Making Democracy Work in Postwar Liberia

By George Werner

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 10, 2002

Once there was a town built just beyond the bend in a large river. Playing on the shore one day, children noticed three bodies floating in the water; they ran for help. The townsfolk were quick to arrive on the scene and to pull the bodies out of the river. The first person was dead; they buried the body. The second alive, but quite ill; she was taken to the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child; the townsfolk, in keeping with an age-old African practice, placed her with a family where she thrived.

From that day on, however, and for a number of years to come, several bodies came floating down the river each day. The good people of the town became quite adept at pulling them out of the water and tending to them. The practice continued for years and the townsfolk developed even more elaborate ways to reclaim bodies and care for them.

Some citizens were quite generous with their time and resources; a few exceptional ones gave up their jobs entirely so as to devote themselves full-time unencumbered to the work. Due to the generosity of so many, the people of the town felt a growing sense of pride. They built more orphanages, schools mushroomed, healing temples became available, and funeral homes established hotlines. Committees were formed to take care of the various needs of the bodies.

Unfortunately, though, at no time, during all the years that passed, and despite the generous efforts on the part of so many, did anyone think of going up the river, beyond the bend, to find out just why, on a daily basis, bodies unceasingly came floating down the river .

This background is relevant because we, like the townsfolk in our story, run the risk of falling asleep to the problems democracy has encountered in Liberia. The root cause is often there to be uncovered, just as the source of the bodies that took up the time and generosity of the townsfolk in our story. By treating symptoms, the townsfolk camouflaged the real causes of the floating bodies, which are rooted not so much in individuals as in systems. Liberia is a failed state because of so many factors, prominent amongst which are the following: inability to move beyond adopting a system of government to assimilating its values and principles, lack of civic education, systemic greed, an unjust distribution of the nation’s resources. All this, in large measure, point to recycled bad leadership. Why blame bad leadership? Three reasons immediately come to mind. First, the people have made poor choices over the years by choosing leaders either on the basis of fear or patronage. Second, successive Liberian leaders have either ignored or not lived up to the expectations of the people who elected them. Then many African leaders are not themselves exemplary in their understanding and practice of democracy and, as we will soon discover, nations are interdependent on others for their survival. A further deepening of these introductory thoughts may be necessary.

Historical Backdrop
Let’s begin by setting the stage historically. The Constitution of 1847 restricted voting to a few male citizens of twenty-one years. The men who were allowed to vote were settlers and recaptured African slaves who copied western ways of life. It was only in 1904 that citizenship was conferred on all the inhabitants of the interior. Again, not every man in the countryside of age twenty-one and above became eligible to vote. Their right to vote was granted in 1946 through An Act to Regulate all Elections in the Republic of Liberia. Low levels of literacy, inability to educate citizens in their civil rights and responsibilities, the one-party system in the state, and the social structure of the society made voting meaningless to the male citizens of the hinterland. A constitutional amendment in 1948 granted Liberian women the suffrage or the right to vote. Liberian women voted in a presidential election for the first time in 1951.

Interestingly, not everyone who resided in Liberia was a citizen when Joseph Jenkins Roberts became president of Liberia in 1848. Only the settlers were citizens. Recaptured African slaves mainly from the Congo who settled in Liberia became citizens after adopting western lifestyle. The same is true for individual members of some Liberian ethnic groups on the coast. It created a society that was not integrated and, consequently, became vulnerable to instability. In 1904, President Arthur Barclay was compelled by the situation to unconditionally confer citizenship on all blacks living within the territory that government claimed to be a part of Liberia. One can say, therefore, that democracy was introduced to Liberia in a disorganized way leaving behind the people who constitute the fourth branch of government. One is tempted to think that the very people who introduced democracy to Liberia did not fully understand it and, if they did, they deliberately practiced a system of government that was at best exclusive of the majority of the people and at worst arrogant and patronizing in character.

Impact on the People
A dire consequence of this trend is that many Liberians do not know how democracy works and why they should help make it work. The Liberian people are inadequately informed about democracy. This has created an environment that seduces an ill-informed voting public to choose leaders without service principles. The people see themselves powerless without meaningful roles to play in a democracy. They act like bystanders viewing government from the outside and detached from government. An unhealthy indifference to how elected officials behave has become a tradition, and a culture that teaches people “you’re not supposed to question an elder” has made it too easy for dictators to rule the nation.

A healthy democracy requires citizens with a good, general education, specialized and otherwise. Perhaps a basic knowledge of democracy can help citizens become aware of their rights and responsibilities, and seek to avoid all that destroys democratic institutions. It matters who Liberia’s president is, and the people have the power to choose whomever they think best serves their interest. The right to vote is a citizen’s fundamental right. Democracy does not exist in a vacuum. It is based on the rule of law and sound economic policies that bring about positive changes in the material welfare of all the people. Absence of either one of these turns democracy into social chaos.

Politicians would take Liberia more seriously if the people held them more accountable for their actions. This is why Article 50 of the Liberian Constitution provides that qualified registered voters elect the president. Many Liberians, though they have attained the legal age required to vote , are not qualified to vote. They do not have the knowledge and critical thinking considered necessary to make informed decisions. The right to vote is not simply a basic right; it is also a responsibility. The people entitled to vote need to be educated to understand democracy and its values. Voters should know that democracy is a process, a means to a better end to help provide citizens with freedom, justice, food security, access to quality healthcare, access to quality education. Education is essential for a viable democracy, and the quality of life goes hand in hand with sustaining democracy. Violence is the antithesis of democracy. People taking decisions by guns and other instruments of death kill democracy.

Impact on Leadership Concept
When a leader takes the oath of office, s/he must feel part of a continuous line of people who have given themselves to public service. Unfortunately, successive Liberian leaders have failed, each in a unique way, to give up his or her drives and motives for the common good. They have placed more emphasis on themselves and the hierarchy, and not on the people and the values and behaviors consistent with democracy. Their actions have not been guided by service principles with major goals centering on the development and welfare of the served. People are not being mobilized to answer common questions, and genuine patriotism has been taken for blind loyalty to leaders. This yielded several a number ills in the Liberian society: the collapse of genuine patriotism, lack of commitment to democratic values, absence of professionalism, diminished integrity, self- service, and a culture of anything goes.

Impact of Regional Democracies on Liberia
Democracy develops in countries where neighbors are also democratic. It yields regional stability and economic development. Democracy cannot be stable when there is autocracy next door. Regional leaders bear a responsibility to make sure that they all lead by good example. They need to have a uniform policy about constitutional democracy, promote democratic values through education, seek the welfare and security of all their citizens, encourage rule of law and transparent participation, and cultivate a political culture that respects established democracies.

Associated with this, international action should be taken where democracy is endangered. What matters in one country affects all countries, and all countries should have the same level of support, financially and morally, when their democratic institutions are threatened. There is not yet an internationally accepted definition of terrorism because one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. All the same, we know the effects of terror, as peaked by the attack on America on September 11, 2001. This event impacted life not only in America but also the rest of the world. People responded with a common condemnation of terrorism and the world was united in eliminating its sources and perpetuators. The world would be a better place if the same attitude were adopted wherever democratic institutions are under siege.

Concluding Thoughts
To this end, let it be known that democracy is a lasting phenomenon. It is not only a western system of governance but also an excellent model with which all governments in the world can identify. Although not a perfect system, it is the most acceptable of the alternatives. Its success is hinged on respect for the conversations and dignity of all. For far too long, the Liberian people have been kept in the dark about their role in a democracy. This has not helped to safeguard democracy in Liberia. They have not been educated enough to meaningfully participate in the democratic process and have been brainwashed into choosing leaders that do not seek the common good. People cannot make ethical choices unless their consciences are educated

More than any other period in our history, the anarchy of the 80s and the 90s has highlighted the urgent need to educate the public in the values of democracy. Democracy is both a means and a goal at the same time, and it is not achieved with non-democratic means. Given the chance, people will choose freedom, peace and justice over oppression, war, and lawlessness. The future can be better for Liberia, but all Liberians have moral responsibility to make it so. We are where we are now because we keep making the same mistakes handed down to us by the pioneers. We cannot continue to hold them alone, or any one person, responsible for our present predicament. We must change the way we lead and are led to better serve the needs of our people and our country. We need to learn from our successes as well as our failures. The danger is to listen more to our successes because success is noisier and more attractive. We do well to listen to the quietude and wisdom of failure offered by an honest reflection on our national experiences.

Perhaps the following suggestions may prove useful in our desire to find lasting solutions to “the democracy problem” in Liberia:

As Liberians prepare for general elections, here are some traits to look for in a good leader:

Note about author: Mr. George Werner is a Liberian educator. He has taught in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and, most recently, in Liberia with the National Catholic Education Secretariat. Presently, he is in the US visiting with family and friends.

© The Perspective
P.O. Box 450493
Atlanta, GA 31145