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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Dealing with the Dilemma of Warlord Democrats: Is America Undermining Liberia’s Democracy?

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By Julius Kullie Kanubah

The Senate is an embodiment of our first branch of government. The Senate was and is constituted by the people of Liberia, located in our 15 territorially arranged political subdivisions – The Counties.

To the extent possible, it is offensive and unconstitutional for any foreign government to attempt to decide who among the constitutionally elected Senators is eligible for leadership positions in the Senate. That’s an overreach of the naked display of power.

No matter how notorious an individual is, once elected by the people of Liberia in a certain territory to represent them, that individual has the right to hold leadership positions in the legislature – unless the Constitution prohibits.

It is not within the ambit of any foreign government, represented by The Embassy, to decide who becomes a leader of the Senate statutory and standing committees. Doing so, undermines the very democracy promotion in difficult postconflict environments as Liberia. Liberians cannot vote for their Senators and Representatives in democratic elections and the American Embassy decides who is eligible for leadership positions in the legislature. Liberians vote, Americans decide? That’s what the academic Thandika Mkandawire would call “choiceless democracy”.

The leadership of the Senate needs to make this unequivocally clear. If not, its authoritative standing as a duly elected body will be significantly weakened and delegitimized by a foreign unelected diplomatic mission – The Embassy.

The US Embassy cannot and must not be the ‘veto power’ of decision-making in Liberia after Liberians have voted their political representatives. Doing so amounts to the continuation of colonialism, if not, naked neo-colonialism. This, in fact, undermines democratic consolidation: especially if veto power lies in the hands of unelected, foreign entities as the US Embassy.

I remember during the controversial Threshold  Bill debate, a certain Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy near Monrovia, Brooks Robinson, wrote the Senate warning the August Body of severe consequences, if the Threshold Bill was  not enacted by the Senate ahead of the 2011 elections.

The Senate, under the leadership of the knowledgeable Cletus Wotorson, did open a discussion on the communication from The US Embassy. Rightly, Senators furiously and robustly rebuffed the attempt by the US Embassy to intervene in legislative decisionmaking in Liberia. This was indeed, a mature and astute Senate that exercised its agency and power to counter American hold of all levers of decisionmaking in Liberia.

Since 2006, Senator Prince Johnson, has been legitimately occupying leadership positions in the Senate and even serving at the regional ECOWAS Parliament, representing the Senate. While everyone knows how notorious Prince Johnson was during the early war years of Liberia, it is grudgingly important to recognize that Prince Johnson has won democratic elections funded by the very US Government since 2005.

In studies of democratization processes in postconflict countries, ex-military commanders of wartime extra-legal groups like Prince Johnson, are no longer simply ‘notorious warlord’ as the US Embassy has described.

Rather Prince Johnson and other former warlords are best known as ‘Warlord Democrats’ – a term coined by Swedish political scientist Anders Themnèr.

During the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf era, ex-military commanders and combatants were allowed to serve in various public positions of significant nature, including those elected to the Legislature. This accommodative arrangement was advanced by the very Western powers (The US, EU) and ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) under the rubric of inclusionary governance in the aftermath of violent armed conflicts. The aim was to manage “peace spoilers” – that is, individuals who were/are considered to be a significant threat to peace unless they are placed within certain spheres of governance as an incentive.

Are there no “peace spoilers” in Liberia to which the US Embassy is now changing its position in dealing with the dilemma of ‘warlord democrats’ in postconflict, fragile Liberia?

Like the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration, the current George Weah administration has a sizable number of ex-military leaders and combatants in public leaderships including those appointed by the President and those elected at the Legislature by citizen voters. Even the ex-political leaderships of warring factions remain in public positions, some as Ambassadors in various capitals around the world. Are they off the US radar than Prince Johnson?

The US Embassy must avoid any semblance of ‘organized hypocrisy’ in dealing with the dilemma of warlord democrats in Liberia; if not, its democratic promotion risks being reversed and the decisionmaking powers of citizens as voters would now be in the hands of the US, a foreign power.

That is why the ‘organized hypocrisy’ shown by the US and other powers toward the Truth and Reconciliation Report mus be rethought. The Americans just as the UN, EU and ECOWAS made it repeatedly clear that the implementation of the TRC recommendations is a matter that lies in the hands of Liberians: “it is up to Liberians”, we were told as a refrain. This refrain is now changing, it seems. But the change must not be to subvert the democratic will of the people to elect their leaders and for their leaders to occupy leadership positions in the legislature.


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