Liberia’s fake elections: The dark side of African democracy
Benjamin Alexander Barclay
Liberia has been a tragic African story from its inception and the recent electoral shenanigans that foist on the nation a sport personality without an iota of visionary thinking and simple understanding of the factors and forces needed for modern development speak to the cynicism of the mindset of a section of the Liberian political elite symbolized in the person of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. She has always been lucky in manipulating her domestic and international audiences and the fact that she was able to win two elections in Liberia and numerous prizes internationally points to her adroitness on the stage. What the French political analyst said a long time ago is an adequate description of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. He said: “What is to be feared is not so much the immorality of the great as the fact that immorality may lead to greatness.” This has been the story of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, from the time of the Tolbert presidency to the military regime of Samuel K. Doe, to the betrayal of Charles G. Taylor and finally to the undermining and imprisonment of interim president Gyude Bryant.
In the last elections, she showed her Machiavellian nature by manipulating the electoral process in favor of the most incompetent and naïve of the candidates. The reasons for this are simple to understand when one considers the massive looting of the country that took place under her presidency. She mortgaged the country to international capital. The iron ore mines were given out to shady business conglomerate. The oil blocks were auctioned out to companies in which she and her son had vested interests. The Maritime sector was negotiated on two occasions with Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her son raking in millions of dollars for themselves. The printing of the national currency was given to a Lebanese crony of her sister. Imagine what it means for a Lebanese businessman to print your currency under a system of absolutely no control! At the moment, no one knows how many millions of Liberian dollars are brought into the country on the early morning Air Maroc flights.
The national currency has been experiencing a free fall because of the smuggling into the country of excess Liberian dollars without the knowledge of the Central Bank. The Forestry sector has been carved up between the cronies of the former president. She is a major shareholder in the gold mines in Bong and Grand Cape Mount counties. She, her sister, son and their Lebanese cronies have gone full time into real estate using the payment of inflated government debts to siphon money into their various projects. In the communication sector, her sister is a major player. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her cronies came, they saw what Charles G. Taylor did not touch because of the circumstances and they stole wholesale. Against this background, it is easy to protect oneself by foisting on the country someone who does not have any understanding of governance, international finance and business acumen. Any attempt by the new and naïve leadership to re-negotiate the bogus contracts and concession agreements carried out over twelve years by Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her clique will lead to international arbitration and court cases that will cripple the new inexperienced leadership and paralyze the country. The fact of the matter is that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her cronies have the country in a stranglehold. This is an economic strait jacket that she designed and played the game to keep it in place by manipulating the last elections.
The new and inexperienced leadership, being aware of what Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf did to give them victory lack the courage, foresight and determination to hold her accountable for plundering the country over a twelve year period. She is convinced that the new folks do not have the drive to do anything against her interests. She handpicked her successor in order to control the situation after her tenure and to drive home to the Liberia people that she knows best what is good for them. This is to mock them later with the abysmal failure of a so-called indigenous leader when it would have occurred after her presidency. In their ignorance, the people call him the “country giant” when in actuality he is the village idiot being controlled, manipulated and mocked at by Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. The woman is clever. She has conned her way through history and in the last elections, she was determined that no one would emerge to outshine her and expose what happened under her presidency in terms of the plunder, bogus contracts and high jacking of the financial heights of the country.
Some have argued that she was a clever politician in the African context but not a stateswoman. It has been argued by some that she came to power in 2006 not to reform and develop the country for the betterment of its people but with the overriding objective to revenge against the people who had hailed the overthrow of her group in 1980, especially the progressive politicos who had rattled the fragile foundation of a moribund state. Her election in 2005 was aided by the tactics and strategy of these politicos due to their talent for mobilization and propaganda. She wanted power at all cost because she was determined to make up for the losses that her group assumed it had lost with the military coup of 1980.
The progressive politicos understood this all too well but what drove them into her camp was the pervasive fear of the Americans. This had been the albatross that weighed down the politicos in the 70s and would haunt them in the 80s, the 90s and in subsequent decades. The fear of the Americans and their perceived invincibility was what separated African radicals of the past from the revolutionary forces in Latin America and Asia. The African radicals, with the exception of the MPLA in Angola, the SACP of South Africa, the PDG in Guinea, ZANU PF in Zimbabwe, the PNDC in Ghana, FRELIMO in Mozambique and the NFL in Algeria, conceived of their struggles as being against their local ruling classes but not against imperialism. The revolutionary forces in the countries named above together with those fearless forces in Latin America and Asia conceived of their ruling groups as appendages of imperialism and thus waged their struggles with the reality that they were battling not only the local lumpen bourgeoisie but the international upholders of the system of exploitation, backwardness and ignorance.
The progressive politicos in Liberia have always been victims of the American fear because of the realization that their people were not ready for the kind of revolutionary break that would see the lessening of American influence in their country. But this is exactly what separates conscious revolutionary activities from petit bourgeois radicalism. It is precisely this fear that invariably leads to the iron grip of imperialism on the nation and thus to the neo-colonial manipulation of the political and economic structures of those nations. The morbid fear of the Americans has its genesis in the socialization process in the United States where most of the progressive politicos attended universities. During their periods of study in the U.S., they witnessed the systematic elimination of members of the Black Panther Organization through the FBI Cointelpo program; the destruction of the militant underground movement—the Weatherman; the assassinations of Black and White liberal progressive leaders; the invasion of Cuba; the genocidal bombings of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; and the various memos put out by the Nixon-Kissinger National Security Council to undermine and destroy genuine African Liberation Movements. The barbarity unleashed on third world humanity by the policies of the Americans was enough to cow those who had never decided on an armed struggle to carry out social revolutions which was the only way to transform the most backward sectors of the developing areas. Thus, the progressive politicos took the path of hesitation, compromise and the promotion of those who were considered the favorites of the Americans.
In 2005, the progressive politicos broke apart on the basis of support for America’s favorite, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. It was never a question of re-organizing themselves for the capture of state power after the various civil wars by the most retrogressive of the political forces in the country, but how to accommodate the interests of the Americans through the support for Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. She won the elections in 2005 but the progressive politicos suffered immeasurably. They lost out on the distribution of lucrative postings that would have empowered them in the future with resources to fight any election. They lost out on positioning themselves within the security sector as only one of them was brought into the ceremonial post of National Security Advisor with the lowest budget in the government’s allocation. They lost out by neglecting the Legislature and diminishing the little influence that they could muster within the local communities across the country. Finally, they lost out on the rebuilding of the trust and loyalty that were needed among themselves after years of drifting apart on the issue of promoting Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s political ambition over three decades. The fact that they were badly infiltrated, compromised and weakened is not an issue of contention. What is of interest must be why the fear of taking state power without the likes of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf? It has to do with their inability to conceive of social revolution without the endorsement of the Americans. Thus, they have always opted for liberal bourgeois adjustment rather than for a total break with the taboos of the past which would be the only way to fast track the elimination of that poverty of the physical, mental and spiritual that has bedeviled the state since its integration into the international market as a producer of raw materials. The state will not change as long as the focus is on the interests of the Americans and who among their puppets can ably manage the neo-colonial state and forestall the social revolution that is absolutely necessary for the transformation of the country.
By 2005, there was emerging a third force of political newcomers, remnants of the Charles Taylor years, other rejects from the civil wars, and those who had been left behind during the massive looting spree of fourteen years of carnage. These forces were to gather behind the CDC with its ambitious and clueless leader whose sole objective was to make money by any means. Thus the stage was set for an interesting alignment in the politics of the nation. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf exploited the fear of all the political actors in two ways: first by dangling her American contacts before them with the boast that no matter what she did, the Americans would stand by her; and secondly, by pointing out the advancing disaster that lurked behind the CDC if it did not win the elections, thereby calling into question the ability of the security forces after years of training and developing a professional slant. Some cynics have said there was a third reason, which is very debatable, but considering the individualistic nature of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s politics could well have been a factor. This third factor had to do with her determination to win the Mo Ibrahim Prize which over the years have mainly gone to those so-called democratic leaders who had given power to opposition candidates instead of the stated objectives of recognizing upright and democratic leaders.
The progressive politicos who joined the race became victims of fear instilled by diverse forces. The candidate representing the Liberian People’s Party, the former National Security Advisor was the least likely to attract votes from the middle class and the many political upstarts around Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. Also, he was the most resented by the members of the CDC and the keys parties of the UP, the LP, and the ALP because of his role in the government of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf as National Security Advisor. He was among the progressive politicos who had returned home in the 70s with honest and sincere critique of the establishment but not with the stamina to confront the True Whig Party in a decisive struggle for state power. At the university, they met students who had been captivated not by the heroic struggles of the Latin American left forces, the Asian left forces and the African left forces confronting local ruling classes and imperialism, but by the counter- culture of the American and European anti-establishment radical forces. This fusion of anti-establishment radical forces and student objectors was the mixture that could only lead to political tailism, first behind the military ‘gorillas’ in the 80s and subsequently behind Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her cabal of fast speed looters, pretenders at democratic governance and the many who had returned from the United States to hustle. In this context, the nation could only stagger with piece meal development but could never embrace the totality of the people’s welfare. On the other hand, the loose alliance of the CDC could give out platitudes but had no vision for social revolution. This can be seen from the contest of 2012 where the CDC turned to a member of the erstwhile ruling group to lead it against Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf.
By 2017, the two groups that faced each other were the Johnson Sirleaf cabal and the CDC on the one hand and the establishment parties of the UP, the LP, the ANC and the ALP on the other hand. She had no hesitation in dumping her own party, the UP, because it had fulfilled its role of allowing her to accumulate over twelve years and this she wanted to protect by all means. Her calculation was selfish and had no element of patriotic sensibility. She felt that the CDC would go on the rampage if it lost the elections and destroy all her accumulated wealth and that of her family members, Lebanese cronies and elements of her cabal. This was a risk she was not willing to take with her many international laurels including the noble peace prize. Thus, she made up her mind to throw off the pretense of democratic neutrality in the elections. She set about to control and bribe the commissioners of the National Elections Commission. The orchestration of the entire electoral process by Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her loyalists reflected the dark side of African democracy. She bribed the Justices of the Supreme Court to play with the cases brought before them. She corrupted the security forces by getting them involved in skulduggery. She cajoled the Clergy by getting it to opt for any kind of peace even without justice. Thus, the National Elections Commission manipulated the apportionment of votes to weaken the resolve of strong candidates like Boakai, Brumskine, Urey, Jones, Fahnbulleh and Cummings. In this she succeeded so well that only Brumskine who she had deceived by promising him the presidency at the incipience of the electoral process had the stamina to fight at the Supreme Court. He lost as was expected as she had bribed the Justices. Thus, the entire electoral process was a monumental swindle with an American citizen presiding over the National Elections Commission as Chairman who then connived with Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and the American Ambassador to impose an American citizen as president of the country. With the exception of Dr. Tipoteh, an honest and sincere patriot and Auntie Miatta Fahnbulleh, a politically conscious artist who is the daughter of one of our most selfless nationalist, not a single lawyer, clergyman, or student leader took up the case of an American citizen presiding over the National Elections Commission and giving victory to an American citizen with the prodding of the American Ambassador and the trickery of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. What are we to make of this pervasive fear of the citizens for the American hegemon? Why would a people betray the spirit of their forebears by slavishly succumbing to the dictates of the Americans?
The farce of an election has presented Liberian patriots with difficult choices. They must pretend that they are satisfied and accept one of the most rigged elections in their tragic history because the American Embassy accepted the results; or they must show their resentment by refusing to bow down to a process which makes mockery of democratic transparency, good governance and the dignity of their patrimony. There are other choices but their consequences are dire where the people are disillusioned with alternatives that would include the violent confrontation of the regime or the agitation for the imposition of sanctions that would affect an already impoverished people. All the choices are difficult, especially for patriots who have seen their country become the blight of the West African sub-region in living memory. They must however learn the hard way and choose a very difficult choice in order to liberate their country and save their gullible people from the scourge of Americana and the imposition of puppets—educated and uneducated—upon their pitiful country.
The dark side of African democracy is that the people are being carried away in this game of manipulation, trickery and bribery in order to give the impression that a nation is stable and the people are content with these dramas of empty promises once every four, five or six years. The fact of the matter is that the fallacy of universal democratic culture that is being tossed around by the Occidental world is the lasso by which imperialism intends to strangle the developing world, helps insensitive elites to hold on to the reins of power and thus keep the people in the dark ages. What Western democracy tries to conceal is that its own democratic culture only matured after various stages of intellectual, physical and institutional growth that made rational thinking the undercurrent of its processes of selection of management and thus sanctified the delegation of responsibility through a lengthy period of reflection based on education, training, experience and periodic assessment of ability and capability.
In the West, democracy is intertwined with the building of institutions and the constant upgrading of the training and professionalism of the work force at all levels. Thus, even though the people may vote unwisely at times, the state cannot be endangered as the institutions are strong and the managerial and technocratic cadres are well placed to stabilize the situation. The system of the independent civil service that remains in place irrespective of the shift in political power is the anchor that guarantees stability and progress. The West is succeeding because its democracy is one of institutional stability and the firm control of the levels of power by the mandarin/professional classes. Here is the concealed reality that Africans and those insensitive elites in some parts of the developing world that spew the mantra of democracy overlook in their drive to imitate.
In Africa, there has always been a form of democracy that denies the village idiot from holding the mantle of leadership. The village democracy that evolved after centuries of interaction was one based on the selection of the most experienced, the most sagacious and the most respected. The village council of elders had its own inbuilt mechanism for checking power and the ambition of the mediocre. Even where selection was ascriptive, the chosen one from the ruling clan could not be the most idiotic. Where western democracy has carefully perfected the process of selection like the African village community, the supposedly modern African elites have chosen to gamble on instability and stagnation by selecting leaders based on popularity and ethnic affiliation without considering the danger to the stability and progress of the polity. Thus, in Liberia and most parts of developing Africa, what passes for democracy is blatant chicanery, outright cheating, shameless manipulation and downright skulduggery. In the midst of ignorance, widespread illiteracy, grinding poverty and medieval backwardness blanketed by superstition, tribalism and dystopia, the consequences are always tragic.
In Asia, the situation is entirely different and this leads to several questions. Why have the Asian countries succeeded so well why most of Africa and Haiti have languished at the bottom of the economic and social ladder? Why is it that most Asian countries seem to be catching up with the industrialized West with their peoples in factories and industries and their brilliant young minds moving up into the high-tech world of gadgetry and robotics while the peoples of most of Africa are risking their pitiful lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in wretched boats to eke out a living doing menial jobs in Europe if indeed they do survive the hazardous crossing? What explains this anomaly? The leaders and elites of Asia copied the industrial and technological patterns of the West without confusing themselves with the mirage of Western democracy in an environment of pre-industrial underdevelopment. They read their history and that of the West and in reaching a synthesis of rational analysis, they concluded that their indigenous systems of governance , the hierarchies that defined positions and the delegation of responsibilities in their societies were valuable parameters for their growth, progress and stability. Most of them abandoned the taboos of the past only after weighing their negative impact on the modern patterns of development. They were rational thinkers like their Western counterparts, not imitators. Asian wisdom has benefited its leaders, elites and people greatly. On the other hand, Africa’s abandonment of its traditional wisdom and tested forms of interaction has sapped the potential of a people who now crawled back to the West looking for succor from failed nation states.
This brings us back to the Liberian tragedy and demonstrates yet again how its ruling elites have miscalculated throughout its sad history. As if to add insult to injury, some of the apologists for the farce that took place under the guise of an election, argue unashamedly that the selection of the CDC by Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf is a revolution and that the emergence of young but highly unqualified individuals signal the will of the people to do away with the old bureaucrats and recycled politicians. What revolution of the masses is this that brings back to power the same old rascals of the Taylor era? What movement of the people is this that enthrones failures and social rejects from the slums of the United States to high positions in government? In all honesty, the masses did not speak nor did they vote massively for the present corps of zealots. The reality of the matter is that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf and her political mascots delivered power to the noisiest of the misfits in order to give themselves time to hide their loot and re-arrange the political chairs for her surrogates to emerge later on as inheritors of a broken political order. What has been dished out to the Liberian people is a collection of the most corrupt of the old regime, the loud mouth and indolent misfits that have been itching for a CDC victory to steal, the rejects from the slums of the United States and the desperate batch of carpetbaggers from the Taylor era.
This period will be one of fast money making, racketeering, and the reckless continuation of the mortgaging of the resources of the country to shady Lebanese and foreign business people. This is where we find ourselves today; but then again, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf in her shortsighted manipulation of the electoral process and her disdain for the people of the country could have set in motion that which she and her cronies dread the most—a genuine social revolution. The failure of this collection of misfits that now hold power—as this will become glaring as time passes—will alter the political path of the country and point to the only solution feasible for progress and development which is a genuine social revolution led by sincere patriots and revolutionaries schooled in the conscious appreciation of the class struggle and a deep understanding of the forces that can make the social revolution come to fruition.
It must be noted that the class struggle is not the end product of historical accidents, but the clear interaction of political and economic factors that are then interpreted by those with the intellectual tools to understand the movement of social classes and their position in the revolutionary process. This is the reason why misfits cannot lead any social revolution. Their taste cannot allow them to forego the debauchery and senseless primitive accumulation so typical of this category of persons. They can talk revolution as chatter boxes but do not have the discipline and understanding needed for the sacrifices that all social revolutions demand. They danced with Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf in the euphoria of cheating and manipulation. History will yet show them the whirlwind. One can play for time as Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf tried to do but one cannot alter the logic of history.