OP-ED: Gongloe, the People’s Lawyer, for President

To call Tiawan Saye Gongloe the people’s lawyer would be an understatement, for he has worked tirelessly for many years to represent the poor and downtrodden in Liberian society. He has spoken when needed, even when the lots were silent.

Gongloe has also been unafraid to take on the powers that be, even with looming threats to his personal safety—who would challenge a bloodthirsty dictator when all the odds are against him? And this Gongloe did to Charles Taylor—he paid the price dearly, for Charles Taylor was unforgiving.

Liberian society, time past and present, is not short of men with integrity and courage. It’s just that they have not been justly rewarded, either due to a misplaced ambition or because the citizens themselves have not paid back these honest individuals, and yet complained incessantly at every junction that the system is rigged against them by their leaders.

The country will get no better unless Liberians begin to elect people who have track records of competence, an unwavering advocacy, and the guts for standing up for rights and policy issues—even when it wasn’t so conducive to do so.

Tiawan Gongloe, by all accounts, can be considered a fine Liberian patriot, and electing this son of Nimba to the Executive Mansion in 2017 would say we want our country to heal by putting in power an honest broker whose track record speaks for itself.

Gongloe is a product of student politics in the 70s and 80s, which saw an era of enlightenment as the True Whig Party was crumbling under the weight of its own excesses.

The so-called progressive leaders of that era, seen as beacons of hope, have mostly turned out to be disappointments and embarrassments to the very politics they preached – inutile demagogues. For example, where are the voices of people like Boimah Fanhbulleh as Ellen rips the country apart in this corruption blitzkrieg? Yesterday, they were shameless and today they are even more shameless in their politics. The politics they once preached, they could not defend once they had the chance at reform and a place at the leadership table, betraying a peoples’ trust.

But give credit to individuals like Tiawan Saye Gongloe. He has remained consistent – a hallmark of a true leader. Give men like Saye Gongloe his due.

His national political sojourn began when he served the Amos Sawyer-led Interim Government of National Unity as Executive Assistant, providing legal advice and assistance to Sawyer and attending peace conferences to find lasting solutions to Liberia myriad problems during the 1990s.

By 1997, Taylor would win elections to lead Liberia’s first post-war democratically elected government. During the same period, Tiawan Gongloe was quickly emerging as one of Liberia‘s top human rights lawyers. A strong critic against the abuses and violations of rights in the country, he saw cases pile up under Charles Taylor, and speak up he did.

For his courage, he was arrested on April 24, 2002 by Taylor’s security men. Severely beaten and manhandled, he laid paralyzed and confined by the dictator security apparatus. Following intense pressure from local and international bodies, he was taken to a hospital bed.

Fearing that he would be rearrested and tortured upon his release, international organizations, especially Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, secured Gongloe and his family’s flight from Liberia. But the country he left was still on his mind as he took up residency at the Harvard School of Government, in Massachusetts.

While still a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, he took on examining the failings of the Liberian judiciary and the role of the justice system—sin contributing to the breakdown of the state. And for his courage and bravery, Saye Gongloe was honored as a 2003 Human Rights Watch Defender, amongst many other accolades he would bag over the years. Gongloe is unpretentious, he’s not greedy, has always serves the public well!

By the time Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed him as her first Solicitor General upon winning the election in 2005, Gongloe had already established himself as a preeminent lawyer and defender of rights in the Liberian society, having won the respect from all Liberians on both sides of the aisles.

At the Ministry of Justice, he tried but accomplished less as Solicitor General, because of a lack of political will under Sirleaf to move forward her own transformational agenda in post-war reconstruction Liberia. But nonetheless, as Liberia’s chief prosecutor, he made recognizable efforts to argue the Government of Liberia cases before the courts.

If Gongloe is not a pushover and is stern in his belief for democratic traditions in his native Liberia, it is so because he started as a student activist in the late 1970’s. As he was imprisoned and also manhandled during the regime of then-president William Tolbert, even today, it seems he remains an activist at heart, and is one of the few individuals, both as a citizen and a past government official who have openly criticized Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, even though she has been good to him and his family—appointing him and two of his siblings to high governmental positions. One a junior labor minister, the other a county superintendent, but those gestures didn’t buy his loyalty to keep quiet against President Sirleaf’s outright disregard for public opinion during her reign.

Gongloe would come head-on with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her failures to be the true transformational leader she promised she would be when she was inaugurated in 2006 as Africa’s first female president, evidenced by her glaring practice of being nepotistic by appointing her sons and several relatives to high profile government positions, while at the same time denying she did.

Hers has been a rule of entrenching a culture of impunity and corruption. Her legacy is a Liberia where anybody can do anything and get away with it—ritualistic killings, police brutality, rape, armed robbery, corruption, poor health care, degenerated education, etc. The systemic failures in the government are just too numerous to name.

The country fought a bloody and senseless civil war for these reasons, and the same reasons that led the country to war still continue unabated. But besides calling out the president about these issues in addition to her nepotism, Tiawan Saye Gongloe called on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to resign and vacate the Executive Mansion for violating article 5c of the constitution. But the bravado he showed was well noted. The woman who promised to run for one term of office and walk in the steps of Mandela, reneged on her promises.

“The president’s resignation is the only way to keep Liberia peaceful until the next general and presidential elections,” Gongloe said in 2012 when he made the call. “Liberians are becoming increasingly unhappy about the President’s blatant disregard for our constitution and the longer she stays in power the more angry people will become. This could lead to a reversal of peace and progress in Liberia. I call upon the international community, whose human and material resources helped us to find peace, to seriously re-examine its position on President Sirleaf in light of the risk that she presents by her blatant violation of the Constitution of Liberia with impunity.”

People have lost their trust in the government and Sirleaf, a major reason Ebola spread like wildfires when it first hit Liberia. No one believed the government could do anything, but give Sirleaf credit in how she would later turn it around. If she fought corruption the way she fought Ebola, perhaps she could salvage her legacy.

Sensing Sirleaf wasn’t the kind of leader he would work for, having been close to the seat of power and seen Sirleaf firsthand, he resigned his Minister of Labor position and refused another appointment as Minister of Post and Telecommunications. His resignation followed several high-profile resignations from the Sirleaf-led Unity Party government thereafter.

Gongloe is young and ripe for the presidency and has been at the forefront of the struggle for rights and justice in his native Liberia for the past three decades. He graduated the University of Liberia’s Louis Arthur Grimes Law School and has worked as managing director of a law firm in Monrovia beginning in 1994 when he left the Interim Government of National Unity. He has always defended the rights of the poor. This human rights lawyer has always stayed in Liberia despite the cost to his life and has been consistent in his advocacy for rights of the ordinary Liberian.

Why he must run: Those who care about a peaceful Liberia and want to see impunity end must not sit on the fence while those who criminalized and looted the state and yet those who know nothing about the issues put themselves forward as credible candidates. Gongloe hails from Nimba County, a huge county of much significance in Liberia. If he can find a groundswell of support there, he should be okay.

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