Are Calls for Postponing the 2005 Elections Justified (Part I)?


By William G. Nyanue

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 13, 2004

In about 12 months, Liberians will be going to the polls to elect a new government to replace the current interim government, that is if the benefactors and managers of the peace process do not change their minds. There has been much talk recently about postponing the elections by at least one year to October 2006. A number of Liberians and Liberian groups have been calling on the international community not to rush to elections. They argue that certain preparatory work needs to be done in order to make this election meaningful and give Liberia a reasonable chance to succeed at democratic governance.

But there is another group of Liberians, perhaps the majority of Liberians, that wants elections to be held in October of 2005 as scheduled. This group argues that Liberia is likely to lose the support of the international community if we drag out the interim period. The group also argues that the sooner we got rid of the current factional government, one often referred to as “a coalition of the unwilling,” the better it would be for the country.

I never really gave serious thought to the possibility of postponing the elections until recently. I had thought that all Liberians were eager to get rid of the current factional government.

I began taking serious interest in the subject after reading a press release that was issued following the launching of Mr. Yarsuo Weh?Dorliae’ s new book, “Proposition 12." In that press release, Dr. Amos Sawyer, former interim president of Liberia, was reported to have called for the postponement of the 2005 elections. The following week, The Perspective web magazine carried several reactions to Dr. Sawyer’s call, all of which were against the idea. Then on September 7, 2004, Dr. Sawyer himself published an article titled, “The Need For Pre?Elections Governance Reforms: Continuing the Dialogue.” In that article, he summarized why he thought it was necessary to delay elections by a year.

Dr. Sawyer’s article aroused my interest in the subject of postponing the elections sufficiently enough that I thought to carefully study other papers and articles that have been published on the subject. After reviewing much of this material, I am not convinced that the outcomes sought by the advocates of postponing the election could, in fact, be achieved if the elections were postponed. I set out in the rest of this paper, and a second paper to be published shortly, why I came to this conclusion.

From my reading of the various articles and papers on the subject of the 2005 elections, there are really two major reasons advanced for the postponement of the election, namely, the need to restructure the Liberian government to correct “flawed institutions,” and the need to conduct a population census. In this article, I discuss the issue of reforming the national government. In Part II of this paper, I discuss the issue of census. In each article, I first summarize my understanding of the proponents’ arguments and then discuss why and where I differ with them.

Case for Postponing Elections
Dr. Amos Sawyer is perhaps one of the better known names to publicly call for the postponement of the scheduled 2005 elections by at least one year in order to perform what he calls “serious diagnostic assessments” of the Liberian political arrangement. His thoughts on the election are summarized in his April 28, 2004 letter to Chairman Gyude Bryant declining his nomination by the Chairman to serve on the Good Governance Commission; and his September 7, 2004 article. Sawyer believes that (some) institutions of the existing political arrangements are flawed and by holding elections in 2005 without instituting the necessary reforms, we will only be reinstating these flawed institutions. He wrote in the September 7, 2004 article: “It seems to me to make more sense to revisit the constitution now than to reinstate flawed institutions...While leaders may well be blamed for not always doing the right thing, there are institutional failures that contribute substantially to the cycle of violent breakdowns ? power?sharing transitions ? acrimonious elections ? zero?sum politics ? violent breakdowns that has brought so much tragedy to our country.”

I carefully read Dr. Sawyer’s referenced article and his letter of April 28, 2004 for specific examples of some of the flawed institutions but unfortunately I found none. The closest that he came to being specific was when he wrote: “I have devoted a fair amount of my time studying the challenges of political governance in our country and am convinced that governance reforms that preclude democratic decentralization will not sufficiently open up political and economic space for greater inclusion unlocking the potentials of the Liberian people; therefore will not contribute substantially to ending the vicious cycle of conflict that has taken us down a path to profound human tragedy.”

To get an idea of Dr. Sawyer’s thought on the issue of decentralization, I reviewed the 1983 Draft Constitution, which is often referred to as the “Sawyer constitution” because it was written under his chairmanship. A number of provisions in the section on the Executive----Articles 56 through 67---- were particularly helpful. In Article 56(c), for example, the draft constitution called for the Chief Justice and associate justices of the Supreme Court and judges of courts of record to be appointed by the president from a panel submitted to him by the Judicial Service Commission. Article 56(d) called for county superintendents to be appointed by the president based on a list submitted to him by Committees of County Leaders. Article 57(a) established the Committee of County Leaders to consist of “paramount chiefs within the county and one person from each legislative constituency chosen by the people of that constituency at the time of election to the House of Representatives.” Under the previous constitution, the selection of judges and superintendents was the sole prerogative of the president.

While one will not call these and similar provisions of the draft constitution a significant decentralization of the government, they sought to do, at least in theory, some of what many Liberians are now calling for, which is to limit the powers of the president and to give some authority to the local people. Unfortunately, these provisions were deleted from the final constitution (now in force) by the Constitution Advisory Committee.

It might be safe to conclude, based on the above and inferring from other ideas expressed in Dr. Sawyer’s September 7 article and April 28 letter to Chairman Bryant, that the flawed institutions he has in mind might have something to do with those institutions of the Liberian government that support the concentration of political and economic powers at the center of our governing structure.

Mr. Bai Gbala was perhaps the first, in recent memory, to publish a relatively detailed paper about the need to decentralize political and economic powers in Liberia, and what the decentralized government should look like. In his article, “Decentralization Of Political & Administrative Power In Liberia” he argued: “For, the Unitary structure of government, enshrined in the Constitution of Liberia and utilized during the past 157 years, is not, any longer, relevant to the prevailing conditions and realities of twenty?first century Liberia. Indeed, the System has clearly out?lived its usefulness and, therefore, must be replaced by a much more democratic system of regional, autonomous provincial governments united to form a Liberian Federation.” He went on to propose a federal system of government that consists of four provincial governments. However, Mr. Gbala does not say when this reform should take place, whether prior or subsequent to the 2005 elections.

I have not had the opportunity to read Mr. Yarsuo Weh?Dorliae’s “Proposition 12," but based on a review of the book done by Mr. Emmanuel T. Dolo and published by The Perspective web magazine under the title “Proposition 12 for Decentralized Governance in Liberia: Power Sharing for Peace and Progress,” Mr. Weh-Dorliae is also arguing for the decentralization of the Liberian Government. Both Mr. Weh-Dorliae and Dr. Sawyer are calling for the holding of a national conference to debate this and other issues of governance. Mr. Gbala and a number of other Liberians support the idea of a national conference.

I share the view of Dr. Sawyer and the others who are calling for a national conference, except that I do not support the idea that the conference should be “sovereign.” Sovereignty must remain with the institutions that have been established for the governing of the country. I believe that the issue of reform will be appropriately addressed by an elected national legislature. But I share the view that there is a need to at least do a critical and objective review of our governance structure because it certainly could benefit from an overhaul. There is no reason, for example, why a decision about the location of a farm to market road in a leeward county must be made by someone sitting in Monrovia; or why managers of the power company (LEC) in the counties are not answerable to the people they serve. There is definitely a need to vest some of the authorities of the central government at the local/county level. This decision will ultimately have to be made by the national legislature but a national debate, whether through a public hearing process or a national conference, would contribute significantly to the formulation of the appropriate legislation.

One argument against delaying the 2005 elections is that we will lose the support of the international community if the current interim period were to be extended. I am not sure if this is a valid argument. I share the view of those who argue that the international community is likely to support our request for the postponement of the elections if we as a nation (our national leadership, with the support of all political and civic leaders) can give the community credible reasons why the process needs to be delayed. If by delaying the elections we will be able to avoid another national upheaval, or at the minimum lay a solid foundation for democratic governance, then by all means we should fight tooth and nail to delay the elections. But, in my opinion, the international community will look favorably on our representation only if there is objective evidence that indicates that what we propose to do is likely to have the desired results. Believe it or not, the international community too wants a true success story, an example of where its intervention has brought real and lasting peace. Obviously, those who are arguing for the postponement of the elections believe that we can, in fact, make this case, and here is where I differ with them. I am not so sure a case can be made, particularly as it relates to governance reform, and here is why.

A. The Foundational Change Needed is Not Structural
In my opinion, there is no evidence that suggests that delaying the elections to hold another national conference at this time, even if that conference were to result in the rewriting of our constitution, will change our situation an iota.

In preparation for this article, I reviewed the current governing constitution of Liberia (1984) and the draft 1983 constitution. While the draft constitution introduced some new and interesting ideas that would have reduced, in some measure, the powers of the president and give some authority to the “the people,” I am convinced, without any doubt, that Liberia would be a peaceful, developed, exemplary African country if we were to enforce the provisions of the current constitution. While the document would certainly benefit from a critical review, it is my opinion that it has, in its current form, all the major elements required to ensure equity, peace, transparency, and accountability in the management of the affairs of the country. There are sufficient safeguards within the current constitution for the operation of a responsible government.

Take the Judiciary for example. The constitution empowered the president to appoint all judges, but made the enforcement of that power conditional on the consent of the Liberian Senate as stipulated in Articles 68 and 69. Article 68 reads in part: “The Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court shall, with the consent of the Senate, be appointed and commissioned by the President...” Article 69 reads: “The judges of subordinate courts of record shall, with the consent of the Senate, be appointed and commissioned by the President...” It must also be noted that the judges cannot be dismissed by the president. They can only be removed from office by impeachment as stipulated in Article 71 which reads: “The Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and the judges of subordinate courts of record shall hold office during good behavior. They may be removed upon impeachment and conviction by the Legislature based on proved misconduct, gross breach of duty, inability to perform the functions of their office, or conviction in a court of law for treason, bribery or other infamous crimes.” Moreover, the salaries of judges are not set or even recommended by the president but, according to Article 72, established by law. With all these constitutional safeguards, judges, after being appointed, have no real reason to be loyal to or even fear the president. So, a corrupt judicial system cannot be totally blamed on the so-called imperial presidency.

Not much really needs to be said about the authority of the national legislature under the existing constitution, vis à vis the powers of the president. Members of this branch of government are elected just as the president and have all the constitutional protections they need to perform their check-and-balance role. Unfortunately, the legislature has, for the most part, been a paper tiger. We can debate the reasons for this failure, but I will be surprised if any of them would be found in the inadequacy of the existing laws.

I do not think that there are many Liberians who believe that we are in this mess and Liberia is woefully underdeveloped primarily, or even substantially, because our institutions are flawed. It seems to me that we are in this mess because we did not develop the national will and capacity to enforce the provisions of the constitution and the other laws of the land. Like many other African countries, many of our laws are made only as an academic exercise.

I am not sure if there is any Liberian who will argue against the need to empower local authorities. We can debate the form that this empowerment should take but that it is needed is without debate. But again I am not sure that we can attribute, to a significant extent, our governance problem to the fact that local people do not have sufficient authority. In fact, it seems to me that if we are not careful with the issue of decentralization, we may just transfer our governance problems----corruption, disregard for the rule of law, lack of accountability, etc.------ from the center to the local.

It seems to me the failure of our governance structure has to do significantly with people, not institutions. No matter how many new institutions we create, or how many new laws we enact, as long as the men and women who man our institutions of government are unprincipled and there is not the will or the incentive to force them to conform to the law, we will see no improvement in our governance situation. It would have been interesting to see how the creation of the Committee of County Leaders, as called for by the draft 1983 constitution for the purpose of short-listing candidates for the superintendent, for example, would have really limited the power of the president to determine who gets appointed superintendent. I am not sure how a committee dominated by poor and often unlettered paramount chiefs can really be independent and avoid being controlled and manipulated by the president.

All of this is not to suggest that some of our governing institutions and perhaps the whole political arrangements do not need an overhaul. But I submit that undertaking this task without first dealing with the foundational problem is, to me, like putting the cart before the horse. And this is why, I believe, the “good-leader” solution becomes appealing to many Liberians. It seems to me, and I am sure many other Liberians, what Liberia needs more than anything at this time are men and women who have the courage, wisdom and means to enforce the laws of the country and who, by their personal examples, encourage the development of professional, principled leaders and managers.

Lest I am misunderstood, let me quickly say that I do not believe that the long-term solution to Liberia’s problems lies in finding and electing benevolent, self-restraining leaders. I have written previously that I believe that long-term stability and peace in Liberia will only be guaranteed by strong, working institutions. Achieving this goal, however, will have to begin with a competent, independent legislature. But where we are today, it is not likely that such a body could be constituted in 2005, or even 2006, especially not when everyone who can read and write in Liberia wants to be the next president. Added to this is the fact that the temptation to be unprincipled is perhaps greatest in Liberia today than at any other time in our country’s history as individual Liberians try to rebuild their personal lives with little or no personal resources. Unless, therefore, we have a leader who is willing to sacrifice in the supreme interest of the country, and by so doing acquire the moral authority to ask other Liberians to do likewise; a leader who has the courage to be on the side of the people instead of the side of the elite; unless we have such a leader, it is not likely that we will succeed in even beginning to seriously address our governance problem, whether or not we create new governance institutions.

Perhaps a possible solution to reducing our reliance on finding the so-called good leader is for reform-minded Liberians to begin positioning themselves now to ensure that they have a significant say in which direction our country takes after the election. This they can do to a significant extent, in my opinion, by being elected to the national legislature, the only body of our governance structure that is truly independent of the president.

B. No Will and Capacity to Enforce a Reform Package Resulting from a National Conference
Mr. Bai Gbala introduced his article on decentralization thus: “This Paper is the revised and expanded version of the Paper delivered at Conference Vision 2024 on the future of Liberia, held at the Unity Conference Center, Virginia, Liberia, in July 1998. Sponsored by the Government of Liberia, the Conference brought together members of the Diplomatic Corps, friendly foreign and Liberian businesspeople, academics, political leaders, and professional technocrats to reflect on and analyze Liberia’s turbulent history as the frame of reference, to prescribe and recommend socio?political and economic reforms long over?due but relevant for the socio?economic and political progress and well?being of the nation and people, and generations yet unborn.”

The objectives of Conference Vision 2024, as summarized by Mr. Gbala, cannot be too different from those of the proposed national conference. The proposed conference may be organized by different actors, but the delegates, and therefore the ideas to be espoused, cannot be too different from those of Conference Vision 2024. But what were the results of Conference Vision 2024, and how much money and other resources were expended for the conference? Why were the programs suggested not implemented?

Conference Vision 2024 was an excellent idea but it was an idea that was pursued at the wrong time----we had a national leadership that showed every indication of wanting to turn back the hand of the clock. There was no indication that it had the will, or even the desire, to reform. Add to this the fact that there were more pressing needs at the time----security, reconciliation, resettlement, food shortage, etc., real survival issues----that were begging for attention and resources. At hindsight, might it not had been more prudent to employ the resources and energies expended for that conference to address these more pressing needs?

Dr. Sawyer is suggesting that the next national conference end in a “national covenant.” He wrote, “This package (reform package to come out of a national conference) must be adopted by the national conference as a national covenant binding on all citizens and political actors.”

The “covenant,” I am sure, will conclude with the signatures of a number of prominent individuals who, by signing the document, will be pledging the support of their constituencies of the contents of the document. The signatories will be pledging that they and their respective constituencies will abide by the dictates of the covenant.

A covenant is a solemn, binding agreement. The usefulness of an agreement lies in its enforceability; there are real consequences for noncompliance. But in the case of a national covenant, such as the one being suggested by Dr. Sawyer, its usefulness would depend on the character and integrity of the parties, those who will sign the document; there are no penalties to be borne for noncompliance. The problem is that one’s signature, even if written in blood, means very little in our country. It seems to me we are in this mess partly, perhaps significantly, because many us do not honor our signatures. Unless the parties can be counted on to keep the terms of a practically non-enforceable agreement, there is no point making the agreement.

No matter how participatory and well-managed a national conference is, it will take the commitment of the national leadership to ensure the implementation of the provisions of the conference document. Now, just like in 1998 when Conference Vision 2024 was held, there is no demonstrable will on the part of those who would be counted on to bear the greatest responsibility for implementing the outcome of the national conference to do so. The current interim government has not demonstrated any real will to reform the system, and our political leaders have not shown that they can rise above their respective egos and ambitions to work together in the supreme interest of the country. I believe that holding a national conference on reforms under these conditions would be an imprudent use of our resources.

Perhaps what might be very useful at this time is a national conference of our political leaders. The purpose of the conference would be for them to discuss and reconcile their differences, build trust and confidence, and pledge respect for each other. A covenant of some sort may even be in order, and we might even be able to reduce the number of presidential aspirants and build serious coalitions as a result of such a conference. This is something that could be done without any government action or resources.

C. Conditions on the Ground Are Not Suitable For a “Sovereign National Conference”
Dr. Sawyer wrote in his September 27, 2004 article that in order to give legitimacy to the proposed National Conference, “The process of organizing the national conference should be as consultative and constitutive as possible, involving consultative discussions from the level [ of ] towns and cities to county and national levels and the selection of representatives to the conference accordingly. Representatives from the array of civil society organizations, political parties and other constituencies will also participate in the conference. This is how the conference will derive its legitimacy.”

The question that immediately came to mind when I read the above quotation was, “Where are the towns and cities at this time in Liberia whose residents the organizers of a national conference will consult?” The few that are still struggling to rise from the ashes of the war? And what sort of representations can one really expect from these towns to attend a national conference and intelligently discuss democratic governance---the ones who are preoccupied with just surviving? It seems to me it would take more than a few years, under the best of circumstances, for most Liberians to get their lives back together again once they return home. During this period, it will seem to me to be prudent to focus our resources and energies on making the resettlement period as short and less burdensome as possible.

Moreover, there is a sizeable number of Liberians who are not likely to return home until an election is held and there is a reasonable chance of lasting peace. I do not like or encourage this decision. I will say with most people back home that Liberians in the Diaspora should return home and help resuscitate our country. But the simple fact of the matter is that not many of us will return home this soon. I think by rushing this very important national debate about reform, the country will be denied the contribution of this significant segment of our population.

The various meetings and symposiums being organized in the United States, and perhaps even in Liberia, will make valuable contributions to the national debate about the need for and the form of governance reforms, and must be encouraged and supported. But in the end, we must come together and, as a nation, sit around the same table and compare notes. At that point, we may even be able to sign on to a covenant.

Dr. Sawyer argues that we would have no better opportunity to fix our governance structure than when the system “has collapsed and is being reconstituted.” He and others are concerned that if the existing governance institutions are reconstituted without reform, those who function in them and stand to have their powers diminished by the reforms will have no real interest in reforming the system. This is a valid argument, but I think the supposition that once we elect a new government we will then return to business as usual is perhaps ignoring much of what has happened in Liberia during the past 30 or so years. There are too many Liberians who have become aware of the failure of the government and who want change that I just don’t think it is possible to return to business as usual. I think the system will be reformed not necessarily because those who manage it want to, but primarily because of the pressure that is certain to be mounted by the many dissatisfied Liberians.

You see, I grew up on a farm in Grand Gedeh. I remember when I was 10 or so my cousins and I waking up very early during the summer to beat the other children to the five walnut trees that surrounded our village. The ones who got there first harvested most of the nuts that fell overnight. The women joined us the children when their husbands were clearing the underbrush for the season’s rice farms and together we went deep into the nearby rainforest to harvest walnuts that had fallen for several weeks. Yes, we ate the nuts---raw, roasted, dried, etc., but we also sold them in the Zwedru market. The income generated helped our parents purchased our school supplies----pencils, notebooks, even uniforms. Today, most of those walnut trees are gone, the loggers took them.

We also lost many of our mahogany trees, the sources of one of our delicacies. A true honored guest in many Krahn homes will be served a breakfast of broken rice with an egg and, yes, oil from the seeds of the mahogany tree. Today, one will be hard pressed to find a single mahogany tree any where near our and many other villages in Grand Gedeh.

I am sure many of my colleagues from Nimba, Lofa, Sinoe, etc. will tell similar stories. Is there any doubt, then, that this sort of thing and similar government actions will continue unchallenged? The Liberian government will be reformed, alright. There are just too many Liberians who will demand reform of the government to enable them have a say in what takes place in their backyards, including who their local leaders should be. I am not sure how much benefits accrued to Grand Gedeh when the loggers took our walnut and mahogany trees, but if at least we had a say in the decision about what or where to log, we would have tried to convince the loggers to leave few of our walnut and mahogany trees. And if at least the loggers had left in the county at least 5 cents for every cubic meter of log they took, perhaps we would have had few more schools in the county.

But I am equally concerned that we do not trade a dictator sitting in Monrovia with one sitting in Zwedru; or a nepotistic central government for a local one. The issue of reform is huge and we would be wise to give ourselves ample time to do it right.

Going ahead with the 2005 elections will enable us to move forward and to put in place a national leadership that will be responsible to the Liberian people. This new government, to me, will be the real interim government and then we can use the next six years, the term of this government, to debate, formulate and enact legislation to address the issue of governance.

I discuss in Part II of this paper why I think conducting a population census should not be a killer issue.