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Liberia’s 2017 Presidential Election: The Danger of Identity Politics and Tribalism

By Jones Nhinson Williams

In defense of decriminalizing marijuana use globally, former United Nations’ secretary general, Kofi Annan, once wrote on February 23, 2017 in the U.S.-based Huffington Post online journal: “In my experience, good public policy is best shaped by the dispassionate analysis of what in practice has worked, or not. Policy based on common assumptions and popular sentiments can become a recipe for mistaken prescriptions and misguided interventions.

Mr. Annan’s words herein may not only hold for this instance.  I believe these words can be applied to many spheres of human activities and undertaken, specifically with respect to politics, particularly African politics where tribalism, sectionalism and identity politics are not only ingrained in the conviction of the continent’s so-called opinion leaders and activists, but have become a common place and an obvious recipe for violence, deaths and destruction.

Liberia, a West African nation is, without a doubt, a failed and struggling state in terms of political, social and economic governance. Besides, the country continues to degenerate into further disunity and unending poverty under the current Unity Party-led administration which, of course, is led by Africa’s and Liberia’s first female president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

While the ruling Unity Party-led administration’s failure to provide good and strategic governance, reconcile the nation and unify Liberians around a common purpose is extremely disappointing to various stakeholders (western nations, regional and international organizations including the United Nations, European Union, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States that have invested so much resources) with interest in Liberia’s future and prosperity, it is intensely heart-wrenching to the forgotten elderly, the women, youth and children, especially young girls in both Liberia and Africa.

More importantly, it is markedly dejecting to a nation of 4.5 million people whose hopes and aspirations as well as votes have been taken for granted through a wasted process of missed opportunities under the current president. That said, President Sirleaf leaves office effective January 2018 due to term limits but her party (the ruling Unity Party), which has failed the nation, is seeking continuation of her rule.

In short, Liberians will hold presidential and legislative elections in October 2017 to elect new leaders who are expected to change the direction of the country from failure and corruption, nepotism and social stratification, bigotry and economic paralysis to socio-economic prosperity and political decency, accountability and transparency, the rule of law and meaningful human development.

The expected new leaders come 2018 will have the opportunity to transform Liberia by using good public policy that must be what Mr. Annan describes as, “best shaped by the dispassionate analysis of what in practice has worked, or not.” For this reason, it is crucial for Liberian voters and Liberians in the diaspora to know the visions, platforms, qualifications, and experiences as well as the characters of the candidates that are running for public office so that when elected, their policies will not be based on what Mr. Annan termed as “common assumptions and popular sentiments” which, according him, “can become a recipe for mistaken prescriptions and misguided interventions” perhaps in solving Liberia’s numerous problems.

So far, what we have seen and heard from many of the surrogates of the ruling party and other political entities as well as some key Liberian presidential candidates is nothing but tribal and identity politics and an artificial divide between who is “Congo” and “Congua,” or who is “native,” or a “real Liberian.”  These types of ideas and utterances are dangerous for Liberia now and in the future.  They were also unscrupulous for Liberia decades ago and have led to our pointless years of civil war and colossal refugee flow in neighboring West African countries and around the world.

These tribally-bent utterances and fashion of thinking are acutely dangerous because they are being espoused by people who convey some form of social and oratory influence in a country and among a population that has a 70 percent illiteracy rate and a dismal comprehension level.  These utterances and political mawkishness are also dangerous because the proponents have nothing to offer the Liberian people and Africa in general. In short, this tendency is, at best, sickening because it perpetuates the social and political essence of the campaigners, their followers and fans as well as sustains the failure of the country year after year.  The question is: is this what Liberians and Liberia want now, after years of ongoing misery?

Absolutely not. Liberians want change in the way they are governed; they also want progress in the country’s economic development, and improvement in their living standard­­––they demand a change that will be based on a clear and distinct national vision, not the status quo.

In view of the change Liberians want and the gloomy failure of the current ruling Unity Party-led administration, I and a host of other good-intentioned Liberian citizens established a political institution that has produced one of the best vision documents in the history of Africa, according western political commentators.  Besides, we bring an unmatched and unique qualification, experience, admirable character, and passion to our collective quest to change Liberia from a nation of poverty to one in which we can have investment in science, technology, engineering, and math as well as in advanced manufacturing, agricultural-food production, education, workforce training, and infrastructure development while adhering to the rule of law, and simultaneously advancing transparency and accountability.

This political and socio-economic vision document is widely distributed and put online.  Yet, not a single proponent of tribal and identity politics in Liberia has ever sought clarifications or questioned these ideas and the process by which they could likely be achieved.  The reason is simple:  the narrative and concept are above their deliberative trajectory if it has nothing to do with tribalism.  So instead of discussing issues and ideas, they double-down on ethnic opinions.

Even though I have suspended my yearning to seek the presidency of Liberia due to some personal family goals and my international engagement with the global refugee crisis in which my voice matters at this critical moment, there are other respected and decent Liberians who are seeking the Liberian presidency because they believe they can better change the country.

These candidates, I believe have good intentions and the character, qualifications, experience, and vision required to become president of Liberia.

Notable among current field of presidential candidates are current Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai of the ruling Unity Party (UP), Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine, leader of the opposition Liberty Party (LP), and Mr. Alexander Cummings of the opposition Alternative National Congress (ANC) party. I know these three respected Liberians.  I have talked with them and I know their true passion and plans for Liberia.  Their hearts are in the right place and they all mean well.  Besides, these three candidates bring impeccable records to the Liberian presidential race, and they unquestionably remain some of the best options so far in the 2017’s presidential electoral process.

For his part, Vice President Boakai, who happens to be the presidential candidate of the current ruling Unity Party-led administration, is an honest man.  He is, perhaps, one of the few individuals in the Unity Party-led administration that is not only uncorrupted, humbled, and caring; but remains a dignified leader who wants a Liberia where everyone will have a place and be happy.  Moreover, the vice president has pointed out and can still draw a clear distinction between his style and understanding of leadership from that of his boss, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

However, instead of the vice president be given the chance to tell the Liberian people about his vision for the country as well as explain to the Liberian people why the Unity Party-led administration, in which he is the second most powerful official, miscarried the Liberian people so gloomily, some unsolicited surrogates acting on his behalf are doing his candidacy a disservice by advancing a faulty theory: using identity politics––by espousing a non-existent reality, the so-called “Congo” and “Country” appeal.

This entreaty is the wrong prescription for the kind of Liberia we want after jailed president Charles Taylor’s 14-years of ruining our nation and after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party-led administration 12-years of inopportune letdown.

Core Issues at Hand

This brings me to the core issue.  The fabricated impression that some candidates in the 2017 presidential race in Liberia are “Congo” people and others are “non-Liberians” is not only baseless and outlandish; it is profoundly ingenuous and largely comes from corners where proper reflection is lacking and truth-telling is uncharacteristic.

For anyone, especially informed voters, in their right mind, to forget about the inability and gross incompetence of the Liberian labor force to adequately compete in the global labor market due to a lethargic educational system, disorganized governance process and the lack of investment in workforce training and development, but instead think, believe and promote that someone with a surname name Williams, Cooper, Jones, Cummings or Brumskine is “Congo,” or just because someone like Cummings, who is a native-born Liberian citizen that has excelled at a global corporate level no Liberian in history has ever reached, is a “non-Liberian citizen” is astounding and reckless.

Like Vice President Boakai, Dr. Mills Jones, Alexander Cummings and Charles Brumskine bring impeccable resumes to the 2017’s presidential race.  Both Cummings and Brumskine, in particular, have visions and platforms that aimed at creating a level-playing field in Liberia where economic and social prosperity will be the measurement.

For his part, Alexander Cummings built Coca Cola’s Africa markets and expanded its global profitability.  He also led the global corporate giant overall’s administrative apparatus that covers worldwide operations, marketing, corporate governance, legal affairs and more.  He understands the world market and human capital development.  Besides, he is a Liberian who, like most Liberians from humbled beginnings, attended public schools, lived, and worked in the country before taking the leap of faith to seek external employment outside of the confines of the Liberian government, which is sadly the largest employer in the country. With such a distinguished personality, the best we can do is to demand to know his vision and plans for Liberia rather than categorizing him within the limitations of our individualized personal thinking.

For his part, Cllr. Charles Brumskine brings a wealth of private sector experience and a record of accomplishments in government’s leadership that is exceedingly admirable and clean.  He is perhaps, one of the few persons who has served in the Liberian government (past and present) without any tainted record of corruption, or a record of the abuse of power.  As president Pro Tempore of the Liberian senate under a dictator, Charles Taylor, Cllr Brumskine is on record as the legislative leader who championed policy and statutory changes including regulations that increased the type of businesses that are solely intended for Liberian citizens.  Record revealed that he also led a senate that not only frown on corruption, but that set an example by expelling a sitting Liberian senator for corrupt acts.

Besides, he has remained in Liberia and in the private sector despite threats and attempts to falsely disparage his character and person.  Moreover, Brumskine has a clear vision that seeks to make Liberian politics civil just as he wants to ensure that every Liberian citizen and resident enjoys economic prosperity through employment, access to healthcare, good roads and more. With such a remarkable track record and achievements, the best we can do as Liberians is to demand the right to further understand his vision and plans for Liberia and why he thinks he can make a better president than the rest of the field. Instead, some have and continue to deny the voters this right by insinuating irrelevant matters that have nothing to do with Liberia’s progress.

Our Role as Voters, Activists, and Liberians

Our role as voters, activists, and Liberians, both in and outside Liberia, is to celebrate all those who want to change Liberia. We need to ask them probing and reasonable questions rather than injecting falsehood and scorning their characters when there is no reason to do so.  Where we differ, we may make recommendations or debate the issues with them.  This trend will help and is far better than transplanting ourselves into tribal and identity politics that are based on obliviousness and misrepresentation with the sole intent of injecting fear and aversion in the minds of the Liberian public.

The impulse of falsely labeling people as non-Liberians just because we don’t support them or share their civic creed is worrisome, and it bothers me because I am not only a victim of it, I have seen how this mentality not only set many African nations behind, but tear them apart as well.  It is this same type of thought that fueled the 14-years Liberian civil conflict where Krahns attacked Gios and Manos, Manos and Gios attacked Krahns and Mandingos, Mandingos attacked everyone, and where Lormas and Kissis think Mandingos do not belong in Lofa County, so on and so forth.

The Consequences of thinking tribal

Just yesterday, there were some Liberians (many still do today) that believe that anyone with a Mandingo or Muslim name is not a real Liberian citizen.  In fact, when the late Dr.  Edward Binyah Kesselly founded the Unity Party, there were people (including some officials who are grossly benefiting from it today) who opposed him not because he was a dishonest person, or a bad manager, or an uneducated individual; they opposed him simply because they thought he was a Mandingo man, or had a name that is common in Guinea, Mali etc.  Others opposed him simply because he worshipped differently from the way they do.  The question is: is this what Liberia needs?

I have also seen and heard from people who once accused and strongly believed that people like Dr. Amos Sawyer is not a true Liberian – falsely arguing that he is a Sierra Leonean.  In fact, one prominent Liberian lawyer with whom I once had a stern political and policy dissimilarity, covertly told some people that I am a Togolese by heritage when in fact my parents are Grebo from River Gee County.  His intent was to spew fear and hate against me as someone who had no true loyalty to Liberia knowing full well that his thesis was categorically untrue.

In 2012, when floated the idea that I would like to see a future political ticket with Kofi Woods and Tiawon on it because I admired their advocacy, I sadly listened to a Liberian with a graduate degree telling an audience that both Kofi and Tiawon are not true Liberian natives. The individual shamelessly went further and argued that Tiawon’s ancestors descended from the Nzerekore forest region of Guinea. While these kinds of secretly perpetrated claims are misleading, tribally-bent elements toe this myopic line because that is the only case they can make.

When lawyer and veteran Liberian communications professional Kwame Clements expressed his interest to run for president two year ago, despite his intellect, all I heard from many of these tribally-bent campaigners who opposed him then was not whether he was truly qualified or experience, but that he was not Liberian enough.  The same has been said about my Cape Palmas brethren, the Verdiers brothers. James and Jerome Verdier who, out of love for decency and fairness, constantly advocate for fairness, justice and transparency have been branded by some people as not Liberian enough. Like they have branded me, they accused both Marylanders as Togolese too. The question is: when will this childish mentality stop?

This naivety is so embalmed in the mental construct of the tribal-sentiments campaigners such that falsehood has become a norm.

During my recent visit to Liberia (July 2016), I visited a local food and café center to gush the views of fellow Liberians. While there, I encountered a critic (a former employee of the Liberian ministry of defense) of defense minister, Brownie Samukai. As the fellow informed us (his audience) about why he had issues with the minister, he remarked that “the minister is becoming rich by taking all the private security contracts in the country to please his foreigner wife.” After he ended his remarks, I gently stood up and said to the group that while I did not know the details of what the gentleman was discussing, I knew one thing was clearly false: that the minister’s wife did not have a Liberian background.

I told the audience that, in fact, she is my paternal cousin, and someone who is not only a highly trained physician, but did not need Minister Samukai to live a decent life. While the audience’s view had changed on that one aspect, in spreading his falsehood, the critic failed to understand that the lady’s father is a Grebo man from River Gee County and a relative to (brother to my paternal grandmother) someone in the audience. Without this clarification from me, many there would have gone with the critic’s unfounded prophecy. That is the kind of Liberia we have. This is the kind of Liberia that my two young and intelligent daughters, born to a former Kenyan United Nations’ diplomat, stand to face when I am probably not alive. This is why this mindset must not be encouraged. This is why I am opposed to it now.

In addition, I personally defended Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai in 2006 and 2011 when some elements in the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party were spreading myths that the VP is a Kissi man from Sierra Leone.  While this lore was deceitful, the campaigners had a clear intent: to foster phobia and odium.

In the same vein, I have heard people accusing the vice president’s current chief of staff, Sam Stevquoah (a decent and intelligent brother) as being a non-Liberian citizen simply because they (campaigners of tribal sentiments) intuitively believe that his ancestors are said to have Ghanaian heritage.  To them, nothing about Stevquoah’s qualifications and competence nor the invaluable services he is rendering to the Office of the Vice President and the Liberian people matters. What matters is the shallow view they share about what being a true Liberian constitutes.

This display of tribal instincts must stop because if we do not stop this folly simply because it is not personally affecting some of us now, there will come a time that we will all be impacted gravely when it is too late.  As former Kenyan president Moi Kibaki once characterized it, tribalism is a cancer.  It can and has the propensity to tear a nation and people apart. Therefore we, as Liberians and Liberia as a nation, should have no room for dizzy individuals who thrive on identity politics and the campaign of fear and hate.

The reason is, these tendencies and form of discourse are the hallmarks of identity theories, and we all know that such views are dangerous to our unity as a nation and prosperity as a people.  We cannot build better communities in our country and a better Liberia by playing tribal and divisive cards that benefit no one, not even the campaigners themselves.

This is precisely why we, as Liberians, need to heed the advice of former U.S. president Barack H. Obama as he states in his book, Dreams From My Father: “It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism.  I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I have been navigating tribal divisions my whole life.  In the end, it is the source of a lot of destructive acts,” Obama maintains.

Pope Francis VI also added his voice to the danger of tribal politics during a recent visit to Nairobi, Kenya when he said, “tribalism destroys a nation.”  The Holy Father stated further that: “Tribalism can be overcome with an open ear, an open heart and an outstretched hand to continue the dialogue.” Nothing more meaningful than this in building a better country.

Conclusion

In one of my policy and managerial level jobs in the west, I provide monthly labor market reports and analysis to executives, policy makers as well as lawmakers regarding the status of the state’s economy and the impact the current trend of public policy has on the lives of the people in the state and how that reflects nationally. I have a foreign (Liberian) accent and they all practically know that I am a native Liberian citizen.  They don’t ask me question which tribe I am or which country I hailed from, as long as I do not pose any national security threat and is not engaged in economic crimes.  They are, instead, interested in me telling them which industry sectors in the state’s economy gain or lose jobs in a given month, and why.  They are also interested in me telling them which occupations are growing faster and which are declining, and why. In Liberia, we are more concerned about who is Kpelle or Krahn or Gio or Grebo or Kru or Mandingo. It is irrelevant and Liberians are not going to make a mistake in 2017 with this type political distortion. What does calling a candidate a Grebo or a Kissi or a Congo man or woman has to do with governing in the right way?

As a country, our electoral debates must be based on issues, dialogue, respect and visions for the future rather than identity politics and tribalism, which are pervasive, and can control a lot of our behavior readily, as well as have a greater potential to override our reasoning.

Lastly, our failure to heed Kofi Annan’s adage about common assumptions and popular sentiments, Kibaki’s authentic portrayal of the menace of identity politics, and Obama’s guidance on the hazard of tribalism may divide us more as a nation more than bring us together as a people.  Knowing that the campaigners of tribalism and identity politicking will not stop nor go away easily, we must all make effort to stop ethnic politics now and in the future!

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Jones Nhinson Williams

Jones Nhinson Williams is a Liberian philosopher (born in Pleebo, Maryland County but hailed from River Gee County) firmly educated by the Catholic Church. He is an American trained public policy, labor market information, strategic management, and workforce development professional with accomplished global experience in job creation and institutional governance.
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