Presidential Aspirants Beware
September 13, 2004
Three incidents occurred in Liberia recently that I believe should be of concern to all presidential aspirants in particular and all Liberians in general. All three incidents involved the Chairman of Interim Government, Mr. Gyude Bryant.
The first incident occurred in Bong County. In an August 5, 2004 story titled "Bong Citizens Reject Appointment of County Officials," The Perspective web magazine reported that the people of Bong County rejected Chairman Bryant's appointment of Mr. David Weetol as superintendent of that county, and requested the Interim National Assembly to intervene to prevent the man from assuming leadership of the county. They argued, among other things, that "Mr. Weetol has a criminal character."
The second incident was similar to the one in Bong County and occurred in Grand Bassa County. In an August 10, 2004 article titled "Confusion Looms Over Buchanan-Bassa Citizens Say No To Vonyeegar; Want Bryant Rescind Appointment," the Analyst Newspaper reported that the people of Grand Bassa County rejected the appointment, by Chairman Bryant, of Robert Vonyeegar as superintendent of Grand Bassa County. The Grand Bassa citizens argued, among other things, that Mr. Vonyeegar was not one of their three recommended candidates for the position. They also argued that the man's appointment was not based on his qualification but on his position as campaign manager for Counselor Varney Sherman, Chairman Bryant's reported anointed presidential aspirant.
The third and final incident, thus far, occurred about three weeks ago when the faculty of the University of Liberia threatened to boycott classes if Chairman Bryant's appointee as president of the university, Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh, were to assume the leadership of the university. They argued that Dr. Conteh's previous performance at the University disqualifies him to lead the University. They argued further that Dr. Conteh's appointment is partly based on his membership in Chairman Bryant's political party.
The above three incidents were followed last week by a stern warning from two Maryland County assemblymen. The two men warned that "any attempt to assign law enforcement officers in the county (Maryland) outside of our recommendations, will provoke a mob action by the citizens." Considering what is happening in Bong County, Grand Bassa County and the University of Liberia, this has to be seen as a warning to the Chairman.
I have read several reactions to some of the above incidents, particularly the one involving the University of Liberia, on the various Liberian-owned Internet web sites. One of the pieces correctly reminded the University of Liberia faculty, and by extension all the others who are rejecting the chairman's appointees, that the power to appoint the president of the University (and county superintendents) is the constitutional prerogative of the president of the republic (the interim chairman during this transitional period). Not only that the constitution empowers him to appoint these individuals, but once appointed, they serve at the chairman's pleasure---he may dismiss them for any number of reasons without necessarily explaining himself.
But it does not seem like the protesters are questioning the Chairman's right to appoint. What they may be questioning, however, is his judgment about the suitability of his appointees. The protesters seem to be asking the Chairman to appoint different individuals. Peaceful protesting, of course, is a right guaranteed by the constitution.
No matter how the issues are resolved, and the Chairman may very well have his way, I believe these protest actions are foreshadows of things to come. Of course, protesting the decisions of the president is not necessarily a bad thing since this would be another means by which we can cut our president down to size. But, given the right conditions, this questioning-of-the president's judgment could grow into an open rebellion that could pose a challenge to the president exercising his legitimate authority.
The purpose of this piece is not to cast a vote on whether or not I share Chairman Bryant's view about the suitability of his appointees, but to highlight a looming problem that I believe is being suggested by the incidents summarized earlier. The goal is to challenge all presidential aspirants to look beyond the 2005 elections and begin seriously considering what it would take to successfully lead the country.
When the various broadcast media outlets announced August of 2003 the name of the individual who was chosen by Liberians meeting in Ghana to lead a new interim government after Charles Taylor, many Liberians were asking, "Who?". Not only that many of us did not know the individual but we were not even sure whether the new leader was a woman or a man. It was only when the name appeared in the print media that we knew that the name was not Judy but Gyude. We learned later from various commentaries that the man was a "successful businessman" and a lay leader in the Episcopal Church.
Even though we did not know this man, his announced credentials gave many Liberians reason to be cautiously optimistic. Except for a few skeptics, Mr. Bryant was welcomed as a possible breath of fresh air, a new face, perhaps a political novice who was not spoiled by the wheeling and double-dealings of Liberian politics.
While no one had any illusion that leading a government made up of mainly former fighters would be easy, Liberians were however hopeful that the personal life and professional skills of this "successful businessman" would restrain the excesses of the former fighters; and that his churchman credentials would put him on the side of what's decent and right. Hopes were even raised further when Mr. Bryant himself announced during his inauguration last October that those ceremonies would mark the end of "business as usual" in the country, the "party was over!"
For many pragmatic Liberians, Mr. Bryant would have successfully performed his duties if he restrained corruption, not necessarily eliminate it; put in place a transparent electoral process in which he is seen by all Liberians as a truly impartial referee, a true statesman who is more concerned about resuscitating a dying nation than partisan politics; and someone who, by his personal life, restored some dignity to the Executive Mansion. But if even half of what is being reported about the Chairman's stewardship of the country is true, then our trust may have been misplaced once again.
Not only that unbridled corruption continues unabated, but Mr. Bryant's reported public statements and dealings (reported to have purchased more than 300 vehicles, 152 of them SUVs, without a public bid; refused to investigate the Governor of the National Bank when there was probable evidence of wrong-doing, etc.) all seem to suggest that nothing has really changed in Liberia and that the 2005 elections may just be another farce instead of a new beginning. So much has gone so badly wrong that many Liberians may have lost faith in Mr. Bryant's leadership, and some of Liberia's international friends are beginning to publicly express concern.
The rebellion at the University of Liberia, in Grand Bassa County and other places may be a direct result of this apparent loss of confidence in the Chairman's leadership. Now, it seems like his every action is viewed with suspicion: Dr. Conteh, for example, is not being appointed president of the University of Liberia because of his credentials, but because he belongs to the Chairman's political party; Counselor Fred Cherue is not being appointed to replace Counselor Varney Sherman as chairman of LPRC's board of directors because of his expertise, but because he is Counselor Sherman's campaign manager, etc.
The performance of this interim chairman to date, considering that he is surrounded by some well-known "progressives" and advocates of good governance in the past, may have further justified the growing cynicism about many of our political leaders----a group of unprincipled, fickle opportunists. This cynicism mostly likely grew out of the disappointing performance of many of the once revered political activists during the 80s, when they joined forces with the soldiers at one point or another to manage the affairs of the country, and especially during the 90s, when many of them were given the opportunity to either lead the country or serve in high-decision-making positions as part of the several interim governments. But in all fairness it has to be noted that some of these individuals served the nation under very difficult circumstances: the country was in flux and the institutions required for good governance were practically nonexistent. Then again, some would justifiably argue that it is precisely for such challenging and difficult situations that real leaders are made (or is it born?).
Nevertheless, this negative perception seems to equate to disdain and disrespect for many of these individuals who were once seen as national icons. This disrespect may be extending beyond the individual leader to the office itself as successive national governments continue to perform poorly, as the Gyude Bryant interim government is currently perceived. And herein is the looming problem: we may not only be losing our fear of the president, which by the way is good for the country, but we may also be losing our respect for the office.
The less-than-favorable perception we hold of our political leaders may be one reason why most discussions about the 2005 elections are focused on the individual aspirants rather than their ideas. So, while Liberians are certainly concerned about the real issues of the country--alleviation of poverty, decentralization of political and economic powers, human resources development, rehabilitation of traumatized child soldiers, reconciliation, the economy, etc.,-- many have yet go beyond the persons of the many individuals who are seeking the office of the president to hear and discuss what they have to say. The individuals are the ones, it seems, who are on trial, not their ideas.
There are several attributes and qualities that make a good, effective leader--courage, consistency, steadfastness, fairness, objectivity, truthfulness, etc. These different qualities combine in varying measures to give a leader what is often referred to as "moral authority." It is this authority, more than any legal instrument, that gives a leader the right to ask others to do what is right and good, and the leverage to persuade others to trust his judgment, believe his vision, follow his guidance, etc. Trying to lead without this authority is like trying to build a house without a foundation, it just does not work: followers lose respect for the leader, do not trust his/her judgment, hesitate to follow his/her guidance, etc. The result is often paralysis, chaos in extreme cases. John Maxwell summarized this idea in law No. 14 of his 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. That Law, called the "Law of Buy-In," states: "People buy into the leader, then the vision." In other words, it is one's belief in the integrity of a leader that leads one to make the leader's vision one's own, as well as trust his/her judgment. Soldiers rush to their death during wars, for example, because they believe in their commanding officer. When they no longer "buy into" their leader, the result is often mutiny.
John Gardner correctly noted in his book, "On Leadership," that there are those who confuse authority---legitimized power--, or positional leadership---leadership that comes from occupying a certain position--- with true leadership-the ability to influence and command a faithful, committed following. Being elected president of a country, for example, does not make one a leader, if one is not already one. All that it does is to give one legitimate authority.
What Liberia needs, coming out of a devastating, polarizing and divisive civil war, is not just someone with authority, but a true leader, someone who commands the respect of his peers and the rest of the country. It is only such a person who would be able to effectively use the bully-pulpit of the office of the president to bring the country together in order to focus it's energies and resources on rebuilding and healing. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this without having a reasonable amount of moral authority. And Chairman Bryant, not necessarily the whole interim government, could have made a significant positive contribution to laying the foundation for the next government by giving Liberians a taste of good, effective leadership. Unfortunately, all we are likely to get is a further eroding of our respect for the highest office in the land.
I believe the issue of moral authority is so crucial to the success of any future administration and the tranquility of the country that all presidential aspirants will do well to devote some efforts honestly assessing how much of this authority they have, and then work hard to enhance it. I believe that many of our political leaders are well-intentioned but many have also made some serious mistakes during these past 20 plus years. Some of the mistakes may have been mistakes of the head rather than of the heart. This group of leaders must now have the courage to admit their failures and apologize to the nation where necessary.
It is quite possible for another unrepentant, unprincipled individual to win the 2005 election, considering the level of suffering and poverty currently in the country. But such a victory will most likely not be translated into successful governance. The winner who is likely to successfully lead the country and restore some respect to the Executive Mansion, will be the one who is believed to be forthright and candid during this period leading to the elections, and who is humble enough to admit failures and lapses in judgment. It is only such an individual who will enjoy the support of the people who will matter when it comes to institutionalizing the painful but necessary changes that Liberia needs.
It is my sense that governing Liberia will prove to be a much more difficult challenge than winning the 2005 election. The president-elect will, therefore, need the good-will of the people--the people's willingness to give him/her the benefit of the doubt--when he/she swears to uphold the constitution and defend the state at noon on the third working Monday in January of 2006. Having some moral authority to lead will be crucial in this regard.
In my earlier article, "Obsession with the Presidency - Wrong Focus for the 2005 Election," I discussed how the Liberian presidency has changed---the fact that the office has been stripped of some of its god-like mystique----and then I warned that any future president of Liberia who does not recognize and be guided by this change is in for a rude awakening. I warned further that attempting to rule the country based on the old paradigm would generate massive protests that could possibly render the country ungovernable. The events of the past few weeks involving Chairman Bryant on the one hand, and the people of Bong County, Grand Bassa County, and the faculty of the University of Liberia on the other hand, should cause all presidential aspirants to take this warning seriously.