Is Liberia Tilted in the Right Direction?

By Winsley S. Nanka

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 13, 2004

Recently, many Liberian social and political commentators have expressed concerns about the multiplicity of candidates vying for the presidency of Liberia in 2005. Some of these commentators see the many presidential candidates as a recipe for a dysfunctional political system and an impediment to the creation of a stable democratic environment in Liberia.

The concerns about the multiplicity of political parties may have some validity. However, the real threat to the creation of a sustainable democratic society is the failure of Liberians to establish political institutions based on a set of ideas and value system that have competitive mediums of selecting candidates for offices. This inherent weakness in the Liberian political system is a derivative of the one-party rule generations of Liberians experienced during the 27 years of the William V. S. Tubman administration. However, before the Tubman administration, there were various forms of limited competitive practices of “settler democracy” within the settler community in Liberia.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, “Tilt Theory of History” governs nations that succeed in building a democratic society. The Tilt Theory of History states that “countries and cultures do not change by sudden transformations. They change when, by wise diplomacy and leadership, you take a country, a culture or a region that has been tilted in the wrong direction and tilt it in the right direction, so that the process of gradual internal transformation can take place over a generation.” Liberia has endured generations of anarchy due to the inability of Liberians to develop a competitive democratic culture that tilts the country in the right direction.

The political parties that contested the 1985 general elections were formed around individuals for the purpose of competing for the presidency of Liberia. One notable exception was the Liberia Action Party, which had a token competition for its nomination. David Farhat contended against Jackson Fiah Doe for the standard bearer of the Liberia Action Party.

Most of the presidential candidates that vied for the presidency in 1997 were the founders of the political parties they established for the purpose of competing for the presidency. These individuals installed themselves as standard bearers of the political parties without competitive processes. Moreover, the attempt to form a political alliance failed primarily because the standard bearers from the various political parties did not have a history of competitive political culture. Other 1997 presidential contenders joined political parties for the sole purpose of becoming standard bearers. For example, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joined the Unity Party to become its standard bearer after Cletus Wotorson became the standard bearer of the Liberia Action Party, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s original party.

The designation of standard bearers is not permanent within the political parties. Once elections are over, the leadership of the political parties reverts to the chairpersons, until new standard bearers are selected for the next election. Also, the standard bearers are not leaders of the political parties. The leaders are the chairpersons of the political parties as it is the case in participatory democratic societies. The tendency of Liberian political parties’ standard bearers to proclaim themselves as leaders or spokespersons of the political parties weakens the authority of the chairpersons.

Liberians’ failure to establish a competitive political environment at the organizational and national levels suggests Liberia is tilted in the wrong direction. Political parties and organizations built around individuals are not sustainable. Once the individuals cease to exist, the political parties or organizations become inconsequential to the political process. The National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) and the True Whig Party (TWP) are obvious examples. Furthermore, the failure to create a competitive internal political environment obstructs the building of a participatory democratic society. The memberships of the various political parties have the responsibility to demand a competitive political environment in Liberia.

Liberia will continue to be tilted in the wrong direction until ordinary Liberians can participate in the selection of leaders at both the organizational and national levels. Also, Liberia will continue to be tilted in the wrong direction until Liberia’s self-imposed leaders understand that a sustainable democracy is built by the participation of the people in the selection of their leaders and by not self-imposition.