Dr. Joseph Korto declared his intention to run for the presidency of Liberia about two years ago on the ticket of the Liberia Action Party. Dr. Korto served as the President of the University of Liberia Student Union and Chief Education Officer of Nimba County, the Republic of Liberia before he traveled to the United States in the 1980s for post- graduate education. I recently posed questions to him about a wide range of issues. Below is the full text of my conversation with Dr. Korto.
Question : Dr. Korto, I understand that you were not a member of any political party until recently. If true, why did you choose not to become a member of a political party until you decided to run for president?
Response: That information is absolutely untrue; I don’t know
where you got it. My affiliation with the Liberia Action Party (LAP)
started from its very inception, partly due to my close association
with the late Senator Jackson F. Doe [of Nimba County] whom I consider
a political mentor. Senator Doe and I closely interacted politically
during my years as a student at the University of Liberia. I was very
active in student politics and even became president of the University
Student Union. I may not have played active roles in the party’s
affairs during the past many years of my residency in the United States.
However, LAP has always been my party, and the only political party
with which I have ever claimed any affiliation.
Question: There are several presidential hopefuls in Liberia today including you. What would make a Korto administration different from the administration of the other hopefuls?
Response: Since we are told that the campaign is yet to officially begin, an attempt to draw specific contrasts between other presidential hopefuls and me may appear as campaigning. Thus, what I think may be safe to do relative to your question would be to draw some contrasts between life under a Korto Administration and our Liberian past. Under a Korto Administration, life in Liberia would significantly change for the better. Here’s only one example of those positive changes to come. Corruption will definitely come under control. I say this not as empty politics; by nature, I have zero tolerance for corruption. One case in point, upon taking office in 1980 as chief education officer for Nimba County, one of my very first official act was to scrutiny the Nimba County education payroll. When that exercise was completed, more than fifty (50) ghost names were discovered costing government a little over eleven thousand dollars ($11,000) a month. I returned the unclaimed checks to the government and replaced the ghost names with real teachers thereby increasing the county’s teaching force. This is just one example to support how a Korto Administration will bring constructive and decisive actions in addressing Liberia’s longstanding social ills.
A book on Decentralization
Mail order to:
Response: As a matter of national policy preference, I do support
strongly the need for decentralization in Liberia, and I share some
of points raised in Yarsuo-Weh-Dorliae’s recent Book. The current
system of Monrovia’s direct control bears fundamental problems
for good governance. One of such, it provides little opportunity for
meaningful participation in national development by local leaders
and people in the counties. Under a decentralized system with provision
for revenue sharing, for example, the Monrovia based national government
can be responsible for the construction and maintenance of main highways
connecting the counties, and have the local government responsible
for roads connecting parts of their respective counties. Now, as regarding
Dr. Sawyer’s suggestion, I don’t think this call for decentralization
in Liberia should take a quick-fix approach at this time. For one
thing, the mandate, structure and powers of the current Transitional
Government do not provide adequate environment for the necessary comprehensive
overhaul of the institution of the Liberian state. Such an exercise
should come after a fully, constitutionally mandated government is
in place; thus one strong case for holding the elections as scheduled.
Question : One of the major weaknesses of the Liberian democratic experiment is there is not a process of internal democracy in the various political parties. That is, the parties do not go through competitive processes in selecting party nominees. In my view, the parties do not put forward the best they have to offer. Will the LAP presidential hopefuls submit themselves to the LAP partisans through some sort of democratic process?
Response: You are right about that; unless the political parties can put forward their best potentials, the election cannot produce the best leadership the nation can have. Relative to the issue of LAP, there are strong indications that the party intends to go through a democratic, competitive nominating process, and we look forward to this promise. However, we cannot pretend about the realities of our system. For example, political parties in Liberia do look up to expiring candidates for operational support. Also, individual support for candidates, sometimes if not most times, come in return for tokens and not perceived leadership qualities. Here then, for example, the financial ability to support a party and to give vote-seeking tokens to groups and individuals may ultimately influence the process and outcome of a party nomination process. However, against the background of our bitter national past due to bad government and leadership, it is hoped and expected that party leaders and partisans will see wisdom to take true courage in doing the right things in order to put Liberia on a true democratic course.
Question: Recent press reports suggest interim chairman Gyude
Bryant and economic Advisor Harry A. Greaves, Jr. have been openly
advocating for Varney Sherman’s candidacy. Does this mean that
Cllr. Sherman is the party endorsed candidate?
Response: I do not know the specifics of the particular case of Chairman Bryant and Advisor Greaves. But, let’s agree that the attitudes and/or activities of some LAP executives do lend credence to a public perception that Cllr. Sherman is already the party’s endorsed candidate. Frankly, I am not as concerned about opened support to a particular candidate by some executives. Knowing how we do politics best in Liberia, the true concern would be whether despite the right to support a candidate of choice, party leaders will still have the courage and goodwill to do the right things for a democratic, competitive process. Once the process meets acceptable democratic standards, we all have the obligation to live with the result. After all, democracy only demands the rule of the majority; it does not guarantee the wisdom of the majority. Thus, sometimes the right minority must painfully live the will of the wrong majority. You may call that a weakness of the system, but without this tolerance, democracy cannot work.
Question: What is your strategic vision for Liberia, how do you intend to accomplish this vision?
Response: My goodness, you are asking for a serious discourse for which we don’t have the time. Anyway, let me say briefly that our nation is today at a crossroad. Instead of taking pride in national achievements and progress, after a century and more history, Liberia is today opting for a fresh start with the need to cultivate and establish new and better socio-economic and political order, as well as better national values. Thus, I hold as a vision to give Liberia a fresh start towards becoming the democratic, progressive, civilized and respected nation it was intended. To achieve this, I will bring leadership with true courage in addressing the nation’s societal ills. The case of the Nimba education payroll mentioned earlier is a concrete example of what I mean by leadership with courage to deliver.
Question: It is often stated that some of the Liberian presidential aspirants including you have no or limited experiences in the management of public affairs. Therefore, you are not prepared to govern Liberia during this difficult period. Could you comment?
Response: I just told you in my vision statement that what Liberia desperately needs today is a new beginning, a fresh start at nation building. The question of experience may reasonably become and issue if and when we as a people were proud of our past and wanting to build upon it. But, you tell me; what is there in our Liberian national past to desire and build upon? This position, however, is not a suggestion that the presidency, the nation’s highest office of trust, is primarily about learning on the job. Certainly, there must be a minimum requirement for experience. Speaking for myself, I believe that my level of education, political exposure already gained, and past leadership experiences coupled with my natural gift of leadership ability, I am prepared for the presidency.
Question: Gyude Bryant’s Transitional Government is considered a disappointment to many, including me, because of its misplaced priorities. For example, the government first chose to purchase millions of dollars worth of vehicles for its officials before making arrangement for 25 buses for mass transit. Do you think the government is working in the interest of the Liberian people?
Response: Frankly, the current state of affairs in the country with particular reference to progress made so far in meeting basic human needs does invite some legitimate criticisms against the Transitional Government, not to mention the issue of the vehicles. However, in my view, it is not the decision to purchase the vehicles that was wrong; it is the choice made that is troubling. Members of the Transitional Legislative Assembly needed transportation to enhance the performance of their official duties. Nevertheless, in times like these, people must go for their needs and not their wants. There are other make of good jeeps much cheaper that could have served the need of the assembly members instead of the luxurious high costs jeeps purchased. Thus, to answer your question, in fairness to the Liberian People, perhaps a little more progress may have been achieved in the last nearly ten months with better decision-making on the party of the Transitional Government.
Question: Do you have anybody in mind as your running mate? If so, who is that person?
Response: There are certainly a number of well-meaning and qualified Liberians to consider for a running mate. However, first thing first; a consideration for running mate will come into focus after first gaining the blessing of my party as its standard bearer. Until than, the names of such Liberians are classified information. You will know who they are if you help me to win the nomination.
Question : Some Liberians have suggested that Liberia establish legal system for people that committed atrocities including Charles Taylor and the Liberian warlords roaming around the world for their crimes in Liberia. Do you support a tribunal for the people responsible for the atrocities?
Response: You raised a very important question, and perhaps a politically sensitive one for a presidential aspirant. There seems to be strong support for a war crime tribunal among Liberians. However, I do see some drawbacks. In one respect, it must be remembered and understood that the civil war was executed largely on the basis of ethnic divide, with each warlord enjoying the support and loyalty of clan members. Another point to consider, a true ethnic reconciliation is necessary and crucial if the nation is to find a way forward. Here then, one must ask the important question of whether strong legal actions brought against the warlords will not draw sympathy and consequently some hard feelings on the part of their respective clan members, that which is very, very likely. If so, can the tribunal be fully executed while also pursuing an effective and successful reconciliation effort amongst the same ethnic groupings; I hold my serious doubts. In these considerations and in the true interest of finding a way forward, perhaps wisdom may see reason in settling with the South African model of Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a compromise.
Question: Did you ever affiliate with any warlord/warring faction directly or indirectly during the civil war in Liberia?
Response: Please read my lips; if there should ever be a listing of Liberians who absolutely did nothing to promote or enhance the civil war, even if that list carries only one name, I will be included. Here are some supports for my claim. I left Liberia and was already in the United States for studies when the civil war struck. As a former county Chief Education Officer and a respected Nimba leader, I was strongly encouraged by the predominantly Nimba fighters with Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (particularly teachers and students) to return and join the leadership of NPFL, that which I refused to do. Also, here in America, I served as organizing chair for a number of protest rallies against the civil war. And lastly, my participation in the Banjul Conference of 1990 and subsequent support for the ECOWAS Peace Initiative and the Sawyer Interim Government angered some of my Nimba kinsmen causing harassment for my parents and close relatives by NPFL fighters. So, I can say without any fear of contradiction that I never did affiliate with any warring faction during the Liberian Civil war, directly or indirectly.
Questions: I was told that you ran on a platform to renovate the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D. C. when you contested the ULAA Presidency. First, did your administration accomplish this goal, and second, how much did you raise toward the embassy renovation project?
Response: That’s true. At the time of contesting for the ULAA presidency, the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D. C. stood in ruins resulting from total burn by a mysterious fire that the cause was never determined. The burned building was becoming a resting place for homeless people and drugs dealers, which provoked a complaint by the neighbors to the city. The city then contacted the U.S. State Department with a threat to seize and auction out the burned building. We felt strongly that the matter was an attack on Liberia’s pride, and we named the proposed renovation effort Project National Pride. I was very disappointed with Liberians in America. I traveled to a number of cities and states to speak to Liberians about the project, but got no encouraging reactions. Some Liberians argued that the building was Government’s property, and why should we renovate it? Others viewed that the burned building remains standing as a symbol of what was happening to Liberia at the time. As the result, we did not collect a dime, and the project never got off the ground.
Question: What then was your administration’s major accomplishment?
Response: Our administration was ULAA’s most effective and achieving. Prominent among our success stories is the immigration campaign. The ULAA immigration campaign has helped to guarantee the yearly granting of temporary legal status (TPS and/or DED) to thousands of Liberians up to the present. You may recall our several immigration rallies at the White House and U. S. Capitol that respectively brought together thousands of Liberians in Washington D. C. Without the ULAA Immigration Campaign, thousands of Liberians may have been forced to leave the United States or remain and live as illegal aliens. The granting of TPS /DED has allowed these thousands of refugee families to remain in America and legally engage in gainful employment for the support of their families here in America, and to give survival assistance to relatives and friends in Liberia and refugee camps in the neighboring countries.
Question: Specifically, what was your administration’s position on the civil strife in Liberia at the time, and did you articulate your position?
Response: In one of my earlier responses, I told you of my leadership role in organizing protest rallies against the civil war. Some of these rallies were ULAA sponsored. Under my administration, ULAA was totally opposed to the civil war and its resulting human rights abuses in the country. We sent out a number of communications to the U.S. Government, ECOWAS, and the United Nations expressing concerns and encouraging the help of the international community in bringing the senseless war to an end.
Question: Do you support alliance politics in Liberia in view of the multiplicity of political parties and “political individuals”, if not, why?
Response: I have my serious reservation about alliance or coalition where each party maintains its identity but they join to form a loosely coupled union only for political accommodation. As such, the arrangements will have to reasonably accommodate some system of power sharing and allotment of positions. If such an alliance wins, the government is likely to be somehow factionalized and could experience some of the very problems affecting functions of the current transitional government. Alliance of political parties also reinforces the value for many political parties, the very problem of concern. For example, if all existing parties in Liberia were left alone to contest the elections, not all may have the capacity to put up presidential candidates. Some of the weaker parties may even voluntarily dissolve. But, the opportunity to form alliance encourages the leaders to hold on to their respective parties principally as bargaining chips for political accommodation. We can never build viable democracy in this way. If a group of parties wanting to work together, let them merge and become one political entity under one name and operation. Alliance is a recipe for political confusion, power struggle and therefore bad governance.
Question: There are thousands of Liberians outside of the country. The chairman of the Election Commission in a recent interview ruled out the possibility of absentee voting. Do you support the Elections Commission’s position? If not why?
Response: I differ with the chair-lady because a considerable number of Liberia’s already small voting population would be disenfranchised. Also, I will not favor absentee voting where ballots are mailed to voters. I would recommend a special arrangement by which Liberians on the outside would vote and have the results tabulated and reported to Liberia on the same day of voting in the country. Let’s take the case of the United States, for example, where it is estimated to have more than 200,000 Liberians of voting age. Liberians in America can be asked to pay a small registration fee of, let’s say $50.00. Who will not want to pay $50.00 to vote here in America and don’t have to get on the plane to vote in Liberia? At $50.00, registering 200,000 potential voters will raise ten million dollars ($10,000,000) more than sufficient to underwrite the costs of the special arrangement. A few centrally located cities would be selected where people will travel to vote on the day of the election in Liberia. This can be done easily since some of the international organizations assisting with the elections in Liberia, such as the International Republican Institute are U. S. based.
Question: Finally, is there anything you would like to say to the Liberian people?
Response: Plenty to say if time could permit. In the interest of time, just two quick points of reminder and appeal. A society is not different from its people, and no society can change for the better in isolation of its people. Thus, unless we Liberians can change our old values and attitudes and adopt new and better ones, Liberia will never change for the better. One such area for a change is our political value for “Election time is chopping time.” While the civil war may have left most of us desperate for daily survival, let’s take true courage in the interest of our better future to guide against money for vote or political support. To be blunt, given our culture of rampant corruption, not too many of our rich Liberian politicians may easily past the test of being corruption free. So, by wanting to chop during elections, we may very well place into leadership positions politicians who may have enriched themselves at the expense of the very nation and people they want to govern. What do you think such leaders will do when they get up there? You bet, exactly what they know best: Self-greed. Indeed, Liberia is not short of good leadership potentials. Surely, there are many among our plenty of presidential hopefuls. If you do the right things, you will find and give Liberia its true leaders.