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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Liberia: Between Apology and Utopia—the Dominant Trend in Liberian Politics

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By Alfred P. B. Kiadii

Often withering critiques of governments and their domestic policies are based on the assumption of common decency and the lack thereof. This framework explains primitive accumulation, illicit financial flow, and the viruses of state capture and neopatrimonialism, which have become key elements fuelling stagnation in postcolonial African societies.

In light of this development, moral decency has become a regular fixture in the opposition critique toolkit (regardless of the ideological complexion of the party at the helm of political leadership), while defense of governmental excesses and administrative malpractices has attended the talking points of forces in government or social forces sympathetic to it.

The elements that defend the government and status quo represent the forces of apologia, while those in the opposition, who are critical of government corruption and feign social change, represent the strand of utopia.

This is true for most countries in the Global South, where the political and economic elites in these post-Westphalian nation-states keep the masses of the people out of the realms of history. This analysis applies equally to the Liberia situation, considering the years of stagnation, economic maladjustment, and political sclerosis, which have characterized governance in the black republic.

Following the war years, Liberia ushered in a new democratic dispensation distinguished equally by the symbolism of the emergence of the first democratically elected female president. The ascent of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was heralded as marked progress in the life of a country whose history has been punctuated by fratricidal conflicts that claimed the lives of many of its citizens.

This positive development of a peaceful election elicited plaudits from certain international quarters and was interpreted as a demonstration of Liberia’s willingness to shell its sordid past, navigating both the constraints of the present and embracing the opportunities that would be created in the future.

A somewhat linear view of the present and the future. In other words, the Sirleaf-led government was meant to draw a line under paralysis, chaos, and grand corruption, which had hindered the country from progressing in every index of global measurement of economic, political, and social indicators.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, this Western-educated bureaucrat, whose professional career straddled Liberia’s national politics and that of her work in international multilateral institutions inherited a country literally on life support and needed a breathing of vitality into its nostril to set it on an irreversible path of social transformation.

A New Era

The Sirleaf era began on a rather spectacular note with the rolling out of liberal peace and its attendant democratic promotion policies—key pieces of US foreign policy in developing countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East—during the unipolar moment.

True to her liberal credentials, Sirleaf also moved not only to court international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but also aligned her policy priorities with neoliberal economic orthodoxies to reflect the central thoughts and perspectives of the Washington Consensus on modernization and globalization.

This was reflected in a series of dramatic political and economic moves, not least in the movement toward natural resource extractivism, privatization, deregulation of labor and financial markets, and cuts to social spending. By reinforcing Liberia’s role in the international capitalist system, Madame Sirleaf showed unstinting fidelity to the forces of international capital only rivaled by Tubman’s open-door approach to economic development.

The net effect of that was the cycle of growth without development, as while foreign direct investments increased in the republic, there was no corresponding transformation in living standards, as the masses of Liberians wallowed on the margins of society.

Corruption, which she unabashedly promised to tame in her first inaugural address to the nation, reared its ugly head and took on a monstrous character, as exemplified in the shady deals orchestrated by members of her kitchen cabinet, including her son Robert Sirleaf, who in some quarters was considered the Michavellian co-president of the republic, and also in a series of rackets like those unleashed at the National Oil Company (NOCAL), the disappearance of US$ 13 million by the European Union (EU) for maternal health, which is just a highlight of the long chorus of grotesque economic malpractices that saw the country being stultified as the people sank ever lower into the socio-economic doldrums.

This trend of official corruption created the condition for the question of corruption to become hegemonic in the political discourse in the country, as opposition forces sought to discredit and take lumps out of the government in sometimes performative tone-lashing, distinguished by both its melodramatic outburst and over-the-top rhetoric. Opposition criticisms became equally matched by indefensible justifications by forces in the Sirleaf-led government.

It is this trend of politics and discourse in Liberian society that crystallized in the emergence of two rival camps in body politics, the forces of apologia, which defended the government (predominantly made up of folks in the government and sympathetic human echo chambers) and that of utopia (dominated by opposition forces and their opportunistic allies on the sidelines of the power equation).

The latter group paints a picture of a flourishing future following an opposition victory in upcoming elections. However, common to these rival groups is the ravenous quest for naked power, despite the verbal performance about the appalling conditions of the Liberian masses and the pretense of placing the people at the front and center of national life when either group assumes the mantle of leadership.

Although there were emerging signs of this trend before the civil crisis, this reactionary trend in the Liberian polity became more apparent during the post-civil war democratic transition. It would come to define and plague the subsequent Weah and the Boakai administrations. Thus, it is worth noting that while the categories of apologia and utopia are unchanged, heralding such positions only changed with and without power.

The Weah Years

With George Weah’s ascent as president of Liberia, a man who in every way represented a symbolic throwback to that tragic period in African governance, corruption took on new heights and became ever more unbridled and observable to even the least politically conscious.

In its early days in power, the Weah government was dogged by allegations of corruption and bad governance. The 16 billion dollar saga, the grand corruption, and opaqueness that characterized the 25 million mop-up exercise, the Eton and EBOMAF fiascos, became part of a long list of examples of corruption that plunged the country into a deep economic firestorm and had the discredited government struggling to recover.

However, the forces that were deafeningly loud about past transgressions during the first Unity Party-led administration in the public sphere became partakers in the orgy of corruption and evangelical defenders of unbridled pillage during the inglorious Weah years. Noticeably, the rhetoric of these forces changed with power.

Those who were very critical of governmental excesses and official corruption while in opposition became lousy defenders of the rot and unmitigated theft that characterized the Weah regime.

The Boakai Era

The apology-utopia framework can also be applied to the new Boakai administration. Joseph Boakai fought the last presidential election on his public service record as an “incorruptible” elderly statesman.

Although some of the forces of apologia in the past Sirleaf administration rallied around him, Boakai campaigned by dissociating himself from the rot of the past administration, claiming that he was not in charge, which attracted the ire of his former boss and even led to a fissure in the relationship between the duo. However, in its early stages, the Boakai years has begun with the continuation of this trend between the forces of apologia and utopia.

The same forces that yesterday in opposition who were up in arms against the Weah regime for its excesses feigning faux nationalism have become adjusted to corruption, waste, and abuse as they submerge the country into the abyss.

As the trend in previous administrations has shown, the Boakai government is gradually being soiled by the usual worst elements of public probity and forces with an insatiable quest for accumulation, ruining the administration’s credibility as early as it is in its six-year tenure.

A host of senior officials at the Ministry of State are rapidly becoming human personifications of this grim pattern. People like Mamaka Bility and Sylvester Grigsby have become super ministers and are thus allegedly associated with widespread theft and normalized impunity.

The former, who, in governmental circles, is believed to have the eyes and ears of the president, is constrained by nothing in her quest to amass quick fortune at the detriment of the Liberian masses as she has been at the center of controversies, such as the questionable procurement of 285 earth-moving machines and unilaterally negotiating investment deals with the aim of mortgaging mineral assets of the Putu and Wologisi Mountains.

The latter, known in elite circles for his extreme right-wing views, allegedly calls the shots, not to promote the national interest but to amass wealth akin to the speed of light while engaging in internal sabotage, such as preventing a cordial relationship between the Executive Mansion and leadership of the party, as well as reportedly doling out jobs to close relatives and friends while the rank and file of the party hopes in vain.

If the fish rots from the head, the head represents forces at the summit of the Liberian presidency, creating a domino effect that contaminates state parastatals and line ministries.

Due to this downward spiral, things do not look pretty at various line ministries and agencies, as many of the appointments made by the president from parties in his coalition or from the political tribe that supported him in the Unity Party are more committed to their political factions than to the overall agenda of the government.

This has engendered provincial thinking and parochial politics, as ministries and state-owned enterprises have turned into miniature counties displaying an unedifying lurch to ethnic chauvinism and a warm embrace of bigoted politics.

For example, the ministries of labor, land, mines, and energy have been transformed into the ministries of Nimba, while the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA) has been transformed into the agency for Mandingoes and the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been turned into mini-Lofa.

What effects the ethnicization of the public bureaucracy has on state- and nation-building activities is not the concern of these crude tribalists insofar as their negative actions result in both political and economic advantages for themselves.

Concluding Observation

For almost two decades, Liberian politics have been dominated by the forces of apologia and utopia, the former exemplified by self-interest and illicit accumulation, while the latter has been epitomized by virtue-signaling, gaslighting, and self-righteous rhetoric devoid of progressive political convictions. Representatives of this trend only change with or without power, as shown in the historical record.

This has generated corresponding political cynicism by the Liberian people in the politics of the state and has thus promoted the notion that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

However, if the country must undergo a root-and-branch transformation, a radical break with this bleak cycle must occur, and the politics of radical transformation must assume hegemonic status. Otherwise, the Liberian masses would continue to languish in the antechambers of history.

About the author: Kiadii is a Liberian activist who writes and comments on current affairs—nationally and globally. He can be contacted at bokiadii@gmail.com

 

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