Democratic Practices: A National Right, Not A Presidential Gift

By Abraham M. Williams

In the past 18 months, I have spent considerable time and energy to highlight some of the problems that have bedeviled the Liberian nation, and the nagging effects that manifest themselves in the relationship among Liberians in the diaspora and at home. In doing so, I have learned that we as Liberians are not prepared to accept the truth of our past. We would rather forget those things which dichotomize us, preferring, instead, to accentuate what others call the positive aspects of our interaction with one another.

I have been a bit hesitant to accept this sort of glossing over the past for the good of the present. Not because the idea in and of itself is bad, but because such attitude fails to address the basic cause of our situation. It's good to accentuate the positive if one is prepared to abandon the negative habits and divisive indulgence of class separation, willing to admit that some mistakes had been made which should not be repeated.

Sadly, however, we have not reached that point of admitting our mistakes. We are not willing to accept responsibility of past policies which promoted division and alienation, yet we continue to piously mouth useless trivialities about atonement, about forgetting the history and dealing with the problems at hand. But the problems at hand are the result of past national policies and political decisions of a group of Liberians obsessed with class superiority and negative concepts.

No doubt, we cannot move forward by just talking about the bad things of previous regimes. The purpose for looking at the past must be to give guidance to present and future leaders to avert the pitfalls of national policies based on division. We should use our experience as a reference that as a nation Liberia cannot excel and prepare for the 21st century, when a significant segment of the population is neglected, deliberately relegated to the miseries of poverty, ignorance and disease.

The argument that historical events should be forgotten in order to attend to the present fails to recognize the destructive potential of disunity. Moreover, this contention erroneously assumes that ignoring our history will solve all the problems. I disagree. Ignoring or talking about the past alone is not enough, either. We must put forth meaningful suggestions which can help government and other policymakers to derive concrete solutions to this national dilemma.

In addition, we need to engage ourselves in a series of national debates among Liberians everywhere about the future of our country, changing age-old attitudes and perceptions that have put a wedge between us. A national discussion which will not only assign blame, but also will provide definite recommendations and means by which we can overcome our differences.

In this spirit, I am prepared to advance a few suggestions to President Taylor. I am certain that if Mr. Taylor follows these recommendations, they will immensely improve the negative image of his government, which in turn, will ameliorate the deplorable, stagnant economic situation in Liberia. More important, they will help Mr. Taylor establish some degree of confidence in his leadership and, undoubtedly, advance the growth of democracy in Liberia.

Let me make one point clear. I have not changed my basic views about Mr. Taylor and all those other murderous tugs who value violence as a necessary vehicle to power. However, I am impelled by patriotism and the desire to alleviate the suffering of our people, thereby contributing to the development of a democratic society.

Some of these proposals will be radical and controversial; others will be downright contradictory, but when seen as a group collectively, they will constitute a sensible approach, which will benefit Liberia and its citizens. These are serious, thoughtful recommendations aimed at lifting Liberia from the abyss of self-destruction. They are not meant to take shots at Taylor, nor do I intend to be superficial, since Liberia is experiencing the most difficult period of nationhood. I hope others will follow our examples by giving their own suggestions.

First and foremost, Liberia must inform the international community that we will not pay the $3 billion which we owe various governments and financial institutions. Tell the world, as much as we would like to honor our obligations, Liberia is virtually broke and does not have the capacity to service this monstrous debt. Without debating the pros and cons of this matter, the timing is right. Hold your characterizations. I know, it seems loony and contradictory. But Liberia must start afresh without this albatross around our neck.

Despite the controversy that is likely to be generated by this proposal, the international community in the end will realize that Liberia is not in the position to meet this obligation. Liberian authorities must quickly take step to inform the creditors involved. We cannot afford to wait.

Secondly, and in order to build public confidence, Mr. Taylor must radically shelve his ruthless warlord persona by promulgating the following: 1) complete and total press freedom; 2) adherence to all international standards and guarantees of human rights; 3) impanel a war crimes commission of inquiry, which will bring to justice all those who committed unwarranted, wanton atrocities against unarmed citizens; and 4) establish an independent, transparent justice system.

Thirdly, Mr. Taylor must reverse himself by fully abiding by the Abuja II agreement, and allowing ECOMOG to restructure the national army and the security forces. The claim by Mr. Taylor that as president he has the constitutional right to restructure the Liberian military and provide security for the state misses the point. The issue here has to do with honoring an agreement.

In this particular situation, Mr. Taylor is being self-serving. On one hand, he agreed to live up to those sections of the accord which made his election possible, giving legitimacy to his presidency. But, on the other hand, he refuses to implement the portion which deals with the critical issues of national security, and the efficacy of equity and justice. Lest we forget that neither Mr. Taylor nor the other warlords won the war. We have relative peace in Liberia today because of this agreement, which is a compromise of what the different factions demanded. All parties must therefore adhere to all its terms.

Central to the survival and legitimacy of this government, in deed, is the respect for international norms and standards, which include honoring of all enforceable agreements. To be selective as to what aspect of an agreement to abide by after one had signed it, as Mr. Taylor is trying to do, renders the process void. No Liberian in his right mind, including Mr. Taylor, would want this peace deal to unravel.

It's sad but true that Mr. Taylor is particularly vulnerable to suspicion when it comes to honoring international agreements. Unfortunately, his track record is a dozier of dishonored international accords during his failed attempt to bullet his way to power. And this is why, though by no means the only reason, he has not been able to garner enough support from international institutions and organizations.

Before we veer off course, perhaps Taylor must be reminded that the process that elevated him to the presidency was a specially crafted, multi-faceted compromise. That arrangement embodies the concerns and political aspirations of all factions, and it guarantees peace and stability by providing a level playing field for all parties. Its success hinges on full compliance and implementation.

That's why Taylor's deliberate attempt to predominantly enlist into the military and security forces former NPFL fighters, at the exclusion of other factions, and in violation of the Abuja II accord, is ominous sign for trouble.

But all of that can change if Mr. Taylor is willing to make the transition from military dictatorship to a democratic leadership. Willingness alone won't convince a weary population or uncertain world community that Mr. Taylor has been transformed. He must demonstrate his commitment by taking concrete actions that enhance democratic environment.

One way in which he can allay opposition's concerns and ensure fairness is for the administration to publish the number of people in the military and security apparatus since taking office, and their factional affiliations. Angry denials and denunciation of the opposition and the media only reinforce these allegations.

Finally, Mr. Taylor and his key lieutenants, who shared in the economic pillage of our natural resources during the war, must release their net worth. The argument that there is no law to require the president and other public servants to disclose their assets will not suffice. Propriety and conflict of interest require that citizens know the financial holdings of those who work for them.

Perhaps, this government has forgotten that Liberians expect Taylor to do better than past regimes. One of his reasons for besieging the country and President Doe in 1989 was to bring about democracy. Most Liberians, however, say facilitating democracy would have been a better choice of words.

In any case, Liberians expect, in deed, by their blood, demand the full exercise of democratic practices. This is national right, not a presidential gift. This right which is guaranteed by the constitution must be protected, not infringed, by presidential abuses. Mr. Taylor will be best served to let the process of democracy evolve without interference.

On a personal note, President Taylor will be smart to leave the press and opposition politicians alone. Unfettered press freedom and an unhindered political opposition will, in the long run, police themselves and become responsible, resourceful institutions.

With our situation, it would be naive for anyone to suggest that the press should run amok without exercising caution in its coverage of issues. By the same token, it's a violation of the constitution for the police and other security personnel to assault, harass and intimidate journalists because they criticize government policies. Those who violate the constitution must be prosecuted and discharged from government. The president must uphold the constitution.

One of the mistakes of the Doe dictatorship was its harsh treatment of the press and opposition. President Doe's attempt to silence his opponents gave Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf unearned public notoriety, and thrust her into the Liberian political limelight.

Prior to Mr. Doe's knee-jerk decision to arrest Mrs. Johnson- Sirleaf for criticizing his regime in a speech in the United States, she was an obscure member of the political oligarchy. Today, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is a major player in Liberian politics, thanks in part, to Doe's stupid action.

One of the qualities which distinguishes the United States from other countries is the high degree of political tolerance, and press freedom. Criticism can be helpful in that it offers alternatives to evolving national policy or refine established ones.

Republicans have often accused President Bill Clinton of redesigning and incorporating their ideas into his programs, thus taking credit for Republican ingenuity. Others view this as a smart move by Clinton which takes political issues from the opposition. The bottom line is the nation benefits when policy issues are thoroughly examined by all sides.

President Taylor and Liberia will be well served to emulate this American example. For Taylor, he cannot afford to do otherwise.