Demystifying the Liberian Presidency
Putting Real Issues
The people of Liberia will make the ultimate decision on November 8, 2005; a decision that shall reshape and reinvigorate the socio-cultural and economic life of a nation beset by rampant corruption for over a century. Flagrant mismanagement by successive regimes and a decade-long civil war have destroyed the social fabric of this small nation, a beacon of prosperity.
After the October 8 primaries, the race for president has come down between two candidates – Ellen Johnson, a prominent Liberian diplomat and career banker, and George Weah, a one-time Africa and World best football [soccer] star. The question now is – who will be Liberia’s next president? To understand and make just decision come election day, one will need to demystify the Liberian presidency.
Ellen Johnson has unsuccessfully sought the high seat of government on two occasions. She is giving it another shot, this time, under the watchful eye of the International Community. Media lords have depicted the gone primaries as one of the most transparent election in the history of Africa. With this said, either Ellen or George will have no justifiable reason in not accepting the final result of the impending run off.
With the results of the primaries (Ellen 19.8%, Weah 29.3%), it is impractical to think that Ellen Johnson will win. It is not because she lacks credentials, but to many, she represents the so-called “Americo-Liberians,” aka Congo people who ruled Liberia for over 150 years leaving the nation with little or no socioeconomic development.
“The practice reached a point where the people could no longer continue to bear such injustice levied upon them,” a young Liberian scholar says. Ellen will have to work extra hours to be able to convince voters that she is no longer part and parcel of that Congo clique.
Ms. Johnson denies being a Congo. She is desperately trying to paint her image as a native Liberian and to woo voters in her camp. The paradox is that during election time, every candidate wants to identify with the voters. Over 90% of Liberian voters are natives and are poor. Ms. Johnson might even go to the level of adopting a native name mirroring others who have done similar in the past.
Examples abound in Liberia’s political world - Charles Taylor adopted the name “Ghankay” to identify with the Gola ethnic group; William Tolbert identified with the Kpelleh ethnic tribe by speaking a few words of the dialect at election rallies. As for Ellen Johnson’s opponent, George Weah does not need to paint himself as a native.
Born poor in New Kru Town, a shanty town of Monrovia, Weah played football [soccer] on beach-fronts and on side-walks around his neighborhood and in West Point, another shanty town. With luck and skills, he played his way to fame in Liberia and later across Europe, where he made a fortune. In the mid 1990s, the world football body, FIFA selected Weah as Africa and World best player. He also served as “Good-Will Ambassador” for the United Nations.
Weah has come to represent the underlying desire of the masses of youth who dream of a decent life. They see Weah as a role model, despite his limited education. Weah shall be elected not because of his popularity, as some people argue. He represents that social class of over 90% of Liberians – indigenous uneducated poor farmers and petty traders. A vast majority of this group will choose Weah over Ellen. By electing Weah, these masses hope that the new government will strive to alleviate human suffering, reduce the disparity of educational opportunities, and embark on the redistribution of funds generated from the nation’s vast economic resources.
Some Western media has likened George Weah to the late president Samuel Doe, who ruled Liberia for ten years after seizing power in a bloody military coup in April of 1980. To quote The New York Times, “Mr. Weah's rise has unsettled the tiny elite, with many worrying that he will become a figure like Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, who seized power in a bloody coup in 1980, ending more than a century of political domination by a small, powerful clique of descendants of the American slaves who founded this country more than 100 years ago.”
An assertion as such from a major media mogul like The Times sounds worrisome, especially for champions of democracy and human rights. However, such an unfounded assumption has the propensity to merely scare off voters in choosing Weah as the next president of Liberia. “If Weah becomes president, despite is limited modern education; he shall have received an overwhelming mandate from the Liberian people,” a Liberian voter contends. Weah is seen by some as a unifier and healer of a nation torn apart by military coups and a vicious civil war.
Liberia, founded in July 1847, is Africa’s oldest republic, yet one of the least developed. Literacy rate (modern education) is estimated at 20%; 80% of the population lives below the poverty line; about 85% of the workforce is unemployed; half a million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) still loam in make-shift camps/shelters; infant mortality stands at a stark 129/1000 births (CIA World Fact Book 2003-2004 estimates). These statistics display the volatile and precarious situation of a nation, once considered the little United States of Africa. Today, Liberia is one of the world’s worst places to live or to raise a family.
The Challenges Ahead:
Experienced politicians usually make bold promises to the people during electioneering period. Most often, these promises are never honored. Liberia has been no exception in this deceptive practice by politicians.
Over the past couple of weeks, nice words have been spoken and published in so-called “political platforms”– with promises of rebuilding war-shattered communities, creating jobs, uprooting corruption, providing educational and health services, among others. These may really look nice on paper, but not enough to convince voters. The masses have suffered for too long and they do not intend to squander another golden opportunity.
“150 years of promises by the Congo elites brought nothing, but hardship and the gradual depletion of the nation’s natural resources (diamonds, rubber, timbers, iron ore), without much to show in terms of development,” a Liberian student activist explains. The true and ultimate challenge of the next president will be transforming these unconvincing promises into concrete actions that will benefit the masses.
The task of the incoming president will be three-fold – (1) restore basic needed services of running water and electricity, (2) banish corruption, thus paving the way to sustainable development in health, education, and livelihood sectors; (3) tackle the deep-rooted practice of corruption and impunity, where elites steal from the masses and portray themselves as “smart guys.”
Once these three basic sectors have been tackled, Liberia shall once again become a nation that attracts Foreign Direct Investment, so badly needed to steer the economy back on course. This will create jobs for the unemployed and give people a source of revenue to support themselves and their families. This will go a long way in discouraging youths and former combatants from taking up arms to rob or to sow mayhem.
It shall require compassion, solidarity, and diligence:
If George Weah becomes president, his critics argue that the International Community will play the “wait-and-see” game to determine if his team of experts can be trusted. I see things differently. Provided the new president lives up to his words and embark on the path of bringing lasting development to this starved nation, I envision a Liberia full of prosperity.
Mr. Weah shall endeavor to form a government of inclusion, rid himself of corrupt individuals, and partner with development agencies to deliver the goods and services that have been promised the people. This shall all become a reality only with a system of transparency and accountability.
If Ellen Johnson was elected, she will need to embark on a campaign of persuasion – convincing former comrades in arms. By and large, this could be a laborious task, for Ellen has been an influence and instigator of past military coups and the just ended Liberian Civil War. In a scenario she does not succeed in getting former warlords to finally bury their anger and mistrust, Ellen shall be faced with subversive activities – a direct replica of what she has sown over the past decades.
The incoming leadership must feel Compassion for their fellow Liberians, especially in sympathy of the decade-long war that reduced the ordinary [wo]men to beggars and turned some into crooks - compassion towards one another in healing the wounds while rebuilding a new Liberia based on trust and merit.
Solidarity with the 80% population that lives under the poverty line is paramount. Instead of treating certain people as country, backward, or based on tribal affiliation, the new government must endeavor to distribute the country’s resources to every county in a fair and transparent manner.
Liberians, regardless of tribe affinity or county of origin remain indivisible with liberty and justice for all. It shall take diligence and expedience in addressing the needs of the nation. The incoming leadership must be conscientious of the trust and responsibility the people have entrusted them with.
Without heeding these considerations, Liberia could become another “dream to come true” for the next hundred years. The world is watching. Politicians must demystify the Liberian Presidency and give the people the opportunity to lead a decent life in this Free Land of Liberty.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “it is either now or never,” demanding the rights of the individual.