Elections Alone Are Not Democracy: Why Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Presidency Is Only Dressed Up As A Democracy?

By: Charles Kwalonue Sunwabe, Jr., Esquire

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 1, 2014


President Sirleaf

The current fixation with “democracy” in Africa would­­ be noble if it were vaguely concerned with promoting “true” democracy on the African continent.  True democracy and its supporting institutions remain evanescent in Africa, even since the demise of the Cold War in the early 1990s.  Broadly in Africa, and particularly in Liberia, popular and regular elections are taking place.  But, they have been twisted, coopted by rigid and crooked African regimes to prolong their stay in power under the guise of democracy.  Along the way, the creeds of true democracy have been discarded and debaucheries have been cemented across the African continent.  Thus, the actual intent, benefits, and progress of true democracy remained strikingly stagnated across Africa.

In writing this article, I focus heavily on Western Africa.  I do not mean to suggest that other parts of Africa are not equally important (In fact, all of Africa is important!).  Rather, I focus on West Africa because it appears to be the most truculent—a conflict prone region in post-cold war Africa.  Even more specifically, this article examines the Liberian regime of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, arguing that Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberia is not a true democracy, but rather a legitimized electoral autocracy and corruption.

In this article, the terms “true” and “real” democracy are used concurrently.  Literally, they refer to the concept of liberal democracy.  Real democracy entails liberty, egalitarianism, and justice—institutions rather than personality are the mainstay of real democracy.  As a process, elections are cardinal to real democracy.  But popular elections alone are not democracy.  Andrew C. McCarthy of National Review notes that, “Globally we’re still confusing democratic legitimacy with legitimate democracy.”  In the parlance of democratization, the two terms do not mean the same thing—by practice and application, they can be easily discriminated.  According to McCarthy, “the latter is real—a culture of liberty that safeguards minority rights.”  McCarthy goes on to suggest that “attaining democracy is a worthy aspiration, but one that requires years of patient, disciplined, and often unpopular work.”  On the other hand, democratic legitimacy “is an illusion—the pretense that if a particular country holds popular elections and elects a professed reformer viola, it has a ‘democracy’ and progressives the world over would regard it as such.”


Thus, democratic processes—elections, referenda, constitutions drafting—must be conditioned on a preexisting democratic culture.  Broadly in Africa, and specifically in Liberia, probable democratic cultures have proven ineffective.  South Africa, Botswana, and a handful of African countries can truly boast of either strong or emerging democratic cultures.  In the case of Liberia, however, a pluralistic democratic culture has never existed.  A golden opportunity was presented to Liberians in 2005, but we squandered it and disastrously settled for an ignoble ploy.  We largely voted on account of deception and “magic charm.”  Our elected leader was hardly a democrat—a pure hustler who exploited our combined legitimate grievances. Since then, she has cunningly utilized national resources and inchoate–state structures to enrich her family and her besmirched henchmen. President Sirleaf’s actual intent is not difficult to gauge: she wants to prolong her misrule through an equally corrupt chosen successor.

I have always contended that Liberia was never ready for elections in 2005. Interestingly, Liberia will still not be ready for a truly democratized electoral process in 2017.  As I have argued elsewhere, democracy is all about institutions.  In Africa, the development of democratic institutions must take precedence over the mere exercise of voting.  Tragically, today’s global refrain is in the opposite direction:  Every country must hold an election.  Voting certainly is important, but—and this is key—it must occur within the context of robust democratic institutions.  Democratic institutions are efficient when they possess the capacity, prestige, and authority to uphold and support democratic cultures.

In Africa, we must prioritize the development of democratic institutions, including independent security forces that are subjected to the will of the masses, an independent judicial system, elections commissions, free and independent media institutions, medical training and licensing boards, and an independent education system.  When democratizing countries fail to first prioritize or cultivate democratic institutions, they sadly set up totalitarianism quasi democratic rulers, the patina of democratic legitimacy.  Lamentably, Liberians have twice granted Johnson Sirleaf the much needed verdigris of democratic legitimacy, which she is exploiting to the maximum.

In Liberia in 2005 and again in 2011, we legitimized a charlatan.  The ignominy here is that President Sirleaf was never interested in a real or pluralistic democracy.  Once elected, President Sirleaf demonstrated her true intent, moving swiftly to insulate herself and manipulate the international political scene.  She developed a democratic institutional facades in Monrovia.  Liberians should have been startled, but we were inattentive to President Sirleaf’s misdeeds.  We were lost in the euphoria of the abrupt departure of a tyrant and a vagabond—Charles Taylor—and, as a result, President Sirleaf capitalized on our inattentiveness.
When a democratic institutional façade has been put in place via an electoral process, the elected leader instantaneously outlines what appears to be a broad democratic agenda.  In the case of Sirleaf’s Liberia, no time was wasted: The Liberian leader boldly declared in her inauguration address in January 2006 that she would put a credible process in place.  Other democratic buzz words soon followed: The World Bank and the IMF would provide the pillar of economic reformation.  In a speech before a joint section of the U.S. Congress, President Sirleaf declared that she would build “an American democracy” in Liberia.  International treaties and best practices were to become the seal of Johnson Sirleaf’s professed Liberian democracy.  But, that is where the story ended.  On the implementation front, Liberia has languished.   


Of course, President Sirleaf’s embrace of institutional democratic tenets were well-guided even if she lacked the resolve to build a truly democratic state. Money was the main motivation: President Sirleaf needed Western largess—foreign aid to supposedly develop her country. To gain access to Western aid, President Sirleaf needed to pretend to be a democrat.  As expected, Western aid poured into Liberia.  But now, years after Johnson Sirleaf was first elected to the Liberian presidency, the impact of massively infused Western aid cannot be measured.  More troubling for President Sirleaf and other foreign-aid dependent African leaders, nearly a century of foreign aid reliance policy has failed to successfully turn a single African country into a thriving market-oriented democracy.  Generally, the African populace viewed foreign aid as part of Africa’s problem and not its solution.  To overcome poverty, Africa needs to manufacture its own natural resources: turning Africa’s vast natural resources into marketable finished goods that would lift Africa out of poverty.  No amount of foreign aid or foreign investment can redeem Africa from wretched poverty.  Nevertheless, as long as indolent African rulers like Sirleaf remain in charge of state power in Africa, Africa will remain poor.

All along, I have emphasized the need to develop democratic institutions that are stable and self-sustaining enough to support emerging pluralistic democratic cultures across Africa.  In the Liberian case, the judiciary, the media, and medical institutions should have claimed President Sirleaf’s attention.  As it pertains to the judiciary, Johnson Sirleaf set out to create a judiciary that was an extension of an already corrupt and power-hungry presidency.  After her election, President Sirleaf craftily engaged in what can only be classified as court packing, appointing loyalists and feeble-minded individuals to the Liberian Supreme Court.  The lower courts were not spared either: a severely corrupt process was put in place. Accordingly to the US, UK, European Union and other African sources, the Liberian judiciary is undeniably and extremely corrupt and dysfunctional.  It is used to promote injustice rather than justice.  Judges routinely seek Presidential inputs before rulings are handed down. According to the country’s outgoing Attorney General, Kristina Tarr, judicial proceedings are infiltrated by the president—every major decision must be authorized and cleared by the president.  This means that Liberia does not have an impartial and independent judicial institution in place.  Consequently, there is a need to develop from grassroots a new and functional, independent judiciary.

It would be a terrible mistake to assert that the judiciary is the only problematic institution in Liberia.  As previously noted, the media and medical institutions are equally corrupt.  To be sure, they do not exist in Liberia in actual terms.  For example, President Sirleaf has repeatedly referred to Liberian journalists as “checkbook journalists.”  The term checkbook journalists refers to a process whereby journalists are paid fees to generate positive news articles, publications, and coverage.  Despite acknowledging this, President Sirleaf has personally participated in this disgusting practice.  As far as Liberia’s medical institutions are concerned, the problem speaks for itself (though I will address Liberia’s deficit in this particular area in an upcoming article).  As but one recent and tragic example, note that the Ebola virus spread so rapidly in Liberia because we do lack credible and functional medical facilities and institutions.

In writing this article, I set out to demonstrate that pluralistic democracies are based on strong institutional support.  Where supportive democratic institutions and cultures do not exist, elections are used to legitimize corrupt political personality and inept rulers.  Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberia falls in this category.  To embark on a sustainable democracy in Liberia, I propose the following four steps:


1. Liberia should be placed under an International Trusteeship, as esteemed Liberian freelance writer Theodore Hodge has recently suggested. A UN-type trusteeship does not mean that “white people” should take over Liberia.  The argument that a trusteeship means that Caucasians should take our Liberia engenders unnecessary fear and is advocated by corrupt minds and their emissaries.  Indeed, a noble Liberian could serve as the trustee; however, he or she will have to govern under international supervision. 

2. The trusteeship should last for at least ten years, during which a new constitution should be written to reflect Liberia’s ethnic diversity.  Additionally, a new core of judicial officials should be trained for Liberia. A new and credible security force should be simultaneously trained to safeguard and protect our new democracy. The current security forces were hastily trained on account of President Sirleaf’s self-serving recommendation and the vetting process was poorly executed, thus corrupt and blood-thirsty rebels were allowed back in the security forces.  Even worse, murders and rapists were directly appointed by President Sirleaf.

3. President Sirleaf must resign or be forced out of power. Liberians should exert peaceful none-violent means to pressure Johnson Sirleaf into departing the Liberian political scene.  She and her government should be audited by a neutral-third party.  Likewise, her family and its finances must be audited.

4. The current Liberian judiciary and court system should be disbanded.  The judges must be audited and held accountable under the law.  Where necessary, they should be made to forfeit or return their ill-gotten salaries.  Justice Philip A. Z. Banks should be investigated and potentially prosecuted for the US $500,000 seized from a suspected drug dealer that vanished from his custody when he was Attorney General.  It is unacceptable and incredible that a critical piece of evidence in a criminal proceeding “disappeared” without a trace.  If he were practicing anywhere in the United States, he would have faced almost certain disbarment.  But in Liberia, he was promoted to the Supreme Court as an associate justice.      

While there are numerous other actions I might recommend, these four concrete steps would help push Liberia back toward real democracy.  My fellow Liberians, it is time that we took action to redeem ourselves and our country:  President Sirleaf must be made to resign and we must seek true democracy!
The Author: Charles Kwalonue Sunwabe, Jr., MA., ESQ teaches International Relations at Westmoreland County Community College. He is a solo-litigation Attorney and owner of Sunwabelaw.com. He can be reached at sunwabelaw@gmail.com.

Flahn Dualu
I have read many articles and written many myself, but none moves me as much as this one! This was concise, poignant, and drives the points home without hesitation. THANKS YOU, SIR. The challenge now becomes: how to we get our people to think in this direction? Mama Liberia bleeds and we do nothing.
Flahn Dualu at 01:06PM, 2014/12/04.
Nat Galarea Gbessagee
I see a great deal of hopelessness in the proposal that trusteeship is the best and only way to solve the leadership, socioeconomic, and politico-cultural problems in Liberia. Really? In practice, which man will ask another man to take care of his wife and children in his home because he lacked the necessary technical skills and financial resources to do so himself? This question is rhetorical, but it goes to the heart of the argument of those who think Liberians can no longer unify and rebuild Liberia unless the country becomes a trustee of the UN system or another body. But how? Are Liberians this hopeless in their own homeland and in their own future? Can Liberia really be developed without the total support of Liberians?

It is not clear to me if the proponents of the proposal for trusteeship ever thought critically of the role of GEMAP, ECOMOG, and UNMIL in Liberia jointly or individually before proposing another international take-over of Liberia. For GEMAP took over economically, and ECOMOG and UNMIL took over politically, militarily, and economically with not much difference in the lifestyles of average Liberians, just as under the elected leaders of the country. So how will trusteeship work this time around?

I asked because I think Liberians will do well to decide on their own future rather than depend on others to do so. For never in the history of humankind has trusteeship or any direct or indirect occupation replaced the resolve of the locals of a country or kingdom in charting the course of their own destiny. And I don't see how Liberia will be the exception.
Nat Galarea Gbessagee at 06:18PM, 2014/12/04.
Sei Destiny
It's very healthy to advance arguments and counter as depicted here. While the possibility of any semblance of hope for our country appears daunting, I'd like to ask all of you to cautiously believe that the sustained change we seek is coming.

There's a silent but powerful non-partisan grassroots movement that's growing throughout Liberia. I was honored to accompany members of this movement to various drug infested ghettos, and rural areas to discuss a myriad of topics. Like many, I was always so frustrated with EJS and her bandits, which made it difficult for me to believe that Liberia will ever be economically vibrant for all.

Now, if you want to start making a silent, measurable difference in Liberia which will help usher the leader God will bring in 2017, please leave your contact info. May God bless Liberia!
Sei Destiny at 07:52PM, 2014/12/04.
James W. Harris
Nat Galarea, long time pal. Hope all is well in your neck of the woods. I find your thought on this particular subject very interesting. First of all, Liberians have actually had more than 167 years to “decide on their own future” as you correctly put it. However, the reality is that they haven’t so far. Now, we can argue back and forth on why or why not, but that does not erase the fact that Liberia is what I personally term ‘a massive failure of the black man towards achieving self rule.’ In your comment, you cleverly mentioned the ‘intervention’ specifically of GEMAP, ECOMOG, and UNMIL in Liberia, suggesting that “proponents of the proposal for trusteeship [have never] thought critically of the role” of these international organizations. I sincerely beg to differ. Anyone who has “critically” studied the history of Liberia, including, the failed governance of the present group of clowns calling themselves ‘leaders’, would reach the same conclusion without any doubt. It would be good, though, if Liberians generally had the audacity to take full responsibility for their country and chart a new course taking into account the interests of all, but that sadly will not happen for various reasons. What’s there to be hopeful about then? You also asked rhetorically, “Are Liberians this hopeless in their own homeland and their own future?” My answer to your question is an emphatic YES! It is actually good to be hopeful, but that hopefulness must be based on something that is real – not imagined. The reality in Liberia today is that it is still a severely corrupt and backward country with the so-called government showing indifference towards its people by the day. And so, until some forward thinking (young) Liberians garner the courage to wrestle their country from this generation of life-long opportunists, I am afraid Liberia is doomed.
James W. Harris at 01:06AM, 2014/12/06.

"In practice, which man will ask another man to take care of his wife and children in his home because he lacked the necessary technical skills and financial resources to do so himself?" to answer your question, that man is Liberia, who despite been bless with abundant resources his children goes to bed hungry ( literally on empty stomach). That man is Liberia who despite the the vast forest his children are still dying of diseases that can be cure with plants growing in his nostril. That man is Liberia who despite proclaiming to be the oldest child among is peers 90 percent of his children are functional illiterate. That man is Liberia who does not understand the tenets of democracy and continues to make the same mistakes over and again expecting a different result.
The fact that the core leadership hands are tinted with innocent blood and the lack of retributive justice nothing substantial will emanate out of Liberia and bluntly, that Liberians will consider the likes of george weah and robert sirleaf for leadership role leaves much to be desire about that kind of issues Liberia is facing.
klon at 09:43PM, 2014/12/15.
Frederick Varney
I am strongly attuned to the author’s frustration. However, what the author missed in lamenting the current state of affairs in our country is this looping concept of discussing Liberia in the same prism of Africa as a continent. He extrapolated Liberia from the rest of Africa, as a case in point, but left me wondering what becomes of the rest of the African countries that are in similar failure like Liberia?

He opined that electioneering democracy alone can be a figment of a real democracy unless true democratically architectural institutions that anchored those values are put place and adhered to. I agree... What can we then do as a people to dislodge this practice if such an ideation of United Nation's takeover fails to ameliorate our plight as a country?

As a foreign policy lecturer, Sunwabe congealed the failures of Ellen Johnson’s presidency as would-be failures all other future leadership to measure up to the tasks--a pattern he deemed cultural. My question: Can democratic cultures be imposed by a foreign body such as the UN?

He also attributes such societal blight to a national anemia of leadership and probity, requiring the United Nation to lead a rescued mission to salvage the remains of his country in the abyss.


Conversely, he proffered a solution to Liberia’s multiple woes, but was rather apathetic in offering similar solution to the rest of Africa in similar state as Liberia. My question to brother Suwanabe: By object of reasoning from the idea espoused: Would United Nation begin placing failed countries into trusteeship as a mean of rebuilding democratic institutions?
Frederick Varney at 10:07AM, 2014/12/25.
Steven, God's grace go with you bro! But I gotta agree with Carl on that white guy in the middle of the pticure. Was he trying to stare you down? I'm kind of picking up a sinister vibe with that smirk on his face. The good thing is that he looks too old to really be able to do any damage. Blessings!
Open at 04:40AM, 2015/10/16.

Post your comment

You can use following HTML tags: <a><br><strong><b><em><i><blockquote><pre><code><img><ul><ol><li><del>

Confirmation code:

Comments script

© 2014 by The Perspective
E-mail: editor@theperspective.org
To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: submittingarticles@theperspective.org