SPEECH DELIVERED AT
THE GRADUATION CEREMONY OF LIBERIA COLLEGE FENDELL,
4 DECEMBER 2017
What is of cardinal importance within the Liberian context at this critical juncture is a national dialogue for economic recovery; this dialogue should be organized differently from the Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS) process, which a friend has dubbed ‘poverty recycling strategies — Dr. Thomas Jaye.
Madam President of the University of Liberia;
Vice President for Academic Affairs;
Dean of Liberia College;
Other senior staff and Members of the Faculty Senate Distinguished Guests 2017 Class or Graduates of Liberia
Let me begin by expressing gratitude and thanks to the Dean and authorities of Liberia College for inviting me to serve as your Commencement Guest Speaker. Before going further, let me congratulate the graduates of this great and historic college, which has produced some of Liberia’s best-educated people of this country. Your graduation from this college is noteworthy for one important reason: Historically, this college was the embryo of what constitutes today the University of Liberia. In the late 1970s, as a young man, I remember my days at this college as a student of History and Sociology. Those were the days when we tried to change the world, but more than four decades later, our views of the world have not only changed; it looks like the world has changed many of us.
Hence, coupled with celebrating your achievements, I would like to share with you a self-reflection of the processes and events that have influenced African politics over these years. As I was born right on the eve of African independence, I would like to share with you my thoughts about what is currently happening on our continent; the history and analysis of the origins of the current socio-economic crises that have gripped Africa; and try to locate Liberia’s political quagmire within the context of contemporary African crises.
Yes, over the years, Africa has produced mixed results with a few countries being stable while the rest have been caught in the barbed wire of political turbulence: intra-state conflicts; electoral crisis; governance and leadership failure; economic stagnation; social decline and insecurity. Put bluntly, when we look back, we see that the socio-economic conditions of our people are worse off than at independence.
Without delving into the many bitter encounters that have informed our lived experiences, we should begin with what has happened in the past few years. In the 21st century, Africa is gripped by the story of slavery once more. Our young people who are doing everything possible to cross the sea to migrate to a “greener pasture” in Europe have been turned into slaves in Libya; another African country; some are sold at $200 per person; others went through terrible ordeals including organ theft and being burned alive; and many have died while trying to cross the sea. Just last month, over twenty Nigerian female migrants were found dead, while trying to cross Libya to Italy. What is attracting these young and able-body African men and women to risk their lives and everything in life to cross into Europe? The simple answer is that the urge to migrate to Europe is influenced by the endless crises of bad governance and leadership failures in Sub-Sahara Africa; that is, it is influenced by the state of economies of these countries and the worsening socio-economic conditions. Massive youth unemployment is one manifestation, but pervasive poverty and the general conditions of insecurity can also explain this tragic phenomenon. Where are job creation policies and strategies in these countries for young people? The urge to migrate is also influenced by the huge improvements in international transport and communications technologies linked to current globalization trends, which made it easier for young people in poorer societies to see and covet “greener pasture” in Europe and other developed areas of the world. You may say that those who survived and have been repatriated safely to their homes are lucky. The truth is that even these reluctant returnees are going through traumatic stress, which may make it difficult for them to reintegrate into their respective societies. That is, they have returned to societies, where socio-economic development and economic security are not on the agenda of their leaders.
In Southern Africa, after 37 years in power and fighting external intrusion into Zimbabwean politics, we have also seen President Robert Mugabe giving way for his Vice President to assume the leadership of Zimbabwe. Kenya has just gone through its own electoral crisis; the people of Togo are calling for change of one family rule to a democratic process; and before then, we have seen the crisis in Burkina Faso that forced Blaise Compaore out of office; the situation in Nigeria where Boko Haram is wreaking havoc on that country; and the situation in the Sahel is far from improving. The recent terrorist attacks in West Africa illustrate that our region is going through testing times. These are part of the difficult and troubled history of Africa, since independence. But why has Africa continued to go through waves of crises since independence?
What are the origins of these crises? The answers to these questions are critical because they have implications for the future of politics (i.e., democracy and governance) in Africa; and for your future, as graduates today.
Except for few, after years of fighting against colonial rule and domination, several African countries became independent: boundaries were drawn up arbitrarily by former colonial powers, and Africans assumed leadership in territories carved up and bequeathed to them by the former colonial masters. A euphoria of independence gripped the continent and we began to write constitutions, form governments based on the three branches: executive, parliament, and judiciary; write national anthems; hoist our own flags, and create the basis for post-colonial African statehood. Indeed, there was real hope that the moment of a liberated Africa had arrived.
Unfortunately, instead of promoting development in post-colonial Africa, there emerged ‘personal-authoritarian rule’ at the expense of institutional rule, during the power struggles among African elites (Jackson and Robsberg, 1982). Some of the characteristics that emerged included the following: neo-patrimonialism based on patronage; corruption; nepotism; plots; coups; purges; and governance crises, including crises of succession (Jackson and Robsberg, 1982). In a political environment characterized by personal rule, governments of men and not institutions, and power struggle among the ruling elites, one could not possibly envisage institution building and stability; and the leaders cannot be restrained in their actions (see Jackson and Robsberg, 1982). Furthermore, it can be argued that the ‘desire for power is the most ancient and persistent’ feature of politics especially in a situation in which the ‘state is the primary arena where power is secured’ (see Jackson and Robsberg, 1982: 14).
What is also important to stress here is that ‘in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rise of political authoritarianism has meant the narrowing of the public sphere and its monopolization either by a single ruling party or a military oligarchy typically under the direct control of a dominant personality’ (Jackson and Robsberg, 1982: 24). In this light, rather than use the constitutions and institutions as the sources of rule and legitimacy, over the years, African leaders have turned to absolutism, manipulations, treachery, patronage, and clientelism as the basis for governance and legitimacy: They turned to Machiavelli as the inspiration for the misrule of their countries.
African leaders have been concerned more about the legitimacy of the state than anything else. When the state is not legitimate, the leaders pay more attention to their power than development of the country; they tend to adopt neo-patrimonial policies; engage in short-term as opposed to long-term investment policies; they neglect the development of human capital, at least in terms of quality education, which is one of the prerequisites for inclusive and sustainable development.
Sadly, these leaders would rather pay salaries to keep order and stability (Pierre Englebert, 2000: 175). This short-termism political strategy is what late Nigerian academic, Professor Claude Ake, described as turning politics, that is a struggle for political power, into an enemy of development. Another source of the ongoing socio-economic crisis has its roots in the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These two Bretton Wood institutions that were set up to promote development turned out to be barriers to development in Africa. The World Bank and IMF imposed strains of antidevelopment policies on African countries under the euphemism known as “structural adjustment programs” (SAP). As one of the requirements of the SAPS, the World Bank and the IMF demanded the minimization of the role of the state in Africa and the promotion of market economies. These IMF and the World Bank’s neo-liberal policies, with their focus on the promotion of the market at the expense of development, did not help the case of Africa. In other words, under SAP, African states pursued policies that undermined the development of human capital and crippled the infant industries in many countries.
As a result, the state in Africa, unlike in the West, does not provide for the broader security needs of its people as part of its historical role. On the contrary, access to vital services such as healthcare and education has become a ‘cash and carry’ affair; quality of education has dropped; the health sector is chronically underfunded, while the continent is going through the pains of brain drain.
The other problems associated with the failure of governance are poor natural resource management and governance; the focus has been extractive economies, which turned the state into a rentier body. Except for a few, the best that the average African state does is to collect rent while the natural resources are extracted and exported to the home countries of the multinational corporations for processing. In many cases, the finished products are then brought back to Africa at higher prices. In the face of this massive natural resources, African countries are too dependent on aid without which many of the economies of these countries would collapse.
Africa is not a poor continent. The question is why do we continue to depend on aid so much? Apart from the politics of exclusion and ethnicity, there is the endless problem of income inequality in the distribution of our national income. For example, in 2015, in an oil-rich country like Angola, 10% of the population accounts for 0.6% of the total income while the 10% richest control 44.7% of the country’s wealth (J.R. Mailey, 2015: 5).
Another classic example is Equatorial Guinea whose GDP per capita stands at $37,479 but the country ranks 144th out of 187 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index Report (Mailey, 2015: 5). Yet, to provide safe and clean drinking water, and build toilets in the villages we still depend on foreign NGO. When will this dependency syndrome stop? If the African state cannot provide such basic infrastructure, then of what use is it to the African people?
Graduates, I have talked about the plight of the African state at the hands of the two Bretton Woods institutions, the World Banks, and the IMF, because one cannot discuss the current tragedy in the continent without blaming these two main culprits. Their promotion of minimalist state policy in Africa, while ignoring the role of the interventionist/developmental state in Asia has helped to wreck the economies of Africa. The current socio-economic crises you have found yourselves in as graduates have some of their roots firmly in the pro-market programs known as the SAPs. With the detrimental impact of these policies on the education, health, and development, the implication SAPs, coupled with the problem of bad governance and leadership, the future is full of challenges but not without hope. China and other Asian countries have shown to Africa and other developing regions that, unlike the gospel of the World Bank and IMF, the market is not the first but the state is.
Graduates, I have taken time to provide a brief sketch of the world out there for you to appreciate the enormity of the challenges the world face. Fortunately, as graduates of LUX IN TENEBRIS and its oldest college, the Liberia College, you should be fully prepared as you walk out of this graduation hall with your heads up high with faith in a bright future.
Understanding the complexities of what awaits you is the key to overcoming them. Once you have prepared yourself academically, you can only hope for a better future. Indeed, education is insurance for you for the future. What does it mean? It means that you are now in a better position, as you leave this graduation hall, to make a sound judgment as to what is wrong and what is right; what is good for Liberia and Liberians and what poses a threat to the collective security of our country. You can locate Liberia within the context of almost everything I have said and so let me say a few direct words about the developments in this country.
Presently, Liberia is going through its own electoral saga, but we leave that to the Court to decide. This crisis derives from long years of state failure and our inability to respond to the dynamics of the changing realities of the world. Historically, one of the persistent and consistent features of politics in Liberia is that it has always been a business for the privileged elites. This tiny circle of elites has derived its power, privileges and even wealth from the control of the government. Further, nowhere has personalized rule been more blatant than Liberia; and in the case of extractive industries, this country is no exception, given its history of the notorious “Open Door Policy.” What positive results have we gotten from the Open-Door investment in our agriculture, forestry, and mining sectors? The existing economic facts show that these investments have not traditionally played an adequate transformative role in structurally diversifying and adding value to our economy. Politically, by the end of the1970s, Liberia was engulfed by a tsunami of socio-economic and political crises. The subsequent years of military dictatorship and fourteen years of civil war have only exacerbated our problems. By the end of the 1970s, there was an increase not only of opposition politics but also of intolerance towards opposition politics.
Graduates, please be reminded that this country suffered long years of anti-democratic rule based on exclusivist and elitist politics; we have experienced long years of poor governance in every sense. The state has failed to serve as the ‘guardian angel’ for the security of the people. On the contrary, it has been a major source of insecurity. Such failure has not helped our situation. Based upon such unfortunate experiences, our people have neither trusted the status quo nor have confidence in it.
However, the end of the war and subsequent changes of government through democratic politics have offered us an opportunity to get things right. That is, this is a new beginning and it will produce its own anomalies. But never give up your hope in the future because this could be the beginning of the end. As experiences have shown elsewhere in the continent and even beyond when the day of reckoning comes, only the will of the people can decide: victims of 170s years of exclusivist and elitist politics will become masters of their own future. A new form of consciousness will emerge; it may be spontaneous, but this is what happens when a state is creating the basis for foundational changes.
Like elsewhere in this continent, our politics may be over-shadowed right now by the struggle for political power, but this is only ephemeral; Liberia will always survive and ultimately be secured but this can be brought about by the conscious efforts of all of us. Yes, no one will make Liberia better for you but Liberians themselves, which include the collective efforts of members of today’s graduating class of the Liberia College.
Given the current economic state of the country, and to become less dependent upon foreign aid and stop the shameful begging syndrome, this country and its people need to rethink postwar economic recovery. In undertaking this exercise, we need to critically reflect and put forward the appropriate strategies for economic recovery; and this should be based on an understanding of the nature of the economy; it should be embedded in the lived experiences of our people than to engage in numerous ‘white elephant’ projects that meets so-called international standards; an externally imposed project that will continue to make us, as the late Tanzanian scholar, A.M. Babu, once lamented we Africans continue ‘to produce what we do not eat and eat what we do not produce’.
What is of cardinal importance within the Liberian context at this critical juncture is a national dialogue for economic recovery; this dialogue should be organized differently from the Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS) process, which a friend has dubbed ‘poverty recycling strategies. When I was growing up intellectually and academically, we were told that the world had to deal with poverty elimination; then we move to poverty eradication; then poverty alleviation and we can go on with the endless list. After poverty reduction what next? I remember very well in the 1970s when the urge to address the challenge of poverty was such that our own President William R. Tolbert declared it as one of the enemies of Liberia. Thus, he declared war on ‘ignorance, poverty, and disease’. Long years after his death, we are still faced with these challenges. At present, while our post-war economic recovery and reconstruction efforts undertaken since then have been credited for maintaining peace and improving ‘macroeconomic stability’, at least until the Ebola outbreak, poverty has remained pervasive among our people (at 84 percent of the population); the country still ranks near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI).
Let us not forget that as we explore avenues for the transformation of this country, we must be aware that what we have is a hybrid political order in which traditional political communities and the modern state co-exist and complement each other but sometimes they tend to go through tension and conflicts. How we make traditional institutions of governance more effective will go a long way in addressing the broader security needs of the people.
We must design a democracy that incorporates our traditions. The conception, design, and implementation of democracy should be embedded in our history as well as our socio-cultural values. It should lead to a government of institution and not a government of men, and there must be adherence to rule of law; respect for authority and diversity; commitment to accountability and transparency; and the pursuit of inclusive politics. We must begin our new thinking about democracy with the current Constitutional Review process in our country. Once again, I wish to use this occasion to congratulate you as you graduate from Liberia College. You have every right to celebrate this day because it belongs to you but celebrate with your eyes wide open, because the journey ahead is a tortuous one.
Finally, let me caution you that employment with government is not the only way forward. These days, as soon as a young person leaves school, the only thing they think about is how to get a big government job. You can make your contribution to the development of this country through other means than being employed by the government. Follow the example of the current Dean of Liberia College, Associate Professor Sekou Konneh, who despite all the temptation to seek jobs in the state sector, has spent more than two decades of dedicated life to teaching and providing leadership to our country’s higher institution of learning. The current Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bill Allen was my contemporary at Liberia College. Remember, you are going into a world characterized by competition from your colleagues and graduates from other schools in this country. To make it, you must distinguish yourself from the rest. Fortunately, you have graduated from one of the finest colleges of the University of Liberia.
I wish you all the best and would like to say a big thank you to the parents, uncles, aunties and other family members and love ones who have gone out of the way to support your studies in these difficult times. You owe it to them and enjoy the day.
May God bless you!
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- R. Mailey, “The Anatomy of the Resource Curse: Predatory Investment in Africa’s Extractive Industries”, ACSS Special Report, May 2015.
Pierre Englebert, State Legitimacy and Development in Africa (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000).
Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg, Personal Rule in Black Africa (London and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982).
About the Author:
Dr. Thomas Jaye is Deputy Director for Research of the Faculty of Academic Affairs and Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC). He studied International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and previously obtained an MA degree in History at the Moscow State University. He writes on security issues and has other academic interests in conflict studies, democracy, governance and international relations. He is the author of “Issues of Sovereignty, Strategy and Security Outcomes in the ECOWAS Intervention in the Liberian Civil War” and co-editor of the book, “ECOWAS and the Dynamics of Peacebuilding in West Africa”. He has also written on issues related to security culture, HIV/AIDS and securitization, US-Liberia Security Relations and others. Dr. Jaye teaches Post-War Recovery on the Masters in Conflict, Peace and Security Studies, and the Masters in Gender, Peace and Security Studies at the KAIPTC.