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Information Minister Lewis Brown Press Statement

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If little boys and girls on rocks who admire us will only make us momentarily very sad in the opulence of our offices, and we feel no duty to them – not even an obligation to know their names – when the momentary sadness passes, for the sake of the country, perhaps its best that they never grow up to be like the ones they admired.

Distinguished Members of the Press,

My Fellow Liberians:

Today, I will attempt an awkward task. I believe the changed circumstances of our country demand it.

A few days ago, we celebrated the 166th Independence of our country. Counselor H. Varney G. Sherman, the erudite lawyer and Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, provided a plate-full of ‘food for thought’ for the celebrations. I have tried to eat my share, chew it thoroughly and digest it as best as I can. I ask all Liberians to do the same.

I believe the speech was revealing and will be remembered for three important calls. First, the Chairman of the Unity Party called on his Standard Bearer to be visionary, bold and courageous “to tackle head-on our fundamental problems and differences” and “to set the examples of good governance”. Secondly, the Party Chairman called for “the information dissemination structure and process of the government to be revamped and adequately supported”. And thirdly, there was the anecdotal call of a boy on the rock.

Some have since hailed the call by the Ruling Party’s Chairman on his Standard Bearer as courageous. Perhaps it is. Admittedly, it does take a lot of courage for the Chairman of the Ruling Party to publicly chastise the person who bears the Standard of the Party, and to strangely separate himself and the Party not only from the achievements of the government, for which the Ruling Party ought to be proud, but also to openly offer himself as better suited with fresher and bolder ideas to transform the country because “…all of these achievements and accomplishments, including the many others that I have mentioned, are not enough as a foundation to transform our country.”

Did the public criticism of the Standard Bearer of the Unity Party by the Chairman of the Unity Party improve the chances of the Unity Party at any upcoming elections? Like lawyers would say, did Counselor Sherman’s briefs include improving the public perception of the Party and offering a reasonable case that the Unity Party is still worthy of the public’s trust?

Perhaps not as it is difficult to imagine how the Unity Party benefits from distancing itself from the achievements of the government – achievements which the Chairman broadly stroked as the restoration of the rule of law, respect for human values, adherence to generally accepted principles of human conduct and behavior; as well as freedoms and liberties, investment in infrastructures and international credibility and integrity including the reinstitution of political governance by which normal social interactions and the resort to the courts of law to settle grievances have all been restored. These are achievements, in a post-conflict society, which any ruling party ought to embrace.

However, one would be hard-pressed not to conclude that the Chairman of the Unity Party confirmed a widening gap between him and his Standard Bearer – so wide a gap that he has readied himself to swim alone.

Oftentimes, swimming alone requires adapting populist themes. Today, none is more accommodating than corruption. And so Chairman Sherman quipped “…all the time and everywhere we hear the Liberian people’s cry against corruption.” Indeed, this is a popular cry. But could this cry be because of a more heightened awareness of corruption today than in previous years? Could it also be that the pervasiveness of freedoms and the protection of rights have allowed for increased expressions of public concerns and outcries against corruption wherever it is deemed to be practiced? Is it really bad or good for the country? 

Does Liberia have corruption problems? Yes! And here also are the facts to which Counselor Sherman is privy: Liberia has achieved measurable progress in the fight against corruption moving 41 places in 2008 from 138th place in the world to 97th place in 2009, on the Global Corruption Index. In 2010, Liberia moved 10 places, from 97th place to 87th on the Transparency International Index. In 2012, Liberia moved 32 places, making it the 3rd least corrupt country in West Africa.

Of course, we must continue the upward climb. This is why, the government promised additional measures in the second phase of the fight against corruption. The first phase has been repeatedly explained as reducing vulnerabilities through salary increment and institutional reforms as well as the creation of integrity institutions to curb individual excesses. The second phase has also been repeatedly described as the punishment phase. With the passage of a new jury law, as promised, the Justice Ministry has moved quickly to obtain the indictments of a number of high profile individuals and institutions for corruption.

Acknowledging without admitting, the recent Corruption Barometer of Transparency International suggests a troubling proposition – that rather than a governmental problem, as many including Counselor Sherman would have us to believe, corruption in Liberia is really a societal problem.  In a survey of 1028 persons in Liberia, when asked: To what extent do you see the following categories to be affected by corruption in this country? Please answer on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 means ‘not at all corrupt’ and 5 means ‘extremely corrupt’.

According to Transparency International, this is how Liberians responded:

A – Political parties – 4.0
B – Parliament/legislature – 4.7
C – Military – 3.4
D – NGOs – 3.1
E – Media – 3.6
F – Religious bodies – 2.1
G – Business/private sector – 4.0
H – Education system – 4.5
I – Judiciary – 4.5
J – Medical and health services – 3.5
K – Police – 4.8
L – Public officials/civil servants 3.5

If these numbers are true, then one can see the scale of the problem unveiled in these responses. Clearly, no institution of the society, including religious and political, is spared of bribery and corruption. 45% believe NGOs are corrupt, making no distinction between international and domestic NGOs. Over 50% have no confidence in the Press and believe that the media is corrupt. Almost 80% believe that the private sector is corrupt. Since almost 70% believe that all government workers are corrupt – no sector of the Liberian society is spared.

Asked why they paid bribes, only 20% of the respondents said they paid bribes because it was “the only way to get service”.  80% of the time the respondents who claimed they paid bribes, if these reports are to be believed, said they bribed to bye-pass and ultimately undermine the existing process. 36% said they paid bribes to “speed up the process”. Another 31% said they paid bribes to get cheaper service. Then there is 13% which claimed they paid bribes as a gift or to express gratitude. 

Again, we must continue to do more to fight corruption. However, the need to do more ought not to compel us to negate the gains we have made or to alter the wheels of our jurisprudence as suggested by the learned Counselor – an alteration in which an accused is presumed guilty until he/she proves innocence. And even as we endeavor to do more and to be creative in the fight, it is time to acknowledge the fight against corruption as a fight against values – a way of life which has festered since the foundation of the nation. 

And so, rather than a search for that “something” which we have not done only because corruption is on the lips of Liberians, and in the process, obviate all that continues to be done, including the audaciousness of the administration to publicly take on this fight for the first time in the country, we should embrace the increased sense of awareness of the cancer and inspire our society to borrow from President Obasanjo, “not to make it a way of life”. Indeed, this requires the collective effort of all Liberians.

Now let me turn to the second call for which the national oration will be remembered. The National Orator and Chairman of the Unity Party recommended “very strongly that the information dissemination structure and process of this government be revamped and adequately supported to provide all information about the accomplishments and achievements of your government – information that permeates every sector of the country.”

I cannot argue too much with the Orator here. Yes, the process and structure of information dissemination needs to be revamped and adequately supported. Perhaps the revamping process should include a change of personnel and strategy. We are prepared to listen.  In any case, what is certain is that the information management landscape of the country has been dramatically transformed by technology and new found freedoms that it will require a little more discipline by all members of the leadership of the country including the Ruling Unity Party if information about accomplishments and achievements are to permeate every sector of the country.

I dare to say, many of our people wish the narrative was more positive. They want us to talk about the developments taking place across the country. They want us to inspire them that the dark pages of our history are a distant memory. They want a conversation about how their lives can be improved – how the conditions of their children can be bettered.  The truth is that many exciting and uplifting things are happening in Liberia. The sharpening contrast between where we were, where we are and the growing sense of where we are headed makes for a profound story of not just of the resilience of Liberians but also of the transformation of a country which was brought to its knees by its own citizens.

The sad truth though is that these uplifting and hopeful developments are drowned out by distractions caused by unnecessary feuds, runaway political ambitions and publicly blaming each other for mistakes rather than working as a team to fix them. Undoubtedly, the information management sector needs to be adequately supported. But the support must be more than just financial resources. It must include a desire for each leader in the Party and across the government to sacrifice a little of themselves and their ambitions so that the greater good and appreciation of the whole is achieved. It is time we understand the government as belonging to all rather than as you, Mr. Chairman, repeatedly suggested in the Independence Oration, as belonging to the President.

For instance, the accomplishments of the Liberian Government – not the President’s government – would be easier to pronounce and to permeate every sector of the country if the leadership of the Unity Party would own it, unashamedly identify with it, and use the privacy of their national offices rather than the public square to draw the Standard Bearer’s attention to aspects of the Party’s Platform to which they believe the Standard Bearer is not adhering. To repeatedly issue releases and press statements either calling for the resignation of the Standard Bearer or disassociating with a policy or program of the administration; to publicly block the President’s Legislative Agenda and create unnecessary public confrontations and controversies which leave the public impression of a “fight” between members of the Legislature especially of the Ruling Unity Party and the President who bears its standard; effectively drown out the positive narrative, distort the developmental message, and undermine the information dissemination of the achievements of the government.

This leaves the Liberian people in despair and at the mercy of the naysayers.

Mr. Chairman, it is difficult to change the narrative only through revamping and adequate support when the opposition of which I am a part celebrates your address to the nation, I dare to say, more than the administration which, for all intents and purposes, you created and are an integral part of. Rather than a healthy discussion about the dedication of the numerous developmental projects and initiatives which attended the Independence Celebrations coupled with the uplifting impacts these projects will have on the people and their communities, even today, the national conversation is driven by the public reprove of the President which highlighted your Independence Day Address.  

The third and final call for which the 26th Day Oratory will be remembered is the call by a boy of 10 to 11 years who sat on a rock. Toward the end of the speech, the Counselor recounted a heart-wrenching story of his encounter with a boy, in the mid-1990s who was sitting on a rock as the Counselor strolled to work. In their brief exchange, the boy expressed his admiration for the learned lawyer who returned the child’s compliments with pride and proceeded on to work.  He soon got sad behind his desk because it dawned on him that “…for each school day that he sat on that rock, he will never become the lawyer that I am.” Counselor Sherman blamed the country for the fate of the boy.

He is right. Governments owe each citizen a duty to provide opportunities by which they can fulfill their dreams – by which they can be like people they admire. However, each citizen owes the other a duty as well – a duty to reach down, and wherever possible, to enable others to climb. When a citizen can afford it, it is not enough to only get momentarily sad in the office and to blame the country for the fate of the boy. And so, although the boy may have been abandoned by the government, by also leaving him sitting on the rock when you can help him sit in a classroom, sealed his fate and actually ensured that he would never grow to be like the person he admired.

In the end, for many, the call to public service is really for little boys and girls who are sitting on rocks – to enable them to be more than a sad story; to enable them to be called by their names – to afford them a sense of worth and a feeling that they are somebodies; and to fill them with hope and compassion that not only can they grow up to be like people they admire but they can even surpass those they admire, and in time, extend similar kindness to others.

If little boys and girls on rocks who admire us will only make us momentarily very sad in the opulence of our offices, and we feel no duty to them – not even an obligation to know their names – when the momentary sadness passes, for the sake of the country, perhaps its best that they never grow up to be like the ones they admired.

May God bless our Republic.

 

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