By Theodore Hodge
A gentleman once told me a story that has stuck with me all these years. Here's the story in brief form: Whenever you find yourself in a strange place, and you wish to learn some fundamental truths about that place, talk to the ordinary folks. You may be in a position to talk to folks who will give you the official version; but always talk to your cab drivers, your barbers, your housekeepers, messengers, shopkeepers and so forth... He found himself in a taxi-cab, and he posed a question to the cabbie: "What's going on in this country", he asked? The cab driver, after verifying what the stranger wanted to know did not hold back, especially when it came to the national government, which of course he understandably despised from his lowly position in society.
The cab driver told the gentleman that he thought his country's government was perhaps the most corrupt government on earth. He made it clear that the things ordinary folks had to put up with in that country would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world. He told him that the government officials were greedy and selfish; they didn't care about the welfare of lowly members of society, such as cab drivers. They (the government people) sat on top of the highest rungs of society and looked down without sympathy on the less fortunate.
According to the taxi-driver, everyone in the government was corrupt, from the president on down. He said the president was especially corrupt and nepotistic; he shamelessly hired and appointed his relatives to high positions, whether they were qualified or not, and left other qualified candidates out in the cold. Nepotism, he said, was killing the country because it gave the president and his relatives and their friends the green light to rob them blind...
The stranger was quite surprised by the driver's outspokenness and his keen observations. They touched on a number of other issues before the ride came to an end. Before the passenger paid the fare and gave the poor driver a generous tip, he asked him just one more question. "Mr. Cab-driver, what would you do to change this country if you woke up tomorrow morning and you were given an opportunity to run this country?"
"Me", the driver asked?
"Yes you", the passenger answered. "What would you do if you woke up and became president of this country?"
The driver put a broad smile on his face and answered, "Oh, that's easy. If I were to become president of this country, I would fire all these corrupt people and put my own people in charge. I would give my wife a nice government position, my senior brother would become Foreign Minister, my brother-in-law Chief Justice and my other brother would be appointed Police Director...." He went on to name relatives and friends who would occupy very high and important positions in his government. In other words, nothing would change; only the individuals running the show would change.
Fast forward. I was in Providence for the funeral of a friend. I ran into an old childhood friend I hadn't seen in a very long time. From one topic to another, we began to talk about corruption in Liberia. He had recently returned from home and things were still fresh in his memory. He began to narrate to me his frustration with the system. He seemed genuine as he told me how disappointed he was with the level of corruption and cronyism. "We need good people in the country because the crooks and thieves are destroying our country", he told me.
I agreed with him wholeheartedly, although I hadn't been back home in a much longer period. Finally the conversation got around to my credentials. He asked me about my academic qualifications and I told him I held a couple of graduate degrees in Education and Public Administration. He was quite impressed; he had some kind words for me... He was proud of his old buddy, and he told me so in no uncertain terms.
He looked at me in a puzzled way and continued: "But Hodge, what are you doing here? A man like you needs to be in Liberia holding one of those lucrative jobs. You could become a director of one of those technical programs and you could have a lot of government resources to your disposal. You could use government resources (trucks, heavy-duty equipment and other things) to build yourself a nice farm, build yourself a nice home, and even construct some homes to put under rent.... Man, there's a lot you could gain from working for the government. You could make yourself in a few short years."
I was puzzled. It seemed like he was going from being anti-corruption to becoming pro-corruption in a matter of seconds. I said to him, "I told you my degrees are not in technical areas. How could I go home and control a technical operation with all these resources at my disposal? How am I supposed to justify my qualification for such jobs? And would it be fair that I use government resources to accumulate personal wealth?"
He countered, "Who cares what areas your degrees in? As long as you got degrees, just go and hustle for a job. When the president gives you an appointment, use it to your advantage, my brother. That's what everybody else is doing. Trust me, Theo, you're wasting your time here... Go to Liberia. You will not be the first to be corrupt."
I could not understand how easy it was for him to switch his position once the key actors changed. All of a sudden, it would be fine if your friends and relatives were stealing from the government as opposed to people you don't know. He seemed perfectly comfortable with the notion if strangers were stealing from the government and having fun and getting rich, why not be lucky enough to have friends and family in the position to benefit?
This brings me to the topic at hand: There are no free lunches. If you ate a lunch for which you didn't pay, someone else paid for it. Perhaps someone else is missing a lunch in order for you to get that extra lunch. It is not free. Corruption must be adamantly opposed on principle. We don't have a choice in opposing or accepting corrupt practices based on the principal players and beneficiaries.
There are those among us who rave and rant about corruption in our government. Some of them take their grievances as far back as the Tubman administration. You'd hear them say: "Tubman did this and Tubman did that..." Some of them blame the True Whig Party (TWP) for all of our societal ills. Tolbert is a prime villain for his record on nepotism. But Tubman has been gone for over forty years now and Tolbert for over thirty. The ugly head of corruption is ever-present in the Liberian society. Why? Because it was more deeply ingrained in our culture than we were willing to let on. The society itself is corrupt, not just the leaders. We come to embrace and accept corrupt practices as long as we are beneficiaries in some ways or another. We don't necessarily have to be direct beneficiaries, as long as someone we know benefits...
Here is an example: We are outraged when we learn that the government pays huge sums of money in salaries and benefits to government officials and those in the president's inner circle. We can't understand how a government minister gets to earn over thirty-thousand dollars a month. There are those for whom that amount is paltry. The so-called Commissioner of Maritime Affairs makes more than that and the President's Chief Legal Counsel who doubles as the head of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), also rakes up dough like that. Senators make about seventeen-thousand dollars a month and Representatives make just a slight bit lower. These lawmakers raised their own salaries based on the inflated salaries of other government officials. There are those who see this as justifiable. There are a host of government positions that are paid in excess of ten-thousand dollars a month.
Not only do these officials (I squirm to apply the term "official" to these lazy crooks) make these huge salaries, they collect huge per diems, sometimes, perhaps, to the tone of five-hundred dollars a day when they travel outside the country on so-called official business. But their benefits don't stop there. The government also sees it fit to issue them gas slips (to cover their gasoline expense) and they also get what they call scratch cards to cover their phone calls... and it doesn't matter whom they choose to call. It boggles the mind as to why people who garner such high salaries cannot be expected to buy their own gasoline or pay for their own phone cards.
But this kind of high-flying corruption is not limited to present-day government employees, the government goes out of its way (or is expected to go out of its way) to accommodate and encumber the expenses of others outside the government. Let's be frank, such practices have a long history. Secondly, the practice of government being responsible for the debt and expenses of people outside of the official government circle is mostly accepted by the rank and file of the citizenry; that is, until it goes against their favorite people. I'll get to that in a minute, first a momentary digression for emphasis.
Helene Cooper, author of the "House on Sugar Beach", writes about her childhood accounts in this book. Her childhood house, of which she writes so lovingly, contained as many as twenty-two rooms. This is not a typographical error, folks. The house contained twenty-two rooms! Well excuse me, she called it a mansion, and rightfully so. There is a difference between a house and a mansion. The family could afford numerous servants and a fleet of fancy cars. The family also had a nice house up-country, that means anyplace in Liberia outside of Monrovia. But that's not all, they also owned a villa in Spain. In Spain, as in Europe!
For those not familiar with the story, Miss Cooper's father did not hold a fabulously high government job; his wife, Helene's mother, didn't work. So how could they afford such opulence? Simple. Helene describes herself as being a descendent of two Liberian dynasties that means her parents came from two lines that had produced Liberian presidents and other high officials. But here is the whopper! At the time Helene was growing up and enjoying all this wealth that could only be described as fabulous, even on European or American terms, her parents were receiving free checks (perhaps the balk of their income) from the Liberian government. Yes, my dear countrymen and women, these folks were getting paid because their grand or great-grand parents were once presidents of Liberia. They were getting paid just for being born!
Let's get this straight. You become a president of Liberia you run the national treasury; you do with the national coffers as you please. When you die, your surviving wife continues to receive a check. Okay, let's call it a pension. That's within the realm of fairness. But all your children receive checks and three or four generations down the line, your off-springs still receive checks from the government? That's the story that Helene Cooper shamelessly tells, while she belittles the poor Bassa man who was their watchman. She accuses him of sleeping on the job while her mom's expensive China (dishes) were stolen. Oh well, rich folks can't help themselves. They think the rest of us were put on earth just to serve them. They pay us pennies and demand loyalty; they think we should be happy for the privilege of serving them. That is, until the coup came, but that is another story.
The point here is that as ridiculous as Helene Cooper's story sounds, it is somehow acceptable to society in general. Some may not like the idea that the Helene Coopers descended from Liberian royalty (let's face it, we can't all descend from royalty), but we like to sit back and get kickbacks from the government. But how deep are the government's pockets? Recently, we heard criticisms of the government refusing to pay for the funerals of ex-government officials or even refusing to foot the medical bills of ex-officials.
The cases of two or three interim-presidents come to mind. They died and the government was accused of not footing the funeral bill or even coming to the assistance of the family in providing for medical expenses. When Barcus Matthews (he was the grandson of another dead president) died in Ghana, the government was accused of dragging its feet. Perhaps dying in America would have been more dignified. But imagine a former Liberian Foreign Minister dying in Ghana! But did his service in government guarantee a life insurance policy? If so, are all those other Liberians who served at that level to be accorded the same benefits? Again, I ask, how deep are government pockets and will that be the right way to spend government revenue? I say, no.
Yes, most of us think it is ridiculous for the government to spend so much of our monies on a few chosen. But we should be as adamantly opposed to any extra-curricular spending by the same government. The president should not have unchecked powers to spend at her will. Ours is a constitutional democracy, (not a monarchy), bound by checks and balances. Any president left to spend arbitrarily at will is in violation of our sacred constitution.
This brings me to the latest development. A gentleman has just passed away. He was a medical doctor who died in the fight against Ebola. Someone just informed me that his daughter was on her way to medical school when her father died. According to the story, the government promised her a scholarship, but has reneged on its promise. The young lady is purportedly left on her own to enter medical school and fight her way through it. On the surface of it, this seems tragic. Indeed, on a personal level, her father's death is tragic. But on the grand scheme of things, isn't this kind of tragedy common? People lose their parents every day, and if the government were to shoulder the responsibility of every orphan, the responsibility would become unbearable, sooner or later.
Let's get this clear. I'm not opposed to a scholarship for a young and deserving student, but a government scholarship should only be offered on the basis of merit. There are orphans whose parents died in service to the country; soldiers, police officers, nurses, etc. There are those whose life of services to the country spanned years and years. Some were teachers and other deserving civil servants. Does the government owe them the same debt, or are medical doctors any different than the rest of society? I don't think so.
The way I see it, if the government devotes itself to paying certain individuals just because they descend from certain special families, just like it did in the case of the Coopers, it is akin to social engineering of society, or eugenics. The government was indirectly saying, we want people of such noble blood as the Coopers to persevere and thrive among us, because they are valuable human beings. Even if it means paying them huge sums to ensure their survival, it is worth the cost to society. But are they?
That same line of thinking is now being supported by people outside of government in the case of this doctor. He was in his seventies. That means he was in the profession for perhaps forty years or so. If he worked all those years and was handsomely paid, why does society owe him any more than his services were worth? This doctor worked perhaps most of his life in private industry and got handsomely paid, according to Liberian standards. Did he not have a responsibility to invest in his own retirement and his children's future? Isn't that expected of all of us? Are we prepared to say that society owes a collective burden to ensure the success of the children of doctors?
Those of us who demand transparency in government spending and frown on the practice of reckless financial policies should also frown on these little unequal treatments. We should reject government paying undue benefits to the descendants of so-called "dynasties" because ours is not a monarchy. But we should also reject the notion that certain people are entitled to free scholarships because of their parents' service to society, no matter in what capacity. Every student deserves an equal opportunity in competing for these government scholarships whenever they become available. Offering one child a scholarship without the competition amounts to a free lunch. But in doing so, another child potentially loses that lunch. There are no free lunches.
The Author: Theodore T. Hodge can be reached at: Imtthodge@gmail.com