2005: A Year of Possibilities And Dangers


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 7, 2005

The way forward is paved with both dangers and great opportunities. In the next 10 months, some Liberians will showcase themselves as potential saviors of the people of the war devastated country. They will promise a system of governance built on fair play, justice, equity, with democratic values as their only guiding principles in the process of running the nation. They will promise the same things politicians always promise when running for office. And for a short while, with all the hype and carnival, everything under the sun would seem possible.

Liberia is the land of all possible things, good and bad. However, lately, and for almost a quarter of century, because of an archaic system, the bad has more than often taken precedence. The great potentials of goodness have been left unexploited. Liberians came face to face with the lowest aspect of their own humanity. They lost trust and confidence in their neighbors and friends.

The devastation makes it even seem impossible to reach that wealth of goodness. It has become difficult to envision a society capable of preparing and providing to future generations of Liberians the sweet fruits of a richly endowed land. The nation has been in survival mode for so long that in many quarters, many are starting to think that they cannot achieve anything real and concrete without begging outsiders. This is what survival mode does to a country: it kills the spirit of creativity. But there are still thousands of generous Liberians ready to work hard. There is still lot of resilience in unsuspected places. That is the reason for hope.

Those seeking office through the ballot box will make promises but no politician can deliver what does not exist. Peace, justice, jobs and other emoluments of a modern society cannot be imported; they must be homegrown and based on local resources to be sustainable.

What eluded Liberia in the past quarter of century can be summed up in two words: peace and stability, the first serving as a breeding ground to the latter, which in turn brings in everything else, including farming, education, industry and trade. Some Liberians who fought the Tolbert regime of inequity, injustice, class system and corruption now admit that it was the best government the country ever had. Those who thought that Doe had to be overthrown by “all means necessary” now think that after all, he was not much of an evil compared to Taylor whose tenure unveiled all possible contradictions of a failed state and finally brought down the house.

To move forward, Liberians would have to face the demons that paralyzed them for more than a century. It is no longer about “natives” or “settlers”, but rather government and people. It is about how would Liberia be governed and what new values need to be instilled in the system to make it more equitable so that the majority of the people can feel that they have a skate in the government.

The old form of colonial governance whence everything came from Monrovia would only perpetuate the same archaic structures. Only if the citizens seize the right to choose their leaders, they will feel somehow that the government “belongs” to them. This is an inalienable right of democratic governance. It can be done now. The people do not need to wait until “a good president with a good heart” decides to change thing. Nobody gives power away. And no president in history has ever divested himself of political power. It would be a pipe dream to expect a president to some day say: “there is too much power in the Executive Mansion, let’s do something about it.” Every inch of power and autonomy has to be wrestled away by the people.

In the absence of justice for those who consider themselves victims or some type of contrition from those viewed as perpetrators of crimes, the sentiments of deep-seated anger and hatred accumulated through the ages by one group against another, or the contempt and resentment that piled up during the most recent years of national madness, Liberians will find it hard to live with each other in peace. Liberians do not have to follow anyone’s model, neither the TRC of South Africa nor the War Crimes Tribunal of Sierra Leone. As the first modern African republic, they can come up with their own way of moving on. They need to discuss these matters also. There is no better time than now. But they have to discuss how they want to do this.

There are many things wrong with the current constitution of Liberia. Issues related to tenure of elected officials and the appointing powers of the president have been raised elsewhere. There are other matters that an updated constitution can address. Many Liberians now have taken up American or other citizenships in their quest for stable environment. Some are currently serving in the government at the highest level. Others are planning to run for elected office in the near future. Maybe like Israel, Liberia can start to look at the issue of dual citizenship. The American constitution allows it and it would only make Liberia richer. In the coming years, the role of Americo-Liberians – we are not here talking about the old “settlers” class but rather those young Liberians growing up now in America with American values – will be extremely important in the reconstruction process. Many would want to return to Liberia for various reasons and they would need constitutional rights and guarantees to feel totally at home on both sides of the Atlantic.

All these are issues that can be discussed now, while the country is holding its breath, bored to death in anticipation of the upcoming elections. There is now a vacuum in political activity. Some people have wondered how all this could happen.

A national forum or dialogue with a legal cover can make recommendations to the transitional assembly. The assembly can put these recommendations on the ballot for a referendum to take place along with the national elections. There is no need for two suffrages. Just as it is done in many states here in America, constitutional amendments can be put on the ballot and if passed, they become laws with the sitting of the new government. For example, a constitutional amendment on the election of superintendents or the tenure of members of the senate could form part of the ballot. People will vote on these issues at the same time they are voting for the presidents or the senator. If the amendments pass, they become law with the sitting of the government. If they fail, the existing laws prevail. Civil society organizations as well as those who believe in these issues can campaign on issues rather than following particular candidates. Sawyer said that "constitutional amendments have been put on ballot in the elections [held] in the 1950s under Tubman, so it is not new to Liberia."

A national forum to discuss these and other matters does not mean a postponement of the elections. The forum would allow for a much needed dialogue among Liberians and lessen the tensions that are so palpable at every level of society. Again, Liberians will need to be creative in deciding to talk to each other. The government needs to be involved for the forum to take place and to have the legitimacy it needs. It has so far succeeded somehow in part of its mandate, which is to keep a coalition of antagonistic forces together. But it would fail future generations of Liberians if it cannot go beyond that narrow mandate and set a new path for the nation.

Between a weeklong seminar of lawyers drafting amendments and a six-month shouting match with no end in sight or a three-week government dictated agenda such as Vision 2024 with no final outcome, Liberians can find the right proportions and timing for the forum.

Finally, Liberia-US relations are certainly the most important in our history. Notwithstanding all the “new” friendships America developed on the continent, Liberia still remains the most trusted ally of the US. This relationship is now stronger because of the tens of thousands of Liberians who have migrated to the US and who will establish in the future their own set of economic, cultural and social relationship with Liberia. Tens of thousands of Americo-Liberians are now being born and raised and will soon want to know where they parents came from. Beyond this social aspect, Liberians need to have an American policy that would benefit them and bring some maturity to their relationships, which so far have been characterized by infantilism and paternalism. No other country in Africa has ever had access to this giant market place as Liberia. It is now time to turn this access into economic realities. US-Liberia relations must grow and they certainly would do so somehow, but they would only benefit Liberia if based on sound policies and not left to chance or sporadic needs. Liberians must market Liberia to rip the benefits of their connections to America. Why should African-Americans go spend their millions of vacation money elsewhere when they can visit a nation crafted by some of their ancestors?

All of these activities can be undertaken at very low cost. Currently, Liberians in the US are agitating to hold an All Liberia Conference. In Monrovia, groups of civil society organizations are also moving in the right direction. Peace, stability and development are not things that come out of a ballot box, they are the results of national consensus, when a people decides to take control of their destiny and do something about their problems.

Some politicians are skeptical about the holding of a national forum. National consultations do not mean a change of government or prolonging the tenure of an administration, they are meant to chart a new course because the system has not been working.