By Sherman C. Seequeh
Let me venture into a seemingly potentially catastrophic political terrain today: talking about highly sensitive stakes and about desperately determined political blocs in the crucial 2017 election. No doubt, everyone has his political dislikes and the reasons for them in any elections. I do have mine which surely overarch and resonate with many Liberians. The difference is, others dare talk about them openly as I do now.
Despite the swarm of political parties toward election date and all the claims of one being different from the other, a careful scrutiny narrows them all. And that comes out in two great wars that will be fought but silently or subtly—not overtly.
Towards 2017, there is bound to emerge various characters of political power-seekers, mainly for the highest public position of the presidency that the electorate will have to contend with. Some have already made known their intentions, many more are yet to. But whatever the number that gets certified by the election commission, and despite their possible education and job experience, all will end up being one of two categories of Liberians. This means, the electorate will be confronted with the political wars of two major blocs.
One of the wars is that which is already raging, between the incumbency—those who have hung on state power like bees on honeycomb in the last decade or so and vowing never to quit on the one hand—and those who during the same period have hungered for power; Liberians who have long been kept on the fringes of national leadership as if they were destined to be opposition for life.
The second and subtler but equally important war is or will be the one between the remnants of the old order, the oligarchy—of the settler stock—who see national leadership principally the presidency as their birthright or the “Americo-Liberians” on the one hand and the offspring of the native stock, or “the country people”. These are the single most powerful forces that are, and will be, embroiled into the unspoken but deeply fundamentally ideological war during the elections of 2017.
Where do I stand in the two wars? Let’s first take the war—the choice contest—that comes with two groups of presidential job-seekers: those who had served the outgoing government in very prominent positions and now sit in incumbency status on the one hand and a fresh (new) batch of faces—fresh in terms of proximity to presidential powers—on the other. Liberia’s post-conflict situation demands, and commonsense upholds, that national power must rotate amongst equally capable Liberians and must not be centralized or monopolized by a minute few.
In the last almost 12 years, there have been Liberians hanging on power—almost serving as de facto presidents of Liberia—people who closely directed critical decisions that have affected the country and the people, bringing the nation to wherever it is anchored at the moment. They have demonstrated their version of patriotism, national service and commitment to the people of Liberia. Though they may not have exhausted their energies and creativities, we know and appreciate that to some larger degree they have had a fair share, and demonstrated political power to the extent of their knowhow. It is fair and proper that Liberian electorate turn the tables on them so that they return to private citizenship as their opposition compatriots have been for the last 12 years. If the issue of performance and love of country is the cause for wanting to give one group of power-holders 18 to 24 years, then I challenge the science that teaches the theory that the one who is already worn out in age and ideas for serving so long a time can do any better than fresh brains and fresh ages. And in this country, and perhaps in other countries of the word, patriotism and leadership performance are not divine gifts destined for one man or a group of citizens. If God did so for Liberia, He couldn’t for just one man out of all the crowd of other contestants we have in the race.
And more so, in Liberia where Government accounts for the largest employment of citizens, those who have served in very prominent decision-making posts in the first post-war administration have come as active partakers, along with their relations and supporters, at the national dinner table. In a sense, while deciding the policy paths that Liberia treaded socially, economically and politically, these potential incumbency candidates were also, along with their families, privy to the state’s resources throughout all the time they served or have served. For their patriotic service and whatever impact they made, they were paid handsomely from tax payers’ pockets—the collective source of wealth of our common ownership—Liberia. The perpetuation of one party for third or more terms leaves our collective national wealth bequeathed to only one group of Liberians. Certainly, victory for the incumbency presidential candidate is victory for the entire incumbency bloc that naturally would turn the national cake over to the incumbent candidate for a pedestal of victory.
Am I sounding like someone thinking of national leadership for motive of self aggrandizement? True, national service should not be about self aggrandizement. However, no one will say that national service—be it the presidency or other public offices—are not about compensation of service, and special pecuniary care for the political service providers’ families and relations. For twelve long years, there are candidates who are still serving as near-presidents and that the services they are providing give them the passport to the national dinner table along with their families. If Liberia belongs to every one—and if government is the largest employer in the country—then it is only fair that other Liberians are provided a space and the opportunity to reach the national dinner table. Those who want to get cleaved to it along their supporters, mistakenly think and believe that it is only they that have the sole birthright to the national cake; they wrongly think it is only they that can serve; that it is only they that are fine and destined by God to benefit from the national dinner table. This is not so. All Liberians do have right to benefit from the nation’s resources which come largely from one’s proximity to power.
I can hear someone telling me that the best place to enjoy wealth and resources is the private sector, and not in Government. If that is the case, fine. But what about those who are sticking on Government like a leech on human body as if Liberians would need to summon the most powerful bulldozers to separate them from the national cake. Is the private sector reserved for some Liberians while the Government or the Presidency is reserved for incumbency only? Sound mind will not say yes. Let’s be fair and serious!
My third argument against the perpetuation of the incumbency bloc is that it is the only option that has the clearest potential for the recurrence of conflict in Liberia. The rotation of power in the hands of a single politic bloc almost perpetually—18 to 24 years if necessary to cite—defeats the purpose of multipartyism and is a disservice to those who fought and perish to attain it. It also leaves the bulk of Liberians on the periphery of national political leadership. When multiparty democracy and the people’s rights to political governance which annexes economic participation evaporate in thin air for a long uncertain time, they can form the perfect composts for consequential conflict. Conversely, political governance and the economic participation that comes with it for the larger spectrum of the population, gives every citizen or most citizens some kind of stake and relevance to feel they are equal and not insignificant to others in the same country. Every citizen must have reason to protect the country and stakes or holdings for which they can independently resist the temptation of revolutionary struggles. Keeping the bulk of the people economically and politically irrelevant—elbowing them from the core of power almost indefinitely—renders them susceptible to radical excitements and animation, something the “continuity” ideology is prone to create.
Am I sounding like suggesting that the theory of multiparty abhors and should reject the participation of incumbents in elections? And am I sounding like saying the incumbency bloc should voluntarily withdraw from the ensuing elections to give the opposition a free ride and for “fair play” to obtain? No. They must participate. It is their right. In fact, that makes it looks like real multiparty democracy. But the message above is not intended for the incumbency; is not a plea to the incumbency which naturally would opt for perpetual occupation of the Executive Mansion. The message rather goes to the electorate that must have sense enough to understand the fatal backlashes of centralizing power in the hands of a single people for a long time when there are equally qualified persons in the country. It is the electorate that must rise up to stop the power-thirsty and power-insatiable incumbency. Surely, sensible Liberians who feel this country is not going back to one-party system, who believe the country belongs to all Liberians, and not a personal farm for one group, should and must stop the incumbency for the reasons already.
Now, here is my second politically disliked bloc in 2017--just as volatile and sensitive a subject to thread: the Americo-Liberian domination of politics and the Liberian presidency, as comical folks would put it, from J.J. Robert time. It has been quite a taboo subject not only for ordinary citizens and young intellectuals but also for political leaders and their point-men to mention the Native-Country divide. But I think is an important and lively part of our history, as the era of Apartheid in Southern Africa, mainly in the Republic of South Africa, is. It should bother any well-meaning Liberian why the mention of the divide by name publicly in Liberia is like confessing to adultery. Why is this so? I will tell you later.
But first think about this hypothetical case: Samuel Doe was the president or head of state of Liberia for nearly ten days. Samuel Doe left, and immediately Charles Slanger is elected President for six years. After Slanger, there is another fellow, Alphonso Gaye, who is elected President for six years. Or take for another ethnic group in Liberia, their sons and daughters rising to the presidency successively. What would Liberians have said? Won’t they have yelled on the top of their throats denouncing the perpetuation of one ethnic group in power? Think about it. Would Liberians ever have permitted it—one tribe succeeding itself one after the other even indefinitely? Hasty thinkers will say nothing is wrong with it once won competitively and freely. But careful and thoughtful Liberians, and in real life situation in country, Liberians would not allow that happen.
But in Liberia, you can criticize any tribe. You can stereotype any ethnic group. You can say, Kru people like power or Mandingos are not real Liberians. That’s not a crime for which you get insulted, demeaned or bullied into submission. What you can’t do is to stereotype Americo-Liberians or Congo people. You can’t say “I will vote for native Liberian, not an Americo-Liberian”, and one can’t say “Americo-Liberians like power”. Doing so is felonious. It means you are a coward and not an intellectual enough. It means it is divisive politics. But, let’s face it, is politics not divisive? Is it a church fellowship? No. It is not homogenous. Politics is divisive. That’s why we have nearly 30 political parties. That’s why regions are coming together behind their sons and daughters in these 2017 elections. That’s why every election in every democracy the politicians take keenly the demographic cleavages of the population. That’s why even in the United States the issues of Hispanic votes, or African American votes, or Asian votes or women’s votes, etc. etc. matter to campaign managers and analysts. Here in Liberia, we treat our demographic cleavages, which largely express themselves in Congo-Country or in the form of other distinct features, with utter contempt and treat them as taboo subjects.
No subject of politics must be considered more fundamentally demographic in Liberia than the Native-Congo isle. Perhaps some people don’t know: but let me say that Congo-Native politics is more ideological in nature than ethnical. I know some senior comrades who personally labored for the emancipation of the masses would be nodding hearing this because they know—or better say they knew—very well that the struggle for the emancipation of the masses, coupled with the dream of multiparty democracy, had prime targets: one, the perpetrators that were to be kept at bay, the Congos or Americo-Liberians, and, two, the victims that were to get relieved from the shackles of minority domination, the natives. Nearly 114 years of minority rule—the exclusive rule of the Americo-Liberians—could not leave one of them in a masses’ status. There was an entrenched aristocracy of the minority during that period. This land was a fiefdom. The Congos or the Americo-Liberians—the two are interchangeably called though distinct in their historical origins—constituting less than five per cent of the population powerfully exulted themselves over the native majority for that period, transposing into this country and upon the masses the conditions of servitude they had suffered in the Americas and Caribbean. Indeed, the history is nasty to narrate.
What is good—or was good—is that the Liberian struggle for rights and rice had envisaged the emancipation of the masses from conditions of squalor and neglect visited upon them not just by a one party rule but also from the rule of the minority over the masses—the native majority; the struggle was meant for the masses to also enjoy political power, including the presidency, which had eluded them for about 11 decades. Yes, multipartyism is attained, but unlike the situation of South Africa, total emancipation is still held down. It’s “Not yet Uhuru”! The most coveted national stature, the presidency, which could make the struggle complete in a sense, is still firmly clawed out and maintained by the minority, as if to say someone is saying, “we can’t entrust the leadership of this country with a native president. We can give any other thing, but not the presidency”. Don’t forget, after all, the Congo-Native ideology posits, in part, that natives are not ripe, fit and presentable enough to be Mr. or Madam President. The natives don’t have the birthright to the presidency.
Does Liberia’s intractable socioeconomic and political quagmire know Congo from Native Presidents as if to say the problems we have on hand await a native presidency to bring the magic wand? What about the bunch of natives in the National Legislature since 1980? What difference are they making in the Legislature that they can bring to the presidency? Does native or Congo presidency really matter? I am sure these questions are lingering in the minds of others. And they are good questions. But here is how I respond.
Firstly, from 1847 to 1980, the Americo-Liberian oligarchs served in all three branches of Government. They were presidents for that period, as they were also legislators and judicial officials, and even private lawyers for foreign companies in the period. Liberia or whatever it was called before 1822 fell to the settlers’ exclusive property. The natives became the strangers on their land whom the settlers had to progressively accommodate in a rationing fashion over time, restoring or conferring upon the indigenous people their citizenship and the rights that come with it at the settler’s volition and choice. The natives since then have not had such an opportunity to serve this country in such a manner and form—mainly the opportunity to serve as the Chief Executive save for the less than ten-year period of Samuel Doe which was turned into a nightmare at the behest and patronage of the deposed hegemony that desperately shot its way back to their “Sweet Land of Liberty”.
Secondly, after all, is the Liberian presidency a giveaway—and a divine right—for one demographic group of Liberians—particularly a modicum of the population? They served in that post for 133 years. The lull came for just ten years. And again, since 1997, they have returned, one after the after other, as it they carry some kind of gem or DNA or social status that make them the only group that others Liberians must look up to for presidential leadership. As we speak, they have mutated all over the political landscape pretending they are different and distinct, when they are one and the same. Their forefathers sucked every drop of juice out of this land, leaving it almost barren and arid with no tangibles to commensurate with colossal wealth nature has bequeathed the country. They amassed public money in building private homes that they turn over to Government to rent. The do farm on the land and take their treasuries away. To control and dominant, they send their children to schools abroad, stuff them with enough high education so that the children succeed them in the quest for perpetual political and economic domination.
It’s the wealth and education brandished all over the place and acquired at the disadvantage of the masses of the people that the progenies of the settler hegemony propagate the tactics of silence and misrepresentation over Congo-Native debate. They turn heads around and make it appear that this particular topic should be a no-go area; that it should be a taboo subject. But lingering under the tactics of intellectual bully, to which many have fallen dumb, are the simmering whispers and gigglings in the corners of Arthington, Louisiana, Bentol and other settlements, saying in effect, “We got those Country a^s again. We’re not fools to like them take the presidency. They can take their Legislature and fight amongst themselves like crabs in the bucket over the scrums.”
Yes, we all agree that the intractable problems facing Liberia don’t know a particular ethnic group at the Executive Mansion. This equally goes to the fact that Liberia’s intractable problems don’t expect that all long—from one electoral period to another—it requires only—and only—an offspring of the “pioneers” of less than five percent of the population to sit at the Executive Mansion. And repeating it over and over. It would even be an understatement to say fairness requires that the majority native must also sit the helm of power—at the Executive Mansion too.
Am I suggesting that Americo-Liberians are not Liberians? No. Or am I suggesting that they should not participate in elections? No. What I am saying is that it’s time for a native or indigenous Liberian to be the 25th President of Liberia—the second native so far since 1847 for that matter. It will indicate that the settlers’ children don’t really see themselves as perpetual “heir apparent” to the Liberian leadership throne. It will show that the Americo-Liberians genuinely see themselves, and even the natives see themselves, as co-equals and mutual owners of the country with right to all positions, including the presidency. Yes, the Americo-Liberians should contest as citizens. But the electorate must know better, and realize that enough is enough; that there are no super citizens in Liberia anymore. And that it is time for the majority to produce the next President. Is this not so fair and even fairer if the natives were to serve as many times or more times as the settlers and their children serve as President?
One effective way to achieve this goal is to lift up the Congo-Native debate out of its taboo shell and stop the unjust and unfair characterization of it as a despicable, divisive and preposterous rhetoric. Because, if you don’t know, it is that characterization of the debate that continues to create the political tragedy of giving the smallest demographic group the catapult and pedestal upon which they have and will continue forever to clinch to the highest public office.
These are the two dislikes of mine towards the poll of 2017: turning over state power and all it entails to a new breed of Liberians and spreading power to the people - the majority of the people who have long lingered on the mere fringes of genuine political participation and economic decision-making. It’s only fair, just and sensitive we do.