Tiawan Gongloe, a man who carries a broom
After six years of a George Weah presidency under which Liberia emerged among the top 10th poorest countries in the world and endured massive corruption, Liberians will head to the polls to either re-elect him or elect his successor, hoping for a new era.
Since the civil war ended and the country’s return to democracy in 2006, Liberian’s presidency has rotated between two political parties, the Unity Party (UP) now in opposition, and the ruling Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).
But now, the Liberian People’s Party (LPP) backed seasoned lawyer, passionate and consummate human rights defender, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe is going around the country and laying the premise of his presidential bid – and people are taking notice.
Since traveling to Bong, Nimba, Margibi, Grand Bassa, Lofa, and Montserrado counties and the launch of his broom movement; his name has been mentioned among those suited to lead Liberia. Competition, however, remains stiff despite Gongloe’s rivals carrying plenty of baggage. The main ones are CDC’s George Weah, the current president of Liberia, and UP’s Joseph Boakai, former vice president of Liberia.
Mr. Weah as the incumbent has been deemed the candidate to beat, despite his failures to deliver on his 2017 election promises. Allegations of corruption continue to trail Weah’s time in office and that of his senior officials including his friends Nathaniel Mcgill, former minister of state for presidential affairs and chief of staff to President George Weah; Bill Twehway, former managing director of the National Port Authority (NPA) and Sayma Syrenius Cephus, former solicitor general of Liberia. They were sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for public corruption. Both Mcgill and Twehway can marshal immense resources with speculation they are running for the senate in Marigibi and River Cess counties and may benefit from unorganized structures from the National Election Commission (NEC) that could help swing the election.
But Cllr. Gongloe, Liberia’s renowned human rights lawyer, former solicitor general, former minister of labor, and former Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) president, has sought to claim the moral high ground. “I am not counted among the rich contenders for political office in this country and do not regret being one. But a good book tells us that a good name is better than silver and gold. I believe that for most of my life, I have earned a little bit of a good name,” the 66-year-old declared emphatically during his acceptance and declaration speech for the Liberian presidency in Gumpa City, Nimba county.
In the one year and two months since declaring his bid for the Liberian presidency, Cllr. Gongloe’s promise of tackling corruption and transforming Liberia for the better has resonated far and wide, resulting in a groundswell of support in towns and villages he has visited so far. According to him, the leading cause of Liberia’s underdevelopment is due, in large part, to the collective failure of Liberians to work for, demand, and make the necessary hard choices and sacrifices for good governance. Cllr. Gongloe argued corruption has become so embedded in Liberia and declared corruption is a threat to national security, arguing that it was crippling the economic and social development of the country.
For Cllr. Gongloe, who was born in Glehyee-Zorpea, Yarwein Mehnsonnoh District, Nimba County, a county where the first Liberian civil war started, success first came in defending the poor. He is called a poor man’s lawyer for always defending the poor. His wealth of experience in the legal profession was useful in the transformation of Liberia from war to peace and democratization during his second stint in public office as solicitor general and chief prosecutor of Liberia and later minister of labor before his resignation on policy differences with president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
But how did a poor man lawyer and establishment figure become the avatar for political disruption and candidate for the progressive-backed Liberian People’s Party (LPP)? Honestly, Gongloe has keyed into people’s desire to tackle corruption and transform the country for all. It is less about Gongloe himself and more a frustration with few people looting the country in broad daylight while the majority of the people dwell in abject poverty. He says, “I am not aspiring for a political position, but for an opportunity to serve the Liberian people and transform Liberia.”
Renowned for his impeccable character in public service, Cllr. Gongloe’s supporters say he has brought an unfussy style to leadership that downplays the privileges of the powerful and public stealing because according to them, ” government is a place to serve and not to steal.” His broom as a symbol for sweeping corruption is resonating with the general public in Liberia.
As solicitor general and chief prosecutor of Liberia, Cllr. Gongloe engineered a massive public overhaul of public persecution in post-conflict Liberia by supervising and conducting litigation in the Liberian court system as well as investing heavily in recruiting law school graduates to serve in the county attorney positions in every county for the very first time in the history of the country thereby transforming public persecution in Liberia.
He also cleaned up the ministry of labor as minister by ensuring the cooperation of workers, trade unions, and employers and adherence to provisions of the labor laws of Liberia. He developed, implemented, and reviewed labor market policies, legislation, and programs for employment and sustainable job creation for Liberians. For example, while serving as minister of labor, he completed the draft of the Decent Work Act and submitted it to the President and rigorously enforced provisions of the Decent Work Act that forbids issuing work permits to foreigners for jobs Liberians can do. He issued regulation number 17, which increased the work permit fees for non-Liberians from four hundred United States Dollars to one thousand United States dollars, thereby causing employers to employ more Liberians and reduce their non-Liberian employees.
His record of honesty and integrity over the past 45 years in both the public and private sectors and his stance on fighting corruption as well as his frugality with government resources have since come to be some of Gongloe’s biggest selling points as Liberia spends lots of its revenue on debt obligations and corruption undermines transparency, accountability, and people’s confidence in government institutions.
Citizens of Africa’s first independent country are used to frequent episodes of rice scarcity, fuel scarcity, sporadic power supply, infrastructure deficit, etc. It is estimated 64% of the population in Liberia lives below the poverty line and 1.3 million of those live in extreme poverty according to the World Food Programme (WFP). While 16% of children are physically not in school in Liberia and the infant mortality rate is 76 per 1000 live births according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data despite the country’s vast natural resources.
Insecurity is also rampant nationwide; for instance, four auditors died mysteriously including Emmanuel Barten Nyeswua, director-general of the Liberia Internal Audit Agency; Gifty Lama, acting manager for tax service, Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA); Albert Peters, assistant commissioner for audit of LRA and auditor George Fanbutu of the LRA. Their deaths remain unsolved. The lack of leadership and poor governance coordination of the entire security architecture have made nightlife nonexistent in Liberia which has badly diminished the night economy.
Cllr. Gongloe’s candidacy has instilled a sense of hope among the electorates, especially among those that want to see the country move in the right direction, especially in tackling public stealing and using government revenues for the betterment of all. Many see the UP and CDC as parties that represent a continuation of existing conditions that have failed to deliver economic prosperity and security since the Liberian civil war ended. Analysts say Gongloe’s candidacy represents a turning point. For several people, he is perceived as the brightest hope for a country in the doldrums.
Cllr. Gongloe’s supporters called themselves “The Broom Movement” and they have gone to great lengths to sell their candidate, including fervent evangelism on social media. Volunteer groups have sprung up within and beyond Liberia to encourage people to campaign and raise funds. Even Liberian musical artists have jumped on the trend, producing a campaign song for Gongloe in the local languages in Liberia.
Cllr. Gongloe is proof that charisma, competence, and credibility can win elections regardless of wealth. That represents hope for the country. In a country with endemic corruption, Cllr Gongloe is seen as a rare “principled” politician and has repeatedly challenged critics to find any evidence of corruption tied to him. With a broom in his hands, Cllr. Gongloe promises to fight corruption to the core. He proposes quarterly Lifestyle Audits for public employees which involve an intensive probe into their lifestyles to detect sudden and suspicious affluence that may suggest fraud. He wants salaries, and benefits of the President and all officials in the three branches of government to be published for the sake of transparency or open government, and any official that interferes with the functions of the police or any law enforcement officer shall, upon summary fact-finding, be immediately dismissed and prosecuted.
Cllr. Gongloe has also proposed free and compulsory education for all Liberian children. According to him, “Article 6 of the constitution provides, the Republic shall, because of the vital role assigned to the individual citizen under this Constitution for the social, economic and political well-being of Liberia, provide equal access to educational opportunities and facilities for all citizens to the extent of available resources. Emphasis shall be placed on the mass education of the Liberian people and the elimination of illiteracy.” Education is also a right that every citizen is entitled to under the universal declaration of human rights, he argued.
In tackling food insecurity in Liberia, Cllr. Gongloe believes the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) can play a leading role in solving the country’s food insecurity problem by focusing its attention on agriculture. According to him, the level of discipline that exists in the military makes it ideal for leading our national effort to overcome our food insecurity problem. In Duowin Township, District #7 Nimba County, Gongloe asserted “we will ensure this by making the military grow not less than one hundred acres of rice farm in each of the fifteen counties of Liberia.”
In line with his governance policy to ensure food sufficiency, Cllr. Gongloe told audiences in Nimba, Bong, Grand Bassa, Marigib, River Cess, and Lofa counties with him as president, the Agriculture Cooperative and Development Bank (ACDB) would be revitalized, and through the ACDB, a 15-year interest-free loan through farming machines such as tractors and combined harvesters would be given to various farmers’ cooperatives throughout the 15 counties of Liberia to produce rice, pepper, bitter-ball, and all of what Liberians eat.
Still, analysts say he is also likely to face tougher challenges if elected. The path to victory seems complicated even if Cllr. Gongloe seems to be the first presidential aspirant visiting town and village that presidential aspirants or presidential candidates have visited in Liberia. He is often welcomed like a rock star as his vehicles crisscross towns and villages, sometimes hitting multiple locations daily.
Cash inducement still reigns supreme in Liberian politics, which is at odds with Gongloe’s famed frugality. He is known as the “Poor Man Lawyer.” His party, the Liberian People’s Party (LPP) played an important role in the struggle for social justice and democracy in Liberia but has been in the wilderness for a while, but Cllr. Gongloe has rebirthed the LPP on the national stage
Cllr. Gongloe is taking on the big powerful interests of Liberian politics and comes from Nimba county, which has never had one of its own in the top job. His mother is from Bong county, the 3rd largest county in Liberia, and is expected to gain more votes in those counties, however, the country he wants to run faces enormous challenges: endemic corruption, soaring unemployment, high infant mortality, food insecurity, infrastructure deficit, a deficit of trust, etc., but Gongloe says he is better prepared for the role of the president of Liberia and believes Liberia’s problems need solving.
And his message of “A Better Liberia Is Possible” seems to be winning new support in every town and village in Liberia. I rest my case.