National Security Through Power Protection
Or Human and Socioeconomic Development:
Which Way Liberia?

By Geepu-Nah Tiepoh

It becomes increasingly clear that the Taylor administration, like other Liberian governments of the past, has chosen a Machiavellian-type view and approach to national security over one based on democratization, human protection, and socioeconomic needs satisfaction. The prevailing tendency has been towards protecting and entrenching state power structures through instrumentalist means as opposed to promoting broader and longer-term national security goals through popular and legitimate provision of human and socioeconomic welfare. This turn of events is quite unfortunate because Liberian history is replete with lessons pointing to the disastrous consequences of putting state security interests above basic human and socioeconomic security. It is true that the Liberian state requires security and stability. However, if such stability is not derived from genuine democratic practices, basic human rights protection, and the provision of satisfactory socioeconomic conditions, then it will become not only an instrument of class oppression but also a potential source of future national catastrophes not unlike the one which attended the rise of the present Taylor government. Liberians must therefore not only wish that such disasters do not recur, but they must advocate for a genuine national security that is based on popular satisfaction and not on "ends justify the means" politics.

The importance of human and socioeconomic conditions to Liberia's national security has been persistently confirmed throughout its history. Throughout history whenever the basic material and human conditions of the people were disrespected, the seeds for discontent and social change were planted. Even in the 1950s and 1960s when Liberia experienced its best economic growth situation, the soil for change was nurtured by the failure of Tubman to remove economic and class inequity and to allow a non-paternalistic democratic culture. And in spite of the omnipresence of state security apparatus under Tubman, national security in the broad sense of the word was not ensured. Stability of the state superstructure was achieved only at the cost of basic human freedoms. In a way the arrival of William Tolbert in the 1970s coincided with the opening of a pandora box in Liberian history. The harsh reality of decades of economic and class demarcation under Tubman, which was imposed through tight state security and intimidation, was now laid bare in the 1970s with the worsening of economic conditions and with the gallantry of the progressive movement. It should be noted that Tolbert himself did not do much to narrow such economic polarity but in fact accentuated it. While we cannot discount other strategic explanations for the 1980 military coup, it should be agreed that it was the adverse socioeconomic conditions of the people at the time which provided the basic context and opportunity for the forces of change. Finally, the demise of the Doe dictatorship and the national cataclysm which attended it were again an outcome of the neglect of the people's basic human and socioeconomic welfare.

From the preceding analysis, it follows that the security and stability of state power should be viewed as a function of basic human and socioeconomic security, for it is only when the people experience true economic and human security that they will be satisfied to provide security to those who hold state power for them. And it is only then that genuine national security can be ensured. In contrast to this view, however, the fiscal, general economic management, and human rights record of the Taylor administration continues to indicate that this government is interested in the security and entrenchment of state power as its first priority. While President Taylor tells Liberians that they "can achieve food self-sufficiency within five to ten years" and calls on them to "feed themselves and even export food", his government's proposed 1999 budget of $US64 million has given the highest priority to "security" (over 13 percent) while agriculture received only a little over one percent and health only six percent. An important question on the minds of many Liberians relates to the type of security that is being accorded this high priority. The Liberian people will find it very hard to believe that a government which allocates the least to their feeding and health is promoting their socioeconomic security. Furthermore, it will be difficult for most people to believe that a government under which top law enforcement officers still trample upon people's basic human rights is promoting their real security. Just last month, the Star Radio reported that the UN envoy to Liberia, Ambassador Felix Downes-Thomas, blamed security personnel for most human rights violations in the country, and he confirmed that external assistance was being withheld from Liberia due to poor human rights performance. Most Liberians will therefore be inclined to believe that the "security" to which this government is giving priority is not the kind of security that matters to them.

Meanwhile, on the question of agricultural development and food production, an FAO Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) report recently found that Liberia recorded a 25 percent increase in the production of its staple food, rice, during the 1998 farming season. Cassava production was also found to have increased substantially. The Taylor administration may hasten to claim credit for this improvement in food production, and some might even speculate that it was the reason that the government almost forgot about agriculture in its 1999 budget. It should be noted, however, that the same FAO report attributed this improvement mainly to greater access to NGO-supplied farming inputs and other assistance. While international NGO- supplied agricultural assistance has been instrumental in post-conflict Liberian reconstruction, it is doubtful whether such international support can be maintained permanently in Liberian agricultural development. Even if this were possible, how would a national agricultural policy based on international aid conform to the government's goal of food self-sufficiency and the broader objective of national security? Issues like these demonstrate the crucial importance and necessity of maintaining government support to Liberian agriculture.

On the other hand, it becomes clear that the government, rather than promoting genuine national security through long-term human and socioeconomic development efforts, is emphasizing power entrenchment and security through short-term instrumentalist means. The recent purchase and presentation of jeeps to members of the National Legislature by the President is an example of such strategies which give the appearance of a conflict of interest situation and of undermining the independence of the Legislature. According to the President, the jeeps in question were purchased under a three-year loan scheme as an expression of gratitude to the lawmakers. Few questions are in place here: Who purchased these jeeps? Was it the President himself making a personal gift to the legislators, or was the purchase a part of the proposed 1999 budget? Since the government had promised there would be no extra-budgetary expenditure this year, from where would it obtain this year's amortization of the loan if that was not already included in the budget? Why were the details of this three-year loan not divulged? If these vehicles were not a personal gift from the President, why was it necessary for himself to present them? In politics and economics, appearance matters. While Liberian lawmakers deserve to have transportation means, any offer of vehicles that is provided to influence their acquiescence with the executive branch of government, or to make it appear so, may be viewed as paternalistic and, as such, unhealthy to the democratic process and security of Liberia. Another indication of the administration's preference for power security is its recent proposal calling for the re- establishment of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) at a time when lack of training and other support systems for existing security agencies is said to be driving many security personnel into human rights violations and corruption (Star Radio, February 24). What is more, the NBI will now become the official domestic-spying agency of government, monitoring the movements and activities of every Liberian, real and imagined enemies of the government, and especially those in opposition to its bad policies.

If Liberia is to avoid a recurrence of the horror it suffered during the 1990s, its current and future governments must give their highest priority to the basic human and socioeconomic rights of Liberians. When the people's human rights and material needs are satisfactorily fulfilled, then the security and stability of their government becomes their greatest preoccupation. We must never again allow the cart to be put before the horse.

Geepu-Nah Tiepoh is a development economist and consultant with ACLAD Development, Montreal, Canada.

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