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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.