Towards Durable Peace and Democracy in Liberia
By Saah Charles N'Tow
June 6, 2002
I have for a long time pondered over post-conflict Liberia and the question of good and accountable governance. However, I have not found the time or gathered the strength to reduce my thoughts to paper, until now. Since Liberia's inception, I know of no independent institution or individuals committed to impartially holding our government accountable with the aim to educate citizens and build civic power. I fail to see any movement without selfish motives whose mission is or was to educate the common people about their leaders and how government works or should work. Given my own limitations, here, I would appreciate any insight to fill my knowledge gap.
As regards our leaders, all I have seen in my short lifetime are governments that somehow seemed more powerful than they should be: more powerful than the people they lead. I have seen our leaders transform themselves from relatively middle-income to incredibly wealthy individuals within an impossible period of time, without meaningful or potent challenges from citizens.
Every so often we would hear the voices of activists, community leaders and /or opportunists in the wilderness of poverty and hardship crying foul, but once the right offer/threat was made they would simply join the status quo or fade away. One or two strong voices have emerged in the past, but the pressure of government and the lack of support from others, saw them killed or forced into exile. Consumed by greed and blinded by ignorance, most citizens continue to feed into a system that grants absolute power to whoever leads the country: a system that does not enjoy the benefits of credible independent checks and balance.
On paper, ours is arguably one of the most beautiful systems in the world. After all it is a carbon copy of the US system of government, where there are three (Executive, Legislative and Judiciary) branches of government designed to ensure the proper governance of the people. Unfortunately, our Judiciary and Legislative branches have been reduced to ceremonious and useless arms of government. Power has been stripped from the people and given to the executive branch, headed by the president. This has made the office of the president, instead of the citizens: the seat of ultimate power. This is wrong now as it was since our country was founded. From the time of single party to multi-party state, this practice has always been wrong. Yet, there is not one Liberian who is without guilt for supporting this system in one form or another. I believe that it's time that we correct this error.
As we begin to nervously ponder the possibility of a 2003 elections [however slim the chances] in Liberia, I am not surprised that the focus of most discussions is centered on who will be the next president and not necessarily on the process itself. Equal attention, it seems, is not being given to those who will be exercising their rights to vote. Even worse, very little attention is being given to what happens once a leader is chosen. Who holds government accountable and who will help the citizens understand how their government works or should work?
After years of war and devastations, it is time we think differently. If we must rebuild our country, I believe that one of the things we need to fix is our government and how accountable it can and/or should be to the citizens. Ultimate power must be returned to the rightful owners - the citizens! In order to do this, some Liberians must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of foregoing any interest in taking up positions in government. They must be willing to lead an educational effort that would help citizens understand how government works and how they can affect government. They must be willing to challenge unfair election laws and practices that are designed to steal power from the people. They must be willing to rise above ethnicity and partisanship with the aim to see and treat all those interested in leading our country the same, irrespective of how they view them.
The nucleus of my thoughts on the possibility of durable peace and democracy in Liberia rests on the formulation of a people's agenda. One that will be generated by the people through a series of town meetings across the USA, Europe, refugee camps across Africa and in Liberia itself. The purpose of each meeting will be to generate what participants see as the top issues that should be addressed by any prospective or incumbent leadership in a post-conflict Liberia. The town meetings should be open to all and should be designed to allow for the equal participation of all who choose to attend, with no single individual or groups monopolizing the discussions. The process should involve a series of intellectual debates held in the same manner among those who seek to lead our country. The information compiled through these meetings can be used to guide international donors and other agencies that may wish to help our beleaguered country. While this may seem ambitious, it is one that is necessary for helping citizens make sound and informed choices. Our country has never had anything like this before. Perhaps as we turn this new leaf in our history, the time could not be any better to begin. It is important to note that the town meetings should not be intended to undermine, rival or replace local leadership. Instead, their sole purpose must be to create, protect and sustain the political space necessary for good governance.
The idea of the town meeting is fueled by the proposition that there needs to be a Watch Dog organization that will monitor government and hold it morally accountable, while at the same time providing the kind of education that would help citizens understand the workings of government. While such organization may not succeed in directly forcing any government to cooperate, it can do so indirectly by endeavoring to make public and transparent its findings through various mediums, including the Internet (website hosting), newsletters, public meetings, congressional hearings, radio and TV show, articles, etc. In order to be effective with such an undertaking, it is a must that the following principles be used as guide:
1) Members of such an organization should have no existing ties with any political party in Liberia.
2) Members should have no desire to seek political offices in Liberia, now, or in the future. If for any reason(s) a member should decide otherwise, his/her membership should be immediately terminated.
3) Members should be committed to fair play and equal treatment of all.
4) There should be 100% transparency in its operations. Honesty and dignity must be the bedrocks of its foundation.
5) It should document the actual practices of governance of those in power and in particular whether they do what they say they will do.
6) Educate people about the political process in order to empower them to
participate in holding their leaders accountable.
7) The organization should be a civic organization based on Liberian citizenship by birth or naturalization without any preference for any particular political, ethnic or other form of social interest group other than that of promoting the participation and accountability of all Liberian citizens in a fair, transparent, and participatory process of governance.
8) The organization should be guided by an external advisory board made up of prominent professional individuals committed to the creation of durable peace and democracy in Liberia, where such membership to such board is based on recommendations and should not be limited to only Liberians.
We cannot afford to wait because time is definitely not on our side. Those who are willing to act must act now. There is a need for contenders to our throne to be profiled and their platforms analyzed and broken down for the common people to understand. The strengths and weaknesses of each contender must be weigh against the others, so that the common people would know where each one stands on various issues. I see the Town Meeting Series mentioned above as a good first project.
Accordingly, members of the Liberian Community of Rhode Island with the support of several institutions including the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island and the Governance in War-Torn Societies Project at Brown University have initiated The Peace Building Town Meetings Series, which will be convened in 45 locations around the world. The purpose of meetings is to engage Liberian nationals and refugees to develop a citizens' agenda for peace, non-violent reconciliation and reconstruction in Liberia. The organizers of this initiative are hopeful that these efforts will help to finally end the bloodshed in Liberia. On Sunday, June 30, 2002, the University of Rhode Island in Providence, Rhode Island will host one of 23 town meetings being organized in the USA. Worcester and Boston, Massachusetts, Washington, DC, Newark, NJ, Richmond, VA and Minneapolis, Minnesota are among cities to host the next meetings.
The need to generate a people agenda for peace is urgent. It is necessary and it is possible. It is important to note that an undertaking of this nature cannot avoid politics, but can be nonpartisan. Accordingly, only those willing to abstain from seeking future positions in government and without ties to any candidate or party should attempt to coordinate such feat. Anything otherwise is doomed to fail.