By: Jones Nhinson Williams
Vice President Joseph N. Boakai
Democratic political ‘culture’ calls for a siting vice president to contest elections and possibly succeed a retiring president. And, history is replete with such manifestations, particularly under an atmosphere where the retiring president, assisted by the sitting vice president, have provided good stewardship. Ambassador Joseph Boakai was elected alongside President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006 and 2011, as president and vice president of the Republic of Liberia, respectively. Assumptions aside, common sense suggests that the vice president would like to succeed his two-times running mate by asking for the votes, trust and confidence of the Liberian people.
Like most political systems, presidential candidates in the Liberian state have their admirers and detractors, advocates and critics, beneficiaries and benefactors, friends and enemies. As a presidential candidate for the October-November 2017’s election, Vice President Boakai surely has folks on both sides of the spectrum. Opponents and critics of the vice president are advancing arguments as to why he should not run, or is not preferable to assume the highest office. Some of the arguments are utterly vague and baseless, but a good number of them make flawless sense and require serious consideration, if we are to usher in a new Liberia under the leadership of the Unity Party’s sitting vice president.
Those who support the vice president cite, among other things, his personality and his character as a person. Sure, these two human factors are very important. Besides, and with all sincerity, the vice president is a good man - a decent family man, and a person of faith, so there is no argument about that. But Liberia’s 2017 presidential election is more than voting for a good and decent man, or a person of faith, particularly in a country where political leadership has been guided primarily by strategic personal embellishment rather than a national ideology that aims to lift all Liberians from poverty and protect them from insecurity irrespective of tribe, religion, gender, social status and sexual orientation. This is precisely why the vice president, as good and decent as he may be, has more explaining to do to all Liberians whose votes he needs.
Other supporters of the vice president also cite his three decades of experience in successive Liberian governments as a reason to elect him as the next president of Liberia. True be told, experience in politics counts. Experience does matter, of course, but it also varies and it is truly in the eyes of the beholder. In the eyes of the vice president’s supporters, his experience, as a once managing director of the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPRC) and minister of agriculture under President Samuel K. Doe, Sr.’s administration, and as a two-term sitting vice president under the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led Unity Party’s regime, is a plus. Equally, in the minds of the vice president’s staunch critics, many disagree and think he has not done enough, if not, anything to show why he deserves the votes, trust and confidence of the Liberian people when his previous and current roles in successive governments leave nothing to desire.
That said our role in this much needed debate is not to say who is right or wrong, but to present the arguments from both sides. The unfortunate thing in the whole debate is that the vice president’s supporters, especially his public relations team, are not savvy enough to provide a convincing narrative to counter the perceived, real and unreal objections and criticisms against their choice other than going on a weak and unnecessary attack against people whose votes, trust and confidence the vice president needs to win and lead Liberia come 2017, if possible.
The fact is elections are about the future not the past. In the case of Liberia, the 2017 presidential election is about breaking away from Liberia’s ugly past to a new beginning. Therefore, old political and governance experiences do not really matter, especially in this age of IPhone and Instagram––an age when everything is revolutionized so fast that keeping pace is, in itself, another piece of work. Besides, apart from the late legendary Albert Porte, Didwho Twe and Gabriel Kpolleh, Liberian politicians, in general, have not demonstrated admirable and resound political experience and judgment, it does not matter whether they were the governors or the opposition. Therefore, counting on past experiences as a barometer to express qualification and competence for the Liberian presidency would be a huge mistake for any candidate to make in a period when Liberia needs a new direction––a drastic change from its current mess.
Liberians want vision, a new narrative and a new paradigm because we want to move forward as a nation, not backward. Any politician who talks about failed experiences that have not changed Liberia nor helped Liberians would be putting us and our nation in the reverse. Although it is perfectly understandable that being a consummate insider in past Liberian administrations makes it harder for one to be an effective reformer, the vice president still has a chance to make an effective case as to why he will do things differently this time around after three decades of public service to the country. And, making that case is up to the team he brings around him. So far, we see sycophants, failed politicians and folks that want business as usual on that wagon. This is precisely why much traction is not realized since his announcement to run for president.
I am an unapologetic admirer of the vice president and I respect him a whole lot because he is a good and decent man. But these reasons, though compelling, are different in themselves and they do not translate into a convincing reason for a vote from serious minded Liberians, including me. Besides, I am not consulted to provide a platform for the vice president, and I do not pretend that I am the most competent to do so. In the same vein, I strongly think those who are selling this good man are seemingly incompetent because they are doing him disservice by the kind of messages they put out there in his defense, and in marketing him. Instead of being defensive and providing excuses on serious issues and questions expressed by some Liberian voters, they need to be strategic, forthcoming and visionary, and not live in the past. Excuses such as, the late President Samuel K. Doe, Sr. did not allow then managing director and minister Boakai to do an effective job at LPMC and at the agriculture ministry, respectively; or being VP to President Sirleaf for 12 years means his work is only to support the president’s agenda, even if the president’s agenda is dead wrong on some policy issues, are not compelling and convincing thesis, at best. Liberians want to know what the vice president will do differently for Liberia; not what he did or did not do after three decades of a higher level public service life as a good man.
Liberia faces serious economic, political, social and national security problems. These problems did not start doing the reign of the current Sirleaf-Boakai Unity Party’s administration, however; the Unity Party’s Oligarchy-Plutocracy has multiplied our nation’s calamities a hundred-fold in ways never experienced before since our country’s professed independence in 1847. Among the economic issues that would definitely arise in governing our nation post the 2017 era are private sector job creation, the lack of employment, sectoral reforms, and the delivery of effective public service in addition to the disintegration of social institutions and the rule of law. These things apparently add to the crisis of the existing 80% plus cyclical, frictional and structural unemployment and the over two million unemployed in the country. It would also seriously add to the number of underemployed. These also, when combined, add to the stress and frustration amongst Liberian youth, with a potential for protest.
Liberia will also face numerous other national and international challenges ahead–from terrorism to cyber security, trade imbalance, modern industrialization and innovation, the impact of technology on labor market and labor force participation, education and workforce development. These things would require the best and brightest vision and values at our nation’s disposal. These new global challenges, which are not unique to Liberia, also demand that Liberians elect a president with a vision for the future not an experience based on the past. This is precisely why voters in western nations increasingly elect their leaders based on their brand, not so much on their record as former public servants. Liberia needs a president with grandiose ideas, as my mentor and the former speaker of the United States’ Congress, Newt Gingrich would say.
In this regard, history reveals few things to us all. When the revered John F. Kennedy ran for president of the United States in the 1960s, he courted the American people about his vision, not his experience because he had none, and Americans did not need experience, anyway. In Kennedy’s mind, man needed to go in space and he wanted the first man to be an American. Because of Kennedy’s vision, the United States achieved that goal and, today men and women can go in space from almost every part of our world - from Russia to China, it is happening!
In 2008, then Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and John McCain of Arizona argued that newly elected and visionary Senator Barack Obama was too green and inexperience for the job of being president of the United States. But history shows that when it comes to the presidency, experience does not really guarantee success; vision and principles do. If experience did, President Sirleaf would have clearly been greatly successful in taking Liberia at the next level. For his part, Obama, a son of a Kenyan cattle handler, drawn Americans’ interest and votes with a vision for change, not an experience based on segregation and labor strife in the 1960s. On the other hand, the father of India, Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was considered a career politician, with a long and interesting experience, did not rely on his experience as a soft spoken, religious and kind man with vast legal prowess. Instead, he put forward his vision for India which came to fruition when theBritish Empire relinquished political control of what is today India and Pakistan, without seeking power for himself by turning down being the first prime minister.
Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who is seemingly regarded as the best president ever in Africa’s history, had no prior political nor governance experience. In fact, he spent half of his life in maximum security prisons. Instead, his vision was that South Africa becomes a true multiparty democracy where everyone, no matter who they are, will be held accountable, and where no one will be above the law. We are seeing Mandela’s vision comes true in South Africa where a ruling party (the African Nation Congress) can force a sitting president from office as was the case of Thabo Mbeki, a highly respected world leader, and where another sitting president, Jacob Zuma, is called to book on mismanagement and corruption charges and is forced to apologize to his people on national TV. That was the vision Mandela set forth. Just in our backyard, love him or hate him, former President Jerry Rawlings envisioned a Ghana that would be respected and admired in the comity of nation. Today, Ghana is the new western nation for Liberian politicians and business elites to save their ill-gotten wealth, take vacation, seek medical care and even send their children to for superior education. That was the Rawlings’ vision, a better Ghana for all Ghanaians.
In the mid1990s, when I painfully abandoned my cherished vocation to the Catholic priesthood, after more than half a decade time of studies, to pursue advocacy and change in Liberia as a result of the brutal murders of five American Catholic nuns, my vision was that Liberia became a nation free of regional terrorism and one that ceases from being a nation that exports agents of deaths and destabilization. I set out that vision and with international admiration, it was realized. The point is vision counts because it points to the future. Experience matters in guiding us, but it does not bring anything new or exciting, especially in the age of globalization and technological competition, and more so, when such experience only serves to remind us about what sets us back in the first place.
Clearly, there is a number of paths to being truly successful in achieving any of these things as a president of the new Liberia to come post 2017. However, experience is not one of them because Liberians, in general, have never had any good experience from their politicians. The odd class and tendencies of our progressive elders today speak volume. Just yesterday, many of them spoke against everything bad under previous administrations, and today, almost all of them are completing mute, if not collaborating in everything terrible in Liberia nowadays. There is equally no correct path or perfect experience required to be president of a country, more so Liberia. This is why the vice president and his supporters must put forward a clear vision and plan of action for Liberia. Unwarranted Attacks and phony excuses from surrogates wouldn’t break the ice on the cake! I am confident Ambassador Boakai can make a solid case.
About the Author: Williams is a Catholic educated philosopher and a U.S. trained public policy professional. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org