Democracy VS. Dictatorship:
The Quest for Freedom and Justice in Africa's Oldest Republic
A Book Review & Commentary By J. Kpanneh Doe
The Liberian civil war is now beginning to be well-documented. There has been a preponderance of articles, opinion pieces, monographs and books, now being written by academics, journalists, political commentators, writers, and a whole host of ordinary Liberians, explaining the causes of the war. But an amazing development, is the flurry of well-researched books being published about the war. Interestingly, the authors who come from varied and diverse backgrounds - both Europeans and Africans, including Liberians- have brought very unique and refreshing perspectives to our understanding of the war. There is no question, that in the final analysis, these important works will benefit future generations in terms of understanding the full scope of the war.
Two books in particular stand out and are worthy of mention. The book, The Liberian Civil War, by Mark Huband (1998), a British Journalist, captured by the NPFL at the beginning of the war, narrates an eye-witness account of incidents witnessed by the author while going through the ordeal of the war. The author, using his descriptive ability, offers a detailed and meticulous account of the brutality, ethnic hatred, and drug abuse, which characterized the war.
The Mask of Anarchy (1999), written by a British academic and researcher, Stephen Ellis, underscores the role of religion, an important part of Liberia's cultural landscape, played in contributing to the brutal nature of the war. The author argues that the myths and fetish nature of religion which has long been a part of rural traditional life was a potent force which made the struggle for power among the various warring factions even more horrific as evidence by the killings and the de-humanizing nature of the war.
Both Huband's and Ellis' book are landmark contributions to the study and understanding of the civil war, but the real focus of this review is the book written by Emmanuel Dolo. Dolo's book: "Democracy Versus Dictatorship: The Quest for Freedom and Justice in Africa's Oldest Republic - American University Press, Inc 1996," is particularly unique and refreshing in that it brings to the fore the perspective of a Liberian with a real life experience of the war.
Using as a historical backdrop the Liberian state, Dolo contends that the failure of public institutions to become a relevant force for change in the lives of the Liberian people, were major contributing factors to the war. "Certainly, the institutional and elite pathologies overlap in many instances... however, it is my contention that the fundamental pathologies which are the causes of the civil war are structural and institutional."
But what are these structural and institutional pathologies? Dolo defines these as the "visible or invisible barriers which tend to prevent the normal functioning of institutions, and their full maximization of the potential of their members and/or employees." According to him these include the gross lack of accountability within the public sphere, one party rule, mass public apathy, violation of human rights, etc.
Building on his thesis, the book examined two historical periods - the Tolbert and Doe eras - -whereby he contends that there was gross failure by the state to restructure the political imbalances in the system and the corroding nature of public institutions. For example, whereas Tolbert's Public Pronouncements such as "total involvement" or "higher heights" had popular and broad national appeal, his policies failed to effect any meaningful fundamental change in the status quo. Similarly, he argues, the Doe era which broke 132 years of settler rule, ushering in the so-called "indigenous rule," not only betrayed its promise to the Liberian people, but lay the foundations for the emergence of a ruthless and corrupt dictatorship.
As fascinating and compelling his arguments, Dolo's thesis begins to fall apart and crumble by his use of broad generalizations and assumptions when he specifically discusses the so-called Political Awakening Movement (PAM) in chapter 4, and the role of the citizenry in chapters & 7. According to Dolo, "every Liberian, with the exception of children is a perpetrators of the civil war. Our involvement vary from active participation to indifference/mass apathy."
This broad indictment that "every Liberian is a perpetrator of the civil war," not only undermines his central thesis of the structural and institutional pathologies that caused the war, but when tested based on the availability of the evidence, clearly proves the contrary. The empirical evidence is overwhelming that the reported 250,000 Liberians who died in the course of the war, were more innocent victims than perpetrators. While he makes exceptions to the "children," one cannot ignore the role of the "child soldiers" who were conscripted into Taylor's marauding army of the NPFL and the horrific crimes they committed. the issue of 'Indifference or mass apathy" which Dolo contends characterized citizens relations to the political process may be valid and have some basis in truth, but one that is difficult to measure. This perhaps is the primary flaw of the book
Perhaps little noticed, but significant as well, is the book's title. The title of the book assumes that there was a flirtation with democracy, but given the focus of the book and the discussion of the period under review (1970-1990), much of what the country experienced in the last three decades can best be described as one-Party dictatorial rule, whether under Tolbert's True Whig Party or Doe's People Redemption Council or National Democratic Party of Liberia. The real struggle for change in Liberia has been the quest for freedom and justice. The book's subtitle: "The quest for freedom and justice in Africa's oldest Republic Liberia," is a more appropriate title since it is the real theme the book addresses.
The book is part academic, part policy, and a personal commentary on the causes of the war. This eclectic approach employed by the author is perhaps its greatest strength. Part 5 is the strongest anchor of the book. The novelty of this perspective, is that the author not only discusses and analyzes the causes of the war, but recommends solutions, - way in which democracy can be nurtured - and how institutional and structural reforms can be achieved. Dolo argues that "incubators of democracy are those institutions that are purposely constructed to safeguard, steadily and sustain and strengthen the development of democracy. Examples include professional, economic, intellectual, media, civic, civil human rights organizations, etc."
The size of the book (175 pages), makes it impossible to discuss in depth some of the weighty issues the author has attempted to explore, but by and large, the book is well constructed and a readable examination on the causes of the civil war. I recommend this to anyone interested in getting a new insight into the civil war and practical solutions to the institutional and structural problems. It can become part of the reading list of every concerned Liberian.
For subscription information, go to: www.theperspective.org
or send e-mail to: email@example.com