From Advocacy to Public Service: A Transition Fraught with Special Challenges


By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 13, 2006


Status quo, you know that is Latin for “the mess we are in.”
--- Ronald Reagan

The theme of present day discussions about governance in Liberia is indisputably “change.” Underlying this message are criticisms of the past and invitation for reforms. Who is best suited to undertake “change” than those people who opposed the previous governments for its ineptitude? The time has come for opposition leaders and human rights activists to change the status quo. However, the transition from activism to governance is not without significant cost – high expectations.

There are a few things quite bold and noble than making the transition from social justice advocacy to working in government, especially immediately following those whom you have become famous for criticizing. Many people who advocated for social justice and the democratic rights of oppressed and subordinated groups have assumed prominent leadership positions in the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government. It is too soon to draw definitive conclusions regarding their performance, but there is no mistake that the expectations of observers are extremely high. In this paper, I review the challenges associated with moving from being an advocate of social justice to a government official.

Reflections on Woods, Wesseh, Gongloe, and Others
Samuel Kofi Woods at the Labor Ministry, Comany Wesseh at Foreign Affairs, and Tiawon Gongloe at the Justice Ministry are three of the most popular social justice advocates turned government officials. These names resonate with the Liberian people. This is not to negate the long list of other human rights activists from the same generation, some of whom died, and others who are still involved in personal and collective quests to change the oppressive political and social cultures that are pervasive in our country. The late Wuo Gabbie Tappiah and D. Sumowu Pewu; former Vice Presidential candidate Alaric Tokpa, and the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE’s) Executive Director, Ezekiel Pajibo, and a slew of others, have given enormously to this worthy struggle.

As the labor problems have surfaced in FIRESTONE, Labor Minister Samuel Kofi Woods is stuck in the middle. He is charged with the responsibility to resolve this looming crisis in the interest of the disadvantaged workers. Perhaps, his considerations are more complex and complicated than the “public good” criteria, which was the basis of his work as a labor rights activist. The fates of employers and employees are parts of an interconnected system, and you cannot address one without the other.

The challenge for Labor Minister Woods is that he can no longer just criticize degraded labor conditions without offering durable solutions that satisfy all parties involved. But the more employers like FIRESTONE latch their business practice on the lopsided market principles (making profits at the expense of the workforce), that have being the norm in Liberia over the years with impunity, the sooner Woods gets a rude awakening that his job is harder than merely giving ultimatums. You have to clearly define what optimal working conditions should look like in an environment, which human rights activists have characterized as near slave conditions.

Labor Minister Woods is caught up in the clenched fist of high expectations that his record of success as a labor rights activist created and the seeming snail-pace at which some workers and their supporters feel that their needs are being addressed. One wonders if all these former activists would match their rhetoric against reigning governments with reality - when the “rubber hits the road.” This may not just be the personal challenge facing Woods alone, but all of us activists who have invested our lives in seeing that sustainable social change occur in our country. If Woods fail, there would be lingering effects on all of us that term ourselves human/labor rights activists. This is also true, if either Gongloe or Wesseh fail in their positions. Essentially, all activists are tied together by a much higher responsibility – the charge to hold one another accountable. We are also inextricably linked by the charge to support one another in these very special times. For each of us, our track records are our greatest competitor.

Preventing the Crab Ethos
It is not an overstatement to say that each of us (social justice advocate) has personal ambitions: political or otherwise. But can we allow those ambitions to trap us into the “crab ethos” that destroyed the ability of our predecessors (leaders of MOJA and PAL, opposition leaders) to succeed at bringing about durable change in the structures of our society when they assumed government positions during the Doe and Taylor eras? Not too long after the Doe government took office, the military government turned to many stalwarts of the opposition movements and entrusted them with sundry of government positions. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Oscar Quiah, Baccus Matthews, H. Boiman Fahnbulleh, Jr., and others served in different capacities. But their records of effecting change was diminished, and in the eyes of some, even tarnished, by what observers have come to name as “internecine strife or infighting.”

Clearly, this is not to suggest that other societal forces did not concurrently impinge on these men and women, and compromised their effectiveness, but the latter was not the sole culprit. Personal moral and governance failures were also the causes of the crisis that these men and women wreaked on the Liberian people. New activists turned government officials cannot afford to repeat their mistakes. Worse, they cannot afford to operate in their shadows. This generation of activist turned government officials must be their own people, stand on our own records, and set better examples for our children. Lots are riding on their performance. That means that their peers outside of government too cannot relent in holding these men and women accountable.

We should also recall what happened to many so-called activists in the Taylor government and in the Transitional governments (insurgency-based collaborations). Their records of public theft and mismanagement may not compare to the Doe government, when objective scrutiny sheds light on their actions/acquisitions. Many have not shown remorse or shame when parading their “possessions” in Monrovia and/or abroad.

Acknowledging Our Communal Linkages
The crux of this paper is to acknowledge the communal links between activists for justice, that is, if we intend to build a community and are not pursuing individual riches and reputations. This is also an attempt to caution us against two primary destructive forces. The first, is the notion that now that these men and women have transitioned to government, we need to let them face their respective responsibilities alone. As an adjunct, these men and women too, may be feeling that they can no longer find common cause with their peers within the activist community. And when even contacts happen between the two sides, it should occur only on a social/superficial level, and not involve professional collaboration to achieve mutually beneficial ends – enhancing the quality of life for the Liberian people. The second is the mindset that once activists join the government, they are now adversaries of the social change movements, and thus must be ostracized and/or criticized unreasonably. An appendage to this second view is that Wesseh, Woods, Gongloe and others who have chosen public service as a path for change-making cannot be so focused on their own political futures and turn their backs on the associations that got them to prominence and notoriety. To do so, will be at their own peril.

Benchmarking Public Service Success
Let me return to the subject that matters the most – their performance while in public service. What outcomes would be indicators of the success of their public service? Simply, their performance will be measured against two factors: their statements on issues (stance that they took on issues) and against others who occupied the positions that they are occupying. We hope that their actions in government would not suggest that their advocacy was inspired solely by a desire to be appointed to positions of trust in government. For us as observers, I hope that our criticisms will not merely be driven by a desire to use them as launching pads for our personal careers. Instead, the best interest of our countrymen and women, most importantly, Liberian children, should drive all that we do.

There is much to learn from the men and women who preceded us. They constituted political opposition against the Tolbert, Doe, and Taylor governments proposing noble ideals to effect change. However, when they assumed government positions, the gulf between their performance and the public statements they made were so huge, that they left many very suspicious of their motives. I hope this new generation of activists turned public servants would pursue their positions with the failures/mediocre successes of their predecessors as professional and political signposts on their own journey.

Perhaps, there might be words of caution in this article for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as well. She too might be facing the difficulty of disposing herself of men and women who have dismal public records, and are dependent on work in her government to vindicate their failures. An example is warranted here. How can Amos Sawyer whose own record of governance is checkered at best be appointed to lead the Governance Commission? Such a trend presents a clear danger. The failure of the likes of Amos Sawyer will only be a reflection of her own shortsightedness as well. With that said, we hope that she will breathe fresh air of leadership into the wings of our beloved nation so that it can soar beyond every pedestrian expectation. Chris Toe, Antoinette Sayeah and others have impeccable records that they can stand on, and some of us hold high hopes that they will leave in the trails of public service a different portrait than what Liberians know from the past.

Bringing Change While in Government
Woods, Wesseh, Gongloe and others should disregard ideological and personal divisions that they may have erected between themselves and reconcile competing principles into a carefully planned and calibrated support network that would allow them to hold one another accountable for their actions while in government. They should ensure that each one of them match their activist rhetoric with the public policies that they are responsible to make or influence.

If they notice that one of their peers is being coerced by their superiors to follow the “party line” in ways that contradict their commitment to social justice and the greater good of the society, they should use their individual and collective leverage internally to prevent such an occurrence. As a private citizen and candidate, Mrs. Sirleaf advocated for good governance: rule of law, fiscal prudence, and professionalism. They should use her promise as a basis for rebuffing any attempts to entrench them into the status quo.

If any of these individual activists find out that the power of mediocrity is having a sway over their actions, causing them to violate their cardinal principles of social justice, they should be the first to resign. The cause of justice is greater than each of us. Upholding social and distributive justice tenets is critical for our communal survival, and consequently, we must not let personal ambitions erode its value.

Members of the Sirleaf administration cannot assume a posture of “defensive nostalgia,” which failed leaders, often use to address chronic leadership shortcomings. They have no record of success in Liberian government that they can cling unto for respite, and even if they do, I am not sure Liberians are ready to let them do just that. Individuals in the government can claim their respective records of success during prior employment in academia, government, international organizations, private business and/or non-governmental organizations. But cumulatively as a group, they lack no record of success. The President has raised the expectations of Liberians, and rightly so. Therefore, her staff must embrace change and be trailblazers because Liberians have watched the nation hit rock bottom and cannot degenerate any further.

We need a citizen-centered leadership model to move the needle decisively on those governance processes, policies, and programs that have proven most difficult to improve: poverty, unemployment, poor health care systems, manifold health and social epidemics, illiteracy, and the list goes on. Any good leader would know that all these indicators are intricately linked, and most importantly, when citizen voice is not cultivated through civic engagement, their participation in the governance process will not occur. Lacking citizen participation and ownership of change only means spinning our heels in the same spot. For all intents and purposes this is not change, but derogated as maintaining the status quo.

The Author: Emmanuel lives with his wife and children in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He is the Director of Educational Equity and Integration for South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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