By Alston C. Armah
On a recent survey in Liberia’s northern Lofa County, an elderly respondent, most likely to be in her late 50’s, named roads and safe drinking water as the priority needs of her community. To probe further, the respondent was given two scenarios and asked which one she would choose if it was Election Day. In the first scenario, a presidential candidate says “If you vote for me, I will build your roads and provide safe drinking water for your community.” In another scenario, a second presidential candidate gives out a bag of rice and asks you to vote for him. Whom will you vote for? The respondent emphatically said, “The one who gives me rice… at least my grandchildren and I will have food to eat. This is better than the empty promises the politicians can make to us. They have lied to us for too long.”
Now, somebody sitting somewhere may be tempted to judge the above-mentioned lady as a poor voter. No, she’s not! She is a rational being; like all rational people, she is simply gravitating towards a position that can satisfy her more immediate needs. The drawback, however, is she is giving no forethought to the consequences that follow when priority needs like roads and water are not addressed.
The reading public may be tempted to ask, “But why this anecdote? How important is it?” Most certainly, the story narrated above is relevant and meant to set the basis for offering some pointers to guide us in our search for a new president, vice president and parliamentarians in the forthcoming elections.
In just about 16 months, Liberians will go to the polls to elect a new president and vice president and members of the House of Representatives. In earnest, the Liberian people will be searching for a “shepherd to lead the flock” for the next six years starting January 2018. October 2017 will not just be another civic ritual whereby people consciously queue up to drop pieces of papers in the ballot box; it will be a watershed moment for a nation starting afresh and reeling itself out of the ashes of destruction, while faced with the herculean task of rebuilding itself and trying to solidify the foundation of a new Liberia so much desired since the end of our civil war in 2003. It will be a moment that defines our democratic credentials and maturity for enhanced self-governance, going forward into the 21st century.
By the time Liberians queued up at the 2017 polls, there would be no shortage of candidates and their platforms – however unrealistic and farfetched some may be. As a matter of fact, there has never been any shortage of candidates and their platforms in Liberian political history spanning at least 35 years since the advent of multiparty democracy – thanks to the heroic struggle of the Progressives! It will just be a rewind of some of the scenarios which had played out in previous election years. As one old man in Bong County sees it quite despondently, “This whole election business is just to make the book people rich. We are tired with the lies and false promises of the politicians.”
Ahead of the elections which come about some 16 months from now, there are a number of interesting occurrences and personalities surfacing on the political landscape. These occurrences and personalities will form the dynamics associated with what may be considered Liberia’s most critical post-war elections. It will be the first time in most recent history when one administration will transition to another administration in an electioneering process that is void of the perks and advantages usually skewed in favor of the incumbent president. To say it another way, the sitting president is constitutionally barred and ineligible to contest the forthcoming elections. So far, the occurrences and personalities coming to the fore suggest that it’s going to be a crowded field, full of intrigues and made of candidates promising to be our political redeemers and doctors having cures to all our maladies. Never mind some of these candidates have heretofore lived in relative obscurity and some of whom can be described as moral paupers having little or no records of meritorious service to the motherland.
As we inch closer to the October 2017 elections, it is important that we begin to think more soberly and reflect on how and why we will be voting. Why are we going to vote in the first place? Why are we going to vote for certain candidates? What will influence our decisions to vote for Candidate X and not Candidate Y; or Candidate A instead of Candidate B?
There are a number of factors to consider. These factors should be our compass as we go in search of the shepherd who will lead the flock.
A person’s past performance is a critical factor to consider in making a decision as to whether that person is competent for a job. This is why employers are interested in knowing the employment history of a candidate seeking job.
In a sense, politicians who will be seeking our votes are like candidates looking to get jobs. We the electorate are the employers, and we should endeavor to elect the person or persons most suitable for the job. One important yardstick to measure the suitability of a candidate is to look at the person’s track records. What has he done in the years leading to the elections? Was he a government official (a president, vice president, a legislator, judicial officer, a cabinet minister, financier, etc.) in previous years? Did he work in the private sector before? Did he work in the NGO community or with civil society? What have been his net contributions to the nation? To what extent did he impact the lives of others? What did he do with the little he had in time past? What then will he do and how will he do it if he gets elected? Such questions will help us better assess our leaders (president, vice president, legislators, etc.).
In Liberia, and I dare to say in Africa generally, we have a history of politicians making all kinds of lofty and unrealistic promises during election times. Some promise to build mountains when they cannot even build an anthill. Some cunningly promise to build bridges where there is no river. We must not allow ourselves to be fooled by their empty promises. If one promises to take Liberians out of poverty, we should ask him “How?” If one promises to build the road from Ganta to Harper or to create jobs for all Liberians, we should ask him “By what means and within what time period?” We must request statistics, timeframe, promises that are realistic and to which we can hold our prospective President and Vice President and “Honorable Representatives” accountable.
Maintenance of the peace
Our national existence is inseparable from our guarantee and maintenance of the peace we now enjoy. Our forward march depends on safeguarding the peace that we so much enjoy now, even if some of our political leaders are conspicuously halfhearted towards peace building efforts. After years of being watched over by UN peacekeepers, the responsibility of our own security is now thrusted upon us. Hence, we must seek to elect people who symbolize unity, who are unifiers and who cut across all the various political divides. Knowing how costly peace is, we must certainly look out for a president who has no history of being associated with the carnage and devastation which gripped this country from the late 1980s well through the early 2000s.
Love for country
The sages of old would say that leaders are a reflection of the people they lead. Even more apt is the aphorism that “people get the leaders they deserve.” If we the citizens first strive to be patriotic, we will surely get leaders who are patriotic. Let’s first be patriotic and nationalistic, then our leaders will follow suit. For how else can one know leaders who are or will be patriotic if he/she is not patriotic?
Liberia will not be a good place for any of us to live unless we make it a good place for all of us to live. It is such virtuous thinking at the individual level, developed into a national ethos, that will see us develop a panacea to destroy the cancer of greed, corruption, cheating, conceitedness, and plunder which continue to eat up the very core of Liberia’s existence.
We should elect leaders who are an embodiment of patriotism. And this can be seen in acts or actions that count. How long has a candidate lived in the country or the community he wants to be elected to serve? Are their families residing in Liberia? Do their children go to school here? Do they have a history of putting the national interest before their individual interests? Questions like these will serve as the barometer for measuring the level of patriotism of people who will stand up for election to public offices in 2017 and beyond.
We must elect leaders who can rally the entire nation behind the banner of nationalism and love for country. This may appear abstract, but it can be seen clearly in little things that matter.
Honesty/fidelity to ethics
Frederick Douglass, a former American slave and statesman of sainted memory, once famously remarked, “… life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” Douglas might have had Liberia in mind when he uttered these immortal words. Our existence is secure only if we elect leaders who are an embodiment of honesty, truth, virtue, and fair play. No society, not even ours, can long endure peacefully, if its leaders are not law-abiding, honest, truthful, virtuous and just. As Saint Augustine would ask rhetorically, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?”
Let us remember that the world does not owe us anything. We owe it to ourselves to live together as one people bound up in the garment of nationhood. We owe it to ourselves to elect our leaders and to direct our national destiny. We owe it to ourselves to chart the course of our development through the efficient and equitable distribution of the resources Mother Nature has so abundantly bestowed upon us. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that every child born in Liberia has a chance to go to school. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that every family can afford three meals a day, safe drinking water, and decent home to live in.
We can make it happen. We have got the resources. Let’s make the right decisions. Nature has bestowed upon us all things, except this one – leadership! And that is what we should go out to find for ourselves. Election 2017 is upon us; let’s begin searching for the shepherd who shows evidence of patriotism, integrity, leadership, right judgment and temperament to lead the flock.
About the author: The author is a Liberian citizen who hails from Fuama District in Bong County.