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Special Feature

The 2011 Elections and the Advent of Vuvuzela Politics

The run-up to the 2011 elections has generated a lot of hot air from diverse perspectives. We have witnessed discordant messages coming from the opposition ranks, and even from within the same party or political blocs. The Congress for Democratic called for a boycott, the Liberty Party campaigned for Yes-to-All, and the Liberia Transformation Party called for a blanket No vote. Within the CDC, its Campaign Coordinator Senator Jewel Howard Taylor called on Liberians to go and vote in the referendum. Just a few days ago, CDC candidate for Montserrado County electoral District 10 Julius Berrian disclosed on radio that he actually vetoed his party’s official position by voting in the referendum.

In a post-conflict society where party politics, free speech and press freedom are just beginning to take roots, diversity in approach to democracy is not unexpected. What is however troubling is that the majority of the politicians and political leaders are only concerned about how many headlines they create in the local dailies without careful consideration for any ramifications those headlines have on the national agenda. If only the various political aspirants would pause for a moment to reflect on the potential long term consequences of their actions and declarations, they would come to realize that we stand on the brink of emulating the good examples of our regional neighbors or returning to the days when Liberia, like 19th century Turkey, was the sick man of West Africa who needed nurses and surgeons from elsewhere to revive it back to life.

In the last twenty or so years our regional neighbors such as Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Benin have proved that democratic consolidation, symbolized by successive peaceful multi-party elections, can serve as a catalyst to growth and development. In 1992, Jerry Rawlins consented to open the democratic space in Ghana by agreeing to hold multi-party elections. When he won the first two polls in 1992 and 1996, there was not much of a surprise given that he had previously ruled the country for the eleven years as a military strongman.  The only concern was about his commitment to the constitutional requirement of two terms, given his previous coup-making enterprises.  Then came 2000 when he presided over an election in which the opposition candidate defeated Rawlins’ Vice President.

Similar or related scenarios have been played out elsewhere in West Africa. In Sierra Leone, President Tejan Kabbah witnessed own Vice President beaten by Ernest Bai Koroma. Before Rawlins stepped aside for the opposition in 2000, Gen. Matthew Kerekou, Head of State since the mid-1970s, transferred power Nicephore Soglo in Benin. Alongside regular multi-party elections and peaceful transfers of power has been the consolidation of the economies in these nations. These countries have not only passed the HIPC hurdle, but have also seen massive inflows of direct budget support, development projects and foreign direct investment.

This has come about chiefly because political leaders in some of those countries do not substitute differences in political opinion with a dogmatic resistance to everything that promotes the national interest.  In these countries, opposition politics is a contrast of ideas and, perhaps, personalities, but not a dogmatic and self-serving resistance to the policies and programs that should bring national progress. They may ridicule and caricature one another do not stoop to the level where they denigrate their own country simply because they are not in power.

Some Liberian political parties and their leaders are still behind the learning curve when it comes to the distinction between what is good for country and what is good for self. The sooner Liberian politicians, especially those in the opposition, realize that their inflammatory rhetoric and toleration of violence within their ranks have the potential to stifle domestic and foreign capital the better it will be for the future of this country. Thus far our politicians have demonstrated a glaring unawareness of the nexus between political stability, characterized by constructive politicking, and economic development.

That economic development is a function political stability is beyond dispute. But economic development is a function of investment, which is, in turn, a function of individual and business confidence, which is also a function of the trend of politicking. Local businesses and ordinary Liberians who want to plough resources mining, farming, petty businesses or engage in other profitable pursuits become more cautious or completely call off their plans if the persons who want to attain state power are doing so on a platform of inconsistent ideologies or are using rhetoric that springs from the seeds of instability.

International businesses and development organizations will downgrade Liberia’s development possibilities. The net result of all these would be low productivity, decline in income and a reduced standard of living. Even the very government that these politicians want to lead will be strangulated as far as taxes on income and profits are concerned. The experience we had from 1997 to 2003 clearly proves the point that governments that are incubated in the womb of violence or that rise to power using the language of fear and hate are usually received with contempt and skepticism by the political, diplomatic and economic world.

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Unless our opposition politicians can convince Liberians, the business community and the goodwill of the outside world that their ideologies are not rooted in demagogy they run the risk of being dismissed as self-seeking, power-hungry Machiavellians who are prepared to use whatever it takes – including mass deception – to attain power. Thus far it appears that those who are challenging the current government for state power have their mind firmly fixed on the presidency so much so that they are not afraid or ashamed to resort to vuvuzela politics to meet their ends.

What is vuvuzela politics?

Before we can understand what vuvuzela politics is, we should first get an idea of what the vuvuzela is and why it elicits so much controversy. Though it has been used around football grounds in South Africa for years, the vuvuzela horn became world famous (and controversial) during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in that country. The vuvuzela’s main feature, and source of controversy, is the nature of the sound it generates which those with professional knowledge of music or acoustics may describe either as noise, disturbance, cacophony or discord. For the football world, it is an off-putting distraction, albeit that people manage to cope in one way or the other.

Vuvuzela politics, therefore, is the kind of politics that is principally characterized by inflammatory, one dimensional, often unsubstantiated, statements of opinion or notions, with the explicit or implicit desire to cause confusion and annoyance. In vuvuzela politics the important thing is not the quality of the message sent out to the citizenry but the anger and force with which the information [or misinformation] is propagated. In fact vuvuzela politics does not have any message but only the rhetoric of self-promotion to the disadvantage of all others, including the electorates and population at large.

In recent years, there have been instances of vuvuzela politics here and there, but it has become more pronounced in the lead up to the 2011 elections. And the few samples we have seen so far point to an escalation as we get closer to polling day. For the remainder of this article,  I will cite some of the hot airs that have been pumped out over the last eighteen months and how it has all added up to confuse the population instead of raising substantive issues for national debate.

Some echoes of vuvuzela politics

1. Boycott the national referendum: This was the position of the CDC Standard Bearer Cllr. Winston Tubman. When the Counselor and his party executives made this declaration, they were simply adopting a position as The Opposition as if to be in opposition means opposition to the national good. In an earlier article Who Wants the Government Bone? I pointed out the critical error of judgment that characterizes that position by the CDC leadership. They simply ignored the huge sacrifices Liberians have made, including the loss of lives and properties to make the voting process an everyday reality of life.

Think about the August 22, 1984 UL invasion; the aftermath of October 1985 elections, including the November 12abortive coup; the student demonstrations of the mid to late 1980s. All of these were parts of the struggle for voting rights both in the country and on school campuses. So the CDC people ought to understand why Lewis Browne got so angry and called on them to repent. They need to value the blood of those who died to enable us to vote, even if they were not a part of these struggles. But do the vuvuzela blowers have time to pause and listen to the other sounds around the stadium?

2. CDC has 2 million registered voters: Ambassador George Weah, CDC Vice Standard Bearer, speaking to supporters in Margibi County made the brazen declaration that his party has 2 million registered voters in its ranks. Apart from the fact that this statement was intended to psyche up his supporters who were bitter for what some of them perceive as his selling out to Cllr. Tubman,  Amb. Weah’s assertion was blatantly un-arithmetic. In the first place, the number of registered voters, as a subset of the Liberian population, is less than two million – 1.7 million according to the elections register. This number means that on average each party commands 42,000 registered voters since there are around forty NEC recognized parties.

What Mr. Weah overlooked by that declaration was that he risked being accused of planning to rig the elections. Remember that the 1.7 million registered voters are not all CDC partisans. In fact the last elections result, the official basis for determining each party’s strength shows that the CDC’s core and committed following is just 336,000 or 9.6% of the population of 3.5 million. This number is equivalent to the 28% that CDC won in the first round which was 336,000 of the 1.2 million electorates at the time. But in the world of vuvuzela politics, politicians can make outrageous claims, even if such claims have the potential to put them and their followers, at odds with the law. Of course those who blow the vuvuzela do not care whether or not the sounds are harmful to the ears of those around them.

3. The regime is anti-democratic: This is the frequent refrain from the opposition, again coming mainly from the CDC, mainly from its Secretary General Acarious Gray. By this declaration, Mr. Gray and the CDC, as a political institution, are implying that they have got the tenets and principles of democracy embedded into their party’s DNA.

But the reality that has unfolded during these elections has only shown the CDC as a mass based party steadily metamorphosing into an oligarchy. This is not a surprise looking at those at the helm of the CDC – Gray, Doe-Sheriff, Samuel Tweah, etc. Going back in time, one cannot help but recall how the Student Democratic Alliance of the University of Liberia eventually morphed into an institution of campus elites centered on the debonair Legends of Virtue, of which Amb. Weah was a chief patron and Mr. Tweah the fulcrum.

Mr. Gray, his Chairperson Geraldine Doe Sheriff and a handful of blue blood CDCians declared themselves so-called “consensus candidates”. The begging question is whose consensus? Was it the consensus of the ordinary Joe Blow in the streets who has been persuaded to jettison his faculty of discernment and adopt the CDC emblem without question? I doubt this because if it were so, they would have been spared the wrath that descended upon them in their party headquarters in August. The ongoing acrimony between the Tubman and Weah factions of the CDC clearly manifests the discontent of rank and file CDCians feel against the non-Congressional, un-Democratic and non-Changing style of leadership. In fact latest information filtering out of the CDC camp is that the Tubmanists are calling the Oppongists country boys while the latter label the Tubmanistsas Congos.

4. The government is corrupt: All the parties of the political opposition have never ceased to harp on this refrain since the last Auditor General John Sembe Morlu (a.k.a Hawa Mary Kamara) made his unsubstantiated allegation in 2007. They jumped on this bandwagon in spite of the fact that Mr. Morlu had no single audit query on which to base his assertions. The party that has been in the lead on this is the Liberty and its leader Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine.

What the Liberty has failed to acknowledge is that government is continuity, a going concern. That government is corrupt was not a fact that emerged in 2006 when this Government came into office, or in 2007 when Hawa Mary Kamara Morlu came from the United States. The government that Cllr. Brumskine served for three years as President Pro Tempore of the Senate was corrupt. NPP Chairman Emeritus Cyril Allen was suspended in 1999 for voicing this concern.

The government of the 1980s that Brumskine served at the General Services Commission was also corrupt. Remember those were the days when there was no Public Procurement and Concessions Commission. Those were the days of the infamous bulk purchase system when one agency was responsible for buying everything for all ministries and agencies from paper clips to bulldozers. No wonder then that the Counselor’s dear friend and namesake, Charles Taylor managed to run away with so much money. No wonder then that the Counselor and his friend made their political rendezvous in the 1990s with the Counselor providing legal arguments for Mr. Taylor’s push to curtail the authority of ECOMOG, for which he was duly rewarded with the senior senatorial seat of Grand Bassa County and Senate leader.

The Counselor, being a man of law might want to extricate himself from the Taylor linkage by claiming that the fact that they fell shows his dissociation from the corruption of the Taylor setup. But can he wriggle out of the Israel Akinsanya’s fraud against Lonestar Cell? Here is a self-professed evangelist of the anti-corruption crusade having his party bankrolled through fraudulent business deals? I say this without fear of contradiction that Mr. Akinsanya was not only party Chairman, but one of the key financiers of the Liberty Party.

The Akinsanya debacle is not the first of its kind for the Liberty Party.  Just before the 2005 elections, it was Jonathan Fonati Kofa. Though his have happened in a different country and involved a different sector, the implications are identical: that Cllr. Brumskine does not care a dime for how his party funder’s gettheir money. What matters is how much of that gets into his coffers. Does this attitude give voters confidence that a President Brumskine would conduct due diligence when making appointments into his government? This is one example of vuvuzela politics. Just like the vuvuzela blower will make a lot of noise for his team but would be the first to express disgust when the opposing fans raise a cheer for their team’s a goal or a good play, so does Cllr. Brumskine see faults in everything government does but never acknowledges his own shortcomings.

Bringing it all together: Liberians should keep focused

As a final point, I would like to speak to the regular Liberian voters. As we say in common campaign parlance, shine your eyes. Not only should we shine our eyes, but we should also close our ears to the deafening sounds of the different vuvuzelas blowing all around us as there are many different ones being blown at different frequencies and volume levels. We would do well to first establish a comparator for evaluating all the different platforms – or semblances of platforms – they are bringing to us. Where were we at this time in 2005? That question can be analyzed using different political, social and economic indicators.

On the political front let’s take the much vaunted issue of reconciliation, 2011 versus 2005. Liberia at this time six years ago was a fractious society with a combustible mixture of political and military heavyweights. The fragmentation was made manifest in the proliferation of presidential contenders. Today, we have sixteen presidential hopefuls. Newly disarmed warlords who formerly sought protection in forming their own parties made up mainly of their ex-combatants are pledging support to the sitting President. Some of these include persons whose entire military and political mission was devoted getting rid of Madam Sirleaf. None of the advocates of reconciliation around here, including Cllr. Brumskine, have been able to convince one small political party to join ranks with them, not even in a coalition, unlike the President who has successfully formed common cause with Cllr. Varney Sherman, her most vocal critic in 2005.

Regions of the country that were once staunchly anti-Ellen are now among her major strongholds. In fact the first grassroots request for Madam Sirleaf’s second term came from a group of Grand Gedeh women in 2007 when she had gone to dedicate the new residence of the Tchien District Commissioner. In the 2005 presidential runoff, the Madam gathered slightly only about 800 votes in Grand Gedeh.

Economically, we have come very, very far from the dismal situation in 2005  when Liberia’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP), that is GDP at market prices, was projected at US$539 million and average real GDP growth rate for the five year period from 2001 through 2005 was -2.8%. Total export value (f.o.b.) was as low as US$0.3 million on account of collapsed productivity. Even in an economy that has for many years been import dominated, the f.o.b. value of imports in 2005 was in negative.

One year later – May 2006 – GDP was US$2.3 million more.  Import was also significantly higher than a year earlier (US$13 million) on account of increased inflow of capital goods and reconstruction materials. By December 2010, nominal GDP was estimated reported at US$952.9 million, with 2011 projected to register a record high of US$1.03 billion. Average real GDP growth rate over the period from 2006 through 2010 was close to 8%.

To put this in everyday language, economic activities have expanded be it in government, business and household. Each of these sectors have expanded their spending making it possible for businesses to produce and/or import more, hire more hands, and increase government revenues.

With the increased revenue sources, the government has increased salaries, reduced the tax burden on low income earners, built more roads, schools and health facilities and increased spending on agriculture and higher education. Today more rice and cassava are produced in Liberia than six years ago. There are more government colleges than six years ago. There are more students on domestic and foreign scholarships than six years ago.

Individuals and households have been at the center of all this accelerated economic activity. Businesses and government have been paying better wages and salaries than six years ago. Today the least paid civil servant can buy a bag of rice with US$35 out of his monthly salary of US$100. He need not worry about school fees for his kids because those unnecessary fees public schools used to charge due to low pay have been abolished. Six years ago, that civil servant needed to borrow at least US$5 to add to his US$15 salary before he can buy a bag of butter rice and he has nothing left for soup, school fees, rent or lappa for the wife.

In terms of social services, our society has made significant strides. Liberians now take greater pride in their country than they did six years ago. The reason is this administration has made it possible for Liberians to take certain things for granted. Rural dwellers are now fully aware that their leaders ought to provide them with water, health centers, schools and markets. They do not only expect these things; they are actually demanding them and government is providing the resources. The continuing increase in student enrollment in elementary, junior and senior high schools and in colleges and universities clearly tell the differences between 2005 and 2011.

We can go on and on enumerating the many sharp differences between conditions of 2005 and those of 2011. But the one I want to conclude with is the road conditions then and now as a tangible symbol of the changes that have occurred over the last six years. After reading this article find some old photos of Tubman Boulevard, Rehab Road, Caldwell Road, Pipeline Road, Gobachop Road, and Neezoe Road, Monrovia – Buchanan highway, Belle Yalla highway, and Ganta – Harper highway. Compare these photos with recent pictures of these same roads. If you still think we are where we used to be in 2005, then you might have been listening to too much of vuvuzela politics. It’s time you switch off and tune in to the right channel.

Maxime Freema,

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