Liberia: Leadership For A State In Denial

Remarks delivered at the 13th Annual Convention of the Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas Silver Spring, Maryland on May 24, 2003

By J. Chris Toe, Ph.D
President, Strayer University

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

May 28, 2003

I want to thank the members and leaders of the Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas for inviting me to say a few words at this Eleventh Annual Convention. I must profess I was quite surprised when Jaiyeh Jalarue asked me several months ago if I would be available to speak today. I was surprised because I knew fully well there are others, including many of you, who are better prepared to eloquently address the issues that are dear to this organization and to Liberia - issues such as democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights, peace and security. I was surprised because there may be very little that I can say, for I am an economist and an educator, not a politician or a political scientist.

I later rationalized, however, that perhaps you wanted someone who could give a different perspective on some of the issues that are dear to you; issues that most of you have studied and advocated over a long period of time. And maybe, as part of your search for a different perspective, you wanted to hear from someone who has no interest in political office but who has opinions and is willing to express those opinions, or from someone who is part and parcel of what could be called the "Silent Majority".

No matter what the real reason or motive may be for asking me to be here today, let me say that I am glad I was invited. I want to thank Arthur Droe and the Convention 2003 Planning Committee for the invitation. I am delighted to be here because I truly believe in this year's convention theme; I too believe we must move forward in peace. At no time in our history has the need for peace in Liberia been more evident, more urgent, more pressing and more critical than today.

I hope your reflection on the prevailing social, economic and political conditions in Liberia brings us closer to finding lasting solutions to our lingering problems. It is also my hope that our experiences, our struggles and our toils in the Diaspora have taught us and instilled in us respect for democratic principles and values. We must embrace these principles and values if we are to attain excellence in the Liberian mosaic. As you aspire for unity in excellence, please be reminded that an inextricable linkage and an undeniable consistency exist between excellence and democracy.

Many of us will recall that not long ago, as men and women of my generation began to pursue higher education, it was in vogue for those entrusted to bringing light into our darkened minds to misguide, misinform, and mislead. We were told then that limited government, free enterprise, economic freedom and opportunity, and free and open markets, all principles and values embodying excellence and democracy, were immoral and impoverishing. In their stead, our 'comrades' and 'mentors' presented impractical, infeasible and untried command-like ideologies and policy prescriptions as if they were magic wands and panacea for the ills and depravities of Liberians.

Today, as we witness the growth and prosperity of a post World War II global knowledge economy, it has become fashionable for those who once sang the praises of collectivism and other aspects of command economies to associate themselves with the ideals of free markets, economic competition, lower taxes, and smaller, smarter governments.

Today, as former planned economies successfully transition to market economies, and as the "angels of free-market doom" cha cha to the rhythms of principles and values once despised, we have come to accept change as the only constant in our lives; we have come to the realization that we can no longer cling to outdated cliches, traditions, or schools of thought. We have learned that we must change to remain competitive in our everyday activities; we must manage change to stay ahead; and we must live with the challenges and opportunities engendered by change if we are to survive and prosper in an ever-evolving world.

One of the strategic challenges that change poses for any society, any organization, or any government is the acceptance and empowerment of individual choice. Individual choice is the foundation of democratic governance and free markets. It is the engine of transparency, participation, accountability, rule of law, competition, security and yes, peace.

As we review the monumental events of our time, it is clear that the common thread linking those historical developments was the ultimate recognition by all that individual choice could no longer be considered a privilege. Individual choice had to be a right that could not, and would not, be silenced, thwarted, or denied.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of apartheid, the triumph of people power in the Philippines, and the growing body of evidence that points to free markets as predominant determinants of economic growth and development manifest the importance of individual choice. Individual choice is the fulcrum of political and economic freedom, and the anchor of democratic governance.

Your motto, "People United for Excellence", assumes the centrality of individual choice to progress in Liberia. However, Liberia is a country whose history is replete with denials of individual choice. These denials have shaped the behaviors of all Liberians; from those who inhabited the Grain Coast prior to the arrival of the Elizabeth, to those who set sail for Africa on board the Elizabeth; from those who fled Liberia following the overthrow of the Tolbert government, to all who have escaped the ongoing orbit of terror in Liberia. This historical and recurring denial of individual choice has rendered LIBERIA A STATE IN DENIAL. The only way we can unleash individual ingenuity, making the exercise of individual choice a way of life, is through good governance and good leadership.

Democracy, security and peace cannot exist in the absence of good governance and good leadership. Only by insisting on good governance and good leadership can this association and Liberia attain your vision of a people united for excellence. It is only by advocating and promoting good and enlightened leadership can respect for individual choice be enshrined and assured. It is only then will Liberia become truly democratic, truly secured, and truly at peace, at last. Liberians have had their right to choose denied one time too many, in one generation too many. We are a people scarred by the denial of our fundamental right to choose. Rather than uniting us, this historical bond has been used to divide us.

Individual choice is an inalienable right and our common historical bond. Individual choice is the bridge, the bearer, and the conduit of opportunity for all; opportunity to improve our lives, the lives of our families, and the lives of our communities. The one thing that opportunity and the pursuit of excellence demand is change in how we see ourselves as part of a whole. Change for the common good has been the rallying cry and hallmark of many countries where denials of choice once were orders of the day.

In Liberia, we chose to side with the status quo in the past, no matter how distasteful, disgraceful, and cruel. Today, many have chosen and are supporting the equally despicable route of indiscriminate violence, even though they know that this too shall come to prolong the search for national reconciliation and peace.

I am optimistic that Liberia's current cycle of terror and depravity will soon end even as we lament the state of Liberia today. As we plan for the new Liberia that will follow, we must remember that the events of the last twelve years are but one episode of a saga that has been unfolding for over a century and a half. The saga precludes and includes William Tubman, William Tolbert, Samuel Doe, and Charles Taylor and his tropical gangsters.

As we prepare to witness the cessation of the current cycle of violence and instability, we cannot and must not remain satisfied with half-baked, short-term solutions. Band-aid solutions will not cure our endemic and pervasive ills. A sea change in how we view our roles as leaders and followers must occur if we are to deter the pillage and corruption that are the mainstay of Liberia, a State in Denial.

Liberia is a State in Denial due to failed national leadership. Liberia is a country that has been poorly led throughout its history. It is a nation in which good leadership has been notably absent; a country in which statesmen have been far too few. The overwhelming majority of the pretenders and political dinosaurs who have led our nation have pursued a personalist, neopatrimonial, statist and authoritarian style of governance with the sole purpose of bleeding the Liberian economy for personal gain. We have run the gamut from supposedly benevolent dictators to autocratic one-man rule. We have witnessed a parade of one poor leader after poor leader throughout our lives.

Unable to achieve the visions that they laid out to the people, our leaders failed and Liberia suffered. The colossal failures of our national leadership have been due in part to the implementation of policies of exclusion, extortion, distortion and confusion. Some of our leaders have been minor actors, unprepared for the parts and roles that were thrust upon them. But some were major players who plotted for years and maneuvered their way unto the national scene, only to be undone by their unwillingness to believe and trust in the choices of individual Liberians.

William Tubman failed to unify and integrate the people; William Tolbert failed to build a wholesome functioning society; Samuel Doe failed to wipe out rampant corruption and instead presided over a government of exclusion. Lacking vision and fortitude, Amos Sawyer, David Kpomakpor, Ruth Perry, and Wilton Sankawollie failed to deliver a sustainable political settlement to the Liberian crisis. And Charles Taylor has failed in every category of national leadership. To no one's surprise, years and decades of neglect, inertia, greed, wickedness, malaise and hopelessness have now catapulted the resulting Liberian culture of poverty to its apogee.

Liberians have endured failed leaderships far too long. They now are yearning for a new broad-based leadership that will practice democratic governance, by which leadership transcends transparency, participation, responsiveness, accountability and the rule of law. Liberians want a leadership that will ensure:

That their human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected;

That they have a say in decisions that affect their lives;

That they can hold decision-makers accountable;

That there are inclusive and fair rules, institutions and practices that will govern social interactions;

That they are free from discrimination based on tribal affiliation, ethnicity, class, gender or any other attribute; and

That economic and social policies are responsive to their needs and aspirations, and that these policies will eradicate poverty and expand the choices all Liberians have in their lives.

(paraphrased from 'Human Development Perspective on Democratic Governance)

In a recent speech on leadership, Lee Kuan Yew, the widely regarded former Prime Minister of Singapore, said that Singapore learned immensely from the failure of leadership in Ghana, Nigeria and other former colonies whose governments ignored the fact that "building a new order demanded different capabilities". The lessons he learned from these failed leaderships enabled his government to make economic viability the top priority.

According to Lee, a clean and effective government requires complete accountability and open separateness between personal assets and public funds. He had to eradicate corruption for him to succeed in achieving economic growth.

Unlike Lee who learned from the follies and ineptitude of others, Liberian political leaders do not learn from the mistakes of others; they even do not learn from their own mistakes. They continually fail to realize that personal ambition must be set aside in the national interest. The horde of pretenders masquerading today as potential leaders of a post-Taylor Liberia are doomed to fail unless they pursue a policy of inclusiveness; unless they do away with their 'camp' philosophies that encourage only 'birds of the same feathers to flock together'.

Liberia was helped into its present mess by birds of the same feathers flocking together; it is these same birds that have flocked together and are sustaining the carnage that now engulfs our homeland.

Many of these so-called political leaders, believing they were born to lead Liberia, are fast becoming the Harold Stassens of Liberian politics. More importantly, many have yet to say their mea culpas for the enabling roles they have played in Liberia's recurring saga of failed national leadership, violence, ignorance and abject poverty. True peace will never come to Liberia unless and until plunderers of the national treasury and murderers of our people face the wrath of justice. There can be no true elections until the war and violence cease. There can be no true security in the absence of initial international involvement. The road to true and lasting peace, true and lasting security, and free and fair elections must go through a broad-based and inclusive transitional government whose singular responsibility must be to restore basic rights, provide basic needs, and build an enduring political infrastructure.

Liberians do not want a countryman to lead Liberia and they do not want countrymen to lead Liberia. Liberians do not need a congo man to lead Liberia and they do not need congomen to lead Liberia. Liberians want and need Liberians, both countrymen and countrywomen, and congomen and congowomen, to lead Liberia. Liberians want an inclusive leadership at all levels and in all spheres of national governance.

I have no magical formula, for I have often learned that no one prescription is a cure-all. But I can draw on my experiences, interactions and knowledge to list a few characteristics of good leadership. These leadership traits have produced success, in business and in politics.

Top on my list is personal integrity. A good leadership is believable and trustworthy; it must be willing to make the same sacrifices that it asks of others. It must be held to the same standards that it places on others, and the same expectations it imposes on others. A good leadership must lead by example. The words you utter must be believable and trusted.

Commitment is second. You cannot be a successful leader if you are not committed to or do not believe in the mission, vision, goals and objectives of your organization or of the government in which you serve. Tomorrow's leadership must strive to create opportunity for all Liberians based on the democratic principles and values of individual choice, free competition, and economic security.

Third on my list of good leadership characteristics is vision. Good leaders know where they are going and where they want others to go. They understand there is an endgame, and they know when they have achieved their goals. Good leadership is both proactive and reactive. It is one that will attract and marshal resources for the common good. It is a leadership that will create, articulate and communicate a shared vision and a shared set of values.

Finally, a good national leadership must think and act strategically. Good leaders begin with the end in mind and they put first things first. They think win-win and they ensure there are no losers. They seek first to understand and then be understood. If there is one thing that I have learned over my ten years at Strayer University, it is that focused leadership achieves results. Focused leadership comes about when you plan and you devise strategies that achieve the objectives of your plan. Strategies succeed when they incorporate best practices. Strayer University could not have doubled revenues, doubled enrollment, and doubled its market capitalization in the last five years in the absence of sound plans and well-conceived and well-executed strategies.

The failures of our past national leadership have been enabled by a citizenry that has been unwilling to take risk and that has been untrusting of any one not originating from their tribe or community. To usher in a new day, all of us, including members of this association, must be willing to accept excellence, not ethnicity or tribal relationship, as the overwhelming criterion for leadership. Each and every one of us must be willing to accept the fact that indeed, we can live decent lives and contribute to our communities without being in government.

As you ponder the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the Liberian polity, please remember that those of us residing abroad do not have a monopoly on leadership. As there must be a balance of power between the governed and the governor, so must there be opportunities for all Liberians to engage in the national dialogue. If there ever was a time to renounce violence, denounce tribalism, sectionalism and congoism, and embrace peace, competition and democracy, that time is now. All of us have a shared responsibility and a shared obligation to support an end to the current carnage, atrocities and wickedness that currently pervades southeastern Liberia and parts adjacent. Violence may yield 'blood diamonds' and 'soiled timber' in the short run; over the long term, violence today does nothing but to prolong the dawn and achievement of the peace we all yearn for.

Let me end by quoting a passage that summarizes the democratic principles and values this association must advocate if Liberians are to be a people united for excellence:

"Democracy is more than elections; it also requires functioning institutions. It requires a legislature that represents the people, not one controlled by the president or bureaucrats. It requires an independent judiciary that enforces the rule of law with equal concern for all people. It requires well-functioning political parties and electoral systems. It requires security forces that are professional, politically neutral and serve the needs of people. It requires an accessible media that is free, independent and unbiased, not one controlled by the state or by corporate interests. And it requires a vibrant civil society, one that can play a watchdog role on government and interest groups - and provide alternative forms of political participation.

These institutions, underpinned by democratic values and respect for human rights, provide checks and balances against the risks of tyranny - and of populism, because in democracies populist politicians can mobilize support by using propaganda and appeals to racism and other forms of intolerance."

Let us be a part of the solution to the Liberian problem. Let us be one in calling for an end to any material and immaterial support for the terrorists, vigilantes and gangsters who are now plundering our country, whether these are from LURD, MODEL, or NPFL. This is our common obligation and our common responsibility.

I thank you for giving me the opportunity to express the thinking of many who like me comprise Liberia's Silent Majority. I thank you for your time.