President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has twice in one week come under attack by members of the National Legislature for comments she reportedly made while addressing various forums in New York late last month. The president, who traveled to the US to address the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly, used the trip to address Diaspora Liberians, church leaders, philanthropists, and business executives regarding the success and lingering challenges facing the nation's postwar recovery. Many praised the president for ably articulating Liberia and African's challenges. Others, however, chose to brush aside such level of performance to question comments she reportedly made at one or the other forum.
The president was still in the US when CDC Montserrado County Representative Acarous Gray announced plans to bring impeachment proceedings against her for "confessing" that an undisclosed number of her female supporters disenfranchised their children to prevent them from voting for the opposition in 2005. The president's attempt, upon touching down at the Robert International Airport, to dismiss Gray's interpretation of what she said in the US, ironically inflamed the situation – heightening critics' claims that the president has been anything but forthcoming and amendable to the Liberian people.
Hardly had this confrontation found its place in the abyss of Liberia's political discordance than Rep. James P. Biney (NPP-Md.) raised fresh questions about the president's US comments accusing members of the National Legislature of seeking self-interest. The president reportedly accused lawmakers of appropriating an additional US $13 million to purchase utility vehicles for themselves. The Executive Mansion had appropriated US $20 million for the 103-member parliament for the purpose. Surprisingly, the lawmaker downplayed the context as well as the point of the so-called allegation. Instead of putting it in context to give it relevance, he chose to issue a riposte late last week, accusing the president of not only sitting on huge budgetary allocations, but also of engaging in nepotism while neglecting to raise the incomes of civil servants. In all this, the weighing in of independent defenders aside, the president was conspicuously left on her own to face her critics. That this is unfortunate is to put a serious matter mildly.
The point here is not to go into the merits and demerits of the president's comments – about what her critics made of those comments, and about why and how they chose to react to them – for to do so is to choose to plunge headlong into the endless streams of idleness. Rather, our purpose here is to pinpoint what appears a troubling lapse in policy information dissemination in this country during its critical days and to prompt those responsible to step up to the challenge. We hold that when the president speaks on matters of governance, she speaks from a policy (governance included) perspective – whether it is a comment on the economy, on political processes, or on peace and reconciliation.
This being the case, we hold also that it is the statutory and professional obligation of the Office of the President of Liberia, the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (MICAT), and the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), together with all other public information outlets, to explain the president's comments – complete with context, perspectives, purposes, and ends. This is why taxpayers are footing the checks of those appointed to head these institutions. It is against everything these institutions stand for, for the president – whether or not she prefers it this way – to weather the storm of criticisms personally, and by that, lend the Office of the President of Liberia to undue scathing. Under no condition should the president's advisors and the nation's information dissemination arms allow her to make public statements outside the perimeters of policy and to defend herself against critics for comments she made or assumed to have made – which seems the case currently. This level of arm's-length, lukewarm approach to public information dissemination holds no water in practice, law, policy, or logic. When the president makes a statement that border on controversy, the Office of the President, MICAT, LBS, and auxiliary outlets need to waste no time in issuing clarifications. This is preferable to the current trend of waiting for a standoff to develop only to issue press releases charging insolence to the office of the presidency or claiming misinterpretation of what the president actually said or did not say. Compared with the proactive mode, relying on the reactionary mode of information dissemination as seem the trend nowadays is a disservice to the Liberia people.
There is no gainsaying here that had these institutions – mainly MICAT – acted proactively rather than expecting the independent media or friendly commentators to suppress or discount the controversy, all the rancor about impeachment or about who is taking a lion's share of the nation's economic spoils would not have surfaced. We concede argument that such exchanges solidify democracy and national dialogue, except that we disagree that they contain the relevant ingredients of the kinds of national dialogues that work for the good of the people. National dialogues that spur growth are about the workability and the relevance of policies, laws, and the way forward. They are not about accusations and counter-accusations, nor about blame shifting to score political points. This is why it is when MICAT acts proactively, as it ought to, that true national dialogues – such as those on how to eradicate corruption, stop nepotism, change Draconian laws still on the books, reform the constitution, strengthen the criminal justice system, and raise opportunities for the Liberian people – will inform national trajectories.