New Thinking–with Joe Bartuah: Liberia Must Not Gravitate to a One-Party Dictatorship

Mr. Joe Bartuah

Forty years and eight months ago, President William Richard Tolbert, Jr., a brilliant, forward-looking leader was assassinated by a group of 17 enlisted men and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). The leader of that coup d’état was a 28-year-old master-sergeant, Samuel Kanyon Doe. The justification the coup-makers gave for putting bayonet on the side of that consummate pan-Africanist and man of peace was that he had presided over a political institution saddled with rampant corruption, misuse of offices, among other charges.

As a student of political science, I feel obliged to note that President Tolbert was “assassinated”, rather than murdered, because I’m aware that even though he was personally a man of integrity and a visionary leader, he, however, was a politician who presided over an anachronistic political institution—True Whig Party—which many pundits perceived as being indifferent and resistant reform at the time. Against such backdrop, whatever personal qualms I have with the brutal, bloody method of seizing power employed by Doe and his cohorts at the time, I acknowledge that President Tolbert was a victim of assassination, partly because he had presided over a de facto one-party state and by that time (1980), the TWP had ruled the nation for more than a century, sometimes ruthlessly.

As if political neophytes with absolutely no, or little formal education, relevant training and orientation have any capacity to “redeem” a nation in a political quagmire, the junta that had shot its way to power tagged itself as the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). Well, amid all the youthful recklessness and dictatorial tendencies of the members and chairman of the PRC, they still mustered the courage–thanks to the moral pressure of the civil society—to summon some of our most erudite and well-meaning compatriots to draft our new organic law—Constitution—for our dear Liberia. The 25-member Constitution Commission headed by Dr. Amos Sawyer, with the late D.K. Wonsehleay of Nimba County as co-chairman, held a series of hearings across the country, beginning on the campus of the foremost knowledge factory at the time—the University of Liberia.

After soliciting views from a cross-section of compatriots and investing ample time in comparative studies of some of the world’s leading democracies, the Sawyer Commission minted our new Constitution. On July 1, 1984, in spite of some specific qualms some of us had with some provisions of the new basic law, regarding the lengthy tenures of offices, which had actually been inserted by the Kesselly-led Constitutional Advisory Assembly, we as a people, overwhelmingly approved the new constitution, in anticipation of free and fair elections which were then slated for October 15, 1985. But as the election date was fast approaching, all sorts of “strange things”–as a young Dusty Wolokollie labeled it then–began to happen.

The junta which had initially pledged to return to the barracks began reneging on its promise. The PRC metamorphosed into the Interim National Assembly (INA) and Doe subsequently scurried to Schiefflin and conspicuously decked in full military regalia, with five gold-stars glittering around the neck of his uniform shirt, indicating his status as General of the Army,  not-too-shockingly declared his candidacy to be president. In other words, he effectively became a player and a referee in the same game. Notwithstanding, elections were held on October 15, 1985 and on January 6, 1986, the current constitution became operational.

And then on December 24, 1989, Liberia was plunged into an epic upheaval, which snatched away the souls of over 250,000 of our compatriots and foreign residents who were unfortunately caught in the melee. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with the help of the international community, exerted enormous efforts to mitigate and sanitize the situation, after 14 years of senselessness. Why am I bothering you with all those historical snippets? It’s simply because such historical tidbits are very relevant to the issues of our time as we cast our votes on December 8th. That is, over the years, enormous sacrifices have made in attaining the current state of multiparty democracy in the country.

It therefore goes without saying that all Liberians must make concerted efforts to uphold the sanctity of our constitution and gallantly guard against any covert and overt practices that have the propensity to erode the sustainability of our multiparty democratic system. The imperative of ensuring the wholesome functioning of our constitution is enshrined in the preamble of the very constitution. The framers of our new organic law made it clear from the onset that the production of our new instrument of governance had been necessitated by “many experiences during the course of our national existence which culminated in the Revolution of April 12, 1980, when our Constitution of July 26, 1847 was suspended…” What the framers encapsulated as “many experiences” had lasted almost 133 years.

And of course, in more than a century, so many undesirable incidents took place, which need not be repeated in this 21st century. Our “many experiences” also included the chronic suppression of the common people by the ruling elites. Put another way, the rulers were for most part, not sensitive to the plight of the poor masses. People who should have been governors became rulers and later transformed themselves into conquerors, as exemplified by their repressive policies and practices at the time. Our “many experiences” included the systematic suppression of opposition, which resulted in a de facto one-party state, starting from the 1870s. Moreover, the disgraceful Fernando Po crisis, whereby Liberia, a country established by former slaves was nabbed in the late 1920s for engaging in clandestine slavery constituted some of our “many experiences.”

Our “many experiences” also included the expulsion of D. Twe from the Legislature in 1929 for speaking truth to power. When William Tubman chased Twe out of the country in 1952 and orchestrated the murders of Samuel David Coleman his son in 1955 to intimidate the opposition and perpetuate himself in power until his demise in 1971, those were some of our “many experiences.”

Because the constitutional framers were abundantly aware of our many undemocratic experiences, which initially culminated into the 1980 coup, they deliberately ensured that henceforth, the Liberian People, rather than power elites, would be the primary custodians of the ultimate national power or authority. Indisputably, the very first article of our constitution says, “All power is inherent in the people.” Because collectively the people are the primary source of all legitimate political power in Liberia, “All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness require”(article 1).

Elected officials are supposed to be our “humble servants” and as a voting populace, we are supposed to be their human resources managers, which means that we can hire and fire them, in accordance with the relevant provisions of our organic law. Voting wisely is the most prudent way of exercising the power granted us by the constitution. If you are not satisfied with the performance of your politicians, cast your votes to remove them and hire a new set of politicians. Don’t vote for a politician just because he or she gave you a party or campaign cap and T-shirt, or you ate some food at a party’s headquarters. I reckon that if our rulers begin to realize that the power they so boisterously exercise is temporarily delegated to them; that their power is not a given, or a lifetime entitlement, they will begin to humble themselves and be sensitive to the needs of the people, rather than self-servingly ruling with an obnoxious conqueror mentality as they currently do in Monrovia and around the country.

Article 7 of the constitution mandates any given Liberian government to “manage the national economy and the natural resources” in a scrupulous and transparent manner, to “ensure maximum feasible participation” of all Liberians. And so, this Tuesday December 8, 2020, each of you will be exercising the ultimate power vested in you as a citizen, which is affirmed by Article One of the constitution. As you go to the voting booths to cast your vote, deeply search your soul, search your conscience.

How are you socially, economically, politically and even spiritually faring nowadays? Are you better off now than you were three years ago? Has the government’s management of the economy resulted in an uptake in Liberianization? How many Liberian entrepreneurs have benefitted from government guaranteed soft loans to establish new businesses, or expand existing ones? How many Liberian-owned businesses have been created in the past three years? Are there any signs that the economy is improving? Are Liberians actually being economically empowered? What was the exchange rate three years ago and where does it stand now? Are you convinced that the economy is being meticulously managed for the maximum benefit of all Liberians, or is it only the privileged few who are licking their hands up to their elbows?

Consider our sporting program, for example. For a country which produced a footballer-president three years ago, don’t you think we should at least be making some headway in some sporting disciplines at this point in time? For the past three years, has the current CDC government formulated forward-looking sports policies aimed at putting Liberia on the international sporting map? Has a national sports academy, for example, been set up to give young Liberian athletes the necessary training and orientation so as to render them competitive on the international sporting market, or are we deliberately treating the current president’s past sporting exploits as a fluke?

All these questions and many more are very relevant and crucial in making your respective voting decisions. Remember that while voting is absolutely an individual decision, it ultimately tends to have a collective impact on the entirety of society. Together, we can make our politicians to be the humble servants they’re supposed to be.

Just reflect on the campaign mantra of the current ruling elites, which seems bereft of any semblance of sensibility. They have vowed that they need to “reclaim” Montserrado County. Did somebody tell them that Montserrado, the quintessential hodgepodge of the national mosaic, was their exclusive domain? Such wild utterances are made because politicians take us for granted. The Liberian electorate must now begin to positively wield the ultimate constitutional power inherent therein. In so doing, our foremost focus must be rejecting manifest and latent orchestration of autocracy or authoritarianism.

Let’s desist from disproportionately concentrating national power, national authority in the hands of parochial groupings—whether political, regional or ethnocentric groupings. We have to remind ourselves that some of the terrifying happenings in our country—auditors’ bodies being found in a vehicle, suspicious “accident” involving another internal auditor and the mysterious, suspicious death of an internal auditing director, all within a span of eight days–are not happening in a vacuum. Not only that such grotesque incidents signal worrisome features of ominous intolerance, but also indicate a reckless disregard for human life. As citizens, we have a collective duty, which we must NOT shirk. We must not let Liberia spiral down the abysmal valley of political uncertainty occasioned by autocratic machinations. As former Interim President Amos Sawyer once told us in July 1992, just seven days to our 145th Independence Day: Don’t sit there, do something! Don’t sit there, do something!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Columnist Joe Bartuah 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’s the author of, AN AGENDA FOR A BETTER LIBERIA–A Common Sense Approach to Nation-Building and Chief Editorial Officer of LIB-Variety.Org a website published by Consolidated Media, Incorporated, a blogging and free media advocacy non-governmental organization. 

Bartuah, a former Director of Media Relations at the Information Ministry in Monrovia, edited The News, a Monrovia-based independent daily between 1995 and 2001. He is accessible on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media platforms. His email: mienwon2001@gmail.com or akesseh06@hotmail.com.

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About Cholo Brooks 15872 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.

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