By Joe Bartuah |
The preamble of the 1986 Constitution is highly unequivocal about why we, the great People of Liberia ultimately decided to carve out a new organic law for our effective national governance. Yes, the preambular statement of our constitution is not only unambiguous and inspiring, but also summons everyone of us to do a thorough soul-searching. The relevant portion of that sacred document says that our adoption of the new constitution was, and still is, a direct result of “many experiences during the course of our national existence…”, which initially resulted in the military takeover of April 12, 1980, thereby culminating in the abrogation of the 1847 constitution. As a nation and as a people, our individual as well as collective experiences are obviously, not only internal, but also external, because our country is an integral part of the comity of nations.
In other words, as part of the human race, Liberians are aware of the existence of all forms of regimes around the world. Liberians generally know about autocracy or authoritarianism; many Liberians have read or heard about oligarchy and monarchy; they know that dictatorships do exist in multiple countries around the world; many are also aware about the existence of kleptocracy, a form of government basically run by scoundrels that are addictively bent on stealing and self-enrichment, yet on July 1, 1984, we Liberians decisively resolved to ultimately reaffirm our unshakable commitment to DEMOCRACY as the best form of government to scrupulously govern us.
The July 1, 1984 adoption of the new Constitution, which formally became functional on January 6, 1986, was a resounding recommitment of the Liberian people to the principles of democracy, as contained in the 1847 Constitution, as well as the inspiring ideals so eloquently expressed in our Declaration of Independence on July 26, 1847. In making such a reaffirmation, Liberians were fully aware that even though democracy might not necessarily be the perfect form of governance, it is indisputably, the most preferable instrument of self-administration, because it fundamentally guarantees freedom and social justice. Our c0ompatriots were aware that like all other human creations, democracy has some fundamentally inherent flaws, yet most of us overwhelmingly chose to stick with the proverbial political devil that we knew, rather than some sort of unknown novelty of unknown quality in governance.
It must be noted that even some of the staunchest advocates of democracy in history are aware of its inherent flaws, yet they prefer it than any other form of government. Why? I suppose it’s because democracy is basically about the people; it’s mainly about the wellbeing of the governed, not so much about satisfying the whims of the governor(s). Remember that famous declaration by the late British statesman, Sir Winston Churchill? After his stunning defeat in the parliamentary 1947 elections, the elderly politician was later quoted as saying that “democracy is the worst form of government….” However, the wise old man was far from being an advocate for dictatorship, because he had a well-sculpted caveat studded with wisdom to complete that appalling assertion: “…except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
For contextual reasoning, it’s better to reproduce hereunder the full paragraph of Churchill’s speech, as delivered to the British parliament on November 11, 1947: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In July of that same year, the gentleman from Blenheim (his home town) was said have been taking a shower when the final results of the elections were announced, proclaiming his defeat and it was four months later that Churchill made that seemingly exiting lamentation in the House of Commons.
What I discern from this assertion is that the former Prime Minister must have been bubbling with self-confidence during the 1947 electoral process. Clearly, he was over-confident about victory and as a result, his defeat must have come as a complete shock to him and his supporters. He might have felt that he had done his utmost for the British people, leading and inspiring them to victory during the Second World War, yet they voted him out of office in less than two years following the war.
This brings us back to some of the inherent, intrinsic flaws of democracy. How often have we seen or heard victorious individuals or political parties frequently bragging about receiving “a mandate” from their people or the electorate? Typically for the victors, their faces often radiate with satisfaction and ecstasy when they’re self-servingly boasting about their mandates from the voters. In spite of such bragging, one of the harsh realities embedded therein is that democracy is merely about QUANTITY, NOT QAULITY. Because democracy is mainly about quantity, with no recourse whatsoever, to quality or excellence, it is potentially prone to impose a low-quality, clueless majoritarian administration on any given society, provided the electorate allow themselves to be impulsively hoodwinked by their emotions, rather than reading between the lines to make a prudent electoral decision.
Perhaps a little bit of explanation is imperative herein. In a typical election, how many voters, or what percentage of voters actually familiarize themselves with, or are abreast of the platforms or planks of the political parties, independent candidates or whatever groups that they support, for whom they often cast their ballots? Even in some of the traditional bastions of democracy, where literacy rates range from 97 to 99 percent in most instances, how many voters are actually conversant with some of the pertinent political issues at bar? Put another way, if crocheting the thread of democracy is a tough call in highly literate, economically potent societies with an abundance of middle class voters, then one can just imagine the gross abuses of the democratic process, circumventions of laws and sheer manipulations of voters that occur under the proverbial radar in a poverty-stricken society like Liberia, where many potential voters are prone to fall for whatever crumbs that might come their way, amid inhumane destitution. Of course, there is high illiteracy rate, too, coupled with the fact that most of our “educated” compatriots, who are supposed to be guiding our unlettered brethren in making prudent electoral decisions, are among the most dishonest, shortsighted creatures on this planet, once their personal enrichment is at stake. In other words, once they stand to illegally amass wealth, riches from the spoils of the system, to hell with everyone else; they don’t care whether Liberia remains in the doldrums of human development. All they care about is to full their pockets. Another impediment to our democratic process is myopic ethnocentrism. For many of our compatriots, they usually have no qualms with any given government, as long as the person at the helm of that regime is, or the main power brokers of that regime are from their ethnic group.
However, in spite of whatever flaws that might be naturally embedded within a pluralistic democratic process, what exceptionally sets DEMOCRACY apart from all other forms of government, to the enviable apex of other human creations is that when the process is scrupulously carried out, it largely represents the sovereign will of majority of the people. Because a scrupulous democratic process largely represents the will of the people, it is absolutely better than one strong individual lording himself or herself over the people. Since there is no practical way of sifting a democratic process to ensure that its quantitative features have qualitative characteristics or outcomes, it is therefore a matter of aggregate; we are stuck with totality, because it’s the total number of votes that ultimately matters.
What everyone, especially winners of democratic elections must be mindful of is that contained in that quantitative features of democratic aggregation is the uncompromising promise of socio-political equity for everyone, regardless of one’s status in society. It is this equal opportunity promise of democracy that has the propensity to inspire a soccer-playing lad from a destitute slum of Monrovia to dribble his way to the pinnacle of Liberian politics. The flip side to the quantitative assurance of democracy is diversity, which is an inseparable part of the process. Yes, democracy is not a monolith; it’s not a “so-says-one-so-say-all” system. Diversity most often results in diverse perspectives, especially on issues as complex as public policies that impact national development or under-development.
No democracy that is worth its designation can afford to be a subservient, monolithic society based on the whims of a given power elite and certainly, Liberian democracy is not an exception. Our elected officials must therefore, be prepared to demonstrate their unshakable, unequivocal commitment to the diverse, pluralistic characteristics of our burgeoning democratic process, instead of finding excuses to erode its foundation for selfish reasons. I find it disingenuous when elected officials, who are the prime beneficiaries of our democratic process by virtue of their election, are unnecessarily complaining about being criticized by the Liberian people. It seems that some elected officials just want to benefit from other side of the democratic spectrum, but not the integral part of democracy that involves people freely speaking their minds. That is, they just enjoy being “elected” by the people, but they don’t want to hear the opinions of the very people, or what the people have to say about their stewardship. No, it doesn’t work that way! Can I get a witness? As the sages would say, if you can’t stand the heat, don’t go in the kitchen, or get out of the kitchen. You crave to be elected, boastfully knocking your chest all over the place that you’re the new rooster in town, but you are resentful of the people’s critical assessment of your performance. Such impulsive repellant is anathema to vibrant democracy.
Whether it’s the 1847 constitution, or the current 1986 constitution, the framers of our organic laws have consistently had the foresight to ensure that the diversity of our society, as reflected in the diverse opinions frequently expressed by our compatriots, as well as foreign residents within our territorial confines, remains in the DNA of our democracy. That is why in our 1847 constitution, article I, section (15) states, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state; it ought not therefore, to be restrained in the Republic.” Of course, the framers of the 1986 constitution, many of whom had themselves experienced muzzling of their opinions during the True Whig Party and People’s Redemption Council years, were very elaborate in their protection of free speech. As a result, not only that article 15 of our current constitution reaffirms our abiding commitment to press freedom, but also in article (14), the sanctity of “freedom of conscience” is conspicuously guaranteed. Those are among the most fundamental, inalienable rights that need not be abrogated, prohibited, manipulated, stymied or restrained by any administration or regime that labels itself a democracy.
Let us all be mindful that democracy is a political culture, which entails scrupulous cultivation and nurturing for the ultimate benefit of the larger society, not merely a singular electoral event. Prime beneficiaries of our democratic process, from the lowest level of elected officials to the President of the Republic and their supporters must be keen on sufficiently convincing the Liberian people that indeed, they’re dedicated to abiding by those sacred principles of democracy, rather than cunningly scavenging for any flimsy excuse to brandish their camouflaged autocratic tendencies. Those who vociferously complain about being criticized, those who unnecessarily threaten journalists must be reminded that it’s only when the people are free to speak their minds in an unfettered fashion, would some modicums of accountability prevail in Liberia. Press freedom and freedom of speech are the fuel that engenders transparency, thus minimizing graft, theft and other forms of corruption.
How will the Liberian people know that their government, which professes to be “pro-poor”, is actually implementing prudent policies aimed at uplifting the hundreds of thousands of our poor compatriots? It’s only through freedom of speech, freedom of the media that the Liberian people will either commend the administration for a job well done, or candidly remind our rulers that the government as a unit, or some of its officials are straying away from the regime’s public pronouncements. When our constitution and statutes are being flagrantly violated, how will the President and his officials be reminded to fall in line, to go back to basics? It’s only through freedom of speech strongly guarded by the rule of law.
Now when our compatriots begin to carry out their civic duties in exercising their fundamental rights of frankly assessing their government’s stewardship, such critiquing or “criticisms” should be considered in good faith by our self-professed pro-poor government as an appropriate political therapy for rejuvenation, rather than some elected officials and their fanatics being so impulsive and reactionary. Whatever misgivings our current rulers might have about DEMOCRACY, the brutal reality is that almost 35 years ago when we, the great People of Liberia adopted our current Constitution in a well-publicized national referendum, we the PEOPLE, were resoundingly reaffirming our commitment to democracy, NOT any other form of governance. By recommitting ourselves to the covetous principles of democracy, we were, and are still saying an emphatic NO to autocracy; we are still saying NO to disguised dictatorship. We are still saying NO to pernicious Kleptocracy. We said NO then and we’re saying NO now. I therefore urge our current batch of rulers in Liberia to conscientiously respect the sovereign will of the Liberian people, by continuously upholding those enviable tenets of democracy, rather than selfishly scavenging for alibi that will justify their shameless backtracking to blatant anti-democratic practices, which most often plunge a nation into chaos.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Columnist Joe Bartuah’s book, AN AGENDA FOR A BETTER LIBERIA–A Common Sense Approach to Nation-Building, was recently published by Kiiton Press, based in Providence, Rhode Island. He studied English & Professional Writing (BA), Political Science (BA) and Conflict Resolution, Public Policy and International Relations (MSc.) at the University of Massachusetts Boston and its McCormack Graduate School of Public Policy and Global Studies. He currently serves as Chief Editorial Officer of LIB-Variety, a website published by Consolidated Media, Inc, a blogging and free media advocacy non-governmental organization.