The Anticipated Cabinet Reshuffle: What if…


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 5, 2007


“Heads will be rolling”, used to say one of President Tubman’s butlers and a confident who walked the streets of Monrovia, putting fear in the hearts of government officials by spreading rumors of impeding cabinet shuffles. Today, life in Monrovia has turned most uncertain for many in President Sirleaf‘s government since she hinted at the possibility of reshuffling her one-year old government. But the change may not come so easily, and the President may find it difficult to justify removing people in whom she expressed total confidence just a year ago.

A reshuffle is always welcomed by the public and specifically by those who stand to benefit directly from it. Since the announcement by the President, the Liberian political middle class has been holding its breath and spreading rumors. Through the grapevine, they portend to know the names of new heads for every institution. In Monrovia, advises and help are sought from anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the President. Stories surface in newspapers and on websites; even in far places like Minnesota, people seem to know the names of who is on the way out and who is coming in. Some “potential nominees” have bought airline tickets and are waiting for the call to come in.

Not too long ago, in many parts of Africa, people welcomed military coups because any government could only be better than the current one. Poverty-stricken people thought that the changing of governments would improve their lots. Since then, they have learned better. In Liberia today, given the magnitude of the problems, there is the naïve tendency to believe that playing musical chairs would really lead to solutions. There is always room for improvement in any government and new hands can always bring new skills.

But are Liberia’s problems really about men and women running the government or the manifestation of deep structural challenges?

How much adjustment is justifiable in the current government? What could a new minister - coming in from the ranks of exiled Liberian professionals or from the mid-level management of the old corrupt system - do to make a real difference in a broken down system?

General Mobutu of Zaire used to say that if he and Queen Elizabeth were to interchange jobs, “Her Royal Highness would turn into another Mobutu.” This cynical assessment of his own country could somehow be used to describe Liberia today. It is difficult to re-haul overnight a 160 years system of patronage, corruption and total alienation in just two years and it would take more than a handful of technocrats, no matter how dedicated and patriotic they may be, to revamp a dead system. The problems call for both external and internal solutions.

The great majority of the people serving in the current Sirleaf cabinet have been brought in from exile, save a few exceptions. These men and women, most highly qualified in their fields, have worked in international institutions and have accumulated decades of experiences. However, working in a system as implementer of policies designed by others is a far cry from making decisions to run institutions that have ceased to function for decades. In other words, carrying out policies designed by the well-oiled institutions such as the UN, the World Bank or UNESCO and trying to adapt to and re-invent rotten institutions from top to bottom in war-torn Liberia demand different approaches, talents and time frame. An efficient IMF bureaucrat “selling” homemade solutions to poor countries does not necessarily make a good minister in Liberia. The transformation from a bureaucrat operating in a proven environment to a creative and aggressive team worker in a hostile environment takes a long time.

The President could give in to the thirst for blood of the “poor masses” and political operatives always in search of scapegoats. Such a move would give the illusion of a political change in a country where every government official is always suspected of being corrupt. It would also be pleasing to the “international community” who, according to a recent article in Africa Confidential, has been putting pressure on the President to make some changes. It is no secret that the much touted GEMAP is hardly working and the promises made to Liberia by its partners have never materialized. The reform agenda the President has sought to put in place is yet to kick off because of lack of real funding. In this context, the exercise would amount to nothing but a cosmetic window dressing. In a year’s time, there would be public demand for “new heads on the chopping boards” while the international community would again decides that there are more bad apples to be thrown out. There has been much progress, much to be credited to the hard work, resilience and sacrifices of the Liberian people who have embraced the new peace and the new government, notwithstanding the slow pace of benefits.

The search for solutions to the country’s structural challenges must go beyond window dressing. The current cabinet was formed with much political accommodation in mind. However, the President did not choose men and women simply because they belonged to a certain political or ethnic constituencies; their selection was based on their human rights records, their professionalism and their personal integrity. Have these technocrats and patriotic Liberians been given the means, the manpower and the time they need to carry out the tasks expected of them?

The current problems facing Liberia could be summarized in a few words: money, cash, debt and national vision for transformation. The government is far from possessing the means of its ambitions and this leads to frustration in many quarters. Chopping a few heads will not take away the issues...

Jacques Klein, the former UN representative in Liberia said a year ago that unless President Sirleaf gets cash and very soon, she could be facing serious problems. Albeit the goodwill and political appreciation conveyed towards President Sirleaf, the Bush administration has done very little for Liberia in terms of providing cash. The $50 million promised to the Sirleaf government last year and the new $45 million in the current supplemental budget will not go to Liberia, but rather to US contractors, with Liberia having very little to say about how the money is spent. Even if that money had gone directly into Liberian treasury, it would have made a very little impact. As it was in the case during the war, the rest the world would always follow the footsteps of the US when Liberian issues are concerned. Liberia’s friendship with the US has been more often the expression of a unilateral dependency than partnership.

While visiting the US last year, President Sirleaf said in a half-joking manner that an infinite portion of what the US was spending in Iraq could turn Liberia into a success story for American policy on the continent. Indeed, $3 billion could pull Liberia out of the hole. But that type of dramatic help has not come and would likely never materialize unless Liberia and the US take their relationships to another level. Such push would have to be initiated by Liberia through a new aggressive US policy. So far, Liberia’s international partners seem to be content to celebrating “the election of the first female president on the continent” and are far from making the same commitment Britain showed to Sierra Leone or France is currently carrying out in Côte d’Ivoire.

Liberia today needs at least $2 billion in cash, that would allow it to pay off the international lenders, negotiate new loans and create infrastructure that include the production of affordable electricity, the construction of a road network and finally to provide its work force with living wages that will thwart off the misery faced by the working class and put an end to petty corruption.

Besides the shortage of money, there is the lack of a real transformational agenda and the absence of a middle class that could serve as the engineer of a deeply needed change. These have paralyzing effect on the nation. The first is an old problem associated with the unresolved colonial system the country has lived under, both economically, culturally and politically. The second is the result of the forced migration caused by the war that brought the middle class almost in its entirety in America and Europe. The second problem could have been resolved had the GEMAP been set-up to help that great human resource to find its way back home.

In a brochure distributed during the Liberia Forum, the government cited the high level of expectation of the people towards the government as one of its biggest challenges. Indeed, one of the greatest damages caused to Liberia, beyond the hundreds of thousands of death and the destruction of basic infrastructure has been a new dependency mentality. Liberians have grown to expect hand-outs from NGOs, from “the international community” and from relatives abroad. It seems that the war has dealt a serious blow to the creative instincts of Liberians, once a very industrious nation.

But the dependency mentality is not limited to the common people. The government itself falls into the trap of expecting everything to come from outside. Most policy papers end with a call on the international community to provide “aid”. This lack of confidence in its own capacity to turn things around by solely working with resources at hand is more damaging than any failing cabinet or even the lack of cash.

In the absence of a true reform agenda, an influx of cash in the form of real debt cancellation and a re-thinking of what a post-war Liberian government should look like, a reshuffle of cabinet will only go so far. No amount of foreign aid or international prescriptions would lead to the implementation of the reform agenda the President campaigned on. It is not about the men and women who were all appointed to their positions based on their integrity, human rights records and professionalism; it is about fixing a century-old decaying national machine that has never been used to benefit the Liberian people.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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