Democracy’s Test in Liberia

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 25, 2005


Send Money From Around The World 24/7_1
George Weah, at 38 is probably the youngest candidate in Liberia’s presidential race race. With barely a high school education to his credit, he is by far the least formally educated. He has never held public office and practically has no management experience. Yet, to his credit, he is the most widely known Liberian, not only in the race, but arguably the most popular Liberian alive. Not only is he popular, he is believed to be independently wealthy, making him the ideal candidate for those who are suspicious of potential moneygrubbers. This scenario is both comforting and reassuring to some, as it is troubling to others.

Now comes the dilemma: Is he the best man for the job, given what we know about him? At this point, the clear answer is, No. But it may not matter further after the people have spoken. If we must be true to ourselves, we must let the process work. Democracy is a double-edged sword. In an ideal democracy, the concept of one-man-one-vote is paramount. Those people who argue that George Weah is not qualified to run Liberia have a valid concern. But unless the better qualified candidates and statesmen in the race can offer sensible alternatives, George Weah is destined to be the next president of Liberia because this man is riding an incredible wave of popularity and the last time I checked, popularity was still an genuinely valid political asset; just ask California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.

What must be done before Liberians create their own version of “Man of the People” is to ask this hero-in-the-making the necessary tough questions. It has generally been said that a people get the government they deserve. Do the Liberian people deserve a government headed by George Weah? If so, the Liberian people deserve to know what a Weah-led government is capable of doing. And Mr. Weah has an obligation to tell us, in his own words, instead of repeating overly simplistic football analogies.

According to George Weah: “Politics is like a football game. You form your team. I form my team.” He continues, “Right now, Liberia needs people of common sense, people of virtues, people that are willing to empower Liberians, people that are willing to work in the interest of the country. We don’t need people who have degrees, and they don’t perform. No!” Yet Mr. Weah claims he’s a “unifier”. How does he propose to form a team devoid of “book people”? Does not knowing book necessarily endow people with these virtues of which he speaks? How? These are things upon which the candidate must expound. How does the absence of education give one the virtue to empower another?

In a recent magazine article carried by the New York Times, on Sunday August 21, 2005, the author, Andrew Rice, wrote, “The real issue to me, isn’t education or temperament; it’s class. To Liberia’s old elite, Weah is just too plain-spoken, too dark-skinned, too African”. I don’t know how Mr. Rice could draw such an erroneous and provocative conclusion; I flatly find such a statement insulting to our collective intelligence. As a matter of fact, I think the issue centers around much more than the archaic, trifling, stereotypical portrait of the present-day Liberian elite. Mr. Rice described an antiquated view of Liberians that is quite out of touch with today’s reality.

Yes, the issues are education, temperament, comportment and general ability among others. Again, let’s examine what Rice writes: “The next president of Liberia will inherit a nation that is emotionally scarred and desperately poor. The economy is in shambles. Nearly a third of the country subsists on U.N. food aid. Hundreds of thousands live in mud-wattle refugee camps. Monrovia has no running water or electricity. The official unemployment rate is 85 percent…” Such stark realities, beyond any doubt, rank above mere complexion, manner of speaking or any superficial social background. Yet, when asked how a Liberian government led by President George Weah will tackle these grim issues, we are told to rely on charisma and paternalistic behavioral patterns. Laughable.

George Weah, to his credit has been a generous man. He is a generous man who carries a large wad of notes that he throws at unfortunate fellow citizens who sing his praises all day long. Is that the way he intends to solve our national problems by throwing money at us? Can he build roads and hospitals and businesses that way? Can he afford to? Obviously not, which is why we must press him for specifics now before it is too late.

After giving a beggar some money, Mr.Weah is said to have commented, “Once you take care of people, people respect you. They call you Papay.” (Papay is a term of endearment, which literally means “daddy”). But since Mr. Weah’s followers call him “King” and he refers to himself as “a noble person”, becoming the nation’s Papay may just be a demotion. Counselor Samuel Kofi Woods’ apt observation is worth noting; he is quoted as saying: “I think he sees himself as an idol the people must worship.” Liberia does not need a “father” or an idol. Liberia needs a competent, practical leader. Is Mr. Weah ready to lead this difficult country? If so, he must tell us how he plans to do so instead of simplistically likening politics to sports.

Weah is said to be contemptuous of “lawyers and Ph.D.’s because, “They have not developed the country, they have never created any jobs, they never built any schools, they never built any hospitals.” Yet his personal benefactor, Samuel K. Doe, whose memories he holds dearly, was just as bad, although he was a high school dropout. Mr. Weah must be made to understand that acquiring terminal degrees does not necessarily make a man corrupt; regarding our intelligentsia with contempt does not bode well for someone who must rely on the professional and academic expertise of others on such complicated matters as government, matters to which he brings no appreciable experience.

I find it troubling that Mr. Weah is being overly simplistic when he generalizes thus: Since some educated folks who ran the country were corrupt, therefore all educated people are corrupt. How exactly does he account for Samuel Doe’s corrupt regime from which he so personally benefited? Or was it not corruption when he was a personal beneficiary?

And since Weah is so seemingly indisposed to the country’s intelligentsia, is it logical to assume that he will not place a premium on formal education? How does he propose to uplift these former child soldiers by discounting and loathing education? Does he plan to send them to international soccer camps so they can all become millionaires playing football in Europe? In short, Mr. Weah needs to explain how he intends to solve Liberia’s problem of high illiteracy.

Although some readers will characterize my observations as anti-Weah, it is not my intention to be. Am I being critical? Yes, but critical in the sense characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment. It is simply an attempt to contribute to the ongoing national dialogue.

This article is mainly meant to awaken the traditional politicians and other technocrats in the race to the danger that lurks in the masquerade of charisma as aptitude. Mr. George Weah has demonstrated success in the field of sports; he must be commended. He obviously has a great personality and exhumes charisma. He has seemingly demonstrated philanthropy and it is apparent that he genuinely cares for his countrymen. Does that translate into competence for the job at hand? Hardly.

The traditional politicians have to convince the electorate that their terminal degrees do not necessarily render them disadvantageous, as Mr. Weah and his followers seem to imply, but that their learning and experience give them the needed advantage over this non-traditional candidate. The case must be made as strongly and persistently as possible, or the electorate will sleepwalk into a euphoric dream only to wake up to our troubles again and again. Can we afford to take such chances for the Liberian nation at such a critical juncture? Obviously, I don’t think so.

Yes, George Weah’s candidacy is a living test for democracy in Liberia. On one hand, if Mr. Weah wins, the ordinary people shall have spoken; in that sense it could be interpreted as a triumph for democracy. Such fairy tales make for genuine drama: “The underdog wins.” On the other hand, what’s at stake is just too high for such superfluous melodrama.

The electorate must awaken from its slumber before the double-edged sword called democracy victimizes us. Yes, that most notable tenet of democracy, one-man-one-vote, will win in the end. We must be willing to accept the subsequent consequences: The tyranny of the majority. But I hope the “majority” does not usher in the new era of kingdom. The “King” eagerly awaits his “royal” coronation, now that’s noble, isn’t it? The king, his royal, noble highness must be smiling now… there goes the republic.