Liberia In Crisis: The Structure And Underlying Causes Of A National Failure

By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 26, 2003

The long aspiration for a durable peace and security in Liberia is once again in tatters. The country is once again under the threat of total anarchy as competing gangs march on Monrovia with an eye on ejecting the current occupants of the executive mansion. As tensions have heightened in recent days, the nation has once again sunk to the lowest depths of human depravity with obvious consequences. Many, including the children, elderly, sick and other innocents have been forced to pose the simple question - when will this all come to an end? When will we be allowed to once again enjoy the fruits of citizenship, which is primarily to live and prosper in peace and harmony in the land of our common heritage? When will the primary actors in this deadly game of plunder and epicenter of violence give way to a more secured and humane constitutional and social order? When will the West African sub-region return to the task of restoring internal and external economic balance, than its current preoccupation with curbing endless wars on its doorsteps? When will peace once again be restored in our region? When will this ugly chapter in the annals of Liberian and sub-regional history come to an end?

In this hour of confusion and consternation, one could only comment that it seems evil is yet to be expunged from the mindset of some of our most dangerous compatriots. For almost 14 years, the Liberian question or debacle has baffled and intrigued the well intentioned among peacemakers, locally and internationally, while the bleeding and universal misery of the innocents continue. Even during this past six years of "constitutional rule" this bleeding did not stopped. Both the symbolism and reality of state failure in Liberia have a universal and overpowering presence. Therefore, it is pertinent at this critical junction to ponder certain critical issues, which may provide some clues as to the underlying causes and structure of national failure in the Liberian society. Invariably, the two central questions, which have helped to highlight and elaborate on these issues, are as follows:

The structure and causes of national failure

The causes of national failure and state collapse in Liberia are manifold. One may cite any number of historical reasons such as the missed opportunities on the economic, cultural and institutional fronts at the beginnings of nationhood in the 19th century. The gross arbitrariness of earlier years especially during the era of interior penetration, the mishandling of the proceeds of economic expansion in the immediate postwar period, the excesses of an overbearing state, which saw its high point under Tubman etc., could also be cited as the prime causes of decline and failure. However, the central reasons for national failure both at the level of the state and civil society in Liberia, especially in the contemporary period, revolve around the lack of desire to depersonalize authority relations in institutional and organizational systems. Whenever authority or leadership in an organization or state institution revolves around the wishes and desires of a singular individual, the consequences are always lethal. This zero-sum process in organizational practice has been the Liberian experience for much of its history and also in the contemporary period.

Other reasons for national failure could be explained in terms of class and ethnic differentiations and alliances over the years, as captured in the anthropological and historical studies of Libenow, d'Azevedo, Burrowes and others. In addition to this there has been the absence of particular forms of construal and solidarity, which foster collective consciousness and the recognition that in terms of tackling issues of national affairs, one is always engaged in a process larger than the individual and his or her idiosyncratic interests. The corporatist notion that in the process of nation building the individual is smaller than the whole is a constant denominator of all human progress. If anything, this is the lesson one must heed from the successful nation-building examples of earlier times.

But in Liberia and perhaps most of Africa, the picture is different. In fact there is often the absence of what one might refer to as organic solidarity in a more contemporary sense. Organic solidarity among stakeholders presupposes a sense of common destiny, honesty and seriousness of purpose in our national discourse. What you have instead is mechanical and superficial solidarity, based on callous cash payments and greed among most of the key players who influence the current course of developments, but would generally care less about a sense of civic mission and a critical understanding of the urgency of sustainable peace. Indeed, even among the technocratic and educated classes, as well as most of our current opposition political leaders, there is a certain passivity, which must now be combated. There is a good old tradition that suggests that those who regard themselves as public intellectuals and conscience of the nation must provide guidance and elaborate operative principles for action and coping in moments of great social change and uncertainties. The recent history of social upheavals in Liberia should remand us of the importance of striving for the promotion of humane and ethical standards in politics, because if politics goes wrong everyone suffers.

Thus, the most enlightened in society must step forward to play the role required of them as harbingers of truth, freedom, modernity and social change. There must be courage and an unraveled motivation to spearhead the process towards change in a society where for some time now, there has been the temptation to downgrade the value of education and professional development. A social psychology that puts so much trust in the machine gun and other paraphernalia of war must now be replaced by a social psychology that gives due respect to the highest ethical and professional standards in social life. I believe that what state failure in Liberia and other places teaches us is that any society, which is not based on strong institutional pillars and a robust meritocracy in its distribution of social and economic benefits is bound to fail. Thus, the merit system is consequential as a tried and tested route to success in constitutional self-governance.

The mystique of presidential power in Liberia is closely linked to the lack of institution building and the distortion of the role and influence of existing ones, such as the courts, traditional societies, public associations and other pillars of civil society. The pathology of personal and individual power in Liberia must be replaced by an ideology of institutional power and the fostering of communicative competence at all levels of the social system. In the experiences of the great nations, institutional power has always been legitimated by dialogic and democratic voices including all sections of society. The critical observer would note that the structure of national failure in Liberia could be principally located within the vortex of this pathology, and the psychosocial assumptions and web of psychic delusions, which substantiate and give it its lifeblood. What this presupposes is that the analysis of political and structural failure should be predicated upon bringing into conscious awareness the role of subjective and phenomenological factors.

The merits of this approach, for example, primarily lie in the analytical achievement of Fanon's subjectivist methodology. By shifting the analysis of colonialism away from economic and political factors, Fanon succeeded where many structuralist theorists of decolonization had essentially failed. He plumbed the deeps of subjectivity in the construction of the colonizer and colonized as racialized subjects, thereby aptly specifying the differential paths of the neuroses generated by colonial domination and the imperial enterprise in subject territories (see Fanon, 1952; Memmi, 1991). Similarly, the decomposition of Soviet Power in Eastern and Central Europe in 1980s and 1990s, has amply demonstrated the limits of the predictive power of structural determinism as a conceptual framework for revolutionary praxis.

Today we live in a society where evil and naked brutality has gained hold on society and has become a growth industry. This realization must now be followed by a concrete and overriding strategic vision to stampede the growing culture and mindset of evil and political defeatism. The constancy of political violence in all forms in our community is a cancer that must not be allowed to further escalate. How long shall we stand aside and look, while men of dubious standing in local and international society are butchering our brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters etc.? How long shall the criminals be allowed to maraud and wreak havoc on us all?

Where is our current generation of political leaders? Where is the zeal for social change among a generation that was so inspired by an era of social ferment among oppressed peoples around the world? Where are those who were so influenced to be a force for good in society, thanks to their exposure to the activism of the civil rights and the black power movements in the United States, and the upsurge in the clamor for independence on the African continent in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s? While some of these opinion leaders and political activists of yesteryears have sought to appease and aid the Taylor assault on the Liberian people, others are yet to provide any vision or concrete political program for civil and emancipatory action. Partly because of the failure of the current class of political leaders, individuals of good moral standing and character have been sidelined in the corridors of political power for almost a generation and perhaps more. And this is one of the prime causes of national failure and decline in Liberian society, which must now be addressed.

In a new progressive era, public service should become more attractive by providing a moral incentive for people of honorable character to contribute their quota toward progress, not as an institution to legitimate the greed and twisted aspirations for people of dubious distinctions. This overriding objective can only be achieved through pragmatic leadership, corporatism and a sustained process of institution building to deepen national reconstruction efforts. This suggests once again that we must heed the lessons of the most successful nation states, while not by any means ignoring the particularities of our historical development.

Throughout these dark years of political subterfuge, deceit and machinations, the civic status and reverence for men and women of character, professionalism, patriotism and duty have been severely undermined or if not dissipated, as the institutional foundations for their vocations have all but disappeared. In their stead we have had crooks, liars, murderers and other personalities of dubious profiles. These have been the unfortunate masters of our destiny. People who have no vision for remaking society nor an iota of moral and ethical principles are the most prominent figures today in a tortured historical drama of cataclysmic proportions! In Liberia, almost anyone feels that he/she can become president once they can afford to buy some guns on the international black market and arm a few gang of thugs to wreak havoc on their fellow citizens. What a pity for a national polity whose beginnings had great promise to provide sanctuary for suffering humanity, and reclaim the dignity of the black personality, in the aftermath of the most atrocious consequences of plantation slavery in antebellum America!

Today, once again our nation is threatened by an all-out war with its attendant implications, consequences and reverberations. The analyst would perhaps without much effort and mental strains conclude that such tensions are a predictable outcome of a particular pattern of development, given the nature of the current regime, which leaves much to be desired in terms of progress on the human rights front. In the last six years the regime has not quite managed to transform itself from a military outfit into a civilian institution with compassion and a human face. Further, the policy dispositions for the past six years have left much to be desired in terms of progress in furthering the goals of national reconciliation, reconstruction and renewal. Instead, the current regime of Charles Taylor, since its inception to power, has sought to rule by fear, intimidation and the diffusion of anarchy among our immediate neighbors in the West African sub-region. There has been no concrete program of action to foster economic growth or assuage the legitimate concerns of particular ethnic groups and interests in the wake of a devastating civil war.

In the wake of African independence in the 1950s and 1960s, modernization scholars of the West including Rostow, Parsons, Eisenstadt and others argued that the functional diffusion of capital in Africa would lead to social change and economic progress, and build institutional capacities that would eventually minimize the propensity for political violence and civil strife. In Taylor's world and political calculations or should I say miscalculations, this paradigm has been turned on its head. He has sought systematically and strategically to spread violence throughout the region without a constructive program regarding how to evolve social systems that would ensure political sustainability and cope with the dynamics of post modernity in our times.

Of course one needs not be remanded that part of the problems that brought us here today was the deliberate and immediate (without popular approval) recourse to violence by self-styled liberators, after the ill-fated and much compromised elections of August 1997. I would argue without necessarily sanctioning armed rebellion, that the August 1997 elections were compromised because they were not merely the outcome of the wishes of the Liberian people, but rather they were the result of political expediency and a war fatigue syndrome, which had afflicted the major players and principals in West Africa, after almost ten years of conflict and senseless destruction in Liberia.

Political expediency in the West African region and beyond is one of the external dimensions of failure, which must not go uncheck. This is while the current peace process in Ghana is very important and must be approached with the lessons of the numerous rounds of negotiations prior to August 1997 in mind. I hope this time no warring faction would be allowed to determine how Liberians will live a generation from now. This is the ultimate test of the courage and character of the current generation of civil society and political leaders and those who seek to occupy their spaces when they have long exited the historical scene. Thus, the great historic challenge is to not repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing Charles Taylor and other rebel factions to manipulate the process at the disadvantage of popular will and aspirations.

The demands of justice and national reconciliation

Given the nature of the Liberian conflict, it would be difficult to achieve lasting peace and national reconciliation without moral and legal accountability for wanton acts of violence and crimes committed against the innocents. All attempts to set up a war crimes tribunal in Liberia were fiercely resisted by the sitting administration and its apologists for very obvious reasons. But Liberians and the international community must now insist that there should be appropriate legal and punitive sanctions against those found guilty of committing crimes against humanity during the past and in the current conflict. This is a more durable means of ensuring that wanton acts of violence against the innocent for any purposes will not be repeated. I am of the opinion that an interim arrangement under the current peace accord in Ghana may be unsustainable without revisiting this issue because of its moral weight and political imperative.

Simply put, it may be impossible to achieve lasting peace in Liberia without proper accountability for wrongdoings during the last 14 years. Proper accountability structures to avenge wrongdoings in one form or the other may help to purge our culture of an emerging pattern and practice of violence. The indictment against Charles Taylor for the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone by the Special Tribunal is a very good start on a long path towards atonement. While one may regard the lack of proper institutional means to execute the indictment at the time it was issued as being problematic, the integrity of the Special Tribunal on this particular issue is beyond reproach.

Similarly, the evocation of political sovereignty to question the justifications of the court's action is injudicious and merely peripheral, it doesn't speak to the core issues and the most burning question at stake. Some commentators have even spoken of embarrassments to sovereign governments, the demands of African traditions etc., to question the legitimacy and timing of the court's actions. The most burning question in Liberia today concerns how to curb the reasons for anarchy and national failure in our community, and Charles Taylor happens to be one of those decisive reasons. Like all other great questions of national survival and historical continuity, this question is a strategic one that demands a critically reflective approach. In this process it must also gain priority over other tactical considerations. Thus, removing Mr. Taylor from office given the changed political and military realities, which have obtained on the ground in recent days is as important as beginning the long process of institution building in Liberia to arrest the causes of perennial civil crises and national failures.

Thus, within the parameters of reason, civility and decency, the cause of saving lives and humanity is always higher than claims to notional sovereignty. This was the case during the ECOWAS intervention in the early 1990s, and it is also the case with the United Nations approved special court in Sierra Leone. For what is the value of the sovereignty of political authority as may be expressed in presidential immunity, if such authority has been so perverted that it becomes an epicenter of a system of violence destroying the lives of peoples in countless communities? Liberia must move forward! One must read the signs and seek to delimit the field of psychological influence of presidential authority in Liberia, for it has cause so much damage in cognitive, material, human and cultural terms.

Perhaps delimiting the influence and mystification of presidential authority in Liberia, which is now a historical imperative, is not only a critical challenge for institution builders, but it is also the task of agents of cultural change. One must realize that in any historic and civil community, political authority must never be allowed to exist in a vacuum, it is the people who giveth legitimacy to that authority and it is they who taketh it away! There is a priori justification based on the psychological need for security (see Maslow, 1954; 1968) to assume that people in the sub-region would like to see their suffering come to an end. On the other hand, one is yet to view any empirical evidence, which suggests that it may not be in the best interest of the Liberian people and the people of the entire sub-region to indict Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity. One is yet to see proof that the timing of the indictment is inappropriate when everyone knows that Mr. Taylor's positions regarding the current peace process change with the minutes. At one moment he is saying this and at another moment he is saying something else. Conversely, the indictment has only served to change the political dynamic by enabling the agents of change, while sending a very potent signal to would be gangsters and liberators, who now aspire to take Charles Taylor place through the most undemocratic means.

Moving toward a polycentric social order

In Liberia there is only one future and that is a future in a polycentric social order. Autocracy and the untold damages caused by personal power have made it abundantly clear that multiple centers of decision-making that affect the most varied aspects of our lives is the only logical path to prosperity and sustainable peace. For some who are very used to the old ways of doing things, this process may require a fundamental transformation in their meaning perspectives and schemes. Because change in Liberia is not only a matter of praxis, but it is also a process of coming to terms with our prior interpretations, predispositions, norms and criteria of examining the validity of our claims and actions. Change has to do with digging dip into our souls and reexamining the very core of our existential realities and social consciousness at various levels of the social system.

A polycentric social order in Liberia will involve strengthening civil society and guaranteeing individual rights through the formation of countervailing social structures to enhance the functional capabilities of the state. The necessary and sufficient conditions for achieving these lofty and practical ideals consist in the willingness of most of our compatriots to accept and become a part of a change process. The cognitive and epistemic dimensions of this process, which is essentially learning and developmental process, cannot be overemphasized. For it is the ultimate test that determines success or failures in the grand scheme of things. This is the gateway to ending the Liberian tragedy, and to constructing the basis for political sustainability, economic, social and institutional growth.

Concluding remarks

This paper has attempted to examine the structure and underlying causes of national failure in Liberia. I have concluded that at the core of national failure in Liberia is the lack of desire to depersonalize relations of authority and leadership in organizational systems, both in the past and at present. The paper hypothesizes that while there may be other historical factors responsible for national failure, the lack of institution building, the distortion of the role and influence of existing ones, and the pathology of personal power are among the structural components of national failure and thus pose the most immediate and significant challenges of national politics, which must be addressed. Consequently, the paper concludes that personal power must be replaced by institutional power, which is often legitimated by dialogic and democratic voices representing all sections of society. In carrying out this historic task of remaking society, one must always be guarded by the desire to be a force for good in the great example and spirit of the late and legendary Albert Porte, who taught us the lessons of sacrifice, selflessness, duty and patriotism.