It was advertised and billed within the Liberian diaspora as the mother of all protest demonstrations within the U.S., one aimed at bringing high international visibility to the scourge of corruption in Liberia, as well as patent embarrassment and shame to the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf during her address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
However, all didn’t go as planned; the turnout expected by the organizers, Concerned Liberians against Corruption and Impunity (CLACI) and the Movement of Liberians Against Corruption (MOLAC), was let’s just say, underwhelming. A little over 10 protestors showed up, according to eyewitnesses.
But there was a sense of foreboding prior to the event. Weeks before the protest demonstration, the Liberian Twitter-verse, Facebook and all other social media with Liberians had panned the event as being non-productive, and having a strong politically partisan flavor. The majority wanted no part of it, and their absence on Tuesday, September 24th was deliberate. They sensed the Liberian opposition was front and center in orchestrating and manipulating this demonstration, but apparently MOLAC and CLACI thought they had done a good job of making corruption the centerpiece of the Liberian dialogue and debate in Monrovia, so they wrongly calculated that the discourse in the Hatayi shops and on the airwaves in Liberia would have a captive audience in the diaspora communities, the demo would go on with a massive turn-out. But the timing could not have been more awkward, for obvious reasons.
The overwhelming majority of Liberians in the United States are angry over the bullying of the president by opposition operatives who are calling for her resignation without giving any plausible or rational reasons, besides the generic, bland and banal claims of government corruption and pervasive poverty.
Also, many Diasporan Liberians had seen this movie before when a young advocate called Charles Taylor took on President William Tolbert at the U.N. during a protest demonstration in 1979, events in Liberia spiraled out of control after that encounter, and the so-called progressives later traded in William Tolbert for a semi-literate Master Sergeant, Samuel Doe. Liberia is still recuperating from that colossal mistake, the mistake of playing musical chairs with leaders without addressing the entrenched and deep-seated cultural issue of corruption and other vices.
Suffice it to say, there’s also a belief that the opposition elites are operating from a position of self-interest; that their advocacy is personal, couched in some personal grouse against the government that has nothing to do with the plight of the masses.
No student of or participant of Liberian politics will be daft to assume that a post-conflict government can vanquish corruption within six years, and the opposition knows that, the theory goes. They may pretend to forget where the country was prior to 2006 when President Sirleaf assumed the helm of leadership; the government was subsisting on a measly budget of less than $80 Million and Liberia was chalked into the column of a failed state by international organizations, well, because it was: the country had all the hallmarks of a collapsed state, government with depleted coffers, zero infrastructure, i.e. roads, hospital, clinics, you name it we lacked it.
Fourteen years of an uncivil war had taken its toll; the country was in an advance state of collapse. This government came in with very little to work with; let’s rewind to 2003 when most of us in the U.S. recoiled in horror at a country in a free-fall during the nightly news. Some Liberians had thrown in the towel, and there were talks during community events about how a U.N. protectorate was the perfect remedy to rescue Liberia ; that was until the elections of 2006 when the world began to pay attention to Liberia; the world saw a leader they liked, and the failed state began to emerge from the ashes of war.
The majority of Liberians in the U.S. are aware of the apocalypse that was Liberia then, and that key to the turn-around of Liberia has been Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in more ways then one, and that’s why organizers MOLAC and CLACI got little or no support from their communities in Philadelphia and Minnesota. If two cities with a combined Liberian population of over 25,000 can only come up with five or ten people at a demonstration then it goes without saying that the demonstration was a failure.
We have indeed come a long way. Government workers during the Taylor years had a Liberian saying, “where you tie the goat is where it will eat”, in Liberian parlance that was in essence giving employees a license to plunder in the absence of a government paycheck. There were employees of that administration who didn’t receive a paycheck from government for a year, but they still showed up to work and applied the “goat” theory. This was a classic case of a government sanctioning corruption.
Fast forward to 2013, Liberia is being hailed by the UN as a model post-conflict nation that has met and in some cases best the benchmarks set by international development partners. There’s a lot more that can be done, but it’s safe to say at least we are treading a development path that all Liberians can be proud of.
Clearly, the investment of sweat equity by the president that has seen an upswing in the country’s fortunes is not lost on the majority of Liberians within the Diaspora, that’s why many took to Facebook to register their anger against a mindless demonstration.
This writer was a visitor in Liberia in 2005, my first of seven subsequent yearly visits, and saw the decay and rot first hand in all areas of Liberia’s existence, from the airport, marketplace, and to the mansion. The country was a collapsed state, rotten to the core, but it appears that some within the opposition political elites, for selfish reasons, yearn for the “good old days” of no accountability under an interim government (INTGL) or the previous winner takes all arrangement under Taylor, where he who has access plunders at will without any hint of accountability. And of course, the Monrovia opposition elites who happen to still be around would want a President to resign so that they can go back to their old ways, while the masses subsist in abject poverty, isolated from all traces of development.
There is no doubt about the pervasiveness of corruption in Liberian society. I Emphasize, LIBERIAN SOCIETY, because the government is a reflection of society, one cannot hold the government wholly responsible for governmental corruption without acknowledging that the problem begins with the society, the homes, schools, markets, and even churches are infected. It is from this contaminated pool that every leader of Liberia is expected to recruit for government positions. Thus, the majority of Liberians within the diaspora see it as being terribly disingenuous that the opposition wants a president who has only been in power for 6 years to shoulder the blame for a cancer that has eroded the fabric of Liberian society and government for over 150 years.
On the contrary, the government must be given credit for introducing an environment that has enabled freedom of expression and Press on the one time taboo subject of governmental corruption. In the Liberia of today that taboo has been broken, government corruption, whether real or imagined, is reported aggressively by a press that is free from government tampering or muzzling. Additionally, institutions of monitoring, control and accountability have been designed and set-up to help deter, detect, and punish the abuse of power as it relates to accumulating wealth unjustly.
In the Liberia of today, the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), and the General Audit Commission (GAC) are true, rock solid institutions of horizontal accountability that will give any government official or operative second thoughts about embezzling government funds. However, In the case of the GAC, the cynics bear down on the fact that government officials that are accused by the GAC audits of non-conformance to protocols in disbursing funds, or of outright theft, have yet to be prosecuted.
While on the surface this accusation might carry some currency, but before passing judgment, let’s lift the hood a bit and take a look at the world of government audits in advance Western democracy; in the UK, all government audits conducted by the U.K.’s version of Liberia’s GAC , the National Audit Office (NAO) are reviewed and vetted by professionals and academics at the London School of Economics and Oxford University; the U.K. believe that audits are not an exact science and they understand that auditors can be influenced by prior expectations, media coverage and other indirect channels, and at the end of the day someone’s reputation might be gutted, undeservedly so. The reviews by both institutions also consider whether the methods, findings and conclusions of the reports are sound, and have on occasion found the intellectual basis of the reports to be found wanting.
In the U.S. dozens of audits completed by the Department of Defense were recently thrown out by an oversight agency for being unprofessionally done without adherence to auditing standards. In other words, like any other profession, because of their humanity, auditors do make mistakes due to sloppiness, or sometimes deliberately skew their audits because of prior expectations, media coverage , or to score political points. Unlike England, Liberia does not have any independent auditing mechanism in place that will vet audits done by the GAC; the GAC in essence, is the sole game in town when it comes to audits. So what happens when an audited official challenges the audits? That’s the million dollar question that goes to the heart of why, I assume, the government is not rushing to court with challenged, un-vetted, audits of the GAC.
But of course (CLACI) and (MOLAC), the two newly minted political activist groups in the U.S., and their kindred spirits in the opposition in Liberia, will not allow commonsense to sway them from their entrenched opposition to government, even if a policy makes sense. However, as was proven again on Tuesday, there is a silent majority of Liberian patriots within the U.S. and Liberia who make their voices heard, only when necessary. The failed protest demonstration was a classic example of a blowback from the silent majority.
About the Author: JM Cassell a former Features Editor (New Liberian) from back in the 80s