The Debate on Presidential Successions: A Dialogue of Much Ado About Little


By: Tarnue Johnson


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 27, 2005


In the aftermath of the recent elections, there are many things about Liberia that one could be excited about. I am excited about having seen Liberians exercised their franchise without fear of intimidation, which is doubltless very rare in the history of our country. But I find the debate on presidential successions between William Allen and D. Edward Dunn so far uninspiring and truly a dialogue of Much Ado About Little. I would submit that Dunn and Allen have done much to contribute to Liberian studies in various ways. I have nothing but respect and admiration for their contributions. However, the content of this latest debate on presidential successions carries little weight within the broader pantheon of intellectual and practical challenges that now face the Liberian nation. Especially if the intent as Dunn has construed it is to correct widespread distortions in considering certain elements of Liberian history.

This is a time of transition that demands the realistic contemplation of novel approaches, reinforced by a search for new solutions and meanings. I dare say that there is a dire need for alternative and more profound forms of construal as we face new challenges in our historical evolution. Let’s consider two questions within the framework of a thought experiment:

1) What would it take to guarantee that the current constitutional dispension that resulted in the November 8 elections do not falter like most other dispensions in the past? A logical follow up to this question is:

2) What is the role of critical dialogue in underpining national legitimacy in the face of staggering economic and social odds in Liberia?
3) What would happen if we were to answer these questions in one form or the other?

Consider yet another question: Suppose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf decides to include some supporters of George Weah in her incoming administration without regard to competence and their human rights records as the result of a quasi power sharing arrangement, how would this affect the new political arrangement? In light of these questions and others I can not mention here, I am seriously doubtful that our alternative value conceptions regarding categories of space and time concerning presidential rankings will provide any meaningful clues to these questions. In fact I am of the view that it would take many things to sustain the current momentum toward democratic self-governance in the Liberia. This includes a discourse of emancipation undergirded by the democratic and communicatively rational construction of new meanings. Thus, the accuracy of presidential rankings in a country long deprived of an authentic democratic tradition is simply not sufficient ( abeit it might constitute a necessary condition) in terms of deriving critical understanding of the meaning of constitutional legitimacy and a praxis of emancipation. I find this aspect and its related moral theory of political development absent in the debate so far. This is why I maintain that the debate is not inspiring after all.

Previledging a discourse of emancipation obliges one to consider ethical and epistimic dimensions of legitimacy, not just empirical facts on the ground or facts at the executive mansion in deciding who has been or is a letigimate president of Liberia. In this understanding lies a profound formulation that all that exist is not always rational. As much as all that is rational is not always real. This is a hegelian construct that is crucial to the development of a moral theory and an emancipatory discourse. It further suggests that presideintial successions must be consistent with constitutional provisions and norms. Dunn alluded to this thesis momentarily in one of his pieces, but he did not develop it to its logical conclusions. Such a rigorous method would yeild fruitfull but insufficient results. It would consider, for example, the Doe and Taylor epochs as mere interregnums, along with other specified interregnums in the headcount. This would be the case because the 1985 elections were rigged, as William Allen himself has earlier testified to in one of his articles (see Allen, 2005). I need not also remind us that the 1997 elections were also greatly flawed and problematic.

Since Doe initially came to power through extra constitutional means, it would mean that he never became a president of Liberia after all. It could also mean that Charles Taylor, like Samuel Doe, Charles D.B. King, and a host of other Liberian presidents in the pre-1980 era could not be regarded as presidents of Liberia in various and concrete semantic contexts. One would submitt that this is the linguistic turn in histopolitical analysis that is crying out for nurturing. It provides a line of reasoning and a logical apparatus, which establishes the basis for the construction of new meanings that have an expressed moral purpose in terms of legitimacy and its sources. In my judgement it transcends the limits of the current debate by setting a heuristic standard for critical discourse.

To believe otherwise would simply amount to embracing the idea of constitutional normalcy through flaw elections, which would be counterintuiative in terms of a commitment to an emancipatory praxis. A reconsideration of what the meaning of President is in the context of pragmatic necessity would put us on the path to discovering a new way of defining “sovereign authority” that indicates radical departures from old doctrines. The tittle of President from now on should be reserved for only national leaders or heads of state of Liberia who have been democratically elected in a free and fair elections. If I were to say this and say I want to see what would happen, such an utterance would be arbitary and only a superficial thought experiment. However, it can become something else and rather meaningful in specific intersubjective contexts suggesting particular modes of justifications.
These modes of justifications presuppose a theory of discourse ethics suggesting that the validity of a moral norm or constitutional practice in this case can only be justified by mutual understanding achieved by individuals in argument; and by extension in free and fair electios. For, in free and fair democratic elections, the better argument supposedly wins- all things being equal. So, by me saying that the meaning of president as presented to us by both authors (Dunn and Allen) by virtue of their taken-for-granted assumptions should be deconstructed does not necessarily make it true. Why? Because this utterance of mine can not be justified in my own mind as an isolated person reflecting on an objective world. In a Habermasian context (see Niemi, 2005) this is a radical departure from the Kantian viewpoint that an individual rational subject can extract moral principles from what I would refer to as autocentric reflection on experience.

Let me further elaborate on the question of a Doe presidency. The Sawyer draft constitution that also came out of this era ( early 1980s) was severely doctored by Doe’s surrogates in the interim constitutional assembly just to meet his personal ambitions to become president. This is hardly the type of exercise whose outcomes woud be deemed as underpining any form of positive legitimacy in a national polity. And positive letigimacy to me is a key operative concept in gauging regime stability. It is also an adjunct to an emancipatory praxis as I have determined it to be in this case. Because it reveals to us the crucial element of popular acceptance, which suggests legitimacy of a governing regime as an authoriy. Thus, what an analysis of letigimacy and its sources does in this context is to refocus a debate on the issue of presidential rankings away from the categories of space and time to the realm of semantics.

It allows us as Ludwig Wittgenstein would say, to “show the fly out of the fly bottle.” Or in other words to stop tomenting ourselves with unnecessary problems as the result of “language gone on holiday”(Wittgenstein, 1953). Semantics pressuposes contextual truth conditions and archetypal questions such as: Who is a president, head of state, leader, prime minister or charmain of some ruling institutional body in Liberia? What are the moral and democratic crateria in determining who holds these titles? What is the meaning of a president, head of state, or chairman of a ruling council within the Liberian historical context? In my humble estimation these questions are more fundamental to the construction of new meanings then questions concerning who became what in space and time. They also help to refine the terms of reference and units of analysis in our collective and social construction of reality. Predicated upon these grounds alone they are so central to making sense of any ethical theory of emancipation and social change.

This standard or mode of judgment should apply to deciding the question of who is a president and who is not- or who is something else. This position might be regarded as a subjective one without specific modes of justifications as I have already indicated. And because it is subjective, an array of people are allowed to hold a variety of differing oppinions on the interpretations and meanings of these terms. Because of this one could argue that there is nothing called president which exists independent of the concrete socio-historical conditions and atomistic perceptions of subjects in a country. What this suggests is that the fact that historical and cultural realities can be socially constructed is a pluasible assumption. In fact this is what we have learned from the postmodernist tradition in critical discourse theory. In which there is a provision that historical texts ( be they original, primary or secondary sources as cited by both authors in the exchanges) are cites of conflicts within a given culture and socio-historical context. In this singular context they are contigent and therefore cannot form the basis in-and-of-themselves for formulating abstract theories in relation to reality.

This calls for deconstructive readings of texts to reveal evidence of baises, lies, power structures, tensions, and ambuiguity between antagonistic interests and inclinations in society. We can get to the core of these tensions when texts are considered for truly what they are- as barriers of subjective and relative truths. On this particular score Jacques Derrida’s binary positions often applied in interpretive constructs in the readings of texts is instructive. This is seen in Dunn’s value supposition that certain interim regimes were the result of special political arrangements and should therefore be treated as such as he percieves it. Or indeed, when Mr. Allen alludes to the fact that “scholars are generally reluctant to count Smith as President because they do not have hard evidence to prove that he was actually sworn in as president after Roye was deposed in 1871.” But I would like to ask as to what exactly constitutes hard evidence in this case? In fact Dunn’s evidence in his followed up article would be enough to clear the air and sustain his arguments outside a discourse of meaning, social action, and a theory of emancipation.

Furthermore, there are other questions I could pose with respect to Allen’s positions regarding the formation of a scholarly consensus in this case. For example, could it be that these scholars preferred methodology could be the result of a bais in their interpretations of the crisis, which led to the forcible overthrow of Roye in the first place? Why are we not informed of such baises if they exist? And if they do not exist, why and how? These are outstanding methodological questions indeed!
Let me reiterate my major points. I have said that I find the exchanges between the two authors so far baffling because of the lack of incorporation of the issue of legitimacy, especially in terms of its related ethical and epistemic dimensions in their alternative ranking methodologies. Because no sufficeint attention has been paid to this aspect, their conversation thus far lacks any attempt to develop a moral theory. It doesn’t really matter how we call a Liberian leader- president, head of state, chairman as in the case of Chairman Gyde Bryant. What is important is the legitimacy and its democratic sources in terms of their rule and authority. This is important because at the core of ligitimacy is stablity and a measure of social balance, which has alluded the Liberian national polity for very long. To rediscover social balance and legitimacy one should “draw attention to the conditions that make language meaningful and correcting such usuage as obscures awareness of these conditions.” ( Basboll, 2005:1).

William Allen states elsewhere in his piece that because Liberian school children recited by heart that Tubman was the 18th president, it means this must be true. This position is dubious. Not because we recited by heart the fact that Tubman was the 18th president necessarily makes it true or an “established paradigm.” This supposition by all means exclude the possibility for falsifiability of such claims at least in the Popperian sense. There is a difference between the force of tradition and rational authority. What’s more, an established paradigm in a scienfitic context is more then something we recite in school. A paradigm in the scientific sense has several distinctive ontological characteristics. It seems as though an idea can not be said to be a paradigm when these conditions are not met satisfactorily. Thomas Kuhn (1970) in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions laid down several markers for a paradigm. They include but not limited to the following:
· What is to be observed and scrutinized,

· The kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject,

· How the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted

The above parameters establish the premise for our engagement in the analytical process. The Kuhnian framework challenges us to consider the various meanings of what a president is within a semantic context instead of just preoccupying ourselves with who became what along a continuum of time. Perhaps this is a psuedo problem resulting from the misuse of language (see Wittgenstein, 1953). When we are on the path of meaning construction within the framework of agreed upon procedures and modes of justifications to derive at consensual best judgments, then we are on our way to establishing frameworks for tentative paradigms. Such paradigms advance the process of a specific kind of critical thinking by establaishing structural foundations for the development of a moral theory and an emancipatory praxis through our intersubjective structures of communications. It is pluasible that such counter foundationalist perspective has within its bosom a potential for developing the logic of the lifeworld (the public sphere of meaningful dialogue) as centers of counter-hegemonic tendencies. For scholars of Liberian critical discourse, this process is also indicative of a shift from a preoccupation with space and time (metaphysics) when necessary, to new theoretical and ethical concerns of universal pragmatics suggesting a consensus theory of truth ( see Braaten, 1991).
Allen, W. (2005) “ The world will give its verdict after the elections:” History is on the side of the 2005 Presidential election Observers. Available at:
----------------------(2005) The 23rd or not the 23rd: The evolving debate on ranking Liberian presidents. Available at:
Basboll, T. (2005) Configuring the usage: The Social Epistemologist as a Postmodern Grammarian. Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp259-268.
Braaten, J. (1991) Habermas’s critical theory of society. New York: SUNY Press
Dunn, D.E. (2005) Liberia’s presidential succession: From J.J. Roberts to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Available at:
-------------------- (2005) Liberia’s presidential succession debate: Dunn responds to Allen. Available at:
Engels, F. (1946) Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosohy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Niemi, J (2005) Jungen Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality: The foundational distinctions between communicative and strategic action. Journal of Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 31, Issue 4, pp.513-532.
Kuhn, T. (1970) The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Popper, K. (1959) The logic of scientific discovery. London:Hutchinson
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, New York: The Macmillan Publishing Company
----------------------(1961) Tractatus logico-phiosophicus. Translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinnes. London: Routledge.
About the author: Tarnue Johnson currently teaches at East-West University in Chicago. He has written Education and Social Change in Liberia: New Perspectives for the 21st Century (2004). Mr. Johnson also serves on the faculty of Western International University Online. He can be reached at: