Leadership in Liberia Beyond Election 2003

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 9, 2002

Amid abject poverty, inhumane standard of living, gross security violations, a lingering state of emergency, and escalating gun battles between government and dissident forces for territorial control, Liberians are planning to go to the polls in July 2003 to elect a new president and new members of the national legislature or parliament. But it seems that after seven and a half years (December, 1989-July, 1997) of a devastating civil war and a sitting government that has yet to deliver on its electoral promises, Liberians are more concerned with the type of leadership that will emerge in Liberia after election 2003 and beyond than with just going to the polls.

For Liberians are gradually coming to the realization that much of the country’s present socio-economic and political turmoil could have been averted or minimized had the national leadership since independence in 1847 been centered around good governance and promotion of national unity, development, and social justice. But, as it turned out, nearly every national leadership in Liberia, past or present, has been tilted one way or the other toward personal enrichment and self-preservation in power than with promoting national unity, peace, reconciliation, and institution building for sustained national socio-economic and political developments and growth.

And, perhaps in an effort to reverse this trend, a group of Liberian power brokers and potential political, civil and opinion leaders began converging on Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso for a four-day (July 8-11) Liberian Leadership Forum confab aimed at setting a new direction for present and future leadership in Liberia. The Official Program of Ouaga 2003, the buzzword for the conference, lists the ruling National Patriotic Party (NPP) government in Liberia, the dissident Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), and scores of Liberian opposition politicians and civil leaders as potential participants of the leadership conference. Topics of interest for discussion by participants include security, national reconciliation, election 2003 and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Liberia.

But conferences being what they are - a forum for exchange of pleasantries and spirited debates but compromised resolutions or communiqués... it is always good to gauge the private viewpoints of participants to accurately assess the success or failure of a conference such as Ouaga 2002. But, thanks to a mixed up in my flight arrangement to Ouaga 2002, I missed an important opportunity to speak with current Liberian power brokers and potential political, civil and opinion leaders attending the Ouagadougou leadership conference first hand, to ascertain their positions on the plight of ordinary Liberians now lingering in refuge camps mostly in West Africa and those internally displaced in Liberia, coupled with steps they might take to restore security and civility to Liberia, vis-à-vis good governance, social justice and free and fair democratic elections.

But let us disregard my aborted mission to Ouaga 2002, and focus our attention on the key questions of whether Liberia is ripe for presidential and legislative elections in 2003, and what kind of leadership ought to emerge in Liberia after Election 2003 and beyond, or what kind of leadership Liberians will most appreciate even if no elections are held in 2003.

First, as background information, organizers of Ouaga 2002 alluded to the Abuja Agenda (a position statement of the first Liberian leadership conference in Abuja, Nigeria March 14-15, 2002), which identified security as key obstacle to the peace and stability in Liberia, and within member countries of the Mano River Basin (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea). The Abuja Agenda said “...the current environment in Liberia is characterized by lawlessness and harassment of the populace, which often-times is targeted specifically at political leaders, journalists, human rights activists and students, many of whom have had to flee the country out of fear for their lives. Also commonplace is looting, banditry, and armed hostilities in many parts of the country, resulting in death, destruction and the uprooting of thousands of Liberians, large numbers of whom have been forced to seek refuge in other countries”.

The Abuja Agenda therefore argues that security must include “a ceasefire between the government forces and armed rebels; deployment of an international security stabilization force; disarmament, disbanding, and demobilization of all the rival fighting forces; creation of a new national security system that would include new military and paramilitary organizations; and the creation of mechanisms to address impunity, human rights abuses and other crimes”, and saw “… security for all as critical to the conduct of proper and credible elections and for genuine reconciliation.”

The Abuja Agenda also noted that the lack of coordination amongst Liberian political, civil, religious and opinion leaders has “undermined their ability to induce democratic change” in Liberia, and called for the establishment of the Liberian Leadership Forum LLF, to be inaugurated during Ouaga 2002, as the best means of ensuring “…regular consultations among and collective action by Liberian political and civic leaders to save the country.” The Forum shall, as its mandate, “help political parties and civil society organizations to develop, define and promote programs and activities to build democracy and restore the country’s honor and dignity.”

To be successful, the Forum’s broad strategy for implementation will be guided almost exclusively by the Abuja Agenda, which stresses personal and national security, national reconciliation, and free and fair democratic elections. Under security, the Abuja Agenda called for “Establishing a ceasefire between the Government and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), Disarming, disbanding, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of all rival armed groups, deploying an international security stabilization force to take charge of national security for a limited period, as well as the creation, by ECOWAS and the international community, of a national security system that shall include the recruitment, training, and organization of new military and paramilitary forces, not to be dominated by members of any warring faction or ethnic group. and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission for Liberia, among others.

On elections, the Abuja Agenda called for “Advocating electoral and judicial reforms to ensure a balanced and impartial elections commission, as well as the establishment of conditions that will lead to the holding of free and fair elections in accordance with internationally accepted standards”, while on national reconciliation, it called for “Removing the climate of fear and distrust by addressing the security issue, creating an environment for the participation of all Liberians in the political process, accounting for past wrongs perpetrated in the Liberian society, with the government demonstrating its readiness to put an end to the culture of impunity by punishing wrongdoing, and instituting reforms to ensure the independence of the Judiciary.”

Now, back to the first part of the question as to whether or not Liberia is ripe for presidential and legislative elections in 2003, many Liberians think not if only for practical purposes, considering the deteriorating security, social, economic and political situation in Liberia -- though given a choice between a haphazard national election and a full blown civil war, many Liberians would opt to effect change in national leadership through the ballot box than through the barrel of the gun. But where legal reasons are needed in support of the prevailing view that Liberia is not ripe for free and fair national elections, Liberian Lawyer Mohamedu F. Jones, Esq., laid out the case in his paper, “Putting into Effect Election Laws and the Constitutional Provisions for the Conduct of Democratic Elections in Liberia in 2003”, delivered before the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) in Washington, DC May 24, 2002.

Jones said the legal instruments and framework of any electoral process comprise the constitution, election laws, administrative regulations and codes of conduct, citing the January 1986 Liberian Constitution and the October 1986 New Elections Law for example, but said although administrative regulations deal with electoral operations and complement and adjust general rules to the specific circumstances of each electoral process, “there is no evidence that Liberia has promulgated electoral administrative …(regulations) for the 2003 elections”.

Jones also said “electoral integrity is fundamental to the principles of a democracy and representative government, and is an integral part of free, fair and reliable elections. Electoral integrity speaks to transparency, accountability and accuracy of election administration, in addition to ethical electoral behavior and integrity monitoring systems. Without electoral integrity, there is no guarantee that the will of the voters will be reflected in the election results, or that the people will have an opportunity to dispense with a political administration or political party that they no longer wish to run the affairs of the country.”

He said electoral integrity requires a generally accepted code of ethical behavior politics; an electoral framework that is equitable and fair; fair, transparent and impartial administration of the elections; political freedom to participate freely and equally in an atmosphere without fear; accountability of all participants; built-in mechanisms, including monitoring by civil society and a free media, to safeguard integrity and assure accountability; and enforcement, while the institutional framework of electoral integrity ought to consist of integrity in election administration, integrity in participation, monitors of election integrity and enforcement of election integrity

“Liberia today lacks the institutional framework of electoral integrity to conduct good and proper elections in 2003 because the government and system in Liberia lacks the capacity to manage free and fair elections, and even more importantly the capability to obtain the necessary capacity in the future,” Jones said, and hinted that the major areas of deficiency include Finance, Personnel, Legal, Logistics and operations, technical and public information and education.

“There is no evidence that Liberia's president, Charles Taylor, has the capacity to preside over free and fair elections (because) there is no evidence in the public record to show that President Taylor has political interests in free and fair elections in Liberia, (nor does) the public record …show that President Taylor has the political will to supervise free and elections in Liberia, ” Jones said, and added that “The public record will not support the proposition that President Taylor possesses the political morality to ensure free and fair elections in Liberia (nor will) the public record … show that President Taylor has the political character to participate in free and fair elections in Liberia.”

“In my estimation, the capacity deficiencies of the government of Liberia, and the absence of evidence in the public record to show that President Taylor has political interests, the political will, the political morality, and the political character to uphold a free and fair electoral process in Liberia do not support Liberia's ability to hold free and fair elections in 2003”, Jones said.

But, even after his legal analysis of the shortcomings regarding Liberia’s ability to hold free and fair elections in 2003, Jones, like scores of fellow Liberians still thinks intervention by the U.N. and other international organs and third party governments could bring about electoral miracle in Liberia in 2003, through “technical assistance to electoral authorities covering electoral administration planning, voter registration, election budgeting, review of electoral laws and regulations, training local election officials, logistics, voter and civic education, procurement of election materials, coordination of international donor assistance, electoral dispute resolution, computerization electoral rolls, and boundary delimitation….”

But while Jones and others think U.N. intervention is the magic wand for holding free and fair democratic elections in Liberia in 2003, the sitting government in Monrovia has made it clear it may not be too enthusiastic about U.N. and third party intervention in the 2003 electoral process. The government banned all political parties from receiving outside contributions after the U.S. government announced May 24, 2002 that it had set aside 1.45 million dollars to help Liberian politicians get their message across to the people, since radio and television outlets are mostly owned or controlled by members of the ruling party.

On the question of what type of leadership ought to emerge in Liberia after Election 2003 and beyond, it doesn’t take much research to know that after two decades of civil strife, personal tragedies and agonies, and economic and political strangulations, Liberians of all walks of life would prefer a realist who is not only a unifier and a builder, but a politician of high moral standing and the fortitude to tackle the hard issues associated with nation-building, good governance and social justice for all irrespective of class or status in society. Leadership in Liberia beyond Election 2003 ought to be both pragmatic and firm in identifying and implementing national socio-economic development programs, policies, and projects suited to the majority and not a token few. The new leadership ought to be judicial with social spending but assertive about projects that are beneficial to the majority of people in the villages, townships and counties.

The type of leadership that emerges after Election 2003 and beyond ought not to buy into tribal and ethnic or social divisions, nor give preference to creating a new class of rulers. Tribal or social divisions have existed throughout Liberian history, and have undermined the cohesiveness and physical and human resource developments of the Liberian nation and people. The prevailing notion that tribal divisions started after April 1980 is absurd, and a dishonest reading of history. Liberian history books tell us of a Liberian ethnic group or social class called “Americo-Liberian”, which ruled Liberian from independence in 1847 to 1980, and another Liberian ethnic group or social class called the Krahn ruled Liberia from 1980 to 1990.

In each case, not all members of the Americo-Liberian and Krahn ethnic groups or social classes benefited from the spoils of the leadership of their kinsmen and women, nor agreed with the direction the leadership was taking the Liberian nation. But it is foolhardy not to analyze and discuss the failures and successes of the Americo-Liberian and Krahn groups while at the helm of power in Liberia as a result of political correctness and political expediency. But this is where the realist steps in to sort things out and create order. For a realist will know that every society does have a privileged class, as opposed to ruling class, that calls the shots in political or economic matters usually behind the scenes, but the realist will also know that stealing from the national coffers for self-enrichment at the expense of the majority, and running afoul of the law do not make one a privileged class deserving of calling the shots in political and economic matters. Privileged class membership is usually conditioned on hard work or honest labor in business, industry or academia, though few people still become members through the cracks.

So come Election 2003 and beyond, Liberians will definitely appreciate a leadership that is insightful in undertaking programs that meet the basic social service needs of the Liberian people, while at the same time devising and implementing more grandeur programs for sustainable economic growth and development. The new leadership ought to guarantee economic and social justice, and equality before the law for all irrespective of class or social status. And it will be nice if Ouaga 2002 could start the ball rolling in the direction of creating the condition for new national leadership in Liberia after Election 2003 and beyond. We shall see!

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