By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph.D
The gruesome remains of Harry Greaves
This article attempts to advance how government can consolidate trust-building initiatives. It aims to look into Liberian history for some explanations of widespread mistrust and suspicions. To avoid falling prey to emotions that fuel diatribes, innuendoes and allegations, this article deliberately and purposefully takes the “high road.” The intention here is to be solution-focused as opposed to being problem-focused.
An examination of the current waves of mistrust must begin with an acknowledgment of the tragic costs of past events, most prominently, the civil war. The psychological cost borne by the society in the aftermath of the civil war has been too long repressed or intentionally avoided. Preventative, rehabilitative, and/or curative psychosocial interventions have sparsely been developed to address them. We have failed to build into our systems, structures, and culture - interventions and mechanisms that address the effects of our violent past on the society. This inattention to our psychological or mental health needs could be attributed to a self-deception that we are an overly resilient people or be a by-product of mere cultural naïveté.
During the totalitarian and warring eras, the “executive branch” showed a disturbing willingness to sideline its co-equal branches by unilaterally and secretly carrying out violations of citizens’ rights. There were glaring lacks of independent oversight from the legislature. The legislature quietly acquiesced to usurpation of its powers and became the executive branch’s biggest cheerleader. Then the rice riots and 1980 coup occurred, coupled with subsequent brutal reprisals. And these same actions and associated traumas multiplied manifold. The combat, torture, siege, aerial bombardments, internal and external displacement, refugee life, separation, and loss, during the civil war, furthered the distress. Ritualistic killings before and during the Transition Period, horror killings that came after, and the Ebola outbreak (associated unprecedented mass peacetime casualties) also added to the collective trauma.
Reflecting further on Liberia’s past, it is noteworthy that during the totalitarian and warring periods, human security, self-respect, and dignity were generally undermined. During these periods, most people found solidarity with each other. It was those in the status quo versus all others. The totalitarian rulers and members of the elite were the common focal point for directing public mistrust, anger, anguish, and communal resistance since they were the known sources of victimization.
Citizens lacked transparent access to public information. People therefore did not rely on government for information when natural or man-made disasters struck. Due to the absence of credible public information, people formed conjectures and theories to fill the gap. Notions formed were hard to erase, even if government belatedly came up with a formal explanation for what transpired and what was being done in response. Because no rapid response access was provided to public information, people assumed that government was either intentionally slowly providing the public needed information or withholding it for sinister purposes.
Drawing lessons from the past is essential today especially when democracy has begun to take hold in unprecedented ways. It is the nature of democratic governance to dish out public doubt since the public expectation is that government should provide more information rather than less. In democracies, there is certainly a rigorous measurement of government’s performance by the citizenry using standards of efficiency and integrity as underlying values. Every time public doubt occurs, it should invite a full accounting of government’s actions because the ultimate result is positive perception of the government.
Indeed, it is the responsibility of government officials who provide the public information to align the messenger and the message. For public information to be credible, and for citizens to feel as if they own a stake in government’s quest for evidence of any kind, they must see that decisions are made free of political sentiments. Therefore, when political appointees or functionaries speak on subjects they do not know, they detract from the essence of the message being communicated and harden public mistrust. Government leaders must be seen as constantly striving to preserve a positive, democratic, and ethical image of the state to the public. The citizens’ perception of the government is influenced by several variables. There can be no doubt that every day, thousands of public officials and public servants throughout the country perform honorable and conscientious public service, but irreparable damage may be done to the entire government’s reputation from even one remote story of misconduct, corruption, and/or perceived neglect of duty that is treated with impunity. How the society perceives the government depends on how the government guards its own reputation with accountability and transparency. It is for these reasons that building and maintaining societal trust both at the national and community levels is a necessity across government. Every day, the government must be seen as translating public needs and conditions into coherent set of strategies, which mitigate these needs and concerns.
Government officials everywhere have accepted positions of “visible authority” in the society. They are held to tremendously high standard of honesty, integrity, equity, and professionalism. Public trust in government may be short-lived, if government officials do not continually reinforce democratic, ethical, and professional conduct to the public. Public officials across all sectors of government, therefore, bear the responsibility for informing the public about situations proactively and maintaining honor and integrity within their institutions, while building and sustaining trusting working relationships between state and society. Establishing a trusting culture between state and society is just not important, but essential especially in an emerging democracy like Liberia, which is seeking to surmount its tyrannical past and associated shortcomings.
If situations occur that will possibly dampen the hard earned reputation of government, the responsible professionals must already have the appropriate public affairs measures in place to show transparency, accountability, and integrity. There must always be a systemic approach to ethical conduct. Essentially, never take on a task that you do not have the credentials to present or manage. Because each time a government spokesperson speaks on any issue, they brand the government either positively or negatively. It detracts from your credibility as a professional and by extension, the government, if you speak on a subject you do not understand expertly. The intervention system of any government is as good as the trust that officials emit within the society. The cornerstones of public trust are “honesty, integrity, legitimacy and competence.” When government officials adhere to integrity and professionalism in the exercise of their duty, they enjoy public trust. At issue is how does government build and maintain societal trust because without it, the predators take leaps and bounds with innuendos. In turn, government should not give in to those societal actors who seek limelight or false prominence by speaking irresponsibly. Such actors must be ignored and allowed to be the casualties of their own frivolous actions. Government should never use meager public resources on those who operate on the fringe of society wanting to attract phony attention, except they become a danger to themselves and other people.
Relative to the insecurity that the many feel as a result of UNMIL’s departure, government should unveil its post-UNMIL departure security plan to the public to increase confidence and allay fears. Insecurity and mistrust require mutual engagement between state and civil society, particularly using community engagement and related security methods to convert ordinary citizens into allies. The integrity of the government will always dictate societal trust levels and vice versa. Hence, reforms to address mistrust and insecurity should not be standalone actions. They should involve comprehensive strategies dealing with the whole societal trust continuum: hiring, training, rewarding excellent performance and punishing egregious actions, and building an effective community engagement and community security culture?
Public trust building initiatives should be informed by citizens’ viewpoints. For example, when a national tragedy occurs, it should invite the formation of national and local Citizens Review Boards. Such boards should be activated in mishaps and misfortunes in which the society demonstrates grave interest in the outcome. Such boards should comprise of a mixture of ordinary and notable citizens or statesmen and stateswomen to assure the public that government’s actions are transparent and that it is accountable for its actions. Such actions maintain or restore public confidence in government.
Clearly, decades of ethnic and class conflicts as well as divisive domestic politics have left Liberian society polarized and fractured. Anything can ignite and/or exacerbate the factionalized politics or provide false rationale for further entrenchment of ethnic, class, and political divisions within the society. As UNMIL prepares for the upcoming transition, decision makers in UNMIL’s hierarchy should keep these factors in mind. In the near term, efforts should focus on combating mechanisms for anti-government “radicalization” and supporting Liberian groups most vulnerable to radicalization. Government leaders and UN agencies must support a frank discussion that acknowledges past and present traumas and the inability of government to address them immediately. This could possibly release some tension within Liberian civil society and make those who feel aggrieved for reasons unknown less susceptible to anti-government “radicalization.”