Obsession With the Presidency - Wrong Focus for A New Liberia

By William G. Nyanue

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 1, 2004

With the departure of Charles Taylor for exile in Nigeria, the signing of a peace accord to end fighting, the inauguration of an interim government, and the deployment of United Nations peace keeping troops in many parts of Liberia, many Liberians are beginning to seriously consider the possibility that the nation’s nightmare may be ending. The most optimists believe that we will see the combatants beating their “swords” into plowshares during the next few months. A friend said to me the other day that the politics of boom, boom (referring to the sound of mortar fire) was over. I share his assessment. I too believe that the war is in deed over, not just because of the developments narrated supra, but also because none of the current warring factions has the capacity to wage any serious war, even if they wanted to.

With this ray of hope, Liberians are beginning to discuss what the post-Taylor era should look like beyond the interim period, with emphasis on what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of our nightmare. We cannot afford not to get it right this time around, some argue, especially with all the international attention and support. And I agree, 2005 when we elect new national leaders will have to be seen as an opportunity for a new beginning. This idea of a New Liberia that has eluded us for so long must become a reality. But of course to get it right this time, we need to know what we did wrong the first time. Chances are if we mis-diagnose, we would just begin building another powder keg that would explode in due season. And yet, this is one area where we are far from a consensus. Clearly identifying the root causes of the nation’s problems and agreeing on how to resolve them is one of our most difficult challenges, we all have our own ideas.

For some Liberians, there is one root cause to our national tragedy of more than 150 years, and that is the domination of the majority indigenous Liberians by the less than 1% Americo-Liberians. In fact, some will argue that the civil war had very little to do with President Doe’s leadership, or the lack of it, and all to do with the Americos’ determination to reclaim the dominance and position of privilege that they lost in 1980 when the soldiers took over the government. Some even argue that many Americos see ruling Liberia as some sort of a birth right----they are the ones best suited to rule. For those Liberians who think this way, the solution to solving the nation’s problems will have to begin with Indigenous Liberians uniting to prevent another Americo from taking over the leadership of the country; the next president of Liberia has to be an Indigenous. Such argument always comes with a quick reminder that the Americos are a network of cousins who are all loyal to the call to “Remember the sons (and daughters) of the pioneers.”

Then there are those who argue that the root cause of Liberia’s problems is the imperial presidency. They argue that the president of Liberia has just too much power. The office has successfully taken unto itself literally the power of life and death, with the president’s hand reaching into every aspect of our lives, even our private lives. The solution, they argue, is to curb this god-like power that the constitution clearly does not allow the presidency. We need to cut our president down to size and make him accountable for his stewardship of state power.

Still, there are those who argue that the root cause of our nation’s problems is the unbridled corruption. They argue that our leaders are just too corrupt. They (our political leaders) make no distinction between public resources and those of their own. Corruption has become so endemic that the few honest Liberians who refuse to steal are often viewed as stupid, or “not using their heads.” So, the group of Liberians that makes this observation argues that what needs to be done this time around is for us to find the few honest, patriotic Liberians---- Americos or Indigenous--- who will put the interest of the country first, and elect them to positions of authority.

Finally, there are those who say that the root cause of Liberia’s problems is a combination of all of the above, and perhaps even more. They argue that what needs to be done is to hold a conference on the future of the nation to agree on a way forward. Let’s sit down together and discuss all the issues that have been at the root of all of our conflicts and tensions, and then decide how to proceed.

This sort of discussion, especially the one about the Americos’ dominance and the need for Indigenous unity, should be expected to intensify as we near 2005. And the Internet provides us a forum for airing our views and suggesting remedies. The only problem is that the majority of the Liberian people, especially those back home in Liberia and the many refugee camps, do not have access to the Internet. Still, I believe a discussion on the Internet will serve a useful purpose, and so I am all for it. In fact, this is why I wish to utilize this medium to make the following observations and suggestions.

Judging from most of what has be written and said thus far about the 2005 elections, it seems like we are focusing almost exclusively on electing a good, virtuous president as a means of solving the nation’s problems. And literally every Liberian politician wants to be that next president. I think this is a mistake. This obsession with the presidency is most likely to lead us to where we stopped before the coup in 1980, with all the agitations and acrimony. The one major difference this time, though, would be that a lot more people, including unemployed former child soldiers, would be agitating.

I think we need more than just a good, capable president for the kind of work that needs to be done in Liberia. I believe that a competent Legislature is also an important part of the equation, and electing one in 2005 would go a long way in laying the foundation needed to successfully manage the arduous and complicated task of transforming Liberia. Here is why.

Change is never a simple matter, and what we are all advocating is no less than a radical transformation of our society. But I am not sure if many of us who are now calling for change fully understand what it would mean for even us, and what inertia would need to be overcome. We would like to see a government not dominated by any one group; we would like to see those unqualified, incompetent, and corrupt individuals in government replaced; we would like to see the rule of law prevail; we would like to see hard work rewarded and laziness punished, etc. But how many unqualified and corrupt people are there in government----a few persons or hundreds of individuals? And what do we do with them once we kick them out of government? How will they react? Who are their replacements? How do we know their replacements are really any different? If we personally do not benefit from the current chaos and the Liberian system of governance as we know it, we certainly know people who do. And some of these people may even be friends or family. Do we have the courage and strength of character to support a new system of accountability that would require us to deal objectively with people so close to us? So many questions!

Should we change the current system (if one will call it that)----reward hard work, punish corrupt officials, prevent minority rule, etc.? Certainly! But the road that leads to this much desired goal is laden with mines. There are just too many uncertainties and many battles to be fought. Even balancing the competing legitimate interests of the many groups that make up our nation, as new ideas are introduced and people’s comfort zones are threatened, is not a piece of cake. Managing change is an art, not a science, that requires level heads and thoughtful actors. And what I think we all really want is a nation that is fair to all its citizens----the competent as well as the incompetent, the corrupt as well as the virtuous, Indigenous as well as Americos, etc. But such a society is possible only if it is undergirded by a SYSTEM that works and in which the citizenry have confidence. That is why I think our focus should be building such a system rather than just electing a good president.

I believe that there are two groups of people who, to a significant extent, will build the system required to transform Liberia from a nation of cliques and parochial interests to a rules-based society that works for all its citizens. These two groups are the President and the men and women around him, on the one hand, and the men and women of the National Legislature, on the other hand. Most Liberians understand the role and influence of the President and his advisors in this process. In fact, I think it is because of this realization that so many of us are intently focused on the presidency, and all of our bright and experienced minds wanting to be the next president of Liberia. Judging from the number of potential presidential candidates, one has to conclude that we think that nothing else matters.

But frankly, I think too many of us do not have an appreciation of what has happened to the presidency. The Liberian presidency is not what it used to be. For one thing, many of us have lost our fear of the office. Very few of us now, for example, see anything unsettling about referring to the President in public simply by his last name, no titles. Presidents Doe and Taylor were often referred to simply as Doe, and Taylor. The current Chairman of the Interim Government is often referred to simply as Gyude Bryant. As simple as this might seem, I think it is a reflection of our new perception of the President----another human being like the rest of us. It is partly because of this new view of our President that most Liberians now see nothing sacrilegious about saying “No” to the President, as Kofi Woods did recently when he refused Chairman Bryant’s appointment to serve on the Human Rights Commission. I think we still respect our President, we simply don’t fear him any more.

The loss of the fear for the office of the President has even reached to the countryside. For example, some of our uneducated parents no longer think it is seditious for their children to want to be the President of Liberia, as they once thought during the old days. For good or ill, many of them even think that anyone can now become president of Liberia, even the uneducated.

The media is no less affected by this new view of the Liberian President. Although Liberian journalists do not yet enjoy the full freedom guaranteed them by the constitution, there are many more journalists now who have the courage to question the programs, judgment, and actions of the President. Add to all this the new phenomenon called human rights activism. Several young, highly educated Liberians are making a living of speaking out, even at tremendous risks to their lives, against the president’s misuse of state powers. Their work is often publicized world-wide, thanks to the Internet, and supported by a network of international human rights groups.

Because of all of the above changes, I believe the presidency is actually much less powerful today than it was during the Tubman, Tolbert, or even Doe administration. No future president of Liberia will exercise the same powers as Tubman did, for example, without risking massive protests that could possibly render the country ungovernable. There are just too many Liberians who will not accept many of the things their parents accepted.

It seems to me the genie is out of the bottle. While it cannot be argued that the cult of the presidency is dead, I think it is safe to say that it might be in a coma, with no possibility of resuscitation. The Liberian presidency can never again be anything like it used to be. I do not believe that Taylor understood this remarkable change. This miscalculation, no doubt, cost him many sleepless nights and ultimately the presidency. I earnestly believe that anyone who assumes the office of the presidency and does not realize that we no longer see the President as a god, is in for a rude awakening.

Understanding the change that has happened to the presidency is essential to the debate about the future of Liberia. A correct view of the presidency will enable us to also focus on others of the government, especially the Legislature which is the other necessary actor that needs to be transformed if we are to realize our dream of a New Liberia. A capable Legislature is vital because the New Liberia will have to have its mooring in a SYSTEM, a system that works, not in the virtues of individuals. No matter how much noise we make about the need for change, or how clearly we are able to define the needed changes, in our system of government, those changes are most likely to be realized when those who speak on our behalf ---- our representatives and senators---- have not just the knowledge and experience to articulate and manage those changes, but also the integrity and security---- financial, professional, etc.---- to stand up for what they know is right. What better way to solve the problem of one group of people dominating the government, for example, than a rigorous and respectable senate confirmation process?

Even the judiciary would be strengthened by a competent legislature. For example, known corrupt judges would be kept out of the judiciary through the confirmation process, and the problem of low remuneration for judges could be resolved through meaningful budget debates. But perhaps most importantly, a competent Legislature would protect the independence of the judiciary by letting the president know that his interfering with the judiciary could lead to his impeachment, as this would be a violation of the constitution. The president must see the impeachment clause of the constitution for what it is----a credible threat of being sacked for being an outlaw.

One reason why the presidency became ALL-POWERFUL was because it succeeded in reducing the Legislature to a toothless bulldog. I believe the restoration of the National Legislature to its constitutional position is crucial to bringing to fruition the New Liberia and successfully managing the many changes that would come along. But the men and women of this restored Legislature would also need to have the maturity and wisdom to know that their work is not just to keep the powers of the President in check as required by the constitution, for example, but also to help build a government and a system that work. This means, among other things, that they would know when to work with the Executive, without compromising their independence. It is only this balance that would enable the building of a system that works and prevent a bitter power struggle.

This is why I think the opportunity provided by the 2005 national elections must be seized not just to elect a capable president, but also to elect a capable and thoughtful Legislature, one that stands a real chance of exerting its constitutional powers and, therefore, being truly independent. To achieve this end, I think many of those who are now thinking of running for the presidency in 2005 would need to reconsider and begin looking instead at the Legislature. No matter how patriotic and forward looking the next president is, we will be headed for rough waters again if the Legislature is once again packed with individuals who will be looking to the President for gas money and their children’s tuition, and Lebanese merchants for “Saturdays.”