Very few people in the Paynesville Town Hall Thursday expected much from the first in a series of presidential debates organized by the Deepening Democracy Coalition (DDC).
Four Contrasting Personalities Eyeing The Liberian Presidency Offered Their Vision While Showcasing respective agenda In What Was at Times a Testy Affair, Illustrating A Paradigm Shift In Liberia's Post-War Democratic Sojourn Likely to Offer Voters a helping hand in deciphering the candidates looking to lead Liberia
The DDC is made up of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Liberia Media Center (LMC), Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP), and Liberia Women Media Action Committee (LIWOMAC).
High Stakes Debate Key for Undecided Voters
On Thursday, two of the high-profile names, Senator George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and the former governor of the Central Bank of Liberia Dr. J. Mills Jones of the Movement for Economic Empowerment(MOVEE) were noticeable omissions.
Speculations were rife on the eve of the debate Vice President Joseph Boakai was leaning toward joining the list of absentees leading to concerns that a watered-down debate of only three candidates would weaken what many expected would be an opportunity for the more than a dozen candidates to state their case to the Liberian people, especially in the wake of numerous polls concluding that nearly fifty percent of the electorates are still undecided who they will be casting their votes for.
Boakai partially addressed the absentee issue when he took his turn to give his opening statement, acknowledging to the audience that some of his aides were not in favor of him appearing. "I come to this debate out of respect for things concerning Liberia."
The ruling Unity Party standard bearer spoke of his early upbringing and the roots of his attachment to rural Liberia, declaring that Liberia is in need of leaders with integrity to manage the country's resources.
"My first assignment from university was outside Monrovia."
"This give me the opportunity to understand the lives people live outside Liberia. It is about time that we think Liberia, build Liberia and Love Liberia."
"We should go beyond rhetoric and give Liberians what they deserve. "
The debate moderated by Mr. Boakai Fofana, host of The Breakfast Show on Capital FM, Mr. Raymond Zarbay, a Producer at UNMIL Radio and Maureen Sieh of USAID-project Internews, offered each candidate an opportunity to outline plans for six key areas: the economy; security and rule of law; peace and reconciliation; anti-corruption policy; agriculture; and youth empowerment. The candidates were asked to explain how their plans will be rolled out and funded.
Brumskine Jabs Boakai on Race-Car Analogy
The Vice President got the ball of rolling by emphasizing that his most pressing and top priority is roads.
"When people ask me what my top priority is, I tell them it is roads, roads, roads. Lofa County supposed to be the bread basket but how do we get the food from there if we do not have roads. Unless we open the country, we are not going to expand this country."
He also pledged to open the country to tourism, stating that under his watch Liberia is going to be an attraction for tourists.
"We cannot be a country, thanking and begging our country. We open up this country, we open up opportunity."
"We need accountability, honesty, we don't just need people talking about it, but we must live it. Once we open up the country through roads, the economy of this country will pick up and you will see jobs being produced."
Perhaps the UP standard bearer's best line of the night was when he was asked by a moderator why he failed to do the things he is now promising in the past twelve years when he was vice president, to which he replied:
"You cannot keep a race car in the garage; put a race car on the track and see what that car will do," in an apparent reference to what he and many of his supporters have been suggesting as his quiet and laid-back approach as Vice President.
But Liberty Party's Charles Walker Brumskine, in a jab at Mr. Boakai, retorted that his vice President Harrison Karnwea will not be in the garage but in the room making decisions.
"My talk in not empty, I've been in government before and I know how to fix it."
Businessman Benoni Urey of the All Liberia Party for his part said while Liberia has experienced some growth over the years, the country has deteriorated, economically, socially and politically.
Making his case to voters, Mr. Urey said: "We beg you indulgence. As you have seen all over, we are endearing to get Liberia working again."
"The question is how. We have to get the economy back on good footing and to a huge standing, get people involved by taking governance from Monrovia and back to our people, by taking resources from being under a few people and making decisions that will impact the entire country."
He urged political leaders to desist from letting the country down consistently.
"Liberia must come before each and every one of us. Liberia is not Monrovia, Liberia is out there. We must continue the process of engaging one another and ensure that we are all united.
Cummings Pitches a Fresh Start
Mr. Alexander Cummings, of the Alternative National Congress used his opening statement to lay emphasis on Liberians breaking away from a past, he said has led to years of hardships.
"Three weeks ago, Liberia celebrated 170 years of independence, yet we are among the least developed in the world, we have to ask our selves some very hard question: Why do almost 60 percent live below the poverty line? Two fundamental truths, one if you keep doing the same thing, you will not get different result. "
"The other fundamental truth, the best predicator of the future is past experiences."
He urged voters to ask themselves which of the candidates will answer the fundamental questions. "Who will understand the how?"
Mr. Cummings said changing the country will require finding the funds to tackle numerous challenges and a government of inclusion that will break the lines of cultural divide as he proclaimed:
"This is what we offering you."
Cllr. Brumskine of the opposition Liberty Party drew narratives from his travels around the country as he pledged to be a president that will not allow people like and old lady he says he met in Nimba, who lost her husband and is unable to feed her family.
"That lady condition must be changed. The same goes for the woman who lost her child during labor because she couldn't find health care or the Zogos who have no future.
"We must take them off the streets and bring into society. No Liberian will be abandoned in my administration."
The Liberty Party leader also lamented the scores of young people graduating from high school but continue to fail university examinations, declaring: "That means something is fundamentally wrong with our system."
The LP leader also lamented the plight of business men and women who take loans but are unable to pay back. It's time to change this country."
On the question of what specific measures candidates will put in place to address the issue of poverty and fund a poverty reduction program, Mr. Cummings outline a plan to invest in infrastructure, meaning in power, electricity, roads, water.
"My administration will privatize infrastructure because it is the fastest way to generate economy. We will ensure that our policy go beyond Monrovia.
The long-term solution is by educating and training. At the end of the day, we have to find the money for these things. So, we will go after waste and corruption. Because without resources we will not get the job done."
He added: I was stuck in Tappita last week but fortunate to meet a cross section of Liberians who told heart-wrenching stories.
"I know we can do better. If we put Liberia first we can change our country, go after waste and corruption and redirect them to things that matter to the Liberian people."
Brumskine Against PRS
Cllr. Brumskine broke ranks with his peers on the issue by stating that he was not in favor of poverty reduction but rather, poverty elimination.
"I do not subscribe to poverty reduction, I believe in poverty elimination. Our government will ensure that Liberians can grow sufficient food to pull out of poverty.
In short, we will use public procurement to make this happen. I want to see a lion share of that money we going to Liberians to put them in business etc and alleviate poverty by using the agriculture sector."
For ALP's Urey, alleviating poverty will require educated and experience people.
"Not only do a lot of Liberians live below the poverty level, most international organizations have ranked Liberia as one of the poorest in the world, this is not joke and requires educated, experience and committed people to solve this problem."
As an accomplished businessman, Mr. Urey said he is in the best position to solve the issue of poverty.
"I feel I can solve this problem. We must get the economic wheel turning again. We must support it with industry; we must create industry that supports it."
Mr. Urey said if elected he will reopen the Agriculture Cooperative Development Bank (ACDB).
"I will reopen Agriculture Cooperative Bank where poor people can go and get a loan; I will open the National Housing and Savings Bank where people can build decent places to live."
"I will put more money into the people's pocket, give them purchasing power. We must no longer listen to promises in Liberia. We need a good manager to manage Liberia. People are destitute, they need vision."
On the question of the budget deficit, the candidates were asked: Liberia has a budget deficit of about 8.5 percent of GDP, according to some estimates.
This deficit as you know affects operations of government services. What specific plans do you have to address the repeated budget deficit, so that government operates smoothly?
ANC's Cummings said his administration will look at procurement practices and curb waste.
"There are things you can control and there are things you can't. And you have to do both.
" The things we have to control are addressing the waste in government. We have to look at our procurement practices and whether we are paying fair value for what the government is doing."
"There are too many unnecessary travels that we need to curb that leads to corruption. We have to recover funds and look at how we can get more from our natural resources."
The ANC's standard bearer also pledged to reduce salaries of people at the top and invest in paying teachers, soldiers and police men and women.
"By doing that by itself will stimulate the economy. Those are things that are very specific and it will take the political will to do those if we have to change this country."
For his part, Liberty Party's Brumskine said while his administration will practice fiscal discipline, a budget deficit is not necessarily a bad thing. "The revenues may not be there when we need, but there must be discipline."
He pledged cuts to the office of the president, vice president, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
"They take the lion share of revenue of this country. Make me president and we will reverse that. We will cut our salary by 30 percent and create trust fund for children," Cllr. Brumskine said. He added: "Those appointed will have reduced salaries; we want to see civil servants making more than 10, 000 Liberian dollars a month. We can do by reducing salaries of top people in government."
Pressed by a moderator how he intends to implement cuts particularly amongst lawmakers, the LP standard bearer also called for the expansion of the economic base by investing in agriculture sector as he pledged to challenge lawmakers to follow his lead.
"As president, I will talk to the Liberian people. This is the time and LP intends to change our country."
"There will be development projects for which we will not be able to generate money but we will ensure that there is not unnecessary spending. Our people deserve more. I've been tested; I'm proven and ready to serve.
Budgeting a Planning Phenomenon, Urey Says
ALP's Urey for his part said the whole process of budgeting is a planning phenomenon.
"If the budget is not done professionally and realistically you will always have a deficit."
"I will work with legislature to ensure that the Ministry of Planning be recreated because it is the heart of the country, especially coming out of a civil war and in the instance where the country is in the situation it is in today."
The ALP leader also said he will take a fifty percent salary cut if elected.
"We have to have qualified people. I will immediately accept a 50 percent salary reduction and will require to legislators to do the same."
"Most importantly, we have deficit because we believe that this government and others appear to be too business unfriendly."
"We must create environment where the tax regime must be fair. We will continue to have deficits until these things are treated."
In addition, he said the issue is hampered by the fact that at least eighty percent of the national budget is recurring expenses.
"How can we develop our country when 80 percent is on recurring expenses."
The ruling party's standard bearer, Vice President Boakai for his part said his administration will insist on a balanced budget.
"We will insist on a balance budget. We lack fiscal discipline and we are too dependent on donors. An overprotective child cannot be self reliant."
He added: "We have the confidence but we must have the desire and determination to do the right thing. We need to spend our money wisely."
Taking aim at some of his rivals he says are also benefiting from government, Mr. Boakai said:
"You only change the rules when you in the game. All of us have served in government; we need the discipline to be responsible. Mr. Boakai charged: "We are the only country of 21 parties and all of us are in government.
Urey, Cummings Spar on Budget
On the question of high salary payments and what measures each of them would propose to reigning in the high cost of running government, Cllr. Brumskine said too much money is being spent on purchasing expensive vehicles for government officials, some thing he said his administration will get rid of.
"We will look at gasoline and fuel expenditures and audit usage and gas slip distributions. That is going to stop under my watch. We will like to have gasoline distribution centralized and some small and simple things to cut down expenses."
ANC Cummings said the way his administration will approach the issue is to grow the budget.
"It will be used for investment purposes; the waste will have to be reduced. If we increase the budget, we will do it by reducing regulations. We need to stop creating rules and laws we cannot enforce.
Mr. Urey said if there is no requisite structure in place to ensure that it does not occur, it will continue. In a jab at Mr. Cummings, Mr. Urey said even if the budget goes to a billion, it would not solve the problem."
The ALP leader also pledged to bring back the Ministry of Rural Development and take away the responsibility of building roads from the Ministry of Public Works.
Mr. Boakai said the issue of salaries was nothing new to him as he only received half of his allowances in the first year of his vice presidency.
"Many come to government for money to spend instead of to serve. If you have a government that plan for people when they leave job that they can have a future."
"We need to protect those who are working as well. But we must ensure that there is a future after leaving government."
On what specific plans they had to strengthen the justice sector, so that it adequately responds to the high crime rate and the backlog of pre-trial detentions which has led to overflowing prison populations in the country, the candidates each offered contrasting solutions to dealing with the issue.
ALP's Urey said the issue is a challenge not only for the president and vice president but for every Liberian.
"The sector needs a lot of improvement. We need to tap on the experience of veteran personnel and under my watch, we will opt for a Ministry of National Security and the reason why, we don't want the executive branch involved in security matters. As it stands now, the NSA, immigration and police all report to the president.
Contrasting Views on Security Issues
Vice President Boakai had a holistic approach to the issue, laying emphasis on dealing with unsolved crimes.
"Every time a crime is committed you cannot find the criminal. How often do we track down those who commit crime."?
ANC's Cummings said the biggest threat to national security risk is the number of underemployed Liberians. "Until we can fix that issue, we will have a security challenge."
Mr. Cummings unless the underlying cause of insecurity in the country is addressed the problems will linger.
"If you don't have a job, you don't know where you next meal is coming from, you have nothing to lose. Trying to fix the apparatus without fixing that fundamental problem will lead to more people in jail.
There have to be consequences for people who steal, not just the petty criminals but people who steal government money."
Cllr. Brumskine retorted that the issue of rule of law must first start with creating an independent environment.
"The most important part we will do if elected is to ensure the independence of the Ministry of Justice from the Executive mansion. It interferes with the justice system and causes a lack of justice when the President is always interfering in the affairs of justice."
The LP standard bearer said he will ensure that law enforcement officers are adequately trained to be able to use their own regiments. He also pledged to work with the judiciary branch of government to ensure a smooth law and order process.
"I look forward to working with the judiciary. The underlying issue is the economy. What has happened is that the Sirleaf-Boakai policy was completely reliant on export. We will not do that; we will create opportunities and small business plan for Liberians - small and medium size to finance their businesses.
Regarding the recent decision by the lower house of the national legislature to commence impeachment proceedings against the Supreme Court justices, the candidates were nearly all in agreement that the lower house erred, except for Boakai who said he was awaiting the outcome of the process before taking a stand.
The impeachment quest is being spearheaded by the lower house headed by Mr. Boakai's running mate Emmanuel Nuquay. VP Boakai also serves as the President of the Senate and may cast a vote in the event of a tie."
Both Mr. Cummings and Mr. Brumskine said the action to impeach is unconstitutional while Urey said both sides erred.
Said Mr. Cummings: "You cannot have one branch of government attacking another branch from exercising their rights, it is a recipe for chaos. If you disagree as a legislator change the law. There is no basis for impeachment."
Declaring that he is not a lawyer, Mr. Boakai, said: "The courts are protected by law, so are the legislators themselves. We have to know why they did what they did. Could it have been a pre-emptive strike?
I don't know. I cannot render judgement but I know we have to abide by the laws of our country. For me, I await for the outcome. I cannot interfere in the branch of others. For me, wherever the outcome is the law is the law. The house - I can make no judgment."
But ALP's Urey averred: While we must all agree about the separation - one branch "of government does not have the right to challenge another branch. But in the same vein, when one branch decides to interfere with another, it becomes necessary for another branch to intervene.
"There is no where in the law to justify the decision the Supreme Court took.
You either qualified or you not qualified, even though the lower house may have stepped out of their prerogative, that other branch also crossed the line.
The Supreme Court overstepped their boundaries. Both branches were in error."
Candidates on Same Page on Sexual Violence
On what specific plans they have to protect women and girls from sexual violence, LP's Brumskine said his administration will criminalize sex attacks regardless of consent or age.
"The law is on the book it takes the enforcement of the law."
"I commit to the people of Liberia that we must enforce the law."
"The three people who I love the most are women: my mother, wife and daughter, Charlene."
"They have shaped my life in many ways. The least is to show every woman in this county that I have your back."
VP Boakai said emphasis for him will be on unresolved crimes.
"The badge the police wear is not a hunting license. These must be people that are trained and honest to handle security. The dignity of women must be protected."
For his part, Mr. Urey said, he is not a believer in reverse discrimination, but said men are also sexually harassed.
"I want the females to know that I have five females - four girls and one wife; I love them all. They also believe in justice and justice delay is justice denied. We must never tolerate sex crimes in this country."
The ALP standard bearer said he will put emphasis on reforming the prison system.
"People live at the Monrovia Central Prison like animals. Any mother goes there, she will weep."
"We must fix it, we must first of all create legislation that will ensure a fast track court of rape. What we have now is not functional."
Regarding the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendation, the candidates were all divided.
Cllr. Brumskine said his man challenge will be to reconcile the country. "My understanding is that it took two parallel approaches, retributive and retroactive. My challenge as president is to reconcile our people, rebuild our people and move this country forward. There is no statue of limitation so people may be grabbed later on, but it is more important to focus on reconciling the country first."
The LP standard bearer proposed inviting all those who participated in the war to a palava hut where they will face their accusers.
"No one should get away with a crime that he or she committed."
Mr. Cummings agreed but said Liberians must put the past behind them and work with the present situation and the future.
"No human being can do anything about yesterday but we can influence the future."
"We should focus on reconciling and acknowledge the pain and hurt. We should not tolerate impunity but if we focus on retributive justice, it will consume us and divide us and will have us looking backward instead of forward."
"I want us to look at symbols, build monuments, look forward, I also believe, it comes back to the economy. When u have a shrinking economic pie then everybody will only look out for themselves."
Mr. Boakai said he believes that people must not just preach peace they must see it through conducts.
"I have the strongest belief that once we open our country, you don't have to do any reconciliation. Let Liberians begin to see themselves doing businesses."
He said once there are roads across the country, the country will be reconciled.
Mr. Urey for his party said the entire TRC process was unfair.
The TRC, not only the report, the whole process, continues to haunt us as a people. And the reason why is because we didn't do it right because we were not genuine in the process.
Actors, who were members of the civil war, were members of the TRC. Actors who admitted to crimes and boasted about it and said they have no regrets, were allowed to go free.
"Where does it lead us as a people? We have perpetrators who have been manipulating the process but none were recognized. They put all their people on the TRC to ensure that they were protected."
Agreement on Tribal Politics
On the issue of tribal politics, all the candidates were in agreement that it should be discouraged.
Cummings said joblessness does not distinguish between tribes. Thus, it is important to prioritize the basic necessities.
"The fundamental way we get at solving those issue is to make sure people can feed themselves. Those who advocated division should be ashamed."
Mr. Boakai said he is not inferior to anyone and charged that tribalism is not part of his blood.
"I have friends all over. We have already committed ourselves to an inclusive government."
In support of Boakai, Mr. Urey says the vice president has never given him any reason to conclude that he was driven by ethnicity.
"The Boakai-Nuquay ticket is an indigenous ticket but all my life I've known him (Boakai), he has never given me a reason to make me feel that he is indigenous. For the good of the country, we must end this nonsense."
Cllr. Brumskine said it is a shame for Liberians to go through this tribal warfare every election circle.
"The issue of country man, congau man raises its ugly head every time and after the election those who advocate the tribal line become Monrovia people."
He said as President, one of his first priority would be to have a commission of experts from each of the ethnic groups in this county in a bid to address the ethnic divide.
On the issue of corruption, the candidates were asked how they plan to address the menace, Mr. Boaka said people must not benefit from ill-gotten wealth and there should be no compromise for corrupt officials. "It's not about talking but about acting."
"If you put a system in place that does not pick and choose, it will work but we will set an example."
Mr. Urey for his part recalled the military coup of April 12, 1980 which brought Samuel Doe to power saying that corruption since then has multiplied.
"In 1980, President Samuel Do, executed 13 persons on the pole for rampant corruption, I wonder what he would do in Liberia today if he was alive? He would execute a thousand."
The ALP leader said President Sirleaf came to office with a plan and the desire to fight graft but her government became consumed by the cancer. Under his watch he said he will enforce what he called a bad medicine to end graft.
"If we do not treat it radically, it will never go away. I will treat it with bad medicine. We must have the will to fight corruption."
"And that is where I come in. We must have a fast track court. If Liberia is to go forward there's no room for corruption."
Cllr. Brumskine for his part, recalled President Sirleaf's last Annual Message in which she acknowledged that her administration with she and Boakai at the helm had failed to fight graft.
Then jabbed: "If the two of them couldn't fight corruption together, how will Joe fight it alone."