Gongloe is best suited for Liberian presidency

By Seltue Karweaye

Liberia is a nation-state cursed with bad leadership. The bulk of the problems the country is facing today can be tied to its crop of leaders. The criticism and activism of some notable Liberian activists and critics have not translated into a sense to lead for change or a need to rise to the challenges in the country. 

In a time when people are better off as armchair critics and activists, Cllr. Tiawan Saye Gongloe, one of Liberia’s astute human rights lawyers and a vocal advocate for the rule of law, has taken his agitation beyond the call for change. He has taken up the challenge to bring about the change he wants to see in Liberia.

When people write about Liberia’s problems, they conclude that the problems are insurmountable. Some believe that the youth need to rise to the task and take the mandate to solve the problems. However, it often never goes beyond the discussion level.

Elections come and go, and we recycle the same set of leaders, with the same promises, nonsensical plans, and perhaps just a switch of political parties– the Unity Party and her coalition (CPP) and the Congress for Democratic Change and her coalition (CDC), or vice-versa. Two coalitions, the same people and a singular ambition of converting politics to kleptocracy.

Cllr. Gongloe, “Poor-man’s Lawyer” as he is affectionately called by Liberians, is a gentle giant. His acceptance to run as a presidential candidate in the 2023 election on the Liberian People’s Party (LPP) , formed in 1984, ticket is a breath of fresh air.

Cllr. Gongloe is not new to governance, a change-propelling and people-focused form of governance. The earliest memories of Gongloe’s stepping into politics come from his days as a student in Sanniequellie, Nimba County.

In 1976, he joined the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), a pan-African political organization in Liberia.

Before 1976, he was a member of the Young Christian Student Movement, which was a Catholic apostolic student organization with the motto “ See, Judge and Act.” The organization created and promoted awareness within the student population which stimulated his mind to be concerned about what was happening around him.

When he entered the University of Liberia, he joined the Vanguard Student Unification Party (SUP), arguably the most organized and potent political force in Liberia at the time.

By 1978, he had been groomed sufficiently that he became the co-chair of the Intellectual Discourse at the university under the late James Logan as chairman. The discourse was a very good avenue for creating awareness among students on what was happening in the country.

He also became a member of the editorial staff of the university’s Spokesman, a fearless news organ in the country.

As president of the Nimba Student Association at the UL, Gongloe proved that he got his mandate from the people–the students–and would, therefore, be loyal to those who trusted him with the mandate. He and his colleagues focused on advocating for the truth and pushing for an improved welfare for citizens which led to his arrest and detention.

Unavoidably, advocates who desire to liberate the nation from corrupt leaders and internal strife will always face persecution. An activist or advocate who has not faced persecution needs to rethink their activism and advocacy. This is not a case of a sufferer’s mentality.

The practice and deeds of activism and advocacy attract hatred, intimidation and imprisonment, especially from the ruling class. Such is the fate of those who choose to challenge the status quo.

Should anyone doubt this, let them think of Albert Porte, Wuo Tapie, Weewee Debar, Tonia Richardson, Ezekiel Pajibo, John Karweaye,  Lucia Massaley Yallah and a host of other Liberian activists and advocates. They were all persecuted – incarcerated, tortured. Some were even killed.

Another thing they have in common is that in the face of intense oppression, they never failed to speak and fight for the people’s rights.

Gongloe has faced similar persecution in the hands of the government, not once, not twice. People-focused advocacy is innate for Gongloe. These things are what flow in his veins. He has always been like that, never able to keep quiet in the face of oppression. He continues to rise to the occasion.

Gongloe, “Poor-man’s Lawyer” has been advocating good governance since the 1970s. Liberians familiar with the nation’s political environment during that period would remember the protest of students against the government of President William Tolbert.

These protests were ignited as a result of the marginalization of Liberian citizens from the political and socio-economic aspects of society.

In their typical repressive nature, the government arrested and tortured some of the students leaders while some other protesters lost their lives to the cause. Now, these protests were not fueled by demands for personal gains or recognition but from an innate push to act.

On August 22, 1984, the University of Liberia students protested the arrest of Prof. Amos Sawyer.

Before his arrest, Prof. Sawyer had criticized then head of state, Samuel Doe. Doe was affronted by what he called the “gross disrespect” accorded him by university administrators and students and ordered his minister of defense Maj. Gen. Gray D. Allison to the campus to stop the demonstrators.

The wave of looting, flogging and rape that followed left the campus community stunned for years. As a teacher assistant, Gongloe was stripped naked and severely beaten by the soldiers after attempting to protect an elderly female staff of the university during the soldiers’ onslaught. He was hospitalized at the SD Cooper Hospital.

After the raid, he was sacked from the university by the military junta. 

Upon graduating from the Louis Arthur Grimes Law School, Gongloe practiced with the Garlawolu & Associates Law Offices where he worked on human rights cases.

In 1990, he obtained a human rights fellowship with Columbia University in the United States.

When Amos Sawyer was elected as president of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), he asked Dr. Levi Zangai along with Cllr. Tawain Gongloe, Nathaniel Beh and James Fromoyan, etc. to come to Monrovia and smooth thing for the IGNU arrival.

In the search for peace, Cllr Gongloe worked with Dr. Sawyer for four years as executive assistant, providing legal advice and attending most of the peace conferences in search for lasting solutions during our civil conflict in the 1990s (Banjul Peace Agreement, Lome I & Lome II Peace Agreement, Yamoussoukro I, II, III, IV as well as the Cotonou Peace Agreement).

After the IGNU was replaced by David Donald Kpormakpor’s Council of State, Cllr. Gongloe worked with the United Nations as a member of the UN Observer Mission in South Africa. 

For Cllr Gongloe, “Poor-man’s Lawyer,” activism can take different forms, and one which he has been deploying upon his return to Liberia from the UN is the respect for rule of law. The rule of law is a powerful tool for change.

It is a tool that is used in activism against repressive and backward governments. Sadly, this tool often falls into the hands of the powerful– the nation’s leaders.

In 1997, Charles Taylor was elected as the 22nd President of Liberia.

Gongloe, “Poor-man’s Lawyer,” defended journalists, political activists and the downtrodden during Taylor’s dictatorial regime. He was very outspoken about human rights violations and abuses by the Liberian security forces.

In March of 2002, Gongloe was arrested by the Taylor regime in connection with a speech he delivered in Guinea, wherein he discussed the role of civil society in achieving peace in the Mano River Union.

Gongloe was beaten severely throughout the night of his arrest and subjected to death threats. He was then taken to hospital as a result of injuries sustained from the beatings. He suffered from loss of hearing in his left ear, a swollen and bloodied left eye, severe bruising all over his body and intense internal pain.

Gongloe was charged with no offense even though he was tortured and detained without Taylor’s regime promptly informing him or the world of the charge against him as mandated by domestic and international law.

Gongloe was again detained by Taylor security forces for several hours on May 12, 2002 at Roberts International Airport while trying to board an airplane to Sierra Leone to participate as an election observer for the Carter Center election observer team.

Upon his release, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International secured Gongloe and his family out of Liberia after fearing his rearrest and torture as one of Liberia’s fearless and human rights lawyers.

Upon his arrival in the United States, Gongloe was accepted at Harvard School of Government in Massachusetts as a fellow at the renowned Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University where he took on examining the failures of the Liberian judiciary system and the role of the justice system in contributing to the failed state.

In 2003, Gongloe, “Poor-man’s Lawyer” was honored as a 2003 Human Rights Watch Defender for his courage and bravery. He has received many other awards over the years. 

After her 2005 election win, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed Gongloe Liberia’s first post-conflict solicitor general.

As Liberia’s chief prosecutor, he promoted the rule of law and assisted his colleagues through training to enable them to cope with time, speed and technology that the law practice demanded as Liberia transitioned from war to peace and democratization.

Later as minister of labor, he worked tirelessly in putting in action the Liberalization policy to benefit Liberians and Liberia in general.

Gongloe as a prominent human lawyer questioned the nepotism in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf-led government after she appointed her sons and relatives in top government positions as well as her massive failure to transform Liberia as she promised during her election campaign.

He resigned as labor minister and when President Sirleaf appointed him as minister of post and telecommunications, he declined the appointment.

On November 31, 2018, Cllr. Gongloe was elected president of the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA), the umbrella organization of lawyers in the country. His administration strengthened the capacity of the LNBA and got rid of fake lawyers through a mandate that every lawyer be licensed by the LNBA, etc.

Cllr. Gongloe’s advocacy and activism are proofs that he is people-focused. He has seen beyond the often-preached poverty reduction, rule of law, political stability, financial deliverance, economic stability, infrastructure development and other promises that other presidential hopefuls often make.

He trumpets systemic change because he sees the true source of Liberia’s problems and wants a change-propelling and people-focused form of governance.

Cllr. Gongloe, the “Poor-man’s Lawyer, first appeared on the national scene as raw gold and has passed through fire over the years. There is every proof he came out unscathed, refined, polished and fit for the occasion. His actions and track records over the years tell of one thing–he is the president Liberia needs.