Written by: Stephen B. Lavalah
In the midst of extreme hardship, abject poverty, appalling educational system, dreadful healthcare, frightful unemployment, unacceptable inequality and unbearable cost of living; once again, elected politicians in Liberia have chosen the path to squander state resources under that pretext of a so-called Act to sustain democracy through public funding of political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates. For many Liberians and even foreigners alike, the pace at which the much publicized Democracy Sustainability Bill was passed by members of the fifty third National Legislature for onward concurrence from the President speaks volume of the concocted plan to exploit the Liberian people of their natural, inherent and inalienable rights.
As a matter of fact, it is indeed an unarguable fact that Liberia is richly endowed with mineral resources, water, tropical rainforest, and climatic conditions favorable to agricultural activities. This country has got beautiful landscapes, marvelous creatures, fabulous natural habitats, abundant timbers, historical melegueta peppers and gigantic dark green forests. Besides, the budding oil and gas sector clearly demonstrates the country’s vast assets. Amidst all of the resources, Liberia is still ranked among the world’s poorest countries and 76 percent of the population lives below US$1 a day while 52 percent lives in extreme poverty of under US$0.50 a day according to EuropeAid 2012 report despite the highest ratio of foreign direct investment of Gross Domestic Product amounting to US$16 billion investment since 2006.
Hence, it baffles a good number of people to mull over the justification of the legislators to proffer such legislation that is disheartening, disappointing and disgusting for a country that is emerging from years of intermittent conflict and gradually transitioning from a state of fragility.
The legislators ought to realize that democracy can only be sustainable through the people who are the custodians of peace and the natural resources of the country. As expressed in the language of the 1986 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia “All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require. In order to ensure democratic government which responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner as provided for under this Constitution, to cause their public servants to leave office and to fill vacancies by regular elections and appointments”. From this provision of the Constitution, one can easily surmise that in democracy, the political power ultimately must reside in the common people and not under the jurisdiction of political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates.
In John Ikerd’s article titled: “Is Democracy Sustainable? He asserted that to sustain democracy, legal statutes must be rooted in the laws of nature, including the laws of human nature, and the economy must function within the bounds defined by those statutes. John also stressed to sustain democracy; all people must be afforded sufficient food, housing, healthcare, education – and a sufficiently clean and healthful environment – to meet their physical and mental needs. He further stated to sustain democracy, it is pivotal to ensure equality of opportunity, both within and across generations, both nature and society must be protected from economic exploitation and degradation. Moreover, President Barrack Obama emphasized in a recent speech at the Brandenbury Gate in Berlin, Germany “…But we believe that real prosperity comes from our most precious resource – our people. And that’s why we choose to invest in education, and science and research.” So, in every society, whether it is in a developed, developing or less develop country, the people matters most and their welfare as well as livelihood must be prioritized and placed at the echelon of decision making.
The Plunderous Quest
In this 21st Century when almost every nation on Earth is increasingly and significantly improving in all aspects of development and moving steadily in an upward direction, an array of Liberian Government officials and citizens alike are adamant and keen towards wrangling for the same old political leadership and squabbling for Liberia’s resources. An audit commissioned by the Government under the stewardship of one of the world’s acclaimed moguls and Noble Laureate, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, indicates that only two out of sixty-eight contracts worth US$8billion were conducted properly. The audit reported further revealed that concessions granted in agriculture, forestry, mining and oil – including a lucrative deal with oil company Chevron – were either wholly or partially flawed.
Therefore, many political pundits are of the strongest conviction that the Act to sustain democracy through public funding of political parties, coalition, alliances and independent candidates by means of national budget appropriation is just another profligacy of Liberia’s resources as it has been with concession agreements. Whereas other analysts hold to the firm belief that scores of political institutions and candidates do not walk the talk and in most cases refuse to deliver on promises. The multiplicity of political parties, independent candidates as well as other political entities meant to provide equal participation in the governance process have merely resulted in the increased proliferation of more than 25 political parties including many segmented alliances and coalitions. Some political parties lack office spaces and as a result utilized briefcases and as well depend on the ‘World Trade Center’ on Gurley Street in Monrovia to computerize their documentation and conduct other functions. All too often, a lot of political entities are intermittently involved in leadership crises and sometimes a single person amazingly claimed ownership. Political institutions are also centralized in Monrovia and many a time people are not aware of their manifestos. Furthermore, there are lots of parties that are established just for recognition and subsequent inclusion in government. In addition, some political institutions exist purposely for money making and access to state ceremonies and prestige’s sake. Though some political parties since their formulation have not participated in any election, but around elections new political parties or coalitions or alliances are still being formed. Of course, it is a commendable initiative to have multiparty system, but what sense does it make to have a party that lacks standard bearer needless to say partisans and cannot afford to participate in elections as evident in the copious political parties, coalitions and alliances that were unable to contest in the 2011 general and presidential elections and even most recently the senatorial bi-election in Grand Bassa county. Thus, it is a complete waste of Liberia’s resources to support job hunting and money making political institutions.
Why the Act is Ominous?
Historically, Liberia’s electoral processes have usually been marked by incidents and violence and some technical and managerial problems though the general consensus from the international community is most often ranked as free, fair and transparent. Since the civil conflict, there have been no local government elections and in fact many political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates as well as civil society organizations and advocates have registered their discontentment in the structure and composition of the National Elections Commission (NEC). It can be recalled that an ex-warlord of the defunct Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, rewarded and turned Senator of Nimba, Prine Y. Johnson, revealed he (Senator Johnson) personally influenced election results in Nimba County and linked President Johnson-Sirleaf and her senior sister Jennie, including the former Chairman of the NEC James Fromayan to overturn election results of three legislators from the County, Garrison Yealu, Sam Korga, and Worleah Dunah, who contested on Senator Johnson’s National Union for Democratic Progress.
Moreover, during the 2011 general and presidential elections, one party is on record for broadcasting that if election wasn’t in its favor, Liberia would experience civil conflict anew. Another party disclosed through far-flung media publications that it wouldn’t recognize any presidential election results and in fact threaten that it would make Liberia bitter. Some political parties claimed “vote of no confidence” in the Chairman and entire leadership of NEC. Additionally, many political parties chose to vituperate at constituted authority while other from the governing party followed similar course of action against lots of opposition leaders inclusive of partisans and well-wishers.
All the more so, the November 7, 2011 electoral violence otherwise known as ‘Bloody Monday’, which led to the death of at least one person as reported by British Broadcasting Corporation and several other pugnacious occurrences further depict the fragility of the country’s security and peace. More to the point, the menace deriving from the leading opposition party to boycott the runoff election and carry out ‘peaceful protest’ on the basis that the October 11 polls were marked by fraud and rigging in spite of the fact that international monitors like the Carter Center, European Union, African Union, Economic Community of West Africa States among other coupled with national observers comprising of the Elections Coordinating Committee and hordes of various stakeholders accentuated and corroborated that the elections had some errors which can in no way amounted to fraud or rigging and it was considerably to a large extent free, fair and transparent. Despite all of the arguments raised by the Congress for Democratic Change, the party unconditionally accepted the results for all its officials and members that won the legislative elections. Even though, the pecking order of the party that professes to be “grassrooter” or “downtrodden” was attired with preeminent Western and African suits and as well attending lavish Inaugural Dinner while the so-called “our people” or “massive” in West Point, Slipway, Clara Town, New Kru Town and other parts of the country were languishing in abject poverty drudging for a single meal let alone clothes. In fact, most partisans who were wheedled to the party’s political ideology walked long distances and used their scarce resources to obtain campaign materials still ponder over the closed door peace negotiation which was reached barely few days to inauguration. Some partisans wonder if the decision from the hierarchy was for the sake of ostensive ‘peace and reconciliation’ or just greed for money. Yet again, civic and voter education as well as boundary harmonization and other major electoral reform challenges seem to be another stiff impediment to ensuring democratization in Liberia.
With all the scuffles from political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent as well as civil society organizations and activists against the NEC, the proponents of the Democratic Sustainability Act have again entrusted and empowered the NEC to have the power and authority to manage and control the fund through appropriate budgetary allocation for its smooth and transparent utilization. The Act also proffered that all political parties receiving public support shall be subject to clearly written financial reporting requirements provided by the General Auditing Commission. Besides, the Act among other things, provide 100 percent duty free privileges to political parties attaining a minimum threshold of 25 percent on the first ballot in a ruling general and presidential. It primarily provides funding for political parties, coalition, alliances or independent candidate meeting the threshold specified shall receive allocations based on the percentage (from 5 percent to 100 percent) of valid votes receive between US$250,000 to US$1,125,00.00. The Act further provides that each political party alliance or independent candidate winning a seat in the Senate shall receive the amount of US$15,000 annually per Senate seat while each political party alliance or independent candidate winning a seat in the House of Representatives shall receive the amount of US$12,500 annually per seat in the House of Representatives. All allocations of appropriated money from the fund to an Entitled Party, coalition, alliance or independent candidate shall be paid quarterly in the fiscal year in four equal installments, each within three months of the pervious payment. The first installment shall be paid within four weeks of the beginning of the fiscal year.
In so doing, many people Liberians from all walks of life have begun pondering with keen interest on the rationale behind the Act to sustain democracy when in the first place many opposition parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates including civil society organizations do not have trust and confidence in the NEC and its entire electoral processes. So, how come political institutions have overnight entrusted the very NEC many accused with this lucrative responsibility without any hesitation or reservation? The already poverty – stricken people are speechless with great disbelief that their elected officials who promised to ensure better living standards, equitable distribution of resources, justice for all and access to social services have resorted to banish them into impoverishment. Hence, where are all the campaign promises? The well-being and needs of the “downtrodden massive” or “commoners” as politicians usually referred to the ordinary people have been forsaken under the disguise of sustaining democracy. Is it possible anyway to make people wake up early in the morning and standup for hours waiting to exercise their franchises or will this Act further reduce voter apathy resulting to low turn at polling precinct? The young people who participated in the democratic process still feel the pain of unemployment and many have lost hope of becoming the best in science and technology, agriculture and food production, business and entrepreneurship, and possibly in all aspect of human existence simply because their elected officials have ignored their plights. So, who will sustain the democracy when the young generation is unprepared and unequipped to meet up with the challenges that lie ahead? Who will fill the knowledge gap in this country where survey has proven that the older generation is more educated than the younger generation? How do elected officials expect young people to cope with the challenges of climate change, shrinking forests, dying coral, depleting fisheries, encroaching deserts and demanding water supplies? How does the government intent to consolidate Liberia’s emerging democracy? Is the government sensitive to meeting the needs of its citizens? With these and many more thoughts, one can only contemplate with eagerness anticipating appropriate responses and look forward to a legislation that prioritizes the welfare of all citizens not one that solely supports political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates.
Abolishing the Act
Make no mistake, financing political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates is not only unique to Liberia, because proponents belief that it somewhat provides a more even level playing field, somehow avoid temptation of accepting illegal contributions or donations in exchange for favors or use of state resources in conducting election campaign and as well reduce special interest. Even though, many Western countries including some African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola and Zambia utilize state funding on political parties, notwithstanding, the issue of accountability and transparency remain a huge problem. Take for instance, Kenya had budgeted $70 million to fund political parties under a newly passed Political Parties Act, but yet Kenyans tasted swill of post elections violence in 2007 and early 2008 which led to the gruesome murder of many taxpayers. As a matter of fact, nearly all African countries that have enacted legislation to provide state funding to political parties are usually in the limelight of electoral violence, poverty and corruption, because of the greed for power and scramble for state resources. Even some Westerners are advocating for a more transparent and accountable system in the financing of political parties. From this backdrop, it was very important that the Liberian legislators formulate a policy guidelines though survey and painstaking analysis to ascertain the merits and demerits of such legislation before the passage.
However, it is not late for the Act to be reversed for the common good of all Liberians. This is the time for the President Johnson-Sirleaf to listen to the outcry of Liberians, who are of the conviction that the time is not ripe and resources are not availability to fund political parties. The President should now begin to reflect and consider the demand to invest in the social services such as education, electricity, road network, healthcare and ensure the 20,000 jobs promised become a reality. The President should contemplate on sending the Act back to the legislators and brood over reforming the election laws, ensure local elections are achievable in line with the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, effective public education through civic engagement, reduction of illiteracy, unemployment as well as strengthen political institutions to carry out internal reform and make sure the Constitution is being taught in all institutions of learning. Besides, elected officials should concentrate on resolving the reconciliation process as expressed in the Roadmap for Reconciliation and the Truth and Reconciliation Report and not through sporting and musical extravaganza as manifested in almost every peace initiative.
The legislators must begin to rethink and put Liberia’s interest first above the sum of their individual ambition or greed or wealth. Likewise, the Executive and Legislative branches, which are two distinct and well-defined components of a single government should forge ahead and rise above the trivial issues like the Democratic Sustainability Act. Through a more cohesive and patriotic spirit, the Executive and Legislative branches of government can defeat poverty, disease and hunger that have engulfed Liberians for far too long instead of propagating a legislation that has the proclivity to make the people become beggars all in the name of sustaining democracy. Both branches should and must go beyond the ordinary hurdles to ensure that every family, community, village, town, clan, district and county is part of the developmental agenda and driving the changes that Liberian needs most. The people too have got to play pivotal role and stop begging for handout, bailout or rescue package, rather they should wakeup, shakeup and standup to take what belongs to them. This should not be done through the use of guns, vehement force or antagonistic attack to gain political capital; however, it must emulate and assimilate a nonviolent approach of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Egyptians in Tahrir Square and lately the Turks in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Now is the time for legislators, political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates to stop the scramble for state resources and begin to emulate their historic and longtime partner, the United States of America that explores the talents and skills of every human race and ethnic group residing within its borders and even beyond. Liberian Government officials should take the lead and stop misusing hard-earned taxpayers’ resources for personal gains. Together, Liberians must resist and oppose and call on President Johnson-Sirleaf not to sign the Democratic Sustainability Act into Law.
About the author: Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder/Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES).