by Nat Galarea Gbessagee
June 20, 2009
Chairman James N. Larsah and members of the Board of Directors of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA); President, Dr. Mariah Y. Seton and officers of the ULAA Administration; Madam Installing Officer, Dr. Margaret Kromah, former ULAA National President Mohamed Kromah, Distinguished platform guests and other dignitaries present; Ms. Sylvestine Payne, Operations Manager of the 2009 LIHEDE 5th Anniversary Jubilee, members of the ULAA Inaugural Committee, ladies and gentlemen:
It is for me a singular honor to have been chosen by you, members of the ULAA Inaugural Committee, to deliver the keynote address here tonight, on the occasion of the inauguration of officers of your great Union. It is exactly 16 years since I last visited Philadelphia on ULAA business. I can remember in 1993 when the late ULAA Executive Vice President, Mr. Dominic Washington, and I traveled from Washington, DC to Philadelphia several nights on campaign trips to elect the Thomas Grupee-Dominic Washington ticket. I would later in 2004 work with Dr. Mariah Y. Seton and Mr. James N. Larsah, the two top sitting ULAA officials here tonight, on the ULAA presidential campaign team of the Arthur Watson-George Wuo ticket in nearby Trenton, New Jersey. Regrettably, though, not much has changed in ULAA since my last visit to Philadelphia in 1993 and Trenton in 2004 on ULAA business.
Many Liberians still use ULAA as a proving ground for political mischief, intolerance, and stepping stone for future political office in Liberia. ULAA is still in disarray after 35 years of existence, with no viable social service programs, no clear cut advocacy agenda, no capital investment portfolio, no permanent office space with paid staffers, and no progressive agenda to contribute meaningfully to current reconstruction efforts in Liberia. ULAA is still striving to become a force of peace, unity, cooperation, and professional networking amongst its rank and file membership and Diaspora Liberians in general. ULAA is still struggling to become an institution for good governance, effective organizational management, diplomacy, strategic development, and less political infighting. Above all, ULAA has yet to define itself as a true umbrella entity that unites all Liberian organizations in the U.S. into a collective whole, in service delivery to Diaspora Liberians.
These are major shortcomings in ULAA that need urgent attention. These are major problems in ULAA that reflect badly not only on the leadership choices of past ULAA leaders, but also on the carefree attitude of Diaspora Liberians in the U.S. toward building a service-oriented national organization that benefits everyone. For whether we like it or not, we, as Liberians and persons of Liberian origin residing in the U.S., have all got very high stakes in both the viability of ULAA and the future socioeconomic growth and development of Liberians and Liberia. ULAA provides Diaspora Liberians across U.S. society with an unchallenged opportunity to coordinate their efforts and share their talents and resources for the common good of themselves and families, friends, and relatives back home in Liberia.
But since its inception in 1974, ULAA has done very little in packaging itself as an organization of progressive leadership in both its structure and output. ULAA has been unable to secure and maintain a permanent office space, create a directory of Diaspora Liberians, design professional development programs for members, and operate an active social service agenda.
ULAA has, in essence, failed to be a service-delivery organization that adequately represents, articulates, and promotes the vital interest of Diaspora Liberians in crucial legal and non-legal matters in the U.S. It is, therefore, the collective responsibility of all Diaspora Liberians in this hall tonight and beyond to reform ULAA and ensure that the basic rules, laws, and related administrative procedures necessary for the professional development and growth of ULAA are duly respected and strictly enforced. I want at this time, ladies and gentlemen, for you to join me to explore the topic, “Reforming ULAA to Deliver Practical Services to Diaspora Liberians.” However, before I proceed, please permit me to make these two acknowledgements. First, I want to submit that while a U.S. district court will attempt shortly to resolve the current leadership split in ULAA, it is still my hope that at the end of the day the competing parties will settle for peace and unity of purpose in service delivery to Diaspora Liberians in the U.S. It is also my hope that the ULAA Constitution will be the ultimate guide in resolving any=2 0 administrative or legal issue in ULAA, as the Constitution clearly defines the primary functions of each of the four primary organs of the Union and the relationships amongst these organs.
Second, I want to state that politics by nature is a game of manipulation for personal gains or group advantage. So it is acceptable, anticipated, and understandable that a quasi-political organization like ULAA with 25 or more member-chapters comprising people of diverse backgrounds and competing interests will have internal political enclaves shaped along basic interest lines. However, what shouldn’t be acceptable in ULAA is for peaceful and law-abiding individuals and members of ULAA to sit back supinely and do nothing as persons with hidden agendas seize control of ULAA outside the ULAA Constitution in the name of an unidentifiable “majority.”
I believe that any “majority” that refuses to operate and flex its muscle in the public squares, but hides in the back alleys only to attempt to claim power through the backdoors, is simply grandstanding about its “majority” status. And such a 0majority,” my friends, ought to be ignored in any process to reform and transform ULAA into a truly national Liberian organization built around an efficient system of management and well-focused social service agenda.
I believe that as the Liberian homeland works to foster an atmosphere of democracy, political pluralism, and free expression, it will be a serious mistake and failure on our part as persons of Liberian origin living in the United States, the world’s foremost democracy, to permit a handful of people to sidestep the ULAA Constitution and claim legal administrative power in ULAA. I ask this ULAA Administration under Dr. Mariah Y. Seton and the ULAA Board of Directors under Chairman James N. Larsah, to stand firm against any group that tries to take short-cut to leadership in ULAA.
I urge this ULAA Administration and Board to fear nothing but the ULAA Constitution. I ask all of you in this hall tonight to recognize that never again should the majority of Liberians and friends of Liberia sit back and let a few people decide the future of everyone.=2 0These are the acknowledgements I wanted to make in order to clear the air that I am fully aware of the current leadership crisis in ULAA, except that I want to focus here tonight on how ULAA as an institution can be reformed to best serve the Diaspora Liberian community in the U.S.
Reasons for Reforming the Administrative Structures of ULAA
Ladies and gentlemen, ULAA is in desperate need of structural and administrative reforms. The socioeconomic and political realities in the U.S., Liberia, and the world today are not the same as in 1972 when a taskforce was created to study the formation of a national organization to cater to the welfare of Liberian students studying in the U.S. at the time, and in 1974 when ULAA was actually founded. The founders of ULAA do deserve respect and credit for their foresight, but 2009 is not 1972 or 1974. The ULAA of today does not have the luxury of catering to the welfare of only a few Liberian students as in the 1970s. The ULAA of today does not have the luxury of operating an electoral system in which friends took turns to occupy various posts in ULAA as in the past.
The ULAA of today is now obligated to offer a free, open, and transparent electoral process for electing ULAA national officers with no preordained winners as in the past. The ULAA of today is now obligated to cater to the welfare of a diverse group of Liberians who may no longer be only students but professional workers, refugees, and the like. The ULAA of today now comprises members who have by circumstance become the de facto primary bread winners for family, friends, and relatives back home in Liberia, and in refugee camps across Africa, which family members and friends have in turn come to rely on monthly or quarterly remittances from abroad in order to survive conditions of abject poverty, rising unemployment, and limited opportunities for personal growth and development. These are the harsh realities that make the ULAA of today quite different from the ULAA of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
The ULAA of the 21st century should therefore be able to offer to its members not only the usual empty position statements on corruption and other issues of national development in Liberia, but also be able to deliver concrete or practical social services to Diaspora Liberians in the form of group health insurance, workforce redevelopment assistance, immigration and legal assistance, scholarship assistance, elderly care services, juvenile and child care services, drug rehabilitation services, mortgage assistance services, and literacy services to all ULAA members, especially to Liberians unable to read and write in English, and Liberians not exposed to computer technology who may find it difficult to get short and long-term gainful employment in the U.S.
These new realities facing Liberians in the U.S. make it imperative for a systemic reform of the administrative and institutional structures of ULAA, in order to position ULAA to meet the demands of this new constituency of Liberians. This means that this new ULAA Administration should take steps to transform the annual ULAA General Assembly meeting into a new theater of serious business—not bereft of merry-making and socializing, of course, but one that is more focused on formulating, reviewing, and approving strategic development plans of action for ULAA that address the healthcare, educational, housing, immigration, legal, and related social service needs of Diaspora Liberians. I believe in times like these—in the current economic slums and immigration debates in the U.S.—that a vibrant and functional ULAA, a unified ULAA, and a well-funded and managed ULAA, could step to the plate and provide needed assistance to Diaspora Liberians under a robust social service agenda.
In times like these this new ULAA Administration ought to take the moral high grounds and avoid the time-tested destructive politics of ULAA in the execution of its legal obligations and daily operations. In times like these this new ULAA Administration should design and implement social service programs that cater to the needs of all Diaspora Liberians, irrespective of the social status, education, political philosophy, or ethnic origin of members. I hope and trust that this new ULAA Administration will be up to the task.
Key structural and administrative flaws in ULAA
Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot talk about structural and administrative reforms in ULAA without pointing to specific flaws in the ULAA Constitution that negatively impact the progress and management efficiency of ULAA. Each of the four principal ULAA organs—the National General Assembly, National Board of Directors, National Leadership Council, and National Administration—has major structural and administrative flaws that time will not permit me to identify, dissect, and propose solution to here tonight. I shall discuss briefly, however, those administrative and structural flaws embedded in the 1996 or 1997 ULAA Constitution that have most contributed to the current level of disunity, mistrust, political contempt, infighting, and outright lack of meaningful progress in ULAA.
The ULAA Constitution in Articles 37, 38, and 39 designates the ULAA National General Assembly as “the highest institution of the Union” with “power and authority to formulate new policies and make new decisions for the Union,” as well as “issue the outcome of its deliberations and make recommendations about the Union in the form of resolutions.” Yet under portions of Article 38, no decisions20of the General Assembly are valid unless “reviewed, and if deemed fair and feasible, enacted into laws, rules and regulations” by ULAA Board of Directors, which is constitutionally a subordinate organ to the General Assembly. Well, it seems far-fetched to me that a subordinate organ in ULAA can review and approve the decisions of a superior organ, even if the ULAA Board—for tax or other legal purposes—had to approve all decisions in ULAA. This sort of awkward administrative structure gives undue influence to the ULAA Board over decisions of the ULAA General Assembly, which practice should be abolished forthwith through constitutional amendment.
Another major structural flaw that impacts good governance, transparency, and accountability in ULAA has to do with the ULAA National Administration and ULAA Leadership Council having the same heads or administrative officers. The ULAA national president, national vice president, and national general secretary, according to Article 52, are also “Chairperson,” “Vice-Chairperson,” and “Secretary” of the ULAA Leadership Council, respectively. This sort of administrative structure is a recipe for failure and conflict of interest, especially so that Article 53 (a) mandates the Leadership Council to “Examine and revise program activities, projects and other policy implementation initiatives designed and planned by the National Administration, [and] Supervise or monitor the overall performance of the National Administration….” But how can the ULAA national president, vice president, and general secretary monitor and evaluate their own administrative programs and performances by simply taking on the new titles of chairperson, vice chairperson, and secretary on the Leadership Council?
This sort of leadership and practice are greatly unwise and regrettable, and should be stopped immediately through constitutional amendment by either abolishing the Leadership Council or barring any member of the ULAA Administration from holding leadership posts on the ULAA Leadership Council.
I believe that if the Leadership Council should remain an independent organ in ULAA, then its functions should be redefined to avoid current conflict of interest and duplication in functions with both ULAA Administration and Board of Directors. Officers of the ULAA Administration should not serve as officers of the Leadership Council, and the Leadership Council should not have authority to examine and monitor the program activities and policies of the ULAA National Administration when Article 48(c) already empowers the ULAA Board of Directors to “Approve all contracts, agreements, memoranda of understandings, public policy statements, and other legally binding instruments negotiated or signed on behalf of the Union by the National Administration.”
The Leadership Council can be useful in ULAA, however, as either a mere advisory group of ULAA chapter heads with no binding constitutional roles in ULAA, or as primary planners or conductors of the annual ULAA General Assembly meetings, in collaboration with both the ULAA Board and Administration. This means that Article 41 and other relevant Articles to hosting General Assembly meetings will be amended, to ensure that any and all decisions taken during the ULAA General Assembly are final and binding on all ULAA chapters and members, without being subjected to the ULAA Board for approval. New rules of engagement for the General Assembly should also be established whereby the presidents of all ULAA chapters under the banner of the ULAA Leadership Council, along with a set number of two to four delegates from each ULAA chapter should preside over the General Assembly and receive reports from the leaderships of both the ULAA Administration and ULAA Board. This way, both the ULAA Board of Directors and National Administration officers will be held more accountable to ULAA members for their annual activities and leadership styles.
The time has come, my friends, for ULAA to streamline its administrative structure to avoid the type of unnecessary functional duplications, ambiguities, and bureaucracies that have become a constant source of conflict in ULAA. The ULAA Administration, the executive arm of ULAA, is badly structured, in that its administrative structure creates room for administrative blunders and entrenched political loyalty or sycophancy.
The ULAA Administration comprises eight elected officers, including a national president, an executive vice president, four regional vice presidents, a general secretary, and a treasurer, but the five vice presidents have no clearly defined functions under the ULAA Constitution, so they basically serve at the “will and pleasure” of the ULAA National President. In particular, Article 56(b) relegates the ULAA executive vice president to “the principal assistant to the National President” who “shall be assigned functional or ceremonial tasks as the National President chooses…,” while Article 56(c) relegates the Southern, Western, Eastern, and Northern regional vice presidents as “principal administrative assistants to the National President….”
Well, with this kind of administrative structure in the ULAA Administration, it is not difficult to understand why ULAA has not made much progress in 35 years. No ULAA Administration can ever succeed in developing, promoting, and implementing a social service agenda for the Union when seven of the eight elected officers of the ULAA Administration basically work at the “will and pleasure” of the ULAA National President, just as cabinet and non-cabinet officials in Liberia work at the “will and pleasure” of the president of Liberia.
This ULAA Administration should, therefore, ensure through constitutional amendment that this type of leadership structure is abolished and replaced with a new structure under which each ULAA vice president will not serve as “principal administrative assistant” to the ULAA National President but given specific job tasks by which he or she will be evaluated and held accountable for whatever administrative blunders made and successes achieved. ULAA could have for example, and for purposes of illustration only, a vice president for social services to plan and execute all social service programs in the Union; a vice president for legal affairs and lobby to handle all legal and lobbying matters in the Union, and a vice president for basically anything under the sun, as long as the vice president can operate in the interest of the Union with clearly defined tasks without waiting on the prompts of the ULAA National President.
In essence, the administrative structure of ULAA should be changed to ensure institutional transparency, management efficiency, and individual accountability. For I don’t know about many of you here tonight, but it is very clear to me that Diaspora Liberians cannot sincerely speak to imperfections of an imperial presidency in Liberia while they at the same time condone an imperial presidency in ULAA. Diaspora Liberians cannot sincerely condemn corruption, sycophancy, and partisanship in the Liberian government while they clap for these vices when carried out by the ULAA National President. To borrow the 2004 Arthur Watson-George Wuo campaign slogan, “ULAA deserves better,” and I concur that ULAA does deserve better than constant political infighting, intolerance, and outright abuse of its constitution.
ULAA has designated Washington, DC as its main headquarters, but ULAA has no permanent office space in Washington, DC. I urge this ULAA Administration to open a permanent office in Washington, DC, manned by paid professional staffers headed by the ULAA National General Secretary or volunteer professional staffers from the ULAA Technical Secretariat. This ULAA Administration should create a standard operating procedure manual to govern activities of the Administration, while the ULAA Board should take immediate steps to prepare the ULAA Bylaws as mandated by Article 80 of the ULAA Constitution. ULAA also needs to set up a history committee to research and write a complete history of ULAA in order to update the various ULAA websites with the names of all past and present officers of ULAA, including vice presidents and committee chairs, and not just the ULAA presidents and Board Chairmen as is currently the case.
Every person who ever worked with ULAA in a leadership role helped to sustain ULAA, so all ULAA leaders must be recognized and not just a few. I believe with standing operating procedures, bylaws, and new administrative structures in hand, this ULAA Administration and Board will be on course in charting a new direction for ULAA. The task is yours.
Pitfalls in Public Service and Future Outlook
Apparently, the structural and administrative flaws I have discussed in this presentation are not unique to ULAA. Almost every Liberian organization in the U.S. today has an administrative structure in place where the vice president sits on the sidelines and does nothing as the president runs the show. Many Liberians are accustomed to this sort of “say so one, so say all” system because this was the governing system and mainstay of Liberian political life for well over 100 years of one party rule in Liberia. But ULAA and other nonprofit Liberian organizations in the U.S. need not carbon-copy and operate under this “so say one, so say all” leadership structure of the Liberian government that has failed the Liberian nation and people. ULAA and other nonprofit Liberian organizations with interest in their own upward mobility, public credibility, and management efficiency should have clearly defined roles for each office holder who will be accountable directly to members of the organization and not to the head of the organization.
I know that many Liberians in ULAA and related organizations or the Liberian government usually take public service for granted. Many Liberians enter public service not to serve the people, but to amass wealth and acquire long administrative titles simply to impress one another and outsiders. As a result, creativity and independent thought are frown upon, confidentiality is sacrificed for flamboyancy, and the constitution or basic rule is often disregarded or misinterpreted to suit individual purposes and situations. This is the hallmark of the continuing conflict in ULAA, which needs to be stopped if ULAA must make progress befitting its longevity.
In particular, I am starting to believe that the many small-small talks or rumors about people using ULAA as a stepping stone to get lucrative government jobs in Monrovia are getting to bear some truth. Many past leaders of ULAA not only occupied key cabinet posts in pre and post-civil war Liberia, but they also surfaced as rebel leaders during the civil war. ULAA will therefore do well to reorganize itself and begin to operate as a truly nonprofit professional organization rather than a government in exile. I believe the current administrative structure of ULAA has failed Diaspora Liberians, and now is the time for change.
I want to remind all of you tonight that if history is our guide, then we do have vested interest in the viability of ULAA. I can recall that for many years many Liberians built their hopes around the phrase, “leave the people’s thing alone,” which meant that the safest way to keep oneself out of political and economic troubles in Liberia was to avoid critical comments against the national government and its officials. So many Liberians simply looked on as a few people plundered the nation’s resources, dominated state power, and violated the Liberian Constitution with impunity. Yet when the 14-year civil war erupted in Liberia in 1989, there were hardly any distinctions made between those who left the people’s thing alone and those who kept the people’s thing to themselves. Every Liberian suffered massive dislocation, carnage, death, physical torture, and mental anguish.
Consequently, the concept of “leave the people’s thing alone” cannot and should not apply to the current ULAA leadership crisis. Every Diaspora Liberian must speak out and stand up in favor of the ULAA Constitution. Every Diaspora Liberian must realize that the future of ULAA and Liberia belongs not to a few Liberians but all Liberians. So I urge all Diaspora Liberians to learn to put friendship aside and stand up to impunity and wanton disregard for the ULAA Constitution. I believe that after 14 years of a brutal civil war that decimated the Liberian homeland, the time has come for Liberians of all walks of life to stand up for what is right and what is just. The choice is yours!
ULAA, I am afraid, will not make any real dents in the lives of Diaspora Liberians unless it reforms itself to respect the ULAA Constitution and diversify its recruitment methods and leadership structure. This ULAA Administration should invoke Article 25 and recruit new members into ULAA from religious institutions, county and alumni associations, and other qualifying entities, in addition to the usual community associations. For while I do not contemplate at this moment that ULAA will rise in statute overnight on parity with the Hispanic, African American, and Asian lobbying groups, I do believe that ULAA has the ability to grow professionally and become strong enough to lobby Congress and U.S, state legislative bodies in the interest of Liberia and Liberians. I envision a ULAA that will truly be an umbrella organization that represents the interest of all Diaspora Liberians. I envision a ULAA that will be able to undertake short-term and long-term healthcare, immigration, and housing projects and advocacies on behalf of its members; secure scholarship and other educational opportunities for Liberian immigrants, and solicit U.S. capital investment opportunities in Liberia led by Liberian-Americans and friends of Liberia.
I envision a ULAA that will be an example of good leadership that Liberians and Liberia will die to follow.=2 0And yes, in spite of the current talk-talk about ULAA, ULAA will remain a stepping stone for future leadership posts in Liberia because its officers and members will be so well-trained that they will become an asset rather than liability to the Liberian government and people. I can imagine a time when the president of ULAA will be invited to meet with and testify before U.S. state and federal leaders, including state governors and the U.S. president, about investment and other opportunities in Liberia. I can imagine a time when with the right leadership, all of these things can happen to ULAA and in ULAA. Again, these things, these developments, can start with this Seton Administration. These things can start with all of us here tonight, in Philadelphia, in the city of brotherly love, where the U.S. constitution was drafted and where ULAA was also founded. These things can start with the various ULAA chapters and community organizations. Ladies and gentlemen, the task is in our hands. Let’s help reform and transform ULAA into a service-delivery organ.
Good evening and I thank you.
2009: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive