Liberians Must Never Fear Their President (Again!)
But Should Always Respect the Office of the Liberian Presidency
By Mohamedu F. Jones
March 5, 2004
When reading The Perspective’s "Obsession with the Presidency - Wrong Focus for Liberia" by Mr. William G. Nyanue, one realizes that his analysis and conclusions are fundamentally correct. However, I would disagree with his suggestion that we need to fear our president - the "fear factor." Indeed, I think he is just plain wrong on that, unless you consider substituting "respect" for "fear" - the "respect factor."
As I recall from growing up as a teenager, and later from my research as a student of Liberian politics, fear and respect are sometimes erroneously interchanged in regard to the Liberian presidency. My father, the late Cllr. M. Fahnbulleh Jones, was the first one to call my attention to how Tubman (or with respect, President Tubman - but more on that later) was both feared and respected by many Liberians. He was feared because he did not hesitate to use the full powers of the Liberian state against his real and imagined enemies. This was the man who had arrested his immediate predecessor and benefactor, former President Edwin Barclay in 1955! You’d better fear him.
On the other hand, Liberians also respected Tubman because he brought a commanding presence and style to the presidency and to Liberia. He was chauffeured about in a Rolls Royce and sailed in his own yacht. He dined well with emperors, kings and queens (Queen Elizabeth’s 12-hour visit to Liberia in 1962 is one of the memorable events of my Liberian childhood). He engaged in easy colloquy with Kennedy, U Thant, De Gaulle, Adenauer and Macmillan. He ably met his responsibilities as President of Liberia in world forums like the United Nations and the OAU. He ordered a state funeral with full military honors, and was chief mourner at the funeral of his political opponent, Mr. Didwho Tweh, whom many claim, arguably at least, that he Tubman had "driven to an early death" through humiliation and exile. The great Nelson Mandela speaks with respect for President Tubman in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in a way to make every Liberian proud, regardless of how one might feel personally about the man Tubman.
When Tolbert (President Tolbert, I mean) became President
of Liberia, he acted quickly to remove the fear factor from the presidency.
He dismantled the hated (unless you were one) P.R.O. -"spy on
your friends and family" - network, as well as the alphablet soup
of Tubman’s secret police forces (NISS, EAB, NBI, etc.). He was
determined that the people would not fear him - but rather would respect
him for his presidential achievements. His political adversaries quickly
used the removal of fear to begin assaulting the "respect factor"
associated with both the man and the office. (Although some older Liberians
said that respect for the office really evaporated when Tolbert got
rid of top hats and tailcoats). Tolbert’s opponents cleverly and
quickly stripped him of any respect he had left in the late 1970’s,
and by the very beginning of 1979, Tolbert was neither feared nor respected
by many, if not most Liberians. Ironically, he continued to enjoy great
respect in the broader international community, even as Liberian children
began "sucking their teeth" at the mere mention of his name
- and as Liberians, we know that "sucking your teeth" at
a person is a major insult - "My man you cuss me!"
When President Doe assumed office (first as military, then as "elected" head of state), the fear factor easily returned. Many Liberians were "scared" of Doe, and justifiably so. I mean we were murdered, jailed, flogged and exiled - now, that’s enough to create fear in reasonable people. In 1985, on the 6th floor balcony of the Executive Mansion, when Doe told me, "If you ever call my name again, I will send you to Bella Yalla," I believed him and personally experienced the fear factor. (Actually, I had become really scared when I first walked onto the 6th floor balcony of the Mansion accompanied by security forces, because I suddenly remembered the stories of people who had "jumped" off the balcony, and died as a result. Now, did I ever call his name again? I’ll answer that later.) There was little if any respect for Doe during his 10-year rule.
In 1997, when crime boss Charles Taylor transferred his criminal enterprise to government operations - or rather when President Taylor was inaugurated as president, the fear factor returned with a vengeance and was intensified. I mean we were murdered, jailed, beaten and exiled - and that’s sufficient to put fear in any reasonable people. As with Doe, there was little, if any respect for Taylor. Interestingly though, respect for the late President Doe began to grow posthumously, as people experienced Taylor for the hooligan, hoodlum, thug, and thief that he is, who was using the presidency of Liberia to carryout his gangster activities. You cannot fault many Liberians for showing no respect for President Taylor under these circumstances, while surely being deathly fearful of him.
Both Taylor and Doe foolishly tried Tubmanic imitations, thinking that would bring them respect. Not surprisingly, Liberians considered them clowns for their efforts, whether he was smoking big Cuban cigars (President Doe) or clearing his throat in dramatic fashion during speeches (President Taylor).
Now, it is very refreshing to have Bryant (okay - Chairman Bryant) in office. When he was in Washington - I heard Aretha singing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" in my head at his appearances. He brings such a dignified calmness and quiet confidence to the office of head of state of Liberia that you can’t help but respect the man, and the symbol of the Liberian nation that he represents. The primary thought that came to my mind as I watched the Chairman makes his presentation at the United States Institute for Peace, was that we must do everything to ensure that the next President of Liberia is a person we can respect - one who makes good governance, the rule of law and the welfare of the people of the country his or her central concern - and upholds the constitutional office to which they are elected. I kept thinking, "We must act to ensure that what Mr. Bryant has brought to the office of the presidency of Liberia is sustained and built on."
Being able to criticize, disagree with and oppose Bush, Blair, or Bryant in public, without fear is good for democracy. Respecting the office that these men hold is also good for democracy. We Liberians must never again fear our presidents, but demand that they respect the constitution and that they act towards us as citizens of Liberian and human beings with fundamental inalienable rights. In turn, we will respect them and the office that they hold. By the way, I did call Doe’s name again despite his threat, but only after I came to Harvard in August1989 and was safely out of his reach. Oh what fear of the President of Liberia can do!