10 October 2017

Liberia: Farewell Madam President...

Photo: Liberia Government
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


On Tuesday, October 10, 2017, registered Liberian voters across the country will go to the polls to elect a new president and a new House of Representatives for another six years. Certainly, the elections are a huge transition in the history of the country, because as President Sirleaf told the UN General Assembly, "it will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another."

What I am not sure about though, is when the President said "This paves the way for the next generation of Liberians to lead the country into the future." This part of the speech has since reignited the generational change debate, but please allow me reserve my comments on this, at least for this article.

Oh, how pleasing it was to listen to President delivered her last address at the UN General Assembly on 19 September 2017. It was perhaps the most punctuated of all the addresses. Her eloquence and her speech delivery powers have never been in doubt. She got applauded at almost every point of her speech as she told the Liberian story and her role played in the narrative. It was a narrative that summed up the country's recovery from a civil war to where are today at her exit. An appealing story, I thought. Wasn't it?

One of the poignant moments that stands out in the speech is where she said, "Eleven years ago, in September of 2006, I stood before this august body as the newly elected president of the Republic of Liberia, and, the first woman to be democratically elected as head of State on the African continent. Today, I address you for the last time as I bring to closure my two terms of elected office." So, I joined those who are predisposed to saying congratulations, Madam President!

Understandably, our President needed to be celebrated by world leaders because a favorite past time of especially African leaders is to imposed themselves on their people anyhow. So, for one of those power-thirsty leaders to surrender to the constitutional mandate to quit, that person should be worthy of commendation. Farewell Madam President, you will be remembered for quitting on schedule.

And the speech could only get sweeter as the President boastfully said the elections "signal the irreversible course that Liberia has embarked upon to consolidate its young, post-conflict democracy and that democracy is on the march in Liberia and on an irreversible path forward on the African continent." Great and strong declaration, Madam President even though I am not sure about this assertion. Is the state of being of our democracy irreversible? Well, maybe. But I do have some thoughts, if you do not mind.

My Concerns

Admittedly, Liberia has scored some marks in its democratic development, but irreversible, madam President? This is my doubt begging for clarity.

Now, it is good to recount successes but it is better not to embellish the reality so that people succeeding you will note where the challenges are and how to build on your progress.

For instance, I think the President was honest when she told the nation in her last State of the Nation's Address that her government failed in reconciling the nation and the fight against corruption. With that pronouncement, the next government is forewarned that these are two problem areas that must be given attention. But in fact, reconciliation and corruption fight are two solid foundations of democratic governance. To have failed on those two fronts, I am afraid our democracy is not entrenched enough to be irreversible - I think our democracy is too fragile.

Not only did we failed in the fight against corruption and reconciliation as a people, I should submit to you that our justice system is way too old-fashioned to appreciate the democratic development sweeping across the globe. It was strange for the Supreme Court for instance, to rule against holding elections for city majors in favor of appointing them. Without impugning on its integrity, the Judiciary has some distance to cover to redeem itself.

There is a general lack of trust and fear for its independence. Memories are still fresh regarding the Court's opinion on the disputed code of conduct for public officials, which effectively rendered the instrument non-existent. It remains a moot point that we could paper over in the exigency of time-at this moment of electioneering where all serious issues as that could be easily swept under the carpet. But even before the chicken will come back to roost let me probe other niggling questions.

Let me hasten to state that I doubt our democracy is on an irreversible path when the government did not act fast enough to effect the necessary legal reforms [including the media legal environment] to consolidate and sustain the democracy. The President reneged on abolishing anti-speech laws, which are counter- productive to our democratic asperations and could reverse the gains.

I expected the President to use her influence and her sense of participatory democracy to reduce the six-year presidential term of office. The Government spent a lot of money on a Constitutional review process, soliciting views across the country but made little effort to hold the referendum. That referendum which should have happened a year ahead of these elections, failed to take place for obvious reasons. Little political commitment and so no money alibi that stands on thin legs. Where there is a will, there ought to be a way for the all-powerful Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Maybe the strategy was get the process bogged down with so many propositions including the conflict-ridden "Christian State" debate to cover the real issues. I have never heard of a referendum with seven propositions - in fact the Legislature had picked those seven from a list of twenty-five submitted by the President. Seriously? I think we should be asking for a new constitution instead.

Notwithstanding the failure to hold the referendum, if the Government was keen on reducing the tenure of office, it would have been studying how to put that single proposition on the ballot for Tuesday's elections. After all, the people overwhelmingly suggested a reduction in the length of the presidential and representative terms from 6 to 4 and the Senate from 9 to 6 years respectively. We are recalling what obtained during the constitutional review process over two years ago. Many Liberians hold that the current terms are too long and could undoubtedly derail the fledgling democratic process.

Since Madam President also botched on this important reform, I really thought our political leaders who have all been campaigning on 'CHANGE' would make a redemptive statement for the sustenance of peace and democracy in Liberia by pushing the government to get the National Elections Commission (NEC) to put on the ballot, reduction in the Presidential and Legislative terms. I had written Speaker Emmanuel Nuquay with the hope that this issue would claim the attention of the House of Representatives. What a missed opportunity!

Essentially, a vote on 10 October, would have been more appropriate because the current president is not standing, she would not benefit from the new amended term of reduction in tenure.

So, it would have turned out that we will not just usher in a new government in next January, but a fresh beginning in strengthening our democracy. Important still, Tuesday's votes would have gone a long way in reassuring Liberians that they can go to the polls as often to renew the mandate and/or change their leaders when they so desire.

Former US President, Barack Obama was right when he said, "The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose." The greater purpose here being, developing strengthening our democratic ethics.

The Growing Ambition

Justifiably, we have seen an increase in the number of Liberians who are eager to participate in the political governance of the country, while others are desperate to hold onto power.

Tuesday's ballot will see 20 candidates for the one presidential seat and 984 candidates for 73 representative seats. In 2011, we had 16 presidential candidates, while representative candidates were 793. So, there is an increase by 4 presidential candidates and 192 representative candidates, as you can see. This number excludes the senate.

With such a swelling interest in the few elective posts in our country, I am afraid there is a possibility that the attending passion in the political contest could boil over. For example, some of these contestants have remarked in open conversion that "I cannot afford to stay in opposition for another 12 years." Whatever that means, is anybody's guess; but the true is that election is one of the triggers of conflict. So, the onus is on us to reduce the inclination towards conflict.

Much is still desired in putting our democracy on an irreversible path. President sirleaf will be gone, but we have a collective responsibility as a people to create the enabling legal environment that will not only sustain the peace, but also strengthen our democratic development.

I should submit that there is no guarantee that all the many Liberians desirous of state power will get elected, but what we can guarantee is that each and every one of the more than 4 million Liberians who aspire for an elected post will get their change sooner rather than later. And we can only achieve that structurally through the law. Democracy, like education is not cheap. I believe we are able to find money to hold elections every four years as opposed to finding money to make and keep the peace.

The call for Peace and Unity

Interestingly, on June 4, 2017, twenty registered political parties signed what is now known as the "Farmington River Declaration," vowing to work against electoral violence. That signing ceremony took place in the full view of ECOWAS Heads of State and other VIPs who had assembled in Liberia for the 51st summit of the sub-regional body.

The parties declared in the resolution thought to have been engineered by President Sirleaf and religious leaders that, "Our political campaign activities will be conducted in such a manner that will not only preserve but also enhance and maintain the peace and unity of Liberia."

Credit to the President and Inter-Religious Council for extracting this commitment from party leaders, but I am afraid this is not tenable. Like most peace agreements in the recent past history of Liberia, the Farmington River Declaration is no assurance that there will be no electoral violence especially in the face of the many ambitions at play here. Thanks God we have only had a few isolated cases.

To borrow from former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, "nobody's ambition is worth the blood of any Liberian."

I am easily reminded of the standoff between the Legislature and the Judiciary over the enforcement and interpretation of the Code of Conduct for public officials, which was enacted into law. How binding would Farmington be if we had disagreements over the election results? Of course, it is the Court that will decide.

Don't get me wrong, Farmington was a wonderful idea, and God willing, we will have peaceful elections. But the most we can opt for in the circumstance, is a legal restriction that compels all of us to conform going forward as President Sirleaf is doing now.

Second Highest in West Africa

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to the various presidential terms in West Africa. And I am limiting it to West Africa because this is our neighborhood. Senegal has the highest presidential term in the region with 7 years. Our country, Liberia and Benin are only the second highest with 6 years. Nigeria, Ghana and Niger are the lest with 4 years each; while Guinea, Mali, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Cape Verde, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau all have 5 years each.

What does this say to us Liberians? As a country that was consumed in a bitter power struggle for some 14 years, we must act with speed and honesty to remove or perhaps make the space too small for any tendencies that will cause a relapse into conflict. I am making reference to the fight to control the wealth of the country, the marginalization and exclusion of other Liberians, among others vices that spurred our dark past.

Can't you see that our two terms of 12 years, is practically 3 terms in Nigeria, Ghana and Niger? The opposition has been campaigning against "continuity" for the Unity Party in these elections. In essence, they have actually been preaching against another term just after two terms of 12 years. But the Part has a right to participate and if they won, we will be helpless to stop them. This is our dilemma.

On another note, we should begin to look forward for a term limit for members of the Legislature. The nine and six years terms for members of the Senate and House of Representatives, are nothing but killers of our democracy. You see, the life and death of the democracy we talk about here is in the hands of the Legislature. And the current group seems to have shown little awareness to keep it alive.

The Senegalese Experience

We are told the referendum will take place next year, 2018. But this is my fear - found in the Senegalese lesson. In 2000, President Abdoulaye Wade, was elected on the 7-year term. In 2001, a new constitution came into force that reduced the length of subsequent terms to 5 years. In 2007, President Wade was re-elected, but the next year, the country's National Assembly approved a constitutional amendment returning to 7 years. Mr. Wade then went back on an earlier pledge and ran again in 2012, claiming that the constitutionally imposed two-term limit, passed in 2001, did not apply to his first term. Luckily for the opposition, the matter was resolved at the ballot box when Wade got defeated by Mr. Macky Sall.

Then President Macky Sall assumed power 2012; he too pledged to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years while campaigning for office. But just when the issue was being put to a referendum, he changed his tongue that the new mandate could not legally apply to his current seven-year term, which runs to 2019. Deceit and Greed!

Liberia could face the same manoeuvring by the next president. We certainly should be at the mercy of whoever that person will be. Farewell Madam President, you've done your part.

In the cause of democracy, I remain!

Peter Quaqua is former President of the Press Union of Liberia and current President of the West African Journalists Association. 


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