Unpacking Tradition: What are Human Rights in the Liberian Context
Part II

By Ezekiel Pajibo*

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 5, 2006


This is the second in a two part article. The articles are written to further the debate about Human Rights in Liberia, and also a response to two articles published on the perspective websites by Messrs Theodore Hodges and George Nubo. The first article focused on Mr. Hodges piece and this is in response to Mr. Nubo’s. As a disclaimer and in the spirit of full disclosure, this is not an effort to defend Mr. Aloysius Toe, as he is best capable of defending himself. This endeavor suggests that we, as Liberians can not afford to “mistake the tree for the forest”. (Erratum: In the last article I mentioned Thomas Friedman but instead of Milton Friedman, the Noble Price Winner in Economics, who recently died. Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times – my bad)

There are two elements in Mr. Nubo’s article that give me the creep. One is that Mr. Toe, will not stop at anything in his efforts to undermine the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s Presidency. According to Mr. Nubo, Toe “is bent on destroying the administration” and the other is that Mr. Toe is “unpatriotic.” I will leave aside the brouhaha surrounding the TRC and the UNMIL Human Rights Conspiracy issues as there are other more appropriate forum for such discussion. The front page of the Daily Observer (November 20, 2006) reported on the Nubo’s story and the following day (November 21, 2006) published the entire article. I find these events, the coverage that is, very troubling. It reminds me of the early days of the 1980 coup d’etat when criticisms were made of Doe and his men, we were told “let the boys enjoy too.” No one is beyond reproach or criticisms. The country would do well if we are all allowed to say what we think, if when we disagree or the criticisms is directed against us or whomever we support. If the criticisms are misplace or outright falsehood, the response should speak to that.

First, Mr. Toe can not destroy the Sirleaf Presidency. I think that is giving Mr. Toe too much credit than he deserves. The President won by a landslide. More than 60% of Liberians voted for her. Her legacy is already established as the first woman to be elected president in Africa. During her recent visit to China, Mrs. Sirleaf granted an interview to the BBC and I listened closely. This was the first time I heard an African leader spelling out a vision for Africa. Her central point was that international partners interested in Africa must support the African agenda, as conceived by, as conceptualized by and to be implemented by Africans. I felt proud as a Liberian to have such a President. Only recently she called for development assistance to Liberia to focus on the need of the Liberian people and told the donor community that accountability was a “two way street.” She said that donor funding to Liberia will only be meaningful if we can see improve living conditions for Liberians. I believe firmly, that with adequate resources at the Government disposal and the commitment our President has sworn to uphold, wonders will happen in Liberia. Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe that this moment in our history provides us a unique and golden opportunity for a constructive engagement with the State. Civil society organizations can impact the public policy process now than they could have ever done before and we need to embrace the historic challenge of correcting the malaise that is Liberia. That does not take away our historic tasks of watch-dogging, assessing and evaluating government’s policy. The Sirleaf presidency will be indelibly etched in the country’s history and the mind of its people if they can say “my life has changed for the better” during her administration. That is the litmus test of leadership.

To do that we must pay close attention to policy issues, we must engage in rigorous research and analysis and put forward realistic policy options and lobby our elected leaders to adopt such policy options. At all times, we should contextualize our advocacy – recognizing the opportunity to make a difference in terms of impacting the policy process. Of course, we may differ on several issues, after all we are different people but our differences must not be transformed into enmity and that is why I feel uneasy when the debate degenerate into personal attacks and name calling such as “unpatriotic.” The recent past is too present in the memory of our people. Labeling someone unpatriotic, in the not too distant past, was license for harm to come to such individual. Our nascent democracy can not absorb such shocks.

At the same time, I think that Liberia is not simply about the Sirleaf Presidency. It is about Liberia and how we can deepen the culture of democracy and secure our peace. The country must encourage a robust deliberative democratic order. To be critical of the Government does not mean that one is bent on destroying the government. Labeling Mr. Toe as unpatriotic because of views he espouses, appears as a sneaky attempt at curbing dissent. We can disagree but because we disagree doesn’t mean that we should label each other. We must engage in enlightened debates about the pressing issues of our time: how do we put our people to work, create access to schools and health care, improve our roads and increase citizen participation in the project to build a democratic Liberia, where freedoms are not only known and talked about but more importantly, are exercised and enjoyed.

Another point of contestation is the idea Mr. Nubo postulated when he suggested that since he did not hear human rights groups speak out on the crime wave in the country and about the rights of victims, they should keep quiet about obtaining information from the Government. Civil society organizations spoke on the issue very loudly. Just check out any of the newspapers published during this period. For example, when Minister Francis Johnson Morris suggested the establishment of vigilante groups in the country, human rights organizations pointed out that it was a wrongly headed policy option given the existing conditions in the country. The wave of crime in Liberia is not unique, given the post war conditions in the country. No doubt, with unemployment as high as 85%; crimes became a means to exact a livelihood. What is more, there are too many young able bodied men and women in Monrovia with nothing to do. As they say, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”. That is why some of us in the human rights community have called for Liberia’s debt cancellation, as the President continue to advocate. As well, we have called for and continue to call for the front-loading of developing assistance to Liberia.. When the budget was announced and the President informed the public that there was no donor support for the budget, we advocated with donors on the need to provide budgetary support for the Government of Liberia. I now understand that some European countries will provide budgetary support. We need to learn the details. One of the campaign slogans we have developed is: One percent of the reconstruction money for Iraq should be raised for Liberia’s reconstruction. We plan to make this request to the upcoming donor conference on Liberia in February 2007.

Putting Liberia back together is all our business. There is no need to dabble in name calling and personalizing the national debate on how we put Liberia together. We may not always agree on everything and that is fine. The time for name calling and the blame game is over. It is time for hard thinking and the development and implementing of public policies that result in improving the material conditions of the Liberian people. The African Americans call this keeping “your eyes on the prize.” Human rights is about living a life of dignity, the State is obligated to create the necessary conditions for dignified livelihood to find manifestations in the lived conditions of the citizens. Right to information is an important part of this process. Thankfully our President seems to embrace this idea as was illustrated in the recent “conversation with the President.”

*Ezekiel Pajibo works at the Center for Democratic Empowerment based in Monrovia, Liberia.
© 2006 by The Perspective
E-mail: editor@theperspective.org

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: http://www.theperspective.org/submittingarticles.html