President Taylor: Which Way Liberia

By J. Kpanneh Doe

Talking to a cross-section of Liberians on the state of our country recently a question was asked regarding the point at which it would be fair to begin assessing the regime of President Charles Taylor. Some opined that against the background of Liberia's seven-year turbulent past, and the daunting challenges that any new government has to confront, a good starting point to gauge the regime's performance should be at least after a year. Others felt, however, that a period of one hundred days is enough to assess the regime, not only because such is the common tradition, but also because during hundred days a good government should have a clear and definite agenda, and it should be able to articulate a strategic vision for a country's future. Within such time frame, they argued, a regime should be able to set the tone for its policy directions.

Whether one year or one hundred days, a common thread to both arguments concerns the issue of agenda. The point is that every regime, having assumed the realms of state power, must have at least an agenda that provides a sense of what it intends to do or where it wants to take the country. That is why political parties exist. They are there to develop a platform and articulate their visions in the marketplace of ideas so that the electorate can be informed and make the best decisions. One therefore can logically assume that the National Patriotic Party (NPP), of which Mr. Taylor is standard bearer, had some kind of agenda or blueprint on the basis of which it won the July 19 elections.

While it is not exactly clear whether Liberians voted in the last election based on which party offered the most promising vision for Liberia's future, the fact of the matter is that Taylor won by a landslide margin. This implicitly suggests that Liberians not only elected Taylor the man, but his ideas as well. Taylor's landslide victory and popular mandate raises a number of questions which I hope to address in a future article. Among such questions is whether this popular mandate is one of personal triumph which has finally cemented his victory, or whether it is a policy mandate that has paved the way for much needed reforms and overhauling of an antiquated and undemocratic political system. An examination of how this regime has fared, regarding democratic participation and the politics of inclusion, will help us understand some of these issues.

Paraphrasing W. E. B. Dubois who said that the problem of 20th century America was (and still remains) the "colorline", I contend that Liberia's longstanding and basic problem remains the dominance of a tiny political elite and the exclusion of the majority from political participation. This issue of political inclusion and participation is therefore a critical ingredient for Liberia's future. Here lies the real test and challenge of the Taylor regime: to bridge the gap that has always separated the masses of the Liberian citizenry from their leadership. In terms of this, where do we begin in examining how well this regime has fared thus far. Clearly, an ideal place would be to examine the structure and character of the regime, especially the composition of its cabinet and other governing bodies. The cabinet is central in the context of Taylor's campaign promises. Having assumed the reins of power, one of Taylor's first policy tasks was to form a government that would serve as a basis for national unity and encourage broad-based political participation. Better said, Taylor's popular mandate gave him the leverage to assemble a government that would reflect Liberia and its diverse mosaic.

Paramount in his campaign promises, and enshrined in his party's manifesto, was the call to establish a government of national unity and a commitment to set Liberia on a new development course. To be sure, this has not happened. There is an apparent gap between what was promised and what the reality portends. The government seems to be obsessed with too much rhetoric rather than with action. His first major policy initiative was to put together a cabinet, comprising the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Finance, Planning and Economic Affairs, Presidential Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, Rural Development, Internal Affairs, etc. Contrary to his numerous calls for national unity, all of his appointees to principal cabinet positions, with few notable exceptions have come from his National Patriotic Party. It is apparent that the Taylor regime has adopted a "Winners take-all" approach, thereby excluding other civil constituencies from his government. Being predominantly party-based, there is a virtual absence or exclusion of other political parties and elements of the larger civic society. Furthermore, the government does not reflect regional balance which is critical to the spirit of national unity. The cabinet is disproportionately Monrovia-based, comprising mostly of men and women who have spent their adult lives in Monrovia with no connection to rural Liberia.

Not distinguishing itself, and behaving as in the past, the Taylor government has revived the system of patronage, with its attendant companion, nepotism taken to its highest level. Uncritical loyalty and nepotism have taken front and center stage eclipsing competence and patriotism. For example, his sister-in-law, Sandra Howard, is the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs, while his brother is the Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority. Moreover, several of his other family members are occupying various positions of enormous responsibilities for which they have no proper credentials, the director of the national police is a case in point.

Clearly, the Taylor regime is still in its formative stage and honeymoon period. All Liberians, both at home and abroad, recognize the difficult challenges the new president faces and are wishing him every success. It is not clear, however, what the new regime wants to do with the reins of power. Is it going to be utilized for the good of the people of Liberia or for the revival of the past? Current indications and signs are not promising. Nevertheless, time is still on the side of the regime to get all Liberians involved in developing their country into a vibrant democracy and in preparing for the new millennium.