Does Liberia Need a Benevolent Dictator: A Response to Mr.
Bedell and Others

By George P. Gonpu, Ph.D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 9, 2007


Mr. Thomas Bedell’s highly provocative question on whether or not Liberia needs benevolent dictatorship has drawn interesting responses from a number of Liberians. He and a few Liberians provide perspectives that seem to suggest that the attitudes of Liberians and their failures to be grateful to their leaders, coupled with their perpetual criticisms of the quality of their political leaders, could be the primary source of Liberia's underdevelopment. Hence, they implied that perhaps a benevolent dictatorship which is allowed to act and pursue policies with little or no critical scrutiny might provide Liberia’s much needed and highly overdue economic development. There is no doubt about their good intentions in trying in seek a way out of Liberia's apparently persistent experience with political conflicts, poverty, public corruption, violence and moral decadence; notwithstanding, the policy implications of their perspectives may be too simplistic, undemocratic, and fascist; and may actually exacerbate the nation’s problems, if adopted.

First, let's rewind some of Liberia’s history. Liberia has had 23 presidents (note that both J.J. Roberts and James S. Payne served twice in non-consecutive terms and were counted twice) before Madam Sirleaf, and 7 non-presidential head of states (including S.K.D., 1980-85). Which one of them was a benevolent leader? Even though most were barely vigorously watched and their policies hardly carefully scrutinized, few, if any, substantially contributed to the genuine development and modernization of Liberia. For example, while Liberia barely had roads/public highways, President Tubman bought himself a yacht. Was he a benevolent dictictor? Tolbert on the other hand, spent millions of U.S. dollars of Liberia’s money on hosting an OAU extravaganza in 1979 that helped to enrich his True Whig Party government officials while most Liberians struggled to provide basic meals for their families. Was he a benevolent dictator? The president before Tubman, Edwin Barclay, was another official who became a multi-millionaire and was happy at spending Liberia’s revenues to obtain great photo opportunities with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other monarchs of Europe. For S.K. Doe, Taylor, and the others, most people should have a first hand account of their stories. So, where is the evidence or precedent of a benevolent dictator in Liberia's history or anywhere in West Africa? And how will we know a benevolent dictator when you see one? Would a change of gender be the determinant? How do we know whether or not those promising to be selfless benevolent dictators who claim to be able to solve the nation’s problems if given a “free hand,” might not return in a few years and simply admit that they had made a mistake? What will Liberians do then?

In fact, the aversions to critics of Liberian leaders are nothing new in its political arena. In the early 1950s W.V.S. Tubman was promoted as a man of the people, father of his nation and hence the slogan, “so say one, so say all.” He was the one, and whatever he said was what was expected to be agreeable to everyone. He took these words literally when he decided to use Liberian government’s revenue to purchase a $150,000 USD yacht (in today’s dollars the yacht would cost $5,058,802.19, i.e. $150,000 compounded at 7% for 52 years) for his personal recreation. No one, including the entire National Legislature, dared to criticize such a legalized corruption. It was the veteran Journalist, the late Albert Porte, who courageously sent a letter to President Tubman and criticized the president’s actions, discussed his concerns and suggested that the funds be instead reallocated to more productive national needs. President Tubman responded with a letter where he humiliated Mr. Porte and boastfully vowed to purchase the yacht and did. (Please see the attached letters exchanged between both men on this issue). Clearly, all bankrupt oligarchies love to be dictatorships because they (dictatorships) provide opportunities for them and their selected loyalists to plunder their nations and oppress their subjects with impunity. Hence, the Liberian fiasco!

History records that when the Portuguese visited the area now called Liberia in the 1400s, they found a nation rich with agricultural outputs of basic foods and accordingly named the area, “The Grain Coast”. Liberia was self sufficient in its basic foods and exported food that the Portuguese traders introduced to European markets. With the colonization of the area (Liberia) by resettled freed slaves in the 1800s and the subsequent ineffective governments and public policies that followed in the 19th and 20th centuries, Liberia switched from food self sufficiency to dependency on food imports. Liberia’s exports became primary products such as natural rubber and iron ore. Note that these products, in their primary forms have no real domestic uses in Liberia. Hence, their values to Liberians depend on what the world wishes to pay and accordingly, volatility in their world prices leads to instability in the Liberian economy and the quality of life for Liberians.

Would it take a benevolent dictatorship to make Liberian policy makers realize that it is unwise to make external interests/supports as the primary determinant of economic success their country? Or would we require rocket science to learn that producing what our own people can use and exporting the excess that they (our people) don’t purchase would be a much wiser policy? In the latter case, when Liberia exports products like rice and corn, for example, its economic success will not be at the mercy of external powers and creditors. A diversified set of exports that emphasize agricultural products that could also be used domestically enhances Liberia’s economic and political securities because whenever the external markets offer unfavorable prices, Liberians could simply keep their products and continue using them at home while waiting for their prices to rise to favorable levels in world markets. On the other hand, since Liberians have no immediate uses for products like unprocessed rubber and iron ore, if their prices fall, they simply have to accept whatever price the world market is willing to pay. When this happens, Liberia gets into deeper current account deficits (i.e. the cost of its imports exceed the value received for its exports) and must borrow from international financial institutions and donor countries to cover the deficits. Hence, the perpetual cycle of debt burdens, manipulations by other nations and persistent stagnation in poverty that has resulted in frustrations, coup d’etats and civil wars.

Liberians have experimented with dictatorships and found them to be despicable. The PRC military dictatorship and the True Whig Party single party "democratic dictatorship," were classic examples. Liberians have overwhelmingly rejected dictatorships in favor of a multiparty democracy with a constitution that allows three separate but "equal" branches of government. Our constitution provides for a legislature that is endowed with powers for effective oversight of the executive branch. Such a governmental framework should encourage healthy debates among the citizens and allow criticisms of their officials, when necessary. Those who voluntarily accept to serve in leadership capacities in our government should be fully cognizant of the rights of the citizens to discuss, criticize and effectively express their views on the performance and behaviors of their leaders. On the other hand, anyone who wishes to avoid public criticism and who also hates listening to the critical views of the Liberian people should simply avoid taking public policy positions and entirely focus their careers in the private sectors. Deceptively promoting oneself as being committed to multiparty constitutional democratic values while at the same time employing dictatorial practices has never helped Liberia, does not help Liberia and will never help Liberia – benevolent or whatever!

© 2007 by The Perspective

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