Issues In Perspective:
The New Liberian Elite And Political Class
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
In his book, "Wretched of the Earth", Frantz Fanon, a legendary Algerian intellectual and revolutionary, makes a very profound and perceptive statement about generational change. He states that "Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." The political sea change Liberia has witnessed in the last two decades, especially in the nineties, in which the country has been engulfed in a civil war, has ushered in a new generation of leaders, and also a new political ruling class whose social, economic and political orientation contrast sharply with previous generation of leaders Liberia has had.
What is the composition, belief system and socio-psychological mind-set of this new Liberian elite or ruling class? How does it differ from the previous political class? Does it have a commitment to effecting democratic changes in the Liberian political process? Will this new political class in the words of Fanon, "betray its generation'" or the country?
By and large, the new ruling elite is divided into two competing groups. They are Pre-1980 and Post-1980 elite. For the purpose of our discussion, we shall refer to them as Pre-'80-Elite and Post-Elite. The Pre-'80-Elite consists of Liberians who either obtained their college education in Liberia or abroad. Those who studied abroad and returned home before 1980. Whereas, the Post-'80-Elite consists of Liberians who studied abroad, some completed their studies while others did not. The Post-'80-Elite returned to Liberia in 1980 or thereafter. The individuals who did not complete their studies returned to Liberia anyway. Based on their sectional and ethnic connections, they were placed in positions of authority and leadership.
The Post-'80-Elite is further divided into the Qualified and Unqualified. The Unqualified also includes individuals with college degrees but never worked in their disciplines. As for most of the Pre-'80-Elite prior to and after graduation, they worked in their respective fields of studies. As the result, they were able to acquire working experiences that are associated with their positions. This was not the same with most of the Post-'80-Elite. Before they returned to Liberia, many of them were employed in areas that were not associated with their studies. Therefore, they did not acquire the necessary skills and experience for the positions they occupied in Liberia.
Apart from the glaring educational, professional differences that existed amongst this new elite group, there is also a difference in the philosophical orientation of this group in terms of how the country needs to be governed, and the direction the country needs to go. One group seemed very comfortable and committed to maintaining the status-quo, while the other had an aversion, and advocated for a radical restructuring of the status-quo. Herein lied the underlining reason and the subtext behind the struggle for leadership and power in Liberia today.
The first group of the Post-'80-Elite consisted of individuals who claimed to have earned two to three masters degrees while in the united States, when in fact, some of them never earned even a bachelor degree. Since members of the PRC themselves did not have any degree, they accepted the claim made by this group without question. However, when some members of the Pre-'80-Elite asked to see the documents regarding these degrees, the Post-'80-Elite took offense. As the result, they portrayed the Pre-'80-Elite to the PRC as being against them because they lack formal education. In order not to become enemies of the PRC, the issue was not resolved; instead, it was dropped like hot potato. This was the second phase of the leadership struggle that brought us to where we find ourselves today.
Eventually, the Pre-'80-Elite gained the trust of the People's Redemption Council government sorely on the basis of ethnicity and nepotism. Based on the new-found power of the Post-'80-Elite, they alienated members of the Pre-'80-Elite. This approach led to the abandonment of the national agenda, an area that should have taken center stage. At this point, the struggle went from few individuals seeking to be in charge of government to ethnic rivalry (Nimba vs. Grand Gedeh) within the PRC. It was this struggle that led to the December 24, 1989, Liberian Civil War.
Other characteristics that are common to both groups are their membership spread across ethnic and cultural lines. Both the Pre-'80-Elite and the Post-'80-Elite groups are "abu" (anxious) to lead. Like in most African countries, they tend to exploit their ethnicity in order to gain political power or positions. As a matter of fact, some areas that are pronounced are their autocratic leadership style as well as the need to be viewed as "The Oldman." They see their relationship with those they lead like a "father would behave towards his children." They give order and expect it to be followed without question.
Based on written accounts and information gathered from those who are acquainted with the social, political and economic orientation of the new ruling elite, they are said to range from Marxism, Socialism, African Socialism to Capitalism. But since the demise of the Soviet Union, most of these individuals have opted for the American style of Capitalism with which they have added a Liberian flavor - "Above all else, Me, Myself and I." And by all indications, they professed to believe in democracy, when in reality they actually rule by dictatorial means.
Today, the Post-'80-Elite, headed by Charles Taylor, a college dropout, dominates the new Liberian ruling elite. This new elite whose ascendancy to power was by way of war, the use of raw force and violence to seize state power, has now introduced a whole new set of values and ethos into the Liberian political milieu. Whereas, most ruling class (like the old Liberian ruling class, for example) tend to pride itself on its value system, a relative level of human decency, respect for costumes and traditions, tolerance of varying opinions, upholding the rule of law, civility and meritocracy, this new elite has turned upside down all of these value structures that characterized a civilized society.
There is now a tendentious debate as to whether this ruling class has the capacity of taking Liberia through the next century, or represents a "dark force" of stagnation that has so characterized the country during the last two decades. From what is unfolding, it clearly does not augur well for Liberia. Because this new ruling class has not risen to power on its merits, it seems hell-bent and determined to sustain itself in power by whatever means necessary, whether by illegal or non-constitutional means. The real virtue of this ruling class is the lack of a class act.