Reflections – ‘returnees’ vs ‘locals’: managing the tension

As if the developmental challenges that the country faced were not already monumental, there was a strange but real and deep tension within various ministries and agencies of the government (and maybe the entire country): the resentment of ‘returnees’ by the ‘locals’. By returnees, I am referring to Liberians who had returned from abroad, especially the United States. I emphasize the United States because we never noticed such resentment if a Liberian returned from Nigeria or Ghana or somewhere else. There was something about returning from the United States and taking up a job in the government that made the ‘locals’ really resentful. Before I forget, let me be quick to mention that some of these resentments were fueled, in part, by the attitude of the those who returned. I will explain later.

This issue of resentment was pervasive within the entire government, but I will focus on the Ministry of Planning where I encountered it, firsthand. I was not really a victim of such resentment because I made myself very conscious and aware of such possibility and endeavored to comport myself in such a way that reduced or eliminated any incentive or cause to be resented. I know that even without cause, some people might still resent you because of their insecurity and idiosyncrasies. That is on them. Besides, when I returned to the country in 2009, I had been out for just about 8 years and hadn’t lost touch with the mindset and thought process of the Liberian people: we, Liberians, tend to blame other people for our shortcomings. Someone is doing well might probably just be responsible for us not doing well.

I left the country on December 28, 2000, retuned for the elections in September 2005 and then in September 2008 and finally in March 2009. I had never lost connections with the Liberian way of thinking and I had never thought of myself as being better than others simply because I had been to the US or got some western education. As someone who graduated from Zion University and considering what our colleagues from UL said and thought about us, I would never dare think of other people in such a manner. I always believe that ‘by their fruits, we shall know them’. I am not a big fan where you went to school; I want to know what you can deliver.

And so, in the Ministry of Planning, there were few of us who had returned: Amara Konneh, Sebastian Muah, Rev. Henrique Wilson, Eddie Essiah, Lilian Best, and me. I joined the team after they had been there for about 9 months. And from time to time, we had others like Boom Wilson, Chara Itoka, Diasmer Bloe, Siafa Hage, etc who came on short assignments. All of these people had their own personality traits and interacted with the ‘locals’ in different ways. Though unintentional, the manner and form in which they carried themselves, did add flame to the fire. In many instances, these returning professionals believed they were exercising professional characters but within the context of the ‘locals’, these people were pretending to be better than they (the locals) and so the resentment.

For example, if you wanted to see Minister Konneh and met with his Special Assistant, Ms. Lilian Best, who is very organized, straight, and disciplined and she asks you some basic questions and if you couldn’t answer those questions properly, she might deny your request based on the Minister’s tight schedule or refer you to one of the deputies who could provide what you were looking for. Most local staff would take this as an afront and become resentful of Ms. Best. “Who does she think she is?” Of If the Minister asked Siafa Hage to do a follow up on some project that had been assigned to someone because a deadline was coming up and Siafa, who is very religious to his task and would not take no for an answer, approached you, you might think he is over-bearing. But a local staff, looking that the 6.7-foot, xxx pound guy speaking to you in ‘seres’, you might think he is looking down upon you. This also fueled the resentful.

For several different reasons, these tensions existed. To make any meaning progress, Minister Konneh, the team leader, had to ensure that the relationship between the ‘returnees’ and the ‘locals’ was smooth or manageable. It meant that more team building exercises needed to happen; it meant that ‘locals’ needed to be encouraged to participate in senior staff meetings; it meant that general staff meetings needed to continuously give reassurances to staff and to hear from the ‘locals’ about their perspective on the management of the ministry. These meetings and feedbacks really helped to reducing the tension. We also held regular outside functions that brought the team together. We tried to ensure that whatever win the ministry scored was shared by the entire team. In an affirmative manner, locals had to be more opportunity to travel and represent the ministry where it was feasible.

Usually, these tensions are under the surface and around the ‘water-cooler’. But in one instance, it really raised its head and it caught my attention. I remember when we were recruiting for National Program Specialist in the LRDC. This was the process that selected Ms. Ellen Pratt for the position. As I indicated before, she turned down the position. But before we made the offer to her, one of our colleagues was refusing to sign the interview report. We tried to make the interviewing panel as diverse as possible. Rev. Alvin Attah who was the head of the EU’s National Authorizing Office at the Ministry of Planning was on the panel. At the end of the process, he refused to sign on grounds that we should give the position to a local person and not another ‘returnee’. I was appalled. If she is qualified and she is a Liberian, then why should we discriminate? And more intriguing is that the Rev. Attah did get some of his education from Nigeria. But the system saw him as one of the them because it was Nigeria and not America. He was considered a ‘local’ and not a ‘returnee’ because he got his education from Nigeria.

Well, over time, we managed to reduce the tension and worked together as one big happy family. I am not sure what happened in other ministries and agencies but at planning, we were able recognize this menace and deal with it. Even today, several years later, every one of us from planning still see one another as family.    

PS. We had Sebastian Muah with us so you can imagine how complicated it was to manage this problem but we were able to pull it off.

Author: JAMES F. KOLLIE

I am a Liberian professional with passion for pro poor economic development and grassroot political organizing. I have read public policy, corporate finance and accounting at various levels. I have worked in government, private sector and non-profit sector.

One thought on “Reflections – ‘returnees’ vs ‘locals’: managing the tension”

  1. One of the causes was the age gap between the returnees and locals. At that time, there were more older guys in the employ of the Ministry who were lacking new ideas (innovative) to transform the Ministry. Please don’t get me wrong, some young guys were complacent with the status quo. The retirement of some of the older guys helped the process, which led to more youthful guys (new ideas) joining the Ministry. Some of us saw the returnees as an opportunity to learn from their knowledge and experiences. We were encouraged to continue our education by sharing our class schedules with our supervisors. During our quest for graduate studies, we were kept on the payroll. Thanks to Sebastian T. Muah who approved mine while I was away in East Africa (Makerere University) and a big thank you to Amara M. Konneh for his leadership role. Dr. K, as I normally called you, thanks for this well-documented knowledge product.

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