies for me on a micro level and Liberia on a macro level, I can’t help wondering what could have been. I wonder what the young master sergeant was really thinking when he entered the Executive Mansion. I wonder what would have happened if power had not gotten to his head, what would have happed if his own paranoia had not gotten the best of him. I often wonder why and where it all went wrong, when the dream of April 12 slowly spiraled into a nightmare.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.

The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said that ‘power concedes nothing without a struggle.’ Let’s remember that the struggles defined by April 12 have not disappeared, nor have they been resolved. Indeed, the stakes are higher now than they ever have been for Liberia.

They lie in Liberia’s contemporary struggles to protect the rights of gays and lesbians because a nation that can accept all of its citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, is a nation willing to embrace true transformation. They rest in the struggles to marry the ‘traditional’ with the ‘modern,’ validating Sande principles while upholding the rights of women and girls.

They lie in the struggles to not replace the 19th century Indigenous vs. Settler divide with the 21st century Homeland vs. Diaspora/Returnee divide. Because we all know that those of us who have returned from abroad are not making any real sacrifices–financial or otherwise.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.
The truth of the matter is Liberians who remained in the country during the war sacrificed their livelihoods, and often their lives, to keep things afloat when we had the luxury of escaping for safety.

They rest in the struggles for equitable land re-distribution, learning from the failed mistakes of Zimbabwe, where land was owned by less than 10 percent of the population.

They lie in the struggles to attract foreign direct investment while protecting rural dwellers from environmental degradation, economic exploitation and land grabbing.

They rest in the struggles to clean Monrovia and other urban centers while respecting the dignity of the displaced.

They lie in the struggle to ensure that all Liberians are paid a living wage, regardless of their positions in any hierarchy–from our drivers, cleaning staff, and security guards to our young parking attendants.

They rest in the struggles to promote reconciliation while ensuring that justice prevails, because no matter how much we’d like to sweep the TRC recommendations under the table for political and ideological reasons, we must deal with the past head-on.

For starters, it is unacceptable that Volumes 4&5 of the TRC report–testimonies in which Liberians for the first time had an opportunity to speak their truths, to purge themselves of the specter of what they did or suffered during the war–have yet to be published. A nation that is able to move beyond its past without sentimentality, anger, or vengeance, is a nation that is forward-looking.

Let’s memorialize April 12 as a day of remembrance and April as a month of meditation, so that we don’t forget what could happen when the vast majority of Liberians feel that they are second-class citizens, or no citizens at all. Let’s make the promise of April 12 a promise of 2012 and beyond.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at

Moving From Open Door to ‘Growth with Development’

During President William Tubman’s Open Door Policy, Liberia was averaging double-digit growth rates. Being open for business, however, did not mean growth was open to all.

In the 1960s, it was claimed that we had ‘growth without development’–economic activities from large-scale foreign concessions in iron ore, rubber, palm oil, and timber did not improve the lives of most Liberians. I don’t buy the argument that Liberia suffered from a ‘resource curse’ because that line of reasoning is too simplistic. Our resources have served as a blessing for an elite few, and that is where our problems lie.

Someone could easily have written a book entitled How Foreign Concessions and Liberian Elites Underdeveloped Liberia, modeled after the writings of Guyanese theorist, Walter Rodney, and African-American scholar, Manning Marable. While Rodney asserted in 1972 that Africa was deliberately exploited by European colonialism, Marable would later argue in 1999 that racism and American capitalism gave Black Americans a raw deal.

I’m reminded by Rodney and Marable that the economic marginalization of the vast majority of Liberians in the late 20th century remains very much a reality today. For example, a 2008 government survey showed that over 60 percent of Liberians believe they are poor. And with only 20% of the labor force actually employed in the formal sector, it is clear that poverty is more than a mental outlook. It remains a physical state of being for most Liberians.
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Africa Regional Spotlights – Getting Somalia Right: Part II

This is the second in the series on Somalia in which I discuss the UK conference on Somalia and the implications it might have for the future.  My guests are Quman Jibril, a Somali independent research consultant who has a special interest in international refugee protection and advocacy; Mary Harper, BBC Africa Editor and author of the new book, Getting Somalia Wrong? published by Zed Books; and Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, a Somali researcher currently pursuing a Masters degree at the London Metropolitan University. We also hear from London-based Somalis and Dr. Michael Walls, Somalia expert at UCL.


Getting Somalia Right: Part I

This week I discuss Somalia with Quman Jibril and BBC Africa editor and author of “Getting Somalia Wrong”, Mary Harper




Listen to the show here


Fighting For Black Gold In Africa: Liberians Approach Oil Finds With Caution

News released at the end of February that Liberia was on the cusp of an unprecedented oil discovery garnered much more than just praise and adulation. Listservs and websites lit up one by one with lightening speed. Liberians reacted like rabid bulldogs frothing at the mouth, barking at the Liberian government, oil giantsChevronAnadarko, and the relatively unknownAfrican Petroleum about the dangers of the ‘resource curse’. These energetic reactions from an increasingly politicised population are perhaps evidence of the healthy debate that never quite got off the ground in Nigeria when that country first discovered oil.

Some commentators are likening the West African sub-region to the old ‘Wild West,’ with oil figuring prominently as a site of multiple contestations: political, social and economic. reported that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, West Africa’s coast, which covers Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, is home to an estimated 3,200 million barrels of oil and 23,629 cubic feet of gas. Nigeria’s oil woes, marked by often violent anti-government actions in Ogoniland and across the Niger Delta, have been a sobering lesson of what can go wrong. Sierra Leone, which discovered oil in 2009, is being accused of speeding through its Petroleum Act vetting process, which was largely guided by agreements with oil companies and lacked proper civil society engagement. Ghana has followed a slightly different, and perhaps healthier, trajectory. When oil was discovered in 2007 government made some attempt to engage with civil society at large, even enabling petroleum agreements to be posted on the Ministry of Energy’s website.

As the global population expands and countries like China and the U.S. compete for dwindling energy resources, oil and gas could become a springboard for Africa to leverage its relatively untapped potential. But in all the excitement we shouldn’t have selective amnesia — it isn’t hard to find examples of oil resources having a negative effect in the political sphere. For example, oil revenues helped Sudan fund the government’s war in the 1990s against what is now the sovereign nation-state of South Sudan. In Congo-Brazzaville in 1997, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s private militia used money obtained from the sale of rights to Congo’s future oil production to fuel a four-month war against incumbent President Pascal Lissouba. And Angola’s vast oil reserves were used by the government to set up oil for arms deals with its international business partners, which enabled these stakeholders to profit directly from the civil war in that country.[i]

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IWD: Seek Ye First the Economic Kingdom, Woman

Africa’s first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, urged colonial Africa to “seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added onto you.” Nkrumah was alluding to the biblical verse, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto.” He would later revise his statement to say that economic independence was what African nations needed first and foremost.

Nkrumah’s prophetic statement is particularly relevant today, when so many African countries must contend with a global capitalist system structured in dominance.

The age of neo-liberalism is upon us, and the bulk of the weight has landed on African women’s heads. Gender theorists and women’s activists tend to focus on political and social rights as a necessary condition for women’s empowerment. Economic rights seem to be an afterthought, as if that will fall into place when the political and the social are reconciled.

What Liberian women need to do is seek first the economic kingdom. There’s something about earning one’s income that makes women formidable. A young girl who sees her mother working a 9-to-5 is more likely to want to be a breadwinner in her own home. An employed female university student is less likely to fall prey to the advances of an older man wanting to add her to his list of conquests. And a woman who runs her own business is less likely to tolerate being beaten by her husband or boyfriend.

This is the thinking that earned Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Yunus was on to something when he patented the idea of providing small loans to rural women in Bangladesh. The idea spread like wildfire throughout the development world. Nowadays, any successful model of entrepreneurial development, especially women’s entrepreneurial development, must include micro-credit schemes as its hallmark.

Women’s economic empowerment has become another fad that I hope will outlive itself. This month the fourth class of Liberian women entrepreneurs graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women scholars program, which runs in 42 countries. The program is a five-year initiative that provides business and management education to women as well as access to capital, networks and mentors. According to the program organizers, the rate of success for participants is a statistical dream: 70% of graduates of the program have increased business revenues, and 50% have infused the labor market with new jobs.

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Senegal: Intersection of politics and music

In the continuing African election series, I  discuss the intersection of politics and music in Senegal with Senegalese activists and artists.

Listen to the show here 

2012 Elections in Africa

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From Lifting Liberia to Lifting Liberians: Second Term Challenges for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

 Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an activist/writer who spent her formative years in Washington, D.C.  Robtel moved to Liberia in July 2007 to work in the Office of the President, Republic of Liberia, as special assistant for communications, where she was engaged in speech writing and managing the Office of the President’s website.  Robtel is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

In an annual message to the National Legislature on Jan. 23, 2012, just a week after her second-term inauguration, incumbent Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf proclaimed, “In our first term we lifted Liberia; now we will lift Liberians!” The President was alluding to the tenets of Liberia’s first post-war three-year medium term development agenda, the Lift Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), aimed at enhancing peace and security, revitalising the economy, strengthening justice and the rule of law, and restoring infrastructure and basic social services.

In asserting that Liberia had been lifted, the President was referring to key achievements in her first term, including but not limited to: renewing diplomatic ties with a number of international partners and multilateral agencies such as the United States, China, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund; refurbishing pot-holed ridden roads and constructing new ones; building hospitals and clinics, elementary, junior and secondary schools and community colleges; securing US$16 billion in concessions in iron-ore, mining, forestry, rubber, and oil palm; and devolving power to Liberia’s 15 sub-political divisions through political and fiscal decentralisation, amongst others.

Although some scholars and practitioners would argue that post-conflict reconstruction follows a ‘one-size-fits-all’ pattern of political and economic manipulation and engineering by the West[i], the Liberian president would certainly not agree with this assertion, having worked for the World Bank and United Nations in a previous life. Following the Lift Liberia PRS is an ambitious goal to make Liberia a middle income country by 2030, as articulated in the country’s 18-year Liberia Rising 2030 agenda, due to be crafted following nation-wide consultations beginning February 2012. Despite these lofty goals, there are a number of socio-political and economic challenges ahead in the next six-year term.

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