Presidents' Birthdays As National Holidays?

By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh

My late father who could barely support his family on a meager monthly government salary of $100.00 and some change per month as a County Commissioner was furious on this day when the local disbursing officer in Sinoe County handed him his check.

He went into the tirade as he always did on paydays (that's whenever the Liberian government could afford to pay civil servants), and vented his anger and frustration on a state-sanctioned payroll deduction plan that allowed the Liberian government to forcibly subtract X amount of dollars from civil servants' paychecks in the name of county development. Often, these deductions were made without payee's approval.

Since presidential birthdays are rotated annually between the counties, the mere promise of that much-needed development funds for a county, and the national attention that county gets for hosting a birthday bash for a sitting president is enough to lure anxious and unsuspecting local bureaucracy and ordinary citizens to jump on board only to encourage this nonsense that has now become a national sore.

The ritual of celebrating president's birthdays as holidays has always been an obsession for Liberian presidents, who don't seem to have new ideas to inject into the national consciousness of a weary nation, but are carried away by raw power as soon as they get in office, to the extent they often ignore reality.

That reality is that one's birthday is a personal occasion between the individual, his immediate relatives and friends, which should not be imposed on an entire people and country.

But my dad, like many civil servants now and then had no say in decision making, even when it concerns their pocketbooks and livelihoods. These civil servants have to be there and comply with whatever decisions Liberia's Almighty President makes about himself and the country.

Before becoming president of Liberia, a defiant Charles Taylor who was still head of his rebel group, together with countless supporters converged in Monrovia in January, 1996, and celebrated his 48th birthday in grand style, while those he professed to be liberating were going to bed hungry daily.

Mr. Taylor, with all of his inadequacies, again, could have proved his critics wrong by being a different kind of a Liberian leader, who can be president or act presidential without being a slave to an annual national birthday celebratory tradition that defines the shallow legacies of his predecessors. That tradition continues in 1998, Mr. Taylor's birthday was celebrated in January.

Once upon a time, Mr. Tubman's birthday which was a national holiday was celebrated November 29 of every year.

When Tolbert succeeded him, his was also a national holiday, and was May 13. President Samuel Doe carried the torch; his birthday was May 6 of every year. Now it is Taylor's turn.

With all of the holidays and birthdays, my late dad was right when he was furious about his paycheck.

The people of Liberia, I believe, deserve better than this. They deserve better in deed.

Celebrating presidential birthdays as national holidays should therefore be abolished. To give honor and respect to all Liberian presidents, living or dead, the legislature should pass an act establishing a President's Day. By so doing, ordinary citizens must not be subjected to the abuse associated with celebrating an individual president's birthday.