The Senate Imagined
By Alston C. Armah
All seems to be set for the conduct of Liberia’s first ever Special Senatorial Elections under the constitution adopted in 1986. Just last Saturday, the Supreme Court ruled against a petition for an injunction, thereby giving the go-ahead for the conduct of elections. At the moment, political campaign has resumed, in earnest, ahead of polling day slated for 20th December 2014.
While one cannot say with absolute certainty what the outcomes of these elections will be, one thing remains certain; that is, the electorates in the 15 counties will have very important choices to make, and these choices will determine the quality of senators we will have in relation to the paths and curves the nation will sail through in the next several years to come. Once again, Liberians stand at the crosswalks, facing stark choices. We can choose to elect men and women with integrity, track records of leadership and service to their country, or we can choose to elect scoundrels and ill prepared people to be our senators. Either way we go, the consequences of our choices await us, and we will have to explain to posterity.
In these special elections, many variables will stand out as the key determinants of how the electorates vote, never mind how superficial and parochial some of these variables may be. Variables such as ethnicity, sectionalism, religion, youthfulness, financial standing and generosity, despite their superficiality, will in a large measure dictate the choices of the electorates. These variables will largely be the silent, driving forces in the minds of the electorates as they will make those simple yet powerful decisions, using their pens or their thumb prints. In vote-rich districts such as West Point, New Kru Town or Clara Town, these variables will stand out to be especially evident. The candidate who has the wherewithal to provide few bags of rice or some supplies such as radios or T-shirts can be sure of scooping a large chunk of the votes.
In a county such as Sinoe, the Kru solidarity will play out against the Sapo solidarity. As for a densely populated county such as Nimba ethnicity will stand out as the great decider. It will look more like the Dahn voters competing against the Mahn voters for ethnic representation. And of course the candidate from the more populated ethnic group can bask in the sunlight of ethnic solidarity just as a lizard basks in the sunlight after a cold, windy night. Obviously, he or she can be certain of also scooping a large chunk of the votes. In a largely Muslim-dominated county such as Cape Mount, it will look like Muslim voters rallying around Muslim candidates to vote against non-Muslim senatorial aspirants. The most substantive issues such as education, health, employment, ideologies, and proven leadership ability will not matter. What will matter will be those superficial, cultural mosaics such as ethnic affiliation, religion, largesse, generosity, popularity, etc.
The Senate is an honorable place where one goes to serve his/her country for historical glory and honor; as such, men and women who get elected to the Senate must be honorable and respectable people with unparalleled love for country. Among other things, Senators are required by law to confirm top-level presidential appointees, and this involves character scrutiny, test of competence to serve and loyalty to country. Accordingly, senators should be people who live above reproach. People who get elected to the Senate must be people of impeccable character, with better visions of how existing governance, economic, social and security barriers can be removed from our developmental pathway. Put another way, those who get elected to the Senate should be people who, backed by proven track record of service, present the most convincing platforms and alternative ideas as to how we (government and the governed) can work together to improve the quality of life for our people, through legislations that support provision of safe drinking water for all, access to electricity and motor roads, better healthcare, quality education (academic and vocational), security and youth empowerment.
Towards this end, it would help to make better decisions if we could imagine, but for a moment, the kind of senators we want vis-à-vis the track records of the men and women making runs for the Senate. Probably, the most cogent question we should ask ourselves is thus: What kind of Senate do we imagine for probably the next nine years starting January 12, 2015? (a constitutional review process is underway and could alter the tenure of service of elected officials).
The Senate imagined is one that can lead and must lead by setting standards above reproach. We should imagine a Senate that can make decisions and pass legislations for the only reason that such decisions and legislations support the national interest. Above everything else, Liberia most matters! The Senate imagined is one that is independent and will not go with the flow of succumbing to Executive influence. The Senate imagined is one that will not play to the gallery of accepting political shenanigans and practices inimical to the progress of the Liberian state. The Senate we imagine is one that carries out very scrupulously the basic legislative functions of oversight, representation and legislation.
In many respects, the Senators we elect should be statesmen and women who are markedly different from our outgoing senators. We should imagine, investigate, evaluate and elect senators who will not stoop so low as to take bribes to act or not to act in the interest of Liberia and its people. We should elect senators who are truly the epitome of good and productive citizenship.
In recent years, the Senate as well as the entire Legislature has been dogged by allegations of corruption and bribery. From passage of oil contracts to confirmation of presidential appointees (for example, Angelique Weeks) it was being alleged in the mass media that our senators took kickbacks and engaged in horse-trading. It was not an overstatement when a foreign diplomat observed that “to some extent, the outgoing Senate got its arms twisted, considering that some senators lost their independence and began making some unorthodox overtures at the biddings of the Executive Mansion.”
When in their unguarded moments, many development partners of Liberia (even foreign merchants – Indians, Lebanese, etc.) have been prone to make scornful utterances about Liberia. Some go as far as to hold the opinion that Liberia is a place where anything is possible, once you have a briefcase full with United States Dollars. An American was once quoted as saying “Liberia is a country where people prize generosity over integrity.”
This is quote is so true, and it can be argued that this American has done a better reading of the Liberian political psyche. In Liberian politics, people are mostly concerned about what personal rewards they can get from a candidate and not who the candidate is or what he/she stands for. If a candidate is spending lavishly and is prepared to buy his way to elected office, lo and behold the crowd will sway in his direction! Any wonder why even a buffoon can become a legislator in Liberia? Liberians need to work to rephrase this narrative to mean “Liberia is a place where people prize integrity over generosity.” We can do it and we must do it now. We should vote men and women of virtue, goodwill and competence to serve in the Senate.
Leadership is more about the choice of the future course we want to follow. In this vein, our choices of people to fill in vacant seats at the Senate should be more about enduring principles and ideologies than the superficial attributes of ethnic affiliation, popularity or youthfulness of the candidates. Instead, we should vote on the basis of the most substantive issues of ability to serve and lead based on track records, integrity, and love for country. Over and above these, the electorates must be concerned with some very critical questions: What will these candidates do to clean up our “messy” education system? What plans do these candidates have to revamp the economy, create jobs for young people, etc.? How do they intend to tackle corruption and other vices in the public service? What are their plans for empowering indigenous Liberian businesses? How will they do it?
In closing this article, it is proper that we consider some rhetorical, thought-provoking questions in classical style: Who is that Liberian citizen who is so carefree and apathetic that he would not care about who becomes his senator? Who is the voter who will not dare to question the records of people who want to become our senators insofar as that voter can get a campaign T-shirt to wear or some “cold water to drink”? Who is that Liberian whose life will not be directly or indirectly impacted by the quality of people who get elected to our Honorable Senate? If any, let him vote wisely; for him this article is written.
About the author: The writer is a Liberian youth mentor, a Change Agent, and a commentator. He does civic engagement work with the YMCA and other youth-development institutions. He can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org