The 2005 Liberian Election: A Test Of Liberian Common Sense


By Tiawan Saye Gongloe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 22, 2005


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In about three weeks, Liberians of voting age will collectively choose one of the 22 presidential candidates to lead Liberia for the next six years. Who that person will be is a difficult guess at this moment. The difficulty of making such a guess is based on the apparent confusion that the list of candidates has created. Never before have Liberians being so confused about choosing a leader. Yet this election is very crucial for sustaining the peace, reconstructing infrastructures, reviving institutions of governance and putting Liberia on the course of sustained human development. Liberians have no choice but to make sense out of the confusion and cast votes that will show to the world that in the midst of the confused political situation, they still have common sense to make a decision in the best interest of their. The decision of the Liberian voters on October 11, 2005 will be a test to show whether Liberian common sense is in harmony with universal common sense.

Why the confusion?

In the absence of a Nelson Mandela figure in Liberia, a choice of a leader after more than twenty five years of sustained political violence and intimidation is a tough challenge for the Liberian people. This challenge has even been made tougher by the confusing political situation created by those who have put themselves forward to lead Liberia. First, the number of candidates (twenty-two) for an estimated population of a little more over three million, alone is a source of confusion for majority of the Liberian people. Second, for the first time in the history of Liberia, the candidates are not all Liberian traditional politicians from opposition parties, pressure groups and other pro-democracy civil society organizations. Instead, many of the candidates are people whose past activities gave no notice to the Liberian people of their future ambitions to become president of Liberia.

Apart from the few known politicians in the race, most of the candidates are pastors, non-activist lawyers, and other little known professionals, including financial and educational experts, amongst others. The confusion is compounded by the fact that, perhaps, for the first time on the African continent, a soccer celebrity is one of the candidates for the presidency of Liberia. Many young people and soccer enthusiasts are confused as to where to draw the line between their love of the sport and its celebrity on the one hand and their desire to see a peaceful, stable, and a reconstructed Liberia, with a government that seeks the welfare of the people and protects their rights and keep their nation secured, on the other. These soccer enthusiasts and young people may be thinking that a failure to vote for the soccer legend could be a betrayal of their love of him and the sport they love. Yet, it is logical to conclude that these young people and soccer enthusiasts like many other Liberians, want someone who will reorganize the Liberian state in terms of both reconstructing its infrastructure, administrative system, and society in such a way that government services are provided efficiently and fairly. How can the voters make a decision that makes common sense out of this confusing political situation?

Making common sense out of the confusion

Is it possible for the Liberian voter, many of whom will be voting for the first time, others totally discouraged by what followed the 1985 and 1997 elections, to make a common sense decision out of the confused political situation and cast a ballot that will bring lasting peace, reconstruction of Liberia, economic development and a credible justice system? Is it possible to look at the list of twenty-two candidates vying for the presidency of Liberia and vote in the best interest of Liberia? The answer is yes. And of course the logical question that follows is how- how can they look at the candidates, some of whom are so well educated, some wealthy and “generous”, others popular, and yet others experienced administrators or diplomats and make a choice that makes sense?

Before, answering the how question, it is important to underscore the fact that Liberia is not the only country in which electorates have been presented with a confusing political situation at election time. South Africa, although not the best example because of the Mandela factor, had nineteen political parties participating in their first election in 1994, following the end of apartheid. Although the blacks were fighting for years for equality and majority rule, when it was time to decide who should lead South Africa, the blacks split into many parties. There was even a Soccer Party, whose symbol was a football and a KISS Party whose symbol was a pair of lips with red lipsticks. There were even Muslim and Christian parties, amongst others. The situation was a bit confusing for the ordinary man or woman in the street, who perhaps expected a contest between F. W. Deklerk of the National Party (NP) and Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC). Yet the South Africans chose Mandela with ease in the midst of this confusion. Their common sense guided them through the web of confusion created by some politicians. Mandela had a track record of standing up for them; he was their voice; he suffered many times for them and his detention was the cause of greater unity of purpose among all oppressed people of South Africa. On Election Day, every voter from the least educated to the most educated knew that Mandela was the candidate to choose and not any of those only trying to enjoy the day that Mandela and others had fought to create.

Perhaps, someone will yell and say South Africa can in no way be compared with Liberia. While this argument is true in part and contestable in part, it is important to save the trouble and mention an example that is closer to Liberia-Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, there were many candidates, including a candidate from the leading warring faction, but the Sierra Leonean people looked among them and selected a candidate that had experience in managing people and public resources, as well as, in dealing with the international donor community. The Sierra Leoneans knew the strengths and weaknesses of Tejan Kabah, but they voted him into office, largely, as a sort of transitional leader who would reorganize the institutions of governance in Sierra Leone in a manner that would strengthen the peace process and set the country on a normal course of peace and progress. While much still needs to be done in Sierra Leone, in terms of reconstruction, poverty alleviation and a more transparent and efficient government, Sierra Leone has attracted more donor funding and remained incrementally stable under Kabah’s leadership. Perhaps, future elections in Sierra Leone will be about mere popularity, but their last two elections were about peace and reorganization of the Sierra Leonean state.

While, the conflicts in Sierra Leone and South Africa were different in nature, one thing that was common to both was that out of confusing political situations at election time, the voters in each of the two countries, chose leaders whose track record of standing up for the people, as in the case of Mandela, or managing people and public resources, as in the case of Kabah, they knew. They did not vote for strangers in politics. The highest office of a country should not be reduced to place for rudimentary training in the management of public affairs. Liberian voters should not make such a mistake.

To vote for an obscure or an unknown or little known person in politics or a person without established record in the management of public affairs is a very big risk to take with the future of a country. Therefore, for Liberia here are the factors that should guide the common sense of voters in choosing the next president of Liberia. One, the electorate must answer the question whether the candidate was known to a larger number of the Liberian people before the current electoral process began. Two, the voters should also ask whether the candidate has, for the past twenty five years (since extending it to Tolbert regime would be difficult for the majority of the candidates) said or done anything in the interest of the Liberian people. On this specific point, the voters should answer the question, what was the person’s publicly known position on the high level of corruption and human rights abuses under the Doe and Taylor regimes. Additionally, did the person do anything, either financially, morally or professionally to assist victims of both regimes? For example, if a candidate was a businessman or businesswoman at the time, did he give some financial assistance to victims of the two regimes? Did the candidates who were religious leaders at the time condemn the actions of these governments and comfort their victims? What about those who were lawyers-did they provide free legal services for people who were arbitrarily detained and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment by the Doe and Taylor regimes? Did they continue their law practices and ignore the plight of the victims of both regimes? Silence and the failure to act in the midst of human suffering are both evidence of lack of good leadership and acceptance of the existing condition. Such candidates must not be allowed to benefit from their display of gross indifference to human suffering. For such candidates everything was fine and there was no need for change. Perhaps, everything was fine, as far as they were concerned, under Doe and Taylor, as long as they did not personally suffer. With lack of remorse such candidates have the guts to shamelessly, today, accuse those who, with great risks, stood up for the Liberian people in the past, of being trouble-makers and the cause of Liberia’s destruction. Candidates of this kind should be reminded of the famous expression, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything”. If they did not care for the Liberian people when they needed them most, how can their promises that they will care for them when elected be considered credible? The Liberian people must not vote for such people, irrespective of what they may give them now or promise to do for them in the future.

The third factor that must guide the common sense of the Liberian voter is the proven ability of a candidate to manage people and public resources. If a candidate has not managed people and resources and accounted for doing so, a voter should not trust him or her with the people and resources of Liberia. It is not sufficient for a candidate to say that he or she has managed a private business owned by him or her. The management of people and resources in a private business in which a candidate owns majority shares or which he or she owns exclusively is not a valid track record when it comes to public trust. It is not a good test of for public leadership. In a sole proprietorship, the owner is accountable to only himself or herself; hence, there is no independent record of accountability in such a situation. Also, success in private business is not a sufficient reason to consider a person cable of leading a nation.

In a private business, success is defined by maximization of profit and minimization of cost, while in government business, success is defined by the satisfaction of a greater number of the people. In the interest of satisfying the people, a government may borrow, not save, money to meet the cost of satisfying a majority of the people; whereas in public service, the happiness of the people is the overriding objective of leadership. Therefore, an efficient businessman or businesswoman may not necessarily be an efficient president. In this respect, the voter must cast his or her ballot for a candidate who has experience in managing people and public resources. Some of the current candidates for the Liberian presidency have no experience in working for government or an inter-governmental organization or institutions guided by public policy considerations. Worst still, there are candidates who have not held, even the position of a filing clerk or a receptionist in a government office in Liberia or anywhere in the world and have no working knowledge of how government functions. The Liberian voters should not trust such persons even if they have triple PhDs from the best universities in the world. Nothing in this world can match or replace personal experience. Past experience is what Liberia needs now more than anything else for the survival of the Liberian state and people. Without personal experience, one can do the right thing in a wrong way and end up with terrible consequences. The Liberian voters must be guided by the past experiences of the candidates in public service to choose the next president of Liberia. Without public policy experience, the next president of Liberia could introduce public policies that may yield disastrous results.

The confusion in Liberia has been further complicated by the propaganda against the educated and traditional politicians that both have failed the Liberian nation. The basic question is can an illiterate, semi-illiterate and inexperienced succeed where the educated and experienced have “failed”? It is important to note here that education here is not restricted to classroom knowledge or years in school, but acquired knowledge, even through apprenticeship or self-education in a given area. Can the non-politicians succeed where the politicians have “failed”? By every stretch of reasoning, I find it difficult to find a yes answer to these questions, particularly in the case of Liberia. Only the educated and experienced in any given sphere of life can be expected to correct the mistakes of other actors in that sphere. For example, a group of surgeons with high record of patient deaths in a given hospital cannot be replaced by tailors, or better still herbalists or nurses. Bad doctors can only be replaced by better doctors. Another example is that a group of bad football players cannot be replaced by a group of basketball players, no matter how good they may be, if the purpose of such replacement is to make the team perform better. A group of bad football players can only be replaced by a group of better football players. Should an airline company that has been affected by high rate of air crash, replace its pilots with taxi drivers in an effort to prevent any further plane crash? The best taxi driver, even with the best world record in driving cannot pilot a plane, without the requisite training and experience. The Liberian voters must vote for one of the twenty-two candidates on the basis of such basic common sense reasoning.

As the Liberian people go to the polls on October 11, 2005, they must not let the confusion of the current political situation cause them to make a wrong decision for Liberia. Their votes must be based on the past record of the candidates, in terms of standing up for the Liberian people or experience in managing people and public resources. Those who have done nothing in the past, but remained silent or “neutral” in all the troubles that Liberia has been through do not deserve any vote from the Liberia people. Public leadership requires those who can make decision, sometimes tough and unpopular decisions in the interest of the people. Public leadership sometimes requires taking risks with ones life and sacrificing ones happiness for the greater good of the people. Any of the candidates that have not demonstrated these attributes are not qualified for the vote of the Liberian people. Let the electorates vote for the Liberian man or woman with proven record for standing up for the Liberian people or a person with public policy experience to be the next president of Liberia. By doing so Liberians will be demonstrating to the world that they have common sense and that Liberian common sense is consistent with universal common sense. October 11, 2005, will, therefore be an examination day for the Liberian voters. The world is watching.

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