Liberia’s Real Problems Are Bigger Than President Ellen-Johnson-Sirleaf
Even if we try to sugar-coat it, the truth is, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration is a failure. No doubt about that. So is the entire ruling Unity Party’s government and all those who served and are serving in the current Liberian administration. Does this failure impact President Sirleaf’s legacy? Of course, it does in many different respects, even though the sycophants, praise-singers, graft beneficiaries and deceptive cohorts in her administration will say otherwise. Not for the president’s benefit, but for their own endgame.
However, the failure of the Sirleaf’s administration is not the only truth when one looks at why Liberia is an international mockery and a depreciating nation with massive poverty, high unemployment, threatening physical and food insecurity, and worsening healthcare and educational sectors.
The second truth is, President Sirleaf is somehow a good person and to some extent, she did some things with the best of intent and the interest of Liberia at heart. However, she is entangled in a system that is, unfortunately, packed with white collar and petit criminals, indecent characters, traitors and deceptive personalities. Sadly, many of these individuals are our lawmakers, policy makers, bureaucrats and influence peddlers. These questionable personalities have not helped the president at all. Thus, facilitating her failure as leader of Liberia to a larger extent. Our president would not have failed this miserably if we had many people of reputable characters, integrity, vision and patriotism serving as our lawmakers, policy makers, officials and bureaucrats.
The case of bad characters serving as leaders and members of the legislature is one significant reason why every Liberian should take some responsibility for the fiasco in our land today. If various constituencies did not elect and re-elect some of the goons we have as lawmakers, there is no way President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf would have failed this miserably. And, for the record, there are some very good lawmakers in both the Liberian senate and House of Representatives, but that number is overshadowed, out-shined and relegated to silence by the majority and powerful brutes and criminal minds therein.
The third truth is, we have a very weak and disingenuous group of people serving with the president in the Executive Branch of government. The president does not run the various ministries and autonomous agencies. She appoints Liberians to run these portfolios. Instead of managing and running the affairs of these domains, these appointees elect to demonstrate poor judgment and bad characters by engaging in unwholesome activities. This is why it would be absolutely unfair to only blame the president for the corruption and the failure of the government, particularly for all the funds and resources that were stolen at the ministries of agriculture; public works; finance; justice; health and social welfare; defense; information, culture and tourism; gender and children affairs; internal affairs; and at the various autonomous agencies such as the Forestry Development Authority, National Port Authority, National Oil Company of Liberia and more.
The fourth truth is, the president’s family, both immediate and extended, have not helped her at all. While there is no law or taboo that prevents a president’s relatives and friends from playing a part in a nation’s political, social, cultural and economic life just because a family member is the head of state, the over-bearing visibility and uncontrolled activities of the clan not only undermined the capacity of our president, it also clouded her vision and threatened her sense of fairness while simultaneously creating an imbalance in her standing to govern with authority and decisiveness.
The fifth truth is, Liberia is not a royalty; we are a nation with a presidential system of governance. Meaning, we have a president and vice president, both are elected on the same platform. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the President and Joseph Nyuma Boakai is our vice president. If the administration succeeds, Vice President Boakai takes credit with President Sirleaf. For example, President Sirleaf, despite our policy differences with her, did extremely well in erasing Liberia’s mounting debts when she took office in 2006. I am sure the vice president took credit with the president on this. So why isn’t the vice president taking blame for the widespread corruption in various government agencies or in the entire administration?
Truth be told, we blame President Sirleaf for everything wrong in Liberia since 2006 simply because she is the president, and as such, the ball stops with her just like how she blamed past presidents because they were the presidents and the ball stopped with them at the time. That said, it is our considered reflection that the vice president, within a course of almost twelve years, does not seem to have provided a typical and courageous leadership that would have helped in making Liberia and the Sirleaf’s administration more responsive, transparent, accountable, innovative, visionary and above all, better.
Does the vice president have any excuse(s) for this, especially in a time when he is asking Liberians to give him additional eight years to become president of a failed system that he is a part of? And for the record, being an integral part of the Unity Party’s failed government does not mean Vice President Boakai is not a good and decent man, because by all accounts, he is an honorable person and a man of strong faith that many of us respect very highly. However, what is at stake is that Liberians need to know the net effect of leaving from one failure to another potential failure within the course of two decades when our neighbors in the West African sub region are obviously departing from the 21st century to the 22nd century in terms of concrete socio-economic progress, infrastructural development, food security, information technology and more.
The vice president is not alone in this failed Unity Party’s administration’s alumni class. A good number of folks who served in the administration, both as elected and appointed officials, need to answer similar questions, too. We understand many have or are resigning from the party and the government to jump ship with every conceivable excuse, putting all the failure on the president in hypocritical manners. Of course, this is the old Liberian way in doing politics. It happened to Tolbert, Doe and Taylor. Even interim heads of state, such as Amos Claudius Sawyer, David Kpomakpor, Wilton Sankawolo, Ruth Sando Perry, and Gyude Bryant faced similar music. People who served under them laid blames on them when power was long gone. This too, could soon be the case with President Sirleaf when she leaves office. For now, they are all keeping their horses under control. No books or articles are written distancing themselves from the president and all the negative things. But come post 2017, Amazon.com will be packed with Liberian authors with many inside editions, then they will be exhibiting knowledge of the inner workings. This is the deceit in our culture, and we have to stop it!
The sixth truth is, Liberia does not really have any determined and responsible historical opposition groups. And by opposition, we do not mean having a political structure where a bunch of weirdos run around as supporters and officials, or where a recycled team of failed politicians seek unending comfort to justify their outlived usefulness. By opposition, we mean people who justify trust, credibility, honesty, integrity and transparency. Instead, we have opposition figures and their supporters acting disorderly, conniving and playing games with the Liberian people for the sake of money, power and undue influence.
Others only become opposition members or activists when they want jobs. Once appointed, they become praise-singers and sometimes some of them turned out to be corrupt as well. It is also no surprise that some leading members of the Liberian opposition are beneficiaries of financial opportunities offered with the influence of the government. Liberia is the only country where the ruling government can influence contracts for leaders of opposition parties, and where leaders of the opposition can serve as business partners or legal counsels and more to the president and others in government. These games are heartbreaking and it is sad that the lack of education makes our people vulnerable to these schemes.
Having said that, we believe these truths reveal why Liberia’s problems are far bigger than President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Does this mean we cannot change Liberia and make it a better nation? No, we can and we can do so by our vote and choice, beginning with the 2017’s presidential and legislative elections. Does this also mean that President Sirleaf cannot redeem her integrity and leave an optimistic legacy before leaving office in 2018? Of course, she can, but to do so there are few steps she has to take with immediate effect, and they are as follows:
- The president must reassure Liberians that she is a person of character. In Life, it does not matter what one’s position or title is, if he or she doesn’t do the right things for the right reasons, he or she will fail. History shows that leaders who failed to demonstrate a consistency of character do not create trust, engender confidence and foster real loyalty.
- The president must clearly define and communicate her governance vision for the next 15 months. If there appears to be a bad or no real vision, a flawed vision, or a poorly communicated vision, the blames and responsibility fall directly on the leader, and in this case, it would be the president. In addition, the president has to make sure that her vision is in alignment with meaningful values, such as honesty, transparency, accountability, fairness, equality, and the rule of law.
- The president has to rebrand herself, not to the international community and partners, but to Liberians in and out of the country. Poor branding, as the president has done by relying heavily on international public relations firms in Washington, D.C., New York, Europe, and in other capitals, generally means continuing the failure. This also means the president must not abdicate her duties and responsibilities as the leader of all Liberians. She must deliver on her promises going forward. One example would be ensuring that all those caught or mentioned in the Sable’s corruption triangle and all other past corrupt acts since 2006 face the law without fear or favor.
- The president must focus on and ensure that plans and programs are executed. Ensuring certainty of execution is vital to the success of any leadership. So instead of playing political games or getting bucked down to tricks, the president must start an honest attempt at reconciling Liberians by engaging all sectors and peoples. Reconciliation is key to bringing Liberians together.
- The president must do everything to avoid maintaining poor managers or officials as she moves to reshape her legacy. She must begin to look outside of the box of loyalty and enmity and bring to the table others with vision, expertise and the patriotism to move Liberia forward. If the current management team is not getting the job done, it is not the management team’s problem, it becomes the fault of the leadership––the president. Liberia and Liberians need private sector jobs, and this must be the president’s focus until she leaves office. Policy wise, we can help her with this, if she so desire.
- Instead of relying on poor and self-centered professional advice from inner circles, the president must seek out the best quality advice available to her, near and afar, so that she can make the best decisions. Reasons being, when a leader refuses to seek the best quality advice, he or she is normally operating within the limitations of their own thinking.
- The president must focus on innovation and alternative industries’ development, workforce development, wealth and small business creation rather than a sole reliance on extractive industries. Leaders are effective when they focus on and create a culture of innovation. This, again, we can volunteer our expertise and services pro bono to assist if the president is willing. By empowering Liberians to innovate and establish small businesses that will create jobs and wealth as the president prepares to leave office, it means the president will be forging a renewed interpretation of her legacy, which for now, has been tainted by widespread corruption and Ebola. Thus, contradicting the illusion by her information ministry’s officials that “her legacy is carved in stones.”
While we believe that the problems in Liberia are bigger than President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, we also vehemently believe that she can and must rebrand her legacy within the scope of the time she has left in office. The starting point would be, the president must listen to unusual voices, mainly those from outside her comfort zone and orbit. At the moment, Liberia is going through a dramatic change, one which demands equally dramatic transformation in the Liberian government. Failure to actively and honestly lead our country through these changes would be catastrophic. And the president ought not to do that for the good of Liberia and all Liberians.
About the Author:
Jones Nhinson Williams is a Catholic educated philosopher and American trained public professional. Williams, who initially studied for the Catholic priesthood, has since 2003, devoted his life, work and passion to issues of poverty, refugee flow and forced migration, corruption, the environment, employment and job creation, governance, and the rule of law in Africa. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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