Be Prepared to Say No, Rather Than Betray Your Conscience for Material Gains: A Tribute to Journalist Gus D. Jaeploe By Gabriel I.H. Williams

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When I began my professional career as a cub reporter (trainee reporter) at the Daily Observer newspaper near the mid-1980s, my first high-profiled assignment was to cover the baccalaureate service for a graduating class of the University of Liberia. The keynote speaker at the well-attended service, which was held at the historic Centennial Memorial Pavilion in Monrovia, was delivered by the Reverend Father Christopher Kandakai, a priest of the Episcopal Church of Liberia.

The Rev. Fr. Kandakai’s sermon was based on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three Jewish men from the biblical book of Daniel who were thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. The King roared into furious rage because the Jewish men refused to bow down to his golden image. The Jews, who the King appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon, maintained that they were prepared to die for their convictions rather than worship the King’s golden image, because that was against the will of the living God whom they served (Daniel 3:1-30).

In his inspiring sermon, the now late Fr. Kandakai urged the graduates that as they go out into the world, they must be prepared to stand up for their convictions for the common good. At a time when sycophancy and opportunism were the order of the day in society, he called on the graduates to be prepared to say no to anything that is against their convictions, even if it would cost them their jobs or opportunities.

The above accounts remind me of Gus D. Jaeploe, a fellow journalist and a friend since my days at the Observer when he was also a reporter of the government-owned New Liberia newspaper. He was a man of unwavering conviction. On Saturday, May 11, 2024, Gus was said to be celebrating with other fans while watching a soccer match at an entertainment center when his favorite soccer team, UK-based Chelsea, scored. Amid the jubilation, Gus suddenly yelled that he was in pain, and he collapsed. In a country where there is not a single properly functioning ambulance or fire service, he was carried bodily home, and from there he was taken to the ELWA Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The shocking demise of Gus is yet another sober reminder that many people in Liberia are what one might call “walking dead.” This is because most people in Liberia do not know their health conditions due to the broken health system. Instead of allocating adequate resources to prioritize rebuilding the health sector, government officials usually seek advanced medical treatment abroad at the expense of the country.  

A day before his sudden death, Gus called me, and we had a wonderful phone conversation that lasted for more than 30 minutes. Even though he said he was bouncing back from malaria and the cold, he sounded to be in a jubilant mood. I had successfully connected him with a publishing house in the US, which had approved his manuscript to publish a book for which he said he had kept the manuscript for 20 agonizing years due to lack of means and connection to bring his dream to reality. His book is set to provide fascinating accounts of life in territories occupied by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) armed faction during Liberia’s civil war.

Dubbed the chief of rhetoric for using figures of speech and parables to express himself, Gus weaves compelling accounts not just of the security and political situation, but also of the bustling social life and commercial activities in NPFL-occupied Liberia. The pending book sheds light on why many Liberians fully embraced the Taylor-led revolution, believing that it was going to bring about Liberia’s transformation. However, he states, instead of focusing on rebuilding war-ravaged Liberia after he became President, Mr. Taylor headed in the wrong direction by his military adventurism into neighboring countries, thereby going into conflict with some major world powers, leading to his downfall. In the end, he adds, those who supported Mr. Taylor believing in the common good are living with the stigma of being publicly declared guilty by association.

As I ponder the life of Gus, here is why it reminds me of Fr. Kandakai’s sermon decades ago regarding the importance of standing by your conviction.

At the beginning of the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 during which I served at the Information Ministry as Assistant Minister and Deputy Minister, respectively, then Minister Johnny A. McClain directed me to reactivate the New Liberia newspaper. The New Liberia became inactive during the civil crises, even though many of the staff still reported to work as MICAT employees.

  My primary choice for appointment to the position of editor-in-chief to head the New Liberia was Gus D. Jaeploe, who along with another dear colleague and friend, Lawrence E. Thompson, were reporters at the New Liberia when I was at the Observer. Over the years, Gus had risen through the media ranks, including serving in senior capacities at the Liberia Communications Network (LCN), which was the primary information dissemination agency of Charles Taylor’s regime.

I invited Gus, who was unemployed, to lunch and announced the job offer. What happened next left me completely shocked.

Gus graciously thanked me for considering him for the job. However, he noted that his conviction could not allow him to accept such a job under the Sirleaf administration. He indicated that he was bitterly opposed to President Sirleaf’s decision to turn former President Taylor over for international prosecution. 

He argued that while Mr. Taylor made some mistakes, arresting and incarcerating him abroad was unacceptable. Also reflecting on the tragic experiences from the 1980 military coup in Liberia, Gus asked the rhetorical question, if we were to apply the same jungle justice that made those soldiers to assassinate President Willliam R. Tolbert and publicly execute 13 senior government officials for alleged rampant corruption and gross abuse of power today, how many of our government leaders would survive?

Even though he was broke and I had to give him money to pay for commercial transportation after our lunch, Gus’ parting words were that he would rather die in poverty than betray his conscience for financial gains. “If I will eat dry cassava and coconut to survive, so be it,” he maintained. The accounts of my encounter with Gus are published in my 2019 book, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia (available online). While reminiscing recently about Gus, his wife, Sis Bendu, also recalled that Gus once told her that he had a friend in the Ellen government who offered him a job but that he declined the offer. She said she pleaded with Gus to change his mind and accept the job, but he maintained that he would rather eat sand than take the job. 

After nearly a decade, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Gus in April, seeking my assistance to publish his book. He had gotten my number from our mutual friend and colleague, Carlton Boah, publisher of the In Profile Daily newspaper, who and I often had conversations regarding the wellbeing of our friend. Gus said that it finally dawned on him to contact me after listening to me regularly on the Monrovia-based Truth FM/Real TV in recent times, during which I have been hosted live on the State of the Nation program to offer perspectives regarding developments in Liberia.

We respected and treated one another with kindness despite serious disagreements, especially regarding the Liberian civil war, which bitterly divided Liberia at many levels.  With his passing, may the Lord enable me to now single-handedly raise the necessary financial resources to ensure that his book finally becomes a reality after 20 years of obstacles. May his soul rest in peace.

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