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Rwanda and Liberia: How Patriotism, Focused Leadership and “Culture of It’s Our Time” Shaping Progress and Retrogression.

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Attitudes, values, and beliefs that are sometimes collectively referred to as “culture” play an unquestionable role in human behaviour and progress. Liberia experienced a catastrophic shift in its body politics in 1980 with the violent removal of the settlers oligarchy described by one Pan Africanist as “Black imperialism.” One hundred and thirty three years of one party rule was violently replaced on April 12, 1980 by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, who ascended to the Nation’s highest office, accusing his predecessor of bad governance characterised by corruption, oppression, suppression, nepotism, etc. At the onset of the military takeover, Doe received overwhelming support from Liberians promising to be people centred as was evident in the famous slogan of the erstwhile PRC era “In the cause of the people, the struggle continues”. Despite the initial support received from majority of Liberians, Doe’s ten-year rule was also characterised by bad governance and failure to unite the country. Liberia was ignited and on a “time bomb”. Just as Liberians were preparing to celebrate Christmas, the country was invaded by Charles McArthur Taylor on December 24 1989. Taylor described Doe as ‘authoritarian’ and accused him of the same vices that Doe accused Tolbert of, thus justifying Taylor’s use of ‘freedom fighters’ to liberate the country. However, Taylor went beyond liberating the country but institutionalised bad governance and turned Liberia into a ‘pariah state’-preying on the natural resources of the nation and neighbouring countries to sustain his despotic regime. Taylor’s greed and quest to control the region saw the birth of a plethora of criminal and rebel groups- all plundering, looting, raping women and amassing wealth illegally.

Liberia eventually tuned into a theatre of wars and after fourteen years of wanton destruction, the conflict finally ended in 2003. With human and material resource supports from regional and international actors, an interim government was formed to oversee and manage Liberia’s post war reconstruction and recovery processes. A Democratic election was held in 2005 and Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected as president of Liberia. Madam Sirleaf, who ruled the country for two terms (2006-2011 and 2012-2017) was the first democratically elected female president in Africa. She inherited a totally broken country but was determined to restore Liberia’s image as well as rebuild damaged infrastructure.
The years 1980’s to 90’s saw many African countries transitioned from an era of de-colonisation to that of globalisation. Rwanda, an East African country, descended into bloodbath on April 6, 1994 at the time the world’s media were all focused on the election of Nelson Mandela. A plane carrying Rwanda’s President, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The double assassination of these two presidents triggered what some described as state-sponsored genocide of approximately eight hundred thousand Rwandans, mostly folks from the minority Tutsi population and moderate Hutus. The mass slaughter was carried out in 100 days.

Rwanda and Liberia experienced bloody wars that killed so many people in the two countries. Whilst former President Juvénal Habyarimana’s death sparked the war in Rwanda, in Liberia, Doe was captured and killed on September 9, 1990 by a sprinter faction of Taylor NPFL within eight months after Monrovia was captured yet the Liberian war did not end. Instead, Liberia witnessed the proliferation of several fighting groups. Unlike Taylor and surrogates fighters, Paul Kagame as a rebel commander, had a well thought plan and once he contained real and potential threats after capturing Kigali, Kagame ended the bloodbath and shifted his strategy towards reconciliation than revenge.

As part of his strategy to move his country forward, Kagame articulated his country post war recovery plan in a document called ‘Vision 2020’, which he published when he was first sworn in office. Although seen as too ambitious owing to its aspiration of turning Rwanda into a middle-income country by raising average earnings from $237 per year to $900 and halving the number of people below the poverty line, his dream is gradually becoming a reality. Also, President Sirleaf upon her ascendency to power, launched her development aspiration through PRS I, PRS II, AfT, and Vision 2030. The latter development agenda, focused on creating more jobs, building infrastructure, generating energy, making Liberia a middle income country, prioritizing national healing and reconciliation without much emphasis on Agriculture and education. Two post war countries with clear recovery plans but one is succeeding while the other is retrogressing. Does it have to do with the countries or the leaderships and ‘cultures of the two countries? The problem lies with leadership and what kind of ‘Vision’ the leadership aspires to achieve.

Experiences throughout the world have shown that broad-based, productivity-driven agricultural growth can serve as the motor for increasing incomes, improving livelihoods, capitalising the rural economy, and providing the basis for sustainable economic growth. Unfortunately, since the war ended in 2003 various Liberian governments’ development agenda have not properly aligned to what Liberia has greater comparative advantage in and certainly aspirations have not been backed by appropriate policy and budgetary allotments. The draft national budget for the 2018/2019 fiscal year is US$488.8 million, with US$8.3 million being appropriated for agriculture. Rwanda has consistently prioritised education and agriculture, since its war ended. Liberia has been spending very minimal on agriculture around one to two per cent of its budget on agriculture, despite Africa-wide consensus since 2003 that spending must be raised to ten per cent. We see a striking contrast to what the leadership of Rwanda has done in terms of agriculture. For example, Rwanda has increased its budget allocation to agriculture sector edging closer to meeting the Maputo and Malabo declarations which require member states of the African Union to allocate at least 10% of their annual budgets to agriculture. Rwanda’s budget allocation to agriculture in the FY 2018/19 is at 7% from 5%. This makes Rwanda one of the few states in Africa to have achieved this level of agriculture funding.

Putting resources in areas where countries have comparative advantages can boost productivity, stimulate growth, increase incomes and attract external funding and support. Because Rwanda has got its act right, foreign assistance continues to expand Rwanda’s economy by investing in programs such as education, youth workforce development and the coffee sector. Rwanda benefited from foreign assistance since the genocide, with 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s budget coming from aid. The Rwandan government’s initiative, Rwanda Vision 2020, focuses on long-term goals to grow from an agricultural and subsistence economy to a diversified economy less dependent on foreign aid. For Liberia, there is a dependency syndrome with a mentality that donors will help us to even clean our neighbourhood.

The Liberian war ended in 2003 and the genocide in Rwanda came to an end on July 18, 1994. Optimism abounded with the cessation of hostilities in both countries as these countries embarked on post- war recovery trajectory. However, despite suffering more human casualties than Liberia, Rwanda post war reconstruction process is evidently succeeding than Africa’s oldest republic. There are different hypotheses why some of Africa’s bloodiest and most brutal wars do not easily end and as we have seen in the two scenarios, the Liberian crisis was not underpinned by any ideological principle but underpinned by quest for political power, culture of dependency and personal wealth accumulation.
Unlike Liberian leaders, Kagame who is described by Tony Blair as a “visionary leader”, by Bill Clinton as “one of the greatest leaders of our time”, by Clare Short as “such a sweetie”, wanted to end colonial bigotry, culture of dependency and the systematic elimination of ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu’s in Rwanda. The crisis in the two countries has proceeded at an uneven pace but taken various contradictory forms. Whilst the leaders and combatants in Liberia did not have any fundamental ideology and clear goals but to capture cities, plunder resources, dismember innocent people, rape and engage into all forms of human rights violations, the “rebel” leader in Rwanda was not interested in plundering and stealing but to stop ethnic cleansing and unite Rwandans. These contradictions and realities beg the following questions: What are the underlying factors for Rwanda success? What role does effective leadership plays in post-war reconstruction? Would political governance in Liberia ever improve so that Liberia takes prime and central place than indulging in the practice of seeking the interest of political patrons and partisans?

Responding to a moderator who asked President Kagame at a conference what was the secret of his country’s impressive recovery, President Kagame responded in three words: “determination, focus and stubbornness”. These three words make me to conclude that Liberia’s underdevelopment is due to the lack of a visionary leader and our state of mind as a people. Let accept Kagame’s theory for the sake of argument that a nation’s success and productivity is dependent on the leadership’s ‘determination, focus and stubbornness’ or being able to persevere. President Kagame has managed to cultivate a sense of real patriotism in the minds of his people while our leaders have only been concerned about personal wealth, patronage politics, power and authority. The Rwandan leader and his allies have clearly developed ‘dignity and self-worth’ in their folks based on their ugly experience but our leaders have not only accentuated the culture of “it is our time and among my mother children, I love myself the best” but have also continued to push the country down the ‘conflict trap’.
Liberian leaders have made Liberians to become very accustomed to begging and relying on external support and relief aid such that the general mind set is ‘living one day at a time’ without undertaking personal initiatives to become self-sufficient. With such mentality, there is little or no desire to control or change what shall happen in the future but to be contend with the status quo. Complacent disposition enables our leaders to perpetuate those vices that do not allow rational and critical thinking by the majority of its citizens but rather aid diversionary and pseudo strategies that don’t address the fundamental problems but fuel divide and rule while at the same time enriching themselves at the expense of the ordinary people.
President Kagame’s answers to his country’s recovery success compels me to look beyond the usual excuses offered by our previous and current leadership concerning Liberia’s backwardness and underdevelopment. The question is do post war Liberia leaders lack determination, focus and stubbornness? There is no clear cut answer because Taylor was a stubborn leader but not determined and focused. The late Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant was determined but not stubborn and could not resist the wishes of the various faction leaders that formed the echelon of the interim leadership. President Sirleaf was undoubtedly determined and focused but not stubborn enough to allow rule of law takes its course.
As for President Weah, some would argue that it is a bit early to judge him but signs are emerging that show that his determination to score goals during his days on the football field has not positively transcended to the political arena. The political theatre is complex and very volatile with many competing interests. Weah seems to so soon lose focus as it is becoming evident in the way he is handling things. Further, I am not sure if he is that stubborn leader who is capable of challenging the status quo to get Liberia out of the abyss of backwardness. Leaders should have clear goals and live by example, which are some of the positive attributes of Kagame but most of post war Liberia’s leaders live a double-life and never definite in making major decisions that affects the country and Liberians.
For example, setting up a TRC was one of the outcomes of the Accra Peace agreement. As such, President Sirleaf commissioned a TRC, which was mandated to investigate crimes and human rights abuses committed from 1979 until 2003. The TRC was assumed would help heal the wounds from the 14 years civil war given the legacy of the crisis, especially the massive and widespread human rights violations perpetuated by various groups that caused the death of 250,000 people. Lots of Liberians who suffered the death of loved ones or personal attacks and other crimes, want to see those who committed these crimes to be punished. Recently, a group calling for the establishment of ‘war crimes court’ took the conversation forward by producing a simplified booklet to educate Liberians on what constitutes ‘war crimes court’. However, former President Sirleaf and even President George Weah do not support prosecuting those who committed atrocities. In Liberia, the establishment of the war crime court is even difficult because some of those people who committed these atrocities during the war are decision makers, lawmakers and even government functionaries.

What makes Liberia’s situation even daunting is the apparent lack of cooperation and coordination between the country’s dual legal systems. Most of the statutory authorities want to maintain their supremacy despite the weakness of the Liberian state, mostly in rural Liberia. A vast majority of Liberians rely on the customary system for their everyday justice needs. The customary justice institutions and practices of justice are resilient and survived the civil war and even remain active in virtually all of Liberia’s rural communities yet do not enjoy cordial working relationship with formal justice system. Unlike the statutory system that is retributive, the customary justice is restorative contrary to the adversarial relationships between plaintiff and defendant, winner and loser, innocent and guilty that are maintained through the procedural practices of formal justice.While the importance of local actors in Peacebuilding has been acknowledged for the last two decades, most apparent in the concept of “local ownership” the most successful Gacaca genocide tribunals in Rwanda proved to be a particular catalyst for the burgeoning interest in traditional systems within the framework of conflict resolution, justice and reconciliation.One of the major Peacebuilding challenges currently facing Liberia is the lack of a commission or a court to judge those who committed heinous human rights violations during the 14 years crisis.

Compared to Liberia, Rwanda set up a Justice and Reconciliation Commission after the war to trial those who were involved in committing human rights violations. Records show that 150,000 perpetrators needed to be trialled in order to bring about justice and reconciliation in the country. But in the past 20 years, only 71 people generally the most severe offenders – have so far been convicted by the UN’s international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. Unfortunately, like Liberia, the formal justice system in Rwanda does not have the capacity to trial such huge number of perpetuators so President Kagame government creatively decided to work together with the customary justice system called Gacacas in order to address the deficit within the justice system. The majority of the perpetuators especially those who were living in rural areas, among those they have killed, confessed and pleaded their cases at Gacacas. The system is so unique that with strong encouragement from the government, survivors across the country accepted the perpetrators back into their communities. As a result, Rwanda enjoys sustainable peace whereas in the case of Liberia, our leaders are not only against the establishment of a special court but most former war lords are the decision makers and some justice practitioners are not ready to work with customary authorities believing it is a debasement of their noble profession thus pushing Liberia far from obtaining durable peace.

Rwanda developed strategy that addresses its post war reconstruction and because the country’s leadership was focused, determined and stubborn, its international partners, especially the E U prioritised what the government put forth as its development agenda. Example, Rwanda prioritised the Agriculture Sector and therefore the E U supported this sector by contributing millions for sustainable use of land and water resources, value creation and contribution to food security. However, in the case of Liberia following the war, the international community poured billions of dollars of aid into the country. For the period 2003–2009, the European Commission made a first tranche of €50 million available to support Liberia’s peace process and fund post-conflict rehabilitation and capacity building. After the inauguration of the President Sirleaf in 2006, an additional €68.4 million was disbursed of which €12 million was earmarked for the education sector. In all, €256 million was disbursed for the provision of basic social services, the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure and institutional support. Although Liberia has seen relative progress in some sectors, the county continues to face considerable challenges in restoring basic services to its people.

In terms of Vision, Rwanda Vision 2020 promotes macroeconomic stability and wealth creation to reduce dependency on aid and develop the private sector. The idea behind this initiative is to expand Rwanda’s domestic resource base and increase its exports and promote diversification in non-traditional exports. There is no way to achieve this aspiration without improving education and health standards to provide an efficient and productive workforce. Recognising the seriousness and commitment of the Rwandan government and people in trying to promote entrepreneurship and making their country become a middle income country, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, introduced SocialEDU, an initiative financed by his foundation, which ‘will provide students in Rwanda with free access to a collaborative online education experience’. Students will receive a free phone from Nokia, free data from Airtel and a free app from Facebook, with the government providing free Wi-Fi ‘in campuses throughout the country’. Which component of the PAPD is attractive to external entrepreneur? What happened to Liberia’s vision 2030? Is our development agenda not attractive that much for external partners? What could be some of the reasons Liberia is drifting far behind while Rwanda continues to attract support and collaboration?

The answers to these questions can be found in the kind of leadership and sincere commitment to building lasting peace. Indeed, building peace depends on the level of concrete efforts being applied to address and resolve the underlying structural causes of widespread poverty, crime and conflict. In our context, corruption is one of the major causes for the various conflicts. Corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak and undemocratic and populist politicians can use it to their advantage. Indeed, the2018 corruption index shows that Rwanda is the 48 least corrupt nation out of 175 countries while Liberia is the 120 least corrupt nation out of 175 countries. President Paul Kagame is noted for placing his comrades in prison, when found guilty of corruption. In Liberia various leaders have publically declared that they will eliminate corruption but soon start to provide reasons why the menace cannot be eliminated. Kagame who is seen as a visionary, the face of a new, self-confident, economically vibrant African narrative that buries the passivity and victimhood of the past, embarked on an anti-graft crusade against economic and financial crimes. Since the country ended the genocide decades ago, the GDP per head has risen to almost $650, and just under 45% of the population is now below the poverty line, down from 60% in 2000. The economy has achieved average annual growth of 8.2% for the past 10 years.

In fact, in the decade since he was elected, Kagame has transformed Rwanda’s fortunes with such single-minded determination and focus that commentators have dubbed him the ‘CEO of Rwanda’. According to the 2019 World Bank Doing Business index, Rwanda is the 29th easiest place to do business in the world – the only low-income country (LIC) in the top 30. Investors are saying everything in Liberia is about red tip. What can our leaders do to minimise such culture and make the investment climate attractive? I have searched tirelessly to read the number of new businesses that have come to Liberia since 2018 but cannot find any data. For Rwanda, in 2018 the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) RDB registered over US$2 billion-worth of investments.

As Rwanda makes progress in fighting the menace, in Liberia, corruption has taken different characterisation from ‘public enemy number 1’, ‘Big Boy 1’, ‘Big Boy 2’, ‘ ‘Gbagba’, Jaadeh’, ‘what is inside for me’, to ‘vampires’ even socking the blood of those industries that contributed to the relative growth that we have experienced in the nation’s GDP before the Ebola epidemic dismantled the entire economy. One commentator said corruption is at “an industrial level in Liberia’. If corruption was at an industrial level during President Sirleaf administration, we will have to find an appropriate qualifier for the current Pro Poor administration, which has yet to demonstrate real commitment to fighting the menace. President Weah and his officials have been accused of not only dismantling anti-graft institutions but for amassing wealth in unprecedented manner in the history of the country. Sadly, the Pro Poor agenda rather than empowering ‘the people’ by strengthening their capacity to thrive, there are growing disenchantments among ordinary Liberians for the high cost of living and lack of solutions by the president.

Hunted by the ugly legacies of the genocide and determined to not allow his country slip back into war, President Kagame declared that he will not tolerate voices that promote a return to the ethnic divisionism that precipitated the genocide. Today, in post war Rwanda, there is a policy against ethnic divisionism-meaning referring to people based on their ethnicity. No Hutu or Tutsi but just Rwandan. In the Liberian context, after almost two decades of senseless bloody war in which tribal and ethnic background was a key determinant of amnesty or instant death, today when a Liberian applies for a passport at the Foreign Ministry, he or she will have to fill in form and answer questions about his/her tribe and ethnicity. What have Liberians learned from the senseless civil wars? Why it is Rwanda leadership is so sensitive and takes decision based on experiences of the pass but Liberian leadership does not?

Whenever I visit Rwanda I am honestly mesmerized by the level of transformation and orderliness. The capital Kigali is dubbed as the cleanest city in Africa. The country is now called the ICT Hub of Africa because technology is booming. The country made headline as the first country to pilot blood deliveries by drone. In February 2016, Rwanda Government hired a California-based robotics firm to build the drone in a bid to improve accessibility to blood and emergency medical supplies to remote parts of the country. The experiment is saving lives whereas in Liberia our people living in rural Liberia are virtually cut off from the Capital during the raining seasons. People are dying due to the lack of vision and commitment on the part of our leaders to transform the lives of Liberians.

On one of my visits to Rwanda, I saw military men and women cleaning the streets. I thought it was only done once in a while but my Rwandan colleague told me that their President said he will not be appropriating monthly salaries for solders to sit in barracks without doing anything. So, the soldiers form part of forces to clean the cities and ensure that the country remains healthy. Kigali is now considered one of the cleanest cities in Africa, if not the cleanest. Drive by Duala in Monrovia and see avalanche of dirt just within the market where foods are bought for eating.

There is an embarrassing story that I heard about a Liberian official who visited Kigali for climate change conference. According to the story, the government functionary while in transit at Nairobi’s Airport bought some items at the airport duty free shops. His goods were packed in the usual ‘Duty free’ plastic bag. Upon arrival at Kigali airport, the immigration officer asked him to hand over his bag and the Liberian official who was in Kigali for an environmental conference never read about Rwanda, hence found it strange that the Rwandan officer requested his bags. Thinking it was one of the usual act of corruption, he reluctantly handed over his bags to the officer. Within a twinkle of eye, his goods were unpacked and placed in a paper bag and returned to him with a smiling statement from the officer ‘sir we do not allow plastic here’. How possible was it that somebody of such status would visit another country without reading about his host country? What does this say about Liberia? Do Liberian government officials only participate in conferences for the allowances? How are conference participants selected in the different ministries and state institutions? Again, it is about leadership, value system and patriotism, which unfortunately have not been well inculcated in Liberia.
There is now a growing call globally for women’s representation in decision making processes, especially in parliament. Women’s participation in decision-making is highly beneficial and has a positive impact on people’s lives. Essentially, this is not about men against women, but there is evidence that when you have more women in public decision-making, you get policies that benefit women, children and families in general. The Rwandan government is one of very few in the world where female members of parliament outnumber men. It has introduced a health programme, where for $2 a year everyone is insured. It has ploughed millions of dollars into school and university places, pushing literacy from 48% in 1995 to just over 71%. In 2005, Liberia had its first post war election of 30 senators, only five were women, constituting 16.7 percent. In the lower house, eight women out of a total of 64 representatives were elected, making up 12.5 percent. Altogether, a total of 13 women were in the Liberian National Legislature of 94 legislators, this is only 13.8 percent – which is 16.5 percentage points short of the United Nations target for women parliamentary seats – and 5.6 points lower than the 2010 global average of women parliamentarians. Today, the number has even reduced drastically. At the end of both the presidential and legislative elections, only nine women were elected to fill the 73 seats in the Lower House of the Legislature. The most Liberia can boost of today is the election of Jewel Howard Taylor as vice president, having previously served for 12 years as a senator.

I am aware that Rwanda has its own challenges and President Kagame is not an angel, in fact some refer to him as an ‘autocrat’, ‘dictator’ or ‘strong leader’ who undermines press freedom and free speech and recently there are efforts to pass a law to prosecute anybody who insults the president. Rwanda is not the best democracy in the world and this article in no way subscribes to such notion. In Liberia, we enjoy free speech and President Weah is said to be the most insulted president. There is no journalist in prison. However, Rwanda is succeeding in its overall developmental agenda, despite these anti-democratic vices under the so called ‘dictator’. Weighing these drawbacks against the achievements, I feel the country is doing far better than Africa’s oldest republic. President Kagame stopped the genocide in his country and has since undertaken concrete efforts to unite his people. Rwanda is not just creating a business-friendly environment but also diversifying the economy from being almost entirely dependent on agriculture to developing services and a growing manufacturing sector. Following more than 18 years after the Liberian war, we are still waiting for hand-out and most recently our leadership received the worst humiliation from external donors asking our government to immediately refund money taken from their accounts. How have we reached this low? What is Rwanda doing better than us? Indeed, a confluence of factors at a critical juncture and we can see some of the missing links in the lack of people centred leadership, lack of patriotism, the mind-set and the culture of “it is our time and among my mother children, I love myself the best”. Liberia is bleeding and slipping into ‘conflict trip’ and President Weah needs to listen to the voices of reasoning- one of which is coming from a stalwart of his party admitting that “government does not possess all of the required expertise…and Liberia being our common denominator, it is advisable that the president invites people irrespective of their political views to add up to what we have”, said Dr. Lester Tenny. Liberia is at a cross road and one political party does not have the solution and nobody will solve our problems but only ourselves. We need to immediately go beyond partisan and start with a ‘participatory diagnosis’, which is the first way of identifying and understanding the problem. Mr President, please reach out and change the approach to save our country.By James S. Shilue

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