Inclusive Governance in Post-Conflict Liberia: Opportunities and Challenges

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 14, 2006



How precisely should we address the debate over whether or not the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government is inclusive? Can the quest for national identity overcome dire ethnic polarization? Has President Sirleaf’s ethnically-absorbed electoral strategy had the perverse effect of causing Liberians to equate inclusion with an ethnic quota system? The high stakes of the run-off elections made both Sirleaf and George Oppong Weah to place a premium on hiring famous names from various ethnic groups to campaign on their behalf in their respective counties of origin. Along the way, this strategy nearly provoked relapse of damaged relationships between Nimba and Grand Gedeh citizens, which many say planted the seeds of the 14 year war. With hindsight, would Sirleaf and Weah desist from a campaign strategy submerged in ethnic innuendos?

The elections revealed the scarcity of good options now before a country excessively divided along ethnic lines. There are those who believe that the Sirleaf government is being haunted by an electoral strategy that exploited ethnic differences. And perhaps this claim is not isolated to Mrs. Sirleaf and the Unity Party, but indicative of a system where political institutions have yet not matured to develop structures and ideologies that can be used to unify their constituents. Rather, they have perfected a skill in ethnic bigotry as a way of winning votes negating the ill-effects on governance. Extricating the Sirleaf government from the repercussions of what seem to be a lack of alignment between its electoral and governance strategies cannot be achieved without the cooperation of those whom they pitted against one another.

To address the ongoing controversy regarding how to bring about inclusive governance requires critical examination of our past and present actions. However, the scope of this paper does not allow me to delve into our history. Furthermore, since much of our history in the past 15 years is one of war and division, prompted by massive governance failures, there is no need to recite such history here. Effects of the war, including polarization and trauma are documented elsewhere. The heightened inter-group differences and pervasive lack of interethnic sensitivity should compel commentators on this and other complex societal issues to discuss them constructively, rather than conventionally. Instead of mere finger pointing and aggravating the sore, commentators and scholars should advance understanding and propose innovative solutions to these problems.

In this paper, I explore the present day opportunity and responsibility of the government and all Liberians to harness effectively, the benefits of the nation’s fast-changing multiethnic and multicultural political and social landscapes. I then discuss some of the challenges that pluralism presents for post-conflict nation building and describe the central role that the government can play in addressing the rancor over its lack of inclusion. I end with recommendations on how to increase access, representation, and social justice, which are lynchpins of inclusion. Inclusive governance as perceived in this paper has three major components: 1. government’s provision of equal access to opportunities for all citizens; 2. dispensation of social justice; and 3. creation of a competitive socioeconomic climate where the most competent people can assume positions that match their skills and professional experience. More so, if the reason why some citizens are unable to be competitive is lack of preparation or training, ability, and/or motivation, perhaps by institutionalizing equity and mechanisms to remove self-inflicted impediments to success, this would increase people’s potential to take advantage of opportunities.

Changing Composition of the Post-War Population
The post-war composition of Liberian society differs markedly from 16 years ago when the war started. If we examine our society purely on the basis of ethnicity, language, and culture, we realize that the massive external migration that the war caused was the largest since the founding of the nation. Liberians living abroad as immigrants and refugees have acquired new language skills and cultural identities. Some have assumed foreign citizenships, out of necessity to improve their life chances in their host nations. Intermarriages between Liberians from different ethnic and social backgrounds have murky the waters of the debate over national identity and inclusion.

Even some Liberians who were unable to seek refuge abroad during the war have married or gotten involved in relationships with foreigners that have produced children with mixed ethnic and national identities. It is therefore not surprising that our national dialogue about inclusion challenges our resources and capacity to have this conversation. As our society has become more pluralistic the divide among us has also deepened. The rather narrow perspective expressed about inclusion across our multiethnic and multicultural landscapes reflects the depth of the wounds caused by the war and the level of fear and suspicion that it generated. The appropriate milieu and backdrop for inclusive governance is the skill with which we blend or fuse these multiple identities into a cohesive national identity (make different strands of our identity mutually reinforcing).

People who live in Liberia during the war and had no opportunity to leave the country as well as others who sought refuge abroad, each view the rebuilding process differently. As a society, many of us age 40 and older are just a generation removed from the time when it was only possible to perceive Liberians exclusively as two distinct and even opposing civilizations: indigenous versus Americo-Liberian. Many of us grew up in mono-ethnic enclaves and communities, which meant that we were socialized in ways that did not foster inclusion, but segregation. Others grew up in multiethnic settings, but the latter was far and few between. Add to this fact that the war occurred, and foist upon us ethnic toxins in deadly dosages.

Being able to bridge what each group perceives and believes is not just a matter of pragmatism, but, one upon which our communal survival hinges. That is why the issue of building and sustaining an inclusive governance policy is a matter of social concern and a pivot upon which the success and integrity of the current government turns. The debate over how to promote inclusion is a wedge issue and the degree of care that all Liberians, including the president, exercise in talking about it will help in healing and reconciling us to one another.

Ethnically-Absorbed Electoral Strategy
When the run-off elections ensued, Mrs. Sirleaf and her loyalists pursued a strategy, which wooed members of specific ethnic groups to campaign for her and garner votes along ethnic lines. The most prominent of such persons was Joseph Korto, who along with Adolphus Dolo (now Senator of Nimba County) sought votes for Mrs. Sirleaf in Nimba County among the Gios and Manos. Jewel Taylor (now Senator of Bong County) also campaigned heavily for Mrs. Sirleaf in Bong County among the Kpelles. Many others did the same among different ethnic groups.

I was not privy to the promises that propelled each of these individuals to campaign on behalf of Mrs. Sirleaf. One could be generous to suggest that they canvassed on Mrs. Sirleaf’s behalf out of conviction and commitment to her cause. Political commentator Abdoulaye Dukule has suggested that these individuals rallied behind Mrs. Sirleaf based on their impression that she would be slow to establish a war crimes court and bring to justice people who allegedly violated human rights during the Taylor regime. This prospect had real ramifications for the lives of Senators Adolphus Dolo and Jewel Taylor and perhaps others in the legislature, both of whom had ties to the Taylor regime. While there are many reasons to quibble with Dukule’s two articles (The Perspective, February 2 & 8, 2006), I will rather focus on the subject of inclusive governance.

This strategy has shortcomings. One of such shortcomings is that it created perceived or real expectations that individuals or groups would receive “I owe yous” for their roles, if Mrs. Sirleaf won the elections. Immediately after the elections, we began to hear rumblings that “I owe yous” were going to be paid out to some of these campaigners. Joseph Korto became a glaring example. Many people predicted that Mr. Korto would be rewarded with the Minister position at Education. Their guess was not far-fetched. It became reality. I must issue a disclaimer. Nothing is wrong with Mr. Korto’s appointment. He is eminently qualified to be the Minister of Education. The point of this discussion is to illustrate how an ethnically-absorbed electoral strategy as opposed to a trans-ethnic (broad-based/ethnic-neutral) electoral strategy has the potential to undermine efforts aimed at promoting inclusion.

Why is it that the predictions by these individuals were correct? Did they draw inferences from somewhere in particular that each ethnic group was proportionately going to get rewarded with positions in the new government, if they supported Mrs. Sirleaf’s bid for the presidency? Is it because she promised an inclusive government, and as a result, people equated inclusion with mathematical proportionality or a quota system? Could the demand by Mr. Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay (The Inquirer, February 10th, 2006), that a person from Nimba County head one of the three branches of government be a by-product of Mrs. Sirleaf’s electoral strategy? What caused Mr. Alhaji Kromah to think that Muslims were not fully represented in the Sirleaf government, perhaps inferring also, the lack of religious inclusiveness?

The attitudes that Gbeisay and Kromah represent are increasingly losing their relevance in a growing pluralistic society. The ethno-cultural composition of Liberia has changed dramatically and the pace is accelerating. The civil war and mass displacement of Liberians abroad has inevitably transformed the mix of our population. We are slowly leaving the political and social heritages that embraced ethnic bigotry and even enshrined it, behind. Modernity and pluralism oblige us to change the ways we live and respond to difference. By no means am I suggesting that the devastating reality of class and gender disparities have been bridged. As a matter of fact, we are far from such a time. But changes of our systems, structures, and transformation of prejudiced mindset will set us on the way to recovery and rebuilding.

I share these thoughts about the direction of governance in this paper as preliminary reactions, acknowledging that it is much easier to take gibes at our leaders from the sidelines. But then again, when we get privy to all the facts, and are plunged in the governance process, the complexity of doing the work can easily overwhelm us. I have indeed managed to wait for the honeymoon to be over, but with no time frame to clearly demarcate an end to the waiting, I thought that the issue at hand is quite important to let go without adding my perspective to the dialogue. Could this misunderstanding of inclusion within a democratic political system also be the result of the lack of basic trust among Liberians? Perhaps!

Approaching an End of the Honeymoon
It is nearly one month now since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated as the President of Liberia. The heightened interest, which her status as the first female President of an African state generated, is waning. The honeymoon period will soon come to an end, and Liberians and the world will be asking for her government to demonstrate effectiveness. One of the most important benchmarks on which her government’s success will be measured is the outcome of her policies on building an inclusive government and governance process. Her administration has already made some missteps that are natural outgrowths of the lack of synergy between electoral and governance strategies. These are manifested in some of her administration’s pronouncements, political appointments, and most importantly, the seeming lack of a coherent strategy to politically engage, cultivate mutually respectful relations, and partner with the legislature to achieve this vision of building an inclusive governance policy and process.

Forging Inclusive Governance
At the root of forging inclusion is a commitment to democracy and extending its benefits of equal opportunity to all citizens. The clincher is “all citizens” who want to take advantage of opportunities made available. When we are able to approximate this vision in the closest possible manner, we are able to create a more inclusive and cohesive society. Inclusion gives people stake in society and it is such an ethic that brings clarity to the social costs of exclusion. The further we depart from an ethic that creates access, representation, and social justice - we diminish the chance for stability. But equally so, in a society where majority of the people have tremendous social and economic needs and the ability of the government to satisfy them are less than minimum, inclusiveness becomes a naked imagination.

Hope in our future resides in government’s capacity to bridge the disparities that exist between citizens in different socioeconomic classes, especially the most vulnerable. It is the capacity of government to be responsible in engaging the national community that it promotes and sustains inclusiveness. By this, I mean the government’s ability to devise effective ways to partner with and serve its constituents and integrate them into the fabric of national decision-making. Equitable allocation of resources is also fundamental to promoting this vision of inclusiveness. While collaboration and equity benefit individuals, they also benefit groups and society at-large. Our government has the responsibility to serve the larger society.

What specific ways can government promote inclusion beyond these ideals? Government can create a diverse public sector workforce and a non-discriminatory workplace. Few Liberians will enter the workforce; as would young Liberians entering schools in the post-war era, knowing how to function appropriately within multiethnic and multicultural environments. But being in a diverse workplace and educational or social setting, lays the groundwork for acquiring the skills needed to participate in a pluralistic democracy. Inclusion is one competence that every Liberian will need to stop the next person or themselves from causing the brokenness and denial of opportunity/self-affirmation that leads to conflict and warfare. Nation states are formed and operate to serve the common good or what has come to be referred to as the public interest. It is therefore imperative that the government diversify its workforce. The essential mission of a democratic government is to adjust its responses to the diverse needs of its constituents.

The increasing demographic changes: Liberians living abroad in large numbers, and even assuming the citizenships of other nations, are not without immense challenges. It is the nature of pluralism to challenge the effectiveness with which administrations can govern. Effects of the war have made us to think more as ethnic units rather than as a whole. Is it not true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? We should value ethnic interests, but not at the expense of national interest. By appreciating that the two can mutually exist concurrently, we expand our national capacity to build a more inclusive society. If the effects of pluralism are not mediated by intentional structural or leadership interventions (strategies for promoting national identity and shared purposes), there is a strong likelihood that effective governance will be hindered by egotistical interests. Inclusiveness is about respecting differences and inviting multiple perspectives and not about headcounts. Inclusiveness is about making an effort to discover what is distinctively individual about the other person or group and appreciating such a peculiarity and integrating it into the national mosaic of governance.

While pluralism and promoting inclusiveness present some real challenges, these tests also suggest that there are proactive steps that government can take to prevent the further erosion of trust that has become the foundation of the present debate. The place to start is by building institutional climates that affirm the humanity of all members of society. The Sirleaf government is uniquely poised to bring its desire for inclusiveness to bear on the debate by first positively engaging the legislative branch of the government to ease the venomous rhetoric that pervades the society today. No other sector of society is better positioned to serve this “boundary-breaking” function than the executive. Mrs. Sirleaf’s notable image of a grandmother shepherding a traumatized nation out of its misery can be used to establish a conciliatory tone and enhance citizens’ motivations to be inclusive. She must make the case for why it is essential for Liberians to reconcile our differences over and over again, by not paying “I owe you(s)” but by creating transparent processes and taking the guesswork out of her policies and programs. Most importantly, instead of interpreting the oversight responsibility of the Senate as uninvited furor, we need to ask ourselves, can the decadent political system that we have, particularly the record of the executive branch, change, without any pressure on it to reverse course? Is there any place in the world where an aggressive legislative oversight over the executive branch is needed than in a nation still immersed in its tyrannical past?

Reason for Vigilance
Readers can recall the widespread witch hunt and political persecutions of human rights advocates whose criticisms, previous governments found to be repugnant. We know of many administrations that abrogated onto themselves the authority of the judiciary and imprisoned critics without charge. We know of appointments in positions of trust that were unrelated to educational attainment or competence. Some victims of these violations are now in the Sirleaf government. And we are therefore encouraged by the prospects that these individuals would use their life experiences to guard this administration against practices that caused some of the wounds that we are seeking to repair. We are also aware of former warlords who have threatened to unleash carnage, if the Sirleaf government fails to be vigilant against the conditions that caused the war. We are also hopeful that once the remnants of the judicial and social institutions are reconstituted, these looming threats to stability would be prevented, thus setting the stage for democracy to gain foothold.

§ Socioeconomic disparities and dysfunctional institutions still account for much of the challenges associated with bringing about inclusion. Therefore, rather than focusing on the inclusion of specific individuals in government positions based on ethnic lineages or other parochial factors, systematically reforming our public structures to increase access, representation, and social justice, would produce outcomes that are robust and sustainable.

§ Using transparent approaches to recruit public officials and civil servants would mitigate appearances of nepotism and cronyism, and end the suspicion that secrecy breeds.

§ Embarking upon fundamental changes in patterns and structures that perpetuate polarization will prevent the appearance of nepotism and cronyism. For example, the appointment of President Sirleaf’s son to a critical National Security position was a poor leadership decision. If the President’s son is forced to choose between protecting national security and his mother’s security, which would he choose? We cannot predict his response, yet it is natural to worry that he could compromise national security to protect his mother’s personal security. Raising questions about this decision should be viewed for its merit and not as a partisan potshot. The question is not about his qualifications, but about the natural tendency for human beings to pursue self-interest over group interest. In an atmosphere where leaders utilized coercion, favoritism, and even brute force to solidify tyrannical rule, shouldn’t the appearance of nepotism generate suspicion? Perhaps, had the President created a National Security Council, and made the current National Security Agency Director designee (her son) to share the leadership with another qualified person or persons, this would have been an innovative way to minimize the resistance.

§ Creating policies and best practices that promote the hiring and retention of a multiethnic and multicultural workforce is critical, if it avoids the pitfalls of a quota system. In a multiethnic society, there will be no way where a quota system will not collapse under the weight of accusations of preferential treatment. Hiring qualified candidates and using transparent recruitment processes are the antidotes to this problem.

§ Society is built by individual and collective actions, but if we allow rugged individualism to undermine collective interests, we run the risk of eroding national solidarity, without which, we are not a community, but egotistical self-interested beings walloping in our own afflictions.

§ Civic engagement is considered an important, if not, a critical ingredient in building an inclusive society. Forging alliances across broad spectrums of interests and being involved in common causes, despite ethnic and social backgrounds, are essential to living in a pluralistic democracy, especially in a country like ours, where apathy and indifference have eaten at the core of our democratic independence.

§ Building an inclusive society requires strong and sustained commitment to the principles of respect for difference. In a climate like ours, where integrity in public office is a rarity, those persons (ordinary citizens and public officials alike) who maintain their integrity are capable of helping each of us transcend our personal life stories into a place of shared humanity.

§ Evolving professional development offerings in conscious and purposeful ways for all government employees and even making them mandatory on how to gain skills in navigating or managing diversity would be critical to reconciliation and healing.

§ Investing in strategies that recruit, support, and retain the best talents to assure that all Liberians have the opportunity to realize their full potential reduces disparities and creates the perception of equity and justice for all.

§ Relentless pursuit of social and distributive justice, which implies protection of civil liberties and equity in resource distribution are enormously critical to integrating underserved populations into society. Strong enforcements of laws against discrimination and human rights violation often make headways in consolidating democratic practices.

§ The power of free and open society is dialogue, and once people can share their perspectives without their liberties being suppressed, they are likely to feel a part of the larger community.

§ You strengthen the immunity of the government against individuals and groups feeling excluded, when the president shies away from giving the appearance that she is only surrounding herself with a homogeneous populace (whether it be based on age, ethnic and religious backgrounds or political affiliation) - people who are likely to be blindly loyal and uncritical.

§ Teaching the habits of compassion (philanthropy), which implies empathizing with and reaching beyond the narrow confines of our own conditions and needs, to help others is an important outcome of affirming people’s humanity. It is in being selfless that we see the needs of others; and in so doing - build solidarity and oneness with them, thus the beginning points of inclusiveness.

§ Unless we acknowledge the changes mediated by the war and their implications for building an inclusive society, we may be misguided in believing that we are providing meaningful opportunities for inclusion to occur, when we are merely maintaining previous systems in old guises. One of the places that we can begin this exploration of how to build an inclusive society is to ask ourselves individually and collectively: “What values do I hold and practices do I engage in that are anathema to inclusion?” Answering this question allows each of us to be cognizant not only of our own prejudices, but also the systemic barriers to inclusion.

§ Ultimately, no change will bring about inclusion than visible improvements in the quality of life of the broad majority of Liberians that are steep in socioeconomic morass. Political liberalization has to close the gaps between the wealthy and the poor, mitigate, if not end the plague of public corruption, and give each Liberian stake in the future of our country.

In an attempt to consolidate democracy, it is unhealthy to suggest that when people raise questions about the government’s decisions, they are fanatics bent on spurring division. The 14 years of war sapped us of trust. Hostility often occurs in environments where trust is scarce. Trust is also built in an atmosphere that fosters dialogue and invites multiplicity of perspectives, especially on difficult societal challenges. That is why pursuing an agenda that rebuilds trust is critical to fostering inclusion. When critics of the government are couched in derogatory terms, we lose the analytical capacity to decipher the logic of the critic’s position. The most significant way we can create an inclusive society is how we choose to respond to those whom we have come to refer to as “lunatics” for one reason or another – perhaps because they participated in the war and wreaked havoc on us. Some of these people were democratically elected by the Liberian people to represent their interests. They have an oversight responsibility, which is to ensure that the executive branch respects the rule of law.

Like the President, legislators are accountable to their constituents, despite their past alleged human rights violations. I deploy their alleged crimes enormously and call for them to be punished severely if they are found guilty by the courts. Nevertheless, if we want to build a democracy, we cannot judge anyone prior to their persecution by the court of law. Decisions that legislators make should be evaluated based solely on their merits. But to draw spurious links between their warring past and the exercise of their legislative responsibilities undermines the quest for inclusive governance. There are people appointed by President Sirleaf to her cabinet, including herself, who may have committed crimes, some more hideous than others. If President Sirleaf is committed to human rights, she should constitute a war crimes court. But she should be ready to accept the very real possibility of appearing before such a court as a defendant and/or witness. No one can deny that saints are rare in Liberia, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is not one of them.

Our intrinsic imperfections make a perfect society only an approximation of the ideal. Emerging from war, and even before, Liberia remains a work in progress. We will have to embrace its shortcomings, and work to repair them together. An anonymous author has written: “Silence and avoidance are the fertile ground where evil thrives. Forgiveness is the mortar of human relationships. Remorse is the antidote for keeping evil at bay. Forgetting is human, forgiving is divine.” Hopefully, these words will resonate with our conditions.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He lives with his family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He can be contacted at or