A Voyage Home From Exile (Part III)

By Brownie J. Samukai


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 26, 2004

Monrovia is rattling with elections politics. Politics of the future is argued around existing policies, personalities, behavior and pronouncements of key members of the CPA Cluster, as well as general feelings of ordinary Liberians, whether it is about lack of transportation, corruption, lack of basic services, or even how Lone Star is fairing in International football matches. Even though elections are not due in Liberia until next year 2005, it would seem the fever of being politically relevant has not escaped gatherings, whether playing soccer with Alpha colleagues, or visiting relatives at Chicken Soup Factory, or pep talks after Sunday Church Services.

One of such relevance came about during a visit with Honorable Henry Saah, veteran member of the House Representative for Lofa County covering nearly two-decades. Hon. Saah was a household name among my Kinsmen (Kissi people) even when we were students in Bolahun in the early 1970’s.

Conversation with the Honorable was gradual and initially centered around lost acquaintances between my Dad (who had escorted me) and Hon. Saah. On today political dynamics, the Hon. Saah explained how young people nowadays were impatient when handling critical national issues; such impatience has led many young people to misdirect their energy towards adventure leading to consequences they could not readily control. Hon. Saah reflected that during their days as Representatives for their people, they had formal residence in the District they were representing, and Monrovia was their secondary residence during Parliamentary Sessions. It was his opinion that with the allegiance of your constituents, and the relentless support you seek for their welfare, creates an indomitable voting block during any elections, whether at the District Level, County or National level. Sounding very confident, he indicated that with the relentless support of your constituents, it was exceedingly possible to influence political parties and individuals seeking the highest office in bringing needed attention to your electoral constituency.

From the wisdom of these discussions, it became easier to reflect on how the dynamics of regionalism and kinship during the last twenty-four years, and the immediate 13 years of our civil conflict have produced the type of outcome that continue to evolve. The composition of the CPA cluster is a very clear example of electoral blocks, sharing similar views and achieving magnanimous concessions.

Something else happened that reminded me about the conversation with the Honorable, and it would not elude anyone to see how the dynamics of kinship and espirit de corps have become tenants of survival nowadays. It was mid-week, and about mid-day, when the familiar sounds of the AFL marching band was heard coming from up Crown Hill Broad Street, and two platoon size smartly dressed military personnel (half of them being women) were parading to the tone of the marching band. After inquiring about these smartly dressed women, it was clear that nearly all of them were from one sector of the country, but with few from other parts of the country, who survived under the most difficult circumstances. The cadence, rhythm and sounds of the marching band were in consonance with their drill, but was there difference in their political views? The band was preparing to escort the body of the late Managing Director of the Port Authority. Employees from the NPA and nearly all persons of significance from the Southeastern Region of the country were in the extended convoy, which had now taken a national significance like the burial of a Head of State.

As I reflected on Hon Saah’s words of wisdom, and the cohesion, attention, and dominant attraction of the military marching band, the politics of regionalism and kinship could not escape me as we move into Elections 2005. One morning during brunch with some friends, the conversation took on the trend as follows: In recent times, the Speaker of the NTLA has made accusing statements against Liberian women, assertion of hidden/lost weapons against the CPA Cluster, has gotten money from the coffers of Government to travel extensively, has gotten the government to spend money to buy lavish vehicles, had threaten another war, and no one seems to challenge his bold moves. Is it because there is fear that he is protected by his kinsmen who had taken up arms against the former regime and ousted it, and may be capable of bringing further chaos again? Or is it because the Speaker and his Kinsmen were very instrumental in selecting the CPA Cluster Leadership, thus intimidating them whenever possible? The conversation did not seem to place blame on the leadership, but acknowledged the extreme difficulty working with warlords and gangsters.

Everywhere you went issues affecting the daily lives of people were being discussed. Whether it is the increase in the price of rice, or the reassured monopoly of mobile phone operations in the country, or the selected monopoly of rice or fuel importation, there is rising temper and apparent stress scales have risen to unprecedented levels. Is mob justice evidence of the cruel impatience people have developed for criminal activities, or is it lack of trust and confidence in the criminal justice system? It may be difficult to tell.

On several occasions while in separate discussions with many including prominent lawyers, veteran politicians, a member of the Transitional Legislative Assembly, a former student leader, a colleague involved in the AIDS-awareness campaign, Head (and his Deputy) of a reputable International NGO, and another time with three very senior Government Officials among others, there was recognition that some officials in government were posturing themselves to emerge as defender of the destiny of their kinsmen in the next elections. The argument was that the attitude of these individuals, their present position, the glittering blitz of their convoy, their demanding opinion, as well as their extensive business connection puts them in a much better position to seek the support of their desperate kinsmen. But are these the issues of the next elections?

Unfortunately, the hungry and impoverished population is relying on hand-outs from those in power capable of providing for their survival, even it meant going out and cheering for the confused collection of individuals and political parties fielding presidential candidates. It was also clear to see the difficulty electorates will face in deciding on whom to trust – Politicians have failed the people, businessmen are failing the people, neutral people were neutral to the population and left them in limbo, war-lords were the worst of the crumbs of leaders who also failed the people, gender was successfully tested, but a reckless character emerged, and a Lecturer could not read his own notes of literature to deliver except to say: “I know what it is to be…”

Another consensus was that there is an emerging difficulty in the non-cohesive nature of the political arrangements under the CPA, which may influence actions of individuals to join the party of the Chairman (like the case of the Minister of Finance); another consensus was the deceptive reality of swing votes from the desperate population, which presidential aspirants assume supports them, especially when they are being received by pre-arranged cheering crowds upon arriving at RIA, or during organized rallies around tow.

It became easier to see the non-cohesive nature of political arrangements under the CPA: The Minister of Foreign Affairs promulgates a Foreign Policy initiative in consultation and guidance from the Chairman, while at the same time, making pronouncements inimical to the CPA, but supportive of his former warring faction. Or the Foreign Minister authorizes the sale of Government Property overseas, and did not deposit the money into government revenue, and the Ministry of Finance did not receive any cash nor demand that the proceeds from the sale of the property be put into government revenue - (in fact is it part of the mandate of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to sell government property and repurchase another property - the seller (Foreign Minister) becomes the buyer and custodian of government cash!!!!!) The Speaker on the other hand speaks for the CPA NTLA, but makes reckless pronouncements contrary to the intentions of the entire CPA Cluster, thus bringing into question the integrity of the intentions of government. Likewise, the Minister of Post and Telecommunications may choose to grant selective permits to certain business entities to operate mobile phones in the country, and another Assistant or Deputy Minister in the same Ministry may choose to do otherwise. The NTLA behaves like it has the authority to make appointments in government, by questioning the Chairman’s nomination and threatening to reject appointments made by the Chairman, through so-called petitions received from citizens in areas where they can hardly thread.

From these discussions there seem practical difficulties in arriving at a consensus on a compromise solution among the multitude of political parties and individuals expressing presidential interest. Everyone seems to suggest that they have the best chance of winning the highest office, even though several of these political parties were facing major internal squabbles and lack the institutional framework and grassroots support of serious contending political parties. Others seem to be preparing to go on the ‘winning side’ simply because the Chairman of the CPA Cluster is from a certain political party. There are others seeking Divine anointment for the highest office, while others are relying on their self-acclaimed, but recognizable professional achievements.

The consoling impression was that there were talks of talks, meetings of meetings, strategists from political parties strategizing for a merger or some form of coalition among the following: LUP, LAP, UP, UPP, LPP, and New Deal. Someone said to me, “you and I know, this would be a recipe for disaster among warlords and former warring factions if such a political consensus become a reality heading into elections 2005”. Reason could prevail to assume that such a merger or consensus for coalition might create a formidable political block whose chances of sweeping victory could be reasonably assured. Others argued this could the best solution for a future government of national unity, inclusiveness, and truly reflective of varying political views across the spectrum. Someone said given what is happening, people’s disillusionment with political progressives, grand-old parties, and kinship political parties could lead voters to rally behind a totally unknown and reject the entire field of presidential aspirants. The jury is still out, and October is still a year plus away. However, the likelihood of a consensus is more of an elusive political fantasy than real Liberian politicks today.

It was amazing meeting some individuals separately, who told me they represented Civic (or is it Civil?) Society. I look over my shoulder wondering who these organizations were, since there were Interest Groups Representatives, Representatives of Labor Organizations, Representatives of Political Parties, Representatives of Market Women, and the Drivers Union and Laborers were under Labor Organizations, and the Market Women were under Interest Groups, etc.. One is left to wonder, if two simultaneous meetings were held for these similar organizations, would the membership be distinct? Anyway, this is Monrovia today, center of organized confusion (remember ELWA intersection).

After inquiring, confusion set in my mind because there are views that Civil Society Organizations (The Real one seem to be in the NTLA) is a combination of registered National Organizations, and Civic Society Organizations is a combination of registered community/municipal/town organizations (don’t be surprised, because I myself was confused and surprised of the distinction). The strength of these organizations is yet to be determined. In the case of South Africa, Civil Society organizations drive the dynamics of policies, political choice, as well as business climate and help shape the destiny of the country (as it was during the apartheid era - COSATU). In the case of Liberia, it seem to be the other way around, an individual gets up, makes an announcement representing Civil Society, organizes a meeting to gain the support of Civil Society Organizations, get himself represented in parliament and becomes the spokesman of Civil Society Organizations, prepares himself to be elected under Civil Society Organizations, and is therefore the sole representative of CSO to all future political conferences of varying interest groups, (what an irony of political selfishness),

In my extensive discussions, the issue of the type of elections became a heated debated (for the records, according to our electoral laws and as the NEC Chairman stated recently, census is not a prerequisite for elections – According to credible sources, voters registration will take place early next year ). Several respectable lawyers and political giants presented a sound argument that given the overwhelming displacement of the Liberian population leading to the displacement of electoral constituencies as defined in our laws, it may be most practical to conduct elections for the House of Representative and the results be based on proportional representation. This argument stipulates that this proportional electoral system will not be applied to the elections for Senatorial seats only for the House of Representative. Thus, under such electoral scenario for the House of Representative, the number of seats won by a political party in the House will be determined by the percentage of votes acquired and proportionally applied. Which means assuming that each political party (individual running for the House) is required to receive certain minimum number of votes, the minimum number of votes achieved will determine who will be least in appointing the individual from their party to occupy which District of the electoral constituency that has been left after the highest voting party has made its appointment; and that this electoral system for the House will only be applied for Elections 2005.

A counter argument by others set the premise that this type of elections as held in 1997, proportional representation, is not feasible for 2005. This argument went on further to state that proportional representation for the largest section of the bicameral house will again lead to lack of accountability since parties would be appointing individuals after election results, to represent people based on the percentage of seats won, and thus lack direct accountability to the electorates, since they were not elected in the real sense. It was also argued that if on the basis of proportional representation a party were to select someone for a particular District, and district inhabitants recall that during the war years, this was the very individual who led armed men to brutalized the population, and thus chased them away to displaced camps, do you think the population would return to that District?

This latter argument states that the issue of population displacement and the need for the population to directly elect Representatives for their original districts was possible. They indicated for example, that the first step prior to making the final determination of the electoral system, was to conduct Voters Registration exercise (in the absence of credible census data), during which the questionnaire will ask some fundamental questions of the prospective voter: What is the original district of the voter, what is the present location of the prospective voter, and which District would the prospective voter be willing to cast his or vote, or which District would the prospective voter allowed their vote to be counted for? Thereafter a statistical analysis of the results after the Voter’s Registration exercise may provide a definite indication of the intent of the prospective voter, whether displaced or not. These debated exchanges went on in most political gatherings I found myself. They were debated compassionately, and non-personal, but debating the issues that people felt dearly about. In most cases, people agreed to continue the debate. Everyone seem hopeful that the Independent Elections Commission will not create a system where Members of the House of Representatives are not directly elected and accountable to their electoral constituents, but to the political party appointing them.

Later, I was in the company of several colleagues from one of the progressive camps. Instantly it became clear that there were very serious crisis in that political camp. Their discussions centered on their displeasure of being called “ducklings” and someone calling himself “duck”, and now the “ducklings” no longer wanted to follow, but wanted to be engaged and taken seriously. Infact, one of the fellows said during the CPA Cluster formation, this progressive camp could not find even a single slot on any board of director of any public corporation to have this “duck” placed on, and that no one wanted to touch this “duck” with a ten foot pole!!!! I wondered how sad this must be for the aging “duck”, looking back on his legacy of 25 years which help shape the history of the political opposition. Liberian politics have matured but with dissension and legacy of disappointment.

As I packed my bags for my return journey back to Dar es Salaam, where Elections are also slated for October 2005, the reality of Hon. Saah’s wisdom seemed to be evolving in Liberian contemporary politics, but arguably for personal aggrandizement. There are very practical indicators creating a compelling case for reasoning and prudence in recognizing that electoral power blocks (or assured electoral constituencies) may not just be a perceptive argument during Elections 2005 in Liberia. The reality of Liberia’s contemporary politics and the recent dictate of the CPA composition may provoke an outcome likely to be determined by gangs of former warlords, who would like to continue the Stockholm Principle which led to the results of Elections 1997. Posturing may be a bluff, but the liability of a non-challenge, and the likely end result should remind all of what an emerging democracy has inscribed and ascribed to as a matter of principle and policy: “We are good at our Task because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate”.

I left Monrovia with the feeling that people’s aspirations are for a “wholesome functioning” democratic and peaceful society, with “equal access to opportunities”, free of arms, where the rule of law, transparency and accountability are the tenets of their continued existence, “in pursuit of happiness”, utilizing their individual endowment.

Karibu Tena. Safari Njema Kuja Dar Es Salaam. (Always welcome – Have a safe safari to Dar es Salaam).

Note: This article is the last in a three part series on the return of the writer to Monrovia, after fleeing Liberia nearly Six years ago on September 23, 1998, and returning on July 10, 2004

Related Article:
A Voyage Home From Exile (Part I)
A Voyage Home From Exile (Part II)

(The author once served in Liberia during the Interim political administrations between 1991-1997 as Special Assistant and later Deputy Minister of Defense for Operations, Director of Police, and Deputy Minister of State for Administration. He currently lives and works in Tanzania).