Heroism by President Sirleaf: A Moment in Our Lifetime

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 1, 2007


In the aftermath of the Knuckles’ scandal, several questions have loomed. Did President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf make the right decision to have delayed her response? Was she right to have noted that she regretted the decision to accept Mr. Knuckles’ resignation? Others, particularly Mr. Theodore Hodge have even charged Liberians who supported the suspension and/or termination of Mr. Knuckles with overreaction and indifference. But no article can be written in the wake of this scandal without first acknowledging the President’s courage. If you have ever had the unfortunate responsibility to terminate a loyal staff that you have known and worked with for a prolonged period, you will be extremely careful to pass judgment about this very gut wrenching, painful and personal moment. I cannot deny that her actions were belated, and the delay sent many of us into tailspin because we counted the possible negative implications for progressives and their role in change making on our country. This topic, I have already addressed.

I believe that the President did the right thing. As I noted in one of my previous articles on this subject, we are all sinful creatures, and when events like these occur, they make clear all of our frailties and vulnerabilities. None of us are better than Mr. Knuckles, despite the unfortunate public lapse in judgment and the enormous consequences (present and future). Nonetheless, that does not change the fact that the President owes it to his constituents, including Mr. Knuckles to save the country from its downward spiral by upholding high standards of professional practice. Mind you, I said, high standards of professional practice. With that said, the link between our personal lives and professional conduct in some cases are porous, depending on the role that we are assigned. Mr. Knuckles’ former position is a politically charged one, as it is any public office of such an enormous magnitude.

Two forces worked against Mr. Knuckles, none of which anyone can be faulted for, except Mr. Knuckles himself and he alone. The first of these forces is that President Sirleaf established a high standard for governance, which we all support whole heartedly considering our past. Mr. Knuckles signed up as a cabinet member under these high governance regimes and knew the consequences of accepting to work for the President. Had she failed to adhere to these standards, she would have caused herself personally and professionally a major dent in character. Her legacy suffered a questionable moment, even within the short period that lapsed. No one can imagine what would have happened had she waited any longer. The second force is that Mr. Knuckles demonstrated very poor judgment when he showed little or no remorse. By blaming others and not taking full responsibility, and even acting as if the President supported him in his seeming arrogance when he first announced that he would not resign, Mr. Knuckles exacerbated the problem. Blackmail or no blackmail, the fact that these pictures were authentic placed the greater burden on him to cough up his culpability, and bring quick and timely closure to the scandal.

For the President, hopefully, the decision to accept Mr. Knuckles’ resignation has begun her work toward healing the rift that this situation caused with members of her constituencies who felt betrayed or violated by the slow pace of her decision. But Liberians and external observers must place Mrs. Sirleaf’s decision within the cultural context that the situation occurred and give her kudos for immense audacity and daring. The context is a wretched one – a society steep in awful and horrendous personal and institutional failures that have blemished our nation and its people. And for those of us who spend our everyday working to help institutions make organizational/structural changes, the ones that are the hardest to guide in their change efforts are those lacking in some of the many institutional anchors that Liberia lacks so vividly. I do not envy Mrs. Sirleaf for being the first one to stick to her guns by taking on a morally decadent, structurally bankrupt, and psychosocially traumatized society leading it in healing and recovery. She has taken on tasks of mammoth proportions, and she deserves praise for the work that she is doing finding solutions for these deeply-embedded problems.

Changing institutional culture and mindsets are among some of the unimaginable tasks in any professional responsibility. Add to this task, recruiting and enlisting all citizens and leveraging their talents for nation building where the trail has not been blazed before. Top down approaches to institutional reform, which have the tendency to isolate and alienate the majority of the constituents from intentional planning have deeply scarred our country. She must leave those tendencies behind. The important question is therefore not the indifference of Liberians as Mr. Hodge argues, but the fact that Liberians, despite their personal faults and failures, recognized a public moral failure and said that a threshold had been crossed. Liberians get the mantle for courage in my book. If there is a first step to healing and recovery and healing in Liberia, we just took that and all Liberians should be encouraged by these giant leaps. I do not say this without acknowledging that no person or family should be the first test of a nation’s badge of courage. But unfortunately, Mr. Knuckles has fallen prey to decadence that we have all contributed to in one way or another.

The most critical question facing us as a people is whether or not this momentum for change will slow after the sacrificial lamb is slaughtered? We must no longer dwell on Mr. Knuckles, but support him privately to heal and be restored to our national community because there is still room for him to make civic contributions in his lifetime. Many of us have fallen many times, except that it has happened privately and the glare of public scrutiny has not been brought to shine on us. If it is not moral failure, we have seen how baked our country is in sheer incompetence. At this time, the resource of the government should now be invested in making the kinds of changes that would be sustainable. The President should use this occasion for an organizational scan and overhaul that is “multifaceted, decentralized, integrated, and dynamic.” She should tap a wide variety of institutional and cultural anchors simultaneously and on a sustained basis aimed at evacuating the different points where repeat of this and related lapses are likely.

No amount of personal choices and actions can create systemic changes. Important as personal choices and actions are, a deeply flawed system like the one we call the Liberian state must seek reform not by using the Knuckles scandal as a scapegoat. We must center our interventions on the traditions and social norms that maintain patriarchy, corruption, and all other societal vices that shape our worldviews and how we live. If we are placed in institutions where laws exist in name only and are not enforced, we must make a change. These failures will be minimized, if not, mitigated if we enforced our laws across the board. Systemic checks must be installed and implemented to put breaks on personal choices and actions that cultivate the problems that we all face in the public sphere.

Achieving this vision will require more than reciting old archaic European quotes and taking jibes at those who felt that Mr. Knuckles needed to be terminated. It should also not stop with the termination, but include systemic changes that have the currency to make lasting impacts on behaviors like the one in question. Long-term investments in the future of our young girls and giving them life skills and empowering them with education and opportunities so as to find the strength in their self-esteem to resist social pressures to be the butt of men’s depraved sexual tendencies is one of the first steps. Long-term investments in research and changes in public policy, and an ongoing commitment and courage – seeking to hold all of us accountable for our public failures is a step forward.

Finally, the discomfort that many of us who argued for Mr. Knuckles to be suspended or terminated feel was not because we are obsessive perfectionists. By looking not at Mr. Knuckles, but ourselves, we know that human nature requires checks and balances. If there was one instant (moment in our lifetime) that accountability was critical, it was this time. Imagine that this event followed a time when the world stage flashed lights from all continents on our country and our leader for a remarkable feat in diplomacy only to return to a country torn apart by a scandal threatening to destroy her credibility. Commentators! Do not fault me for not deciphering all the remnants of how our debt cancellation will unfold. This is not a treatise in the economics of debt cancellation. In simple terms, I am saying that the timing was just plain messy and the cost of inaction was just too high. The implications of this situation are more fundamental and far-reaching than some are able to recognize. At this point, those aspiring leaders who remained mute on this issue will be identified with the strong resistance that many in our society have shown toward positive change. Hopefully, they too will see value in identifying with the winds of change that have taken full-force in Liberia. Remarkable feat Madame President!!

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