As The Bell Tolls UNMIL’s Exit, Liberia’s Democracy Dilemma

By James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 4, 2015


President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Imagine, the count-down to UNMIL’s exit has become a depressing reality; the petit urban ruling clique is in an absolute state of panic and disarray. So we are witnessing many official and officious discourses to reassure and ease their nervous breakdown, but no way. The President added to the confusion with her recent, solemn special message: “A Call to Action.” But all who heard the speech were unanimous in conclusion: it was the most futile exercise considering the harsh realities of the country. However, history tells us that Madam Sirleaf does not do anything for nothing; she has been the most calculative and unpredictable leader of our time. It could not be a sheer coincident that the speech preceded the quick news of the re-emergence of the Ebola virus.

Thus I keenly read the 9-page message and decoded three main lines.  The first reveals that the security, economic and political situation leading to 2017 is extremely volatile, and the government has run out of options; national resources sold out, and the state treasury depleted - totally bankrupt.  At the end,  the international community is now putting pressure, brandishing UNMIL’s exit deadline as the reminder - that there is no more added value in protecting a corrupt-made government by them; nothing more to divide. So now is time for the country to stand on its own.  Thanks for UNMIL!

The second decoded line refers to the National Legislature – a body she wilfully rendered useless, but now has no full control over. And some last financial aid may be in the pipe line after all; so she is enticing the troupe to quickly signature all the last deals before 2017. In effect, she is telling them: “We are in this corruption boat together.”  But frankly, were I any of those Hon. Legislators, I would pen no document that would augment the debt burden on the next government and compromise our democracy.

The last decoded line was directed at the President’s principal lieutenants - to calm their fear schizophrenia and fast talking – exposing the government at every occasion on its flagrant failures. And true, most of these fellows have never been of any use to the Liberian people, but their ungratefulness towards their President speaks volumes of an inert government. It is amazing.

But one puzzle still boggles my mind – that is, having mesmerized her state audience on Nov. 19, 2015, with a spreadsheet of great accomplishments since 2006, what should Liberians expect in the 2016 Annual Message? Because if it is only to recapitulate the same accomplishments, and the millions negotiated to build the airport, health care and education systems, electricity, etc, in two years, then it does worth the headache.  No, I think Madam Sirleaf is preparing the country for a big-bang announcement in 2016 – a happy retirement, perhaps. A pious hope to save Liberia’s democracy and a legacy.

Barely few days before the President’s message, the Hon. Minister of Justice went at length to reassure Liberians that the security forces of our Republic are fully ready to take over the security of the country. Under the same breath, he articulated unequivocally what I would refer to as the “inheritance liabilities” – a gift to be hand delivered to the elected leadership in 2017.  And he classified one group of them as the internal threats to Liberia’s security (see: ):      
● Pervasive (widespread) poverty
● Massive unemployment
● Land disputes
● Ethnic divisions, etc
Well, “corruption” was left out, and the more than $1.2 billion debt trap– a grotesque omission, isn’t it?  Worst, as if that acknowledged list of glaring failures was not even enough to bury our democracy and run all the Ministers out of the town to enjoy their loot in exile –the Hon. Minister added the second group -  the external security threats: terrorism, trans-national  organized crime, drug trafficking; and one  could complement the list further: money laundering, child trafficking, sex-slavery/prostitution, paedophile, computer crimes, etc – all that requires highly specialized trainings, units, equipment, logistics, etc within the national security apparatus. 

Then suddenly, with the legendary arrogance, the Minister shifted the blame to the public: “If Liberians want peace and stability, they can have it. The achievement of national security goals does not rest exclusively on the police, the immigration, and the drug enforcement agency that provide physical security or on members of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) that provides military security. It rests on all of us as people, a community, leaders, and not only in the Executive, but also in the Legislature and in the Judiciary.”

But mind you, this is the same Minister that offered the Liberia National Police  to the highest bidder, or you may call it the “semi-autonomous” status. And whereas he knows fully well that the accomplishment of a fraction of those “inheritance liabilities” will be the surest guarantee to a stable national security than even the deployment of million policemen, soldiers and drug enforcement agents. And anything to contrary, will definitely compromise our democracy – a real dilemma.


How to re-energize Liberians and minimize the impact of the “inheritance liabilities” on our democracy now and after 2017?  We already know the many remedies, but I shall remind us of only three. First, our choice of a President in 2017; second,  the $1.2 billion  debt trap and corruption, and third, a look at the importance of political parties.

Choice of National Leadership in 2017
First, we must put into the back of our heads that Madam Sirleaf will not and should not impose her own replacement on the country. She cannot support VP Boakai outright because that would compromise her position that both she and the VP were retiring happily together.  Or turn the reign over to the Vice President in 2016 (I think the man merits his fair share of the title for the last 2 years to compensate his unflinching loyalty); so that we may boost of the two most famous former Presidents in 2018. But if she does not, then the burden would be left on the VP to tell Liberians why he and his boss never kept a single promise, but only to leave Liberia in pervasive poverty and massive unemployment. To avoid the embarrassment, though, Madam could continue sitting and watching the steady dismantling of the Unity Party from under a VP presidential candidate.

And secondly, in our choice for the right leadership duo – President and VP – in 2017; we must also think in terms of the Obama and Biden team - replacing George Bush jr and Cheney in 2009 - to bring some appeasement, compassion, soul searching and sobering thoughts to America and the world. And so things got in place; and Liberia, certainly most other things could also fall in place.  Regrettably though, education is a vital component to a successful democracy, but education is an absolute “mess” in Liberia.

This observation takes me to the recent speech delivered  by Cllr Tiawan Gongloe on the theme: “The Role of the Young People of Liberia in Promoting the Collective Security of the Liberian People now and in the future” ( Knowing our education system has failed and the imminent  danger to our democracy, peace and stability, the renown counsellor took his frank talk  directly to the young people themselves – the majority population on whose shoulders lies the future of Liberia - urging them vigorously to read, read, and read to build their minds - to see, to analyse and to profile those wanting to lead our country to be able to distinguish the genuine visionaries from  the charlatans, shameless wealth seekers and bigots. And by this patriotic act, they would become the guarantors of Liberia’s collective security right now and in the future. It couldn’t be said any better.

And let me too reassure the young people further. There are three forms of education: the informal (daily life experiences, radio, tv…), the formal (this is the real “messy” one – from kindergarten through college...) and the non-formal (professional trainings, trades, workshops, etc). And all three together should constitute the good general national educational system. However, having one without the others, you still have an enormous reservoir of potential to progress positively, and also the wisdom to know what is good for your own future and that of your country and people.
You have been the principle victims of these pervasive “inheritance liabilities”, and you will continue to be if you do not make the right choice for a president in 2017. Therefore I also urge you not to be influenced by the immediate campaign rewards, tribalism or tribal sentiments and religious zealots.

The $1.2 billion Debt Trap and Corruption
Our debt burden and corruption are interwoven. The “donors” and “partners” imposed unfavourable loan conditions on us because they know our government is dumb, greedy and   inherently corrupt to auction all our national resources for peanuts in this age and time. Well, and without any concrete development to show. And if my logic holds, with a huge debt trap + corruption + national resources sold out + no development – we have a monumental task to uphold our democracy.

As our current debt stands unofficially at $1.2 billion (and 3.9 million population), means that each Liberian owes approximately $308 –minus the interest – and in a nation with pervasive poverty, massive unemployment, messy education, etc. I therefore urge, again, the young people whose future is entrapped by these callous burdens – to listen attentively and scrutinize the candidates. The candidates coming with all the rhetoric speeches and fancy solutions must quickly be scrapped from the list. This time around, your candidate must be he or she who tells you honestly how your $308 will be reimburse, and while at the same time create massive employment; build the health care and education systems, infrastructure, agriculture; minimize corruption, and the rest.
It is a great challenge, and the success to rescue our democracy rests most on your vote, unflinching determination and the utmost vigilance.

The Role of Political Parties
Senegal has survived the regular turmoil in Africa - thanks to a vibrant democracy. Because while President Tubman and the True Whip Party (TWP) were in total denial of the winds of change blowing all over Africa in the late 1960s, the Senegalese first President –Léopold Sédar Senghor – had inscribed in his country’s constitution that three or not more than four political parties (constituting the main ideological doctrines: right, left, center or extreme right and extreme left) were enough in a developing nation. As a genuine visionary and   intellect, he surmised that democracy was a process to be learned; and that many parties were mere recipes to confuse the people. As a result, Senegal has had a stable, functional block of political parties of all tendencies – including even a communist party. In other words, they are not personality parties as in Liberia, but parties with clear ideological demarcations. So that the adhesion of memberships is first and foremost to a party and what it stands for. But in Liberia, one would first go to his village and pay the villagers to ask him to run for the presidency; then before that individual returns to Monrovia to form a party or expects to be nominated by some other parties.

This is a residual practice from the TWP; and much so, that since this party was decapitated in 1980, no other ruling party has ever survived a presidential tenure. At first, I thought it was due to the traumatic effect of the dishonourable manner in which these leaders (Tolbert, Doe and Taylor)  were ejected from power. Or that forming a political party when approaching the election time was meant as an anticipated job application to the next government. But looking at the condition of the ruling Unity Party - in a nation of abject poverty, and where the regime depletes the national coffers to generously reward family members, cronies, collaborators and all other branches of government –  and yet crumbles so miserably at the end of its reign.

So I think something is profoundly wrong that requires our collective reflection and a strong political will for serious reforms. Because as the example of Senegal demonstrates and for that matter all developed democracies - a stable, vibrant  democracy is driven by established, stable political parties with opposing  ideological doctrines. It is time too that Liberian political parties stop being the same; move away from being mere personality domains and establish their distinct philosophical doctrines of development and thoughts. That would create more visibility, less confusion, attract long-term membership adhesion and strengthen our democracy.

To help in the process, I propose, once again, that after the 2017 elections, the first three political parties should get state subsidies in accordance with the number of seats acquired in the national Legislature. Our people are too poor to pay dues to maintain a political party. Democracy has a price; and in most parts of the world today political parties are partly state financed. This makes them accountable to the people even before getting to power. On the other hand, it also makes it difficult to buy opposition politicians.

My Deepest Wish
To avoid a greater peril to our democracy, we should take courage and patriotism to exorcise ourselves of our eternal copy-cat syndrome of governance, including the most contagious legacies of a democratically elected leadership:

● That rampant corruption is permissible too in democracy - without impunity - to enrich a leader, reward cronies and control  collaborators or an entire government at the expense of the majority populace and a genuine national development agenda.

● Leaving the prevailing idea that public service in democracy exists only for private benefit rather than for the general national good. 

● The perception that our national development is an integral part of an overall international development agenda or the NGO development platform; thus we should just wait for “partners, donors” and NGOs to put together our health and education systems, agriculture, infrastructure and the rest.

● The impression that it is the prerogative of a democratically elected President to jet around the globe 90% of the time, in search of self-glorification,  and leaving an entire nation to be run by itself 10% of the time - with incompetence, arrogance and insensitivity to the welfare of the people.

And together, with trust and confidence in ourselves, we shall overcome.

sylvester moses
Thank you Mr. James Thomas – Queh for another insightful take on the temper and tempo of a nation careening toward a cliff. Obviously, the November speech informs EJS’s leadership style: make much ado about nothing, and defend an indefensible corrupt, uncaring, and despotic record. Today, the new term happens to be “mob violence”. Which is excuse for refusing to bring out the fire hoses (opportunities) to douse – “danger” – threatening flames (pervasive poverty) of volatile political discontent. Yet the political elites who spend 60% of yearly budget on convenience/ creature comforts would want the vast majority victims of their collective greed to help protect them, ala “Community responsibility that the citizens have role to play in ensuring security and stability of the state…”

Of course, when the masses are included in decision – making and distribution of state benefits, they need not be reminded of obligations to assist guard their own self – interests. Again, another example of the perennial propensity of the powerful in taking the multitudinous poor for granted. Well, the latter getting wiser, because as the saying goes “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”. Nonetheless, EJS has a clear remedy. Let her jumpstart genuine reforms rather than relying on force, and also avoid the temptation to control the outcome of 2017. Those are concessions that should outweigh the huge sway of imagined voices for a Shylockian “pound of flesh”. Liberia is a forgiving nation; by now, she ought to know.
sylvester moses at 10:46AM, 2015/12/05.

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