Building Democracy in Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 16, 2002

As the deadline for elections draws nearer, Liberians are all focusing their attention on the main players and party politics is rising to its highest peak. Political leaders and their aides are sharpening their tools and putting in place strategies that would ensure victory at the various stages of the electoral process. Inside many parties, the games of “standard bearer” are played in dark corners, with the manipulative hands of those who consider themselves to be “entitled” to the presidency. Beyond the game to ensure that one is chosen as the standard bearer, there is the likelihood of being chosen as “the opposition” candidate. Already, some are suggesting conditions designed to eliminate other candidates, among other things saying that the opposition standard bearer fulfills certain conditions. This is just the beginning and there will be other dangerous tricky suggestions that could lead to polarization and a breakdown of unity in the opposition.

This is all good and well, if we were in an ideal political situation. But we are not, because we are face to face with the most volatile situation that makes even a discussion of elections sound like a pipe dream. However, life must go on and we must find a way to cross this bridge, since we are here.

In the opposition, all attention is focused on President Charles Taylor and the seat of power. Removing him is perceived as ending the reign of terror he now symbolizes not only in Liberia but also in the entire sub-region. How do we go from here? How do we make sure that we no longer have to face situations where one man/woman has absolute control of the state and its machine? How do we ensure that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Charles Brumskine, Dr. Tipoteh or T.Q. Harris does not become another Tubman or Taylor? We could rely on their characters, a very volatile trait of human nature or be realistic and take a look at institutions that ensure that a president is not turned into a dictator overnight.

The Past and Present
As far back as many of us remember, institutions that guarantee and safeguard democracy have never been able to function independently in Liberia. This lack of independence of the pillars of an open society is at the core root of our current problem. Therefore, the next elections should be more about these institutions than just bringing another team of political actors into the Executive Mansion.

During its brief tenure, to ensure some form of independence of the Supreme Court, because it was to decide the outcome of elections after the war, IGNU under Dr. Amos Sawyer decided to pay stipends to members of the Court in US dollars. The amount was not that big but it allowed the people in the high court to be able to count on a steady income and the possibility to survive without catering to the whims of the Mansion.

The current administration seems to have used all the means for absolute control. The war has caused a deadly blow to civil authority in all quarters. Rebels who took control of the state have respect for nothing but the rule of guns. The pillars of democracy were devastated and have to refer all matters to the president, becoming sub-servants and lackeys of the power in place.

The institutions
The judiciary as it stands now is a pathetic condition. Judges, as all state functionaries, are not paid and when they receive emoluments, the amount is so small that it can hardly pay for their transportation to work. The police fall in the same category. Who remember paying a traffic ticket in Monrovia? What does the police survive on? What contribution does it make to the budget that justifies its salary?

One can just imagine how people in the Immigration and Naturalization are now surviving. When Liberia was a “stable” country, travelers from all over the world came to Monrovia for business. International corporations employed thousands of foreign nationals who needed all types of immigration services. This brought money in and as usual many immigration officers made a living by catering to needs to a sprawling business community. Now, with the current situation, these people have to rely to the same handouts as the police. Others also linked to the judiciary, such as lawyers, face the same difficulties. The customers do not have any money and nobody gets paid.

The legislature is not in any better shape. Few months ago, we wrote here that rather then use vehicles that were given to them to visit their constituencies, many lawmakers simply put their jeeps on the roads as taxis, running passengers in the country and sometimes to the border towns in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone. With the free gas slip they received from the state, this allowed them to survive. Now, much of the cars are breaking down for lack of maintenance and because of the bad conditions of the road. To make a living, they become sub-servants of the only person who controls the money. The fact that foreign travels have now been rendered almost impossible, because nobody in this world any longer invites our government, the situation is even bleaker.

The press is the other very important pillar of democracy, serving as a watchdog for society. The survival of a free press and that of an open democratic society are intimately interwoven. In a country where the most credible newspaper does not sell more than 500 copies, one wonders how journalists make a living. It means that they have to survive either by working only part-time as newspersons or be patronized by those who have a stake in news making, the political leadership. In Monrovia, the only place where there is a semblance of press in the country almost every trained journalist has either been co-opted by the regime or has left the country. The Association of Liberian Journalists in America counts more professionals than the entire PUL in Liberia. Independent press is almost dead, with a few exceptions. Almost because there is a thriving group that has remained on the ground, fought with blood and tears and as usual, the pen was mightier than the sword and wrestle from the Devil the right to set up its printing press. But what use is a new printing press when there are no readers?

Democracy is based on middle class values. The judiciary, the press, the legislature are all institutions that uphold the democratic process. The Liberian society has chronically suffered the lack of independent structures.

The fact that the TWP regime crumbled in 1980 like a stack of cards was due to the fact that the party, throughout its many decades of control of the state power, failed to put in place policies that would have resulted in the creation of a viable middle class, capable of defending its interest. Rather, the very narcissistic and feudal ruling oligarchy, living on its own glory and imbecility, worked through patronage and subordination, breeding nothing but deep-seated hatred and faked mimicry. Isn’t it rather ironic that while Liberia claims to have been independent for 150 years, it has very little to show in terms of social and economic infrastructure as compared to other newly independent countries like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire or Senegal.

The problems Liberia faces today are certainly not of the making of the current regime, but Taylor, with his appetite for absolute power, is the ideal vehicle to give continuance to the system of political submission and exploitation put in place and maintained by the TWP. This system of power eradicates any form of independent political institution other than the powers of the president.

The upcoming elections must be much more than trying to remove the archaic and nostalgic decadent political system that fell on the lap of Taylor. Even if there were no sanctions, Taylor’s government could not have done anything more than what it is doing now, recreating and perpetuating a feudal power system where there will never be a true middle class, and therefore no possibility of developing a democratic political system.

Building a Democratic System
As a starter, those parties intending to field candidates must start to work with one of the institutions that needs help. The Press Union of Liberia could carry out many contractual services for political parties. Local newspapers could be contracted to print and circulate ideas and other information from the many political parties and candidates. By investing in the local media, the opposition parties will strengthen, at least for a while, one of the most important pillars of democracy and contribute to its independence. The Press Union has also established a legal defense fund that could greatly benefit from contributions of politicians and political parties.

The upcoming elections could also be the occasion to strengthen the first branch of government. Our politicians and political parties seem to think that the only job in government is the presidency. If in 1997, opposition leaders had fielded candidates in various senatorial and house races and just left one person to run against Taylor, the political landscape would have been totally different. Today, this is more important than ever. Fielding only one presidential candidate and encouraging others to find seats in the House and Senate when and where appropriate would not only ensure victory, but also strengthen another important institution of our democratic process. Removing Taylor from the presidency throughout democratic means is a great challenge, but the greater challenge is to build a system where no one gains absolute control over the social, political and economic life of the country.

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