Threats Ignored: Redirecting the Sirleaf Administration’s Policy Postures

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Sept 3, 2007


Liberia, before the civil war was a shattered society and the war broke the last straw. The disintegration became complete, people’s psyche and all. Today, most, if not all of the institutions in Liberia are in ruins. The prospects of change are overwhelming because the problems are intractable. However, these are not barriers that are reasons for prophesies of doom. Nonetheless, a look at the profile and history of some of the members of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inner circle (formal and informal) and their records of dysfunction, offers window into the future of the government, if it remains stubborn in its determination to recycle these unproductive actors. True, the new government is just a year and eight months old, and the problems that it inherited are damning. We should not expect the government to solve all our problems nor should we expect it to solve them at the end of her term. Her predecessors took 160 years to create them. Yet still, that should also not inhibit us from holding her administration to high standards. She was part of the opposition leaders and one of Taylor’s supporters; and a sizable amount of the problems were accrued under that regime. Therefore, her supporters should not ask for a free pass and act as if her record is untainted. In legal language, she might have aided and abetted some of the destruction.

More telling, however, may be that President Sirleaf would continue to keep in the employ of her government, those with established records of being chronically corrupt and clearly unpatriotic about whom much has been written by this author and several others. So far, it is becoming clear that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is too afraid to risk her ties with the “old guards,” and thus still wedded to the nostalgic myth that destroyed previous regimes. Recycling failed cabinet officials who have been inefficient in previous positions; and then firing others, with much stellar public records without stating why – while her prerogative, speeds up the triumph of Liberians who expressed reluctance to embrace the political careers of people with technical proficiency. I am distressed and alarmed greatly by these disastrous miscalculations as electing Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is proving that she is unable to impose discipline on her staff, tantamount to lack of self-discipline. As a part of the generation of leaders who caused the political decadence that precipitated the civil war, many might have thought that she would make the hard decisions to ensure reform and the survival of the Liberian state. But lessons seem to be emerging that there are no guarantees that “technological proficiency” (a Harvard University degree, however exotic) leads to good judgment or leadership capacity.

In the post-war era, Liberians cannot afford weak-will leaders, impelled by personal interest and not the nation’s best interest. With the scarcity of visionary and charismatic leaders on the horizon, the younger generations of Liberians need not be cowards and watch the nation go down into tubes without speaking out. Not only do they have to marry technical proficiency with global leadership skills to rescue Liberia from the path of self-destruction, they have to be strong patriots – ready to act on principle and not on political whims. They must show a commitment to clean up corruption and make the government function effectively and efficiently. They must be leaders that are willing to take on internal ethnic divisions and disputes, which are critical to national survival. There is no denying that ethnic bigotry has made the future of the nation precarious, and we must turn the tide around. Apathy out of self-preservation cannot be the course that we pursue. This goes to former civil society actors and activists now serving in the Sirleaf administration. They must stand on principle, when the government sidelines them in a bid to achieve what appear to be the same kinds of sinister actions that induced labor agreements that have enriched multilateral companies that did/do business in Liberia at the disadvantage of ordinary working Liberians. If you believe in democracy as these individuals assert privately, it is duty to stand for something and their continued in-action (occasional subdued utterances) proves what they stand for. For those of us with children who are bound to inherit Liberia, we must leave behind some clues as to what we stand for because when we are dead and gone, they will ask poignantly: “what did our fore parents stand for?” The interval between now and the future are critical to the life course of the nation.

Lack of Clear and Coherent Social Policy Doctrine
The Sirleaf administration appears to have entered office without a clear doctrine or social policy – specific to integrating citizens that have been alienated from one another due to ethnic animosities and tensions. This is evident in the fact that it has failed to articulate a clear and coherent policy for dealing with property conflicts linked to ethnic animosities and tensions all over the country, integrate ex-combatants and former child soldiers, and persecute warlords and their associates in the various interim regimes that allegedly stole national wealth and are still roaming the streets of Monrovia unpunished for their crimes. The president herself appears to have been attached to a number of basic principles pertaining to how to improve the economic sector, but beyond this sector, the basic elements of her nation building strategy seem to end. Even her economic policy is not lucidly expressed or brought in the public view for rigorous debate as should occur within a democracy. The result is an uncalculated jumble - governance not guided by clearly calculated long-term vision.

After almost two years, the process has wound up almost exactly where it started, exacerbated by an influx of deportees (ex-convicts for the most part) from the US, who might increase the threat to national security. Those Liberians that were ecstatic supporters of Sirleaf’s presidency, at least some of them, are puzzled at how undisciplined and incoherent the governance processes of the new administration have turned out to be. The same power grab and fragmented interagency process that could not be resolved in past regimes have begun to emerge. The likes of Morris Saytumah, Minister of State for Economic and Legal Affairs, and before that, Willis Knuckles – former Minister of Presidential Affairs, and their slew of miscalculations; detailed by Rodney Sieh in his article entitled State of Emergency: Advisors Posing Credibility Issues for Sirleaf (Sieh, 2007), make this point. It has now become apparent that what the Sirleaf administration need are not her “old friends” and their archaic ideas of governance, which, in part, laid groundwork for the war. The resurgence of old ethnic tensions cannot be healthy for nation building.

Devising Preventative Interventions
We need to renew our commitment to preventative processes that stem the tide of problems like the conflict in Nimba between Manos and Mandingos before they graduate into unmanageable crises. The property dispute in Nimba and elsewhere in the country are major national security threats and cannot be treated as if they only deserve the intervention of presidential envoys. The president needs to take this matter seriously and be involved in remedying it. The cascade of corrupt officials from past governments and those engaged in ongoing wrongdoings, without being prosecuted present complicated challenges for rule of law in the country. Hopefully, hiring an experienced hand like Phillip Banks at the Justice Ministry might halt and reverse the course, if he has the will power and full support of the administration to change direction. The president cannot say that corruption is unacceptable and then pick and choose as to how she applies the weigh of the law. In the absence of results, her utterances only become rhetoric. She needs to contain the corrupt ambitions of her staff by setting examples on violators, which will over time, impede those who might have thoughts of engaging in corrupt practices.

Safeguarding the Liberties of Liberians
Under attacks from ruthless predators that prefer to destabilize the nation, past leaders failed to respond to them forcefully, and thus they found ground from which to launch assault on national identity and social cohesion. But in the new era, our leaders have absolutely one choice – to deliver a much more unified nation to the generations to come. Our leaders have the responsibility to strengthen the democratic system of governance that most Liberians crave and which the predators seek to prevent from being built. Safeguarding the liberties of all must remain the goal of this and all post-war governments. This administration and the next corps of Liberian leaders must mobilize the post-war generation for the crucial responsibilities that lie before us. They must emphasize the links that exist between individual responsibility and our collective goals, because it is at the point where these two connect, that social change is possible. Unless our politics – the ways in which private citizens and public officials achieve our interpersonal goals within the public square mirrors this collaborative impetus; we face a threat to sustainable change.

US Deportees: New Social and Security Risks
It is clear that new social and security risks have emerged in the wake of the war. With deportees being returned about whom we know very little, some of whom are former criminals; it is possible that they have not departed from the ways that landed them in trouble. We need new pathways out of these kinds of social and security challenges, but we cannot do so without deepening high regards for the rule of law, while turning away from cronyism, which leads people to violate the law with impunity. And so we must reflect upon social policies that are apt for the post-war era – asking ourselves far-reaching questions. Are we truly ensuring social and distributive justice? Are we doing all that we need to that would maximize the contributions of each citizen? Are we combating the fear of difference that the enemies of pluralism and democracy have transplanted into the fabric of the society? Are we reaching out to ordinary Liberians and providing them opportunities to own a stake in the society? Instead of slogans designed to invoke emotions are we designing strategies to inspire innovation and mutual trust?

Neglected Child Soldiers and Ex-Combatants
We cannot fall prey to the predators’ trap by neglecting the needs of children and youth that were abused and their future squandered by the past despotic regimes. This is a reference to ex-combatants and former child soldiers. If our social policies are not geared toward improving the lots of our children and youth and curbing the inequalities, we will drive these young people into the arms of warlords and coup makers, who seek every opportunity to destabilize the society. An effective social policy would take into account the enormous need for concerted mental health interventions ranging from drug and alcohol treatment and strategies to address national security dangers associated with maintaining a massive supply of idle ex-combatants, former child soldiers, and ex-convicts (deportees), who lack appropriate life skills, with no real culturally-sensitive programs to attend to their presenting needs. Keeping the emphasis on economic interventions alone will only exacerbate the risks. Given that the risks that these groups pose for national security and social cohesion outweigh the benefit of neglecting them, should the government and the legislature not blaze new trails by leading a campaign to revamp Catherine Mills and make substantial investments in recruiting professionals that can help resolve these social problems.

In fact, defining our priorities solely in economic terms minimizes the impact a holistic policy paradigm could have on the complex problems our society faces. It is on this ground that this author has criticized the Sirleaf administration’s social development policy or a lack thereof, which has a lopsided focus on economic reforms, and less so on social policy and mental health challenges. Yet the politics of economic reforms seems so inviting because it positions its proponents as “farsighted” in the eyes of some of their supporters. Sadly, some of their less than perceptive supporters will choose to deride those who dare question the viability of their approach as “enemies of the state.” But these attacks expose their approach to governance for what it is: a political “sledgehammer” used to repress constructive dialogue and rationalize policies that are not evidence-based.

Returning Liberian Exiles and Other Untapped Human Resources
The return of Liberian exiles and their children to the homeland will prove beneficial to the nation. The assets, education, and training that they will bring to the country would make productive contributions to the rebuilding efforts. This makes public policies that foster the return of exiles one of the pillars of the rebuilding efforts. The burden of absorbing exiles and refugees who have had troubled pasts – deportees, for example, might not be positive, but investments in social policies that engender rehabilitation and reintegration would be critical. The natural resources of the nation are still unexplored, but even more important are the people – the nation’s greatest resource. If the state is able to develop the skills and capacities of its citizens, and retain them, but not lose them to global competitiveness, it would surmount the challenges ahead. That would cease to happen if a strategy for unifying Liberians of all ethnic stripes is not developed. By bridging the gulf between groups, the state will guarantee Liberia’s survival.

Dearth of Legislative Leadership
Add to this the dearth of legislative constraints on imperial presidential powers. Our legislators have not garnered the capacity to be good stewards of their constitutional prerogatives. The hyper partisan composition of the legislature and the lack of charismatic and efficient leadership in both houses of the Congress provide a recipe for the imperial presidency to thrive. We have not heard much about the laws that the legislators are enacting to control the imperial inclinations and purse strings of the executive branch. One wonders if the legislative inactivity amounts to an abdication of their civic obligations. Some might argue that it is too soon to assess the extent of legislative influence and productivity, particularly the abilities of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the leader of the Senate to manage their respective partisan alignments to preempt missteps or scandals that might arise in the course of governance on all sides of the political aisles. But one wonders: “How long should we wait?”

With the victory of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the mood of the nation came to reflect the triumph of pragmatism over populism. But doubts loom not because there are feelings that Oppong Weah could do any better. That is out of the question. But the kinds of fragmentary decision making processes that we are witnessing under the Sirleaf administration, cannot be reassuring about the future if changes are not made in the existing political culture. The personalities that are driving the administration’s policies right now seem too disjointed, fractured, and incoherent. Simple things like background checks are not being done well – an example being the recent case of John W. Stewart being appointed as Commissioner of Maritimes and then uncovering later that he has a stockpile of legal charges pending that could cause his disrobing as a lawyer. The “Iron Lady” has yet to emerge, argues the editors of The Perspective Internet News Magazine, and rightfully so. We are not looking for iron hands, but thoughtful and judicious decision making. Unpatriotic citizens lurk, waiting to take advantage of the gaping holes that a policy, which detracts from national identity creates. Confronting the challenges of the post-war era will require strategies that do not view our national problems in segmented frames, but along a continuum and comprehensively.

With Liberia standing at the abyss of a possible war each day these issues are neglected, we need new models for post-war leadership. It is important that the Liberian public and its international friends who have limited understanding of the Liberian context, understand the nature and extent of the problem brought on by the lack of systematic approach to confronting our social and political problems. President Sirleaf inherited enormous problems, but she also retains unprecedented advantages over her predecessors in terms of the goodwill of the international community and the support and high expectations of the Liberian people. As Liberians, it is our prerogative to interpret what we each mean by the national interest as it is the president’s prerogative to govern. We must raise questions as to the appropriateness of her strategies and the effectiveness of their implementation. Others have the right to criticize our views, if they deem fit and that is the beauty of a democracy. President Sirleaf and the legislature must recognize that declining political will has the potential to make them immaterial and their legacies pedestrian. Perhaps, the best indication of Liberia’s health would be the electorate’s response to the 2012 presidential and legislative elections. For all the talk of the disenchantment of Liberians with the status quo ante, how Liberians will vote in the second term of the nation’s attempt to build a democratic future, would determine if the electorate has matured and is committed to the future.

Liberia is faced with many challenges concerning rebuilding the nation in the wake of the war. Nonetheless, those decisions have to be guided by risk-benefit analysis as it pertains to enormous social problems wrought by the state collapse. Since the civil war, the risk-to-benefit ratio of social problems versus economic problems might be hard to gauge for variety of reasons – lack of reliable demographic and pervasiveness statistics, being primary reasons. But you cannot glance at the devastation that the war has done to the psyches of Liberians and repeat the same kinds of strategies or depend on the same men and women whose failures sponsored the war to repair the problems. Liberia can be strong and vibrant, and Liberians citizens crave for new leaders.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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