A speech delivered by Minister Eugene Lenn Nagbe, Minister of the Ministry of Information Cultural Affairs and Tourism, at the CVL Annual Lecture and Leadership Symposium in Nigeria – where he represented President George M. Weah.
IMPERATIVES FOR MAKING DEMOCRACY WORK FOR THE PEOPLE
– The Liberian Experience
A Presentation by
Lenn Eugene Nagbe
Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs & Tourism
Republic of Liberia
16th Annual Lecture & International Symposium
Centre for Values In Leadership
Shell Hall, Muson Center
February 6, 2019
H. E. General Yakubu Gowon
Former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Professor Pat Utomi
Centre For Values in Leadership
Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah
Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Slip to
Distinguished Ladies & Gentlemen:
I am greatly honored to be standing here today representing a man who has become a beacon of hope for millions of people in my country, our celebrated, illustrious President, George Manneh Weah. Just over a year ago, Liberians went to the polls and changed the state of affairs of the country.
They elected, as their President, a man who had experienced the different extremes of life: From growing up in Monrovia’s slums, beset by poverty and inequality to a life of stardom and luxury as a football star in Europe; remaining a humble humanitarian and patriot through it all.
President Weah is not a conventional, characteristic politician. His election shows that democracy is truly a powerful institution. It makes leaders of peasants and presidents of slum dwellers. His leadership has ignited hope – not just for the Liberian youth, but for people across the world. It shows that they can amount to anything, with determination and hard work.
The President laments his inability to be here today to personally convey this message. He would have relished the opportunity had there not been other pressing engagements at home which prevent him. He has asked me to make a submission to this symposium on IMPERATIVES FOR MAKING DEMOCRACY WORK FOR THE PEOPLE – The Liberian Experience. Democracy can only work for the people if we create and strengthen institutions of the state apparatus to ensure good governance.
Professor Utomi, President Weah has asked me to convey his best wishes on the occasion of your 63rd birth anniversary. Happy Birthday Prof. Thanks for your great contributions to the discourse for a better Africa and a better world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, panelists. The story has been told over and again about the peculiar nature of President Weah’s ascendency to the Liberian presidency. Not only does it mark the first time in more than 70 years that the country witnessed a democratic transfer of power, it is also a moment of generational change. Mostly young people and those previously regarded as underprivileged are at the helm of the country’s leadership now. This has occasioned a renewed sense of vibrancy and a determination to effect change.
It is sad that the message inadvertently communicated most times to most young people by the society around them is that they are not needed. We dole out negligible portion of state resources to institutions and programs that should cater to their welfare.
This usually results into disillusionment with the system, a situation that can be tapped into or exploited by unsavory politicians.
Corruption, inequality and other social vices make people across the world to give up on institutions and governments that are supposedly democratic. In fact, rising inequality has become the trend across Africa and the world today. This has left the least educated and the weakest of society, the youth, very, very vulnerable and distrustful of the system. As a result, this demographic imbalance, the young people consistently clamor for change, and sometimes unfortunately utilize violence to seek such change. Unless we build and consolidate institutions on the states, like former U.S President Barack Obama said, instead of seeking “strong men” we can’t guarantee a peaceful and prosperous society.
With the dawn of a new dispensation in my country, we are beginning to see a paradigm shift. Laws that are regarded as anti-democratic are being reformed, or in some instances, scrapped off the books. Amongst the first legislation the President submitted to the Liberian legislature when he took office was a bill to decriminalize speech offenses.
This was preceded by the signing of the historic Table Mountain Declaration by Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf which committed Liberia to upholding freedom of speech. His was a desire to strengthen one of the fundamental institutions that’s integral to the very foundation of democracy, the Press.
That law, which has been on the books for more than a generation, allows for the jailing of journalists for what the authorities at the time referred to as criminal libel and criminal malevolence against the president. In other words, this gave the authorities free hand to trump up charges against reporters once they decided they didn’t like a story. But the new law, which is being debated by the legislature, sends a notice – that no Journalist should be jailed for being a journalist.
Like one writer said, ‘journalism and democracy are names of the same thing’. In fact, a free and unfettered press is an indispensable requirement for democracy. This is why the Press itself must not become instruments for the furtherance of selfish and parochial political interest at the expense of the greater good of the society as a whole.
For more than a decade now, the culture of free expression has flourished in Liberia. The lack of democratic outlets for dissent usually leads to a breakdown of law and order, or in worst cases, war and destruction.
Liberia has had its fair share.
There are various explanations for the outbreak of the civil war which killed more than 200, 000 of my compatriots. Historians believe that abused of power, corrupt political system and economic disparities are amongst the most paramount. Often describe as the oldest independent country on the continent, Liberia was founded by free American slaves. The so-called Americo-Liberians constituted less than 2 percent of the country’s population, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they made up nearly 100 percent of qualified voters – disenfranchising everybody else.
For over one hundred years, from its formation until 1980, the Americo-Liberian True Whig Party hegemony dominated Liberian politics, in what was essentially a one-party state.
It was overthrown in a violent coup that was greeted as liberation from minority domination – until the new governors soon proved themselves no better than their predecessors.
They, too, began to clampdown on the opposition and the free press. The result was a full-blown civil war that had negative repercussions for the whole region. For more than two decades, our country witnessed one of the most horrific violence the world had ever seen, a conflict from which we are still reeling. But a lot has changed. Liberia’s institutions and human capacity that were devastated by the civil war are being revived.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are reminded by the fact that the origins of the Liberian conflict can be traced back to various forms of exclusion and marginalization. This is why the process of nation building is proceeding meticulously so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The surest way to achieve democracy and development is to ensure the building of strong institutions which meet the needs of the people and administer the state of affairs equitably and fairly.
We have embarked on a sustained process of rebuilding and strengthening those institutions in Liberia which were left in ruins by the war. For more than a decade now we have introduced a variety of systems to guard against corruption and ensure transparency. Anti-graft institutions, such as the Liberian Anti-corruption Commission and the General Auditing Commission, have introduced a slew of measures that set the standard by which public officials are to govern state resources. Such measures include the declaration of assets by all public officials, new public financial management and procurement laws all of which enhance transparency and ensure that the national wealth is utilized to benefit the people.
Our judiciary and legislature are also being strengthened and made to act independently – a move away from the inherent all-powerful presidency. The powers of these two institutions were tested during our recent elections. The courts in particular were inundated by electoral cases. Aggrieved candidates ran to the judiciary for redress and not the streets nor to the barrel of the gun.
As one pundit aptly put it, the December 7, 2017 landmark Supreme Court of Liberia ruling – which resolved the acrimonious disputes over the results of the first round of elections amongst the various political parties – was a ‘pinnacle of the rule of law reset in Liberia’. For several weeks, we all waited on tenterhooks, with many fearing that we were on the brink of another round of violence. The country hailed the decision and the fact that aggrieved parties sought remedies through due process of law. This was a victory for the rule of law. It manifested renewed faith in our judiciary.
Ladies and gentlemen, President George M. Weah recently launched the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development, his strategy for inclusive and equitable distribution of the national wealth. It lays out his priorities, which include revamping the country’s derelict infrastructure, resuscitating the economy and also maintaining the peace. But very paramount also, is ensuring transparency and accountability. This is important because the President intends to build an inclusive and accountable public sector for shared prosperity and development.
In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, citizens must be empowered to take full control of their lives. This can be achieved through the creation of democratic institutions that allow the practice of fundamental rights under the law, and also an economic environment which caters to the basic needs of everyone. Policies that aid poverty reduction must be engendered, as extreme poverty is a threat to democracy anywhere.
As a result of continuously ebbing away at some of the challenges which confronts us, the World Democracy Ranking 2018 report gave Liberia high marks. The index shows that the quality of our democracy improved last year under the new government of President George M. Weah. It places Liberia at 14th place out of 36 countries in the Sub-Saharan region. But there’s still a lot more to be done, to which we are committed.
Ladies and gentlemen, our president recently signed into law a new legislation that seeks to actualize the national policy of decentralization and local governance by establishing democratic and administrative structures at the local level.
This will allow for the democratic elections of certain local government officials, thereby giving citizens a greater degree of autonomy over affairs in their communities, while curbing the potential peril that come with of an all-powerful presidency.
If a democracy is not structured in a way that prohibits the government from excluding the people from direct ownership over the way they are governed, or allows the governors to accumulate too many powers, it wouldn’t be long before that democracy is rendered ineffective.
Liberia has experienced the various forms of governance, from an oligarchic hegemony to a brutal military dictatorship; from governments of warring factions to ones freely and fairly chosen by the people. Our collective experiences as a people have led us to the firm conviction that in spite of its own weaknesses and flaws, democracy still remains the best form of governance.
Instead of shunning democracy because it still has not yet delivered our people from the yoke of poverty, ignorance and disease, we must improve it by strengthening not just the institutions of government, but also the watchdogs and mirrors of the society; the media and civil society.
Yes, with all its imperfections, democracy works for the people if the imperatives of good governance are inculcated into the national fabric.