By Arthur K. Watson
Editor’s Note: Mr. Arthur K. Watson delivered the Keynote Address on Liberia’s 168th Independence Day Celebration in Oakford, Pennsylvania on July 24, 2015. The event was sponsored by the United Liberian Association of Bucks (ULAB) County, Pennsylvania.
My dear friend President Anthony Tarr,
A man of immense integrity and a true servant of his people,
Members of the United Liberian Association of Bucks County,
Ladies & Gentlemen.
Thank you for inviting me to come and to share this time with you as we begin another celebration of the independence of our homeland of Liberia. I am truly honored by your invitation and do appreciate your confidence in me and your desire for me to share with you my thoughts as we begin this period of celebration. I am glad that many individuals whom I consider to be friends and family are also here to share this time together with us.
July 26 is a very special time for us as ordinary Liberians. I remember very well what it was like growing up as a young man in Liberia when July 26 and major holidays came around. Apart from the usual national programs and festivities, those who could afford it at the time, would put on their best “teligard”, “tailored made suits and dresses”, or whatever one could find in his or her “valise” or “trunk” just to look their best on that day. We tried to eat our best meals and to extend pleasantries to our friends, family and neighbors. Some of us still refer to those days as the “good old days”. It is my hope that this is still true for many young people growing up in Liberia today.
Before I share my thoughts with you tonight on the theme of your celebration, as is customary in our Liberian setting, let me begin by saying “my 26 on yor”. So Mr. President, before this event is over tonight, I expect to receive my 26 from you and from all the fine people of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
This 26, we are meeting at a time when our nation, Liberia, is again experiencing another crisis because of the deadly Ebola disease that has ravaged our country and people and has caused so many of our compatriots and friends to die. Let us therefore remember to pray for our people and country as we celebrate.
Normally during this period, one expects that speakers will reflect on the history of Liberia, how, according to the history books, the American Colonization Society founded Liberia in 1822; and how we became the first Negro Republic in Africa when we obtained our independence in 1847; and so on and so forth. But after a hundred and sixty eight years in existence as a nation, we must do much more than just reflecting on our history or on our past. We must also reflect on our present and determine how best we can position the nation for the future.
That is why your theme for this celebration, “Rebuilding Liberia, if not now, when and who?” is very timely. Permit me therefore to very briefly share with you some thoughts around this theme.
The mere mention of the word rebuilding implies that something was previously built or existed, and is now either destroyed or no longer exists. As we consider the case of Liberia, one must ask the question, what is it that was previously built in Liberia, was destroyed and now needs to be rebuilt? Is it our physical structures such as major buildings, roads and highways? Our educational system? Our healthcare system? Our social structure? Or our various institutions including government? I am sure that if this question was asked to individuals within this room, we would be in for a long debate as each of us may have differing views and responses to these questions. There are those who will argue that there was no real physical or institutional development in the country prior to the war while there are others who may differ that we were at least better off than we are today. The usual temptation for most Liberians is for us to then quickly begin to place blames as to why something did not exist or was destroyed. We try to place blame on certain individuals and on various governments for these things.
While there is much blame to go around and each of us do share some measure of blame for the problems and challenges faced by Liberia, I instead would like for us to begin to focus on what is it that we can do to address these issues in more positive ways that will result in moving the country forward.
A New Approach
The first suggestion is for us to change the way that we have done things. If we have done the same things for the last 168 years and we still find that the country is lacking behind in so many ways, we can’t then expect to see any meaningful development in the country if we continue to do the same things. Remember that it was Albert Einstein who once said that insanity is the same as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There must be a paradigm shift if the country must be rebuilt and the fundamental structures necessary for the growth and development of the country are instituted & sustained. This approach requires that we no longer do business as usual.
Development and rebuilding require proper planning and proper resource allocation. We cannot adequately develop the country until we first have a plan and know what it is that we want to do, how we can efficiently do it, and what it will cost us to do so. Proper planning ensures that all of the right resources are involved in the planning process. It provides a realistic roadmap and timing for development projects. This business of “Quick Impact Projects” as it relates to national development has to be critically analyzed and done away with because all they do is to present a façade of development while costing the nation tremendous amount of waste in capital. These so-called “Quick Impact” projects are only intended to impress the people but they do not employ the level of planning and implementation that ensure quality and longevity. So for example, we find ourselves rebuilding the same roads over and over.
Proper Planning for the rebuilding and development of Liberia must be national in scope and not just the work of few individuals based in Monrovia. This new approach must ensure that projects intended for other regions of the country must also involve qualified individuals and resources from those regions in the planning and other appropriate phases of the projects. Why should someone sitting in Monrovia determine when a pot hole in Grand Kru should be filled or what road in Owens Grove should be paved? If the people in the various regions are empowered to develop and present their respective development agendas and resources are then allocated based upon proper vetting and justifiable plans for those projects, the nation will begin to see a major shift in its development. Each region of the country will quickly begin to experience some speedy development in their part of the country.
Major development projects such as major Airports, major Highways, Dams, etc., etc., must be national in scope and not limited to just the term of any particular government. We must change our mindset as it relates to the development of the country because the development of any modern nation cannot be done overnight. Some projects may not be completed during the period of any one administration and if the output of the national development plan calls for those projects to be implemented over the span of multiple administrations, there must not be a rush to shorten the implementation time of the projects simply because a certain administration or individual wants to take credit for the projects. If it takes twenty years to build a quality road from Monrovia to Harper, allow the project to be implemented as per the plan.
We can certainly borrow from the experience of the US Interstate Highway System in reviewing how long it took for the completion of that project. The Interstate 95 (I-95) highway system that we enjoy today in the US was started under the administration of President Eisenhower. But that project took over some fifty plus years to be completed. Because it was a national project, the project continued to be funded by the US government long after President Eisenhower left office until it was successfully completed. President Eisenhower did not request or insist that the project must be completed during the tenure of his administration. If he did so, it would not have been built with the level of quality nor lasted as long as it has. But yet, President Eisenhower is credited for that project. The same is true for the US Space Station under President Kennedy. Leaders that came after him continue to fund and support the project because the project was good for the nation.
It is so disappointing that our national leaders lack the level of vision necessary for the sustained growth and development of Liberia. Why are so many of the major national structures started under previous administrations not been completed in Liberia although funds used for those projects are the Liberian people’s money? Some major construction projects started under recent previous administrations for example, remain standing and not completed today by the current government while we continue to rent buildings from private citizens and non-citizens for use by various government entities. Is it simply because each administration wants to do their own thing at the expense of the Liberian people? Or is it that they are so selfishly concerned about who will get credited for such projects? This way of operation has to change if we are serious about the development of Liberia. Rebuilding of Liberia should not be based upon who gets what credit. Instead, it must be about the greater good of the country and its people.
Rebuilding of Systems & Institutions
Rebuilding and development of Liberia cannot just be limited to physical structures. We must ensure that we build a quality educational system. A system that will ensure the competency of our future generation. It must be the responsibility of our government to ensure that the quality of our public school system is as good as those of our private schools.
We must ensure that we build a quality healthcare system. A healthcare system that will be of such standard that even the president and all officials of government can be proud to be treated within it. It is a shame and a failure of government when the leadership of such government is not willing to be treated within the very healthcare system that it has instituted for the people. Something is definitely wrong when our leaders continue to fly to Ghana, to America, to India and to our places outside of the country for medical care while the bulk of our people are left with no care or to be treated in substandard facilities. I look forward to the day when all Liberians, irrespective of their status, can be proud of our healthcare delivery system to be treated within such system.
Restoration of Integrity: Zero Corruption
This new paradigm shift requires that we do away with corruption in our country. And we must be serious about it otherwise we will be wasting our time to talk of developing the nation in the face of the current level of corruption in the nation. As a start, we should not employ people to any position of government who have not met a minimum trust standard. Such trust standard must be developed and it must involve a regime of vetting processes that determines an individual’s integrity level. In the controls and automation world, there is a standard called the Safety Integrity Level (SIL). SIL is a measurement of performance or probability of failure. It is basically a measure of the degree of risk associated with safety elements. This standard requires that appropriate remedies are instituted in order to mitigate degrees of risks. We need to develop and institute a similar standard for governance in Liberia. The standard must measure the corruption index or integrity level of individuals and we must ensure that this standard is used to vet individuals being considered for responsible positions of government in the country. This will hopefully help to mitigate the high level of corruption in government.
You cannot seriously put someone in charge of managing a million dollars who has never successfully managed a hundred thousand dollars. What would you expect of that person? Either that they will mismanage the funds or steal it. For some people, it will be like putting cheese before a mouse. Also, we should not employ people to high positions in government who have no real asset or investment in the country. Service in government is not a right, it is a privilege. Why should someone who has no vested interest in the country by virtue of their investment in the country be given a position of high responsibility in the country? What level of assurance then is there that this individual will not flee in a moment of crisis or upon the commission of crime against the state?
We must also stop this business of recycling “our friends” into various government positions including those who have been previously guilty or associated with corrupt or questionable behaviors.
Our nation rebuilding must include the fight against corruption in an impeccable way. We must provide an equitable system for those who are in service to our people. That is, we must provide decent wages and benefits that will discourage using government resources as fill-ins for salary or benefit gaps. At the same time, we must institute stiff penalties for those who betray public trusts. Fighting corruption with impunity for some will not help our cause. But, we cannot fight corruption with an incompetent judiciary. We cannot fight corruption with a corrupt judiciary or by using vulnerable or incompetent jurors in an already challenged judicial system. Our fight against corruption will remain counterproductive if we do not consider all the gaps in our present walk to getting convictions.
The greatest challenge in the rebuilding of our nation is trust and honesty. The civil war devastated some of our people so much that their basic sense of trust and honesty eroded overnight. It is so difficult to even trust your own family members nowadays. We need to work with our various religious institutions to help pray for the nation and to work with our people in helping to restore their dignity in being truthful and honest again.
I recognize that some of these ideas may be seen as radical and may not welcomed by some. But if we are serious about making a real change in how we have done things in the past, then this new approach is worth considering in order to move the country forward.
Finally, the question as to who must rebuild Liberia and when it should be done, is simple. It requires all of us working together to make this happen and to do so NOW. There can be no divide as to who is on the “so-called ground” and who is away. All of us as Liberians are in this boat together. When the boat leaks, we all take in water. We must all do our part to make sure that the boat reaches the shore and to do so safely with all of our people on board, safe and secure.
May God continue to bless Liberia. And thank God for America.
Happy 26 to You.
About The Author: Eminent Arthur K. Watson is a longtime advocate for Democratic Change and Good Governance in Liberia. He is a former National President of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), and the Founding Chairman of the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia. Also, he is the current Vice Chairman of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP) Inc. He resides in Roxbury Township, New Jersey and can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.