By Wilmot A. Reeves


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 28 , 2011


I. Introduction

Liberia is one of only two countries in Africa, along with Ethiopia, without roots in the scramble for Africa’s colonization. It was founded and pseudo colonized by freed American slaves with the help of a private organization called the American Colonization Society (ACS) between 1821-1822, on the premise that the former American slaves would have greater freedom and equality in the new found land. Since the country was founded in 1847, it has had a very interesting history, marked by many years of patronage and partisan politics imbued with massive corruption and economic mismanagement at the expense of public service politics, the latter of which seeks the welfare of a country’s citizenry and provide them quality public services.

The political corruption and favouritism associated with political appointments and government contracts (manifested through nepotism and appointment of associates on unmerited basis, lease of private homes for public offices, supply of equipment and office supplies through bogus means, poorly negotiated concession agreements in favor of a small number of politicians and their families at the disadvantage of the country and its people, etc.) have adversely affected economic development and transformational change in this tiny nation (38,000 square miles with a population of 3.5 million people), which is highly endowed with natural resources inclusive of iron ore, natural rubber, timber, vast agricultural land, diamonds, gold, etc.  Growth has been concentrated in the hands of a few elite at the expense of the majority of the population. Those who had been fortunate to be allies and blind supporters of the ruling party and political leadership are the ones who were often rewarded very well, completely disregarding the merit-based system thereby failing to build a society based on the principle of inclusivity and shared growth.

It may be argued that patronage politics is a phenomenon present in every political system, irrespective of the country, whether developed, developing or undeveloped. In fact, in some political systems, opponents endorse patronage as an acceptable occurrence at the highest levels of government, where the ruling authorities are entitled to select their cabinet and department heads. However, evidence shows that “patronage systems extending far down the organizational chain are susceptible to incompetence, unprofessionalism and corruption” (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2008). The situation in Liberia is equally true; patronage politics has continued to affect every facet of government functionaries, leading to gross inefficiency in service delivery and increased corruption and rent-seeking in the public sector, of course with the private sector a major actor through connivance with public officials to dupe government of huge taxes and revenue.

What this article seeks to achieve is to discuss the destructive features of patronage politics and the burden it imposes on a nation’s economy, with particular reference to Liberia and what should be done to rid the country’s political system of such ill. The primary objective here is to raise awareness and the consciousness of the Liberian people about the adverse effects of patronage politics relative to public service politics, as they go to the polls in October, 2011 to choose their political leaders.

II. Examples of Patronage Politics in Few Countries and Its Adverse Impact

History shows that by the 1860s and following the American Civil War, the world biggest democracy today had once faced its own challenge regarding the patronage system in that there was widespread inefficiency and political corruption in the United States (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2008), which later caused the life of an American President. That is, in 1881, a disgruntled and embittered attorney who had sought political appointment to a consular post shot the 20th President of the United States of America, James Garfield, who during his presidency did everything to fight against political corruption. This situation eventually led the American Congress to pass the Civil Service Act, or Pendleton Act of 1883 (Ibid). The Act later led to the creation of the Civil Service Commission, grounded on the merit-based system for the selection of government employees.

On evidence of patronage politics in Italy, Golden (2003) in an article argued that “Italian public administration performed comparatively poorly during the postwar era as a result of the deliberate behavior of parliamentary officials, who were more concerned with enhancing their own re-election prospects”. He further argued that “bad government provided reasons for members of parliament to offer voters compensatory constituency services and also enhance the partisan political loyalty of civil servants, who were typically appointed on patronage basis, by providing them with extensive opportunities to engage in bureaucratic corruption”. He goes on to say that “while the overall system that emerged was not itself planned, the interactions and behaviours that underpinned it were strategic and self-serving” (ibid).

Malaysia, located in Southeast Asia and with one of the best performing economies in Asia, has also had its own challenge with patronage politics. In 2007, the New Straits Times reported in an article captioned “Political Patronage Cause of Problems” that the awarding of contracts, excessive red tape and poor funding may have been behind problems related to the maintenance of some government buildings. The report also stated that the improper design and construction of some public assets could have also been attributed to political patronage. In 2009, the New Straits Times also did another article captioned “Tackle Political Patronage First”. In this article, it was stated that if money politics and corporate funding of political parties were not dealt with decisively, indeed, Malaysia’s global ranking in battling corruption would have dropped. In 2008, Malaysia was ranked 47th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), with a score of 5.1 on the corruption scale. Certainly, Malaysia’s global ranking on the CPI, as stated in the article, did drop to 4.5 in 2009, 56th out of 180 countries. Also citing evidence of patronage politics in Peru during the reign of jailed former President Fujimori from a study undertaken by Schady (2000), Finan (2004) says that Fujimorian supporters were disproportionately favored in the allocation of the Peruvian Social Fund (FONCODES) at the expense of the rest of the population.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is the 12th world largest producer of petroleum product. However, this nation has been entangled in its own perplexed web of patronage politics and intense corruption, which have adversely affected economic development and made poverty alleviation far from reality. Presently, “over 70 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line with 35 percent of them in absolute poverty” (IFAD, 2011). In a statement delivered by Opeyemi Agbaje, the Chief Executive Officer of Resources and Trust Company Limited, at the Annual Bola Tinubu Colloquium, he stated that “Nigeria political structure promoted wastes, lack of accountability and high cost of governance, and that the political system and its manner of remunerating political appointees make the cost of government prohibitive and probably unsustainable. He lamented that “it is the residue of the public revenues devoted to office holders and public employees that is available for development and poverty alleviation” (Ojeme, 2011). Finan (2004), citing the work of Miguel and Zaidi (2003) on evidence of patronage politics in Ghana, says that the ruling party allocated 27 percent more school funding in the 1998/1999 budget to administrative district where it had won all parliamentary seats in the 1996 elections.

The few examples cited above across regions seem to demonstrate that patronage politics is an age old phenomenon that is not only unique to one country or the aforementioned countries. Nonetheless, it is agreed that it has dire consequences on countries’ economies and their people, such as inefficiency of public state functionaries and the lack of the provision of quality public services (education, health, social security, equality in justice, and infrastructure-roads, bridges, information technology and communications, electricity, and safe water supply). In fact, most political conflicts and civil unrests across Africa are often linked to the frequent use of patronage politics in retaining control of the state. Collier (2007) argued that “to fund patronage politics means that public leaders or governments would first need to embezzle public money out of the national budget and into slush funds”. Sadly, this is usually done at the expense of providing quality public services for the citizenry.
Indeed, patronage politics is destructive to a country’s economy and its people in that it does not forge the common good of diverse segment of society. Instead “it limits itself to the awarding of public office to individuals in payment for political support” (Reid, 2003). The term, which is also described as the spoils system or political machine, also involves the awarding of government contracts to friends, families, ethnicities, and partisans, all of which usually compromise the provision of effective and quality public services in a nation. On the contrary, “public service politics gives priority to the provision of basic services by a government to its citizens, either directly (through the public sector) or by financing private provision of the services” (Wikipedia, 2011). The term is associated with a social consensus (usually expressed through democratic elections), that certain services should be available to all, regardless of income (ibid) or social status. History shows that Liberia has benefitted more from the former (patronage politics) than the latter (public service politics), evident by the high levels of elitist politics, nepotism, ethnicity, opportunism, corruption and severe economic mismanagement, all of which contributed to the advent of the 14 years of brutal civil conflict in which over 250,000 lives were lost, many internally and externally displaced and million dollars worth of properties destroyed.

Given the adverse impact of patronage politics on state functionaries relative to public services provision as well as the effective functioning of economies, many well meaning governments and leaders are working to establish very strong civil service administrations based on merit and robust selection processes of civil servants and even high level political appointments, as it was done in Kenya recently with the advertisement and robust scrutiny of the positions of Chief Justice and the deputy. Moreover, very strong institutions are being established to increase the performance of the public sector with the primary aim of making it more effective and efficient in delivering public services.  

While it may be true that patronage politics still exists today on global diversity, structures and effective functioning of institutions are being put in place to help minimize the presence of such ill, like the example shown in the American case with the establishment of the Civil Service Commission. This is also true for many developing countries that are moving toward more democratic institutions and good governance structures. However, many countries still continue to be challenged with the pervasive use of such system. In most instances those who are not accommodated in governments with appointments and awarded lucrative contracts usually pursue the antagonistic path with no meaningful contributions to the overall development process. In other cases, they take to the bush and decide to cultivate a civil conflict as a way of making their voices heard, getting recognition, and/or having access to the country’s wealth, all in the name of pseudo liberation and social justice. Others who do not pursue the war path decide to destructively criticize the ruling party or government instead of working with it to seek the welfare of the people whose interests they claim to be promoting. It is equally true for the ruling party and its leadership, which, after winning elections, thrive on zero-sum game-the winner takes all-instead of accommodating members of the opposition to foster national unity and peace and security. The situation is even precarious for countries just emerging from conflict. During this time political accommodation and reconciliation should be embraced by both the government and all political oppositions for the common good of the country.  

III. Patronage Politics in Liberia and Its Impact on the Society and People

The three branches of the Liberian Government enshrined in the country’s constitution are to function independently of the other to ensure effective checks and balances in the running of government functionaries. But this has not been the case over the years. Pragmatically, the Executive Branch, which is headed by the President, has always been the strongest of the three branches with sweeping power, which, in the past, was grossly abused with the majority of the citizenry becoming the victims. The other branches of government have been very weak in time memorial, either due to capacity constraints or patronage politics, to create a balance in the country’s governance system. The lack of checks and balances has contributed to bad governance and policies at the expense of public services provision. Collier (2007) argued that “if there are effective checks and balances on power, the society is saved from patronage politics, and that this would be reinforced by the selection of politicians according to their intrinsic motivation to serve the public” and not themselves. This has for over a century and three generations not been the case for Liberia since 1847. However, the country since 2006 has begun to see some improvements in governance and public service provisions but more needs to be done in the midst of the many development challenges.

Founded by freed American slaves with the help of a private organization called the American Colonization Society (ACS) between 1821-1822 on the principle of patronage politics marked by extreme political, economic and social inequalities, marginalization, and deprivations at the expense of the majority of its population, Liberia has over the years had to grapple with the challenge of becoming a middle income country through shared and inclusive growth, which to date still remains a major challenge. Evidence of patronage politics marked by high level of corruption and rent-seeking is visible all over the country. Nepotism and appointment of associates on unmerited basis are still a major challenge to deal with; past administrations over and again leased private buildings to accommodate public offices to their advantage; and concession agreements like the Firestone Rubber Plantation and iron ore mining concession agreements as well as others were negotiated to the disadvantaged of the country and its people in favor of greedy political leaders and their cronies. In addition, office supplies and equipment agreements were negotiated through bogus and fake vendors, thus depriving the country of millions of dollars of revenues. All these situations have greatly undermined effective and quality public service delivery in the country and increased the poverty incidence of the Liberian people. With time, Liberia eventually slipped into 14 years of brutal civil conflict. According to Liberia’s 2006 Human Development Report, “the civil conflict left a perilous legacy of severe human insecurity and degraded human development”. This will definitely need enormous time and resources to alleviate, as it is usually the case with post-conflict countries.

Today, Liberia is completely underdeveloped and considered one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, according to a new measure of poverty index called the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) developed by Alkire and Santos (2010). This index was used in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2010 Human Development Report (HDR) in place of the Human Poverty Index (HPI). Using three dimensions and 10 indicators, Liberia is said to be multidimensionally poor with the index of 0.484, thus making the country to rank 8th of the 10 poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country’s 2010 Human Development Index (HDI) is put at 0.300, which means Liberia has one of the lowest human developments in the world. The country ranks 162 of 169 countries on the HDI.
In its Core Welfare Indicators Questionnaire (CWIQ) survey conducted in 2007, it was revealed that 63.8 percent of Liberia’s population (1.7 million) live below the poverty line while 47.9 percent of them are extremely poor (1.3 million). Other indicators also reveal dismal performance according to the results of the survey. For instance, gross secondary school enrolment is 51.3 percent, while life expectancy at birth is 45 years (Liberia CWIQ, 2007). Infant and under-five mortality rates per 1,000 live births is 72 and 111, respectively, while maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 of the population is 578 (Liberia DHS, 2007) . Unemployment in the formal sector is 80 percent (Liberia’s IPRS, 2007, p. xiii). Agriculture activities continue to be rudimentary, thus impacting negatively on overall food security in the country; the country continues to be a net food importer. The balance of trade, which is a deficit, is put at US$184,092 million as at the second quarter of 2011 (Central Bank of Liberia, 2011). These discouraging results mean Liberia still faces daunting development challenges, which we believe can only be decisively tackled with high level of political will and commitment and very robust interactive development processes. These will help to rid the society of patronage politics and many other vices that continue to retard development in favor of public service politics.

IV. Ridding Liberia of Patronage Politics in Favor of Public Service Politics

It is true that efforts are being by the present Liberian Government to address the many development challenges facing the country. However, the development challenges are indeed very enormous, especially after the civil conflict and in the face of high expectations from the public. It is also true that development is a process and not an overnight event, so patience is required of all Liberians. However, as the Liberian people try to muster this courage and exercise patience, they need to be guaranteed hope for the future. This will mean ridding the Liberian society of those vices that continue to retard progress and development, including corruption and patronage politics which continue to remain major challenges in every sector. Liberia needs to start moving towards the merit-based system as well as systems and institutions building processes to fight against systemic and deep rooted vices. As systems and institutions are built and strengthened, political leaders will be compelled to live up to their promises of delivering public services to the people. In Liberia’s new found democratic era, this can only happen if the Liberian people themselves are able to exercise good judgment and prudence in their decision to choose committed leaders who will make this happen. Gone must be the days when voters and votes were bought with resources that belong to the Liberian people at the expense of public services provision. Gone must be the days when political leaders capitalize on the ignorant of the people. The votes of the Liberian people must now be based on cleared and quality vision to see their country moving forward in the 21st century. According to (Heilbroner and Milbera, 1995: 127-28) “A society whose economic activity is guided by politically self-conscious visions, and that utilizes means-ends analysis, will not exacerbate the ever-present dangers of a politicization of its life. It will only incorporate politics into the agenda of a society that wishes itself to be governed by its choice, not by blind obedience”. The Liberian people must no longer sacrifice long term development for short term consumption through votes buying and blind selection of leaders.

As Liberia edges closer to its forthcoming elections, it should be cleared which way Liberians want to go and what future they would like to see. Whatever decision is made during these elections should not be in favor of patronage politics and vested interests, which will only introduce crooks in government and perpetuate the poverty of the people. The target should be directed at political leaders who will demonstrate high level of commitment to use public resource revenues to supply public services that are most needed by the population. Collier (2007) argued that “where patronage politics is not feasible, the people attracted to politics are more likely to be interested in issues of public services provision”. This is only possible in an effective and good governance system, where there are effective checks and balances of power. The three branches of government must be compelled to work in this direction. The Liberian people have the power to make this happen as the country moves to its second democratic elections in many years. Candidates who enter the political race must be thoroughly scrutinized based on past credibility, substance, credentials, qualification, and experience as well as contributions they have made to development process in Liberia. The votes of the Liberians again should not be based on speed money to solicit votes during these elections. These bribes are repaid dearly after elections through sacrificed public services in favor of corruption to offset potential expenses incurred during the elections. 

Furthermore, as the country draws closer to elections, Liberians must vote right for all categories of leaders, including the presidency, representatives and senators. They must learn from the past to make the future right. Past elected political leaders, especially those currently in the House of Representatives and Senate, who have no doubt served their own interests since elections, must be thoroughly scrutinized on the basis of the development projects they have brought to their constituencies before they are given another chance to serve. In 2005, many Liberians allow themselves to be bought and swayed by empty political slogans by members of the present legislature for which no substantive development can be shown today in many constituencies. Unless, Liberians begin to vote right, they will continue to be victims of their own actions. Each vote cast in October, 2011 must be based on the long term good of the country and not on a short term interest of a few; this should be about making life better for all Liberians and the generations unborn.

As a long term goal aimed at eradicating or minimizing patronage politics and corruption in favor of public service politics, political leaders and the Liberian people must seriously consider constitutional amendment to reduce the terms for the presidency and representatives on the one hand and senators on the other to four and six years, respectively. This will not only help to bring about constant turnovers from one political party to another, but foster unity and genuine peace and security. While it is true, that democracy entails freedom of organization legally, efforts must also be made to reduce the number of political parties in the country, which will help to foster unity and establish a strong political opposition. In addition, the civil service agency needs to be strengthened to be based on merit and its operations made very effective and robust to avoid political influence.  The country should also aim at introducing competitive recruitment processes for high level government positions, to ensure that the right candidates for the job are selected. Lastly, provision of public services to communities and counties must not be based on the number of votes received from those locations. So long these areas are parts of Liberia; it must be the political and social responsibilities of the ruling party and leadership to provide public services to these locations on equal basis. Unless Liberians begin to adopt these measures for the common good of the country, the country and its people will continue to be overwhelmed by patronage politics and high level of corruption over public service politics. In the words of Adam Smith in his masterpiece work, Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, he says “No Society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable” (Smith, 1776, Ch. 8, p.35). Let this wonderful saying of Adam Smith serves as a hint and guide for all well meaning Liberians. In addition, the important role civil society and the media should play in making sure that the focus of all political leaders are public services provision cannot be overemphasized. Therefore, they need to organize themselves into more vibrant and accountable institutions to achieve this goal.

V. Conclusion

This article has reviewed patronage politics against public service politics, to determine which of two Liberians should seriously consider as they go to the poll in October, 2011 to select their political leaders. It has been revealed that patronage politics has existed in Liberia since its founding, which has not augured well for the country in terms of inclusive growth and development. The country’s wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a few, thus making Liberia one of the 10 poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa according to the MPI.

Few examples were given on patronage politics existing in some countries, to indicate that it is not unique to any one country but exists in all parts of the world. However, some countries have taken measures to build institutions and establish robust civil service administrations and competitive recruitment processes to minimize and/or eradicate the existence of such system. Countries that have taken such measures are focusing more on public services provision for their citizenry. As such, as Liberians go to the poll in October, 2011, the leaders to be elected must be those whose primary focus is to provide the most needed public services. The provision of public services must take precedence over patronage politics, which is only destructive to a country and its people.

The paper concludes by suggesting the following actions that must be taken in the long term to rid the Liberian society of patronage politics and those vices that have hindered development in the country over the years. One of these is the introduction of the merit-based system in every sector of the public service if effective public service delivery is to be achieved. This would mean strengthening the civil service agency to keep its operations from due political influence. Secondly, the country should focus more on systems and institutions building process to eradicate loop holes via which corruption and rent-seeking thrive. Thirdly, the number of political parties should be reduced to help foster unity and establish a strong opposition to make the government more accountable to its people. Fourthly, the term limits for the presidency and representatives and senators should be reduced to four years and six years, respectively, to introduce more turnovers in the governance system of Liberia. The fifth suggestion is, efforts must be made to extend competitive recruitment processes to high level political positions in governments to ensure that the right candidates are selected for the job. Lastly, public services provision to communities and counties must be considered a must irrespective of votes received from these areas. Civil society and the media definitely have an important role to play in this direction. As such, they have to get their acts together and properly organize themselves as unified and accountable forces, to speak on behalf of the voiceless Liberian people.




© 2011 by The Perspective

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