Elections, Politics and the Liberian Society

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 19, 2002

When I was a student at Tubman High School in Monrovia in the late '70s, there was an inscription on a bulletin board by the main students entrance that read: "Tubman High is the place where brave men fight and die, and only the strong shall survive." At that time, we would read the inscription out aloud and laugh hysterically while thinking to ourselves, what kind of idiot or loser would write such foolishness on a high school bulletin board!

But in retrospect, Tubman High was really a place where brave men and women fought and died, so to speak, if only in the hypothetical sense. Because graduating from Tubman High depended not merely on a student's academic abilities, but more heavily on a student's coping skills in the face of the huge cultural clash emanating from the diversity of the vast student body. Intense peer pressure and competition in academics, sports, student politics, and related extra curriculum activities were so prevalent that it seemed a student or a group of students was all too willing and all too eager to dominate the other, by hook or crook, even if it meant ruining lifelong friendships and relationships. And some teachers bought into the euphoria of becoming the "toughest teacher" in the school so much so that they instead became notorious for giving outrageous quizzes and tests (one gave 100 questions on a final exam) without much advanced notice, and when it appeared that most students would be absent or late on particular days due to bad weather or other factors. So it was not uncommon for many very bright students to drop out of Tubman High to continue their education at other high schools to save themselves unnecessary headaches.

Interestingly, Tubman High represented a microcosm of the greater Liberian society. Children of the very rich and powerful, and children of the very poor and less powerful congregated at the school, and so was every major tribe or ethnic group in Liberia. The very bright teachers and students, and the not too bright teachers and students also congregated there. Even atheists, religious fanatics, and political zealots may have congregated at the school, and the school was actually a recruitment hub for pro-government and anti-government forces alike. And as editor of the student newspaper, my recruitment by the Liberian ministry of information was no surprise. And it was no surprise that some of my classmates ended up with various public and private agencies, as well as progressive groups such as PAL and MOJA, and eventually the dozen or so political parties that participated in the 1985 and 1997 Liberian general elections, and the ragtag paramilitary groups that surfaced in between these national elections.

Now, you wonder, what are the parallels here? What an inscription on a high school bulletin board, or for that matter, my high school experience, has to do with elections, politics and the Liberian society? Well, if you are familiar with Liberian history, especially developments in Liberia in the last two decades or so, you will readily agree that that inscription on the bulletin board, and the general competitive atmosphere as described at that high school, positive or negative, parallel greatly with the destructive national politics and the mostly willing, but sometimes helpless, participants in the national melodrama of witch hunts, greed, corruption, wanton property destruction, and mismanagement of national resources that have undermined our national development and progress as a nation and people since independence in 1847.

You will recall that the inscription spoke of brave men fighting and dying, and only the strong surviving. Well, how prophetic of the author if the seven-year Liberian civil war can provide any clues. And who would argue that in Liberia today, self-preservation or survival at the expense of your next-door neighbor is fair game! But, in fairness, this unscrupulous attitude did not begin with the current administration in Monrovia, though it may as well be that the standard of living in Liberia is now acute and the situation is much more widespread this time around. But the attitude of manipulating one's neighbors, friends, and relatives for personal gains has always been part and parcel of Liberian life and politics long before the 1980 coup and the 1989 civil uprising.

Many Liberian politicians are aloof to the suffering of the people around them, and it would seem that they are motivated to seek public office mostly for reasons of self-preservation and the acquisition of wealth than for the improvement of the quality of life and standard of living of the Liberian people. I have not known any Liberian presidents or high public officials in my lifetime that did not think new fleets of luxury cars, countless concubines, and walkie-talkie or cell phone-toting security personnel were key trophy items of power. And this may very well be the case, considering the Liberian cultural dynamics (details in future article). But it abhors me that these so-called national leaders are equally aloof to the national responsibilities of state power, which include national infrastructure and human resource development, and the promotion of good governance, health and social services, education, and fiscal management and accountability of national assets and resources. Well, maybe, just maybe, the clues lie with free and fair national elections, or so we think!

Indeed, it is a given that elections and politics are intertwined, at least in the sense that the former is an outgrowth of the latter. In other words, a strong political system with institutional safeguards for all eligible participants can lead to free and fair elections, (and genuine national reconciliation and development), and not the other way around. But in Liberia, we usually assume that free and fair elections can either occur in a vacuum, or can occur without a good political system in place with built-in checks and balances. So each election year, as in 1985, 1997, and next in 2003, we go the polls expecting a miracle in free and fair elections. What a great shame and a waste of valuable time and national resources! Or, is it that Liberians are naïve or complacent enough to gloss over the country's dubious historical distinction in the Guinness Book of Record as having reported more votes for the outcome of a presidential election than the existing total population? I guess not!

I have always felt that national elections in Liberia, if we can look back on 1985 and 1997, are a fruitless exercise at democracy, if not a total sham to perpetual a myth by which the ruling party retains power, by hook or crook, simply to maintain the status quo. For each election year, it is not uncommon for ruling party stalwarts to bombard national radio and television airwaves, and capture local newspapers headlines, with speeches highlighting such crafty phrases as "you're better off with the devil you know, then the angel you don't know," and so on. But it haunts me as to how will Liberians ever get to know this political "angel" and not only the political "devil" when no serious efforts at electoral and political reforms have been instituted from the time of President Charles D. B. King's Guinness Book record-setting victory in 1927, up to the 1985 and 1997 elections? So the visual circle of disputed elections results continues from one election year to the next, and from one time period to the next.

I can vividly recall that during the 1985 general elections, each of the four candidates or their supporters claimed victory long before the polling stations were closed. (Imagine poll workers in an impoverished, underdeveloped, low literacy, and technologically-inferior country like Liberia being able to forecast with accuracy national legislative and presidential elections returns when an advanced and technologically-superior country like the United States could not, as evident in the 2001 Gore-Bush bout). But there were respected intellectuals and scores of ordinary citizens who sincerely believe up to this day that the wrong candidate was declared winner of the presidential race based on their own samplings of voters on Election Day. And they might be right to certain extent, given the irregular counting of the ballots! But the reality was that after a winner was officially declared, none of the other three contestants ceded defeat, nor challenged the election results in court either to register their dissatisfaction with the results or simply to test the fairness of the system.

But what transpired afterwards was a series of military conspiracies as if to thwart the inauguration of the declared winner of the elections. And after two such major plots failed, a more grandeur scheme was hatched to exact revenge at any cost. And the grand scheme succeeded, but the toll in human life and wanton destruction to national socio-economic and infrastructural developments were enormous. And those who so eagerly aided the perpetration of this misadventure of revenge are now clamoring for every public opportunity to dissociate themselves from the debacle. (And the list of erstwhile hardcore supporters of the 1989 civil uprising now attempting to exonerate themselves is a matter of public record that I need not repeat here). But the damage had been done and no level of contrition or regrets will turn back the clock and revive the lives of the 200,000 plus people killed, nor alleviate the suffering of the Liberian people unless concrete steps are taken to restore to the people a semblance of personal security and normal economic life.

Similarly, I am apt to wonder at times why Liberian politicians are so inclined to be impatient, imprudent, and susceptible to hasty actions, but careless and somehow clueless about the consequences of such actions. What do I mean? Well, as a practicing journalist in Liberia for nearly ten years, I can tell you from professional experience and observation that had Liberian politicians carefully plotted their actions in line with the national interest, the civil war and the ongoing debate about the 2003 elections and the issue of personal security would have been of no consequence at this time on our national consciousness as a people. For the decades of the 80's and 90's provided ample opportunities for Liberians to establish a wholly functional democracy with the necessary institutional framework for national security, rule of law, and national development, but our politicians were so fixated on securing individual power and wealth that the opportunities slipped by and turned into the country's worse nightmares.

Interestingly, it doesn't take a political scientist to know that politics is a game. And like every game, it takes careful planning and preparation in order to succeed. Games are not generally won because a team paraded the best players. In addition to having a parade of high caliber players, a team that wants to win a game must prepare, practice, and strategize on how to counteract its opponent's strengths and weaknesses on the field of play. This is the mantra of every successful team in a competitive event, and politics is no exception. But our politicians failed miserably at mastering the game of politics and did not capitalize on major opportunities in 1980, 1984, 1985, 1990, and 1997 that may have saved the Liberian nation from the current catastrophe and transformed the Liberian society into a vibrant democracy.

The 1980 coup presented the first major opportunity in over 130 years for Liberians to replace a minority elitist rule with a pluralistic democratic rule. But our politicians seemed preoccupied with retribution and amassing wealth than with formulating a cohesive national strategy to unite the opposition and solicit public support in building the necessary foundations for pluralistic rule. So when the military government finally announced a timetable for multiparty democratic elections, most Liberian politicians and civil leaders were caught unawares and ill-prepared to mount any serious challenge against the military as regards institutionalizing appropriate rules and safeguards for democratic elections. And the polarization of the opposition was as deep as the political and strategic alliances formed in the wake of the announcement. Each political alliance devoted more time to advocating its own brand of democracy so much so that no consensus or unity of purpose existed to create the necessary conditions for a flourishing democracy. And by 1983, Liberian politicians were so embroiled in strategic sessions to outsmart each other at the polls that less focus was placed on inducing the sitting military government to step down voluntarily.

So by the time the constitutional advisory assembly met in Gbarnga in late 1984 and confirmed in Article 97 the immunity sought from prosecution by the military for the 1980 coup, the rift amongst Liberian politicians and civil leaders was so deep that some began to persuade the military that the seating of the first "native president" was inevitable. So personal ambitions took over national interest, and the rest is now history. But our politicians still did not see the writing on the wall and became complacent and toyed with the illusion that because Liberians in 1984 overwhelmingly adopted the draft constitution in a national referendum in relative peace, and without any interference by the military, the ensuing general elections of 1985 would as well be free, fair, and without incidence. So no plans and strategies were formulated to present a united front in case of any eventuality. And what a miscalculation by our politicians!

The third failure of our politicians occurred in 1985 prior to the general elections that year. In a small country like Liberia, a dozen or so individuals rose up to contest the presidency. Some of these presidential aspirants had no track record of leadership at even the high school or community level, but they were soon to cry foul when the list of approved candidates was narrowed down to four by the elections commission. Similarly, the opposition failed to present a united front against the incumbent military leader who may have seen victory in the elections as both a personal triumph or glory and a vindication for the 1980 coup. But worst of all, there wasn't any major difference between the economic, political and social policies or platforms of the three opposition parties combined, and the social, economic political platforms of the incumbent's party. Go figure why the opposition thought it presented a better alternative to the incumbent, as the rest is now history!

A fourth failure by our politicians occurred in 1990 following the capture and execution of the sitting president by a rebel leader who made good on his earlier declaration not to occupy the presidency. Here, our politicians were not interested in rallying around the sitting vice president and seeking international support to rein in the remaining rebel groups in order to establish the flourishing democracy they have so desperately craved, but instead sought ways to circumvent the constitution to install themselves in power. And while I am not a constitutional scholar nor lawyer to delve into the legality of the action of our politicians, it seems logical to me that the sitting vice president should have assumed power after the death of the sitting president once the 1986 Liberian constitution had not been suspended or abrogated in a military takeover, whether or not one agreed with the results of the 1985 elections. Remember, this was five years after the elections, and the constitution had been in force for four years, and still in force today under the current government in Monrovia.

The fifth failure of our politicians occurred in 1997 during the general elections. It seemed that our politicians had not learned any lessons from the 1985 electoral experience. The already weak civilian politicians, equally traumatized by the war, and the smaller factional rebel leaders failed to unite to form a more competitive force against the powerful rebel leader who exercised ruthless control over much of Liberian territory at the time, in order to dilute his strength since it was obvious that people living in areas he controlled could not be expected to vote against him in any national elections, unless there was a compelling alternative. But, like in 1985, a dozen or so political parties were again formed to contest the 1997 elections, except that this time most of the Liberian population was either in exile or internally displaced and the opposition campaign was limited to Monrovia and its environs.

Yet, there are numerous intellectuals and politicians who have the audacity to question the sincerity and wisdom of the Liberian masses for voting into office a rebel leader by their repeated reference to the now infamous electoral jingo: "You Kill Ma, You Kill My Pa, I'll Vote for you." I still wonder what these so-called intellectuals and politicians expected a traumatized, internally displaced, helpless, hopeless, and hungry people to do when these very politicians failed to present any clear alternative to pull the people out of their misery? I do not think the people were stupid, nor is the continuing sarcasm being heaped at them for the offensive jingo anything clever. It may as well be that the people voted their consciences in the absence of any clear alternatives for restoring any semblance of peace and normalcy to their sorry lives. Indeed, our politicians miscalculated, and each day that they continued to miscalculate prolongs the misery of the Liberian people.

So we are now back to where we started decades ago. The Liberian society is once more at the verge of replaying the scenes of 1980 and 1990: Another sitting government is feeling invincible, indispensable, and relentless in exercising its constitutional authority to suppress scrutiny of its policies and programs, and related grievances by the people. A new rebel group is in the bushes promising salvation to the people, and uncompromisingly citing its citizenry rights to force solutions on an inept government. Another international peace initiative has started as a prelude to other peace initiatives in the works. Supporters of both the government and the rebels are again at each other in public relations offensives to win public opinion on their side. Another round of intellectual warfare has begun in Liberian Internet chat rooms, websites, national and community-level social, political and professional organizations dissecting the pros and cons of the Liberian catastrophe.

Do any of these scenarios remind you of events preceding the 1979 Rice Riot, the 1980 coup, and the 1989 rebel incursion into Nimba County? Well, history is clearly repeating itself, and we will do well as Liberians to look inward and find a common solution fast before we repeat those very mistakes that have caused our nation and ourselves much harm and agony. We are a society drifting farther and farther apart with ruined pride, rage, and recriminations. So no pre-1980 or pre-1990 tactics will work. Only a new paradigm of conflict resolution, genuine national reconciliation, and rights guarantee might! And Liberian politicians better take heed and unite this time around!

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