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Special Feature

Government and Opposition: A Lesson from History

The greatest political problem with which the emerging CDC government will have to contend is that of the relationship between government and opposition. The problem has its roots in the collaboration experienced between the state and opposition parties. The state, starved of resources, becomes somewhat introverted, excluding opposition parties from the political governance process. Too often the state leaders are only concerned with their own private welfare. Opposition parties, particularly in the past, never really engaged the government or at times they bypassed it as a survival strategy.

When Liberia entered the age of the one-party state characterized by centralized rule, political pluralism was curtailed and remaining opposition institutions were co-opted, harassed or banned. At the apex of this highly centralized state there usually resided a presidential-monarch enjoying the power of personal rule. These autocrats have had little to fear by way of formal political challenges to the leadership. No constitutional mechanisms remained to unseat them. Opposition parties were forced to accept the leadership of whichever faction of the state elite was in the ascendant.

The last two decades of the twentieth century brought a tidal wave of multi-party elections to Liberia. Some of big politicians perished in this exercise, but many more survived.

The two multi-party governments that have emerged from the political upheaval of the 1980s and 1990s certainly retained many authoritarians’ reflexes from the past, yet the UP-led government was relatively accountable to the people. A resort to exclusive personal rule has been discouraged by the restoration of legal-rational institutions.

In this process, opposition parties were brought back into the constitutional political process and once again permitted to participate. This improved relationship between government and opposition parties will not guarantee, but dramatically increase, the possibility of bringing a brighter political future to our country. It is still a gloomy reality, however, the new government cannot start with a clean slate.

The division between government and opposition parties cost our country dearly, and today we find ourselves still at the beginning of such a dialogue.

In Western Countries the function of the opposition is to compel thought, to expose some of the dangers of the policies of the government and to exhort the government to change these policies which are dangerous. But in Liberia, few opposition parties can claim the achievement of either compelling thought or persuading governments to change some of their policies. This does not mean that Liberians have not grasped the essentials of party democracy; this only means that governments have still to learn to trust the intentions of oppositions either because the latter once co-operated with the enemies of freedom or because leaders of rival parties have not had the opportunity of knowing and trusting each other. Since opposition in the initial years of multi-party democracy, achieves a few positive results, and since it frays nerves on both sides, there seems to be a strong case on this score alone for inviting leaders of opposition parties to participate in government. Working together in this way would have the effect of building up mutual trust between the leaders of various parties. Once distrust has been removed, the winning and losing parties can revert to their respective functions of proposing and opposing and there would be a reasonable chance that the views of the opposition will not only be listened to sympathetically but also acted upon where necessary.

When multi-party elections reached Liberia, a great hope for change was anticipated. Examples of some very important elements of change anticipated in Liberia include but not limited to:

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• Need for a credible opposition to consolidate our young democracy.
• Need for a strong civil society because new or mended political

leadership is hardly more democratic than their predecessors.

• Need for stronger economy: severe economic problems could

lead to loss of legitimacy and even the collapse of pluralism


• Need for a separation of the state and ruling party, a distinction yet to emerge, but essential if a level playing-field is necessary for parties to compete.

Unfortunately, for us all these requirements remain as stumbling blocks. In particular the confusion created by the merger of state and ruling party is unhealthy. This unhealthiness is indicated by such symptoms as intolerance on the part of governing party towards opposition parties, a tendency towards strong-man or iron-lady government, indulgence in smear campaigns and political instability.

Remember: it is better to light a lamp, than to curse the darkness!

By Tom Nimely Chie

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