Snowe, Corruption and Easy (failed) Solutions in Liberian Politics

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 23, 2007


All things being equal, the current embattled Speaker of the House of Representatives of Liberia, Mr. Edwin Snowe and many of his colleagues should have been behind bars, after answering in the court of law for the many crimes – ranging from theft of state property, rape, to human rights abuses and murder – they have been accused of. But this was Liberia in 2005, hardly recovering from a long nightmarish war and most people just wanted to move on.

Before the elections in 2005, human rights advocates called attention to the candidacy of Mr. Snowe and tried to block it at no avail. The transitional government nor the voters nor the Elections Commission paid attention to what was being said about him. Not only did he get elected overwhelmingly by his constituents in Paynesville in the suburb of Monrovia, he managed to become Speaker of the House.

The selection of Mr. Snowe by his peers to be Speaker came as a surprise to political observers. Prior to their seating, elected members of the legislature were taken to Ghana by the United Nations for a two week-long course on governance. Mr. Snowe did not make the trip because he was – and still is – under UN travel ban. But the other candidate for the post Speaker, Mr. Dusty Wolokollie went to Accra and spent two weeks alone with his colleagues and was able to campaign freely. This other candidate was not only a known quantity in terms of political activism but was also a close ally of newly President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Against all odds, upon their return from Accra, the new legislators gave Mr. Snowe more than 80 percent of their votes. The victory of Snowe should have been an indication of how vain and unpredictable this legislature would be.

There are many reasons why Speaker Snowe could have been removed from office. His colleagues could have simply decided that they made a mistake by electing him a year ago. But rather than confronting him and lay out publicly their claims, the legislators decided to take the easy road and “passed a resolution,” trying to force Mr. Snowe out of his job. Not only they never met as a House to re-open the 2007 Session from their agricultural vacation, but they decided to hold “caucus” in a location out of the city of Monrovia, away from the Central Pavilion, allocated to them by the Executive Branch of government while the Capitol undergoes repair.

This attitude follows a pattern in Liberian politics, where rather than following the rule of law and confronting the culprit, people are always “dethroned” in absentia, like a in a military coup, poisoned or otherwise disposed of. There is an unwillingness to face the truth and debate issues to find the right and hard solution that comes through arduous work. It is akin to a childlike predilection for instant gratification and simple pleasures, fertile grounds for corruption.

In 1997, while Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was en route to Monrovia to put her name up for nomination in her party to run for President, the leadership of her party, the Liberian Action Party (LAP) concocted a meeting while she was in transit in Abidjan and hand-picked a candidate. She was forced to join another party to run for president. Like Mr. Snowe who had spent cash on many who voted for him to become Speaker, Mrs. Sirleaf had supported through remittances not only the party but many of the leadership who had been out of work during the war years.

In 1980, William R. Tolbert had become very unpopular with the majority of Liberians. While he professed to fight corruption and instill in the political body of Liberia the equality most Liberians had longed for, he allowed his family members, friends and cronies to enrich themselves, violate the constitution on a daily basis and lined their pockets with the national wealth. A movement to change the political culture slowly grew out of the streets and the University of Liberia, with the likes of Amos Sawyer and Baccus Matthews. Matthews wanted to breakdown the system while Sawyer sought to bring in prudent changes from within. While Liberians slept at night, a young Master Sergeant and friends took up guns and assassinated Tolbert, suspended the constitution, executed every possible opponent. Not a single politician step forward and defended the rule of law.

In 1985, Samuel Doe, the Sergeant who assassinated the constitutionally elected –William Tolbert - allegedly rigged the election and ascended to the Presidency. Political parties timidly protested but later fell in line when the Unites States of Ronald Reagan decided that it was good to do business with Samuel Doe rather than risk uncertainty by embracing “suspicious political characters” in one of its most reliable entry points on the continent. On a sunny November day, Thomas Quinwonkpa walked into Monrovia at the head of mercenaries and armed Liberian dissidents to overthrow the constitutionally elected Samuel Doe. Liberians were fed up with Doe and applauded the takeover until it failed and Doe regained power, executed thousands in Monrovia and Nimba, setting the stage for the civil war. There was no political movement to oppose neither the coup nor the disaster that followed.

In 1989, jail-breaker and fast-talker charismatic Charles McArthur Taylor launches a bush war against Samuel Doe who had become very unpopular. Taylor easily overruns an over politicized and corrupt army and one of his breakaway lieutenants Prince Johnson kidnaps President Doe who was on his way to a meeting with the West African Peacekeeping force ECOMOG, and tortures him to his grave. After causing the death of 300, 000 Liberians and destroying every modern sign of infrastructure in the nation, Charles Taylor is overwhelmingly elected president in 1997. Liberians quietly followed the new political order.

In 2003, cornered from all sides by rebel groups trained, financed and supported by outside forces, Charles Taylor is forced to leave power for refuge in Nigeria before finding himself in chains in The Hague, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone where his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) had exported its war.

And like in the cases of Tolbert, Doe, Taylor, the issue of the rule of law is disregarded in the Snowe drama for political expediency. If the legislators have the vote to impeach the Speaker, why meet in secrecy away from the city? Why the urgency of executing a sentence that has yet to be rendered through due process? Since when does an august body such as the House of Representatives have to make a precipitous decision to impeach someone? Who is afraid of scrutiny in the process?

Some of the comrades of Snowe allegedly said they received bribe (US $5,000) to sign on to a resolution to remove him from office. The “dissidents” met outside of the legally-assigned halls of the legislature and sign a paper and “impeached” the Speaker. Snowe made too much money too fast and rose to fame too fast. He is not necessarily liked by the political minds of the nation. Therefore, there is a dance around the bush fire about how it might be reasonable or acceptable to “kick him out” of the circle.

There are many lingering questions, the least being how the dissident members of the House managed to meet in Virginia rather than at the Executive Pavilion, which was put at their disposal by the Chief Executive of the Republic, the President who is also the Primary Custodian of the Constitution?

Another important issue revolves around the question of bribery. Can Mr. Snowe prove that some members of the legislative body receive bribes to impeach him? Who are they? This is not the first time Mr. Snowe makes such accusations. Can he prove his allegations? If he is not lying, who was responsible for passing money to legislators in order to impeach Snowe?

The last issue has to do with the rule of law and constitutionality of this action. Do members of the House have the right to impeach the Speaker by simply adopting a resolution in a remote seating? Now that we may have outgrown military coup, must we expect similar “coups” against other high government officials whenever a group decides to “impeach” them for any reason?

The President of the Republic, who has been implicated through public accusations by Mr. Snowe, must clearly dissociate herself from any role in this political quagmire. She must appoint an independent commission of inquiry to find out what happened. If Mr. Snowe has falsely accused the Office of the President, he must face the full weight of the law. If, on the other ends, people around the President have engaged in deceit and tried to manipulate members of the House, they must answer to the laws. And finally, if there are members of the legislative who accepted money to sign a resolution, they must face the law.

Coming just a week before the President’s nation address and a month prior to a major donors Conference sponsored by the World Bank, the US State department and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this is the worst scandal that could happen to an administration standing in need for international support and goodwill.

Liberians failed to stand against the military coup in 1980 because they were afraid and disliked Tolbert. They refused to stand against the Taylor war because their dislike for Doe was much greater than their commitment to the rule of law. The same scenario repeated itself with Taylor’s demise. On a lesser scale, many find justifiable reasons for the “impeachment” of Mr. Snow. This attitude of playing a convenience game with the rule of law may explain why Liberians always have to start anew and problems are never fully resolved. Secrecy, lies and the fear of truth are not the best ingredients to build a democratic and transparent society.

It would be an irony of historical proportions if the political process stalled and in the end, made Mr. Snowe a bigger and more honorable politician than he ought to be. In the end, Mr. Snow may be impeached and lose a throne that he certainly never deserved. But following the proper channel would be an indication that Liberians are prepared to work their differences through law and procedures.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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