After 11 Years, Did Madam President Right the Ship?

By: 
Dr. Artemus W. Gaye, Chair, ALDC

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 2017 Annual Message, in our view, requires a serious analysis through the matrix of Security, Institution, Infrastructure, Democracy, and the Economy (SIIDE). But due to space, we will focus on security as the hallmark for a sustained nation-building process. On this note, we trust our assessment will be very objective and demanding a collective action from the entire citizenry before the October 10th general and presidential elections.

In Madam Sirleaf’s 2017 message, unlike previous annual messages, it was more of a reflection of her 11-year reign/leadership, or lack thereof, than the traditional message. The 78 year-old, two-term leader, hopefully, is on the verge of leading a transition in 360 days for the first time in 62 years— of a fragile nation ranked by The 2016 Wall Street Special Report as the 2nd poorest nation on earth next to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ironically these two nations are endowed with abundant natural resources, but corrupt and irreconcilable since their respective civil crises broke out. Their lawmakers and other political appointees are among the highest paid in the world.

To this fact, Psalms11:13 which reads “If the foundation be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” is a perfect hermeneutical arc for dissecting Madam Sirleaf’s speech and presenting her final score sheet. Can thousands of personal or collective fasts and prayers undo a damaged foundation whether in one’s personal life, a family, or a nation? Unequivocally no! A damaged foundation requires either deconstruction or a clinical precision in rebuilding the faults beneath the surface. In many instances, it requires the right individuals to carry out a complete alteration otherwise we are most likely to build a band-aided society, where the wounds remain festering forever. Joshua Ben Joseph or Jesus the Christ, also captures this motif with a moral lesson in the parable of the wise and foolish men: Matthew 7:24-27, with one building on a sandy foundation while the other on a rocky foundation.

Madam Sirleaf in her address, reminded us of the difficult place she took this nation since 2006—from a failed state that virtually collapsed to now a stable but fragile nation. She writes: I knew that I faced a tall order: to heal our nation’s wounds; redefine and strengthen its purpose; make democracy a living and effective experiment; promote economic growth; create jobs; revitalize our health and educational facilities and services; quicken the pace of social progress and individual prosperity in the country; and inspire our people.

Was this the lofty goal set by the Harvard trained Public Administrator and Nobel Laureate, who once boasted of a $16 billion FDI that amounted to nothing? The lame duck president has left us to critically consider where we hope to position our nation beyond her. Can we honestly be contended with where we have fared on the nation-building index after more than a decade under Madam Sirleaf’ presidency and the inept and greedy lawmakers who squandered our resources and the justice system and have gravely erected a society of the oppressed vis-à-vis the oppressors? So, where was Liberia before the president took office?

The ALDC categorically states that Liberia had a fragile peace and security backed by the UN Forces, with a functioning interim government headed by the late Gyude Bryant. In fact, in a formal letter written to us on February 4, 2004, by Stuart Symington III, the Director for West African Affairs at the United States Department of State, on behalf of the erstwhile President George W. Bush, he informed us that nearly $500 million was donated by the USA alone for Liberia’s peace, reconciliation and the transitional processes, including preparing for the elections that brought Madam Sirleaf to power.

In addition, after two decades of collective advocacies by religious, students, civic, and international organizations, in support of the Jubilee Project, more than thirty heavily poor and indebted nations had their international financial debts waived - including Liberia, Ghana, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, to name a few. This was not unique to Madam Sirleaf, but an opportunity to begin a new foundation with her imprimatur. While many global indices lack data on Liberia during Taylor and Bryant’s regimes, some current members of the ALDC were fortunate to be a part of a comprehensive report on Liberia from 2000 to 2005, a collaborative project sponsored by Abbott Laboratory, The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the United Methodist Human Rights, and The Program of African Studies at Northwestern University, known as “Liberia Wholistic Development Blue-Print.” To this effect, we must credit Dr. Peter Coleman the former Minister of Health for providing significant data on the healthcare system of Liberia during Taylor’s regime. The report did not just name the systemic problems but found practical solutions for making Liberia whole again from reconciliation to sustainable nation-building. With this backdrop, let us put the 2016 PAM (The President’s Annual Message) under the microscope through the lenses of SIIDE.

Nevertheless, we must applaud President Sirleaf for honestly admitting to the many shortfalls that have serious security implications for the fragile nation. She states, “I take this opportunity to recognize our shortcomings, and to define what we yet have to do to shape our future.” Sadly, the nation is at the brink of social and economic collapse, barely able to raise $300 million in its national coffer for a population of 4.4 million. While we recognize the need for a functioning security sector—police, national army, and other apparatuses, genuine security is about building trust, accountability, and transparency in all sectors of the society, so that the people become responsible citizens and fulfilling their role in the security of the nation—because national security is everybody’s business.

National security is usually undermined by a deficit of trust and the erosion of confidence in the deliverability of the public goods by the stewards placed in public trust. With less than ten months to the general and presidential elections, the onus is on each one of us as citizens to exercise tolerance, respect for one another, yet, assertively and responsibly demanding our rights to assemble, protest, and critically vote our consciences in 2017, wherein a new orientation towards security can be the order of the day—from health, education, justice, infrastructure, family, natural resources, energy, economics, and the social goods---seen within the frame work of nation-building.

Let us look at reconciliation and corruption, the two-fold Achilles heel of Madam Sirleaf’s tenure that undermined her effort for nation-building. She echoed, “We have fought but must continue to fight the scourge of corruption, at every level of society, from the highest official to the civil servant, from the private business person to the preacher and teacher, whose duties include inculcating moral values and ethics.” Really? Wasn’t this the president’s mantra to fight public enemy number one? Did the office change the president or the president changed the office?

While Madam Sirleaf was being honored by the African Union, Liberian businesses and ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest the tough economic and political conditions they find themselves amid, a national budget and hyperinflation, in which the three headed monster—the executive, legislative, and judiciary are sucking the vital forces out of the nation—consuming everything and leaving nothing for the people. Sadly, it is a nation where virtue and moderation are rare, where the corrupt nature of the Liberian society pervades every facet of the country---from the family to friends and close associates, basically leaving bitter tastes to so many of us---whether supporting a family business or building a home, or buying a parcel of land in Liberia. So many Liberian in the diaspora have come home to see their hopes shattered by false promises and deceits from their own relatives who have squandered their resources. Cynically, some of these individuals are in positions of trust. Can you expect anything better in such a national malaise? From an Aristolean philosophy on moral character, what kind of persons we ought to be is a matter of examinations of particular virtues (aretē) that we behold either individually or collectively.

Accordingly, when Madam Sirleaf spoke about the family and its virtue/vices, she was on point. A nation without a collective and positive philosophy is bound to fail. For example, nepotism and conflict of interest seemed to gnaw its head all through Madam Sirleaf’s administration, consequently undermining her ability to discipline corrupt officials who were in her close circle. For example, the bankruptcy of NOCAL under Robert Sirleaf, wherein the “ex-pro-bono CEO received 1000 gallon of gasoline valued at US$4, 6010 per month” and “ US$700,000 [of the SRI fund] for the purchase of three acres of wet land for the BYC Football Club, a private soccer club he owns. In the end, the president took personal responsibility for the squandering of nearly $70 million of NOCAL’s asset—quite an absurdity. Can she restitute it? I doubt it. Christina Tarr resigned for the lack of support to investigating Fumba Sirleaf; her cousin, the late A.B. Johnson was in a major scandal of US$125, 000. She asked him to resign, but no economic justice was done on behalf of the people. Her nephew, Morris Saytumah’s name has surfaced in so many bribery scandals. So, herein corruption fermented at the doorstep of the president. In fact, the touted but spineless asset verification proved our point. Officials did not care, but were prepared to loot and violate every code of conduct available. How different are these cases from Fonati Koffa’s Special Task Force? Is this selective justice? Absolutely yes.

Nevertheless, we take courage [lache] of the president’s realistic panacea once recommended by the ALDC in its 2015 resolution in Washington DC, the creation of a fast track Economic Crimes Court, where those alleged to have squandered or misused public funds by the GAC, are immediately brought before such court in a speedy and just manner. The convicted ought to face justice but where the state is at fault, it must justly compensate the accused. In addition, there ought to be no statute of limitation on economic criminal cases, since mounting evidence exists that government prosecutors, judges and jurors, in the last eleven years were on many occasions, compromised—case in point, prosecutors failing to show up in court. It is our hope that laws exist wherein comptrollers and procurement officers are independent and rotated within the various governmental agencies and not brought in by the political appointees.

In addition, a pension system with unemployment benefits ought to be a part of a new national economic plan to address corruption. The onus is on citizens to stop perceiving and pressurizing government officials or employees to using their offices in paying school fees, rents, and other bills outside of their just remunerations. This ingrained attitude has been a major factor why those within positions of authority are easily compromised, justifying the need to steal or engage in corrupt practices. Otherwise they are perceived as being mean and selfish, but acceptable when they can dish up the stolen largesse to friends, relatives, and civic organizations---the Santa Claus mentality. Civic education is paramount to addressing this national malady.

Over the years, the ALDC has argued for a national biometric system needed to address the tenuous issue of citizenship and national development which are deeply tied to reconciliation and corruption. A Liberian Global database could significantly help the nation to tap into the vast and dispersed population, including redesigning its educational curriculum that is Liberian specific in dealing with the many challenges to genuine nation-building.

Sadly, this has not been addressed for close to a decade. But we take courage in these remarks by Madam Sirleaf: “Despite over eleven years of peace and large-scale return of refugees over the years, there is still a large Diaspora. Our government has made efforts to reach out and better structure and strengthen relations with these compatriots…Your support for dual citizenship will enable our Diaspora citizens to become participants and supporters of our national development efforts.” The president strikes a reconciling note - as so many where forced to flee from the carnage of war and to adjust their statuses. To date, the large Liberian diaspora population is the largest supporter of Liberia’s GDP and the most to suffer economic risks since the presidency of Madam Sirleaf.

In the 2016 World Bank Report on Migration and Remittance, Liberia is listed as one the 31 low income countries, yet, its Diaspora population have been the largest supporter of the Liberian economy in the past decade. In 2015 alone, nearly $603 million was remitted to the nation while $160 million flowed out of Liberia—mainly to Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Ghana, and Guinea. Ironically, all of these countries allowed their citizens to vote (Out-of Country voting) in their national elections from Liberia, removing every political and economic hurdles. Nevertheless, Liberia has not been able to address this national ill, thus denying nearly one-hundred and twenty thousand Liberians who are on Temporary Protective Status (TPS) or on Deferred Enforcement Deportation (DED); including two-hundred thousand Liberians on Green Cards or Permanent Residencies. What if Donald Trump refuses to renew Liberia’s DED? Can Liberia absorb these Liberians in limbo, amid the economic meltdown and poor infrastructure?

If the fear in Liberia is about government jobs, then the fear is unfounded because there are less than one-thousand five hundred top level political positions in the entire country. These positions [elected and appointed] can barely absorb a fraction of the nearly half a million Liberian Diaspora population. So what we as Liberians ought to do is to be innovative and caring enough to integrate all of our population for the common good of the nation.

Senegal has shown us the way by even allowing its Diaspora population to have seats in its parliament, knowing full well of the immense remittances from its Diaspora population. Sadly, not a single Liberian political candidate has vigorously spoken on this subject, for fear of being seen as pro-diaspora. Today, at least over five-thousand Liberians in the diaspora will attempt to travel twice in Liberia in order to meet the March 7th voter registration deadline just to exercise our political franchises. What a shame and costly process for us! We hope NEC could kindly give us an extension.

Furthermore, the ALDC appreciates the president’s effort through the passage of the “Local Government Act” so that “the prerogatives of governance are no longer left to the discretion of the President” but to enable grassroots or community participation. We encourage the president to challenge the lawmakers to revisit the 1855 local government act, wherein mayoral elections were enacted into law. In fact, this ought to be a part of the current election circle so that at least thirty cities can have their mayors and council men/women elected to run the daily affairs of these large population centers, thus reducing the enormous burden on the presidency. This process could greatly spur economic development, democracy, and positive competition amongst cities and remove the large conflict of interest often associated with county development funds, wherein lawmakers falsely believe they are to execute development.

Madam President, the sole reason reconciliation failed under your regime was that lack of political will for genuine peace and reconciliation. The ALDC categorically believed that the appointment of Nobel Laureate, Madam Leymah Gbowee, and later George Weah was a gross error. Bishop Kulah, Sister Mary Lauren Brown, the Reverend Dr. Anthony Dioh or someone who were well versed in the literatures of peace, reconciliation, and justice could have sparked the spirit of genuine reconciliation. In the end, $5 million was wasted without a single document or audit report on the George Weah Reconciliation and Peace Commission.

Yet, we take hope in continuing to press for this pertinent issue of genuine reconciliation beyond President Sirleaf’s regime. Interestingly, when Northwestern University Center for International Human Rights contacted us to co-design what eventually became the model for the TRC statement process in 2007, we recommended the seminal work of our colleague, Dr. Frank Oduro, on Defining Reconciliation. If Liberia embraces this concept, we can achieve genuine reconciliation as both a national goal and process. It would require us to envision an inclusive national dialogue thrust on a solid political will, wherein, catharsis is centered on freedom and responsibity by all citizens to rebuild our nation on a solid foundation. Therefore, after our careful analysis, the ALDC grades the 11 years of Madam Sirleaf’s regime with a solid C. We know “at the end of the day, development is not just about facts, figures, and economic models. It is about human beings.”

So, as Madam President prepares to pass the baton to the next generation of leaders, we ought to continuously engage the process of democracy and development by doing the right things. It means planning our development and developing our plans to the fullest.

Liberian Observer

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