On a perplexing day in June 1983, I hurriedly went to see Dean Amos Sawyer on the Capitol Hill Campus of the University of Liberia (UL). He was my senior colleague and former professor of social science at Liberia College, where I was serving as Assistant Professor of demography.
I was racing against time and having a dual challenge. I urgently needed to meet an imminent deadline to submit a letter of recommendation to the United States Educational and Cultural Foundation (USECF) in Monrovia. The USECF had selected me for a Fulbright scholarship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia.
The President of the UL had turned down my request for a letter to support my Fulbright scholarship, because she felt other faculty more senior than me should be prioritized as per the then UL faculty development policy.
And an eminent pastor (name withheld), who served on the Foundation’s board, strongly opposed my selection because of my perceived religious background. But that hurdle proved easier to cross than obtaining the letter from UL authorities.
Although Dean Sawyer had a crowded schedule on that day, he generously met me, and after listening to my appeal, picked up his blue inked pen, and with his left hand, wrote a personal letter of recommendation on his letter head, addressed to the Director of the USECF in Monrovia.
The pastor was outvoted by other members of the Board and off I later went for a summer long pre-academic program for Institute of International Education Scholars at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
My perplexing day ended well thanks to the timely intervention of Dean Sawyer. I have often deeply reflected on his timely humanity, altruism and the counterfactual of what would have happened to my career path if he had not written that pivotal letter on my behalf. Only the Good Lord, who is eternally in control of all matters of man/woman knows that answer.
The build-up to that fateful day was years of collaboration with Professor Sawyer as my teacher, mentor, senior colleague and friend. For example, as a sophomore student at the UL, I took his social science course titled “Introduction to Liberian Society,” which he co-taught with other instructors drawn from across the University.
In 1982, when he served as the Chair of the National Constitution Commission, he appointed Mr. Abel Massalee, Director of the Population Division of the erstwhile Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, Mr. Tom Kamara and me, to develop a blueprint for voters’ registration for the referendum on the new Constitution of Liberia. That was an eye-opening experience about drawing the boundaries of national constituencies, and the perception of key legislators at that time about population projection based on data from a pilot demographic survey conducted in preparation for Liberia’s 1984 Population and Housing Census. That assignment took us all over the country and to understudying the referendum system in Nigeria, which was simultaneously undertaking a federal referendum at the time.
I was also part of a small group of scholars affiliated with the UL Institute of Research, which Prof. Sawyer served as founding Director, when it was transformed from the Institute of African Studies, that he used as a sounding board for national issues. For example, we reviewed the draft of his seminal speech for the Independence Day Oration in 1982, in which he likened Liberia to a “flowing river with many tributaries.”
Our paths again crossed many times during Liberia’s “long walk to freedom” from civil war. These included working with other Liberian and American scholars to lobby the United States Government to secure from the Doe Administration his release from prison after the UL invasion in 1984, and for the later release from detention of several UL students.
When he subsequently relocated to the United States, where he served as a Research Scientist at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University (IU), Bloomington, we, in concert with many others, collaborated on several research issues pertaining to the Liberian Studies Association, and the formulation of the Liberian peace process. We continued our collaboration when he returned to Liberia to serve as President of the Interim Government of National Unity from November 1990 to March, 1994.
After my inauguration as the twelfth President of the UL in 2004, I reached out to Professor Sawyer, who had returned to IU. Our partnership was very fruitful. Prof. Sawyer and IU’s late Vice President for International Affairs, Professor Patrick O’Meara, and other IU colleagues, facilitated meetings culminating to an Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation, which I signed in 2005 with Indiana University President Adam Herbert. It was under this Agreement that a number Liberian lawyers who today serve in prominent national capacities obtained their law degrees at IU. The UL-IU partnership later blossomed into productive faculty and student exchanges under successive UL administrations.
I also productively interacted with Professor Sawyer when he visited Nigeria on many occasions on ECOWAS missions and to participate in international seminars on peace, good governance and democracy in Nigeria and Africa. He led several ECOWAS Observer Missions including those to Nigeria (2011); Mali (2013); Guinea Bissau (2014); Guinea (2015); Niger (2016) and Sierra Leone (2018).
In one of our last email exchanges between June 16 and July 8 2020, when I had written to extend him birthday greetings and prayers for his recovery, he replied that he was in the US attending to health challenges: a brain tumour and sciatica which both required surgery. “Off to Indiana this weekend for surgery next week. We thank God the surgery was successful and the brain tumour was removed. We’re going on to rehab perhaps for three weeks. Thanks for your prayers. Please continue to remember us in them,” he wrote.
I wish to express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to his spouse, Mrs. Thelma E. Duncan Sawyer, the Deputy Minister for Administration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the rest of the Sawyer family, for the sad loss of their loving patriarch, who served his beloved country, Liberia, ECOWAS and Africa with uncommon patriotism, pan-Africanism, and an exceptional commitment to the principles of peace and constitutional democracy. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
(Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh is former President of the University of Liberia and Liberia’s Ambassador to Nigeria and Permanent Representative to ECOWAS).