Lessons Unlearned: The Pitfalls of Liberian 2017’s Presidential Candidates

By Jones Nhinson Williams

Flash Back: Liberians queued out during last elections

Liberian politics is chockablock with praise singers and sycophants.  These praise-singers and sycophants tell Liberian presidents––past and present––what they want to hear and not what they need to know. This happens simply because the praise-singers and sycophants want to keep their jobs, crave favor from the power that be, and to continue to stockpile wealth.  These praise-singers and sycophants contribute to the failure of several Liberian leaders, including our current president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

However, the fact that many of our presidents failed does not mean that they are or were inherently bad as individuals, or that they intended to fail in the first place.  It just means that they did not learn lessons regarding why past Liberian leaders before them as well as those of other nations failed.

Hence, to inspire real and substantive political and economic change as presidential candidates are promising, it is important that would-be leaders read about various national and world leaders––their core principles, philosophy, governance style and governments.

Consciously, President Sirleaf did not fail as President of Liberia because she likes or wanted to fail.  And believe it or not, she has some regrets as she prepares to leave office, even though she may not admit it publicly.  The president regrets and feels betrayed by some of the caliber of people she allowed in her trajectory, that she surrounded herself with.  After 12 years of missed-opportunities, she now realizes that many of the people she had in her circle cannot and should not be trusted.  So, why did our past presidents and current president fail.

Like past Liberian presidents, President Sirleaf failed because, as a presidential candidate, she was not prepared to govern.  She may have seen and understood national governance from a singular perspective and prism. It was all about her as a candidate and her campaign.  When leaders go with such mindset while serving as presidential candidates the likelihood that they will govern that way as president is 99 percent certain.

Besides, such leader becomes vulnerable to bad policies and a team of incompetent, dishonest and unprepared administrators as his or her lieutenants and functionaries to lead vital agencies.  This can result into unpreventable governance failure from the onset.  This problem is not limited just to Liberia; it is a continental problem and a concern in Africa. This is one of the principle reasons why real and substantive political and economic changes are slow to take root in many, if not, all African nations.  Moreover, this is the chief reason why Liberia is continuously a failed state.

In October 2017, our country (Liberia) will have presidential elections, a process that will usher in a new driver and a new driving technique.  This means one of the serious and well-regarded presidential candidates––Vice President Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party; Counselor Charles Brumskine of the opposition Liberty Party; Mr. Alexander Cummings of the opposition of Alternative National Congress party; Mr. Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party; and Dr. Mills Jones of the Movement for Economic Empowerment–– is likely to become our next president come January 2018. This also means we will have a new drive way and one of these individuals, as president, will become the new driver in the driveway.

However, the most serious concern right now is, none of these people (the 2017 presidential candidates) have indicated in any form and shape as to whether we will have new traffic conductors to help work with and guide them as new drivers driving in the driveway.  Traffic conductors which may include red lights, stop signs and sometimes police officers and school traffic guards etc. are important to avoid accidents and collision.

Putting this in the context of governance, these conductors will be the president’s principal lieutenants and they will include cabinet ministers, senior advisors and heads of autonomous agencies.  The caliber, qualifications, competence, experience and integrity of these people will not only suggest seriousness and change, it is essential for the voters to have a sense of who some of these people will be before making their most important civic decision.  Are they going to be some of the same people that participated in 12 years of failures or not?  Or, are they going to be a new batch of amateurs and gatekeepers.

In developed democracies like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, France and even the United States, major political parties, presidential campaigns and candidates (apart from current US President Donald Trump) have what is known as shadow cabinet.

A shadow cabinet is a group of politicians who hold a political post with their party, but whose parties are not in government (that is, an opposition party). A member of the shadow cabinet is a shadow minister. The leader of a shadow cabinet is called the Leader of the Opposition. These shadow cabinet help the leader or presidential candidate drive his foreign and domestic policies agenda.  Moreover, having a shadow cabinet gives the incoming leader a sense of the people he or she will be dealing with and trust to run certain portfolios more effectively within his administration when he or she wins.

In the UK, for instance, each cabinet minister in the ruling party government has a corresponding shadow minister in the opposition party. The shadow minister provides an alternative to the proper minister in the government. The two of them will and can debate with each other on issues relating to their own area of jurisdiction. For example, the British Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, often debate with his shadow minister in the opposition, John Healey, who is known as the Shadow Secretary of State for Health.  The current UK Shadow Cabinet is made up of members of the Labor Party, the leading opposition party.

Not all opposition frontbenchers are members of the Shadow Cabinet, which is composed of the most senior Opposition Members of a party or a campaign.  In the British parliamentary practice, senior members of the opposition party can scrutinize their corresponding Government ministers, develop alternative policies, and hold the Government to account for its actions and responses in certain areas.

There are several advantages to this style of organized politicking. First, it helps the new leader (in the case of Liberia we say the president) and the new government in starting on a good footing and knowing what to do from Day One.  Second, it gives voters and the country a broader insight in the direction the country will go.  Third, it allows the new leaders or president to have highly qualified, experienced and competent cabinet and advisors in his or her government in addition to diluting or eliminating loose gatekeepers.

Unlike the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, France etc. that make their shadow cabinet public, political parties and presidential campaigns in the United States do call theirs   policies teams or members of “transition committees.” These people work behind the scene, drive specific agendas as well as speak for the campaign and the candidate on subject matters that fall within their body of expertise.

Hence, enabling the candidate to focus exclusively on his or her campaign.  It also prevents the candidate from fumbling on key policy and governance issues that he or she has no real background in.  What it means also is that when a candidate is not a lawyer, he or she would need a legal advisor to handle and speak on the campaign’s policies with regards to the rule of law. So too is it with foreign policy, economic policies, domestic policy, job creation and workforce development, health and sanitation, defense and security, and information technology.

In the case of Liberia, this is very important especially so after going through 12 years of bureaucratic failure, incompetence, corruption and mismanagement in several government agencies.  It will be a colossal mistake for any presidential candidate to wait until after election or the inauguration before determining his or her governance team.   It is much easier to campaign then to govern and the way we know that a would-be president will likely succeed is from his campaign organization.

By having a shadow government facilitates a sound political change and makes a national transition process clear and smooth.  So far, Liberians do not seem to be seeing that from the various opposition groups.  This does not give the ruling Unity Party any advantage because most of the current officials they have are not only tainted, corrupt and unwanted, they are also dangerously incompetent.  Therefore, all the serious presidential candidates in the October 2017 presidential race need to begin mobilizing their shadow cabinet.  If any of them don’t believe how hard it is, then he or she needs to ask US President Donald Trump.

About the Author:
Jones Nhinson Williams is a Liberian philosopher (born in Pleebo, Maryland County but hailed from River Gee County) firmly educated by the Catholic Church. He is an American trained public policy, labor market information, strategic management, and workforce development professional with accomplished global experience in job creation and institutional governance.

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About Cholo Brooks 16156 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.