Campaign Promises, Public Policy, and the Menace of Public Misconceptions and Unrealistic Expectations in Liberia

By Joseph Saah Fallah

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 27, 2008


Liberia’s political environment is characterized by ingrained misconceptions regarding the realities of political campaign promises, the structure of public policy formulation and management, and the capacity of government to meet the needs of its citizenry amidst competing priorities and limited financial resources. I am concerned, at least since the last general elections, concerning the enormous political and economic expectations being placed on the executive branch of government. While it is true that politicians do make promises, and therefore, should be held accountable for delivering on those promises, it is unrealistic for anyone to assume that all promises made by politicians will or must be fulfilled. It remains a fact that political campaign promises are simply what they are; they are not official government policies and even policies do change. In the realm of politics, changes in the political, social, and economic conditions both at the national and international levels do affect public policies and can influence what a government can or cannot deliver.

There are many reasons why some political campaign promises are not fulfilled. One reason for this is the lag in governance. There is normally a time lag between an election and an inauguration of a new government. In the interim, there might be changes in the political or economic conditions that may render those promises either unattainable or unrealistic. A second reason is more fundamental. There is a technical difference between a political campaign promise made by a politician and a government policy. A third, and perhaps the most significant reason, is the composition of the legislature. In a democracy, the ability of an elected president to pursue promises articulated during the election period, for instance, will depend on the composition of the national legislature. In most instances, it becomes more challenging for an elected president to fulfill campaign promises when the opposition holds a majority vote in the legislature.

In this essay, I address some of the contentious political discourse emerging in our country with the purpose of initiating a conservation that I hope will enhance objectivity and reduce the increasing level of sentimental criticism of the executive branch. In my judgment, most of these unfortunate criticisms are the result of general misconceptions concerning political campaign promises and the public policy making structure of the Liberian government. Unfortunately, these conflicts are sometimes accentuated by political commentaries with motives other than engaging in a sincere and genuine public discussion. Engaging the government in a public discourse on issues of national concern is indeed necessary for our promising democracy. However, the constant negative criticism of the executive without careful considerations of our historical, political, and economic experiences only project an image of insecurity with potential negative political and economic consequences.

Campaign Promises or Government Policies?

What are political campaign promises? Why do politicians make promises? Political campaign promises are necessary part of the political process; it is especially true during political elections. Politicians make promises to sell their services to the voters (political candidates for public offices are no different from ordinary job seekers). Like all promotional activities, campaign promises are cleverly crafted to suit the desires of the consumers (the voting populace). Although these promises are tailored to appeal to our psyche; they do not, however, force us to buy the political rhetoric. Unfortunately, in most instances, politicians who make the widest, most unimaginable, and sometimes unfeasible promises get elected. The unfortunate paradox is that most voters never ask themselves the basic question about the achievability of the promises that they hear or read in the papers during elections as they would in the market place for goods and services. Can you imagine entering into a contract without reading its contents? regrettably that is just what we do when we accept a campaign promise “as is” without any critical evaluation of its practicability.

Perhaps, the gravest misconception of political campaign promises is their perceived correlation with governments’ policies. Political campaign promises and governments’ policies are not necessarily the same. Campaign promises are usually more general statements that represent the vision and goals of politicians. Unlike official governments’ policies, these broad goals do not necessarily emerge out of a formal strategic planning process. This assertion does not however negate the fact that political campaign platforms should be grounded in a planning process. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is often not the case. In most instances, the necessary data that are required to formulate more realistic policies are not simply available. Thus, what is usually outlined in a party’s platform and articulated in campaign speeches are slapdash and unrealistic goals to fulfill a necessary campaign requirement. The absence of a qualified team of professionals to examine and analyze the issues also affects the quality of goal statements articulated by most political candidates. In countries where general economic and socio-economic data are nonexistent, this can be a particular challenge. Conceivably, the most limiting factor is the lack of funds to commission an expert panel to study problems and prescribe realistic solutions. In a country like ours (Liberia), all these challenges are too common.

Government policies, on the other hand, emerge as the result of a deliberate and a more formal strategic planning process. Designing realistic policies require a valid analysis of the existing problems with a deliberate intent to understand their causes, to study alternative solutions, and to ultimately adopt the best possible strategies to solve the outlined problems. In the sphere of public policy, such extenuating strategies must be in the interest of the general public; this is at the point where societal benefits exceed societal costs. Unlike campaign promises, government policies are also usually harmonized with the organic laws of the country and are negotiated against competing political interests. This is particularly true in democracies in which the constitution dictates checks and balances. In addition, government policies are considered in a broader context including economic and political constraints. In Liberia, government policies are synchronized through legislation. In general, a public policy is a more formal platform of “the” government concerning the utilization of scarce state’s resources to address competing societal needs. Accordingly, we should therefore hold governments accountable to the fulfillment of national policies and not necessarily on the basis of promises made by a presidential candidate during the election process.

Campaign Promises and Public Policy Misconceptions

So, where do these public misconceptions originate? The answer is not so simple. Nonetheless, public policy misconceptions are embedded in the public mistrust of governments; PERIOD! No matter where, both in very rich countries and in very poor countries, governments and their officials are suspect. This underlying disdain for governments leaves the public with little sagacity or objectivity. The deductive reasoning that characterizes this blanket indictment is, “all governments are corrupt”, and therefore, any government will be corrupt, even if that government is headed by a celestial being!

Another source of misconception is the lack of political awareness. The more politically informed the voting population is, the higher the level of scrutiny and the more suspicious they would be of politicians. Unfortunately this is not the reality in most developing countries, where majority of the population is illiterate. As a consequence, participation in the political process is void of any meaningful and objective scrutiny of political candidates. Instead, political affiliations are generally based on tribal and other socio-economic considerations. This is the general pattern that has been observed in most societies where cultural and traditional linkages are more important. Equally true is the charismatic leadership factor- a situation where a leader emerges because of personal charm and popularity. The threat of this leadership model, however, is that it may symbolize a dictatorship. More often than not, the leader is self appointed-imposed on his followers. The emergence and acceptance of many of the political parties and their candidates during the last general elections is a clear reflection of the unfortunate deficiency in political unawareness that characterizes Liberian politics.

It is not necessarily true that political campaign promises are fruitless endeavors that “villain” politicians pursue. To the contrary, there are sincere politicians that do make efforts to fulfill their campaign promises. However, in a democratic political system, the transition from campaign promises to government policies depends largely on the political and legislative contexts. In Liberia, for example, a campaign promise made by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to fight corruption through the Assets Freeze and Anticorruption Bills have been contested by the legislative bodies. This is a clear example of competing interests. Under the present legislative relationship, there is little President Sirleaf can do; her party does not have the majority support. This does not necessarily suggest, then, that the president has failed to deliver on her campaign promise. To the contrary, this is a clear demonstration of competing political interest that exemplifies the political structure of our government.

Like most plans, public policies do not always achieve their intended outcomes also. The latent effect might be large (benefits) at times and, at other times the effect might be considerably adverse (costs). This is the nature of social and economic events where predictions are as good as the processes that produce them. If the planning and analysis that produce the plans are mediocre, their results will also be mediocre. This does not mean, however, that unintended consequences should not be expected. To the contrary, it simply suggests that steps must be taken to minimize the errors and avoid costly mistakes that result in inefficient allocation of scarce resources. On the other hand, however, good planning is a process that requires periodic revision in light of changing economic and political conditions. Unfortunately, this is the nature of public policy that is usually ignored by the public and has often contributed to the public disillusionment in successive governments.

Public Policy Making Structure in Liberia

Liberia is a democratic nation. Its structure of government comprises three distinct and independent branches: the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary. One serious misconception concerning government in Liberia is the often characterization of the executive branch as the “government.” This popular view is incorrect; the three branches constitute the Government of Liberia. I acknowledge from this point that this is an obvious abridged narrative of the policy-making framework of the country. Nonetheless, it provides an understanding, at least, on the significance of the roles of the executive and legislative branches in public policy formulation and management. The executive branch of the government is headed by the president. The Constitution of Liberia empowers the president to implement policies that are approved by the Liberian Legislature. The president also has the mandate to appoint ministers, directors of public corporations and heads of other executive-type institutions. Under the Liberian law, ministers, directors of public corporations, and certain category of officials nominated buy the president, must be confirmed by the Liberian Senate.

In Liberia, certain government policies, for example, foreign policies, economic policies, and military policies generally originate from the executive branch. However, under the law, those policies must be approved and passed into law for them to become official government policies. The basis of this approval in general can be understood through the national budget process. The programs of the executive branch, a manifestation of those policies, are contained in the annual budget it submits to the legislature for approval. In effect, the Legislature approves or rejects the executive branch’s programs by approving or rejecting the national budget. Although the president has executive and veto powers in certain circumstances, the president’s veto power can be overturned by a majority vote of the legislature. To become law, all Acts and Bills passed by the legislature must be signed by the president. Although each branch performs a different function, the formulation and management of government’s policies are the prerogative of both the executive and legislative branches.

The Liberian Legislature is the first branch of the government and possesses enormous powers to dictate the state of affairs in the country. Analogous to a business organization, the legislature can be viewed as the board of directors of a larger corporation, Liberia. In particular, it is the law-making body of the Liberian government. The Constitution also gives the legislature oversight responsibility of the executive branch. Accordingly, the constitutional powers of the legislature enable it to enhance or hinder the capacity of the executive to implement policies and programs. As mentioned earlier, the legislature also has the mandate to confirm certain category of officials nominated by the president. This confirmation process, although often overlooked by the public, is a vital function of the legislature that has a direct impact on the ability of the president to efficiently implement policies and programs. Although the rejections of presidential nominees are atypical in Liberia, there have been some memorable examples. Noticeably, the rejection of Dr. Byron Tarr as Finance Minister and Mr. Nat Patray as Central Bank Governor during the interim presidency of Dr. Amos Sawyer in the early 1990s. A few close rejections have also occurred in the current legislature but were later reconsidered.

Perhaps the budget approval mandate of the Liberian Legislature is its most powerful tool for exercising its constitutional powers over the executive. By law, the legislature can approve or reject the budget as presented by the president, it can add or remove programs from the proposed budget, or it can identify additional sources of revenues. The last budget debate (2007–2008) has been one of the most contentious issues between the present executive and legislative branches. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily an actual budget debate, since most of the deliberations focused on the allegation of corruption levied against the government by the Auditor General, John Morlu. The merits or demerits of that debate are beyond the scope of this essay. Eventually, however, the legislature augmented the executive’s budget proposal and made functional adjustments to it as justified by its constitutional privilege. When the Legislature performs its statutory mandate as well as it did, it contributes positively to the public welfare of the Liberian people and must be commended.

Despite the very important role of the Liberian Legislature in public policy making and public resource management, we (Liberians) have ignored the relative importance of this branch of the government. Liberians, in general (many educated Liberians, and professional organizations including the media), have increasingly concentrated their evaluations and critical observations on the executive branch. For example, the yearly academic-type evaluation that is carried out on the performances of cabinet ministers is not also undertaken for members of the legislature. Consequently, we have come to accept the legislature as an institution to which any Liberian with questionable public and educational credentials can occupy. Our failure to hold the present members of the legislature to the same level of scrutiny that characterized the presidential candidates during the last general elections has deprived the Liberian people of an efficient representation in then present legislature.

My frustration with the Liberian press concerning the 2005 elections remains its failure to investigate the financial disclosures of candidates seeking legislative seats. One need only review the financial disclosures of some of the legislators filed with the National Elections Commission (NEC) to observe the treachery of some of these individuals. It is regrettable that no journalist or political pundit has dared to revisit this issue. In my opinion, this issue has significant relevance for the public agency interest that our legislators have espoused and vowed to pursue. Recent developments, however, seem to suggest that a general interest of some of the members of this noble institution is passing laws that provide and protect their individual and collective financial benefits instead of concentrating their efforts on enacting laws that benefit the Liberian people. The expressed opposition to the proposed Assets Freeze and the Anticorruption Bills and the promulgation of rules to allow the legislature mange its own budget are clear instances that establish this assertion.

Public Expectations in Liberia

Perhaps, no other executive branch in our most recent political history has received as much scrutiny as the present one. Soon after the inauguration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, all the problems that had eluded past governments emerged. There was the issue of the Armed Forces Liberia (AFL) salary arrears, the issue of the AFL widows’ benefits, the issue of the infamous Antiterrorist Unit (ATU) salary arrears, the issue with the Civil Service Association calling for general salary increment of up to $150, the issue of the tuition increment at the University of Liberia (UL), the issue of UL professors’ salaries and benefits, and many more unresolved issues. The unfortunate death of Mr. Baccus Matthew was also greeted with renew accusations about government actions prior to his death. I was extremely disappointed with those individuals that had tried to infer that the unfortunate death of Mr. Matthews was linked to the failure of the Liberian government to extend him a Liberian Diplomatic Passport. If this was not the intention of the accusers, then, I wonder why the accusation was made at all. Thanks to Matthews’ son for bringing a closure to that unfortunate debate. In recent weeks, the Executive branch has also been criticized for short-changing the Liberian people for selling a stockpile of ore below the market value. Here again, it is rather unfortunate for anyone to assume that a 16-year stockpile of ore, mixed with various kinds of foreign organic materials, is worth the prevailing market price without considering the cost associated with its acquisition and transportation.

Despite the fact that all Liberians have the right to make claims against their government, I disagree that the government should be compelled to settle unsubstantiated claims brought against it. It is my conviction also that some of the earlier claims against the government were frivolous, opportunistic, and difficult to ascertain. In spite of the obvious financial challenges facing the government, it disbursed millions of dollars to settle the many claims brought against it-in fact it still owes more. This was absolutely the right thing to do considering our fragile security environment. Nonetheless, I construe that the majority of those claims were impulsive, given the financial constraint of the government. Most Liberians are either not aware or have failed to consider that the government does not have an infinite source of revenue. Therefore, funds it spends on the settlement of frivolous claims do impose a high cost on all Liberians measure in terms of abandoned programs and reduced social services. Liberians need to realize also that the implementation of government programs requires money. The more money the government can generate, the more services it can provide. Today, unfortunately, although the government runs a budget of about $200 million, compared to an estimated $500 million before 1990, we are demanding and expecting far too more from this government than it can offer in the very short run.

In spite of the observable positive changes taking place in the country, there are Liberians who are committed to distorting government’s progress under the disguise of freedom of speech and visible political opposition. In general, a visible opposition is indeed healthy for our democracy. However, unrealistic criticisms, predicated upon speculative analysis, do us more harm than good. Regrettably, this is too often the case in Liberia. In 1979, for example, when Liberians demonstrated against the proposed increase in the price of parboiled rice, we were not told then, that in fact, the price of rice had always been higher than the prevailing market price. The low price at that time was the result of government’s subsidy on rice import. The UL Faculty Association (ULFA) has also recently, among many claims made against the government, and demanded that they be paid research allowances. Again, ULFA failed to consider that research grants are for the sole purpose of financing research projects that have been proposed and approved for funding. In academia, research grants are not allowances; they are earned for the purpose of undertaking research projects. In fact, most research grants come from external sources and not governments. Failure on the part of ULFA to either recognize or consider this basic fact agitated a tense relationship between the UL administration and the faculty to the detriment of the students at the university. To date, the students at the UL attend classes at the mercy of ULFA; this is rather unfortunate and must not be allowed to happen.

A few months ago also, the UL was briefly closed after a series of students’ demonstrations regarding tuition, transportation, and the unfavorable learning conditions at the school. Again, the students have the right to challenge the government and push it for adequate funding. Sadly, here are some facts that the students have ignored: 1) the cost of restoring damaged facilities at the university require million of dollars, funds this present government does not simply have, 2) the students’ population at the university is today far more than the capacity of the institution and therefore places an enormous constraint on its limited facilities, 3) the tuition and fees at the UL today are relatively lower than what they should actually be in real dollars, adjusting for inflation since 1990. The students also need to recognize that while it is true that education is an essential component of our post-war development strategy, higher education is indeed expensive, and a quality higher education is even more expensive. Under present funding levels, it is necessarily impossible for the UL administration to meet the ever increasing demand of the students. The sooner these facts are recognized the more the students will appreciate the value of their education and avoid unnecessary conflicts and closures that have characterized education at the UL for many years.

Although there are many other relevant examples that can be drawn from our historical and political experiences, I have provided just a few relevant examples to construct my observations. I have also observed that the experiences discussed in this essay have two similarities: 1) They have been unrealistic, since they have ignored the enormous economic and political challenges facing this present government-just 2-year old. Sadly also, most of these unfortunate events have been characterized by the damage of physical assets and the loss of innocent lives. I do acknowledge that conflict is a necessary component of all social structures. However, I disagree that we should result to violence to solve conflicts when they do occur.

Closing Thought

I have attempted to encourage my readers to begin rethinking the way we perceive political campaign promises and public policy structure in Liberia. To this end, I have observed that campaign promises are fundamentally different from public policies. I have also suggested that we should be increasingly suspicious of campaign promises made by politicians and challenge government’s policies in the face of our economic and political realities. I have observed too that misconceptions surrounding the policy-making structure in Liberia are responsible for the over-exposure of the executive branch to public criticism, leaving the Legislature to the unchallenged control of its members.

In general, I admonish Liberians against imposing unrealistic demands on their government without a genuine consideration of the financial constraints that it faces. We have experienced that demanding our government to deliver on unrealistic goals has in the past led to uncontrollable public reactions with undesirable consequences. Public criticisms of the government, in my judgment, are indeed necessary for our democracy. Scrutiny does not, however, endow critics with the right to distort the facts or to voice negative sentiments about events unfolding in the country simply for political relevance without considering the consequences of those criticisms.

Considering years of inefficient public policy management regimes coupled with the devastation of the many years of civil crises, the present government headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is doing comparatively well. There are visible changes occurring in the areas of public resource management and infrastructure development just within the last two years. The renegotiation of past agreements (Mittal Steal and Firestone) to ensure that Liberia maximizes its economic benefits, the partial restoration of basic social services (electricity and water), and now the reconstruction of some major road networks are all observable examples. Most admirably, the government has been able to effectively lobby the international community to forgive our unmanageable debt burden. Can more be done? Yes! Has the government done all it can? No! Yet, in comparison to our past political and economic experiences, we are heartrending on an optimistic course. There remain obvious and enormous challenges. Nonetheless, we should recognize the endeavors and accomplishments of this government at this point. To do otherwise is a complete disservice to our country and people, and at worst, to our own conscience.

How do we go forward? I propose a number of general guidelines. The government should design programs to effectively communicate its policies, programs, and challenges to the Liberian public on a regular basis as possible. The government should also be proactive, not reactive in addressing issues of national concern, especially those that have security ramifications! A community-based model that speaks to the ordinary people might be very helpful. Opposition politicians should be constructively visible, and they should challenge government’s policies by presenting alternative solutions to the issues. Opposition politicians should also begin to play practical roles in community development programs and not wait for elections. The religious community and education sector should both get involve in civic education that contributes to the political awareness of the masses. It is important to remember that the survival of our emerging democracy depends on a political-informed and involved population.

I challenge every Liberian henceforth to adopt a personal theology of patriotism and work tellingly toward creating a new and stable Liberia that we all can be proud of. God bless Liberia!

About the Author: I am a Liberian living in Philadelphia, USA
M.S., Applied Economics (Energy and Telecommunications Regulation and Policy Study)
M.S., International Economic Development
M.S., ABT (All But Thesis) Regional Planning
Graduate Diploma, Small Business Development
Post-Baccalaureate Professional Certificate, Nonprofit Management/Fundraising

© 2008 by The Perspective

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: