By Theodore Hodge
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Potemkin village is a phrase used typically in politics and economics to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is...
If you prefer, consult the Merriam-Webster dictionary: An impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.
Stop. Think. Isn't this exactly what Liberia has become under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf? I think the term Potemkin village is an apt description of the masquerade taking place in Liberia. The term masquerade is also quite an appropriate description of what is transpiring in Liberia under the auspices and direction of the Masquerader-in-Chief, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Again, another dictionary definition; Masquerade: a party, dance, or other festive gathering of persons wearing masks or other disguises, and often elegant, historical, or fantastic costumes.
The masks are coming off. The Liberian people are finally getting to realize that this was only a freak party of massive costume wearers. Our people have a saying: "A lie will hide itself in the dark until daylight catches up with it." It is daylight now and the lie is exposed. Our president has told many public stories and made many promises to our people. It is, therefore, not necessary to lie on her by fabricating stories about her. The best case against her is to use her words and her record. Examine the words carefully, check her record against her promises and the fraudster in her comes out. Let's try that for a moment.
At her first inauguration in 2006, this is what she said: "...Yet we are humbled and awed by the enormity of the challenge that lie ahead --- to heal our nation's wounds, redefine and strengthen its purpose, make democracy a living and effective experiment, promote economic growth, create jobs, revitalize our health and education facilities and services, and quicken the pace of social progress and individual prosperity in this country." Those are the kinds of words that make you stand up and applaud the speaker. No matter one's political or social affiliation, when a speaker touches the pulse of a given matter, one gives in to the emotion. Many stood up and applauded. But examine those words in retrospect. Follow the actions of the speaker and observe the outcome of her policies and in all frankness the rational mind is forced to come to the conclusion that those were only empty words.
Before getting specific on the critique, let's examine a further passage of the same inaugural address: "We are aware that we have hundreds of doctors, engineers, and economists, as well as thousands of teachers, nurses, professors, and other Liberians who possess specialized skills currently living abroad. I re-echo my appeal to all of you to please come home!!! Please make the sacrifice, your country needs you!!!"
Let's be honest with ourselves by posing a few critical questions:
Has democracy become a living and effective experiment during the tenure
of this administration?
Is economic growth being promoted? I mean not just for a select few, but for the entire population?
Are jobs being promoted nationwide?
Have education and healthcare been made a national priority as promised?
Recently, a Liberian doctor who identified herself as Rosalita Marshall, Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicines at the University of Liberia, said that before this administration took the helm of leadership, there were only fifty medical doctors practicing in the country. Now, she said further, there are sixty... Make that fifty-seven because she said they have lost three of their colleagues in recent times to Ebola. Now pause for a moment and let that sink in. Less than sixty doctors to serve a growing population of perhaps 4-million people? Where in the world are such numbers even comprehensible or acceptable? Does this kind of statistic not put our country among the world's worst? Let's examine the problem further. If there were fifty doctors serving in the country upon our great leader's ascendancy to power, why has she been successful in only increasing the number by such a paltry percentage? There is no way such measures can be interpreted as progress. It is quite often postulated by observers that no attention is paid to this crucial area because our globetrotting head of state runs abroad for every ailment, even for routine medical checkups. She pays her cronies enough money and the government subsidizes them to the extent that they too can travel abroad to seek medical services, sometimes many times a year. But what happens to the vast majority living without medical services? They are left to deal with ailments as their forefathers did in times of yore; they use leaves, tree barks and other herbs administered by witch doctors.
But didn't the president promise to appeal to hundreds of Liberian doctors living abroad to come home? Did she ever make any such outreach to them? Did they simply ignore her? If so, why? And has she made any attempt to find the reason why such an appeal goes unanswered? I doubt it. But let's look at this crucial problem from another angle. Let's take a look at the college of medicines mentioned above, a government-owned institution. The president has been in power now for the last eight years. Has the university produced any doctors within that time period? If so, how many, and where are they all? Even if no doctors from abroad ever answered the call to go back home to serve because of greener pastures abroad, what about the university? Again, where are the doctors it is producing? Do they all leave for greener pastures as well? Or does the institution produce no doctors, making it a medical school in name only? You must admit that these kinds of questions are quite troubling, troubling to the extent that they are best left alone... which is what we've done until the outbreak of Ebola. Now the question cannot be buried under the rug anymore. Where are the doctors? Is the university producing any?
Imagine for a moment a country where there are no medical doctors or any significant medical centers in whole clusters of the country. I doubt if there is one doctor in the entire River Gee, Grand Kru, or Sasstown County. (I only use these counties because I hail from Maryland county and I'm familiar with the Southeast... I'm quite sure the same could be said for other areas I'm not familiar with). Many of these people go to Harper, Maryland County at J. J. Dossen Memorial where to say the services are inadequate is an understatement. The hospital is still in the age of antiquity. Perhaps to even refer to it as a hospital is an unfair and incorrect characterization. It does not meet modern standards. It is understaffed and lacks basic operational equipment. Yet something is better than nothing.
But is the president not aware of the state of healthcare in the country? Yes, she is. But she is busy putting on a show traveling abroad wearing her mask and costume and impressing her global friends with empty speeches. She comes home with this award this time and that trophy the next while the people of Liberia are left in abject poverty and misery and waiting to suffer and die from minor ailments. Is the point not clear that Liberia is only a Potemkin village presided over by a masquerader wearing a giant mask? It is not far-fetched to reach the conclusion that the healthcare system (if one can call it a system) has become a colossal failure.
The same could be said for Education.There are huge areas in Liberia where education has retrogressed over the years. Allow me a moment to use another personal example. About forty years ago, Pleebo High School, about eighteen miles from Harper City in Maryland County, had three faculty members that held graduate degrees. Three! In addition, there were Peace Corp volunteers and other capable staff. Today the principal of Pleebo High School is a student at Tubman University. (Forgive me, perhaps he has graduated, but that would be most recent). Cape Palmas High School had a cadre of professionals as well, holding various graduate degrees, perhaps five in all at the same school at the same time. There were also the Episcopal High School, Bishop Ferguson, the Catholic School, Our Lady of Fatima and another Catholic high school, St. Francis in Pleebo. In addition, there was Firestone Junior High School, John Hilary Tubman Junior High School, J. T. Dayrell Adult High School and Pleebo Adult High School. Later on came Bethel Temple High School. Today Maryland County is only a skeletal remains of the past. It is not debatable that the county is in far worse shape than it was forty years ago. That's not the argument. We all know of the war and devastation. But what is the excuse that the county is worse off now than it was eight years ago? Is it not obvious that the president's education policy has failed? Or perhaps it is fair to say she has no Education Policy. What kind of future does she expect to give kids who are being taught by teachers who themselves barely graduated high school?
Despite the grim picture painted of Maryland County, it is still in much better shape than its neighbors. Over the last few years, the Tubman University is coming into its own. But where are the students to come from to fill its seats? Don't you compound the problem when you have very poor and mediocre high schools but build a university in its midst? Again, Maryland County must count its blessings. I don't believe there is one high school in Grand Kru County. I remember reading that the only high school there had to be downgraded. So students come from Grand Kru, River Gee, Sasstown and Sinoe to matriculate to Harper, putting further strain on an already poor system. But is the president aware that there have been no new schools built, nor old ones improved, in this vast part of the country? (Again, I'm sure the same thing can be equally argued for other parts of the country.) Has the Minister of Education ever been to Grand Kru or Sasstown and other remote places in the last eight years? Has any investigation been done to improve the lot of the residents? I don't think so. The president spoke empty words and she has no intention, perhaps no clue in correcting the ails of the nation. But she is too proud or too vain to admit it. Her education policy is failing, or perhaps non-existent.
Every year, thousands of students fail the West African Exams. (Liberians take a watered-down version of the exams taken in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra). Students fail in droves. Sometimes the statistics are incomprehensible. There are more failures than passing at some given times in many schools. After eight years of presiding, one would think some solution would be implemented. But the problem gets progressively worse. About two years ago, all the students sitting for the entrance exam at the University of Liberia failed. It is worth repeating: Every candidate for the university entrance failed the exams. Thousands of students! There used to be a saying: "If the student fails, the teacher fails." In this case, it was a systems collapse. The entire system failed. It shouldn't be too difficult to fathom where high-school graduates and drop-outs are teaching high school pupils. Where does that leave the president commandeering the national ship? The answer is obvious: She has failed miserably. Unfortunately, she doesn't see it that way.
It must be clear by now that both the national healthcare and education sectors are in shambles. It is not sensational or an exaggeration to say that such failure is tantamount to genocide. Future generations are bound to fail further. it is imperative that national policies must be devised and implemented to correct this national tragedy and outrage.
This article is already lengthy and would be even lengthier were we to address other challenges facing the nation. It now takes longer to travel from Harper, Maryland County, to Monrovia than it took forty years ago. The simplest way to put it is the roads are messed up. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf criticized President Tubman for paving the road from Monrovia to Totota where his farm was. Is it not reasonable to have expected the roads to be paved across the country by now? Did she not promise that her administration was dedicated to building better roads to make the lives of Liberians easier? Has the promise been fulfilled? Is there a paved road connecting Gbarnga to Voinjama? From Gbarnga to Zwedru? From Zwedru to Harper? Why are the roads in much more deplorable condition more than forty years after the death of President Tubman? Are we going to continue to blame everything on the war and previous bad presidents? After all, hasn't there been an absence of war for at least a decade now? Has the Iron Lady not been running the show for the past eight years? There is nothing to show of substance because Liberia is a Potemkin village being used to raise international funds for the benefit of professional beggars who enrich themselves at the country's expense. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leads the crowd, being the great actress she is.
What's about electricity? Did she not promise to electrify Monrovia and parts adjacent? Eight years later, has that promise materialized? Has running water been restored? Has the Mount Coffee water plant been restored? Do the people of Monrovia have running water? If the people of Monrovia do not have running water or reliable electric supply, what hope is there for those places further from Monrovia? Is there hope for Gbarpolu, Lofa, Grand Kru or River Gee? Without running water there can hardly be quality sanitation services. Can you see how the absence of a necessity like running water can contribute to such dreadful events like the spread of a virus like Ebola? These things are all inter-related.
Let's turn back to the first inaugural address and invoke the words of the president. She said, "Our administration will therefore embark on a process of rationalizing our agencies of government to make them lean, efficient, and responsive to public service delivery. This will require the creation of a meritocracy that places premium on qualification, professionalism, and performance."
Have you ever heard finer words spoken? Yet we know by now that those were empty words she spoke. She was running a con game and the world bought it. The world fell for it and began to make great donations. She simply laughed her way to the bank. But is anybody examining the reality in Liberia impressed that Liberia actually created a meritocracy under this president? Is the government actually lean, efficient and responsive to public service delivery?
But if the words above sound like a joke, read the following passage on corruption. The president continued:
"Fellow Liberians, we know that if we are to achieve our economic and income distribution goals, we must take on forcibly and effectively the debilitating cancer of corruption. Corruption erodes faith in government because of the mismanagement and misapplication of public resources. It weakens accountability, transparency and justice. Corruption short changes and undermines key decision and policy making processes. It stifles private investments which create jobs and assures support from our partners. Corruption is a national cancer that creates hostility, distrust, and anger. Throughout the campaign, I assured our people that, if elected, we would wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists, or by whom it is practiced. Today, I renew this pledge. Corruption, under my Administration, will be the major public enemy. We will confront it. We will fight it. Any member of my Administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing, or yet another attempt by yet another Liberian leader to play to the gallery on this grave issue should think twice. Anyone who desires to challenge us in this regard will do so at his or her personal disadvantage."
Corruption? Fighting corruption? Obviously, that part of the speech was added to impress her friends and the 'foreign dignitaries' in attendance. No part of that was meant. Again, it was a smooth delivery by a professional con artist whose intention it was to deceive. Corruption is now as commonplace in Liberia as it ever was, even more so. The administration has yet to prosecute anybody though many deserve to be hanged or face the firing squad for embezzling public funds. Not only does the government not prosecute offenders, she routinely re-assigns dismissed officials to new portfolios. It is fair to say she is running a recycling machine of corrupt officials. What kind of logic dictates that you lose confidence in someone serving in one capacity, ask them to resign, only to re-assign them to a higher position? That is routinely the case in this Potemkin village called Liberia.
It is unfortunate that some folks think I derive pleasure from criticizing our president in times of a national crisis. But who else is to blame when her policies led to this calamity? After eight years hospitals in the country are not equipped with gloves? Gloves? (Liberia has one of the largest rubber plantations in the world and the country lacks such basic rubber products like rubber gloves... sounds like a joke that is not funny). Hospitals lack bed linen, soap and sanitizers and in some cases running water? Who is to blame, if not the administration that saw everything clearly and articulated it so well? The only rational conclusion is to lay the blame where it belongs; at the feet of the president. Her con game has been exposed.
Liberia is a Potemkin village. The president's sole aim is to put others under the illusion that things are actually better off under her leadership than they actually are. It is time to call her bluff and tell it as is.
Author: Theodore Hodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org