The main campaign slogan and chant of supporters of Charles Taylor during the 1997 special presidential election was “You killed my mama and you killed my papa but I will vote for you”. Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party were said to have won 51% of the votes cast. Taylor became president of the country thereafter.
The total destruction and collapse of Liberia, which had earlier begun when Taylor started a civil war on the eve of Christmas 1989, was completed during his reign has president. Several thousand more innocent Liberian lives were lost, either as a result of deliberate brutality meted out by Taylor’s armed gangsters or as a result of otherwise treatable diseases. Many of Liberia’s neighbors in Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast also lost their lives. Liberia became a pariah nation in the global community. The economy was decimated as Charles Taylor and his domestic and international collaborators looted everything of value and in sight. Personal and individual freedom and liberties were systematically violated and abused. Whatever remained of the system of education that existed before the 1997 special presidential election soon went into shambles during his reign of terror. His paramilitary forces, specifically his Anti-Terrorist Unit - staffed with fighters from Sierra Leone’s notorious Revolutionary United Front, blatantly violated the rights of law-abiding citizens and killed many people.
Today, when one talks about Liberia, it is usually in the context of a nation that is in total ruins; a country where the medical facilities for catering to the health needs of more than two million people can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The nation’s capital city has had no electrical grid, working sewer system and pipe-born water for more than ten long years. It is a nation a significant portion of whose citizens live either as internally displaced people in their own country or as refugees in foreign lands. Liberians, especially those who live in Monrovia, once a proud and hard-working people, have been reduced to mere street beggars and hustlers. The vast majority of Liberia’s school age children are either not in school or are in schools that are poorly staffed and lack basic instructional materials and supplies. Even the country’s public university is in total physical and structural shambles. The buildings on the campus of the University of Liberia, like other buildings in the City of Monrovia, look like structures that were erected a century ago and have not been attended to during the past fifty years. Ailments such as malaria, diarrhea and the common cold, which were otherwise treatable twenty years ago, now often result in death due to the total absence of basic primary health care and health care facilities in the country. Unemployment is at a historic high. There is a total absence of any viable economic activity. Corruption, cronyism and other unscrupulous practices in government are now more rampant than they have ever been in Liberia’s recent history.
And yet again we hear that some Liberians are preparing to vote in the run-off presidential election for this or that candidate not on the basis of the candidate’s qualifications and experience but based on their emotional affiliations and affixations to the candidate. Reason should guide our attention to the fact that for a nation that now lies in total ruins, what is urgently required is a cadre of leaders with the requisite dedication, commitment, experience and qualifications to lay out sensible and achievable policies and goals for economic recovery and political stability. It is extremely critical at this point in Liberia’s history that the country have a leadership that establishes and projects the highest degree of confidence, well beyond the nation’s (and certainly Africa’s) boundaries. Economic recovery, which is inarguably one of the most important ingredients for national resuscitation (next only to peace and stability) cannot and will not come to Liberia absent the influx of substantial foreign investments - not simply foreign aid. Foreign individuals and companies do not invest their resources in nations because those nations’ leaders are popular in spite of their inexperience, incompetence and lack of preparation. They invest in nations with mature political leaderships that create or are seen as capable of creating a politically and economically stable and friendly climatic in which to conduct business and commerce.
It is mainly sustained private sector economic activities, as opposed to endless foreign aid (which is usually quickly divided up among corrupt government officials and their collaborators), that will put Liberia on the road to economic recovery and hopefully eventual political and social stability. How? When there is true and viable economy activity in Liberia, people will get employed and businesses will pay taxes. When people have jobs they also pay taxes. Those taxes, if used prudently and honestly, help pay for the construction or rehabilitation and maintenance of schools, clinics, roads, streets and soccer stadiums. Taxes will also be the primary (and most reliable) source of funding for the purchase of equipment and parts needed to repair or rebuild and maintain infrastructure (such as the St. Paul River hydro-electric plant, air and seaports, highways and by-ways, etc.).
And so as Liberians go to the polls on November 8, 2005 once again to cast their lot, let us hope they leave their emotions at the entrances to the voting booths and vote with their minds and for their wallets and purses. Yes. I said for their wallets and purses. If Liberians want to quit begging for crumbs and looking up to foreign Non-Governmental Organizations for their daily sustenance, if they want to be able to send their children to schools that have textbooks, chairs, desks and well trained and paid instructors and administrators, and if they want to be able to go to a clinic or hospital when they and their family members or friends are ill, then they are going to have to choose someone who has enough credibility in the international community to be able to attract foreign capital and other investments, not just the endless stream of foreign aid that nearly all of Africa is so chronically dependent upon.
As we pray and hope for peace and stability, let us remember that these virtues will mean nothing if the ordinary man or woman cannot feed his or her family, cannot send his or her children to school and cannot get medical attention in time of need. A Liberian president, popular as he or she may be, will be of absolutely no help and value unless he or she has the experience, preparation and (perhaps most important of all) the credibility to confront the myriad of problems the country is facing. Liberia needs a president that has the preparation and experience to articulate the nation’s problems and needs and the credibility to command the respect and attention of other world leaders. The country also needs a president that does not have to waste precious time learning how to relate to other leaders and how to go about presenting his or her plans to the organizations, nations and people whose help is going to be desperately needed. And Liberian certainly does not need a leader who will be beholden to special interest groups. It does not need a president who, for lack of experience and preparation, has to rely solely on “advisers” and “experts” (who are prone to put their own personal interests above those of the nation’s) to devise and implement polices and procedures for the nation’s economic recovery and political and social stability. It is completely foolish to reinvent the wheel if you already have one right in your backyard.
Do Liberians remember the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) and Samuel K. Doe governments? Do they remember the brutality, extreme tribalism and nepotism that occurred under the PRC and Doe? For course these are rhetorical questions. I have no reason to doubt that the Liberian citizenry remembers nearly every evil act committed by the PRC and Doe governments. They certainly do remember Charles Taylor and his insatiable appetite for power and wealth, which he spared no effort to satisfy, no matter how foul, odorous and brutal the method employed. History seems destined to repeat itself once again in Liberia. Some of the forces that are grouping, regrouping and gearing up for the run-off election are comprised of remnants of the three evil regimes. They, joined by a fresh influx of opportunistic crooks and would-be thieves, are now fixing to once again fool the Liberian people. And if Liberians are ready and willing to relive the combination of all the evil that transpired under the PRC, Doe and Taylor regimes, then by all means they should vote with their emotions on November 8, 2005.
But if they want a complete turn-around from the brutality, human degradation and total economic and infrastructure collapse that have been visited upon them and their nation over the past twenty-five years, then they should put their emotions aside, trust in God (like they have always done) and cast their votes for the presidential candidate who is qualified, credible and prepared to lead the nation into the future. The qualities of credibility, respect, experience and preparedness for the presidency of the country cannot be ignored if Liberians want to leave the horrible past behind them and move on to a future that promises peace, economic recovery and political stability. Liberians should make their votes count. They should make their votes count as the principal ingredient in the bricks that will lay the foundation for the future - for themselves, their children and for many more generations to come.