By Harry A. Greaves, Jr.
Where Liberia is today?
Liberia today is a country with all the superficial trappings of a nation state. It has a flag; a national anthem; a constitution guaranteeing all the familiar rights and freedoms typical of a modern, democratic state; a republican form of government patterned after the United States, with an Executive headed by a popularly elected president, a bicameral Legislature, and a Supreme Court, each branch of government designed to provide a check on the other. It is a member of many international organizations, including ECOWAS, the OAU the United Nations.
But strip away this thin veneer and what you find is a classic, failed state, with the all-too-familiar characteristics of dysfunction common to much of sub-Saharan Africa today. Democratic institutions and the rule of law are replaced by arbitrary, one-man rule. Military and paramilitary groups proliferate. Human rights violations abound. The physical infrastructure of the country barely works. Health and social services are sparse and function only sporadically. Corruption permeates every facet of life. Civil servants work for long periods of time without pay and survive by dint of their creativity in making anyone who wants the most simple task done pay a bribe for that service. Much of the country’s trained manpower has long since fled to the safety of foreign climes where life is more predictable. Such of the work force as is still at home is handicapped by a high level of illiteracy and few job skills. In a nutshell, what we have is a situation where the people have lost faith in their government. They feel helpless, frustrated, discouraged and are groping for answers. So, what can be done to break this seemingly endless downward spiral?
Principle No. 1 – Replace one-man rule with the rule of law
The entire construct of national institutions in Liberia today is geared towards creating and perpetuating a personality cult around the president. Charles Brumskine, a former Liberian senator, has written an incisive paper about Liberia’s imperial presidency, tracing its roots well beyond the current incumbent, Charles Taylor. Mr. Taylor just happens to be the most extreme manifestation of a tendency that has been gathering momentum since the second half of the last century.
The modern-day Liberian president has become accustomed to behaving like a medieval monarch. His word is supposed to be law and gospel, and he feels he has the power of life and death over everybody and everything. The sharing of power with an elected legislature and a co-equal independent judiciary, which our republican Constitution demands, is to him an entirely foreign concept—-something to be promoted for its propagandistic value but not be taken terribly seriously, and certainly not to be practised. Mr. Taylor has even gone so far as to have huge billboards erected in Monrovia with the slogan, “This is a country of laws, not men”, in a cruel mockery of the true intent behind those words, because everyone knows that if there is anyone in Liberia whose actions repeatedly contradict those words, it is Charles Taylor. As a rebel leader, Taylor got used to taking what was not his through force of arms. It’s the law of the jungle, which he presumably rationalised in his mind as the necessity of war. But now he is supposed to be a civilian president operating within the confines of the nation’s Constitution and its laws. Yet, he behaves as though he believes he is still a bona fide warlord, albeit with a bigger playing field and more marbles to play with. Thus he speaks of the nation’s resources as his “pepper bush” and treats both the legislature and the judiciary with utter disdain. The granting to Charles Taylor last year of the sole and unrestrained right to grant mineral concessions is perhaps the most egregious example in modern times of the abdication by the Liberian Legislature of its constitutional oversight responsibilities. It is difficult to imagine an act of greater cowardice than this. Every legislator who voted in favour should be walking with head bowed in shame.
So, what do we mean by the rule of law? Very simply, it is a situation in which everyone, those in positions of authority as well as those whom they govern, respect the law and the rights of others under the law. Perhaps a concrete example will illustrate the point. Under our laws, a person cannot be arrested and imprisoned for any appreciable length of time without first being charged, then given an opportunity to defend himself/herself against the charge in a court of law. And even then, only an officer of the court is authorized to commit that person to prison. Yet, the president, his ministers, even junior ministers, legislators, and just about anyone who can corral a police office for a dime feels it within their power to take away the liberty of their countrymen with impunity. I speak from experience.
In 1983, I was thrown into the post stockade at the Barclay Training Center (BTC is a military prison in Monrovia) because of a letter I wrote to the editor of the Daily Observer, which was published and upset our fearless leader at the time, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. My sin was criticizing the master sergeant and some of the more venal members of his cabinet for trumping up charges against an eminent Liberian banker. I knew the letter would get me in trouble, but I felt so strongly about the issue I decided to apply pen to paper anyway. I was packed and ready when Doe’s security detail came trundling down the road to pick me up. Fortunately for me, I spent only two weeks “inside” because the BBC, the U.S. embassy, and the Liberian public made such a lot of noise that the government was shamed into letting me go (the title of one of the Observer editorials was, “Let Harry Go!”).
I was released as unceremoniously as I had been imprisoned: no charge, no explanation. But while in prison I met a number of other inmates who were not as fortunate as I was to have people go to bat for them and who had been in prison in some cases of one or two years like forgotten people, for offenses as trivial as passing the car of a PRC luminary on the open highway (apparently some PRC members of the time felt they owned the highways as well as everything else in the republic).
Why is observance of the rule of law so important? The rule of law is the most fundamental requirement for a stable, civil society. The dramatic breakdown of Liberian society over the last 20 years can be traced to the breakdown of the rule of law. When you have a situation where someone in a position of authority can make up the rules as he goes along, or can disregard a rule simply because he does not like the way it affects him, you have anarchy. Nothing any future administration does will be as important as restoring the rule of law.
The future stability of Liberia depends on creating an environment in which people with capital to invest and create jobs will want to risk that capital. And they will only risk that capital if they feel they are operating in a country where rules of human behaviour, i.e. laws, exist and are observed, especially by those who are clothed with the authority to enforce those laws.
Over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of Liberians have fled the country in large measure because of fears for their personal safety. This represents a massive drain on the country’s pool of talent. The silver lining is that during this period of exile many of these people have acquired skills, experience and savings which can be harnessed for the reconstruction of the country. Liberians generally are a patriotic lot, and many of those now living in Europe and America want to return home. They will do so only if they feel that their person is secure from arbitrary treatment by authority figures. They will not subject themselves and their children to an environment where their personal security is not assured.
So, how do you turn a country where lawlessness is the order of the day to one in which a tradition of respect for the rule of law is nurtured? In the case of Liberia, where we have a Constitution which clearly states where responsibility for enforcing the law lies, you start with the Executive. The president, being the highest official of the Executive branch, and the symbol of law and order, has to lead by example and can do so in small and big ways. For starters, the president can refrain from interfering in judicial decisions. The president can also resist the temptation to issue orders which have the effect of undermining the law. The president can go one step further, loudly and consistently disciplining anyone under his/her authority found to be breaking the law or violating people’s civil rights. A few well publicized cases is probably all it would take to set a new tone.
Principle No. 2 – Allow more self-government at the local level
There is too much concentration of political power in Monrovia. In addition to ambassadors, ministers, heads of autonomous bureaux and judges (and lesser officeholders, even though the Constitution does not provide for that), the president also appoints the chief executives of counties: county superintendents. This practice gives the president enormous power. The downside is that authority figures in local government do not feel answerable to their constituents, only to the president. Local government is at the heart of democracy. As the old saying goes, “all politics is local”. We need to arrive at a position where people can feel some ownership over decisions which immediately impact their lives. If I am a resident of Botota, Bong County, the national government in Monrovia is too far removed from me to be entrusted with decisions that immediately affect my community. I should have some say in the deciding who will represent my interests—at the local level as well as at the national level. To accomplish this, we need a constitutional amendment to have county superintendents elected, rather than appointed by the president.
There is presently no legislative process at the local level. An elected superintendent should be answerable to some kind of local assembly, with elected representation from the various elements which make up the county body politic. This would serve several useful purposes. First, it would prevent too much power becoming concentrated in one set of hands. Secondly, it would provide a forum for the various constituencies within the county to negotiate priorities and determine the means to fund those priorities. Lastly, it would serve as a training ground for local legislators with aspirations to serve at the national level. As things stand right now, people going into the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time have little or no legislative experience. Is it any wonder, then, that they don’t know what to do other than picket for their per diem allowances?
The devolution of power suggested in the preceding paragraphs have other implications beyond shifting political power to the counties. There are economic consequences as well. Much of the central government’s purchasing power is concentrated in Monrovia because that is where all the revenue generation takes place. Allowing local authorities the right to determine local priorities will require providing those same local authorities with the means to fund their priorities. In other words, Monrovia will have to cede some of its taxing authority to local governments. There are many potential candidates. Real estate taxes, vehicle registration are ones that readily come to mind. Whatever the case, Monrovia would negotiate with the counties where the lines of demarcation of the fiscal boundaries should be. The win for local economies is that along with local funding will come increased local purchasing power, which means local economic development independent of decision-making in Monrovia. A novel idea indeed! And its time has come.
Principle No. 3 – Require increased financial accountability of those holding public office
Whatever those who hold office in Charles Taylor’s Liberia feel, the one thing they make no pretence of is any sense of accountability—not to the consuming public for whom they are supposed to provide services, not to the taxpayer whose exactions pay their salaries and perks, not even to the constituents who nominally voted them into office. The only person they feel accountable to is that medieval, absolute ruler known as the president, who can, with but a furrow on his brow, signal a swift cessation of the life-giving flow of graft and corruption which sustains them in splendid opulence.
Fiscal discipline is not the hallmark of this Liberian president. Charles Taylor follows in a well worn tradition of leaders who have had singular difficulty balancing the nation’s books. In 1926, Firestone, the company, was appointed receiver of the republic because some American bankers were skittish about the capacity of the Liberian government to properly service a loan it was contracting. Some at least have tried; Taylor has made absolutely no effort. Instead, he resorts to fanciful conspiracy theories to explain his own inadequacies. That the country has only recently emerged from a destructive civil war, which incidentally he launched, is not disputed. But Liberia is not the first country in the history of the world to have been visited by war and pestilence. Leadership is not about making excuses. It is about taking the hand you have been dealt with and making something of it. If he was not up to the task, he, Taylor, should not have gone to the Liberian people in July 1997 and sought their mandate to lead them in the rebuilding their broken nation. The fact is the little that he has he has lavished on mistresses, material accoutrements and other such misplaced priorities, whilst the nation languishes.
The first step in creating an awareness of the need for public accountability is to require public disclosure of government spending. Next, there needs to be strong budgetary oversight by our elected Legislature, involving negotiating, as an equal partner with the Executive, the nation’s economic and other priorities and holding the Executive accountable for implementation of those priorities. Finally, laws need to be enacted which distinguish between what is allowable use of public funds and what should be considered private expenditure. Such laws must apply to everyone holding public office, starting with the president. The national treasury should not continue to be viewed as a sort of presidential piggy bank, with the president allowed to disburse public treasure on private pursuits.
One cannot leave the issue of fiscal accountability without touching on the issue of corruption. It is a pernicious canker ripping at the heart of our public service which has for too long been considered an unavoidable, indeed normal, function of public life. Corruption distorts and destroys. It breeds cynicism and undermines the faith of the people in their government and their public institutions. It must be faced head on by our nation’s next set of leaders. And once again, the call is for presidential leadership. Just as bad presidential example has spawned this disease. So too will it take good presidential example to proffer a cure.
There needs to be clear guidelines provided as to what is acceptable and unacceptable practices for those holding public office. There needs to be a distinction between the pursuit of personal gain, which is an entirely legitimate objective of life in the private sector, and public service, which is about service, just that. And people must be made to choose. While a minister of government should not be expected to become a pauper as a consequence of government service, by the same token he should not be allowed to use the extraordinary power which public office confers to enrich himself through bribery and extortion. And the only way to bring this odious behaviour to an end is a stringent code of conduct, enforced at all levels of the bureaucracy, consistently and indiscriminately applied against those in high places as well as those at the bottom of the totem pole. Again, the way forward is to set a few well-publicised examples of offenders at the top. The people further down the food chain will get the message and fall in line.
Principle No. 4 – Vigorously uphold freedom of speech and freedom of the press
No matter how well written laws are, no matter how well intentioned we may be, the fact is we are still human. And it is a fact of human life that power tends to corrupt. That is part of the human condition. There is a natural human tendency to rationalise mistakes and cover up failure. When that tendency is combined with a concentration of power, you have a lethal concoction. Competition is one way to keep power in check. That’s why competitive, multi-party politics is so important to the health of our society. And the spawning of a democratic tradition cannot occur in the absence of vigorous public debate on issues of public interest. The Press, the Fourth Estate, has a very special role to play in this process. A free press is the conscience of society. It’s job is to question, to educate and to bring into the shining light of public scrutiny matters which people in authority might prefer, through fear or embarrassment, to sweep under the rug.
Often we hear Liberian government officials bleating plaintively about how they are not against freedom of speech or freedom of the press. All they want is “responsible” journalism. The obvious question is how does one define “responsible” journalism and who should do the defining? In the mouths of government officials, “responsible” journalism is code for journalism that extols or praises. To proponents of this view, journalism that is critical is “irresponsible” journalism, which should be stamped out, crushed, not allowed to germinate, lest the foibles and indiscretions of those in authority be brought to the public’s attention.
News organs should not be shut down or their personnel harassed or incarcerated because of criticism of government officials, even when such criticism is deemed to be unjustified. There are civil remedies available through the courts for libel and slander. Those who feel aggrieved should seek redress in that forum, not set themselves up as judge and jury over their critics. A free press is an invaluable asset to good governance. It is the torch that brings abuses to light and forces accountability. It assists in counteracting a natural human tendency to abuse power. And those whose skins are so thin that they cannot take criticism have no business in public service. For, even in the most enlightened democracies, sometimes the press takes its liberties to the extreme, invading the privacy of public servants. But such is the price of freedom, and in a competitive environment where press power is not concentrated in a few hands, the normal give-and-take of commentary and repartee provides for everyone to be heard. The salutary effects of a free press are well worth the cost of occasional abuse.
Principle No. 5 – Promote free enterprise as the primary engine of economic development
The principal obligation of a government is to produce healthy, educated citizens and to provide a free and secure environment in which each citizen can pursue happiness as he/she defines it.
Over the last 35-40 years, successive Liberian governments, like many Second and Third World governments, have ventured beyond these simple verities into the uncharted waters of trying to be all things to all people. In the economic realm, some of these governments have flirted with a strange and undefined ideology quaintly referred to as “African socialism”. And even in societies anxious not to be tainted with that noxious connotation, there has been adoption of its equally pernicious cousin: state capitalism.
With the connivance or even encouragement of some of the world’s most pristine international financial institutions, such governments have channeled large sums of money (a lot of it borrowed, for which they are now seeking forgiveness) into establishing large parastatal sectors. The results have been an unmitigated disaster. In Liberia, we refer to these entities as “public corporations”, which is really a misnomer because public corporations they are not. AT&T is a public corporation. It’s stock is quoted on a public exchange. You and I can buy the stock or sell it at our leisure. The Liberia Telecommunications Corporation, by contrast, is owned by the Liberian government. The only thing “public” about it is that we, members of the tax-paying public, have to suffer its poor service and are burdened with repaying its government-guaranteed debt. Its stock is not quoted on any public exchange and we cannot buy into it, even if we were foolish enough to want to do so.
These “public corporations” should be renamed forthwith “government-owned corporations”. That would more accurately reflect their character. Call it to truth in advertising! But the more important point is, the government has no business being in the business of business. Doing so is a classic example of the sin of “doing those things which it ought not to have done”. By their very nature governments are unsuited to operating a business. They are slow, bureaucratic and decisions are often the result of political compromise or expediency. Job selection here tends to have less to do with talent than repaying political favours. In the context of government decision-making, that may be benign, but applying those same principles in a business environment can be lethal, because in business speed of response, efficiency, and job selection based on experience and competence can mean the difference between success and bankruptcy. Governments don’t go into Chapter 11.
Any new administration will be faced with very limited resources. Under these circumstances, resource allocation and setting the right priorities will be critical to success. Rebuilding Liberia will require the mobilization of enormous amounts of human and financial capital. The government cannot, and should not even try to, do it all. If it makes the attempt, it will fail. The best approach for the government is to focus on the basics—the physical infrastructure of roads, ports, electricity, water, sanitation, telecommunications, together with health, education and agriculture. In some of these areas, such as education and health care, its role can be direct, i.e. to provide the needed services itself. In other case, such as the provision of electricity, water and telecommunications services, construction, its role should be either to pay for the services or incant others—private capital—to make the necessary investments.
What is proposed is nothing short of a radical departure from the role of government as we have come to know it. Government should form a truly meaningful partnership with the private sector, with a natural division labour. The private sector should be the primary engine of job growth and wealth creation. Government’s role, by contrast, should be that of an enabler, a regulator (where that is appropriate) and a referee (promoting competition so that the free market interaction of buyers and sellers determines the proper allocation of resources and prices). Government’s objective should be to create a low-tax, minimally-regulated, uncommonly business-friendly climate that will serve as a magnet for investment capital, enabling Liberia to effectively compete for investment dollars with any country on the African continent, yea in the Third World. Its focus should be on creating a well trained, healthy workforce so that when investors come ready to risk their capital, the country has manpower with the requisite skills to fill the jobs that will be created. And the infrastructure should function flawlessly. When you flip the light switch, the lights should come on, not some of the time, but all of the time. When you pick up the phone, you should get dial tone, not some of the time, but all of the time. If we follow this prescription, within 5 -10 years Liberia will become a booming mecca for business and Liberians will be living well. We will look back on this period of our history and wonder what all the fuss was about and why it took our leaders so long to figure it out.
Published in the July 2, 2001 Edition of The Perspective.
2001: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive